The Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

I got up in the morning with the cold dawn, and Len and I rolled the bike out of the garage where the family stored some wooden carts and the red Spiderman motorbike. Len wrote his Lao phone number on a small piece of paper and we said goodbye. I had nearly seventy-five kilometers to ride today to get to Houay Xai where I could take the slow boat to Luang Prabang.

I arrived at Houay Xai in the late afternoon covered completely in the red-brown dust. The silence was vast and there was only the slow putt of the barges and the hollow ring of hammers where men pounded the hulls of the overturned long boats they repaired on the sand. On one of these sandy banks, an abandoned barge cabin had been turned into a home. The whole thing was battered, paint flaking, but there were flower pots in the windows.

On the docks some children were playing a game where you had to hop on one foot and try to catch everyone else inside a ring. I joined them and we all made crazy faces and zombie noises and had a good time. After, I rode back into town where the tourist restaurants clanged with chatter and noise and checked into a two dollar oubliette for the night.

I had a dream that I was in Len’s village and the villagers wanted me to make a speech. “Jonathan! Jonathan!they chanted. I awoke and realized it was the rooster crowing. I checked out of my hovel, bought an egg sandwich and some sticky rice for the boat ride and went down to the dock.

The boat was a hundred feet long and full of feeble plastic chairs where tourists sat wearing Thai beer t-shirts and Beer Lao t-shirts, holding copies of Lonely Planet Laos. A big crew-cut German in a safari hat sat listening to an iPod. An Australian was reading a paperback that said, “Problems at home? Ripped off your boss? Think you’ve killed someone? Then it’s time to GO!” An Israeli in a floppy hat surveyed the horizon; his t-shirt said “Dust Track 37: Unknown Area. African Terrain.” There were too many of us.

An hour past the departure time, we were still moored on the docks. Everyone began complaining.

A Brit in a Papua New Guinea hat who looked just like the skipper on Gilligan’s Island sat right in front of me. He leaned in with relish: “You know, some of them will come away with bad impressions and tell the others not to make the journey.”

“As long as we’re not sinking, that’s a good impression,” someone perkily quipped.

“Not sinking yet.”

The Lao drivers were getting a kick out of it. They herded us off the bow and inside for a police check. A little boy jumped over the backpacks, handing bags back and forth. The Frenchmen took cold beer out of their bags and lit cigarettes. An Israeli photographed some Lao women leaning out of the cabin windows of another boat, and then the engine started and we chugged along on the river.

“Maybe I won’t open my factory in Lao.” It was the skipper.

“What kind of factory are you opening?” I asked.

“I was being facetious,” he said. “I imagine there are a few young people on this boat who are planning to open factories in southeast Asia. I’ve been up and down this river for nine years. Every year the organization is worse. There could have been people selling us Beer Lao and biscuits. Another boat could’ve charged us an extra dollar and we’d all get on. Could’ve sent one out at ten o’clock and another at eleven o’clock. With such a powerful neighbor like China, this little country will just get squeezed away someday.”

A solitary coal barge plied the river. Children made sandcastles on the banks.

“It’s quite terrible for the people who live here,” he said. “Still it’s a beautiful river, though, eh?”

The cattle tourists pulled out ice cream cones and baguettes with tuna fish. The chairs were cramped and everyone was facing each other with their legs drawn up in strange contortions. I crawled out the window and shimmied along the gunwale toward the bow. I found a spot amidst some backpacks on an oil drum. A grinning Laotian shoved a can of Pringles at me and held up some faded kip notes. I shook my head and he tried Beer Lao. I held up my soy milk and he turned to someone else. There were some Aussies on the deck. A guy with a bandaged knee and arm and huge lamb-chop sideburns. His polo shirt said something about “extreme white-water rafting” over the breast. Some gap-year French kids in skateboard shirts smeared on sunscreen and listened to their iPods. A Laotian in jeans and a lumberjack shirt was reading a small book on agriculture full of diagrams of plants and seeds and tools. I dug Freud out of my bag.

