When cruising the Mekong, beware of mad, drunken boatmen, advises Mary Ellen Fox
MY BOYFRIEND and I arrived in central Laos's beautiful Luang Phabang in a tiny aeroplane with a duck as a co-pilot and both of us nursing cracking hangovers. After a restful night, we decided to go on a peaceful excursion to the Pak Ou caves, about 25km by boat from Lung Phabang along the Mekong River.

Over breakfast at the hotel, we met a very amiable American who wanted to join us. At the river's edge we were surrounded by boatmen offering to take us. There was one short, stocky man who was a little more persuasive, and our American friend decided we should go with him.

I was slightly concerned that he was blind drunk at 9am but my companions persuaded me that he was just a bit of a "character". The other boatmen seemed very unhappy, but, before we knew it, we had handed over $30 and the young scallywag (who called himself Singtom) had jumped on to a boat and was helping us aboard.

The boat was being navigated by a sweet young married couple, which eased my mind considerably. However, Singtom soon jumped on to the boat and started doing Bruce Lee poses and high kicks very aggressively. I tried convincing myself this was just harmless eccentricity. It then became obvious that the married couple did not know him and were terrified - it appeared he had hijacked their boat for the day.

After an hour, we arrived at a small beach near the caves. Singtom insisted on carrying us over his shoulder on to the sand, including my boyfriend and the American, who was 6ft. When it was my turn he squeezed my hand so hard that he broke my silver ring in two pieces. It looked like we had picked the only psychopathic boatman in Laos.

The caves were truly spectacular. They were part of a limestone cliff which were packed with Buddhas of all sizes. The second cave was very dark and I was aware of Singtom prodding me in the back while gesturing lewdly. I pretended not to understand and we returned to the boat.

Singtom stopped the boat at a local village and forced us to buy him a bottle of rice whiskey. As the journey wore on he was becoming more drunk and aggressive; my boyfriend and I were trying to pacify him with pleasantries.

He began recounting the story of his life which, from what we could gather, involved the murder of two people and the maiming of three others with a large blunt instrument (possibly a scythe). The American was blissfully ignorant of the situation and wanted us to ask Singtom to stop at the village "because we were getting on so well".

We eventually returned to Luang Phabang and Singtom made it obvious he wanted more money. I got help from the boatmen nearby who, luckily, came to our rescue. We ran off while two men pinned Singtom to the floor, whereupon the American rubbed his hands together, said it was the most relaxing trip of his holiday, and invited us back for tea.

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