Speedboats to the Thai Border

Up early to catch a bus to where we’ll be jumping on the speedboats we quickly throw our things together so we have enough time to take advantage of the free hostel breakfast that we slept through the previous day.  Something’s wrong though…  My boots are gone.  I’d placed them on the top shelf of a shoerack in front of our rooms (no shoes allowed in the rooms) but they weren’t there.  I look around thinking they’ve been knocked off.  Nope.  Maybe I’m remembering things wrong and I left them in front of the treehouse common area so I look there, they’re not there either.  What the hell?

The boys ask me what I’m looking for so I tell them what’s going on.  They look around as well with no luck.  I ask the manager of the hostel if he’s seen any boots around and he hasn’t.  He tries to help, asks some of the other staff to help look but no one comes up with anything.  As we’re running low on time I’m still walking around in my socks and getting pretty pissed off.  The manager comes up to me with a couple of new flip-flops which was a nice gesture but I do have my rotten old sneakers to fall back on, it just really sucks that someone apparently lifted my boots.  They were physically in good shape but they were two years old and smelled like Bigfoot’s dick.  Pretty expensive though, cost about $250 USD at the time and they’re something I’ll need to replace so I was (and still am) pretty pissed off about it.  As our ride approached the manager took my email address to get in touch in case they turned up but so far they never have.

I’ve got three theories on The Case of the Missing Shitkickers:

  1. Some of the dogs hanging around the hostel took off with them.  This seems unlikely since there was plenty of other stinky footwear that they didn’t touch, and they were on the top shelf.
  2. Someone who was out drinking the night before lifted them as a joke, perhaps not knowing we were leaving early in the morning.
  3. Someone who knew I put a bunch of American money under my insoles a couple nights before decided to take them in case the money was still there.  (It wasn’t.)

Regardless, unless it was dogs it was a giant dick move and I was stuck wearing super-rotten-from-Sihanoukville-rain sneakers when we got picked up.

It was a short van ride to the river outside of town.  We could see the “slowboats” heading up river, they looked super-comfortable with nice seats and plenty of shade and were puttering along quite slowly.  We’d looked at taking these but it was something like two and a half days to get up to the border town where we’d be crossing into Thailand.  There was also a little canoe-looking thing, we weren’t sure what that was.

Along with us there was a crew of French passengers, two couples, apparently doing the same kind of thing we were – backpacks, destination Thailand.  We got to talking and it turned out the little canoe-things were the speedboats.  That can’t be right.  There was only one of them and seven of us, along with some locals who looked like they were waiting for the same boat we were.  On closer inspection these tiny little things had pretty large engines sticking out of the back.  A second one pulled up next to the first one.  Holy shit, these are the speedboats. We descend the hill to the wharf and get a closer look.

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The engines are four-cylinder, sixteen-valve Toyota car engines.  Where the transmission would usually be is some kind of custom bell housing that goes into a propshaft jutting 12 or 15 feet out the back of the boat.  The whole engine/shaft rotates to steer using a stick with a trigger on it, cabled up to act as the accelerator.  Our bags are being thrown in the front of the two boats and lashed down while we’re being seated two aside on short-backed wooden benches.  Two Laotians seem to fit into these fine but we’re too big in every direction, laterally we’re crunched together and there’s no leg room so most of the French passengers have their knees pulled up as far into their chests as they can force them.  The seats themselves have padding on them but the wooden backs don’t, so there’s a solid piece of wood digging into your spine.

Murphy and Drisdelle sort-of lucked out by getting the front seat on one boat.  They were still smashed for space but were able to kick their legs out over the luggage so their situation wasn’t as bad as that of the French.  While the boys and the French filled one boat, I was put on a separate one altogether with four locals.  I had the front seat but most importantly I had it to myself, so I could sort of lotus-position my legs outward and it wasn’t too bad at all.  Everyone on the tourist boat was given helmets and lifejackets but apparently locals don’t give a shit so no one on my boat (including myself) got a jacket.  They did give us helmets but my melonhead is about 1.5x the size of a Laotian head so that lasted for about five minutes until I noticed the crew wasn’t wearing helmets and tossed it off.

We puttered the wrong way up the river to fill up at a pontoon gas station then we were off.  Holy shit – these are pretty fast for something so small and fragile-feeling!  I’d ballpark it at 70 or 75 km/h.

Check out this vid of Drisdelle and Murphy rocketing up the Mekong!

About ten minutes in, my boat starts sputtering and dies.  We drift up towards a nearby fork in the river and one of the crew jumps into the water, pulls the boat into the island and ties it up.  The boat the boys are on pulls up behind us and the crew is having a laugh between themselves.  Murphy’s not really laughing, his bag is stuck with me on this boat as they ran out of room on his.  If his boat makes it and this one doesn’t he’s got none of his shit, including his passport.  Another crew member starts dismantling things and the smell of gasoline is strong, it’s hard to crook my neck around 180 but it looks like some kind of fuel issue.  After twenty minutes or so with neither boat moving and everyone getting nice and crispy in the sun the motor comes back to life and we’re back at it but we don’t seem to be going quite as fast.  The tourist-only boat blasts ahead into the distance while we’re stuck puttering along, probably only (only?) 50 or 55 km/h.

