We board a long wooden desk tidy with an engine, hoping a Year 8 Design / Technology project will be buoyant enough to haul us six hours down the river to Nong Khiaw.
We exchange smiles and ‘sabaidee’s with the local passengers and share worn out seat cushions around. The captain counts his ticket earnings. At last he brings the engine to life with a chug, and sends our craft puttering through currents and around rocks.
Amélie from Montreal is also a travelling lawyer, so her and Kaili compare jobs for a spell before they both succumb to their Lonely Planets.
German Tim is one of these devil-may-care types who didn’t know he was taking the boat until it was about to leave. He has about 4 months ish (maybe?) for South-East Asia (somewhere). His one firm plan is to learn to dive in the Southern Thailand island of-
“It’s much better and cheaper in Malaysia.” says Deborah, from Kuala Lumpur. After she has given him the scoop Tim turns to me, gleaming:
“You see, that’s why I never plan anything on my trip.”
Giddy, he bounds up to the comfortable chair at the front of our vessel from which the captain is negotiating us through some particularly shallow whirls and eddys.
“Can I drive the boat sometime?”
The captain never takes his eyes off the water. Good man.
Deborah has a guitar with her, so Ed Sheeran and Imagine Dragons compete with the engine for a bit, as majestic karst spears and stilt houses slide past.
This sort of random and idyllic adventure is very much my thing, so enjoying the ride is not difficult. S.S. Pencil Case then slips round a bend and we are confronted with stark evidence of Chinese interests in Laos.
Chinese-built damns and hydropower plants on the Mekong and its branches are part of a local government push to become a ‘battery of Asia’. While most of Laos’ electricity is currently shipped to Thailand, the potential here is massive. Environmentalists are meanwhile concerned that due attention to the impact on fishing communities further down the Mekong and the fish stocks they require to survive isn’t being paid.
Shortly after, the trip ends for Deborah, Amélie and Tim at little Muang Ngoi. It’s a one-street collection of residential huts, guest houses and tour agencies. Kaili and I blag a few minutes off the boat to nose about before we are on the way to Nong Khiaw, more purposefully now.