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Published: February 22nd 2011
The Trials of Boat Travel.
In some ways we're too late for boat travel on the Mekong. As soon as a road is built, the boat stops running. The 'road' may be a dirt track, ridged, riddled with pot holes, a bumpy, dusty hell, but it's better than the boat. At least the locals think so. This is progress. In some ways we're too early for boat travel on the Mekong. Budding enterpreneurs have not yet realised that some tourists would like to travel this way. The few possibilities that exist indeed cater to travellers, but boats are few and far between.
It's such a shame because there is something very special about travelling by boat. Indeed, it requires the luxury of time. But surrender yourself to the slowing of pace and life becomes a series of unimportant but glorious details. The fall of sunlight on a patch of water, moss draped over a rock, tree roots clinging to the river bank; a kaleidescope of colour, a play of light, a dizzying collage of beauty. Especially in a boat that is open to the elements, where you to feel the landscape as well as see it. A fine mist
of droplets on the skin as the boat cuts through the water, the smell of foliage, the change in temperature in patches of shadow. It's almost other-worldly; far away from traffic, sometimes it seemed, far away from civilisation - I could almost imagine myself to be a ninteenth-century explorer breaking unknown ground.
A large boat makes the run from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, two whole days chugging down the Mekong. Lao time is a peculiar concept. If you ask, officials will state a departure time, but it's better not to ask. The answer means nothing. You wait. You never know what you're waiting for. Suddenly you leave. It always works out. It's a lesson in patience. Acceptance. Once begun, the journey was beautiful. Water buffalo spotted with mud grazing on a Mekong beach. Men and women in conical bamboo hats, bent almost double, panning for gold in the rust-coloured water. Fishing rods wedged into jagged rocky outcrops, their surfaces polished smooth by the centuries-old activity of the water, almost inviting touch. Stupas played peak-a-boo with palm trees. Women bathed in sarongs washing long black glossy hair. A kid cartwheeled on a beach, spinning like a paper windmill. The
On Top Of The World.
Houseboat Rooves - Huay Xai.
river widening and narrowing like a python swallowing a chicken, winding it's way through jungle, mountains, teak plantations and farmland. In the land of a million elephants we saw three of them, taking a break from teak logging, bathing in the water with their mahouts. It all just rolled on by, as we munched on our baguettes bought at the boat landing. Magical.
Boat travel is not without risk. At times, on another boat trip on the Nam Ou, (a tributary of the Mekong) this almost dream-like state was interupted by an unexpected adrenalin rush. It's the dry season, the water level is low. Amid huge limestone karsts and clear green water we literally ground to a halt, scraping along rocks on the bottom. The skipper jumped out. No. 2 skipper jumped out. It took a while to realise we were also supposed to jump out. Kids from a nearby village ran towards us, laughing and squealing, 'helping' to push - they knew the skipper would give them a few kip. We were all wading through the water beside the boat, pushing. Rocks massaging our feet, clear water cooling our legs. Someone shouted "I love this country - where
else would this happen". The skipper beamed, and a few minutes later we all jumped back on board and were off again. Dreaming. Until a shout went up. I saw the skipper in white water up to his neck, desperately trying to pull on a rope attached to the bow to stop us hitting the rocks. No. 2 boat man was also in the water. We were all alone in the boat - no crew - heading backwards down a set of rapids. We smashed into a boat behind us, but avoided the rocks. Gold-panners on a nearby sand bank stood open-mouthed, and the lady on the boat we'd hit, ran full-speed, the full-length of the boat and jumped onto the river bank. "That's the only time I've ever seen a Loatian move quickly", someone remarked later. Luckily there was no damage done.
We were also lucky enough to travel by boat from Luang Prabang to Pak Lay, a small hot, dusty town on the banks of the Mekong. A wild stretch of river, few villages, almost no other boats. I noticed how the river was full of strange currents and eddies; whirlpools swizzling and rushing, through which I
Boatboy. Pak Beng.
Waiting to leave.
could imagine myself being pulled to the centre of the earth. Quick little streams and gushes around rocks. The occasional burst of white water. The boat creaked and groaned. For the last hour and half of the thirteen-hour journey when we travelled in the dark, I thought of this a lot. There were no lights on the boat. We were solely reliant on the eyes and skill of the boatman. But we made it.
We'd hoped to be able to get a boat from Pay Lay to Vientiane - this time a local boat, but the road beat us to it. We stood in front of the 'bureau de bateaux' at 07.00 on Monday morning - our guidebook warned us to arrive early, because the boat would fill quickly - but the office was shuttered and boarded. I spoke in broken French to a man clearing up his stall - 'no boat', he said shaking his head. 'Bus'. Another man spoke to Jim - 'no boat', he told him with a huge smile - 'bus'. I could read his mind, loud and clear - 'crazy tourists, why would you want to go by boat?'. If only he knew!
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