The Slow Boat to Laos: Drugs, Jail, and a Mutiny

by Audrey on February 7, 2014 · 39 comments

Travelling down the Mekong aboard the slow boat en route to Luang Prabang.

“Oh my gosh, guys! We have to get mushroom shakes for breakfast tomorrow morning!!!”

I turn my head around; it’s the same Aussie girl who managed to introduce herself to the older British couple by dropping the word ‘shit’ in her greeting. She has now moved on to broadcasting all the cheap drugs she plans on consuming in Southeast Asia.

“And the pizzaaaas! If you ask for a ‘happy pizza’ they’ll give you one that has marijuana. Isn’t that awesooome?!”

I roll my eyes at Sam. Is this who I have for company on the 2 day boat journey to Luang Prabang? It looks like I might because she gets in the same minivan we’re already on. Crap!

“Aww, guys,” she yells out the door, “I really hope we’re on the same boat! I’m gonna be so SOOOOO sad if we aren’t!”

Then turning to us offering an explanation, “we spent all night getting drunk together. They’re my new friends!”

“No, seriously guys! You have to be on the same boat! They have beer – we can drink the whole way theeere!!!!”

Oh, gosh. What am I in for?

While the 3 day journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang was incredibly scenic, it also proved to be slow torture in many ways. My trip involved sleeping in a former prison, eating recycled leftovers, and getting tangled up in a mutiny just when I was a few kilometres from reaching Luang Prabang. It seems misadventures along the Mekong River are a bit of an ongoing theme for me…

For anyone considering undertaking a similar journey, I’ll recount the events from mine and I seriously hope you have a better one.

Over-the counter drugs and a pink jail

(Day 1: Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong)

Our van picked us up (only) 45 minutes behind schedule and we crammed ourselves in. Having done the journey from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai twice before, I knew I was in for a vomit-inducing journey so I proceeded to pass out for the next 3 hours with a little help from dimenhydrinate. (Anti-nausea pills for the win!)

By the time I woke up, we had reached the White Temple for a 20 minute break and a whirlwind tour at one of the most unusual temples in all of Southeast Asia.

The White Temple in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand.

Snap! Snap! Snap! And back in the van.

I was more alert for the next three hours that followed on our journey to the Thai-Lao border. During this part of the drive the roads got narrower, the towns fewer in between, and the transportation switched from cars and scooters to scooters and farming equipment.

By 5 p.m. we were pulling in to our accommodations for the evening – this came in the form of a former prison…painting pink to add a bit of cheer? Hmm, this wasn’t in the brochure, yet oddly enough, it wasn’t my first time staying at a former prison turned hotel.

Dinner that evening consisted of chicken soup (read: murky water with a floating carcass) and a small bowl of rice, which wouldn’t be enough to fill a cavity. A trip to 7 Eleven ensued (I may eat like a baby elephant, but I also have Sam the Giant to feed). This was followed by a sleep deprived night on a mattress that was surely carved out of wood.

Misty mornings over the Mekong River in Laos.

Not quite the leisurely trip we were promised

(Day 2: Chiang Khong to Pakbeng)

Cold and showerless I made my way down for breakfast at 6:00 a.m. I was greeted with a buffet of instant coffee, overcooked rice floating in water, and boiled cabbage with mystery proteins (eggs? pork?) in it. The Dutch girl seated next to me looked at my plate with disgust. “You must eat something”, an older British couple urged her and they then gave her one of their own teabags so that at least she’d have something to drink.

About an hour behind schedule, we finally hopped in the minivan that would drive us to the border. We were stamped out of Thailand, driven a few hundred meters to the Laos border, and then began the process of getting a visa on arrival. Word to the wise: get your Laos visa before coming here or make sure you are one of the very first people there because it is absolute madness.

I managed to be one of the first 5 people in line, but within minutes there were upwards of 100 people waiting to be processed. There was confusion as to where to get the forms, local ‘guides’ were bribing the officers into processing their customers’ passports first, and it was absolute chaos at the visa pick-up line where the clerk was holding up random passports and asking “Is this you? Is this you? Is this you?” to the growing mob surrounding her window.

The slow boat to Laos. Here you see the 'good' seats.

