Le Grande Tour, Days 2-3: Life on the River

MEKONG RIVER—If the first day leaving Chiang Mai was somewhat leisurely, the morning of the second day seemed almost frantic. Well, as frantic as life gets in northern Thailand—which is to say, it’s still remarkably laid back.

The owner of the guesthouse gently knocked on our doors at 7 a.m., but I had already been up and packed for half an hour. The excitement at finally traveling down one of Asia’s great waterways had kept me from sleeping much that night, and I was anxious to get on the river. Its languid flow, just beneath the posts of the guesthouse, tantalised me.

I can’t quite explain my fascination with the Mekong. It’s name, to my ears, just sounds mysterious. And given the number of times I kept hearing Vietnam war stories involving “the Mekong Delta” … Well, it felt like stepping back into the past.

After an unpleasant, but uneventful trip through the sweltering Thai immigration office, we made our way down to the boat that would be more or less home for the next two days. Capable of holding up to maybe 200 people, it was essentially a giant water bus right down to the used bus seats that had been rather haphazardly arranged on the wooden deck. Food on board was basic—cups of dried ramen noodles and Lao beer—but it was better than nothing if you forgot to bring your own.

My fellow riverine travelers were mostly European. Ted and Bethany sat across the aisle from me, leaning easily on one another while still doing their individual things. Only long-time married couples can do that comfortably, and it’s nice to see. The rest of the travelers sat in various cliques of their own, chatting in Spanish, German, Italian, you name it. I appear to be the only real solo traveler on the boat. A group of muscular guys with designer stubble sat in the very back, often in the engine room, playing a card game with a stack of Spanish tarot cards and affecting an air of mystery.

Me? I wandered the boat. First up front, then back, leaning out, taking pictures, reading. Really, as beautiful as the scenery is, there’s only so much you can do in eight hours of watching it. Eventually, I gave in to the river’s soporific mood, and just chilled out.

A map of 1715, incorrectly showing the Chao Praya river as a branch of the MekongThe Mekong is called Mae Nam Khan in both Thai and Laotian. It springs from the Tibetan plateau far to the northwest and flows 4,350 km until emptying into the South China Sea, but not before draining southern China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It’s name means ‘Khong, the Mother of Rivers,” and it’s an apt moniker. In the part of the river we traversed, it was gentle as a rocking cradle. But even motherly rivers can be dangerous. The water was low, revealing the occasional outcropping of sharp rocks—reminders of the traditional difficulty of navigating this waterway. Steep green hills rose on either side, and sometimes white eddies stirred the brown, muddy waters.

Signs of human habitation were few and far between, and far more common on the Thai side than the Laotian one. The occasional temple or odd house dotted the hillsides, which often as not sported terraced rice paddies. Every now and then a speed boat zipped by, needle sharp and agile as a dragonfly, its pilot invariably wearing an oversized motorcycle helmet and his passengers hunkered up in the narrow canoe, knees to their chest and a look of apprehension on their faces. As they passed us,  they stared at us curiously, no doubt wondering why so many farang would subject themselves to what is essentially a slow bus ride on water.

In some places, the hills fell away to either side and the valley widened out. In these spots, the river grew as flat and smooth as stretched canvas. On the Thai side, small villages or even single houses, all on stilts, dotted the hilltops. On the Laotian side, it was a different world. I would not have been surprised to see a dinosaur poke its nose out of the jungle that came right up to the edge of the river. For miles, I couldn’t see a speck of evidence that people lived there. But then, out of nowhere, someone would appear on shore and we would angle towards them to drop off a few locals who had hitched a ride. Local kids would come out of nowhere and swarm the boat, selling anything from grilled fish to buffalo meat.

In the late afternoon, we were still hours from Pakbeng and the sun painted the hills with long light and left longer shadows. We eventually made it to Pakbeng, our rest stop for the night. It’s a single-road town that resolutely climbs the hills above the river in a sinuous suggestion of a paved road. All along the path there are guesthouses and bakeries, with some of the largest croissants I’ve ever seen. And they’re good, too. Thanks, French influence!

It also boasts one bar, run by the lovely Nina, where some new Euro-friends and I drank until way too late, pounding back several shots of some kind of “banana whiskey” the Lao brew. It packs a kick. In all, Pakbeng is a strange little town, but at least it’s genuine.

I can’t really say the same of Luang Prabang, which we reached at the end of the next day. There’s not much to say about the second day on the river, except it was more of the same as the first day. More people slept, fewer people seemed happy to be on the boat, and everyone seemed a little bored. By the time we pulled into the former royal capital of Laos with the sun making the stupa at the top of Mount Phou Si glow, we were itching to get on dry land and go our separate ways. And so most of us did.

Luang Prabang deserves its own entry, so I’ll close this one out here.

Image courtesy of Chris Allbritton

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