Down The Mekong with No Paddle
California John and I had bummed around Bangkok for a few days before realizing the city was a bad place for men trying to stay faithful to women back home. We decided to hop a sleeper bus into North-eastern Thailand and cross the Mekong into Laos. This would be my second trip into Laos. In 1997 I'd spent eight days in Vientiane, and fallen in love with the dusty, sleepy capitol with jasmine scented air and not yet fully paved avenues.
On my previous visit, I'd entered Laos over the friendship bridge, paying $50 for a visa on arrival. But now we were approaching Laos from the north, from up north, in the Golden Triangle region, where regulations were more stringent. In Chiang Khong we were told that we'd have to get a visa on the Thai side by paying a local entrepreneur to take our money and passports over to the Lao side, after which the stamped passports would be returned to us. But by the time we arrived in Chiang Khong the Lao offices had closed for the weekend. We wound up spending two days on the Thai side in a Mekong river bungalow staring at the country we hoped to eventually visit.
There was worried grumbling among travellers over the weekend that Lao visas might not be issued at all. For Boun Pimai, the festival marking the impending arrival of the rainy season, was about to begin; rumour was that everyone in the visa office had taken off early. During this week-long celebration, children are encouraged to please the rain gods by hurling water on anything that moves.
On Monday morning Mr. Jip, the owner of the guest house where we were staying, made a few calls across the river and assured us that he'd be able to get us our visas by the afternoon. Having been warned that foreign travellers are especially welcome targets during Boun Pimai, we set about arming ourselves. From a hardware store in Chiang Khong we bought two 3-foot long water guns made from PVC tubes, rubber stoppers and a pump. It seemed a good long-range defensive weapon that would keep all but the boldest children at bay; its drawback was that it went through ammo fast.
Mr. Jip was true to his word, and by one we were standing by the dock in the Lao town of Huay Xai, weighing out our travel options for getting to Luang Prubang. Sensible people, we were told, travelled on long river ferries that make the trip over two days. Those pressed for time, or just plain speed crazed buy the services of one of the souped-up cigar boats that do it in half that time. We decided on the slow boat, and were reminded of the wisdom of our choice many times over the next two days whenever a speedboat would pass by, and we'd catch glimpses of their passengers clinging desperately to the vibrating rails, faces frozen grimaces of adrenalin and fear.
Ours was a more leisurely trip, and we watched as the river slowly cut a line into the deep jungle. By afternoon of the first day the riverfront towns of northern Thailand were behind us, and thickly wooded Laotian hills surrounded our boat on both sides. Every so often we'd pass a group of bamboo huts, and children playing in the river saluted us with ceremonial water pistol blasts. We would fire back, the high pressure streams disintegrating in the wind. That night our boat pulled into dock at a no-horse riverside town, and the children greeted us with buckets and hoses. We found a double room in a cement hotel for five dollars a person. Dinner was an uninspired chicken curry washed down with Beer Lao. At eight the power went off, so we drank beer, had a sing along with a Lao folk band, and were in bed by midnight.
In the morning we tried to make it onto the boat before the children could get us, but they were already lying in wait with buckets and pistols behind trees on the path leading down to the dock. John and I fend off the first bunch with our PVC tubes, but ran dry before getting to the boat. By fighting back we earned their respect, and ran the gauntlet without a major soaking. One of our boat companions was a Swiss backpacker who assumed neutrality would keep him dry. We listened to him cursing the children in German as he heaved his dripping rucksack onto the boat's metal roof to dry in the sun.
The heat rose quickly, and by ten AM we'd already swam a couple of times, taking advantage of the ferries brief stops to make deliveries to jump in the river. The river water was cold and clean, and though we knew they were not dangerous, the presence of lurking monster catfish was unnerving. Around noon we passed by a monastery; naked monks frolicked in the river, their saffron robes hanging from tree branches on the bank. Sometime around two we saw a traffic jam up ahead, with many boats of all sizes milling around a narrow strip of board floating next to a steep stairway hewn into the side of a rock hill. We had come to the Pak Ou caves, otherwise know as the Buddha cliff. Our boat tied up for lunch, and we were given two hours to explore.
Children lined the stairs as we made our ascent, sellers of flowers, incense, candles and drinks. Though it was the height of the water festival, there seemed to be a truce between children and adults at the Pak Ou caves. Maybe it was a combination of piety and good business sense. Or perhaps it was merely fatigue at the idea of dragging heavy buckets up hundreds of steps just to hurl water at strangers. We bought some flowers and drinks, and visited the caves up top to pay respect to the hundreds of carved stone Buddha statues up top.
Two hours after leaving Pak Ou, our boat reached Luang Prubang. Our boat was greeted by scores of bucket and super-soaker armed adolescents, and we were soaked before we'd even left the docks. We ate grilled catfish in a dockside restaurant and set out to explore the town.
Luang Prubang is a narrow, hilly finger of land sitting inside the "Y" juncture of the Mekong and Kang rivers. At its widest it is perhaps three or four avenues, and several times that long. It is a small and graceful city, unpretentious and comfortable, and seemingly untainted by the ills of the world in general. When we arrived, it also seemed totally unprepared to handle the number of tourists who'd been drawn in by the festival.
John and I spent the rest of the afternoon walking up and down the long avenues dodging kids with water balloons and squirt guns, looking for a hotel with available rooms. All the cheaper guest-houses were filled with backpackers. We finally managed to find one room in a newly restored colonial hotel with air-conditioning and cable TV for $35.
John took a shower and I watched a tennis match on CNN. In the evening we headed out. The entire city had been transformed into a festival of food stalls, open air markets and street bars. We ate broiled half-chickens on sticks and spicy green mango salad. As the hour got later, the younger children went in and the adolescents came out; many of them threw fluids other than water. Mekong whiskey was a popular choice.
We slept late the next day, but had to switch hotels due to serious financial concerns. We managed to find a flophouse on the edge of town. After checking in we heading out for one of the festivals many climaxes, the ceremonial rocket launching of school-bus length bottle rockets to call down the rain. Street battles got rowdier that day, and by nightfall the streets were filled with teenagers drunk on Mekong whiskey roaming the streets with water guns filled with the stuff. We got doused with the stuff early on before being hit with socks filled with talcum powder. The rest of the night was a blur, but I remember John and I drinking shots of the terrible Mekong whiskey with some 18 year old boys while their girlfriends drew on our faces with bright red lipstick. We ate many strange tropical fruits, but avoided the durian due to its tendency to have a toxic reaction when mixed with alcohol. Sometime in the night, bloated, stinking, and covered in flaking paste and lipstick, we headed back towards our flophouse and passed out.
The next morning we decided to leave Luang Prubang. As we left the guesthouse small children on the road pelted us with water balloons. We'd lost our PVC tubes, and were too hung over to defend ourselves in any event. The Mekong from Luang Prubang to Vientiane was too low for riverboats, and lacking funds for airfare, our only option was a ten hour bus trip treacherous mountain switchbacks. We knew the road would not be easy, but were happy nonetheless, glad to be heading for dryer land.
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Published on 12/5/05