From there it was another drive to the pier where we arrived to a boat that was already packed full of strangers. How was this possible if we were the first of our 3 minivan entourage to cross the border?! We were clearly just ‘filler’, which meant we got the crap seats facing sideways. The barriers meant we couldn’t really enjoy the view, so the next 7 hours were spent eating, reading and napping. Not quite what I had envisioned when I signed up for this ‘scenic’ journey.

When we finally reached Pakbeng that evening, our hotel forgot to pick our group up from the pier, and none of the drivers seemed too interested in taking us since they were working on commission for other hotels. In the end we had to walk uphill into town with all of our luggage in tow.

Our hotel hardly resembled the photos we had been shown. Instead, we had a flimsy mattress with protruding springs, and a shower that let out a small trickle of icy water. This being our second night without a shower, Sam decided to brave the water anyway, upon which time the water mysteriously cut out in the room – no water to brush out teeth in the sink, no water to flush the toilet, and no water to wash those stinky armpits.

Limestone cliffs and caves on the shores of the Mekong, Laos.

A mutiny on the shores of the Mekong

(Day 3: Pakbeng to Luang Prabang – sort of)

Determined to not get stuck with crappy seats for another day in a row, Sam and I were out of the hotel by 6:30 a.m. We ate a quick breakfast, stocked up on French baked goods for the journey, and raced downhill with our packs. Success! A handful of travellers had already arrived to secure their seats, but we were still early enough to snag forward-facing seats near the front of the boat.

Let me shock you here and say that I honestly did enjoy the final day of the journey. The landscape changed from lush jungles with palm trees and draping vines, to autumn foliage with specks of red. The sun was shining into the boat, and it was easy to love slowly drifting down the Mekong with a good book in hand. Every so often small bamboo settlements would appear on the hillside, and we would stop to drop off supplies and pick up locals heading into Luang Prabang. I even saw the occasional elephant grazing near the banks of the river – it was bliss. But that would change once we neared our final destination.

Bamboo huts on the banks of the Mekong River in Laos.

About 10 kilometres outside of Luang Prabang, the captain pulled over announcing this was the final stop. We would have to take a tuk-tuk to make the rest of our way into town. Locals and foreigners who had read up about the trip knew better than that.

The first clue to the scam was that the locals weren’t getting off the boat. If this was the final stop, why weren’t they moving?

We turned to a local woman seated with us, “Last stop? Luang Prabang?”

She grinned at us and signalled that the boat would continue on into town.

We then turned to the captain who tried to hide his grin, but the cat was out of the bag.

Even though we had paid for a boat ride all the way to Luang Prabang, we were being dropped off here so that we’d have to pay the local drivers to take us the rest of the way into town.

“No-no-nooooh, ha! Take us to Luang Prabang!”

Our new leader addressed the captain asking him to take us all the way as had been agreed, but the captain just kept smirking and staring awkwardly at us and then at his crew.

The dispute over being dropped off 10 kilometers outside of Luang Prabang.
“We know you’re going the rest of the way! The locals on the boat told us so and we paid for tickets the full way. We are not getting off the boat, so let’s go to Luang Prabang.”

By now everyone on the boat was getting quite rowdy. There was chanting, clapping, and lots of hollering in a myriad of languages. The two leaders who were fighting for our cause started untying the boat and throwing off the plank that had been set up to let passengers off in a muddy shore (there wasn’t even a pier). Browse the forums on Lonely Planet or read the reviews on TripAdvisor and you’ll come across many tales of disgruntled passengers who also felt cheated by similar experiences.

That’s when the yelling in Lao begin. First the captain at the locals and then the locals at the captain.  It seemed that now that we had caught on to his trick, the locals would have to get off as well. He would not be continuing on with a boatful of foreigners all the way into town. The locals fought him but eventually they were forced off with their bundles. And still we stayed on the boat for another 30 minutes out of principle.

A local who spoke English was brought to try and end the dispute. He first tried to argue that there was no pier in town, and then he started saying that there was a UNESCO rule prohibiting boats from going any further into town (a complete lie considering we would later see these very boats by the handful offering rides to foreigners on the town’s shores).

The slow boats.

During this time locals on the shores began to mock us, “You stay here! You sleep here all night,” and a Frenchman tried to lighten the mood by singing “Should I stay or should I go? Should I stay or should I go? If I go there will be troubleeee…”

Eventually the captain and his crew began unloading our luggage and throwing it on the banks, at which point I felt this was a lost cause.

