|Well, where to start, first the basics.
We left Chiang Mai and caught a quite pleasant minibus (5 hours) to Chiang Khong, the closest village to the border crossing with Laos. We had paid for a ticket that included accommodation in Chiang Khong and two days on a slowboat to Luang Prabang in Laos. Things went smoothly at first, the minibus, then the accommodation and the dinner were all better than expected. Ater some confusion amongst all the travellers (including us) about whether we could get a Visa at the border or had to wait and get one through an agency, we left the guesthouse for a 10 minute ride to the border. The border point lay on the other side of a river, so we jumped aboard a comically thin but clearly very efficient boat. After around 2 hours of general melee everyone had their Visas and a little money and we headed for the Slowboat. By this time around 8 of us had come together in a little group (it is easier to make light of a situation in a group than when there are two of you) and although tired, we were laughing and joking about what would happen next. Well! We were among the last people to get on the boat and by the time we got there the scene was not at all funny anymore. Although Emily and I managed to get a seat (advantages of being a little pushy/assertive) around 20 other people were going to have to sit on the floor between the seats in the cetral aisle for 7 hours! And unlike when our friends Debbie and Mike and Joel and Anna-Maria made the same trip, nobody is now allowed to sit on the roof. Anyway, sticking together about 20 of us kicked up a fuss and we got another boat (we are not sure whether there was another boat leaving anyway - certainly people said we had to catch the busy boat at first). Everybody on our boat was thanking their lucky stars. We could stand up (impossible in the other boat) and lie down flat, we had cushions and beer! We arrived in Pak Beng and against the advice of Debbie and Mike who had repeatedly told us to go right when descending from the boat we turned left! From the boat we saw two fantastic looking buildings and went for those! Big mistake, the rooms were 60 dollars a night! Pak Beng is a stopover for travellers going to Luang Prabang. Unsuprisingly the place was empty. Who the hell would pay 60 dollars? Anyway we eventually found a room and went to bed. The reason I have outlined this story in detail is because of what happened the next day, so please bear with us.
Confusion reigned about what times the boats left the next morning but most people thought 8.30am. A large crowd gathered at this time and those of us who had been on the second better boat hung back, as only one was being filled. Now, (come on Jordan get to the point!) the day before you could fit two people to a seat on the bad boat. Today was a different boat and you could only get one and a half. Clearly the boats had not been designed for the too well fed western bottom! According to the little English the man spoke 90 people could get on the boat. There were about 55 people on the boat already and around 35 standing on the shore, but any fool could see that in fact the boat could take 5-10 more people at most. Not only would it have been extrodinarily uncomfortable, there was nowhere for the luggage (we later learned) and very, very dangerous. Like the Trade Unions of old we stuck together and with sow of solidarity we DEMANDED a second boat. For 30 minutes he did not budge saying there was only one boat and tried to break us up by saying that those that did not get on the boat would have to wait until tomorrow. We didn't budge - though taking a psuedo Machiavellian approach to the situation I made sure Emily and I were near the front - just in case.
Another 30 minutes went by in this crazy stand off, and eventually money was proposed by us. Previously he had stated there were no other drivers. Laos Communist status very quickly changed to capitalist and a driver magically became available. Eventually we agreed on a figure of 130 dollars (to pay for a trip we already paid for). We asked everyone on the other boat to pay 1 dollar each (clearly it was to their advantage too), most did. It cost the 26 of us that boarded the second boat 4 dollars each in the end.
The crazy thing is that it appears this kind of scam happens every day, because every day there are not enough spaces. Why they don't increase the price put more boats on and save themselves alot of hassle is beyond my primitive understanding of economics.
So we boarded the boat and then someone said 'Did you see the guns in their back pockets?' 'No" we said - someone else confirmed they were 'packing'to use an american colloquialism. Enough said we were very happy to pay as I am sure you can understand. I suppose as a last resort they might have shot someone then said 'Right, who else does not want to get on the boat'?
Anyway after a great boat ride along a very beautiful river, we arrived in Luang Prabang. It is a lovely little city with Scandanavian bakeries and French food. Yesterday against the advice of almost all sane people, Emily and I, a Norwegian and another English guy cycled 30km in unbelievable heat (Emily and I both agreed we had never been so hot) to a fantastic Waterfall. It took at three hours but at some points we all questioned whether we would make it (pictures to follow).
We also discovered this morning that the border crossing we thought we could go to is closed, so we have a hideous journey ahead by all accounts to reach Vietnam. Still, we will console ourselves for now with croissants, coffee and delicious food.
Lastly it is raining today, the first rain we have seen since Mcleod Ganj 7 weeks ago!
That's all for now. Please keep sending the e-mails letting us know what is going on because with a few exceptions they have dried up completely!
Jordan and Emily