I would soon discover that traveling to Laos was no easy feat and definitely not for the weary, or weak stomached. Traveling in Thailand came with its fair share of ups and downs, and I quickly learned that the letters "VIP" in front of any form of transportation meant absolutely nothing, and "air conditioned" could be anything from what you may currently be conjuring up to riding in the back of a truck down the freeway with wind blowing my sweat away. Bottom line: you never know what you'll get.
In Thailand I had gotten shamed out of a bed on the overnight ferry (aka tourist slave ship) with the ticket collector pulling the "I don't speak enough English" card and looking at me wide-eyed pointing out the obvious; my ticket did not have a bed number, even though I had paid extra for one. I decided to take matters into my own hands, boarded the boat, picked an empty mattress and pretended to sleep. I was soon greeted by the most obese man possibly in all of Thailand lying down next to me on a mattress no larger than half the size of a twin bed. Sleep was scarce that night. Between the wide open windows, ship rocking wildly on large waves and trying not to get squished by fat man each time he rolled over, I may have been better off on the floor.
Now I was faced with another crucial decision concerning my travel means in southeast Asia. From where I would cross the border in Laos there was only one town to get to: Luang Prabang. I had three options. Option one: 24-36 hour bus ride along the infamously terrible Laos roads-sleep is tough and the locals usually get carsick and start puking mid journey-is what I was told. Option two: one day jetting down the Mekong river in a bone rattling and highly unsafe speed boat, or option three: two days floating down the Mekong on the slow boat, a favorite among backpackers. I opted for the latter.
On the bus to the Thai border I met three Irish girls and Rachel from Hawaii who would subsequently become my travel buddy through Laos. We stayed the night at a small hotel on the border. The owner was a vibrant Thai woman who appeared nothing less than crazy. She insisted on taking our passports along with $36 to the border that night to pick up advance Laos visas for us. With my knack for third world travel I have become pro at sniffing out scams and this one definitely smelled fishy. Through much protest she finally accepted our objection and we went to bed.
The next morning, a longtail boat shuttled us across the Mekong and we were in Laos! We were instructed to wait at the travel agency selling the slow boat tickets until the boat was ready. The owner was an old grandpa-like Lao man whose English was impressive. He asked for our passports so he could check the stamps and take them to the boat to get our tickets. The already buzzing tension exploded and the poor man was bombarded with questions and complaints from 20 travelers demanding why we had to hand over our passports, where we could get Laos currency (Kip) and when the boat would leave.
As he explained the whole process once more, he offered to take our remaining Thai Baht and exchange it for Kip on his way to get the boat tickets. The ATM nearby didn't always work and being it was Sunday, the currency exchange was closed, he explained. On top of all that he assured us that since we bought the tickets from him he would only charge 1% commission. We just had to put the money in our passport and he would finish the transaction.
There would be no ATM for the two days traveling on the boat and everyone was in a tizzy trying to find their leftover money from Thailand and debating whether to trust the old man. Rachel's voice came above all others, "Are you crazy?! You want me to give you my passport and all my money so you can run off to the exchange office with it? Why can't I just go myself to exchange my money? This sounds shady. I don't trust you," she fervently exclaimed.
Traveling in southeast Asia is a bit sketchier than traveling other places and you've got to take a lot of wagers; that's what makes it exhilarating. At home I would have never handed money over for someone to change, but I figured this was part of the normal protocol for traveling in Laos. Not to mention, I felt sorry for the man, getting yelled at by a group of Westerners. I patted him on the back, apologizing and assured Rachel that this innocent grandpa man would do nothing with her money. After all, he couldn't steal $300...and certainly not from 20 people, could he?
Let's back up for a minute. If I were to write a travel book, Ember's number one rule for travel would be never ever use the currency exchange. It is without a doubt the best way to get ripped off. Always use the ATM. Do your research, find a card that doesn't have a fee (and believe me, there are plenty out there) and withdrawal cash to your heart's content, commission-free and with the best going market rate.
We all piled into the bed of a pickup truck and were dropped off at a cafe where we would wait to board the boat. Just as the gate to the boat opened, a Lao twenty-something pulled up in a beater van and distributed our passports along with envelopes full of crisp Laos bills. Most people rushed onto the boat merely pocketing their goods, but Rachel and the Irish girls hung around counting their money. "Wait! I'm missing $58!" exclaimed Rachel. "I'm missing $40," yelled one of the Irish girls.
The boy stared at them dumbfounded. "Oh don't play this game with me, I know you understand every word I'm saying," declared Rachel, the anger grew with each word, a string of profanity. "I want my money back, NOW!"
"Boat leaving, get on boat!" was the only response, and suddenly we were left in an empty cafe, on the side of a dirt road somewhere in Laos. I was taken aback. He couldn't have. The cute little grandpa man who I felt so sorry for, I had sided with him and even patted him on the back! He couldn't have stolen tens of dollars from each person on the boat. A slide of confused emotions passed through my mind, but all I could think was Buddha surely wouldn't approve of this behavior and the old man must have a boatload of bad karma headed his way.
We peevishly boarded the boat only to discover another surprise in today's series of unfortunate events; there weren't enough seats for everyone. Silly me, who was I kidding to actually believe that there would be enough seats or beds for all the passengers on any form of transportation in Southeast Asia?
I quickly seized the first idle seat I spotted, while the others wandered to the back of the boat hoping for better luck. It looked like someone had gone on a spree dismantling backseats from mini vans, buses, you name it, and collectively pasted them into the hull of a boat arranging them whichever way they would fit. Some merely balanced with nothing behind, save the passenger's keenness to not lean back too far, and others wobbled on three legs or were perched against the boat railing for support. Every time the person in front of me moved, I was sure to retract my feet just as a precaution.
The back of the boat was even worse. It was a seat-less pit full of cargo, Laotians lying on the floor and a roaring engine spewing black diesel soot. We spent the entirety of that day's eight hour boat ride playing a messed up version of musical chairs-alternating between seat, floor and sitting on the railing of the boat. Two things were for sure: we were about to grow overwhelmingly close (literally and figuratively) with our fellow travelers and we were in for an unforgettable two days on the slow boat.