Catching a Slow Boat to China (almost)

Our jackets had only just dried from the last soaking. Another shower looks imminent. Bracing against the gunwales we lean towards the centre of the narrow boat, hoping those in front will take the brunt. Waves stand up to meet us, spitting spumes of silty water. 

At first glance there was nothing extraordinarily daunting about that particular rapid. Our faith in the boat’s Lao captain had been established over the preceding 3 hours of exhilarating upriver travel. But as any river traveller knows looks can be deceiving. And in Laos the water spirits (the naga) must be respected at all times lest you fall foul of these multi-headed serpents.

Our faith in the captain was more the result of his unflappable attitude than the success of our trip to date. Thirty minutes into our journey a passing boat driver had pointed towards the stern of our boat. A quick visual check by our captain had confirmed that there was indeed a problem. We quickly skated across the current to a convenient beach. Only upon stopping was the problem apparent to us as our boat started to take on characteristics of a submersible vessel. The rising water soon convinced us that the sandy beach would be more comfortable. Our skeleton crew (“the captain”) was, however, unperturbed as with a broad grin and some amusing exclamations he started poking around the engine.

Engines on the fine vessels that ply the upper reaches of the Soung Ou (Ou River) in Laos are of two varieties – slow boats and fast boats. A “slow boat” engine is a 4-cylinder car engine driving a 3-metre drive shaft and prop – muffler optional. A “fast boat” engine is at least a V6 engine pivot mounted and operated by hand to control the depth of the 4 metre long prop shaft, usually found in a sleek Thai built plywood craft, with a sporting paint job – muffler unheard of! The latter travels at an average speed of 70kmph, the former a more sedate 25 km/h upstream.

The problem with our “slow boat” appears to the captain to be an issue with the engine cooling system and accompanying siphon. He disconnects a series of hoses, thinks about reconnecting them instead opting for a simple venturi system to keep the boat afloat. Happy with his repairs we are ushered back aboard with a comforting grin.
Our diagnosis was somewhat different. A steady stream of water entered the boat next to Stuart between the first and second gunwale boards, and a telltale stream flowed from the aft suggesting similar problems in front of Stuart. Whatever the case we had been deemed riverworthy and pushed on, our load – the captain, 5 falang (“westerners”), 1 Lao woman, 3 bikes and luggage – getting a true taste of Indochina river travel.

Despite our captain’s cherry disposition we soon found our journey halted for a second, third and fourth time to bailout our sluggish craft. By now some of the less fortunately placed luggage was getting wet. The interruptions were a pleasant chance to talk to our fellow travellers with warm sand between the toes and without the roar of the engine in our ears. Our lunch stop was another lengthy beaching as our captain desperately takes to some bamboo (the most versatile natural product known to mankind we decided) with a borrowed knife, crafting a bung of some sort. We offered a blown bike tube in hope of assisting.

All this effort appeared fruitless, as soon after resuming our dash up river we had to signal the rising damp to the captain. His response was prompt – a quick shout to a young boy on the rocky riverbank, motor cut, we drift into shore and out crew swells to two – one chief bailer employed.

Even with the boat problems the trip was proving worthwhile. The Ou River runs from Lao’s North Eastern border with the Yunnan Province of China for some 500kms at which point it empties into the Mekong at Luang Prabang. It is an important waterway linking some of the more remote parts of Lao which are served by few roads. This is rapidly changing, however, as riverlife travel is replaced by new roads subsidised by such diverse foreign powers as the CIA, Narcotics Division and Chinese provincial governments. The cheaper road alternatives mean now tourists only travel some stretches of river. For good reason though as this river offers glimpses of riverside village life. The rich silty beaches are cultivated in the dry season, set nets and traps dot the quieter waters and pirogues slip quietly between ochre stained islands of defiant karst. Water buffalo wallow in the shallows. Flashes of incandescent blue as another kingfisher dives for a feed.

Our new improved bailing system seems to working fine. Our whoops and shrieks seem to encourage our captain to head for heavier water whenever a rapid approaches – he is having a great time.

Our travelling companion for the previous day, a Dutch woman, warmed to the trip eventually. The previous day of slow boat river travel had been dull and uncomfortable in comparison. Thin planks of wood digging into soft western backsides for 6 hours of flat river travel. Her mood had deteriorated after the first 30 minutes of this trip when a “fast boat” – her preferred, but strangely unavailable, form of transport – roared past us just as we had started to take on water.

But now we are prepared to get wet – jackets had earlier been donned at our lunchstop. The obligatory stream flows next to and from in front of Stuart. As we turn slightly across the current an additional flow courses through the gap between the first and second gunwale boards. The boat is listing disconcertingly. Then a violent lurch to the starboard. A broaching seems inevitable as water comes over the top of the gunwales. Mid rapid, mid river, mid journey, no lifejacket and no obvious sign of habitation. The boast teeters, our grips tighten before a final surge of power and flick of steering takes us safely out of troubled waters.

In the aftermath our Captain casts an accusatory glance at the Bailer – possibly because he had a habit of standing while going through the rapids. But this is not the place for recriminations and the Bailer sheepishly stays seated for the remainder of the trip. As we beach at our destination our Captain receives a seated ovation, especially as he must do a return trip down river the next day.

While our companions clamber into a taxi/truck awaiting the awakening of their driver we jump on our bikes. As the late afternoon cools we grind our way up the 1000m climb to the provincial capital of Phongsali, some 20kms away. The roar of engine is replaced by chatter of cicadas and clucking of chickens as we pass through small villages. Amongst ourselves we share thoughts about a most entertaining day’s travel.

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