Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Battle of Backpack Hill

It's one of those hotspots on the backpack circuit and the reason why people choose the clockwise route round here: the 2-day slow boat down the "mighty Mekhong" from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. I should have read the signs long before bit it wasn't really until the morning, with the boat being loaded well beyond capacity, that it began to look as if "pleasure trip" wouldn't be a description for the experience. Eventually, the numbers of encumbered westerners trudging down to the quay prompted capituation: a second boat was made available and we started downriver - thoroughly late of course -with two pretty full boats but with most of the luggage (almost exclusively backpacks) piled high on ours. I confess that with age I get more anxious but my worries were about getting a seat at the start, getting a room at the end. The real drama of the day I hadn't foreseen.

The trip unfolded with minor and major incidents, including the second boat breaking down and its occupants transferring to the third craft of the day. The scenery was beautiful and the river varied, with interest too from the various tribespeople living along the shore. But the benches were hard and upright, except for reclining bus-type seats for the lucky few - and a six-hour spell was perhaps 2 hours too long. As it was, with the delays and incidents, we didn't reach Pak Beng, our overnight stop, until sunset, which is of course very sudden in the tropics. Twilight, what twilight?

Given the number of travellers, and the small size of Pak Beng, our strategy was for J to go ahead with her day bag to get a bed for the night while I retrieved the big bags. We had been warned in the guidebook of the local boys who would seize the bags and extort a ransom for their release - so it was not a total surprise that, as we pulled in, the boat was besieged by a boarding party of boys between 8 and 13. By the time I got to the stern, it was pitch dark and our boat were hemmed in on both sides by other boats. Visible only by random torchlight, the huge pile of bags (luggage for most of the 130) was covered by a seething horde of young bodies, heaving bags back and forth with no obvious system but apparently intent in removing trophies off onto the boats on either side. Some knowledge of Thai came in useful to shout something meaningful at the boys and call for the captain to clear them out - to some effect. The bigger boys were still delighting in hurling bags around with no apparent thought to contents or system. Luckily there was another westerner to hand, a Canadian as it turned out, and I shouted to him for help in making a chain to pass the bags forward up the boat while I set about grabbing bags out of the pile, wrenching them from the hands of the boys, eating away at the tumbled hill of backpacks. I really had a surge of frenetic energy as I passed out virtually all the bags one by one along the chain until I finally saw mine , grabbed it, and got it onto my back alongside my day bag - but J's pack was not to be found among the few squashed and mangled bags that remained strewn around the Battlefield almost like corpses. The Battle was virtually over and travellers whose bags had not been passed out could come in and pick over the dead and dying that remained. Fortunately, J's bag had been one I had passed out in my flurry of adrenaline ... and somehow with the remnants of that rush I slung it onto my front and staggered and clambered out of the boat and up the bank to where J waited. In the space of one short battle, she'd been to the far end of the village, perhaps 500 metres, checked several rooms, chosen one and done the necessary before coming back down the the jetty.

Unsurprisingly, the second day, although longer, had little incident once a rabble of stoned-out Aussies had been winkled from their beds and we were able to start some hour or so late. Still, we got to Luang Prabang just in time for Jackie to find a room before it got totally dark. As it turns out, today is the first day of Chinese New Year so there's more pressure than ever on rooms here. It's a beautiful town, now World Heritage listed, and another tourist honeypot.

On the boat we met a French couple working in China full of stories of the recent blizzards and the total transport snarl-up over the New Year with power lines down and trains not running. Apparently a million people were waiting for trains in the centre on Kwangchou (spelling?) and were being fed by the army. Compared to nightmares on that scale, the Battle of Backpack Hill rates not a mention. Still, I think that for me the priority will be to seek even more carefully for the road less travelled. That's not to say, however, that Angkhor Wat is off the itinerary. Sometimes the crush is worth the hassle. I hope.


Blogger E said...


Great to be able to 'accompany' you on your trip; never a dull moment, so it seems!

Some news from here, far less exciting but of interest, maybe: booked a day boat for this coming Saturday to snaffle the last remaining square in TG. :^)

Looking forward to reading your next installment. Until then, safe travels!

Tue Feb 05, 10:36:00 pm GMT  

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