Andy braves the Mekong at 50 mph

Sunday, November 16
Riding the Mekong Express

I had long looked forward to the day when we would travel up the Mekong into Thailand. Perhaps I had seen Apocalypse Now and Aguirre: Wrath of God a few too many times, but I've always been fascinated by river adventures. The Mekong carries such great historic and geographic imagery - to use it as our highway through northern Laos seemed like it would be a great thrill. Sometimes, though, I've found that I can be a bit romantic about these things; perhaps I'd live to regret it. We'd find out later today.

Susanne and I bought our last loaves of banana bread from the bakery - our meals for the long ride - and then met our boatman at the docks by Wat Xieng Thong. Boua Geun was supposed to meet us here as well, but we and the boatman were both early, so he wasn't anywhere to be found. Oh well; we'd still send him those books he wanted.

At the speedboat pier I purchased two tickets and checked in with the local police - standard operating procedure in Lao PDR. There were six of us plus our speedboat driver heading north that day, including a tall and dour Frenchman and some Lao nationals. The boat was about 20 feet long and no more than four feet wide. We sat two by two in little wood cubby holes barely big enough for our legs. The Lao men, having grown up in a culture accustomed to squatting, looked quite comfortable in their boxes, while Susanne, the Frenchman and I grimaced each time we feebly shifted our legs to avoid having them fall asleep. The first hour of the seven-hour journey was a real rush - riding through the water at 70 kph with no seatbelt, protected only by a crash helmet. Sitting as we were, mostly in pairs of two, all of us in helmets, I felt as if we were a bobsled crew touring Disney's Jungle Cruise ride in a speedboat. The image was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying.

Ninety minutes into the trip we stopped briefly at a police checkpoint, where a Lao officer chatted with our driver while smoking a large homemade cigar that smelled distinctly like pot. A local villager missing half of his teeth, smelling of cow manure and smoking the largest joint I've ever seen, came up to the boat and thumbed for a ride upriver to the next village. Because the seat to my right was unoccupied, he climbed in next to me, putting his smouldering zeppelin between his toes to keep it away from the wind. As soon as we took off it became obvious that this poor little fellow had never traveled in a speedboat before. His mouth locked in a huge smirk as if he were riding his first rollercoaster, while matted layers of hair flew up over the back of his head, dangling horizontally in front of the Frenchman's grumpy face.

After a minute or two, the villager began to grin like a madman, not unlike that famous picture of Charles Manson. I offered him the extra helmet that sat in front of Susanne, which he put over his unbelievably small head. He unwisely flipped the visor up and down until he raised it so high that the wind pressure snapped it backwards and nearly took his head off. Once he settled into this new element, the villager then realized that the visor would deaden the wind enough for him to smoke that joint of his, so he removed the cigar from between his toes and began to puff at it under the helmet. I struggled to maintain a straight face as the smoke filled the inside of his headgear and billowed out the sides. When we reached the village 10 minutes later, he took off the helmet, looked at me and said "Thank you" in slow but precise English. He then offered me his rank, blackened joint. I politely shook my head back and forth, gesturing with my hands to my helmet in the hopes it would mean something to him. The villager smiled again, jumped off the boat and threw the cigar into the Mekong - I guess it had served its purpose. He then walked up the beach and vanished from view into a lush thicket of trees.

Halfway between Luang Prabang and Pakbeng, our lunchtime stop, we picked up three new passengers. Two of the men carried Chiang Mai University faculty briefcases, so I figured they were along for the duration. That also meant we were overloaded by at least three too many bodies; the water sprayed heavily as we cruised up the Mekong. Susanne and I were seated up front where the spray wasn't too bad but the bumps were like someone swinging a mallet into your ass every other minute.

View of the Mekong from Pakbeng

In three hours we reached Pakbeng, a river outpost town where we would pause for lunch and change into a new boat. The outpost was a glorified wooden shack that floated precariously on the northeast bank of the river. Inside the shack several Lao families crowded together with their children and chickens, slurping down bowls of hot noodles and breastfeeding their babies. A pair of Australian backpackers and an Israeli couple sat somewhat uncomfortably at a picnic table, waiting for their ride south to Luang Prabang. Susanne and I ate our banana bread while the Israelis ordered their own bowls of noodles with fresh cilantro and bean sprouts floating on top - brave souls, I thought. The shack had an outhouse to the side, its toilet being a missing plank of wood in the center of the floor. Happy I could finally relieve myself, I wasn't bothered pondering the fact that there was nothing separating me from the flowing Mekong below except this square foot hole in the floor. Back out on deck, a Lao military officer got off another boat carrying what appeared to be an overgrown guinea pig on a rope. He left with the furry beast before we could get a close look, but Susanne concluded it was a river rat, despite my insistence on having discovered the previously unknown Mekong wombat.

Susanne rides the waves
At 1pm Susanne and I were herded onto another boat, this time to all the way in the back, just in front of the driver and his 120 decibel motor. The ride was smoother from back here, but there was even less room and our extremities were getting drenched by the spray. I almost forgot to notice that we were traveling through some of the most breathtaking river country in the world. By 2:15pm or so, we stopped at a no-name Lao village for fuel and another police checkpoint. The gas station was an aging houseboat with glass gas pumps installed on the port side. When we pulled ashore two passengers got off from the front of the boat, so we motioned to the driver to see if we could again sit up front. He smiled and then removed the back board for the very front seat, thus allowing us to sit up front with twice as much leg room. I was really touched by this gesture, but I also began to imagine he saw us as just some damn American tourists always wanting the creature comforts of home. I couldn't tell if he was being sincerely generous or just humoring us, but either way we had a comfortable ride for the rest of the trip.

Time began to fly and before I knew it we were pulling into Huay Xai around 3:30pm, the sun waning low over the Thai side of the river. We caught a jumbo through Huay Xai, a very attractive little river town, to the border post, which comprised of an "immigration officer" in a BeerLao t-shirt who was sitting around having a drink with friends. He cheerfully stamped out our passports and sent us to a sampan ferry for the two minute crossing to the Thai city of Chiang Khong.

Back in Thailand for the last time on our journey, we caught two separate samlors - one-seater bicycle rickshaws - to the bus station, where we waited with a group of novice monks for the three-hour ride to Chiang Rai. There was a fresh food market nearby, so I bought some angel cake and listened to "The Best of The Scorpions" blasting from a PA system. Two Thai men sat on a bench, mouthing the words to "Rock You Like a Hurricane." The bus left promptly at 5pm but the bus ride felt much longer than three hours as we stopped every few minutes to pick up new passengers. Apart from two or three middle-aged women on board, Susanne and I were the oldest passengers, the rest being schoolkids. The un-airconditioned bus looked very much like an American school bus, so as more and more teenagers climbed aboard I felt distinctly as if we were going on a field trip. "Bring your permission slip from home?" I asked Susanne. If not, she'd have an 18-hour ride to Bangkok before a 20-hour flight to America to pick it up from Mom and Dad.

In Chiang Rai we checked into Mae Hong Son Guesthouse, highly recommended by Lonely Planet. The room smelled like mold, the bed was a slab of concrete, the walls thin as paper. Yes, for 100 baht a night, it was cheap, but who cares about managing to spend less than three bucks when you can't sleep a wink all night? This would be the last time we'd listen to Lonely Planet when it came to "budget guesthouses." From now on, we'd upgrade to midrange accommodations - spending $12 a night would at least give us some comfort.