After a while, I went back through the boat towards the engine room. Light streamed through the cracks between the boards. The engine room was a different world; young people my age lay all over the boards reading books, snoozing, playing cards, and smoking cigarettes. A kid in a Bob Dylan t-shirt leaned out the door dangling his legs and another sat in the shadows; his shirt said “Positive Motivated Intellectual Individual.” A Lao family sat by the engine and a child lay back against her mother’s chest. A guy in a thin red beard leaned over and looked at my journal. “Moleskine,” he said, knowingly, as though it were a password. He was a Canadian.

“I want to hang out in Luang Prabang for awhile,” he said. “It’s a happening place. There are some little art houses that show films all the time. You just go in and rent as many as you want and hang out all day on the pillows and mats. They used to have like fifty Criterion collection films. Good vegetarian restaurants. It’s a chilled out place, though all the real partying’s in Vang Vieng. I have some friends that are expecting me in Hanoi in a month, so I’ll be in Laos for awhile.” There was so much ease in the way he said it and for a moment it felt like a world you could disappear into forever.

I climbed out the door and up the ladder to the roof. Two Canadians were up there passing a joint back and forth. “We just bought all this weed from the old guy down by the engine,” they said. “He was just like, ‘You guys want smoke sm’ting?’ And we’re like hell yeah.”

We watched the river banks, where jungle trees danced in the wind. Sometimes a speedboat went by. These were the fast and expensive boats that blasted hurried foreigners along the river. The Canadians were talking about things at home: “She likes him, man. He’s just gotta relax.” They switched backed to the scenery and their trip: “Look at all these random cows. Can’t wait to get to Bangkok, man. It’s gonna be insane!”

I went back down into the engine room, doing a hand over hand on a knotted rope that went up the side of the boat to the roof. In between the two cabins were bygone hippies with long white hair in ponytails. A woman in an orange head scarf and bangles on her wrists smoked out the window. They stood uncomfortably between the two cabins, not knowing which one they could join. They didn’t belong with the tourists and this new generation of wanderers was not interested in them, though they were probably among the first to come down through this continent before the pizza parlors and hotels sprang up on every street. The new generation was not the same; they seemed to be more suspicious, tighter-fisted than the older hippies I had met. They had more information and checked guidebooks to be sure. They wore brighter colored t-shirts with intellectual slogans on them or hip nods to the past. They called each other “man” and it was impersonal. I saw them carrying phrasebooks, but they stayed together, gathering into little groups that would go from town to town, checking things out. But there was life in them and I felt glad to find them. They would never tell you they were on a holiday and whether they believed in it or not, they always told you they were searching for something. It was going to be insane, amazing, but it wasn’t the amazing that the three-week visitors found. It was youth, the youth that will disappear into the world someday, bled away by comfort and concerns; and sometimes it felt like I had come here to find them.

“This is like Apocalypse Now, man. Look at this fuckin’ river. You know Scorsese is somewhere on this fuckin’ boat.”

I went back down into the engine room cabin and sat on a television set in the back next to an old Lao guy who had sold the Canadians the pot. He grinned at me and I grinned back and managed to say I liked his river with my minimal Lao.

We reached Pak Beng after nightfall under a sky full of stars. This was our mid-way point; it was a two-day journey to Luang Prabang and everyone would disembark and stay in the town for the night. I took my bags and bicycle up the sandy hillside and everyone dispersed into the restaurants and guesthouses.

My guesthouse had a nice porch that looked over a little book market and a bunch of Lao boys strumming their guitars. The porch had two wooden antelope heads mounted on the wall with glowing yellow eyes. I went off to the night market to see what the Lao ate and found a few shops each lit by a single hanging bulb. They had tuna fish canned in Thailand, vermicelli and noodles in bags, a few cartons of eggs, “La vache qui rit” cheese, sugar and spices in little plastic bags, soy milk, crackers, and huge bags of rice. I went into a restaurant and they made a little table for me out of one of the kitchen stools since there was no more room. They put a red cloth over it and stuck a little white candle into a bottle of Thai soda water. The waiter came over, smoking a cigarette. He looked at my book.

