Cruisin' on the Mekong

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November 16th 2009
Published: November 16th 2009
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Coffee TableCoffee TableCoffee Table

Gives a new meaning to Coffee Table - a table filled with coffee beans of various colors.
We've been out of range of the internet for the past 3 days - sorry if you've been looking for updates! We arrived back in Laos after a long van ride through northeast Thailand. By the way, if you want to see a photo larger, just double click on it. Another note: I forgot to upload my photos of Vat Phou, the temple, so I'll include them in the next blog.

Experiencing a Land Crossing

The overland border crossing was pretty interesting and the only one we have done. We said goodbye to Andy and our driver and went through a relatively modern and efficient Thai border checkpoint where we submitted our departure papers and were sent on our way. Once through the back door and alone, we found no signs telling us where to go to formally enter Laos, so we followed the small queue of locals down a dirt path strewn with debris several hundred feet until we finally saw a government-looking building. I think that we could have just wandered into the village and disappeared and nobody would have been the wiser. Instead we went to a window where they handed us an immigration form to
Rapids of the MekongRapids of the MekongRapids of the Mekong

Area known as Si Phan Don - or 4000 Islands
fill out as well as a declaration that we had not coughed, sneezed, run a temp, or vomited in the past 7 days (do they really think for one minute that I would admit to any of those things and risk sitting in quarantine for a week?). We once again paid $70 (for 2), gave them passport photos, and - ah, yes - an additional $2 because we had arrived at the border past their 4 PM working day; then after having several officials check and stamp our passports, we were finally officially back in Laos.

On to Pakse

Our new guide and driver then met us and drove us the 30 or so miles to Pakse, where we would spend the night. Our hotel room was spotless and had a top floor view of the city lights and the Mekong River (unfortunately too late for sunset). The only problem was that the top floor meant that we were directly under the rooftop restaurant, which happened to be hosting a farewell party for SMILES, the international group that sends doctors to third world countries to repair hare-lips and other facial deformities. The disco music was just above our
Vat Phou BoatVat Phou BoatVat Phou Boat

This was our home for 3 days while cruising the Mekong
heads; fortunately they cut it off promptly at 11. Ironically our driver had just told us that his son was being released from the hospital there after hare-lip surgery - I'm assuming by that same group.

Vat Phou Cruise

The next morning we were taken to the Sinouk Cafe to meet the group we would be traveling with for the next 3 days on a Mekong River cruise. I recognized some of them as being in a group seated next to us at L'Elephant Restaurant in Luang Prabang a week ago, friends from France traveling together. Every conversation I heard in the Cafe was in French and I started to worry that we would be the only English-speaking passengers. I was almost right - there were 17 French, 2 Russian, 2 British, and us. Fortunately, all of us had at least a rudimentary grasp of the French language, because directions were given most comprehensively in French, with an English sentence thrown in here and there. We were on the reverse itinerary of the cruise, which meant that we were transported by bus to the furthest reach and then cruised upriver. This cruise is to Si Phan Don, other
French Colonial BuildingFrench Colonial BuildingFrench Colonial Building

on Don Kone in the 4000 Islands
was known as The 4000 Islands, which is where the Mekong narrows and goes through a series of rapids and waterfalls before fanning out into its delta in Cambodia and Vietnam and eventually emptying into the ocean. After viewing the falls we boarded 2 long-tail boats and went first to visit the island of Don Kone.

Where Have All the Backpackers Gone?

I had been remarking that, except in Luang Prabang, I had not seen as many backpackers as I thought I would. I've found them; they're all on Don Kone. The banks are lined with backpacker bungalows - some quite new, others pretty dotty looking - renting from $3 to probably $10 a night. They usually consist of 1 room, some have a bath - others a shared one - and a balcony overlooking the river, with a hammock for lounging. Nearby are plenty of restaurants and bars with meals costing $1 or $2 and the booze $.50.

Remnants of French Presence

We were there to see the remnants of the French presence in the early 20th century. They were there to build a railway that would link Bangkok and Vietnam, across the Mekong River; however they were never able to figure out how to accomplish the crossing. All that remains of the aborted endeavor is a rusted hulk of a steam engine, a length of track about 20 feet long, and a 13 arch bridge which our guide called Le Pont d'Avignon after the bridge in France. They also left behind some incongruous French colonial buildings, which lie vacant. After leaving the island we continued on our small long-tail boats for what I thought would be a half-hour or so that would put us on the cruise ship, but which turned out to be another 4 or more hours - our bums will never speak to us again.

