A Speedboat Along the Mekong

Riding upriver at 70 miles per hour
In the morning, Andy ran down to the bakery to get some banana bread and bottled water for the road. When he came back we strapped on our backbacks, pulled ourselves into a songthaew and headed for the riverbank. We sat on the steps of Wat Xieng Thong, hoping maybe Boua Geun would come by. He didn't, but a little boy smiled at me from the road. I waved, and he shyly waved back. The boatman from yesterday found us on the stairs, then led us down to his boat. We walked the plank that spanned from the sand to the deck of his longboat. This time a young man was at the bow. His son maybe? The teenager pushed the oar against the riverbank and set the long boat on its way.

The longboat pulled over at the speedboat dock a few kilometers upstream. Andy and the boatman went uphill to meet the speedboat driver while I stayed on the shore. Women stood on floating bamboo rafts and washed clothes. The boatman's assistant sat on the edge of the long boat and drew shapes in the sand with his toe. Andy called down to me and motioned that I should come up the hill. With my backpack still strapped on, I huffed and puffed my way up the unevenly placed stone steps to the top of the hill. As I was going up, I passed the boatman on his way down. We didn't really make eye contact though since I was too busy trying to find my footing on the jagged steps.

At the top of the hill, I found a little marketplace with leaf covered huts. Andy said we'd be leaving in about a half an hour, so get comfortable. I sat down on a wooden bench and looked out over the Mekong. Down below I could see the boatman shoving off. I asked Andy if he'd paid him yet. Andy shook his head no. We ran to the lip of the hillside and held up a handful of money. The boatman didn't respond. Andy had given him a 30% tip the day before, so maybe he thought we pre-paid. Or maybe he was getting a cut from the speed boat driver. Either way, we wanted to pay him for that morning's trip because we really liked him. Without stopping, the boatman and his assistant paddled downriver and out of sight.

A few minutes later, it was time to go. A couple of guys strapped our backpacks onto the front of the speedboat, handed us helmets and stuffed us into the seats. The boat looked pretty flat, rising only about two feet above the water. There was no roof, and since it was designed for speed, the skeleton of the boat was thin and sleek. The motor was in the back, and the "seats" were formed by plank dividers. We each sat in between two dividers. The space was just enough so that we could sit Indian-style somewhat comfortably. I think we each had about three and a half feet by two feet (which sounds bigger than it feels). Anyway, it wasn't that bad. I finally got my helmet to fit, slipped on my anorak, adjusted my legs and enjoyed the ride.

I have no idea how fast we were going. Andy guessed 70 kilometers per hour. Someday we'll have to do the math. Even with the helmet and its windscreen, the breeze zipped right through and ripped across my face. Multi-colored strings, tied to the front of the boat, braided themselves in the wind, rapidly unbraided, then whipped around and braided again. The ride was exhilarating. Butterflies passed by, then followed in our wake. When we cut through choppy waves, the boat slapped hard against the water. Along the riverbanks, stretches of jungle flew by.

We stopped at a police checkpoint, showed our passports and continued on. A couple hundred feet down the riverbank, we pulled over again for a young man who was thumbing a ride to the next village. He squeezed in next to Andy. Since he was riding behind me, I couldn't really see him, but I could smell him. Even in the open wind, I could smell the pot on this guy. Marijuana must have seeped into the fibers of his clothing. Andy later told me that he had an enormous, cigar-sized joint smoldering between his left foot toes. Eventually he figured out how to smoke it under his helmet. He tossed Andy a wide grin and offered him a toke. Andy politely declined.

The first few hours were fun, but this trip was seven hours long, and after another checkpoint, more villagers sqeezed in next to us. Suddenly my three and a half foot space became two feet. I had to hug my knees to my chest so we could all fit. After three hours, we stopped at another checkpoint, the village of Pakbeng. The driver directed us all off the boat. It was a much needed chance to stretch our legs. Pakbeng was the most bizarre police checkpoint I have ever seen. It was a floating bamboo hut, covered with dried palm leaves. A rope anchored this barge to a sand hill on the riverbank. A wooden plank ran from the hut to the land, and a rope, stretched across and above the plank, functioned as a handrail.

