Have you ever had something happen to you while travelling where you were paralyzed for a good few minutes (or hours…or days…) thinking, “W.T.F… did that actually just happen?!” A boat to Luang Prabang, Laos from Northern Thailand presented a situation of the sort for me back in 2002.
While I love to tell positive stories and useful tips regarding travel, the reality is that travelling, especially in developing countries, isn’t always easy. I’ve been told that sometimes I’m too honest. But who wants to read only about lollipops and rainbows when in reality, sometimes things happen on the road that feel comparable to someone (or something) taking a dump inside your suitcase.
DISCLAIMER: I am incredibly lucky to never have been seriously harmed or sick while travelling.
DISCLAIMER 2: Places I write about where I had negative experiences are not “bad” places to travel. Unfortunate things can happen anywhere, even in the safeness of my beloved home and native land, Canada.
DISCLAIMER 3: This story is from quite a few years ago, but from my research on the recent speedboats, they haven’t changed much and still aren’t safe (read a few other articles to see for yourself).
During a Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand backpacking trip, we wanted to travel travel to Laos to check out this chill, inexpensive country that at the time was way less discovered than Thailand. Anyone who’s travelled this passage knows there’s a fast route and a slow route up the Mekong River: the “fast boat” and the “slow boat.”
What 21-year-old fearless female takes the two-day option when you can make it there in six hours? We had been told the fast boat can be “sketchy” (actually I think the words were, “pretty f*ckin’ sketchy,” in an Australian accent)…but, as fellow risk-takers can attest, what good is an adventure without a bit of risk? It’s not like the boat’s going to sink, right?!
Yes, the speed boat to Luang Prabang sunk in the Mekong river. TO. THE. BOTTOM.
My two friends and I boarded a small boat made of cheap fibreglass not a whole lot bigger than a canoe, with a massive engine off the back (see main post photo). The sketch factor was confirmed. Knees pressed up against our chests, ready for the six-hour journey up the Mekong, the deafeningly loud engine roared and off we went. Our backpacks were strapped to the boat and day packs loose by our feet. Although the river was super wide, dirty, and a bit scummy, it was pretty exhilarating to zoom down it, wind blowing through our hair (quite vigorously, as there was no roof).
About halfway into the journey, water mysteriously started pooling around my feet. “Oh, just a bit of water leaking in, I guess” was my initial, positive thought, until not longer than 23 seconds later the boat was filling with water seriously fast. Nope, this isn’t happening, was all I could think.
Seconds later we were all swimming in the Mekong, screaming and panicking. I noticed my daypack with my passport, plane tickets (back then they were still paper), camera and all my most important possessions had gotten away from me and was floating down the mighty Mekong. I fought the current to swim and grab it, repulsed by the dirty water and damn near shitting my shorts thinking a current would drag me down, then swam for my life. Thankfully I was a strong enough swimmer to make it, as were my fellow fast boat companions.
We stood on the riverbank, soaked and defeated, wondering if we’d ever get our large backpacks back that were now at the bottom of the river, hopefully still strapped to the boat. Everything in our day packs was wrecked – cameras, journals, video cameras, my “discman” (this was 2002 people, and for those of you younger than 20, a discman is a portable CD player the size of a bread plate)… EVERYTHING.
As local villagers gathered to watch the commotion, other fast boats stopped to help. No English was spoken, other than compulsive WTFs from us fast boaters. It was useless to try to communicate with the boat driver or any locals. The matter was utterly and entirely out of my hands.
Eventually, SOMEHOW they pulled the boat out, and miraculously, our backpacks were still attached to it! So…now what?
Well, now we get back on a different boat to Luang Prabang for another three hours, soaking wet. Great, just great.
There was no other choice. When we stopped to eat at a riverside restaurant, fellow backpackers gave us warm hoodies to wear (if you are reading this – thank you and I’ll never forget you)! Then I heard one say, “Did anyone see that dead body floating back there?”
When we arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos, our packs were so heavy from everything being soaked that we could barely carry them. Everything went to the laundromat and we swallowed our losses, even the footage of drunken partying and getting random piercings in Thailand… probably a good thing that was lost forever.
Turns out we had a really, really memorable time in Laos – from dancing and drinking Lao whisky with locals on the riverbank on Lao National Day (the 26 ounce bottle of whisky was cheaper than the two-litre coke bottle of mix), to visiting the magnificent Kuang Si waterfalls, to peacefully floating down the Nam Song river on inner tubes. There’s no shortage of interesting places to visit in Laos.
As mentioned above I did a Google search and there still seems to be safety issues with this speed boat to Luang Prabang experience. DO NOT let this deter you from visiting this beautiful, peaceful country. Find another way to get there and you will experience the chilled, friendly, and scenic beauty of a country that’s still not totally overtaken by tourists.
Looking for more on Laos or Southeast Asia? Check out this detailed post about Laos from Beyond the Photos, or my 10 day Vietnam itinerary.
I can just imagine this happening! Oh god. Thank goodness now we have dry bags and everything. When I go on a boat, particularly small ones, I always make sure my valuables (camera, passport, etc) are safe in a dry bag. It’s a good thing all of you are good swimmers!June 21, 2018
Oh my goodness! I can’t believe that happened. Fortunately it was just wet and not more damage done, at it left you with a great story. My trip down the Mekong was quite uneventful; spent time playing cards, gazing at the riverside, reading a book and taking multiple naps. Happy travels!March 6, 2019