I would later bump into some of the passengers around town and learn that a group of them had stayed on for an additional hour, however, in the end it was to no avail.

After getting off the boat, I carried my pack up the ‘new pier’s’  extremely steep sandy embankment and paid the 20,000 kip (or $2.50 USD) per person for a ride into town. (Yes, it’s cheap, but it’s also quadruple the going rate if you happen to catch the ride a few meters down on the main road.)

Of course, Ms. Shroom Shakes was already in the back of the truck, so I got to listen to her conversation for the ride in.

“Yeah, we found a place to smoke opium last night but then we were freaking out because one of the guys got really sick. Shit, man! That sucked…”

I echoed her feeling about the whole trip.

I know what some of you are probably thinking…

$2.50? Why did you even bother?

I’ve asked myself the same thing.

On the one hand, by dropping people off 10 kilometres out of town and forcing them to hire a driver into town, jobs are being created for locals. $2.50 is a small price to pay to give someone a job and stimulate the local economy.

On the other hand, deceiving paying passengers and dropping them off on a muddy bank in the outskirts of town when they’ve paid for a boat ride to Luang Prabang isn’t very honest. Our local sources in town explained that as little as a year ago the slow boat used to travel all the way into Luang Prabang, however, several months ago the captains started dropping foreigners off in the outskirts of town and this became the new norm. No one challenged it (perhaps out of ignorance or perhaps because the fare to town was such a trivial sum), so now it’s standard practice.

At the end of the day, most foreigners can easily cough up the $2.50 it takes to get into town, however, it bothered me that this money fuelled dishonesty.  

A quiet misty morning in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Tips for anyone considering taking the slow boat :

Bring a cushion. Some of the boats have been ‘updated’ and the wooden benches have been replaced with old car seats / bus seats, but there’s still a chance you may end up sitting on a wooden bench for 9 hours.

- Dress in layers. I was wearing a hoodie, a fleece, socks and sandals (classy, I know), and I was still shivering when we set off in the morning. Don’t underestimate the temperatures in Southeast Asia. It will warm up later in the day, but it’s best to be prepared until then.

- Bring something to keep yourself entertained. Books, an iPod stocked with your favourite music, a deck of playing cards, a journal to write or doodle in. The landscapes are hypnotizing, but you’ll want a break sooner of later.

- Arrive early for a chance at a good seat. You may not be able to get a good seat on the first day, but if you get up early on day 2 of the boat journey and make it down to the pier at least 1 hour in advance, you should be able to snag first pick.

- Stock up on snacks. Anyone who tells you there is no food on the boat is lying to you, however, I will say that there isn’t a lot of variety. You can get hot tea and coffee, ramen noodles in a cup, chips, cookies, light snacks and beer. You certainly won’t go hungry, but it’s worth picking up some sandwiches, baked goods, and maybe even some fruit before you hop on board.

- It might be worth going for a mid-level package. I booked the regular budget tour: 2,400 baht with 2 nights accommodations included. It’s the same tour they sell at every tourist agency in Chiang Mai, but if I had to do it again, I would be willing to dish out double in order to have a more comfortable trip.

Have you taken the slow boat to Laos?

What was your experience like?

Would you recommend it?

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara Weibel February 7, 2014 at 10:03 am

Ahhh…I took the upscale slow boat with Mekong Cruises. Fantastic food, first class service, a sun deck atop, luxurious cushioned seats, and fantastic tour stops along the way, not to mention an overnight in Pakbeng at the sumptuous Luang Say Lodge, with teak cabins overlooking the river and Hemingway-esque furnishings. VERY worth the extra cost.
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Audrey February 7, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Sounds amazing, Barbara! We saw the luxury cabins overlooking the Mekong in Pakbeng and there were a few hopeful whispers among the passengers, “Do you think we’re staying there?!” Haha, in the future I will most certainly splurge for the sake of comfort and sanity. :)

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Nina February 7, 2014 at 12:11 pm

Oh no! I have read sooo many horrific accounts on this trip that I decided against it… and I am again, glad I did. Sorry that this happened Audrey, however I know you are a seasoned person in dealing with these everyday issues, surprises, and adventure of a traveler.

