Thursday, April 25, 2013

The SLOW boat down the Mekong River

Leaving Chiang Mai we packed into a minivan with eight others, all backpackers. The road from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, on the border with Laos, takes about 6 hours. Pierre and I, along with an Irish woman, were the seniors on the trip. This gave us lots of opportunity to listen to the adventures of backpackers who have been travelling, some for months, visiting Asia and other parts. It is a life of making new friends discovering hidden gems and living new adventures. I feel privileged to be able to talk and share a bit of our lives with them.
In Chiang Khong we stayed in a basic guest house while our visas for Laos were processed. It was a bit  anxiety-provoking to leave our passports overnight with the hotel manager/local immigration official, and we were relieved to get them back the next morning. This goes against the advice of never letting your passport out of your sight. But everyone does it. The next day, a boat took us across the Mekong to Huay Xai, Laos, a little town that appears to live off the profits of the travellers who take the boats up and down the river. We, along with all the others with us, gave over our passports once again, as well as any money we needed to change into Laos Kips. The agent was a smooth talker, convincing us that we could get no better exchange rate and that we absolutely needed Kips in Laos! So, like sheep, we all trusted this man, and each gave him money to change, along with our passports. 10 minutes before the boat was ready to leave his runner came back with our passports and our Kips. None of us had time to count. Laos currency is very complicated. Once on the boat, after counting, we realized that we were all short by about 30%! All we can say is that this has been a lesson learned and we are thankful that it did not add up to large amounts of money. We figure that if he does this every day, with the thousands of gullible travellers passing through, he is a wealthy man.  One US dollar gives you 8000 kips, so we are now carrying wads of bills that are really worth very little. Every country in SE Asia has their own currency. So far we have gone from Kyats to Bahts to Kips, and we still haven't seen them all.

                                                     Long Boats at Pakbeng, Laos
The boat that took us to Pakbeng, Laos on the first day, was a very long narrow barge, fitted with old car seats that are removable so the boat can be used for other purposes. It was about 2 meters across, making for cramped legs, as we touched knees with those opposite us. Those that got on late had to sit on the backpacks piled at the rear of the boat, behind the open motor. The noise back there was awful, enough to deafen you after any length of time. We were all glad to get off the boat after six hours. Thankfully, the boat that took us from there to Luang Prabang the next day was wider, although there was still not enough room and those who slept in were stuck in the back again.

The Mekong is a long winding river, the longest in SE Asia. It goes from the Himalayas in China down to the Ocean at the delta below Phnom Penh and Saigon. It has quite a current, with rocks and eddies visible all along.  The further south you go, the more breath-taking the scenery becomes. The river winds between tall hills and rocky cliffs. Tiny homes are perched on the hills. There are beautiful sandy banks all the way along. Women can be seen washing their clothes in the river, their children splashing in the water beside them. Men fish from their canoes or wade into the river, unfurling their nets by throwing them over the water. The Mekong is quite shallow in most parts, with rapids requiring skilled manoeuvering by the captain.

                                                       Fisherman on the Mekong

After eight hours the second day, we were all very relieved to get off the slow boat, climb the steep hill up to a ticket office and then hop onto a shared tuk-tuk that took us into town.

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