My journey down the Mekong River

 

The call time was early, the sound of other backpackers waking, stretching, rustling around– the panic that an Asian girl who spoke very little English had disappeared into the night. 

The realisation came at 5am, blind panic.  Had she wondered off? Found a bar and went back amidst the throws of passion with another traveller? It seemed unlikely, but not by any means out of the ordinary for a free spirited world traveller. 

That, however was not to be the case.  After arriving in, on a bus that carried like minded people to a guest house in what I can only describe as the middle of nowhere at 1am, she had simply slept in another room rather than her own.  No tantalising passionate rendezvous, but one backpacker to another exchanging stories and losing track of time. Phew! We all breathed a sign of relief.  We weren't going to miss our date with the Laotian immigration and our destiny to cross over the border into Laos.  

My night had been uneventful in comparison.  I ended up sharing a room (if you can call it that) with my German friend. A 21 year old lothario that I had met in Kuala Lumpur, Marius was a "jack the lad" type in every way but I believe we connected, on a purely platonic level and I felt safe and completely comfortable in his presence.  Marius was manly, the kind of man that would catch you if you fell…and I mean that literally. (We hiked & I fell a lot!!). Goof friends are always met on the road.

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Breakfast consisted of a cup of instant coffee and a banana, then we were all piled into a mini van and the journey to the border began.   Squashed into our vehicle of choice, voices could be heard...laughter, people fighting to get their stories heard, and to then hear others. The excitement, sheer adrenaline of being on the road - back on the road, about to enter another country, another land. Amongst the noise of excitement, one voice made itself known, a buxom blonde Bristolian called Grace…a hippy at heart I felt,  and a voice I recognised as we stayed together at the same hostel in Pai, Thailand. She felt familiar, as did Marius.  The short journey to the border was exciting.  That feeling deep inside, creeping through every part of you, filling you with happiness.  That feeling of knowing, somehow that something amazing was about to happen….and it was, in every way.

The border was slightly intense. Piles and piles of people of all different nationalities and cultures, looking to cross into this South East Asian country.  A country relatively unspoiled by tourism, in comparison to its neighbours,  Vietnam and Thailand.  Our rep, a cute polite Thai man with a friendly face collected our passports and disappeared behind the glass counter – a screen that housed the Laotian immigration officers, the very people that would place that all important stamp onto our passports.  It would be the first memory we would all have of the journey we were about to take. Whilst in Pai, myself and Marius had decided on the slow boat, a name given accurately to a journey down the. Mekong River into Luang Probang, the first cityI would visit in Laos.  Yes it was a two day journey on a boat and the thought of it didn't appeal greatly but the alternative, a bus overnight!  Nothing wrong with a bus I hear you say.  True it's a much quicker, cheaper, easier option. But in reality, to me it seemed like a death trap, a journey that people in the past had died from, due to the high cliff tops, lack of light (at night) and the lack of any barrier's separating you from the bottom of the cliff hundreds of metres below. No thank you. This was an easy decision to make. 

 

Sometimes I wonder what twists of fate are involved whilst traveling and in life in general.  The reason I bring this up is because of circumstances that led me to board the slow boat when I did, and meet some incredible friends as a result. In life you can believe in fate or sheer coincidence, I being a dreamer believe in destiny, and fate and destiny go hand in hand. Whilst in Pai I believe fate stepped in allowing us not to leave as planned, due to the main power line completely collapsing. If a power line cuts out in the UK it's no problem, in Northern Thailand however it means, no phone, no money no booking your bus ticket out of there.  Lucky for me there are worse places I could think of to be stuck in, than Pai. it's a beautiful place, so I wasn't too phased.  The power cut to me had meaning, it had a purpose, it meant that I left three days later than planned, which meant a memorable trip down the Mekong and beyond. 

