Friday, December 4, 2009
RAFTING DOWN THE MEKONG
With a farewell party consisting of about 50 screaming kids, we took the boat to water and began our journey out of the town of Chang Saen in Thailand and down the Mekong towards Laos. Our starting post was just 10KMs south of the 'Golden Triangle', a tri-country border between Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, infamous since the 1600s for its vast opium plantations. Now its more famous as a tourist attraction. Once the boat was in the water, the powerful current had it and we quickly jumped on. The good news is it floats. Although the boat is designed to take 450 kilos, there was always the niggling fear that the weight of the two bikes, 50 kilos of luggage, food and water and Markus and I on board was going to be too much weight for the boat. We quickly learned the current played a bigger role in deciding our direction than our paddling could dictate. But very soon we had it out of town and we practiced different paddling strokes as we tried to come to terms with our new mode of transport for the next few weeks.Initially it felt fast. Within 15 minutes of being on the boat, the town of Chang Saen was far behind, but in general the boat moves at an average speed of about 8km/hr. We called the boat 'до свидания' (do svi-dan-niye). Its Russian for 'Goodbye'. All through China we never learned the Chinese word for 'Goodbye', so we just continued with до свидания (do svi-dan-niye). We had enough food for 3 days, but we were sure we would survive on fishing and wild bananas. Neither proved very successful though. Every second local was fishing and their hugh nets rarely caught anything bigger than 3 inches long. And the bananas were difficult to get and the few we did get were either rock hard or rotting.For the first few days the Mekong acted as the boundary between Thailand and Laos. We had the Thai entry stamp in our passport and hadn't yet got the Laos visa, but when we spotted an empty beach on the Laos side for our first nights camp, we didn't hesitate to paddle up and set up camp and start preparing dinner. Just at sunset, 3 barefoot men, dressed in old and shabby military clothes and carrying machine guns approached us. They walked in our direction about 30 feet apart from each other. It was quite a shock but we greeted them as we do everyone else; We waved, said hello and gave a nervous but friendly smile. Using sign language, we explained we wish to eat and sleep here and tomorrow we move on. To this day, I don't know if they were Lao military, pirates, hunters or security for an opium plantation. Either way, they made a phone call and said goodbye. We gave them an orange each, said до свидания (do svi-dan-niye) and continued with dinner.We paddled on for another 4 days. It was all the same stuff - generally quite calm which requires more work and a few occasional rapids and whirlpools which gets the whole thing going. For a lot of the time we seem to be working our way through 'Lake Mekong' as we call it. The current can be very gradual and if you don't use the oars, you get nowhere. But when the current kicks in through the narrow spots, it gets real exciting. Waves splashing over the boat, currents pulling us left and right and whirlpools sucking us in and doing double 360 degree spins before spitting us out with a jump. Our route took us from Chang Saen in Thailand to Huay Xai in Laos. From there, we continued through Laos to Pak Beng and Luang Prabang. This is my third visit to Laos. I've toured here before by bus and by bicycle so it was great this time to see the country by boat. Every night we slept on beaches except for one night on the floor of a river boat restaurant in Pak Beng. Here we got free accommodation and a place to tie up the boat, as long as we ordered dinner and breakfast from their reasonably priced menu. This little town had a reasonably sized market that we could stock up on foods for the next leg of the journey. It took a further 5 days to get down to Luang Prabang. Now the scenery started getting real interesting with rolling hills of dense jungle. There were few and small settlements, but because this region is poorly serviced by road and the only route to the outside world is through the Mekong, these places were very sparsely populated. We docked in at a few villages just to check them out and fill up our 6 litre water bottle and check to see if someone would sell us a fish. Although these communities were very primitive, there were still some schools and the children would come running down to welcome the tourists in the unusual inflatable boat. These people would be used to seeing tourists go by on the tour boats, but it would be very rare for tourists to venture into these villages. The kids would stare wide eyed with surprise as we wandered through the villages looking for food and drinkable water. In total we have been about 12 days on the water and one of the hardest things about travelling in this way is the fact that we rarely know where we are. When cycling, the sign posts at major junctions always give you, at least, a rough idea to where you are. But with these small villages, they are rarely mentioned on maps. There are obviously no signposts to indicate distance and no one seems to have an idea of the kilometre distance to the next decent sized town. And so when we came around a corner to face the familiar sight of the truly beautiful Unesco Heritage town of Luang Prabang, it was just brilliant. We had made it to, what I consider to be, the best town in South East Asia. We deflated the boat, and lugged everything up to a nearby "cheap,cheap, special price for you, my friend" guesthouse. And then we sat down and had a beer. In fact we had a few of them.The coming days were spent chilling out in this very relaxing town. We toyed with the idea of putting most of our stuff in storage in Luang Prabang and taking just the boat and the bare minaminal of stuff to near the source of the lively Nam Ou river. High in the mountains, this would have been exciting stuff. Up till now, the adrenalin quantity of any proposed venture seemed to be the deciding factor in taking it on. And so it was time to maybe slow things down abit. Travelling with Markus has been an absolute blast. Rarely do you get to meet someone with so much energy. But Markus has family and friends arriving over to Bangkok in a couple of weeks and I'm thinking of continuing on to Vietnam and the Pacific Ocean. We said farewell over a few more beers and came up with a few exciting adventures for the future. Who knows, maybe we'll dog-sled across Greenland at some stage in the future. But my present plan is to rest up for another week or so and then pedal the last few hundred KMs to Hanoi in North Vietnam.