Saturday, March 21, 2009

No boat to Pakse: an interlude

While the similarities between buses and boats are minimal, it is important not to underestimate the potential confusion between the two, particularly when traveling through a country like Laos where everyone's English is broken at best.

For instance, when your desire to take a boat south down the Mekong River appears to be on the verge of realization, it's probably too good to be true.

There are many boats to Pakse? Oh, that's fantastic! We'll just get on the bus then and not ask any more questions. Thank you so much!

It was thus that we ended up on the night bus to Savannakhet, a crumbling colonial town in central Laos where there is not one boat to Pakse. When we arrived at 5:30 a.m., the town was dead and dark. We sat for a bit under a couple of strips of fluorescent tubing, which threw a diffuse pool of institutional light onto the black pitch of the bus station's parking lot. To add to the surreal circumstances, we wound up chatting with a couple of bubbly, spaced-out American girls who had been traveling non-stop for three days and were headed across the Laos hinterlands to the Vietnam border.

We smoked cigarettes and contemplated our two options: we could either stay at the station until daylight or take a tuk-tuk into town. We jumped on the next tuk-tuk with three local guys who were probably wondering why two backpackers were heading into town an hour before daybreak.

The town square – a couple of blocks from the Mekong – was a cobbled rectangle scattered with weeds and surrounded by small shops and a couple of extinguished lampposts with a small church at one end. We set our backpacks down, attempted to rally some optimism and hoped faintly that a coffee shop was just opening its doors. We found only the blank stares of shopkeepers and the incessant barking of neighborhood dogs that roamed the darkened streets with impunity.

We walked toward the river and found a bench on a corner near an abandoned set of amusement rides. In the fading darkness we could make out the eerie faces and animal shapes of a small train and the peeling paint of a miniature merry-go-round. As the silver horizon slowly loomed over the graying stucco buildings, we began to see people jogging and old men starting in on their morning bottles of Lao Lao. Clouds of mosquitoes converged on the street near the river. Wood smoke from breakfast fires smelled of banana leaves and burnt rice.

I set off in the direction of the nearest dock to find out about boats to Pakse, which was still a couple hundred kilometers to the south and the last big town before Si Pan Don (4,000 Islands), our final destination in Laos. There were boats available to Thailand, which was visible across the relatively narrow expanse of the Mekong. But a boat to Pakse? Laughable. I returned to tell Jen the bad news. We wandered Savannakhet's wide streets, along the river and past a large wat, occasionally followed by yet more barking dogs.

By the time we made it back to the town center, the sun was visible above the church and monks were beginning to make their daily rounds. Locals waited on street corners to fill the monks' simple begging bowls with rice.

We found a restaurant that was serving a breakfast buffet and we settled at an outside table and ordered coffee and fresh juice and waited for the hot tables to be filled with croque monsieur's, fried noodles, scalloped potatoes and steamed vegetables. I also ordered fried eggs, which turned out to be the best eggs I'd had in Laos, and I sopped them up greedily with crusty triangles of white bread.

We were tired, dirty and hot, and wanted to get moving again, so I walked back up to the river where I had seen a group of tuk-tuk drivers lounging in the shade. I found a driver I recognized from earlier when he had offered me a glass of Lao Lao, which I politely declined. He was excited for the early business and greeted me with a toothy smile. I could smell the acrid liquor on his breath as we haggled over a price to the bus station. We swung by the restaurant, picked up Jen and left the dusty streets of Savannakhet behind.

At the station a local bus was just leaving for Pakse. We purchased tickets and stowed our baggage underneath, while a group of boys loaded up the top of the bus with chairs, bags of rice, boxes of electronics and assorted luggage. Once on the road – windows wide open, the wind in our face and Savannakhet falling fast behind – we breathed a sigh of relief and settled in for what we thought was a three-hour ride.

But on the way to Pakse the bus stopped every 15 minutes, picking up and letting off, and more and more cargo was brought on board. Bags of sugar lined the aisle, and seating – dictated by a young man who possessed only a semblance of authority – became a constant game of musical chairs, with people being shifted arbitrarily up and down the aisle.

Also during the ride, I decided that while the mosquitoes might be bad it's the chicken-on-a-stick girls that really test one's patience. At every stop the bus was surrounded by a small army of food vendors who pushed unrecognizable items through the windows of the bus, while a contingent of children would actually board the bus and make their way slowly to the back, offering bottles of water, chips, chewy donut holes or – the most aggressive of them all – chickens-on-a-stick. A simple no was never good enough. The sticks of meat would just get shoved in closer, as if upon another inspection the foul birds would suddenly become appealing.

The soft sell hasn't made it yet to Laos.

By the time we arrived in Pakse, nearly six hours later, all I wanted was some non-stuck-through food and a shower and to move on past our strange little adventure – which was entirely my idea – looking for a boat that didn't exist.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds really awesome. I smell the banana leaves and burnt rice with you.