“Freud,” I said.

“Marijuana? Weed?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

I ordered a slab of fish instead. A Lao girl sat in the corner at a table playing cards and burning the edges of a menu with her candle. The waiter sat across from her, resting his head on his arms and watching the room. Their hands were almost touching but they did not.

The next morning the boat chugged away to Luang Prabang and I stood on the sandy shores of Pak Beng watching it move away without me. Luang Prabang was a city of temples but Pak Beng was just an outpost on a quiet bend of the river. There is a Russian tradition that says you must be sure to leave a coin in each place you want to return to in your life and I have scattered coins all over the world that way. Pak Beng was one of so many places where I would have buried a whole sackful of rubles, hoping I could be born again there someday. In the daytime there were no sounds but the dragonflies and splashes in the river where children swam and played. In the day, everything was different. There were no foreigners in the town at all but me. The men gathered in the empty restaurants watching Thai kickboxing and people lay in the storefronts on mats, sleeping through the hot day sun.

Down by the docks, a barge idled; in its gaping hold a few tree trunks lay about in stacks. I asked a kid on the hill where it was going.

“To Vientienne,” he said.

“When will it go?” I asked.

“When it goes,” he said.

The thing I’d heard repeated most about Lao so far was an old proverb from French Indochina:

“The Vietnamese plant rice. The Cambodians watch it grow. The Lao listen to it grow.”

The next morning I got a few baguettes and rode swiftly down to the boat; I wanted a good seat in the engine room this time and looked forward to seeing who was there. It was a different boat and a lot cleaner; the engine room was open air and filled with light. The crew put all the backpacks in there and I went in and sat on top of them, helping the boys hoist a few more to strap down to the roof. There was no one else in the engine room and I sat alone on the backpacks and opened up Freud.

Some Frenchmen came into the back of the boat and then some Canadians and a Ukrainian girl. The Frenchmen were middle-aged and wore safari hats with binoculars. One, named Pascuale, pulled out a bottle of Lao whiskey, which he passed around and then started rolling a joint. His friend was unshaven and had narrow delirious eyes. He flopped back on the backpacks, took a few pulls of the whiskey bottle and began to snore. Soon everybody was drunk or stoned. A red goateed American with a Red Sox hat on sidled up to a fat Canadian girl and surreptitiously lay down on her stomach. He saw she wasn’t going to make him move and raised his hands to the Frenchmen for high fives.

The Frenchmen dragged on their cigarettes so strongly that the paper crinkled around the tobacco.

I asked the American where he was from.

“California. Long Beach,” he said.

“Ah, we have beaches in New York: Orchard Beach, Jamaica Bay. I guess that one’s more like a swamp.”

“Our beaches are changing,” he said. “They’re not as good as they used to be. You know, population stuff.”

“In the sixties they thought that over-population would destroy the earth. Do you think about that?”

He stared at me with his little flickering blue eyes: “What the fuck am I supposed to do about it?” he said.

Soon, we were all asleep, drifting down the languorous river. Then the boat pulled around a bend and behind thick, vine-laden trees as the afternoon sun glinted off golden temple tops. Boys hauled rice sacks and backpacks off the boats and on the road up the steep river banks, the town started immediately, full of bare bulb restaurant shacks and golden wats. I walked up past Norman Mailer’s doppelganger who sat on a pylon smoking pot, and into the evening streets of Luang Prabang.

Jonathan Ward spent five years in Russia, China, Latin America, and the Middle East after graduating from Columbia in 2006. He speaks Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, among other languages. He is currently at Oxford, starting a doctorate in Oriental Studies.