Crossing the border was easy, all be it abit long, but made easier by the people I met. At immigration, Ben was the first person I spoke to and I felt immediately connected.  His face was bright, open and full of light, and by face I mean that as a metaphor. He was wide eyed, had a beaming smile and spoke with an Essex drawl, that gave me that familiar feeling of home. He reminded me of a group of boys I was incredibly close to at uni, an older brother feeling ( even though he was younger than me). With Ben travelled Verity and Jen, I later learnt that Ben and Jen had met Verity in a hostel in Pai and they had planned the journey down the Mekong together. Verity was young and silly, cool, open and warm. She had such an aura about her that I was drawn to, a true free spirit that found the fun and laughter in all situations.  Jen, was from Ireland, and had that beautiful Irish accent that I love. Jen and I were similar in many way.  We were both loud, had many travel stories, liked attention and were wise old owls amongst a sea of travelling youth. I make it sound like I'm a middle aged woman I'm not, neither physically or mentally, but at times backpacking in certain parts of the world can feel like your babysitting. 

I remember at the time of meeting Ben, Verity and Jen, we were sat on a hard stone, cold marble floor at immigration.  We were then transported to a little neighbouring village that housed our slow boats tucked away on the riverside. The home of the Mekong river and it's riverboats, our home for the next two days.  Because of this preparation was key.  Bottles of SangSom and Hong Kong whiskey were bought, baguettes stuffed with meats, cheeses and a strangely sweet mayonnaise were our key to soaking up the alcohol consumption, that we were sure to endure on the journey. As we went from store to store more travellers started to make their way in our general direction, following in our footsteps.  The village that housed the Mekong was dusty, old and typically Asian. The people that ran the stores were warm and friendly….with dollar signs in their eyes at the site of the next batch of westerners passing through.  For such a small village – it seemed that this was how they survived, this was their business. Supplying treats for the hungry traveller, and making their two day journey down the Mekong a little easier.

With my trusty 22kg backpack to carry, I now also had hordes of sweets, sandwiches and alcohol. I was prepared. Slowly we all started to wonder down to the riverbank, with passports now in hand, as previously they had been collected up in a batch, to allow us to be given our seat numbers and tickets for the journey ahead. 

The slow boat resembled a canal boat on Camden lock in London. It was long and thin, open at the sides with a green roof and what I thought looked like a row of airline seats inside, although if you can imagine, smaller. One word comes to mind - rickety. Old and used with so many memorable stories inside, and inside the minds of the travellers that rode her. 

As we all slowly began to board I realised I had been positioned next to a very quiet, shy and timid Japanese boy. Luckily I was surrounded by my new found travel friends, as well as Grace and Marius so I wasn't concerned. Thinking back to that journey, for him it was probably the journey from hell (I hope not). But for me it was the beginning of great friendships. 

Soon enough we all started swapping seats with each other, as stories became animated, laughter carried along on the wind, sweeping in from the sides of the open boat, and the joy of the alcohol kicked in.  I think we all had our first drink at around 10am.  I can't remember the last time I had done that, but it felt part of the journey and the travel lifestyle.  Time didn't matter, neither did what day of the week it was.  All that mattered was yourself, floating on a cloud, or in this case a boat. Free. With no time restraints, no “Is it Friday yet?”, just life as it always should be. 

Soon enough it was time for a cigarette break, convenient as in South East Asia you can smoke anywhere you want and need to.  Myself and Grace made our way through the narrow pathway separating the row of seats to the very back of the boat.  Enroute we passed a group of guys that I had noticed at the start of the journey, not through their looks, or actions…but their voices. They were American. Of course they were, there is something about me and American's, I am always drawn to them.  This time was no different. As we reached the extremely loud engine room, we navigated and waded through the piles and piles of luggage till we reached the small open window that we could smoke out of. Hallelujah! Whiskey in hand, we wasted no time in making the most of the “fresh” air.  Soon enough numbers started to grow and we were joined by the Americans. My first encounter was with Charlie…long brown hair, with a bandana wrapped around it, and bright green eyes. Typically American in a plaid shirt, his voice was deep and he had an East coast American accent. Charlie's friends had also made it to the back of the boat, a group of three guys, who were sat on top of upside down boxes.  I immediately noticed deep blue eyes engaging me in conversation.  They belonged to a guy I later found out was called Derek, although I think “blue eyes” suited him much better, and all the girls adopted the new name for him. I was completely drawn in by their American accents, their kind faces, their charisma and charm, their friendlyness. One guy noticeably louder than the other two was Dave, very American with a baby face that made him look no older than 20.  Big bright blue eyes and a face that you just wanted to squeeze.  Immediately I could imagine what he looked like as a toddler, the kind of face that hasn't changed over time.  His eagerness and his willingness to tell me all about his family connections in London made me smile inside, it made me feel connected to a city I am lucky enough to call home, one that will always holds a very special place in my heart, no matter where in the world I am. 