Ze Boat, Ze Boat

Just as the sun was setting and we thought we’d be on this uncomfortable craft forever, we finally reached our boat, a restored rice barge turned cruise ship. We were ushered to one of the two cabins on the upper deck. Open decks with comfortable rattan seating plus floor cushions and a bar aft made up the upper level; the remaining 10 staterooms and the dining room made up the lower deck. We were all barefoot while on board to preserve the lovely polished teak planking. Our room was a cubicle about 8 by 10 with two single beds at right angles, a closet, a small cabinet, and a private bath with shower. It was air conditioned only between 6 PM and 8 AM, although there was a window with screen and an oscillating fan. By day, when the boat was running there was most often a very pleasant breeze on deck, so one didn't spend much time in the room.

Food on the cruise was quite good. I must have mis-remembered the press on the cuisine, however, because I could have sworn they said it would be French. Dinner was, instead, all Lao, served family style at tables of 5-7, with at least 4 dishes per meal, plus fresh fruit for dessert. Lao food is almost always a mélange of meat and vegetables with unusual spices. The national dish, Larp, is minced meat of one sort or another, with spices, served to natives raw, but for us falangs cooked. We were seated with the British couple and they were very congenial dinner partners. It saved us from having to dredge up our high school French in
Along the MekongAlong the MekongAlong the Mekong

The river is the lifeblood of families living along it.
order to be involved in conversation. We also had the tour guide at our table, which gave us the opportunity to ask questions and get answers in English. The French travelers all had a pretty good grasp of English, so we were really able to at least exchange pleasantries.

Observing Village Life

The second day we stopped by a small village which functioned as a living history farm, where the villagers were available to demonstrate how they harvest and thresh rice and do other household chores. The children of the village were obviously used to strangers coming by 2 or 3 times a week, because they stood in little clusters saying “Sabadee” and smiling. There was a grandmother tending a toddler and a baby who were wearing their Sunday best - just waiting for the falangs to take their photo. It was pretty much staged, but unlike other places like that, the participants did not have their hands out for coins, which I appreciated. The cruise line supports the village school in return for their cooperation in being “on exhibit”. Another village that we visited that day sells fish and vegetables to the cruise ship for the same reason. We knew that night that the fish dished served were fresh! We dined on fish soup, fish and vegetables, and steamed fish in banana leaves. Yum! We did a double-take when they brought the dessert. It looked like hot dogs side by side in a square dish. Then they turned the lights out and lit cognac - turned out to be Bananas Foster!

The third and last day we debarked after breakfast and took tuk-tuks to Vat Phou, an 11th century Khmer site that predated Angkor in Cambodia. As the early inhabitants probably came from India by way of Burma and Siam, the temple was erected to Vishnu. Later as the Khmers came to power and Buddhism took over as the main religion, the Hindu relics were destroyed and the temples were refitted with Buddhist elements. It reminded me of the great Mayan monuments in Mexico that were destroyed by the Spanish and the rubble use as building blocks for Catholic churches. The trek up Wat Phou was a little more than was comfortable in the heat and humidity, but I toughed it out while Bruce sat under a banyan tree at the bottom contemplating his navel. I’m
Threshing RiceThreshing RiceThreshing Rice

Boy demonstrates a treadle threshing machine.
glad that we saw it before going on to Angkor, because I have no doubt that it is small potatoes compared to what is still to come; however it was a good walk-up to the later temples.

We ended the day and the cruise by transferring again to a smaller passenger boat, this time outfitted with comfortable rattan chairs, instead of boards, for the final 2 hours through water more shallow than the main boat could manage. We’re now back in Pakse for two night, hoping for another interesting adventure tomorrow and a cooler one as we head for the Bolaven Plateau at an altitude of 1800 feet.

Additional photos below
Photos: 17, Displayed: 17


Family PortraitFamily Portrait
Family Portrait

Don Det Island, Laos
Gardens Along the RiverGardens Along the River
Gardens Along the River

As the river level drops during the dry season, more rich soil is bared and the farmers move their gardens lower and lower. When the rainy season returns they will be under water again.
Fresh Fish for our DinnerFresh Fish for our Dinner
Fresh Fish for our Dinner

Purchased from a village along the way.
Oum MuongOum Muong
Oum Muong

Ruins Dating to 10th Century

17th November 2009

Riding the rapids
Sean saw your picture of the Mekong Rapids, and wanted to know if you had gone whitewater rafting on them. I showed him your cruise boat, and told him Grandma and Grandpa go at a more leisurely pace. And their food is better than granola bars. You're right; we did miss your updates, and are glad you had so much to show us.
23rd November 2009

along the Mekong
Am enjoying the river with you. Thanks. Who was there in the 10th century?

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