A passing fast boat in Laos

I remember when I was a kid and going to 6 flags amusement parks about half way into the crazy 1KM long lines for water rides there would be signs that read “You will get wet on this ride”. There was no sign like that for the fast boat from Luang Prabang to Thailand or it would have read:

“You will get wet, uncomfortable, deaf, vibrated, and possibly killed on this ride.”

It sounds like Im complaining, but I shouldnt. We arrived a few hours late, but I still had 2 arms, 2 legs, and my head wasnt bouncing around on a broken neck like a pez-dispenser – so I am a happy man. Leaving Laos was probably my worst travel experience to date here, mixed up tickets, rip-offs, late boat, closed border crossing (where I had to bribe the guy to stamp my visa). But I arrived, and am currently sitting in Chiang Mai, the 2nd largest city in Thailand, which I love so far.

The infamous “fast boat” is a mini-long tail boat, about the same size as a swamp canoe, but it has a huge car engine mounted on the back. No muffler, no housing for the engine, so at full throttle its loud to say the least. But these things can move! 50 MPH, skipping across the river like mad. The downer is that you sit on a wooden bench that is so small, you are in fetal position, knees pulled up into your chest, arms around your legs to hold them, and head tucked down to avoid the wind. Sitting like that for 7 hours is excrutiating and every vibration from the engine works its way through your body. It rained hard the night before we left so the Mekong river was up and in places, swirling with vortexes caused by streams and tributaries that feed into it. You could actually see the conflicting currents moving in opposite directions and we passed a large “slow boat” that was caught up in one of the pools, being spun around like it was a toy or something. Fortunately we were so fast, we skipped right over the deadly whirlpools before they even knew that we were on the river. Sometimes they would bounce us up into the air and we would hit the water with a tailbone shattering thud, but the boat never faltered. They issue you old-school helmets with face shields which makes the boat look like some twisted extreme sport race you would see on ESPN 7 or something. At first, like most people, I was not wearing my helmet because with or without it, a crash would toss you and break you like a ragdoll on the water. However after a couple hours, I actually developed a nasty windburn on my face. About the 5th hour into the ride, I was starting to think that things could not possible get any more uncomfortable…..then the rain started. People hunched down into the boat trying to avoid the small stinging raindrops hitting us at 50MPH but it was no use. We took our punishment all the way back to Thailand.

Other than an English woman that sank up to above her knees in “quick mud”, the ride was fairly uneventful. The poor woman, we pulled up on a sandy bank for a toilet break, and she stepped on the lucky spot and sank up to her ankles. Every time she would shift her weight to the other leg to pull one out, it would sink deeper, until she worked her way so deep that it took 2 of us men to pull her out. She had to sacrifice her flip-flops to the river gods.

Unfortunately, getting started was the biggest gaggle of a goat-screw I have encountered in Asia. I was on time at the dock, 07:00am, and waited until 09:00 on the boat. When it came, they didnt have enough seats! There was no record of my ticket. The driver refused to move until there were more Farang in his boat because they charge more for our tickets than the locals’. We sat and argued into a stalemate for 2 hours until finally 4 guys stood up and left, furiously demanding their money back. This freed up enough seats and off we went. The ride was amazing, quite an adrenaline rush for the first hour, and then as the novelty and excitement wore off, it just became uncomfortable as hell. We passed by small fishing village after village and more undeveloped countryside along the river than I have ever seen in my life. Everywhere farmers and fishermen would stop and look up at the roar of our engine coming down the river.

After finally getting a minibus from the border to Chiang Mai, I arrived with a French couple that I met on the boat about 23:30. As luck would have it, all the guesthouses were shut or full, so we humped around with heavy packs until we finally came into a cheap, but slightly dirty place for 150B a night.

The fast boat was a great experience and Im glad that I got to do it. It got me back to Thailand, which sad to say, felt like I was coming “home”. I love it here, the people, language, food, everything. After checking prices, I made an executive decision that I would fly to Siem Reap in Cambodia after this place. Life is good!