Sunday, July 15, 2007

Lazy River Road

"People matter," said Dr. Meredith Grey on a recent episode of "Grey's Anatomy." This being Meredith Gray, the neurotic title character of the hit television series, the concept became the butt of a joke from her wisecracking best friend. But Meredith's simple statement resonated with me. This week I thought about her statement when I found myself traveling with a group of new friends.

It started after my dunking in the Mae Taeng River. My Thai visa was running out and I needed to get out of the country. I arranged to be dropped off at a roadside bus stop, where I would catch various modes of transport over two days to get to the border with Laos. Public bus to Fang, songthaew to Tha Ton, long-tail boat to Chiang Rai, then another public bus to the border; just another day on the road for an independent traveler.

I was sitting on the bus in the station at Chiang Mai, the only white face among locals. I was thinking about how I had been traveling along for the past few weeks, wondering whether I'd lost the ability to make new friends, when a pair of young women boarded the bus. One of the women sat next to me and we proceeded to chat throughout the two hour journey. Melissa, a Canadian from Vancouver, was abroad the first time. I expressed my admiration that she chose to face the rigors of Southeast Asia her first time out. But she was holding up extremely well and was a great companion for journey.

Also on board was a couple that looked familiar to me. About 90 minutes into the journey the locals had mostly cleared out and I turned around and said as much, but they said they didn't recognize me. Fair enough.

The bus pulled in to the border town of Chiang Khong after sunset, and we all piled into a truck to a guesthouse overlooking the Mekong River. I was too tired to choose for myself and opted to follow the pack. I'd been traveling solo for so long that I was happy to let someone else make the decisions.

The guesthouse, BaanRimtaling, turned out to be lovely, a multi-leveled structure with large rooms and beautiful views over the river. The owner, Andre, an ex-pat Frenchman, happily poured wine and beer while his wife prepared meals for the guests.

I spent the evening trading stories and laughing with Melissa and her friend, Jessie. We shared stories and laughed, becoming fast friends win the way travelers often do. The French couple sat with Andre at the next table. I understand very little French but I am always happy to listen. Their soothing syllables rolled out into the night, mingling with the clucking geckos clinging to the walls. It was the ideal way to spend my last evening in Thailand.

We were all headed into Laos the next day. The plan was to spend two days floating down the Mekong River on a slow boat to Luang Prabang. We crossed the river, passed through immigration and arrived at the boat to find that we were the last passengers, which mean we had to scramble for seats at the rear of the boat, close to the engine. The French couple, who still seemed familiar to me, had since introduced themselves as Guillaume and Emmanuelle. I sat on my red plastic chair, seven hours of river travel ahead of me, and felt happy to be part of a group.

The Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

Slow Boat Interior

Jessie and Melissa

Guillaume and Emmanuelle in Luang Prabang

The slow boat down the Mekong is aptly named. It is a very slow boat. The journey is broken into two segments over two days, with an overnight stay at Pak Beng, a river town that seems to live off the tourist trade. There's not much to report about that first day on the river. How much can happen on a boat? We talked a lot about travel, about home, about life.

I took pictures of the captain at the front and sat with two Lao women in a makeshift galley at the stern. The engine pounded in our ears throughout the trip. Ironically, because we were last to board, we were not sitting on thin wooden benches like the rest of the passengers. Instead, I spent the seven hours on a red plastic chair, a 50 Baht cushion providing extra comfort to my bum. Guillaume and Emmanuelle spent the journey on top of an industrial-sized cooler, but never complained.

The night at Pak Beng was spent in third-world accommodation. For US$2.50 we got hard mattresses, limited electricity and cold showers. We gathered at the guesthouse's restaurant and worked our way through rice, curry and spring rolls, Lao beer and whiskey and assorted cocktails. At 11 p.m. the generators were turned off, plunging the town into darkness. At 4 a.m. the roosters started crowing. The ducks soon followed and by 6 I swore there was a whole barnyard outside my window.

This was a blessing in disguise, however. For the second leg of the journey we would be riding in a different boat, one with a limited number of cushioned seats. I are a quick breakfast and staked out five spots. We were still near the engine, but at least the seats were soft.

The boat left Pak Beng and as I looked ahead to eight hours of vinyl seats, cramped conditions, humidity and heat, I was happy. I was in Laos, one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, cruising down the Mekong with four new friends.

People matter, indeed.


Two nights later and Guillaume, Emmanuelle and I are in a pizza joint on the main street in Luang Prabang. I've loaded Emmanuelle's photographs on my laptop and we are watching a slideshow of their journey. Photos are from Bangkok, then Ko Tao. Then pictures from Chiang Mai start scrolling across the screen. I recognize a bar, and a bartender, and let out a shout. "That's it! That's where I know you. I was in the bar that night, sitting right behind you. You wanted a Mai Tai but the bartender didn't have any rum."

We check the timestamp and, sure enough, we were at neighboring tables in a small, neighborhood bar in Chiang Mai on July the Fourth. I knew they looked familiar.

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Blogger Kris wood said...

Quoting Gray's Anatomy may be one of the first signs of dementia

1:15 AM  
Blogger Matthew Klein said...

You hadn't noticed the dementia before? Wake up my friend!

7:02 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Photos are looking great, MK. But I have to agree: quoting Gray's Anatomy is just sad and pathetic. I mean, what about House?!?

7:32 AM  
Blogger Matthew Klein said...

The next time I'm at a DVD stand I will check out House. Grey's Anatomy is fresh in my head after watching the third season in Bangkok. And it's not that bad. Get in touch with your inner neurotic, come on!

11:46 PM  

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