Slow Boating

When I try to choose “the worst journey of my life” there are a host of brilliant contenders. Flicking through my little leather-covered journal I recall the train ride when dinner was made up of miscellaneous meat - the toilets a hole in the floor, the boat trip when I was the only human inhabitant on a deck full of goats and chickens, the all-night bus journey perched on a wooden stool next to “Snuggly Jim”, a complete stranger who took to cuddling people in his sleep. There have been many horrible journeys, but most of them have been rather funny, on reflection. The very worst, however, does not have that redeeming quality.

I turn to a page in my diary about a river boat trip, crossing the border from Northern Thailand to Laos. It begins: “9 hours of aching bottoms, rumbling stomachs and being hot and sweaty”.

I was travelling around South East Asia with friends, on a tight budget. We were told that a slow-boat down the Mekhong River was a cheaper and more picturesque way to cross the border than the high-speed boats, or the buses. By this point we were happy never to see another bus in our lives, so we took the advice of the smiling owner of our guest house, and booked tickets for the boat.

We left the next morning in high spirits, slinging our bags over our shoulders and padding down to the riverside, kicking up the yellow dust that had resulted from a prolonged dry period. We were bundled into a long-tail boat by a whistling man in a hat made from dried banana leaves.

The sun was bright and the water just the right temperature to trail our hands in as we sped along - a short-lived peace. We were turfed out of the long-tail onto a precarious looking jetty where several hundred people were milling around in confusion. Four large slow-boats were moored up, but no-one was making any effort to board. Hawkers moved through the crowd selling sandwiches and bottled water.

“Surely there will be people selling food on the boat?” said my travelling companion, Polly, less sure of herself than normal.
“Must be – it's a nine hour journey.” I said confidently. (I cringe at the memory.)
“Besides, we have bottled water.”

After standing for over an hour we were pushed by the weight of the crowd onto one of the boats. As we walked up the gangway I paused, confused. I turned to the man who seemed to be loosely in charge.
“I'm sorry – we have booked tickets. Where are our seats?”
“Everyone has tickets. No seats.”

Then we knew we were doomed. The boat was a wooden shell, with no benches, cushions or even rush mats on the floor. People were packed in until there was not an inch of space left. I made the nine hour journey sat painfully on my tail-bone with one leg either side of Polly, who was less lucky, and had to straddle a complete stranger who spoke no English to diffuse the awkward situation.

There was no food for sale, and we had to resort to our bottles of water and a supply of savoury biscuits we'd somehow acquired along the way. The view perhaps would have been beautiful, had we been able to see it, but the boat's sides were so high, and there was so little room to move, no-one could tell.

Then finally, just as the sun sank below the trees, we came to a mooring and were told to get out.
My impressions at the time read as follows: “ getting off the boat across the River Styx. Everyone groping for bags in the dark, claustrophobia, and the noise and greasy smoke of the uncovered engine.”

It was sweltering in the engine room, where the bags had been flung, and in the dark it was like some huge, infernal game of Twister. We had to sidestep across planks to avoid getting our feet in the bilge-water, trying not to knock others over. I remember being concerned that I might fall and scald myself on part of the machinery, which was steam-powered and terrifying.

I remember a huge sense of relief when I finally got out into the air and onto dry land. Then along came a man with a ukulele and the unlikely name “Marco Polo”. But that is another story entirely.

J Crowley

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