I too would have be upset because of the principle and the lying. I could careless about the $2.50 and I understand it’s a small price to pay, but if they would just tell us these things instead of lying, it would be fine. Also, as a solo female traveler, surprises like being dumped at a random spot that you weren’t notified about can get a bit sketchy and scary! I hope you enjoy the rest of your Laos trip!
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Audrey February 7, 2014 at 3:11 pm

I can laugh about it now – maybe not when I first got off the boat after 3 days without a shower (oh my!), but arriving in Luang Prabang made it all laughable. ;)

Thankfully, in terms of getting dropped off outside of town, it wasn’t that scary. The sun was starting to set, but there was still daylight out, and there were also plenty of travellers stuck in the same situation so everyone teamed up when it came time to get transportation into town.

Aaah, all’s well that ends well, right?!

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Synne February 7, 2014 at 2:55 pm

I feel so bad for you right now! I took the boat the other way, from Luang Prabang to the border of Thailand, in March last year (so ca 1 year). Although this one didn’t have enough seats, and the heat was exhausting at times, it did go all the way!!And the family who owned the boat was super cute. I really enjoyed the scenery too, but it does get tiering spending two full days on a slow boat. Time couldn’t pass any slower haha. However, now I am happy I did it :)
And I completely understand what you said about the conflicting thoughts on paying for that extra transportation. Considering that scams like these, trying to squeeze as much as possible from western tourists, happens all the time and everywhere you could end up spending almost twice of what you could have! Especially if you are not working and traveling for months. But at least in the bitterness you know that it probably put food on someones table that day. I was fortunate on my trip, except for the sometimes overprised tuk tuk. Although reading your tips on what to bring on a slow boat would have made the journey a bit smoother.
And I do hope you enjoy Laos! It is my faveourite country in SE Asia, it is so beautiful and laid-back and the sunset in Vang Vieng is incredible! If you’re still in Luang Prabang you have to go see kuang si waterfalls, and bring your bathing suit (I did not and regret it!)

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David Newlands February 7, 2014 at 3:36 pm

Thanks for the great report on your trip.We were going to to Lung Prabang by slow boat but got put off by stories like yours.We did the east route through Nong Khaki -Vientanne ,Not as exciting as your trip but trouble free.Thanks for all your great blogs,David

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James Shannon February 7, 2014 at 3:50 pm

Too bad you couldn’t twist their arm into continuing into Luang Prabang … despite the experience, it made for an informative and engaging post!
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Jeff February 7, 2014 at 3:58 pm

Omg! what a terrible trip. Even though its a way of job creation, there is dishonesty that will definitely cost both Captains and Locals. Visitors will avoid being dropped 10 km outside the city thus choosing other safe modes of transport. Of course captains and the locals will loose.
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Ivana February 7, 2014 at 4:10 pm

Oh, Audrey, I am just feeling that wind on the boat, sun on your face and freaking strong disappointment that we had basically in the same situations. We couldn’t believe that they were able to rip us off on everything possible (and impossible!). To be honest, after we arrived to the pink prison and we saw the room, we better went to dine to the village.
It looks also that each boat has its own superstar! “Our” girl was more into the “liquids” than mushrooms, but with the similar performances :D
And the “new” pier, this was just too much. We didn’t see the locals to stay on the board, but I bet they did the same :D is just we were already occupied to stand in the line for a famous tuk-tuk.
Well, am happy you survived, and all we can just laugh now!
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Audrey February 10, 2014 at 4:40 am

I’m sorry to hear your trip wasn’t ideal either. A former prison and 3 days without access to a warm shower wasn’t quite what I was expecting when I signed up for the tour, haha, but I’m just glad we made it there in the end. It was such a relief to finaaaaally arrive in Luang Prabang.

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Marilyn February 7, 2014 at 5:08 pm

Audrey…this was very interesting …always enjoy your post..thanks

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Melissa @ Suitcase and Heels February 7, 2014 at 5:11 pm

Wow, that actually sounds pretty horrible. If you’d be willing to dish out 4800 baht ($160) for a more comfortable trip, consider flying. My boyfriend was getting short on time during his trip this summer and he decided that the 45min flight was well worth the cost (~$150) over spending 3 days in transit. I’m of the same mind.

