From July 2002 to July 2003 I was in graduate school in Singapore. Over the winter break I took seven weeks to travel solo in northern Thailand, Laos, and Burma. I sent out fairly regular email updates to my friends and family during my trip and these are the edited stories – a combination of email and diary excerpts, reminiscences from my admittedly faulty memory, and thoughts from today. I find it curious, with the passage of time, what I wrote and took photos of, what I have remembered and forgotten.
I had plans to stay only a few days in Thailand before heading to Laos. I meant to spend 3 weeks in Laos, starting with a Mekong river voyage, some two weeks in central Laos, and then a third week down the slender tail where the Mekong hugs the border between Thailand and Laos to the Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) area. But things did not go at all as planned. As so often happens with travel—and really one of the key reasons to do it—I could not have anticipated the people I would meet and the adventures, including coming down with a serious viral infection for which I had been (supposedly) inoculated against as a child…
On Friday, November 23 I flew from Singapore to Bangkok, Thailand to begin the first phase of my journey. After checking into my guesthouse, I notice the right side of my jaw is swollen; it looks like a gumball is lodged in there and it feels tender and sore to the touch. I write: I appear to have a minor bout of the gout. The next day I flew from Bangkok to Chiang Rai. My jaw hurts even worse; I feel ill and uncomfortable on the flight. As I disembark at my destination it takes nearly all my energy to drag myself from the plane through the airport to transportation to take me to my Chiang Rai guesthouse.
At the guesthouse I can barely drag myself from check in up the stairs to my room. I know I should see a doctor and ask at the front desk. The man informs me there is a clinic just 300 meters away, within walking distance. I tell him I cannot make it. He insists it is not far. I walk a few steps, my knees buckle, and I vomit. In an extraordinary show of kindness from a stranger, the man gets his motorcycle and takes me to the clinic. He waits with me there and afterwards takes me to a pharmacy, then back to the guesthouse. With medication and some beverages, I hole myself up in my room and fall asleep.
The doctor told me I had Mume. The following day I head to an Internet café to see if I can learn more about my illness. Since my face is so swollen I grab a hoodie so I can wear it to mask my face.
I type in my symptoms and what should pop up but mumps! I almost laughed. That is if laughing were not so painful. Both sides of my jaw are completely swollen. It is very painful. I cannot eat. The day before in a fit of desperation I bought a bag of potato chips. I ate about 10 and was sorry for over two hours, my jaw throbbed horribly from the effort. I stood in front of a restaurant yesterday staring at the food through the window, then went to buy instant ramen at 7-11 which I gobbled up with great glee back in my hotel room. I carried the little cup with boiling water the three blocks back to my guesthouse like it was my most precious possession.
I spend two days in my room. I read a book. I play solitaire. I write in my journal. I nap. I think about eating but do not dare because it hurts too much. But slowly I begin to feel better. I make plans to move on. I buy some supplies, check bus times, and prepare to collect my passport with my visa to Laos. But the next day was not to be. I could barely drag myself down to the travel office and when I did it was closed. I gave up and went back to my room. Later someone brought my passport to my room—I merely rolled over in bed, unlocked the door, took the passport, closed the door, and went back to sleep.
The next day I wake at 6 AM and head to the bus station to catch the first bus to Chiang Kong, the Thai border crossing. The slow boat down river departs at 10:30; the bus should arrive on the Thai side at 10 AM. But it arrives at 10:15. I quickly catch a tuk-tuk to the boat landing, but then the immigration official takes a short break. Then shoots the breeze with his colleague. 10:30 comes and goes. The slow boat has surely departed. I head up the steps to Laos immigration and then wander in to town. I went into a guesthouse to ask a woman about the boat. She told me “It already leave. Stay here. Stay the night. You are tired, right? Don’t you want to rest?” And she lured me. Because I was tired and I did want to rest. My first day in Laos was not off to a good start.
The Laotian town of Huay Xai is a one road town. A road into town and a road out, a single intersection. There were a few guesthouses and restaurants catering to all the people who “missed the boat” (literally!) and that is about it. Seemed a nice enough place to rest up for the two day boat ride commencing the next day. There were speed boats, but the riders are strapped in, immobile, with life vests and crash helmets, their baggage pinned against their feet as they hurdled down the river for six hours with the deafening motor in their ears. While I thought for adventures-sake this might be fun for all of maybe 5 minutes, and interesting for maybe an hour, but with my stiff neck, swollen jaw and extreme tiredness, I could not think of subjecting myself to that torture. It was to be slow boat torture for me.
The next day the slow boat departed at 11:15 AM. I could have made it the day before.
We were packed in like cattle, sixty of us, sitting on hard wooden benches. I left my book in the hotel. Few people were in the mood to talk. Looking around every available space filled with a person with a book balanced on their lap; I was so envious. I would try and look out the window for awhile, to give my bum a rest from the plank, and within fifteen minutes my knees felt as if they were welded to the wood and moving them was extremely painful. The muddy river, the green banks, slid by minute after minute, hour after hour with little change in scenery.
After six hours the boat arrived at Pak Beng, where we stayed the night. I still was not 100%. I had some soup but I could not sleep. Under a mosquito net I felt too hot. I thought a shower might help. There was a huge cement cistern. And a shower head. In the corner a huge spider sat on the wall. I had my glasses off so I could not make it out very well, though I kept my eye on it as well as I could. The water was so cold I felt unable to stand and found myself squatting on the floor, shower head in hand, my mouth gaping open and closed like a fish out of water, just to brace myself against the icy coldness of the liquid running down my scalp and neck. Shampooing up, I didn’t know if I could stand to run the water over my head again to rinse, but again in silent screams I washed my hair. I was certainly cooled off then and fell into a lovely slumber, despite the sound of rats scurrying overhead…
I thought the day before as I got off the boat that someone would have to drag me kicking and screaming to the boat the next day, with me screaming “no, not the boat, not the BOAT!” But I walked on of my own accord the next day.
The second day on the boat was much like the first, except that I managed to procure myself a book.
I am on the boat again – we have been going for four hours, though I do not know what that means in terms of the journey as there is a debate over whether we are to travel six hours or eight today. I sincerely hope it is only six. I inherited a book from another person and read the whole thing before noon…The boat meanders lazily down the Mekong. The water a muddy hot tea with milk color, on both sides thick green jungle. Only rarely does a house appear, and even more rare, people. It always surprises me when there are people because they appear smaller than I expected, dwarfed by the scenery around them. I cannot even begin to explain the mind-numbing boredom of those two days. Nor how much my bottom hurt from sitting on the wooden plank for so many hours. And I paid for the experience.
We pulled into Luang Prabang 7 hours later and I gratefully got off the boat, scrambled up the bank at a sprint, and never looked back.