Sat underneath a fish market table in Chiang Khong as the sun rose over the Mekong, an ancient weathered Thai man dressed all in white began his early Thai-Chi routine with such grace and peace that one could almost have forgotten the dramatic, and relatively scary, events of the night that led into such a tranquil vision of dawn.
On my first visit to Thailand some 8 years ago I was determined to trust my instinct, take my time, and seek out the good, unknown spots to stay everywhere I went—and this meant a naive commitment to always ignoring accommodation salespeople at bus stops and other transport hop-offs. After just a few weeks of my adventure, I learned a humbling lesson that opened up worlds of compromise in my approach to arrival in new destinations!
My travel partner and I had enjoyed a relaxed couple of weeks around Chiang Mai and Pai in the north of Thailand and were feeling excited about our journey by slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang in Laos. Taking the local bus designed for local people (not with the leg space required for an average height Brit!) up through the misty mountain switchbacks, we discussed our anticipated arrival in Chiang Khong—the stop-over town on the border with Laos from which the day after we would get the boat down the mighty Mekong. There were a few backpackers on the bus as well as the ubiquitous chickens, children and sick bags, and, judgmentally never wanting to be a part of the backpacker scene, we made the decision to ignore the inevitable onslaught of tout-proffered accommodation at the bus stop and make our own way by foot into the little town, taking our time to find somewhere small and nice. This overnight stop-off seemed hugely important and relevant in our approach to travel—and it was from a position of youthful and naive commitment to being 100 percent true to these values (in the words of Rod Stewart—“I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger!”) that we alighted our bus for short people, made our way past the touts (with whom every other backpacker made a deal and got in a mini-bus with at 5 p.m. in the coming dark) and set off on our walk to town.
It was further than we thought. By the time we were on the small main strip through the village it was that kind of dark that only exists in villages more reliant on rarely used generators and candles than main electricity. On either side of us were manicured tropical gardens with lamp-lit paths leading onto the teak and bamboo balconies of warm and welcoming guest-houses and places to eat (we ruefully recognized some from the touts we had so determinedly dismissed). All of them had the less than welcoming addition of a sign reading very simply: “FULL”.
Half an hour later we’d settled for what was clearly the last room in the village; one of four in an 8-foot-high raised stilt dwelling down a hands-in-front-of-face-and-hope totally dark path. It had square holes for windows and the only other residents appeared to be a family made up of a mid-30-year-old dropout Brit with a penchant for Opium, his local partner and their daughter. It was owned by a well-oiled potbellied 50-something we met in the street. “Oh well,” we thought, “it’s only one night, what’s the worst that can happen?” At this point our earlier value commitment seemed mildly ridiculous. It was, however, about to get much worse than just a necessary, if slightly dodgy, place to kip before an early morning move.
After a couple of beers in a bar, and a good few laughs at how far pride and arrogance gets you when traveling, the world seemed a better place. My travel buddy decided to call it a night and headed back to the murky abode—I followed half an hour later.
After climbing the wonky ladder up to the landing I entered the room to find my partner huddled in the corner of the bed furthest from the window crying, and clearly disturbed. It transpired that on her return, and whilst getting changed, the Brit who had clearly satisfied his Poppy craving climbed through the wrong bedroom window looking for his one-room family abode. Disconcerted, and still half-naked, my partner pointed him in the right direction, only to come face-to-face with the even more well-oiled son of the previously mentioned potbellied owner of our less than salubrious accommodation. Luckily she was able to push him away and get the door locked just before my return (the son was now nowhere to be seen)—but she was justifiably concerned by the whole affair.
With my partner feeling unsafe, we decided to bolt to the harbor and spend the night on the quay. We wouldn’t sleep, but we weren’t due at work the next day after all. Surely that would be the end of it? With the drunken son prowling around below the shack, occasionally proffering a random inebriated yell or two, we packed our bags, left 200THB on the bed (we had agreed a price of 250 but weren’t sure it was well earned), and scampered into the darkness. Our relief at leaving was short-lived; as we hit the road some more loud shouts alerted us that clearly our drunken hosts had found us gone and were none-too-pleased. When we had asked ourselves earlier, “what’s the worst that can happen?” this had not even featured in the rhetorical answers to this common question.
We ducked into the bushes more than once on our short escape to the harbor. The drunken dad was at the wheel of a black pickup with his unsteadily hammered son standing in the back, shouting into the night and squinting through his boozy haze to try and find us. What an earth were they hoping to achieve? We had left more than enough money for three hours bag storage in an otherwise empty room.
We made it to the harbor and hid under a fish market table as they drove laps up and down the street searching for their naughty runaway backpackers. After an hour or so they clearly realized (or so we can hope) the hilarity of their situation and the fruitless search came to an end, leaving us in peace to enjoy the smell of fish, and the now extremely cold night air.
As dawn broke over the swirling Mekong, our aged vision of peace and tranquility began his stretching machinations to the soundtrack of birds in the forest surrounding us. Our night of high-drama and adventure had safely and thankfully come to an end. As we unfolded our cold and aching joints, extricating ourselves from our odorous place of concealment, the old man gave us a puzzled and toothless smile, as if to say: “I am old, and have seen many things, yet still, every now and then, I am surprised by life.”
As we sat aboard our slow boat down the Mekong we agreed a slightly revised approach to accommodation selection. Sometimes, if the accommodation looks nice and is fairly priced, let’s follow the touts. At worst let’s see what they’ve got. After all—what’s the worst that can happen?