Unless I had oodles of time and some sort of deluxe/luxury package I doubt I’d ever take the slow boat to Laos.
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Heather February 7, 2014 at 7:03 pm

Yikes, this sounds like a nightmare! After reading this, I am very thankful we flew into and out of Luang Prabang and just took an hour-long ride on the Mekong from there. I don’t think I would have enjoyed my time in the town as much if I’d had this terrible experience at the start.
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Karisa February 7, 2014 at 9:47 pm

Oh my goodness, this sounds awful!!!! I must have been on one of the lucky boats because we pulled right into the dock in Luang Prabang!
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Audrey February 9, 2014 at 2:08 pm

I’m glad your boat took you all the way into town. Did you do the same trip recently? Makes me wonder if it’s just a few boats that are trying to be sneaky by leaving travellers in the outskirts…

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Emily February 8, 2014 at 1:51 am

Yikes – that sounds like a pain!

I’d heard about the chaos at the land boarder into Laos and so was happy when we found super cheap flights so that we dealt with boarder control at the airport – it went really smoothly.
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Zana@GreenGlobalTravel February 8, 2014 at 3:38 am

Oh wow. Well I hate that you had such a negative experience. I’ve actually never heard of the slow boat to Laos. But thanks for sharing your experience and tips.
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Laura February 8, 2014 at 3:58 am

An entertaining post as always!

The Thai borders with Laos and Cambodia are a nightmare. Letting your passport out of your sight in a place that is utterly chaotic and corrupt is not a pleasant experience!

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Rachel of Hippie in Heels February 8, 2014 at 8:47 am

I would have stayed on out of principle too! What an annoying scam…. and annoying girl you had to listen to.
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Bethaney - Flashpacker Family February 8, 2014 at 10:01 am

Honestly, it sounds painful! I think I’d go for the upscale cruise Barbara mentioned above. I hate the level of dishonestly and scamming that comes with the tourist trail in SE Asia. I can understand the overwhelming need to let everyone earn a few extra bucks but a rip-off is still a rip-off no matter how small the amount.
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Dan February 8, 2014 at 2:20 pm

Yikes! That sounds rough. I hope you don’t base all Australians off of one bad egg… We actually deported her because we were all sick of her
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Audrey February 9, 2014 at 1:59 pm

Haha, I’ll be travelling to Australia in the spring, so I’m giving you Aussies another try! ;)

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Jeremy February 8, 2014 at 9:00 pm

I had no idea that last stop was a scam! I remember thinking how strange it was that we were dropped off so far from Luang Prabang, and then throwing a fit about the couple of bucks we had to pay for the taxi into town!

It’s not the fact that it’s $2.50, but it’s the relative price and the level of dishonesty. After traveling in SE Asia, I’m not even surprised to hear that it was a scam…which is really unfortunate. The state of tourism in that region is pretty poor.
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Helen February 9, 2014 at 9:08 pm

My journey was a little different, uncomfortable but ok! There weren’t enough seats so we say on the floor but the seats they did have were just wooden benches and at first they packed loads of us on so some people kicked off and we ended up on two boats (still not enough seats) and at Pakbeng we just got dropped at the bank, no accomodation – but they did drop us right in Luang Prabang. I did have a horrendous bus journey from Laos to Vietnam though. The men were horrible! Glad you got there ok!!!
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Mary @ Green Global Travel February 10, 2014 at 4:02 am

I’m sorry that you didn’t have the best experience. :-( Thanks for letting us know what to look out for. Better luck next time!

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CurlyTraveller February 10, 2014 at 12:05 pm

Thanks but no thanks; what a horror story indeed! Yes, your pics are still gorgeous. But I had more then my fair share of discomfort and of being cheated, scammed and tricked ‘when I was younger’;-). I really try to avoid these experiences now. Although you will always run into them here and there.
Great reportage and you ‘survived’!;-)
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Charlie February 10, 2014 at 9:32 pm

Gosh, that sounds like an awful boat ride! I definitely agree with you about the principle of it all though, irrelevant of whether or not the cost of an extra ride into town is low to a Westerner or not.
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Alison Pirtle February 11, 2014 at 2:02 am

Whoooa. We have considered this, so thank you for giving an honest depiction. Certainly an adventure!
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Catherine February 12, 2014 at 12:26 pm

