Border officials in foreign lands intimidate me. It’s a hangover from watching ‘The Bangkok Hilton’ when I was younger, re-enforced by my perception of government officials and corruption in various places around the world. Lonely Planet dedicates an entire chapter to the crossing of borders in South East Asian countries and although I read it, all I really learned was that crossing borders is not always straightforward.
With this emotional baggage hanging around my neck you can imagine how pleased I was when the whole thing went very smoothly. We jumped on a bus, stopped at a big, white, grand looking building, whipped out the passports and handed them to the Thai immigration officials who stamped our passports and ushered us through. Jumped on another bus through no-mans land, across a bridge over the Mekong before arriving at another very similar looking grand white building. Here we struggled to work out which queue to line up in before getting to the head of one of them and handing over our passports.
Then we waited, and waited some more until one by one the two or so bus loads of other ‘farangs’ were summoned to the counter to hand over some green backs (US dollars). I wasn’t sure I had enough so had to take a loan from the Bank of Amy. I guess Australia is on good terms with Laos because we didn’t need to spend her cash and paid less than visitors from other countries. Visas all sorted, we passed one more gate with a very unofficial looking official and we were in Laos.
The Mekong stretched before us, as did a very long river boat quite unlike any I have seen before. Thirty, maybe forty metres long, the back third housed the crew, engines and kitchen while the rest was turned over to us. Seats from a minivan sat in groups of four around tables and open sided windows made it feel as though we right on the water. Colourful throw rugs draped over the seats and ornate looking woodwork decorated the rails. We took a seat along with Stan and Margaret from Scotland, Britt, Morten and their children from Denmark, Sarah and Kiel and their children from Melbourne, Ana from California and a bunch of others from around the world.
What followed was two indescribably wonderful days cruising 330 (or so) kilometres down the Mekong from Houi Xai to Luang Prabang. The Mekong is a proper river. It has real amounts of water in it, quite unlike those ephemeral water bodies I work with back home.
Even at its low, dry season ebb, the water swirls and boils and eddies as it flows downstream. Boulders and rocks are constantly passing by as are forest, steep hills and mountains. In amongst this are scattered villages and a constant slow puttering of river life. Small boats make their way up and downstream, others are anchored in rows to the shore and among the rocks always held in place by bamboo poles and slivers of rope. Fishing nets are strung up also using bamboo poles in amongst the faster flowing water and rocky crags. Children play on the waters edge and villagers tend to their peanut crops or dry then beat some bushy plant (to make brooms) on the sandy beaches.
Hour after hour we puttered along soaking in the scenery, occasionally sipping at cups of tea, coffee or hot chocolate. The weather was neither too cold nor too warm. Amy and Oliver quickly befriended the other children on board and so were off happily entertaining each other and we soon befriended their parents. Grown-up type conversations about all of the various goings on and ways of life in our respective homes soon ensued.
Along the way we stopped to visit two of the many Lao villages that line the river. The ‘Nagi of Mekong’ tour information suggested this was to, ‘observe the primitive way of life of the people’. Unfortunately, this crude zoo-like description was all too true. We jumped off the boat, cameras in hand only to quickly put them away as we followed our guide into the village.
The only way to relate the experience would be to imagine a bus load of tourists getting off in your front yard, walking all around your house and yard while you were still home and taking pictures of you as if you were a zoo animal. I tried flashing a smile at some of the villagers as we traipsed through, but received only unfriendly, almost hostile, stares in return. It was super awkward and a huge relief to re-board the boat.
We speculated for some time as we cruised on what power structures were at play in the village and who was really benefiting from this steady flow of westerners. Only a few people took part in a similar visit the next day – the rest of us waited on the boat or simply strolled up and down the shore.
This was however a small blemish on an otherwise magical two days. That said, we were conscious that in just twelve months this trip will not be an option. Seven dams are planned for the Mekong river in Laos to export hydro power to Thailand, Vietnam and China. That however is only part of the story. According to the Vientiane Times there are 82 power stations under study or construction on the Mekong and its tributaries. I struggle to reconcile the economic imperative with the environmental change, but feel immensely glad to have had the pleasure of making this journey while we can.