A slow boat down the Mekong

One of the world’s great rivers defines the geography of Southeast Asia.

By SARA MANOBLA SPECIAL TO THE JERUSALEM POST
November 21, 2010 00:31
Mekong River

mekong 311. (photo credit: Sara Manobla)

Rising frozen in the Tibetan highlands and running through China’s Yunnan Province, the Mekong defines the geography of Southeast Asia. It is both a lifeline and a frontier, linking and separating the countries of the region – Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – before finally emptying into the South China Sea, south of Saigon.

Our voyage down the Mekong began in northern Thailand, in the mysterious, notorious area known as the Golden Triangle, once the heart of the opium trade and for many years closed to outsiders. Here at the confluence of three rivers, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand jostle for supremacy. Tourism on the Thai side is developing rapidly. Landlocked Laos is only just beginning to tap into the tourist business, and the Mekong is its major asset.

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We set off from Chiang Khong, on the Thai side of the river. Here we boarded the flimsy, narrow, “longtail” ferry boats, luggage and a dozen passengers jumbled together, to be poled across the current for the brief crossing into Laos. No quayside or landing stage awaited us, just the boat pulled up on the sandy shore and a plank for disembarking. The Laos immigration and customs procedures took a long time and ended with the issuing of tourist visas.

The Mekong has always been a highway for goods and travelers, and boats of all shapes, speeds and sizes still ply its waters. Recently a number of the traditional wooden barges were adapted for tourists. We had booked in advance for a two-day cruise organized by the Luang Say Mekong River Cruise. In comparison to the other options, ours was a fairly up-market package.

The converted river barge, our “slow boat,” 35 meters long, originally a cargo vessel – solid, wood-built – was simple and practical. There were covered decks with comfortable seats, cushions and rugs, benches and tables, adequate toilet, a bar with coffee, tea and mineral water freely available at all times, and service that was pleasant and helpful. Our luggage was stowed in the hold, and for the two days on board we made do with an overnight rucksack.

We set sail at 11 a.m. on our 300 km. voyage south down the legendary Mekong. For some distance the river serves as the frontier between Laos and Thailand, then Laos is on both sides. The river is still the chief means of transport for this region, and used to be the main artery for opium smuggling. Today – who knows? We see barges similar to ours heavily laden with sacks of – what? – rice? We had visited the Hall of Opium museum in Thailand the day before, and learned of the devastating effect that the narcotics trade has had on humans and on society. Drugs are illegal in Laos, but there has been a rise in “drug tourism,” and visitors are warned to stay clear of dealers.

The river landscape here is totally unspoiled, and life untouched by modernity. At times the river is quite narrow and running fast, with sharp rocky outcrops, rapids and whirlpools which demand skillful navigation.

The unpredictable waters and shifting bed make fording or bridging almost impossible. Tribal villages are set back from the river and the population is sparse.

Farm animals grazing (buffalo, cattle, goats) and small patches of cultivated land can be seen on the shore.

Fishermen leave bamboo fish traps unattended, rods and nets attached to the rocks, floating in the water waiting for the catch.

In the dry season when the Mekong is low, there is gold panning at the river’s edge as the muddy sediments containing the gold dust are exposed. The panner squatting on the shore puts the mud into a large pan with sloping sides, adds water from the river and swirls the mixture so that the lighter material is washed away and the heavier particles of gold are left behind.

This backbreaking work can bring in a few flakes of gold in a day. We were told that panners can pick up to five grams a month, which doesn’t seem much. But this could bring them $100.

An hour later the boat crunches up on to the pebbly beach and we step ashore, climbing over the sand dunes and into the forest, to visit the Hmong village of Huay Lam Peu. The Hmong are a hill tribe from the mountains of north Laos, one of the many ethnic minorities of the region. Pressure for land has driven some villages, like this one, down to the more fertile Mekong valley. Until recently their main cash crop was opium, mostly used for the production of heroin. Now outlawed, its suppression is still not yet complete.

