Saturday, February 10, 2007

Slow Motion on the Mekong

It seems that everybody has a different version on how to best cross each respective border in South East Asia. In this regard that of Thailand-Laos is certainly no exception and I quickly found that not only is it a moot topic in hostals but indeed few paper or cyber guides seem any more capable of reaching proper agreement on hte subject.

In the end with the border lying in the middle of the Mekong, it was simply a matter of stamping out on the Thai river bank, catching a half sinking timber taxi across the river and being stamped in by the foreign officials on the opposite waterside. That is of course not forgetting the 31 US dollars payable for a Laos tourist visa plus the 1 dollar bribes due to guards on both sides as a show of our appreciation for their having turned up for work in such depressingly uneventful and grey border towns. However depite my excited enthusiasm I quickly realised that there was little of interest to me in this odd Laos hamlet of Huay Xia and decided to buy a ticket for the slow boat that would eventually take me down river to Luang Prabang.

On climbing the bamboo gangway it became immediately clear that all seats were already taken and so I was ushered aft to the engine room where they kindly provided me with rice sacks to sit on. To my great surprise I actually wasn't the last to board and with all fixed seats and rice bags occupied, the ever resourceful teenage sons of the boat owner ran up to a local bar and borrowed the red plastic garden chairs that were stacked outside. Soon with temporary chairs also becoming a scarcity, 2 hammocks were then hung above baggage and rugs were rolled out on the floor for the late arriving hill tribe people. The truth is that there was nothing comfortable about the boat and I could hear many foreign travellers despair that this was the low point of their trip. Watching these very people helped the hours pass by quickly as it suddenly dawned on them belatedly that yes! they are on a river in Asia and no ! they are not cruising down the blue Danube.

The naked engine looked much like that of a present day Cuban Cadillac. And as if that was not enough food for my senses, my travelling space was noisy with both walls and floor vibrating around me. But who cares ! I had the best seat on board where I had locals offering me sticky rice and smoked buffalo instead of everest clad Germans teasing me with their Sour Cream and Onion Pringles. I reckon that the official capacity of the boat was about 70 people and that we must have being carrying upwards of 200 passengers plus baggage. As a result the boat sat a good deal lower in the water with the long dead shipwrights surely turning in their graves.

Travelling down the Mekong whose sourse lies in Tibet and on whose waters almost 60 million lives depend, were for me the most fascinating hours that I have spent in South East Asia to date. Incredibly it was not at all unusual to spot Elephant being used for logging (illegal in Thailand) , wild Buffalo grazing or even crouched families washing their clothes, themselves and their dishes. Unfortunately I never saw any wild Indochina Tigers although there are said to be about 500 remaining in the Laos wilderness (compared to 100,000 a century ago). More than once I smiled to myself as the thought came to me that I was starring in a National Geographic documentary. My brain was simply not accustomed to such sights without the 15" frame of a televison set.

However when not scanning the Mekong menagerie I also had the local Mekong teenagers to amuse me. Being the foreigner with the big camera , 2 groups of Laos adolescents used me as a means to show off to their counterparts, often insisting on posing for photos as an excuse for some futher tactile flirtations. Other times they would humorously doze off pretending to be unaware that their feet were tangled or touching. However my draft of "Romance on the Mekong" would never have captured the worlds imagination as did "Murder on the Nile", so I turned my attention back to the muddy waters speeding by and some of the curious crew members.

My favourite character was a smiley crew member who every hour or so would whisper "ganja" into my ear as he tried to make a few bob more by peddling drugs on the vessel. On declining his offer his smile would simply broaden three fold under his peek cap before trying his luck with a loud whisper of "opium" or "cocaine". Then he would laugh, wink and disappear off out the window for another short bare foot wander on the roof.

Nine hours down river we finally reached the absurd pirate town of Packbeng where we were to stop for the night. In the absolute darkness it was a race against local kids to retrieve your bag from the boat before they would haul them up the steep and rocky incline and insist on charging you a dollar for their uninvited help. Neither the riverside nor the town were very well lit and we had to be guided up to the town by locals owing to the town generator being switched off at 9pm each evening. However as soon as we reached the beginning of the settlement we were accosted by locals touting overpriced accomodation for the night. Cold and tired my first line of inquiry was about the availability of hot water, to which they replied "No hot water, but lots of Opium!" The village in its entirety consisted of only one surfaced street and even now the settlement was best accessed by river. The place had a peculiar charm about it with a most majestic location high above the mighty Mekong. It is possible that it's very existence and function stems from the fact that it is very far from everywhere and has always offered shelter to weary travellers making their windy way down stream.

And so the next morning it was back on the river for another day of slow motion. Yet again as we pulled away we could see kids riding elephants as they hauled the logs onto the waiting barge. Meanwhile the nearby crane remained ominously still and unmanned. All along the river throughout the day Bamboo sticks were lodged between rocks and hanging out over the brown coloured river. These were all fishing rods, obviously tended to late each evening before night fall. At other times the boat would pull over to the bank in the middle of nowhere without a house in sight where someone would eventually hop on or hop off before a bag of rice (size of a large bag of spuds) followed over after them. Other times we would stop in order to allow women and children board and sell anything from tamarinds and bananas to Beer Laos and peanuts.

On the second evening after a total of 20 hours on the river boat, 17 hours of those involving actual motion, I arrived at my end destination. Happy and exhilerated by the trip but still delighted to have my feet on terra firma and finally climb the steps up into "the Jewel of the Mekong", Luang Prabang.

No comments: