Travelling by boat throughout Asia should be on top of every travellers bucket list. If I break it down properly, I have spent more days travelling on a boat throughout this region than I have on trains, motorbikes and taxis. When you think about it in that context, it’s quite surprising. Yet it shouldn’t be.
Asia is full of rivers, lakes and large bodies of water. The mosquitoes are a testament to that. It has the most exquisite coastlines and the locals have used these water sources for centuries. It is a way of life and there are so many different ways to experience it.
That doesn’t mean that it’s all smooth sailing, mind you, pun not deliberate but relevant. Organised tours love a quick bamboo raft trip. When reading the word ‘raft’, you can be forgiven for thinking your life will flash before your eyes as you hurtle down some rapids of extreme sport standard. If this is what you envisage, probably go and grab another beer before you read on, just to numb the pain. No, a bamboo raft will usually putt you, slowly, up a river or out onto a lake. They will be uncomfortable and hot, due to the circa 1980’s style life vest you must wear. Of all the safety standards they choose ignore, life jackets appear to be the one they actually adhere to. These tourist focussed activities are not the types of boating you need to experience.
Take Ha Long Bay as one example. Being able to call a large, wooden boat home for a few days is one of the more luxurious times you can have. If you can get over the blistering sunburn as you sit on a sun bed or the hot foot shuffle as you walk barefoot around the deck, you are in for a treat. Looking past the fact that it’s a traffic jam on water, it is quite an amazing way to experience the limestone islands that litter the view in all directions. Funnily, each boat has a sail that would be about as useful as trying to use an umbrella to fly. Looking stereotypically Asian, they get put up each evening for an hour or so, just to remind you that you really are still in Vietnam. Instead of being practical, they resemble more of a bragging competition, like the bigger the useless sail, the more expensive the boat. Realistically, they take a fantastic photo but have no purpose other than to make a pamphlet look pretty.
Everyone has their own idea of how they like to travel on water. For some it’s a speed boat. For others it’s a bus. Mine was a two day trip down the Mekong River on board a slow boat (by name and speed) towards the Laotian city of Luang Prabang.
We had surveyed our options before deciding on the two day boat trip. We had become sick of Asian buses. They had been jolting us around to the point where I was considering the purchase of a helmet for future journeys, you know, to save on head trauma. The other, more feasible option was a fast boat (it’s apparent that the people of Laos, although lovely, lack more creative names for their boats. At least it can’t be lost in translation). The fast boat would get us to Luang Prabang in half the time. One solid day on an Asian version of a jet boat. This seemed exciting but, upon further investigation, we found there had been a handful of deaths from crashes that year. When they advertise a service that states “fewer people dying every year” you start to ask questions. So, after we made a careful list, eliminating all transports that included the chance of death, maiming and concussion, we were left with the enticing option of the famous Laos slow boat.
The boat itself was more like a large, floating bus. Small, wooden bench seats served as seating with the exception of the large, throne-like chair towards the back, reserved solely for monks. As there was only one throne, I assume only one monk could use the boat at a time, unless they has some spare gigantic seat stashed out back. This would have been hard. The back half of the boat contained large piles of sacked rice. The rest of the space was reserved for the boats diesel engine. No seats existed in this area. The locals fortunate enough to get a place, found a vacant sack and settled in for the trip. At one point we stopped and picked up a very ill Laotian man. He was so sick that his skin was literally grey in colour and he had to be aided by two others. He was swiftly taken out to this diesel fumed filled, rice sack city. Not real comfortable for a man who looked like he was on his death bed.
There was a small ‘shop’ (a cooler and a cardboard box) aboard that sold the basics, limited to packets of chips and beer. I’m sure they sold water as well but cannot verify that. Out back was another kind of stall. If you ventured far enough to have a look, a young bloke would appear and offer you marijuana. Not just a small amount either- a bag the size of your head. He would whip it out to prove he had the goods then, after we declined, he simply shrugged his shoulders and went about his business. It was like selling drugs was a hobby, something he did for fun, not money.
We passed the time playing cards, drinking beer and watching mountains, villages and their people as we slowly drifted along. It’s a surreal feeling to know you are motoring along one of the most well known rivers in the world.
At the halfway point we disembarked to spend the night in a town that seemed purpose built for the overnight stop, made up of a mixture of hotels and food vendors. They revelled in the fact that they were on mains electricity and no longer required a town generator. It was a simple overnight stop before we left the next morning, the final day being a mirror image of the first.
Over my time I have been on cruises, rafts, barges, inflatable tubes, long tail canoes, kayaks and slow boats. I have seen bays, islands and rivers while visiting caves, mountains, monasteries and bars. I say this not to boast or gloat but to encourage, so that if there is ever an option to travel via boat throughout Asia, you take it.
Wayward Tip: Make sure you have some cash. There is no such thing as free beer. Ever.