Perhaps you’ve noticed, or maybe I’ve mentioned it, but I’m just not so good at doing nothing. Don’t get me wrong, I can sit around the table with a glass of wine and good friends for as long as anyone, but I’m horrible at sunbathing and there’s very little on tv that can keep my interest for long. The only time I’m still is when I am reading a novel and even then I’ve been told that my hands and feet are always unconsciously moving. So the two-day slow-boat trip down the Mekong seemed like a perfect way to practice my “nothing” skills! The boat takes off from Luang Prabang, makes an overnight stop in Pak Beng and then at the end of the second day stops in Houay Xai at the Thai/Lao border. Eight hours both days. On the water. No lunch breaks. One toilet!
So day one, and our 8:30 departure time gets slowly stretched out to 9:00ish. Once we’re off, the first fifteen minutes are magical. The shoreline, the jungle, the temples, the other boats- all simply enchanting. Soon enough the sun broke out from behind the clouds and made its presence known on my side of the boat. I quickly retreated into the shade and into my current book. After a couple hours of reading and peeking out from behind the curtain I stretched and checked my watch. 10:05! What? Impossible! It had been less than an hour! I broke off a chunk of wheat bread and a wedge of always-reliable, foil-wrapped laughing cow cheese for lunch.
A whole ten minutes later, the food was eaten and I decided it was time to attack this nothing thing head on. I applied sunblock, pulled back the curtain, made myself as comfortable as possible on my wooden bench and prepared to let the hours slip by with the scenery. Vegetable gardens perched on impossibly steep slopes, terraced in mini-steps right down to the waters edge. Distinct rock outcroppings covered in lush jungle. Narrow wooden boats alternatively whizzing by and slowly rowing by. Old fishermen tossing out their nets as (I imagine to myself) they have for centuries. Small children playing in the water and enthusiastically waving as we pass by. Water buffalo bathing in the river or casually grazing on the lush vegetation. Huge unbroken sections of varying shades of green jungle. A picture here, a picture there and pretty soon my stomach was telling me it was lunch time. It was already a bit past noon! I wasn’t doing half bad at this nothing thing.
A couple more chunks of wheat bread and some scoops of peanut butter and lunch was over too soon. I returned to my trashy, yet compelling, novel and the hours quickly slipped by. As the sun went down we started making stops in tiny villages. Whiole families were waiting at the “port” (really just a random spot on the rocks) to help their returned loved ones lug supplies and gifts from the big city (Luang Prabang: population 26,000) ashore. A Luna bar, a couple hundred pages and a gingersnap later and Pak Beng was in sight: our stopover for the evening.
Struggling to walk straight on land I dropped my backpack at the first clean en-suite room- a bargian at 50,000 kip. Surprised that the town wasn’t taking full advantage of their captive audience, I assumed they made up for it with outrageous prices in the resturaunts. After stretching my legs by making a complete tour of this one-lane town, I settled on the one indian food place in town. Completely reasonably priced! What was wrong with these people? Why weren’t they price gouging us? As I slowly filled up on palak paneer and chipati I gazed out on the Mekong, still flowing slowly by. I resolved to do less the second day. Since I only had 100 pages left of my book, it was going to happen anyway!
The town generators shut off at 10:00, so my morning wake up with te sun was natural and refreshing. With some horrible coffee and a big bowl of fruit in my stomach, I headed down to the boat to settle in for day 2. Thirty whole minutes later I was done with my book and facing the rest of the day with literally nothing to do. I fussed around with my Lonely Planet, reading the history, environment and food sections and re-read the info about the next towns I was visiting. I listened to a little music, had an early lunch and it was barely 11:30. I took a walk around the boat and then I finally admitted defeat. I gave into the Mekong.
I plugged in the music, propped my feet up and let the world roll by. Ben Folds, Better Than Ezra, Rilo Kiley, Missy Higgins… the albums kept coming and the hours slipped away. There were all the same scenes as yesterday- water buffalo, children, women bathing, men fishing- but today it was so much more. Today it wasn’t just a pleasant distraction on the way to my destination. Today it was life. It was everything. The river was a pool, a bathtub, the supermarket, the irrigation, the highway and the living room.
Before I knew it we were pulling into our border town; the only thing seperating us from Thailand was the Mekong. As I shouldered my backpack I daresay there was a twinge of regret to be ending my journey of “nothing” that turned out to be everything.