Monday, March 14, 2016

Adventures in Slow Boat Voyaging with a Motorbike

Which might be subtitled "Why we're back on the road again. . ."
Written from Oudumxai on the 14th of March, 2016.  A glance at the map will show that instead of just arriving at the northern extent of the Lao Mekong this evening, as we had advertised a day or two back, we are quite a long ways east of the river already and getting set to go a lot further away.  You might infer that not everything went entirely as planned.  I'll make this short.  You can do it.  You can take a motorbike on a slow boat from Louang Prabang northbound and get to Pak Beng.  Based on that I would assert, that if you were willing to do it, you could in fact load the bike back onto another slow boat (they really aren't slow, it is not fair to keep calling them slow boats just because everyone does. . .they're only slow when compared to a fast boat. . .we'll get to that). . .anyway, you could in fact load the bike back on another slow boat and ride a second day upstream from Pak Beng on to Houayxay where you could almost certainly offload the bike and ride away into the sunrise (it's all east after you leave the river in Laos).  However, read on:

1.  It costs more than you think.  I don't know, boats are like that even at home too. . .you think you have it covered when you buy the boat and then someone tells you about moorage, so you pay moorage and then someone mentions leasehold tax and after that it's towing insurance and bottom paint.  Oh dear.  I pressured the travel agents I talked to at some length to figure out, in advance what our little two day voyage was going to cost and finally talked myself into it.  To restate the main point here, it does, in fact, cost more than you thought.  Everybody else ended up paying 300,000 kip for the two tickets required, that would be one for the first day and one for the second day. . .it's actually two different outfits that do this work. . .one bunch only runs up from Louang Prabang to Pak Beng (and then back again later) and the other people make the run from Houayxay down to Pak Beng in order to drop off people arriving from Thailand and then pick up those of us who landed in Pak Beng the night before.  It works fine, but you need to understand it to grasp the full impact of the next part.  The bike can ride for 100,000 Kip all the way from LP to PB (Louang Prabang to Pak Beng, I was getting tired of writing it out).  But then, like all the two legged passengers (we had no livestock beyond a basket or two of chickens), she has to get off the boat and go spend the night at a guest house.  And that's where the extra expense slips in.  She refused to get up and walk off like everyone else.  And, as is often the case, the Longshoremen locally saw a good thing when they saw it.  We were it.  Since the boat crew (four husky young fellows and a slightly older and wiser sort, plus the captain) since the boat crew, as I was saying, LOADED the boat and nobody had mentioned UNLOADING the boat as a separate matter, I'd assumed the husky young lads, wanting to get their chores finished so they could relax for the night, would hastily offload the bike and we'd be off to find a guesthouse of our own.  H'mm.  They were in haste for a fact, but wanted to know when I was going to get my darned bike off their boat.  The Longshoreman's business rep put the matter to me simply.  "You pay me and Lao People will carry your bike up the stairs."  Stairs.  That was the crux of the matter.  The boat crew may have offloaded it for me if we could have landed at the road ramp as we have done in the past, but a darned freighter was offloading roofing and bricks and I don't know what all else, and he was taking up the whole area we might have landed the bike.  Well, the bargaining started pretty high and ended up pretty high, though I gained a little.  That was an expensive few minutes, but six Lao gentleman (Longshoremen CAN be gentlemen) can absolutely pick up that motorbike and march her up the side of the mountain at a remarkable rate.

2.  It's hard work .  Okay, maybe all I really had to do was be insistent that the bike really had to be loaded and maybe I didn't have to help and maybe. . .yes, maybe if I'd just kept out of the way. . .Well, it was hard work.

3.  You might just get yourself killed.  That wasn't part of the program at all, but the boat crew got a little hasty and the river current and adjacent vessels conspired with the circumstances and for a second or two at the water's edge it looked like I'd finally gotten myself into a spot I wasn't going to come out of in one piece.  You'll have to study the photos of the slow boats a minute, but the salient point here is that they have a big wide fore deck on top of a slender little bow, all of which reaches way out over the water and up over the bank so people can often get on or off without getting their feet wet. . .besides, there wouldn't be anywhere to tie down a motorbike if they just decked over the pointy end of the boat. . .it's really a splendid design and I approve.  However, since the long haul boats are generally about the same size, those flat decks are all about the same height above the river and in most cases (including this one) a number of boats are all squeezed together along the bank, so when our boat crew got ready to shift the boat along and didn't get the old guy with the beard out of the flipping way first, they almost got him period.  I saw it happening and have been around boats and barges enough to know I was in the wrong place and it was getting wronger really fast.  So I did the only thing that made sense to me at the time. . .I sat down.  The inevitable collision occurred a moment later over my head while I admired the welding on the underside of the decks.  Actually, if it had gotten a little tighter I could have just gone for a short swim, but it would have gotten my money and passport wet.  As it actually worked out, the crews, having seen me disappear more or less like a rabbit down a hole, managed to get the boats back under control and separated. . .and I stood up.  The young Lao Lady who had been shepherding tourists off the second boat looked a little unhappy about the whole thing and offered me a hand to jump up on her deck.  Seemed like a good idea, so I did, but I sure didn't get any photos.