The Hmong practice animism, a belief in the sentient spirit of all things. Their priest or shaman communicates with this spirit world and with the spirits of the ancestors. Their homes are simple bamboo huts on stilts, with no electricity, water pumped from wells and no access to the outside world other than by river boat. Everything looked clean and well maintained.

The village has a small government school.

The villagers took little notice of us as we walked through the village, making no attempt either to beg or to sell goods.

We returned to our slow boat for a delicious lunch cooked on board – rice with meat and vegetables and freshly caught river fish steamed and served in a banana leaf package, followed by fruit and tea. It was now somewhat cool, and we wrapped up in the blankets provided and laid back. The world floated by, the timeless scenery of Southeast Asia, unchanged over centuries, the pace of life matching the tranquillity of our slow boat. From time to time the calm was shattered by the roar of a passing speedboat, the alternative river transport which takes six hours instead of two days to cover our stretch of the river. These fivemeter- long terrors can accommodate up to eight passengers and are powered by a Toyota car engine. Crash helmets are worn and you take your life into your own hands. Skimming the Mekong rapids and whirlpools, they can reach speeds of 50 km. an hour.

Recommended only if you are a thrill freak and really short of time.

Night sailing is not allowed. The halfway stop for the slow boats is the small town of Pakbeng, which boasts a harbor and landing stage, and is largely dependent on river traffic for its existence. As boats arrive, passengers step ashore and scramble to secure overnight accommodation.

There are several simple guest houses, all much the same, all pretty basic. There is a market, and the main street is lined with eating places and shops aimed at the visitors.

Our cruise package included accommodation outside the town, at the top-of-the market Luang Say Lodge, a series of attractive wooden cabins, beautifully situated overlooking the river, linked by wooden walkways. Not luxurious by any means, but quite acceptable. Our room was spacious and the beds comfortable, but electricity here is sporadic, there is no reception for mobile phones, the mosquitoes are bothersome and we never managed to coax hot water from the gas heater. Never mind – dinner and breakfast were excellent and when we woke up in the morning, the view across the river was superb.

The slow boat was gradually bringing us closer to civilization.

The tribal village visited on our second day was less primitive than the previous one, with villagers greeting the visitors, demonstrating their craft skills and offering embroidery and woven articles for sale.

The main crop is cotton, and we saw villagers spinning and weaving. This tribe combines animism with Buddhism and a brand new temple was shown to us with much pride.

Our final excursion was a visit to the Pak Ou caves, an important Buddhist shrine. The boat was moored to the rocks, and the caves reached after a steep climb up the cliff. The cave temple is an ancient repository for thousands of Buddha images, discarded as damaged or replaced by new models. The lower cave has just enough natural light for viewing the rows and rows of serenely smiling statues. The upper one is dark and a flashlight is needed.

Our river voyage ended at Luang Prabang. As we approached, signs of development could be seen on both sides, logging of forests, mining, roads with trucks, urbanization and the villages more densely populated with concrete houses. Our brief respite in the wilderness was over, and our slow boat tied up for the last time.

Luang Prabang is the jewel in the Laotian crown.

Neatly laid out on a promontory between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, the Old City is a legacy of red tiled temples and the elegant Franco-Indochinese mansions of the colonial era, many of them now boutique hotels and fine restaurants. (At last, un petit café and an authentic croissant for breakfast.) Formerly the capital and seat of kings, the city has a royal mystique, and at the same time warmly welcomes tourists. The Royal Palace Museum and the magnificent Wat Xiang Thong temple are but two of the many outstanding monuments to the city’s past. This a good place to shop for gifts, and there are many excursions on offer. Not to be missed is the early morning parade through the city center of saffron-robed monks, holding bowls to collect alms from passersby.

It is possible to continue voyaging down the Mekong from Luang Prabang, but there is no regular passenger service, and for the remainder of our tour we travelled by road. Further south there are cruises linking Vientiane and Phnom Penh (the capitals of Laos and Cambodia), and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on Vietnam’s coast. As it approaches the Mekong Delta, the river divides into dozens of distributaries, flowing deep and wide toward the sea, still very much the lifeline and the heartbeat of this vibrant continent, but bearing little resemblance to the pristine waters of the wilderness through which we had sailed.


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