Down the Mekong in Laos
Jan 1, 2002
David Rich 1200 Words
D o w n t h e M e k o n g i n L a o s
We shelled out six bucks a day and were down the Mekong River in Laos as long as we could stand it. It'd take ten days to boat from the Golden Triangle where Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar intersect, all the way to Cambodia, and we initially stood it for two. The trip started early in Thailand, a dozen nationalities skiffing across the hundred-yard-wide Mekong to Laos, standing in long lines to change currency at the only Lao bank for miles.
After snagging a daypack full of Lao Kip, the official currency trading for 9500 to the U.S. dollar, we and everyone else were unanimously shocked at our vessels. Our assigned boat was barely wider than a canoe, thirty feet long, with a ceiling four feet high so we could barely stand or move for two days. And worse, it had no keel and was overcrowded, but it was pure adventure. All boats not carrying passengers, according to the Bangkok Post, were stuffed with amphetamines and heroin from the Golden Triangle. Even before we shoved off, the scenery was mysteriously spectacular.
The silent captain putt-putted us into the current, and we swept past ramshackle boats stuffed with commerce of unknown content, origin, and destination, decks laden with such as tractors and steam shovels way too big for the small boats they were on. Within a mile we hit awesome rapids that required those of us who'd climbed on the roof as companions to our stacked-up luggage, to scurry back below, to sit in a row perfectly balanced with everyone else lest the boat teeter past a tilt of no return. The rapids were extensive and wild, bounded by jagged teeth of granite for a hundred miles.
Though muddy brown, in the right light the Mekong perfectly reflected karst hills carpeted in jungle, fishermen spreading their nets like poodle skirts, and other boats far more colorful than our boat could have ever been in its long-ago heyday. We whisked past the occasional village, a dozen huts on stilts, and our silent captain finally stopped at one, the bank of the Mekong towering vertically above our heads as he motioned us off to scramble up near-vertical walls of sand. We wandered around the tiny village followed by raucous children, buying brand name sodas from their mothers, and waving at the gawkers who followed us back to the boat and yelled, "Bon voyage" as they helped push us away from the steep sand bank.
When the sun dipped behind the hills, the temperature dropped twenty degrees and the boat was required to anchor because it's far too dangerous to try navigating the Mekong at night. Upon docking, I wrestled our grossly overweight bags over a slender gangplank spanning the roiling river and up a steep cliff to begin a diligent search for a hotel room with bath instead of the trek-to-the-bathroom common in Laos. My wife scouted ahead but we failed miserably, through terminal frugality, refusing to pay eleven dollars and having to settle for two-dollar rooms sans conveniences except for twin beds under mosquito netting and turbo fan.
The late afternoon of day two brought our boatload of disparate and near terminally cramped selves to the most charming town in Laos, the former capitol of Luang Prabang where an actual paved road extended south, 400 miles to the Cambodian border. We paused with our many new friends for the several days necessary to celebrate New Year's 2002, meeting more Americans than we'd seen in years of travel, oodles of Aussies, and French, plus the odd South African and Israeli. There were extended parties at the hotels, guesthouses, and restaurants, and on the boats along the Mekong, cheap Lao whiskey flowing like water. I quickly learned water was far superior and less vindictive.
The ample highlights of Luang Prabang were World Heritage Temples in various styles and costumed shows by photogenic hill-tribe ladies dancing to a local Lao band with xylophone, flute, and drums. The center of Luang Prabang was a steep hill topped by a weathered temple and cannon with great views on offer, Buddhist monks scurrying around in orange twisty costumes. The food was uniformly excellent, mostly French and ethnic Lao, and the Canadian Bakery breakfasts vanquished any desire to remain in bed.
We left Luang Prabang to move down the paved road on a plush bus with German and less obnoxious tourists. The Germans voted unanimously to leave without me while I was off searching for a toilet. My wife ordered the bus driver to not even think about leaving, authoritatively announcing, "This bus is going exactly nowhere until Dave gets back." Everyone clapped as I climbed back aboard, everyone except the Germans who glowered in their beer. This episode was the intense subject of conversation until an hour later when we disembarked at Vangvieng.
Vangvieng was reminiscent of southern China, limestone caves and karst hills reflected in perfectly still waters. We signed up for a next-day cave tour, the leader assuring us, "Hey, no problem leaving the tour early. You'll be able to catch the 2 p.m. van to Vientiane easy. Buses and tuk-tuks run up and down that road all the time."
This proved to be an exaggeration. Laos was Mexico on downers in slow motion with not a tuk-tuk in sight. A cram-packed van did happen along after an antsy half hour wait, taking us precariously balanced on its backside from the cave tour to Vangvieng seconds before the departure of our luxury van, which was fortunately late departing. Actually the trip to Vientiane wasn't too bad though the van was somewhat short of luxurious. Fellow passengers included two employees of Southwest Airlines who imparted valuable tips on around-the-world travel.
We arrived late in Vientiane and at dawn's early light appreciated the decaying French architecture, delectable bakeries, and the symbol of all Laos, a sprawling temple painted entirely in gold. Laos was dirt poor, most of its more prosperous buildings housing U.N. relief agencies and NGOs from various countries. Laos was reported to be among the twenty least developed nations anywhere, which seemed inaccurate considering much of Africa, while wondering whether development was progress.
We avoided thirteen hours of bad road by flying south from Vientiane to ugly Pakse, convenient to the waterfall-ridden Bolovens Plateau where we found another fellow traveler, John, to share the rental of a private van. We explored a tea plantation run by a Laotian Frenchman who owned the only Mercedes dealership in Laos and hiked to a three hundred-foot waterfall. There we almost got trampled by elephants crossing the river below the idyllic cottage where we found rooms with a view perched on the edge of a raging river.
Our next stop was the ancient Khmer temples at Wat Phu, model for Angkor Wat in nearby Cambodia, accessible by private tuk-tuk for two dollars. We waited and waited the next morning for the Mekong Ferry, and as soon as we gave up and caught a tuk-tuk to the bus stop, it sailed majestically below us, headed where we wanted to go, to the 4000 islands where the Mekong attracts hundreds of tourists kicked back in hammocks. Upon arrival at the 4000 islands by bus, we melted into the hundreds of fellow travelers exploring the remnants of Laos' only railroad, on the shore of the splintered Mekong where it comes together one last time in a series of waterfalls a few miles before the Cambodian border where floating down the mighty Mekong is a possibility no longer.