Well, that's not quite right.  I ended up with 273 photos for the day and some of them are quite interesting.  I just didn't get any of the bike getting off the boat.  Dang.

So, aside from matters having to do with loading and offloading motorbikes where they don't belong, it was, again, a wonderful ride!  Here's a short summary of the day:

It was a full boat, just like an airliner. . .every seat was full, above and below (you can't imagine how much freight they hid under the seats before we tourists came on board) and there was a baggage compartment aft of the engine room that must have been really full.  The people were about evenly split between Lao people using the boat for what it was originally intended, and people from everywhere else riding up to the Thai border at Houayxay to continue their partying elsewhere. There was also this old guy trying to take a photo of every boat on the river while simultaneously trying to prove you could get a motorbike to Houayxay. . .oh never mind.

Among the Lao people were several cute kids.  They were exceedingly well behaved and sweet. Amazing.  I'd swear that the really little ones slept for the whole trip. . .just waking up enough to nurse now and then.  We need kids like that on some flights I've been on.

The engine roars steadily the whole day.  On those very few occasions when we slowed down and the skipper beached the boat (ever so gently) to offload people or freight, the sudden slowing and quieting of the roar was more than startling.  But it soon started again.

The rocks and water were fabulous.  The river is at about a 3 meter stage (there was a river gauge shortly above LP).  I don't know how full it gets, the numbers on the gauge went up to 12 I think (I was trying to read the low water numbers and didn't pay enough attention)  Anyway, the river bed rocks are exposed and there are a lot of them.  The geology would be a blast to work out (though I'm sure it's already been done) but a lot of the rocks are dark slaty or shale like rocks, so they look like twisted decks of cards in places, or in others you can clearly imagine a 100 foot long stegosaurus with his nose buried in the sand at the river's edge.  There was one dragon half buried that I did not see until we were too close and beyond, but what a monster. . .he was big and beautiful.  Some of the rocks were just piles of rocks of course.  Here and there were pockets of black boulders, from bowling balls up to small automobile sized stones, all smooth and rounded from rolling down out of the Himalayas in the river's bed load and shining mica bright in the sun, perched well above the river.  I'm sure you can hear them rumbling along when the river is high.

So, If I'm to get this posted before the long overland run to Hanoi starts in earnest tomorrow I'd best upload some photos now and get to work. . .you have to DO a little before you can write about it, or at least it's more believable that way!

My home in Louang Prabang whenever I'm there.  Really nice people and good rooms.

This was the easy one. . .down through the sand and up onto the deck.  4 guys and an old man made it easy.

Sleepy little girl. . .slept for hours except for an occasional snack.

Running light and upstream. . .relatively easy task.  We had the legs on everything else on the river except the fast boats, which flew by like mosquitoes on a mission.

Soon past.  The family lives aboard of course, always under way, loading or discharging.  Essentially no wake, slick lines, long and easy.

Mouth of the Ou River. . .wonderful landmark!

The rocks. . .and fast water.  That's my refrigerator in the foreground. . .right inside the main entrance door.  I leaned on it five or six hours, shooting out the opening.  Missed it after it went ashore!

Mekong River Parking Lot

Study the overhanging squared off bow for a minute.  This is a very close sister to our boat.

Offloading a major resupply run, lots of help!

So, what do you suppose the big truck spring is all about. . .not many roads here!

Okay, so this is a "fast boat". . .says so on your ticket.  They fly.  Life jackets and helmets are recommended!!

Do not arm wrestle this man.  No hydraulics here anywhere.  

A Mekong River bus stop.  We took all of them another hour upriver to Pak Beng. . .school in the morning!

The big freighters often run light up to Thailand but run downstream (the hard way, you can't stop) fully loaded with cement and high value goods as well. . .but cement is the big item I saw.

The rocks were always close. . .really close.  Wow.