Sorry to hear your trip wasn’t as great as you’d hoped, will definitely bare this tips in mind when I’m in SE Asia.
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Stephanie - The Travel Chica February 13, 2014 at 3:46 am

I don’t like being trapped on any method of transit for such an extended period of time. But it is at least a good story to tell :-)
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Norm February 15, 2014 at 8:07 am

I was gonna take the same route in Jan 2010, but the Mekong was very low at that time; so I nixed the trip. I had heard of some nightmare trips on Trip advisor, so I figured my time was better spent in Luang Prabang touring the temples. I was in LP back in 1972 … but there was a very hot war in progress; so I had to get my tourist derriere out of there ASAPTook me 38 years to get back there.

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Alastair February 17, 2014 at 5:13 pm

Audrey, that sounds like a nightmare. I did it in reverse in November. We were dropped off outside LP to get on the boats, including the locals, and we were told by all the agencies in town that this was because the boats no longer went all the way. The only hassle is that only one place has agreements with the boats for both days (different companies) & the bus to Chiang Mai. And none will arrange a hostel – you just have to fight! Regarding the strangers on the first boat, this is probably people who stayed in Houay Xai overnight, most likely coming back from the Gibbon Experience.

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Lindsay @ Where Is Your Toothbrush? February 18, 2014 at 5:41 am

I’m with you on the $2.50, and I am okay with paying higher prices than the locals, because yes, it’s not as much money relative to my income. And I’m a visitor in their country, using their roads and services and probably contributing in some way to environmental degradation as much as I try not to. But I hate being targeted as a rich westerner with an endless stream of money who should just pay up without question, and especially for things I’ve already paid for. Sometimes I just do it and sometimes I try to bargain, but it always feels crappy, because there isn’t an endless stream of money flowing into my bank account.

Great story, Audrey. I love how you write about these weird and crazy situations and make us all feel your pain, but laugh along with you too. The drug-obsessed Aussie girl is hilarious! We’ve all met her before!
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Mark February 18, 2014 at 7:43 am

Ah, brings back memories! My traveling companions and I were also ‘filler’ and had lousy seats. One german girl was feeling ill, and the only place she could lie down was next to the engine in the back… with gas fumes. After several hours she had a fever of 104. Fortunately the boat pulled over at a police checkpoint on a muddy bank soon thereafter. She got off, and I went along to look after her. We found a guy with a speed boat who took us back up to Huay Xi, where she crossed over into Thailand for proper medical care. The next day I hopped a speed boat down to Luang Prabang (which are as dangerous as everyone says). On the way we stopped in Pak Beng and picked up another traveler from the slow boat who was sick and had stayed behind. Several hair raising hours later we arrived in Luang Prabang ahead of the slow boats, found a nice hostel, and didn’t have to deal with the early drop-off scam. So there are a few advantages to risking life & limb on the speed boats. :P

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Expatkerri February 25, 2014 at 8:01 pm

Your explanation is precisely how I feel when these things happen to me. I find myself fighting for my rights as a human being and “equal” with the locals, and then in the same moment I find myself understanding why they want my $2.50 and how I am so easily able to part with it. It’s not the money, as you say, but it’s the principle that we are told false realities, and it never feels good to be lied to. Although, lately I feel like I have become a lot better at just accepting people’s weird justifications for things that seem to be not quite logical, like that time in Bangkok when it was “Buddha day” so the temple I wanted to visit was closed… (exactly WHY would a temple close on Buddha day?? wouldn’t it be decorated and full of celebrations?). At some point, if it becomes clear that my argument isn’t getting me anywhere, it becomes easier for everyone just to cough up the $2.50 and be done with it. Thanks for sharing your horrors with us Audrey!
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Ross March 10, 2014 at 4:57 pm

That sounds like an awful trip. I’m kinda glad I didn’t go on it when I was there. There are so many scams going these days you really have to be on your toes to catch them all.
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Mark Young March 14, 2014 at 10:31 am

Sounds great! Yeah, sure, uncomfortable, a bit of bribery, things not as they were described, a mutiny! Sure, you could have flown and had a completely comfortable, quick trip but look at the memories you would have missed!

Give me the slow boat any day.

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Escape Hunter March 19, 2014 at 7:16 pm

Weird boat designs!
I’d love to try a luxury boat cruise on the river Mekong…

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