The journey was shaping up nicely, everyone was mixing, and by mixing I mean their drinks, which in turn gave us a little more confidence and fun factor to be able to truly integrate with each other as travellers (it always helps!). 

I remember the first day on the slow boat being a warm day…slightly overcast, but the grey sky blended in with the greyness of the Mekong river, almost like it was always meant to be that colour, never blue…no that wouldn't of worked.  As always when travelling I'd made very little effort with my appearance, but then again I was tanned, so I could get away with it (kind of).  I'd picked to wear a dress I loved and one I lived in. I'd bought it on the southern islands of Thailand..a green and yellow tie dye dress, that was open at the back and revealed a little of my lace bra, though that was worn purely for comfort.  It was important on journeys such as these to always be comfortable, but there was always the London girl inside of me screaming “wear a touch of eyeliner”, you never know who you might meet.  Some things never change!

After docking into a little village after the first days journey on the Mekong, we all checked into separate guest houses, all based on which was the cheapest for everyone's individual budget of course, and from there we ventured out to find a restaurant to eat.  I shared a room with Grace, in what was actually a nice guesthouse, well kept, clean and most importantly had wifi.  Travellers always need to connect. Grace and I had gone over and over the shenanigans of the journey whilst showering and getting ready, we were both so happy at how our slow boat trip was turning out, and a small part of me hoped that we would bump into our new American friends from the journey, whist out exploring the quaint little town that we had arrived in.

By dinner time however, the alcohol had finally caught up with me and the hangover kicked in. My eyes felt like heavy loads, my body limp, without a shred of energy left, I could barely lift my head as I attempted to eat a small amount of food that evening.  My friends were pretty much in the same boat, however Ben and Grace were still running, like Duracell bunnies engaging a very cute little Laotian girl, that was the daughter of the owner of the restaurant.  It was so endearing to watch, they were dancing with her, teaching her to pull faces and helping her to draw pictures and colour in.  I remember her face clearly and she was so happy to be integrating with us and having fun. Images like that always stay with you, because children in south East Asia have very little, but the happiness in their eyes and hearts shines through, and all they seek is knowledge and interaction with people around them. The Americans had joined us for dinner, , and we were also joined by Aaron, an Australian traveller who was very spiritual and gave off great energy.  He was very much in touch with the universe, his body and mind, and I felt deeply drawn to his aura and his thirst for life and what it meant to discover true happiness for himself.  That's the thrill of being on the road, you come across all different types of people.  People that you probably wouldn't enter into conversation with in your busy day to day lives (because we never really stop to look up in the western world), but they are indeed people that can add so much value to your life and your way of thinking.

The next day we were up and out early.  Our final day on the slow boat, we were all feeling worse for wear, hungover, tired and lethargic. The same chain of events occurred and we stocked up on supplies for the trip. There were a few new recruits on the second day, including two Aussie guys, and two girls from England.  I remember sitting around a table of the four of us playing music through Darcy (one of the Australians) speakers and one of the girls turned around and said “This is a tune, your music’s really good”. And it was as simple as that….a start of a beautiful friendship with Sarah and Hannah. As far as travellers go I remember thinking, they were very new to it, young and impressionable…but at the same time wiser than their years. Sarah more so than Hannah, I felt the need to protect her and support her through a journey I will always believe she was brave to take, being only 21 years old and leaving behind a three year relationship to find herself and explore. These girls were best friends and they truly were…it was endearing and great for them to experience something as powerful as travelling together at such a young age.  For me, I left the UK to travel alone, something that I was extremely happy about as I'm a very independent character, and find so much joy in being a free spirit, making decisions as I go and having the freedom to seek out new encounters and experiences with people.  But at the same time, I loved seeing there friendship, how much they loved each other, and how every step they took was life changing, and they were both there to share in and embrace the adventure.

