“You can’t go to Laos and not take the slow boat to Luang Prabang! I promise it will be one of the most peaceful experiences of your 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.
The slow boat is one of the many ways to get from Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand to Luang Prabang, in Laos. While you could fly from city to city, or even take a bus over the course of a day, many travellers in this region opt to instead slow down and travel by slow boat. If I decided to also hit the water, I’d spend a day in a minivan driving to the Thai border, a day on the slow boat to the tiny village of Pakbeng, and then another day of cruising to reach Luang Prabang by sunset.
I’m usually all about slow travel on the road, but having such a limited amount of time to see this part of Southeast Asia had me concerned about screwing up my itinerary. And I’ll be honest with you guys: spending ten hours a day on a boat sounded like it had the potential to be a teeny-tiny bit boring. I’m a traveller that wholeheartedly believes it’s all about the destination rather than the journey, although that probably has something to do with my propensity for motion sickness.
The last thing I wanted was to spend my first couple of days in Laos feeling nauseated.
While I pondered whether to buy a slow boat ticket, I spoke to friends who had been to Laos in order to get the full run-down. When every person gushed over the experience and ordered me to take the journey, I finally knew it was going to be worth it. I stuffed my backpack full of motion sickness pills (seriously, guys, I get sick in swimming pools), filled my Kindle with books, and prepared for what I was now convinced would be an incredible ride.
My first day on the water was one of the best travel moments of my trip to date.
I’d made friends with a group of lovely people on the minivan to the Thai-Laos border, and was thrilled to see they were just as overjoyed as me to spending several days on the water. Our slow boat was filled with comfortable padded seats, and there was a bar to quench thirsty travellers’ livers. I’d researched extensively for this trip, and had therefore prepared myself for hard wooden benches and few opportunities for comfort — this was practically luxurious in comparison to the more basic boats on the water.
It turned out my friends in Thailand had been right: this was one of the most relaxing experiences I’ve lived through.
With eight hours on the water scheduled for that day and no internet to distract us, we passed time chatting about previous trips we’d undertaken, playing card games, sipping on Beer Lao, listening to music, writing in our diaries, and — my favourite — watching the beautiful scenery float past our open-air window.
Laos is a gorgeous place, and it’s one I’d been dreaming of visiting for years. To be on this slow boat, gazing out at remote parts of the country, felt like a privilege and I took more photos of the rolling hills than I could count.
The entire boatload of travellers were firm friends by the time we arrived in Pakbeng — eight hours later — so we decided to stay in the same hostel that night.
If you’re a backpacker on a tight budget, this is when you’ll start to fall in love with Laos, as this small village had some of the most inexpensive accommodation I’ve ever stumbled across. My humble two-bed room cost me and my friend just $1 in total.
Of course, I’m sure you can imagine the quality of the room at a price like this. Cleanliness didn’t appear to be a feature of the dingy space, and there were several bugs to contend with in the bathroom. The shower was a knee-high tap dribbling brown water from the pipe, and the promised free internet the owner had used to get us inside was non-existent.
Needless to say, from the moment we arrived, we were counting down the hours until we could leave again.
And just to make the entire experience slightly more exciting, my friend had neglected to tell me that she sleep-screams from the moment she falls asleep.
There’s nothing quite as concerning as waking to the sound of your roommate screaming, wailing, and sobbing in Dutch, then refusing to tell me what was wrong. I’d comfort her, she’d fall back asleep, and then start hyperventilating and moaning ten minutes later. I was convinced she was screaming at somebody else who had broken into our room and struggled to get much sleep afterwards.
Understandably, when it was finally time to leave on the slow boat the following morning, I was looking forward to a relaxing day full of napping.
Thanks to our sleep deprivation, however, we were late on to the boat, and the only seats available were at the very back. At the time, I was thrilled to have scored a little extra legroom and didn’t possibly consider that this could be the worst place to be located.
My friends and I settled into our seats, rested our heads back against some cushions, and quickly fell asleep.
An hour into the journey, I was woken by an urgent and persistent prodding in my side from my friend. 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 us, I looked up and saw dozens of horrified faces, all staring at a large object that was wrapped in blankets in the middle of the aisle. I watched as two guys gingerly lifted it up and started to carry it directly towards us.
Exchanging nervous glances with my friends, we watched 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 travellers whispering, gossiping, and a few people crying, I could think of only one thing:
I am sat next to a corpse.
Now, this sounds like a pretty self-centered though to focus on, but I’ll take a step back here to mention that I suffer from an acute anxiety disorder that focuses primarily around health and death. There was a time in my life when I suffered daily panic attacks from the mere thought of one day dying, so in order to remain functional in life, I spend much of life avoiding death and distracting myself from health issues.
Suddenly, I was experiencing a huge dose of exposure therapy as I came face to face with my greatest fear. I felt as though I was going to pass out and had to quickly drop my head between my knees in order to remain conscious.
A friend elbowed me once more and I looked up to see an elderly man stumbling down the aisle. He was holding a stained dishrag in his hand and whimpering quietly to himself. The entire boat full of backpackers watched in silence as he laid down on the boat’s wooden floor, a hand clutching at the woman’s.
This must be her husband. I felt as though I might throw up when I saw the anguish spreading across his face.
I couldn’t take my eyes off his wife. The skin on her face looked like leather, wrinkled and yellowy-grey, and her eyes were peacefully closed.
I desperately wanted to get away, to crawl out of my skin, to get off this boat. There were six hours until we were due to arrive in Luang Prabang and all I wanted to do was leave this man to grieve in privacy.
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…