The lower speed is actually a lot more relaxing and somehow I drift off to sleep a couple times, coming to when we connect with the wake of a slowboat we’re passing.  The sun comes out and the scenery is fantastic, almost entirely lush green wilderness, this is really awesome.

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After a couple of hours we pull up to a little sandbar.  I’m not really sure what’s happening as two of the local women scurry over the top of the hill.  I ask the guy sitting behind me what’s going on and he makes the universal dude gesture for taking a piss and starts laughing.  As the sun’s come out pretty strong by this point I decide to pull out my rainjacket to cover my arms, it’s black and hot as hell just standing on the 30+ degree sand but once we’re moving it’s all good.

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We go another half hour and it sounds like the boat’s breaking down again but we’re just slowing down to drop off one of the women.  I can see a handful of houses jutting out of the trees, I can’t see any electricity or roads, it could be that this is the only way to access this little village (or maybe the woods are just too thick to make it out).  She jumps off the boat and half a dozen women run down to meet her and her cargo.

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When we try to start moving again it’s apparent the boat has been run aground, looks like we came in a little too hot.  We wobble back and forth while one crew member pushes and another mans the throttle and eventually shake loose.  Not long after we pull up to a more sizable town called Pak Beng.

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Our other boat is moored to the deck of a waterfront restaurant where the boys and the French are finishing up bowls of pho.  It turns out it’s the only thing on the menu and even though I’m a bit skittish about eating pho as some apparently has fish in it, Murphy’s already finished his and he hasn’t broken out in hives yet so I roll the dice.

Murphy and Drisdelle walk up into ‘town’ and take a peek

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The French are really starting to get nervous about time.  They’ve got to be to the border town to meet with a tour guide about a gibbon experience they’re doing the next day by 6 pm and with the breakdowns and an extended stay at the restaurant they’ll be cutting it close.

The boys are pretty miserable with their situation of being crammed together.  They couldn’t keep their legs stretched out for long as they’d fall asleep and the wooden back of the seats were crunching into their backs pretty hard.  Both have sunburns started on their arms and legs.  I tell them I was so comfortable I fell asleep a few times and they tell me to fuck off.

The crew does a bit of re-org before we get moving again, Murphy and I are in one boat with two locals while the four French and Drisdelle are in another.  This means Drisdelle gets the front seat to himself and although the crew insists on Murphy and I sitting next to each other there’s an empty row so we pop the wood backing out and we are living the highlife with our legs completely outstretched.  We start flying and it’s awesome, we’re whooping it up as we blow past ten stinkeyes from the other boat.

It doesn’t last long though as we pull up to another spot and pick up several more locals.  The wooden divider goes back in and they separate Murphy and I (or Big Buddha, as the locals call me) to put us next to small locals.  I’m behind Murphy so I can’t kick my feet up and I have no room to spread sideways with another guy next to me, within minutes my back and legs are screaming at me.  The wooden divider is nailing me directly between two vertebrae everytime we hit any bumpy water, I’m gritting my teeth and can feel my back is tender and bruised in no time.  This really sucks.

We pull off for an inexplicable pitstop at a jetty with a little restaurant where the crew and the locals get drinks but no one seems to be getting on or off.

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The second boat pulls up and the French are starting to get crazy nervous about their time constraints.  It all seems kind of pointless until we realize that two of the guys in our boat stayed back and our driver pops the wooden divider back out for us.  He suggests that we should give him some baht (about $6 worth) for the favour, can’t tell whether he’s joking or not but we gladly will if the situation remains this way.  We’re straight pimping again.

Further upriver one guy gets off at a little village then our boat doubles-back a little to where another of these speedcanoes looks broken down.  Our crew talks to the one guy aboard for a couple minutes then the other guy gives our guy a fish.  We take off.  At the next stop we meet the French/Drisdelle boat where our crew yells something at their crew and they take off the wrong way.  Are they going to get a fish as well?  The French must be losing their minds.

We reach our destination just before sunset.  Since Murphy and I had kept our baller seats the rest of the trip we gave the guy a tip, more than he’d suggested even.  Drisdelle’s boat had arrived a few minutes before us, we walk across a plank, that gives considerably, then up a steep dirt hill to meet him.

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The place is a little town and there’s a waiting pickup truck for us, we throw our gear and ourselves into the back and it scoots us to the hostel we’ve booked.  The boys are looking sunburnt as fuck.  My face is as well but the rain jacket and pants spared me the worst of it…

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