The boat’s only been moving for five fast minutes when we see children, smiles stretched wide, waving from the shoreline. You can’t help waving back, their infectious enthusiasm getting the better of you.
The dull drawl of the Laos slow boat engine resonates, its length aches and ambles through murky water and the Mekong River is announced. This all helps push aside bad memories of border control bastards and not-quite-perfect dollar notes from just an hour before. This two-day journey from Huay Xai’s jetty – sharing a river with Thailand’s border – is a rite of passage for backpackers in South-East Asia.
As with any sanctioned ceremony, the passengers are sadly predictable. The backpacker stereotypes, staid and satirical, are all nearby. Look around and you’ll find backpacks stamped with country flags; dreadlocks dangling above baggy hemp trousers; maps of the world stencilled on dark skin; feathers and flowers and curious crafts decorate every detail on board.
But that’s not to say it’s all bad: in fact, it’s refreshing to see. There’s no mobile signal on board and, nobody seems particularly fussed. Sure, you can still natter notes on your phone and catch-up on computer work, but it’s understood that this is an opportunity to relax, unwind and slow down to the speed of life on the river.
All around us novels are read in almost every language imaginable. Travel journals, battered and sun-bleached, are fraught with fresh thoughts. Some talk a little too loudly, drink a little too much, create cliques already. But those not interested in these same conversations disconnect and unwind and nobody really seems to mind. A man rolls his rubix cube and you can’t help but smile back – was that carried for just this journey? Behind me I can’t believe that on the famous Mekong river, splitting Thailand and Laos, there’s cross-stitching hour.
The irony’s not lost on my long hair, my colourful clothing or my guitar nearby. My eyes can’t help following the captain’s co-ordinates. The cloud-covered mountains create valleys stuffed with gangrenous trees, grubby water and sunlight ushering us upstream. How much of this country is still covered by tropical wilderness? I too try and type up notes on my laptop, but there are too many distractions on both sides of the river; I keep reaching for my camera. I remember recent distractions trapped between office windows and reading my Laurie Lee novel, wonder if there’s air much fresher than this?
Our Russian neighbour’s in full backpacking uniform. Flowers and feathers fester in her hair everywhere and she’s bagged the baggiest trousers that money can buy. Her party piece is a pollution mask which seems to strangle her speech. Sneaking to the back of the boat for a smoke, I can’t help think that the point’s a little lost.
Our boat pulls in to the first pit-stop. It’s amazing to see this ancient ark acknowledged as the primary method of transport, the most effective way to transport cargo and commuters both. Boxes and bags are traded and families swap seats. The front of the boat’s reserved for the locals where mothers wrap their babies in beanies, puffer jackets and tiny jeans for their local ‘wet season’. Baking in the 30C ‘wet season’ heat I can’t help feel sorry for the kid. Once the content’s counted and new faces are noted we’re purring apace again. This is a daily way of life and it’s fascinating to watch.
Boys and girls of any age are somersaulting from shoreline, tricking one another and their laughter sings round the splashes. Little ones try join in and proud brothers and sisters play pranks, putting on a show for today’s passers-by. These are days you hope they’ll never forget – the precise joy of your pals nearby and a fun place just to play in. The Czech boy next to us sighs “what a beautiful childhood” and we all roll our eyes but the sentiment’s true.
Our adventure continues and time goes slow on the slow boat. It’s a delight. Recent memories of slow office hours vanish without fight. Lao landscape is alluring and sweeping valley pictures play out around every river confluence. Some boat-stops are too small to sanction a pit-stop and so they send speedboats out at an angle to meet us instead. Deals are agreed and products pass hands while new customers are collected. Eventually a sunset crawls over the hills, illuminating this overgrown green scene in every orange and yellow and amber you could think up.
We arrive at Pan Kam jetty as the light’s disappearing and after haggling half-price rooms with keen crowds we cram in to tuk-tuks, crawl uphill to the town. Our shitey, scummy room doesn’t even phase us, we just get on with it. We throw down our bags and see the whole town in twenty steps.
After bland dinner we find ourselves around the Happy Bar bonfire. It seems every boat-goer has ended up here and free banana whisky shots and welcome cocktails get us all talking. The Northern-Irish cross-stitcher tells us about how she’s been travelling for two long weeks and she’s already dying for ‘a glass of fizz’. Her boyfriend could sink a ‘proper’ gin and tonic – not the shit stuff they sell you here. ‘Mhmm’ and of course. An Australian couple have just finished an eight-month ski season in Japan and rave about it. There are some impressive people in the world creating some remarkable stories. On the other hand, Cross-Stitcher would just love to visit Japan but only if she can ‘do’ Japan properly, and go with money, go to eat everything they can. Her fiancé’s a chef, don’t you know?
She’s already worried about her budget too. Since their hostel days are behind them they’re staying in hotels and cute little inns, but complain that they’re not meeting fellow travellers. Do we have any advice? What do we think? And ‘well, ehm, I suppose you could…’ but they’ve finished their drinks and it’s 9pm and bedtime for them. We’ve another big day of doing next-to-nothing tomorrow.
So we sip back sickeningly-sweet drinks and trade travel tales. Tom, three months in, asks if we’ve met any Bulgarians so far? ‘Well, no, I suppose we haven’t…’ He acknowledges that he drank a little too much on the boat and he’s looking forward to a new day. We laugh and light more bamboo wood on the bonfire. Tom admits his head’s already home, and he’s going to book a flight soon. Sad to hear, even sadder when he continues enquiring why nobody’s met any Bulgarians and the answer seems shamefully obvious to me: the point’s a little lost on him.
The pool-balls crack and sipping back Beerlao I wonder what my friends are doing on this Saturday night? I wonder if the bar they’re enjoying is filled with more people than this whole town? I wonder if they’ll let me put a £1 coin on that pool table when the bar plays Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s ‘Over the Rainbow’ and there are some remarkable stories.
Our new Dutch friend also talks travel and is delighted that we’re staying in dorms and slumming it, even as a couple. She travelled with her ex-boyfriend and can’t say that she did the same and she certainly regretted it. We laugh, and dare not share details of the rooms we’ve had to pay for.
But she’s intriguing and admits that she finds luck in everything she does travelling. We ask what time she’s aiming to be on the boat in the morning to nab the best seats, but she bats it away. She really and truly believes that she’ll arrive when she arrives and it will work out just fine. Fortune’s spread in different ways, and that’s not a bad way to be blessed. You can be worse things than lucky: never a thing in the world worth getting worried about.
After breakfast we walk downhill to a boat full of backpackers snarling and scrapping for the best slow boat seats. Happy to sacrifice ourselves we settle for the quieter, less comfortable boat. I see our Czech friend trying to protect four seats with his pollution-mask girlfriend and have to smile at their astonishing selfish-worth. Other tables bicker and some of them grudgingly give up spare seats to fellow passengers.
As their boat prepares to undock and sail day two, I see our Dutch friend from last night walk on board and politely enquire her way on to a perfectly good seat. The last one to arrive and not a worry in the world. There are worse things to be than lucky.
And when our boat pirouettes and pitter-patters after theirs, I take in the Mekong River surroundings and acknowledge that there are profoundly worse places to be. As we set sail I find myself waving back to the day’s first children-waving, considering their admittedly beautiful childhood and reaching for my camera already.