Feb 24 11

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

by Emily Benjamin

We had a couple of options for how to get to Luang Prabang in Laos from Chiang Mai, as offered to us by our friends at Sawasdee Guest House. We could take the fast boat, which is notorious for sinking or crashing and considered by most guide books as ‘dangerous’, or we could take the slow boat, which does the same trip but over two days and while it is considered safer, guide books also recommend massages before and after the 14 hour boat ride. We could also fly, but where’s the fun in that!?!

After a bit more research (mainly with TravelFish) we decided on another option. Rather than following the usual tourist route, we decided to avoid the usual Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai tourist trap before making our way to Luang Prabang. We took a 3 hour bus north from Chiang Mai to Thaton, and then a 4 hour boat down to Chiang Rai. From Chiang Rai, you are able to take a short bus ride to the Laos border, and thus it is a popular stop for travellers hoping to make this crossing. But in choosing the more scenic route to get there, we were piled into a long boat with 10 other people, giving me the very first minor panic attack of the trip so far. But let’s get to the good, first.

The boat trip was beautiful. The river winds its way through northern Thailand, snaking through mountains and small villages, around bends and over rapids. We saw locals fishing, dredging and eating by the river beds, kids jumping from rocks into the water and buffalo swimming and drinking together downstream. It was surreal to be navigating rapids in an almost-submerged long boat, then turning a corner to see a herd of buffalo just 10 metres away. While the trip was long, we were blessed with perfect weather and a capable captain, who got us to Chiang Rai safely just after 4pm.

But for the first half of the journey, I was scared shitless. I don’t like to use that language publicly, but there is no other way to describe how I was feeling for the first 2 hours on that boat. When I say almost-submerged, I mean it. If I had leaned back much further, I would have tipped the boat and sunk it. About 10 minutes into the journey, the boat stopped and the captain asked people to switch seats because we were uneven. Every few minutes we’d scratch the ground, or be heading straight for a pile of trees/branches/rocks, and I would look back at the captain and see the look of anxiety on his face. Jamie will think I’m making that part up, but through my fearful eyes, that’s how I saw it. You could watch the concentration and concern on the captains face as he negotiated his way down the winding river, which literally had us zigzagging left and right to find sections deep enough to take our heavy boatload. Oh, and did I mention that our journey started with 12 people and we still collected another two on the way? My thought at the time – ‘you can NOT be SERIOUS!’

Despite all this anxiety, those who know me well will find humour in this – after my initial thought of ‘oh-my-god-we’re-going-to-die’ my second thought was ‘I’d better finish my chocolate bar, chips and can of drink to save them going to waste.’ Yes, it’s true – food is ALWAYS on my mind.

Now, twenty hours later, I can look at all of this rationally and realise that if we HAD capsized, it would have been because the river was too shallow and we’d run a ground. Which would be fine, because we’d just stand up in the shallow water and walk to the river bank. Or if we tipped in a section that was a little deeper, no problems – I’m a confident swimmer, and I could probably still swim to shore with my valuables above my head, kept dry. If not, insurance would replace them. So I can see that there was never a real threat to my life yesterday, on our semi-submerged long boat. But there was no convincing me of that at the time!

So that’s the good, the bad… now the ugly. I’m sick. This time I can see that it’s not life threatening, but it is keeping me bed bound and grumpy on an otherwise pleasant Chiang Rai day. It had been slowly building for the past 2 or 3 days, so I can now assume that this cold/flu contributed to my feelings of nausea yesterday on the boat. But now, it’s gripped me good and proper and I’ve had to dig into the emergency medical supplies for cold and flu tablets and panadol. At least the $500+ pack of pharma goodies isn’t being wasted, and I’ve got a proper excuse for staying in bed, being looked after (Jamie’s out getting me snacks and drinks, yay!) and watching movies. Tomorrow, sick or healthy, I’ll be up and moving again as we head to Laos.

Till next time,

– Em :)

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