Pakbeng river outpost

Policemen took our passports, crossed the plank, climbed up the hill and walked out of sight. We wandered around the crowded bamboo raft. It was maybe 15 feet by 30 feet. Wooden benches crouched next to cracked wooden tables. Other speedboat travellers piled up on the raft like refugees at an outpost near the edge of the world. Babies cried; monks rested against a wooden beam. Tired westerners put their elbows on their knees and dropped their heads. The bathroom was on the far end of the floating raft, not covered by the palm leaf roof. Basically it was a box made out of wooden planks, large enough to stand in, but not wide enough to stretch out your arms. In the middle of this box was a rectangular hole cut into the floor. I could see the current of the Mekong flowing under me.

While waiting outside under the roof of this floating hut, we saw a man in a Lao army uniform climb out of a speedboat. He held a leash in his hand, and dangling on the end of the leash was... well, I'm not sure what it was. It had all the features of a rat: the long tail, a pinkish twitching nose and whiskers, but if this was a rat it was huge. Bigger and fatter than a domestic bunny, this thing could take on a dog. The army officer tied it to the hut and walked across the plank and up the hill. That gave us the perfect opportunity to stare at it from only a few feet away. My guess is that it was a giant Asian water rat. Andy joked that it was a wombat, even though we knew this was the wrong continent. I have to say, it did look a lot like a hairless wombat. Very strange. I hope it wasn't meant to be the officer's dinner, but then I can't imagine it was his pet.

A man in flip flops walked down the dirt hill and a little boy, naked from the waist down, tumbled after him. The man spoke with our speedboat driver, then climbed back up the hill. The boy followed. I dusted off my camera, studied the "water rat," then decided to explore the riverbank. I crossed the plank bridge and climbed halfway up the hill. From my lookout point, I could see over the raft, across the coffee-colored river and clear through to the green jungles along the far side of the inlet.

Finally the policemen came back down the hill and gave us our passports. We crunched into the speedboat along with eight other people. This time we got stuck in the back. If you ever get into a speedboat, try to get a seat in the front. The motor is in the back, and the water constantly splashes on your sleeves and legs. We had ear plugs, but the roar of the motor buzz-sawed right through them. Wadded up in a human ball, soaked and deaf, these last few hours got to be pretty uncomfortable. After a few men departed, the speedboat driver (who seemed to realize we were miserable) put us up in the front and took out one of the wooden dividers. I could actually sit with both legs fully extended. It was wonderful, and for the last stretch, the ride was fun again.

After seven hours on the water, we reached Huay Xai, the border city between Laos and Thailand. We took a tuk-tuk to the Lao P.D.R. border patrol, then walked down to the riverbank. The water serves as a border between the two countries, so we had to catch another boat to bring us to the Thai side. A young man guided us onto his splintered long boat and rowed us to the other side. We sat facing the Lao side, and as we crossed the water, the riverbank became hazier, washed out by the afternoon sun.

We stepped out of the boat and onto Thai ground - the city of Chiang Khong. After going through the border procedure, we each took our own samlor - a bicycle rickshaw - to the bus station. The bus to Chiang Rai wasn't due to take off for some time, so we wandered around the nearby market stalls, checking out the stacks of fruit and piles of freshly chopped meat. We picked up a couple bottles of Coke and boarded the bus. Ninety percent of the other passengers were school children and teenagers. A young monk sat in the back reading. A little boy kept pulling away from his mother and toddling up to us. He tilted his head and stared at Andy. We made a couple funny faces and Andy tried to talk to the boy in Thai. The mother would come, shake her head apologetically and scoop him up. Within a few minutes though, the boy would struggle out of her grasp and come back to us. This went on until it was time for the two of them to get off. The mother picked him up and stopped to let us say good-bye before they stepped down. With the entertaining child gone, I turned my attention to the landscape. I pressed my forehead up against the glass and watched the rice paddies and jagged mountains go by. The sun went down, and our view became limited to what we could see by the headlights. Every once in a while, we came across people burning trash in their front yards. Thick columns of smoke and red embers rose out of crackling bonfires. After three hours, we arrived in the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai.