Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mekong River Cruise

February 23, 2011—The morning of February 20, we ate a quick breakfast and then waited for our ride. Mr. Adisak arrived right on time and drove us to the Thai boat dock where we checked out of Thailand. We then boarded a small, narrow boat that took us across to Huay Xai on the Laos side of the Mekong. We had our paperwork prepared so it was just a matter of handing the officials our passports and papers. The problem was that there were about 100 people there at the same time trying to process their visas.

We had to wait a few minutes for the processing, so Steve took our bags across the street to a restaurant to wait while I stood with the hordes. I thought that the official would call out our name, but I quickly realized that she would just hold the passport out the window with the picture showing. I was lucky to spot Steve’s passport, so I elbowed my way through the crowd, collected our two passports, and paid our $72 fee. Then it was just a matter of waiting for the rest of our group of 15 people to finish.

We were driven to our boat on the river, where we loaded our bags and took a seat. The boat was approximately 100 feet long, quite narrow, and made of wood on an aluminum hull. The captain sat at the helm in the front, and then there were two sections of seats facing inboard with a sliding panel overhead to let in the sun. The middle section contained about eight rows of bus-like seats, two on each side, with a table in front of the seats. Further aft was a large table for buffet lunches and a small bar. After that came two toilets, and, finally, the engine compartment and the family’s living quarters in the rear.

We left the shore and headed down the Mekong River. There was quite a current, and the boat was moving right along at about eight knots of speed. We are at the end of the dry season, so the water level was low, but the current was still quite strong. At regular intervals we would be passed by the “high-speed” boats that also take passengers down river. The smart passengers wore helmets as there have been fatalities in these very fast boats.

As we moved along the river, we saw many women panning for gold along the shoreline while the men were fishing from the rocks at the edge of the water. We saw this scene all along the river. Also along the river were herds of water buffalo who were lounging in the shallow water in order to stay cool and some goats grazing on the grass near the river.

Phet, our guide, was very informative about the Lao people and how they live. Just before lunch we stopped at the Lao village Ban Huoy Phalam and were allowed to walk around. The people were a bit elusive but courteous. They went about washing clothes—one little girl washing her dress was about three years old—and cooking. Their homes were made of bamboo and wood with thatched roofs and were built on stilts. The usual roosters, ducks, pigs, and dogs were present. The government recently brought electricity to the village, and there was the ever surprising satellite dish. We made a contribution to the school fund in appreciation for their allowing us to visit their homes.

After our visit we enjoyed a delicious lunch that was prepared by the captain’s wife. The meal included fish, rice, sautéed eggplant with chicken, yellow curry with chicken, and fruit. There was always tea, coffee, and water for us to drink.

We continued down the river, at times going through some amazing rapids. We were both surprised by the geography of the river bed. Because it was low tide, there were many large rock formations that were quite jagged. Also, where the water flowed in a bend of the river, huge amounts of beautiful sand that had piled up after being carried down during the wet season when the river was full. Many times, the river channel became quite narrow, and that is where the rapids would develop. Steve and I gained a great deal of respect for the captain as we watched him navigate his 100-foot long boat through these narrow gaps. It was quite thrilling!

In the afternoon we passed the point of the Laos and Thailand border. The scenery down the river was really quite beautiful but not as lush as we had expected. We had to remind ourselves that it is the dry season so things are not as green. All along the way we saw teak trees that had been planted on the hillside. The locals also plant peanuts and other vegetables in the sand mounds during the dry season.

Around five o’clock the captain pulled the boat to the shore at the town of Pak Beng. We walked up the hill to the Villa Phathama, which was quite nice with floors and walls finished in teak. We put our things in the room and then left to have dinner with Phet, Gemma and Bennie from Holland, Arin and Simon from Australia, and Roy from New Zealand. We walked up the road to see the town, and then we enjoyed a nice dinner at the Bakery Café. After dinner Phet brought a bottle of Lao-Lao, which is Lao whiskey, to the table. We all had a taste, and I have to say that it was pretty bad. Lao beer, however, is quite good.

By now it was getting late, and I needed to download our pictures so we returned to our hotel with Bennie and Gemma. I spent the next hour working with our photos, and then we called it a night. Unfortunately, we did not sleep well, but we were ready to continue early the next morning. After breakfast, we packed up and walked down to the boat.

Our boat left at 8 o’clock, and we continued down the river. It was quite cool in the morning because of the fog in the canyon so we ended up using the blankets that had been placed on our table. The sides of the canyon now became steeper and the vegetation, greener.

Around 11 o’clock we stopped at a Hmong Village. The Hmong homes were different in that they were built on the ground. Only a few homes had electricity, but there was another satellite dish. As we approached the village, several girls came to meet us with souvenirs to buy. Most were items with embroidery on them that had been sewn by the women. We continued up to the village and walked around. Most of the women had laid out their goods to sell, and the children continued to follow us with their items. Unfortunately, it made it difficult to focus on the people and buildings, but we did enjoy the tour.

After the village we continued down the river and enjoyed another great lunch with fried chicken, rice, sautéed vegetables, and watermelon. As we moved along, we passed many fishermen casting nets from their boats or using a net from the rocks. There were also boats moving up and down the river carrying cargo. One boat had a cargo of brand new motor scooters. The Mekong really is a river of life for the Laotian people.

We went through more rapids, some of which were quite exciting. At the top of many of the rock ridges in the middle of the river were concrete depth markers, some of which had been hit by boats coming down the river at higher water. The rocks where quite jagged all the way down the river.

Our last stop was at the Pak Ou cave, which contains many Buddhas of different sizes brought by local people over the years. We left the main cave and climbed 187 steps to smaller cave higher up the hill, which gave us a great workout. Once we went inside, it was dark enough that we needed a flashlight in order to see. Inside there were more Buddha icons and trinkets grouped around a larger Buddha.

After leaving the cave we returned to the boat and made our way down the last section of the river to the main pier at Luang Prabang. Once the boat was tied up, we thanked the captain and walked up the hill to the main street. Phet had arranged for a tuk-tuk for us, and the driver was waiting for us when we arrived at the street so we climbed in and rode to the New Daraphet Hotel down the road.

Our trip down the Mekong River was very special, and we are so happy that we were able to experience it. It was the trip of a lifetime.

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