Slow Boat To Laos
After Caryl’s meditation retreat, we set off on our Vegan Food Quest again, on a mission to find eat and write about the best vegan food in the world.
We met up with friends and family and set off to Laos, making a brief stop in Chiang Rai and the nearby White Temple. The White Temple was nothing short of bizarre; the mission of an outspoken Thai artist and his followers who are constructing the temple which is planned to be finished in 2070.
We didn’t really spend much time in Chiang Rai and although we managed to find vegan food, it was nothing to write home about, so we won’t. Shame considering how fabulous Thailand is for vegans generally. But with adventure in our hearts, and plenty of useful instructions from fellow bloggers Nomadasaurus, we left Thailand, the Land of Smiles, for Laos, The Land of Elephants.
Our first 2 days were spent on a slow boat travelling up the Mekong. This once regular transport route for local Laotians is now mainly a tourist vessel with the locals opting to get the bus; the old wooden bench seats which produced many a traveller’s tale of discomfort, have been mostly replaced by old car seats in various stages of disrepair, and discomfort.
Seats are allocated by scraps of paper with a number scrawled on them. It’s perfectly acceptable to take your seat number and move it to another seat that is more comfortable and so before long there is chaos as people look for their seats which are no longer in any numerical order. The trick is definitely to board early (at least an hour before they tell you), sit as near to the driver as possible in the most comfortable seats you can find.
However, boarding early doesn’t allow you to see who will be sat in your vicinity, which when you are about to embark on an 8 hour journey, might be an important consideration. We’re not sure what it is about Laos but we’ve never seen such a scruffy, inconsiderate bunch of travellers. Some of our fellow passengers clearly had an aversion to soap and laundry and were emitting some unsavoury smells from this lack of washing.
We’re a bit long in the tooth now and so we’re well practiced in the habits of having a daily shower and washing our clothes and would urge all backpackers to try to learn these simple habits before embarking on journeys in boats, buses or minivans where other may have to share the same space.
Just a suggestion, you know, to make it bearable for other people.
And then there were the smokers (some of whom were also the showerphobics). Coming from a country where smoking is banned in indoor (and some outdoor) spaces, we’re not used to smokers lighting up wherever they please. And as we like our lungs a lot and rely on them to keep us alive, we quite like this, so there we were, surrounded by stinking, smoking backpackers, with nothing but the thought that at least it could only last for 8 hours to comfort us.
Luckily we had the fearsomely assertive duo of Pam and Eileen travelling with us, who swiftly sent our offensive neighbours off to the back of the boat as soon as they reached for their lighters leaving all to breathe a sweet sigh of relief.
Day 1’s boat ride consisted of awesome scenery and eating (go prepared with vegan food because there’s nothing of any substance that’s vegan friendly on board (other than tea, coffee, Beer Lao and Pringles).
We were eventually dropped off at Pak Beng on some spiky, uneven rocks where there was a chaotic scramble of pissed backpackers in flip flops desperate to get their bags before anyone else, mixed in with small barefoot children begging for crisps and ‘porters’ trying to carry our bags for money.
It was mental and bordered on dangerous at times but a bit of patience and some steady climbing had us all safely at the top of the slope which leads to the road into town.
The town itself consisted of a street lined with shacks and guest houses, all catering for the mass of tourists that arrive in the early evening and then depart the following morning. The air is filled with barbecued meat smoke, the shops are stocked with crisps, cakes and baguettes; everything a slow boat traveller might need to stock up for the following day.
Unless you are vegan of course.
Vegan travellers are best getting fruit and visiting one of the restaurants who will cook a vegetable fried rice, no egg. It won’t be your most inspiring meal in Laos but it will fill you up. It’s worth noting that the shacks all sell soya milk, but it’s the Thai ‘Lactosoy’ brand which has whole milk powder added to it. Why oh why anyone would put cow milk into bean milk is beyond us, but obviously not beyond Lactosoy.
Day 2’s boat ride began much earlier in the morning (although there was still the obligatory 2 hour delay for unknown reasons). We boarded a different boat, no seat numbers this time and a different set of old battered car seats to try out for comfortableness. This boat hadn’t quite finished the job of replacing the wooden benches and people sat towards the back of the boat not only had to endure the deafening engine noise but also had to sit on a hard wooden seat. There was much feeling sorry for those passengers as we set off for another 8 hours down the river.
The odour emitting passengers opted for the other boat thankfully for us, although probably not for the other boat.
The scenery continued to be awesome; one of the most impressive things about this trip up the Mekong is the sheer scale of what seemed to be untouched nature. We’d see the occasional person fishing, maybe a village every now and then, some water buffalo or pigs but there was very little human impact to be seen, just miles upon miles of trees, jungle and rock formations.
However, the big difference to day 1 was the temperature; setting off a good 3 hours earlier than the day before, the sun hadn’t quite had a chance to warm everything up and when the boat got going, we all got cold. We though we should mention this to explain why a lot of our Day 2 pictures involve us being dressed in slightly odd ways, just to keep warm.
It was also Caryl’s birthday (we’ll let you guess how old) and although there was a distinct lack of vegan birthday cake, it was a pretty special way to celebrate and certainly a birthday to remember.