Travelling solo was a common theme on the road, so many people travel alone, which makes it very easy to meet people and become involved on a deeper level, friendship wise, than say you would back home in the comfort of your own surroundings.  That is the beauty of travelling.  And it was the beauty of the friendship with the girls.  We are al  still close and have since been on European city breaks since our journey through Asia together.

The second day on the slow boat in comparison to the first, was tame. I didn't see much of the Americans.  I got the impression they were feeling sorry for themselves, and had sore heads that day.   Whilst we weren't all as up for it the second day of our slow boat journey, there were many meaningful conversations being had.  I remember being deep in thought that day, listening to my music, staring out at the scenery of the Mekong as we sailed down her.  Vast hills and the grey murkiness of the water was a familiar site, as were the Buddhist monks, in their bright orange clothing, docking the boat at the stop off points.  In South East Asia, monks are as common as the food stalls that line the streets, something that was very unfamiliar to me having been born and bred in London.  As I travelled through I became accustomed to seeing them, however it was imperative that as a female you did not engage with them, sit in the same area as them, or attempt to speak with them.  I found this to be one of the unwritten rules whilst travelling these countries, one of many. Another fond memory of mine from the second day of the slow boat was drawing, which seems quite silly to say, but I remember being transported back to being a child in that moment, and Aaron, the Australian, my teacher.  A rainbow of colour lay on the table in front of me, pastels waiting to be used to create my vision (and my very own page) of inspiration for Aaron.  Essentially a memory book for him, an interpretation of each travellers spirit, that he had met along his journey.  For me I used bright colours, to bring in elements of beauty, using my fingers to shade in the colours and blend it all together, creating my “masterpiece”.  A picture was later posted on Facebook of that moment, one I wasn't even aware was being taken. True beauty, because everything in that moment felt clear and weirdly I felt at home in this new creative setting. One that I hadn't been apart of since I was small.  And one that I am very much a part of now.

The slow boat journey came to a quick and abrupt end, and I remember being so engrossed in creating my picture, that time seemed to run away with me. Before I knew it we were docking the boat at our final destination.  As we all hauled our backpacks over our shoulders and out onto the soggy riverbank, I soon realised that hiking up the hill to the main road (and civilisation) was going to require my last drop of energy. I did it, all be it panting and sweating but I made it up…with Hannah and Sarah behind me we decided to jump into one of the tuk tuks to our hostel, which we had decided to book using my phone on the boat, just to make sure we had somewhere to stay.  We said our goodbyes casually to the rest of our “crew” (we knew we’d see them again) and were on our way up and down the bumpy sand gravelled roads that would take us to our accommodation.  En route we got talking to a lovely girl called Mona, from Germany and she joined us, to become the fourth girl in our huge room, that they gave to us because we all wanted to be together. It was completely private and we had our own ensuite, such a luxury when you're travelling. 

 

Let’s talk about luxuries.  When you’re home they may be, a meal in a fancy restaurant, a new pair of shoes, a concert or spa weekend away, a 5-star holiday even, but when you’re backpacking through South East Asia, luxuries take on a whole different meaning.  Toilet paper, a double bed, no mosquitos waiting to suck your blood – these things become luxuries.  You feel genuinely grateful when they appear or not as the case may be.  To be given our own private room with two huge double beds, an ensuite and a TV was a blessing, and Laos continued to present us with incredible experiences throughout.  I remember that very first meal we had in Luang Probang like it was yesterday.  Four new friends, giddy with excitement over the new country we were now a part of.  

We all came together as a group on that journey, and for me, it is one of the most memorable, special days that I have encountered whist travelling! And one that to this day still makes my heart smile.  Unforgetabble. 

 
HAYLEY KYPRIANOU