Tuesday, February 10, 2009

My (two-day) life on the Mekong

The two-day slow boat ride to Luang Prabang, Laos, began with a short ferry ride from Chang Khong, Thailand, a quiet strip of guesthouses and restaurants nestled against the banks of the Mekong River about a six-hour bus ride north of Chiang Mai.

The bus ride north was tolerable, the twisting monotonous span of road cut across terraced fields and through wide canyons while Thai music videos – fraught with heartache – played on an old television strapped into a small shelf at the front of the bus.

After pulling into Chang Khong just as dark was settling on the one-lane town, I checked into an immaculate guesthouse drowning in teak furniture and Thai artifacts, overlooking the placid expanse of the river. Across the main road, the guesthouse's restaurant offered bowls of red and green curries – chunks of turnip, tomato and onion swimming in a spicy broth – that was welcome nourishment after a day spent eating hot-chili-squid-flavored chips and drinking green Thai soda.

In the morning, the guesthouse owner's brother expedited our visa process – a few stamps and some signatures at a restaurant down the road – and dropped us at the ferry pier. A dozen farang piled into a sliver of a boat, which sliced its way across the glassy water, landing on the Laos side of the border.

The immigration process in Huay Xai – the Laos town opposite the river from Chang Khong – lacked any semblance of order. Scrambled herds of farang clambered about on a concrete platform, filling out visa forms and moving from one undermanned window to another. Our expedited visas didn't clear any hurdles for us; all the farang seemed bound by the same innocuous-but-time-consuming red tape. But according to one, a tanned and wrinkled man from England, this Laos immigration checkpoint was an exemplar of bureaucracy: he had recently come from Tibet where, he told me, the immigration official at the border had to be woken from a nap, whereupon the farang was led to a line of hundreds of other border crossers and spent most of the day waiting in queue.

The plain hulk of the slow boat – a 12-foot-wide, 45-foot long, shallow, covered craft – left the Huay Xai pier at 12 p.m. An incredibly loud, massive engine puttered the oversized raft downstream along compacted sand beaches and thick-with-green banks, while pillars of smoke from rubbish fires dissipated in the thickening haze. The mountainous terrain of Laos rose up steadily, like unfolding layers of a fan, while water buffalo lazed in the sun, barely lifting the heads as the slow boat droned along the muddy, sweet-smelling drift.

The young crew – a cluster of smiling boat boys – traded off tending a small cooking fire on the back deck – blackened pots scattered about, cooking utensils hanging from crudely fashioned hooks. A canister of a dozen brightly colored toothbrushes hung to the left of the back doorway across from a line of drying laundry. Farangs lounged with books or playing cards or – for those who showed up to the pier with last night's beer in hand – slept on a thin straw mat at the center of the boat. Two hill tribe women across from my bench also napped – one against the crook of her hand, the other against the blue-railed sideboard of the boat.

Jutting worn rock crept from around the jungled maws of the river's bends, while a jovial young Laos man in a military-green jacket and a red bombardier's scarf steered the boat. The skeletal remains of drooping bamboo poles – fishing nets strung like cobwebs – lodged in the multicolored limestone rising up from the brown water. Small children on the banks stood in the shallow lees, framed by white crumbling beachhead now exposed in the dry season – the river halved by the heat – and compacted by layers of animal blood, plant ash and the plodding insistence of history.

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