“You can’t go to Laos and not take the slow boat to Luang Prabang! I promise you, it will be one of the best, and most relaxing, experiences of your entire life.”
I stared at my feet, deep in thought, unwilling to commit. I had just 14 days to explore both Laos and Cambodia and I was apprehensive about spending two of those precious days sitting on a boat.
I didn’t want to waste my time.
And well, spending ten hours a day on a boat sounded kind of boring.
But after mentioning that I was going to Laos to a few people and having every single one of them excitedly order me to get myself on that slow boat, I knew it would be worth it.
It was going to be amazing.
And it was.
…For the first day at least.
Climbing on board the boat, my friends Stephy, JD, Pierre and I were surprised to find comfortable, padded seats as opposed to the hard wooden benches we’d heard some boats have.
Our day was spent just as I had hoped – chatting and playing card games, drinking Beer Lao from the bar, listening to music, writing in my diary, napping, and watching the gorgeous scenery drift past the window.
It was bliss and I was SO happy that I’d decided to take the slow boat.
After eight hours, we finally arrived in the town of Pakbeng, where we would be staying for the night. And that’s when everything started to go wrong.
It started with our hostel. I wasn’t expecting much for just $1 a night, but what we ended up with was truly appalling – filthy rooms filled with bugs, a dirty bathroom with a cold shower dribbling out brown water, and a crazy owner who refused to give anyone food unless it was the “happy” version. This was not what we were promised by the owner and it was definitely not what we wanted.
Needless to say, as soon as we arrived we were counting down the hours until we could leave again. Just to make things even more exciting, that night Stephy neglected to tell me that she sleep talks, or rather, sleep screams.
For the entire night, every 30 minutes she would wake up screaming, wailing and crying in Dutch and refused to tell me what was wrong. She’d simply laugh, turn over and fall back asleep – and then wake up screaming a few minutes later.
It certainly made for a, um, relaxing nights’ sleep.
So, when it was finally time to leave on the slow boat the next morning, I was looking forward to a restful day of mostly napping.
Due to the horrible hostel owner trying to offer us happy shakes and happy cornflakes and happy toast and happy sausages, we were late onto the boat and the only seats available were the ones on the back row. We were excited to have a little extra legroom and didn’t think for a minute that this could possibly be the worst place to be located.
We settled down, found some cushions to lie on and immediately fell asleep.
Ten minutes later I was woken up by an urgent and persistent prodding in my side from Stephy. Blearily opening my eyes, I glared at her in sleep-deprived fury as she frantically hissed,
“Ohmygod, a woman just died on our boat!”
Suddenly tuning into the commotion that was going on around me, I looked up and saw hundreds of horrified faces, all staring at a large object that was wrapped in blankets in the middle of the boat. I watched as two guys gingerly lifted it up and started to slowly carry it directly towards us.
Exchanging nervous glances with my friends, we stared as the two men walked past us in silence and carefully laid down this object behind our seats.
When they were finished, they slowly peeled back the blankets revealing a very frail, and very dead, old woman.
Oh my god.
As the boat erupted in chaos, with everybody whispering and gossiping and a few people crying, I could think of only one thing:
I am sat next to a corpse.
I am sat next to a corpse.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The skin on her face looked like leather, wrinkled and yellowy-grey, a single tear sliding down her left cheek.
I felt like I was about to throw up. Looking up, I saw her husband stumbling down the aisle. He was clutching frantically at a towel and weeping loudly and hysterically. The entire boat watched in silence as he laid down on the ground and moved over to hold his wife, moaning and whimpering quietly to himself.
This is absolutely heartbreaking… This poor guy…
I desperately wanted to get away, I wanted to get off the boat. There were six hours left until we were due to arrive in Luang Prabang and it soon became clear that I was going to be sitting next to this woman and her grieving husband for the entire time.
Oh my god, this is so awful. I can’t deal with this…
Listening to whispers around us we managed to deduce that she had died from malaria and this instantly sent my hypochondria into overdrive.
I immediately felt my chest tighten and my heart began to race as my mind replayed the events of the past few days - had I been using insect repellent? Had I been covered up? Had I been bitten?
I was suddenly convinced that I was about to die too.
I broke out in a cold sweat and felt pins and needles start spread over my entire body. I tried desperately to calm myself down by staring at my feet. My vision started to darken and I saw the floor rush towards my face as I frantically fought to remain conscious.
Somehow I managed to keep myself from fainting, but I didn’t feel any better. I spent the rest of the journey trying to calm myself down and tried desperately to take my mind off the situation.
It was a nightmare and I can only imagine what the husband was going through.
After what felt like a lifetime, we finally reached Luang Prabang.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I stood up to get my bag but as I started to move I realised that the woman was blocking the entrance to the luggage room and that every single person in the boat would have to awkwardly climb over her to get to their bags. Which they then proceeded to do.
Shuddering and trying not to think about what was happening, I grabbed my bags as quickly as I could, feeling some sense of relief sweep over me when I finally got onto dry land.
Although my terrible experience was now over, I spent much of the next 24 hours trying to deal with what had just happened. It took a very long time before the image of her lifeless face began to fade from my memory and even longer for me to stop checking my body every five seconds for symptoms of malaria…