Length: 4020 km / 2500 miles
Catchment: 810,700 km2 / 313,000 miles2
The Mekong rises in the Tanglha Mountains of China near the fringes of Tibet. From about 5090 metres it drops as it heads south through Laos and Cambodia before finally veering south east to reach the South China Sea via southern Vietnam. Its delta provides one of the richest rice growing regions of the world.
This river has been a theme for my trip in SEA. I've spent a number of days on it or near it. I've watched a lot of beautiful sunsets from its banks. Of all my journeys in this part of the world, the ones on water have been the best. They're not necessarily more comfortable, or shorter, but there's something about being on water that soothes me and allows my mind to flow, eddy and whirlpool, just as the water does.
Marion and I left from Luang Prabang early one morning to board a slow boat to the Thai Border. We travelled, in rather cramped conditions on the first day, and much more comfortably on the second. Each day was 10 hours against the current of the river. That's a long time, you're thinking...well, there is a much faster way of travelling. You could get a fast boat...but we're not that brave, or foolish, depending on how you look at it:
Fast Boats. Long-tail boats are long, skinny boats with a 3 meter-ish pole that sticks out of the engine on the back. There's a propeller at the end of it, so it acts as a rudder and propulsion at the same time. They're great for getting around in water that's not very deep and used all over this region. The fast boats are like Long-tail boats, except sawn in half, with a much bigger engine. It takes 6 hours in one of these to get from the Thai border all the way to Luang Prabang, which might be tempting considering it's half the time of the slow boat journey in the same direction and you can do it in one day. BUT, there are several accidents involving these boats per week. Some of them fatal. More importantly, they're like someone playing on a jet-ski when you're enjoying the peace and tranquillity of a lie on a beach. Other than these boats screaming past us, their frightened passengers holding on for dear life in life-jackets and helmets, the journey was incredibly pleasant.
For miles and miles, there is absolutely no indication of human inhabitance whatsoever. Every now and again you'd see a tiny village, or some naked kids running along the silted beaches. I envy the freedom of their lives. What must it be like to grow up with the Mekong as the only road to anywhere?
We travelled to Luang Namptha, where Marion and I hired bicycles. We were travelling on a small road between two villages when a young boy talked to us. It seemed that he regularly approached tourists, spoke English rather well, and showed them interesting things in the hope they might give him money. He offered to show us the village cemetery. We went along with him into a grove of trees, wondering a bit why we'd agreed to this. The cemetery was interesting - a few small wooden buildings raised from the ground and in various states of disrepair. There was something quite Chinese about them, which makes sense, since we were about 25 km's from the Chinese border. Once inside this grove, I noticed something on my foot. We'd each picked up a number of leeches on the way! Little wriggly, squirmy, sucky, icky things! Ew! I had to tug one quite hard, but it hadn't bitten me yet thank goodness. We ran out of there and I noticed about another 30 on the way out. They "stand" up sniffing the air and trying to get on you. We'd picked up some more and we were quite a sight pulling these things off and squealing with disgust. I think I prefer spiders to leeches. Poor Marion had one inside her shoe that had started sucking blood...the wound bled profusely. They have quite an effective anti-coagulant and are apparently brilliant for treating varicose veins...so I've learned since. The poor kid wasn't going to get any money off us!
We flew from there back to Vientienne, in time for the That Luang festival. That Luang is a big golden stupa. It's not real gold and looks quite tacky in real life, but comes out brilliantly in photos! For the festival, they cover the stupa in lights and surround it with a trade fair, fun fairs, food stalls, clothing stalls and about a 100,000 people a fair portion of them monks. We were accosted by a group of young engineering students who wanted us to walk around with them. (I think there is status in hanging out with Westerners here.) The whole thing was a pretty neat experience with lots to check out and a great festival atmosphere. At any one time though, no matter where you stood, there was about 5 different loud sounds coming at you. For example, you'd have someone talking about a product, some Laos music, some Western techno, the theme tune for a fair-ground ride and a live band all blaring at you simultaneously and loudly. Take ear plugs. ;-)
In Laos, you can get anything you like on a stick. We took local buses (trucks) down to the South of Laos. When ever the truck stops, ladies come up and offer you food on sticks. You can get barbequed chicken bits or small birds (head and all) but also bats, squirrels, locust type things, fertilised eggs at various stages of development, boiled, anything really. I have to admit I wasn't brave enough to try any of this stuff. The trucks are interesting too - they're utility vehicles of various sizes. Each one has been kitted out with a tiny bench down the length of each side and a roof with racks etc. There is usually a wooden bench down the middle too. All of Laos travels like this, so you should expect to be very short on space indeed - they only leave when they're full and they're only considered full if there are a couple of guys hanging off the back of them. If you have chickens under your seat and a bag of rice under your feet you're on the right bus! One journey was particularly crowded and we had lots of chickens under the seat. There were a lot of bags of fish on this one, so the floor of the truck was wet with fishy water. The chickens acted up every now and again and splashed our legs with it...mmmm, pleasant! :-) I had a very thorough shower after that one!
Phou Assa and the elephant: This was cool. Phou Assa is an ancient ruin on top of a plateau of lava flows. We hired a motorbike to get there and on the way we got a flat tire, or at least one that was leaking slowly. Luckily, just about anywhere in SEA has all the equipment you need to fix a tire and it only cost us 7,000 Kip (70 US Cents) plus we had an interesting chat with a bunch of locals and great iced coffee. (Laos has fantastic iced coffee!) Anyway, we eventually got to the place and onto an elephant. There's a beautiful rice-paddied valley to see from the top, with mountains in the distance. The plateau itself is a bit like being on a moon made of black volcanic rock and there's a weird temple ruin that no-one knows anything useful about. I realised I needed the loo, so the guide made the elephant sit down and we slid off. Climbing back on the elephant was even more interesting for both of us and I'm very glad I had that experience - it felt more real somehow. I think the best bit was that we were the only ones there on top of the world. It felt very special being carried along by a gentle rocking motion in a strange and ancient place. The elephant did keep sneezing on Marion though...she didn't like that too much!
At the end of my trip in Laos, I found myself on Don Det in Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands.) This area has a rock shelf that's particularly resistant to erosion. The Mekong breaks up to get around it and this created many permanent islands and some great waterfalls. Don Det is one of the small islands where there are quite a few bamboo bungalows owned by Laos families. There's no electricity, no phone, no internet, no running water...just a great view, great food, great coffee, great chilled-out company and lots of beautiful butterflies. I spent quite a while there and had a wonderful time not doing very much. I watched the sunsets whilst brushing my teeth. I took walks, cycled around, ate well, drank beer, chatted to lovely people and read a great book - all for 6 dollars a day. It did my flagging budget page the world of good! It's a wonderful place...
I'm back in Bangkok now and planning to chill out on a beach for my last two weeks. I'm heading back to Lonely Beach on Koh Chang and very much looking forward to it. I'm trying not to think about all the stuff I'm going to miss about Asia yet...and just enjoy my last little while.
Taken from email, 3/12/03 - Carrey