Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Down the Mekong River

At around 5,000 km long, the Mekong is the world's 7th longest river. Born on the Tibetan Plateau, it flows through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. A popular journey with backpackers is the 2-day slow boat trip from Chiang Khong, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos and we decided to embark on it. Plus, our friend Stueve back in SF did the same trip a few years ago and highly recommended it. Here's how it all went down...

Sunset on the Mekong at the end of the 1st day.
To do this trip from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos you need 3 full days:
  1. Day 1:  6 hour by minivan from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong (small village on the border with Laos and close to the Golden Triangle, the border between 3 countries: Burma, Thailand and Laos) - sleep in Chiang Khong overnight. 
  2. Day 2: A multistep, multi-transport process: 
    • minivan from Chiang Khong to the Thai side of the Mekong river
    • small boat to cross the river into the Laos side of the river, into the Houei Say village where we did the immigration process. 
    • pickup truck from the immigration checkpoint to the slow boat loading dock
    • 8 hour boat ride to Pak Beng, where we arrived at 6pm and stayed overnight. (the boats can't go during the night because the river is very shallow at this time of the year, there are lots of rocks cropping out of the water and the navigation is often avoiding rocks and shallow spots, or going through rapids.) 
     3.  Day 3: 10-hour boat ride from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang.

The slow boat dock where we boarded for our 2-day journey down the river.

On the way from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, the minivan made a stop in Chiang Rai so we can see the famous white temple. Despite being surrounded by hundreds of tourists (which I graciously avoided photographing), it was still quite beautiful to see.

The entrance to the White Temple has these beautiful hand sculptures, jutting out from a pond underneath a bridge. I think they symbolize people who went to hell, but maybe in Buddhist religion they mean something else.

Another smaller white temple behind the big white temple.

The guesthouse where we slept the first night at Chiang Khong. To our great surprise, it even had a swimming pool. This place was included in the price we paid for the boat ticket and was arranged by the travel agency. There are some people who prefer to do this whole thing on their own, but if you add up the costs, it ends up costing more than if you do it through a travel agency. We paid 1,600 Baht (52 USD) through the agency, which included the boat ticket for 2 days, the minivan on the 1st day and all the other minivan and boat transfers, this room, dinner, breakfast and lunch box for the boat. It was well organized, it cuts off a lot of hassle in negotiating individual fares and you really can't beat this price.

The courtyard of our guesthouse in Chiang Khong. That night we went out for a stroll down the Mekong river. It was already dark out, so there was not much to see. We met some fishermen who were blasting music through a huge generator-powered speaker and went to hang out with them. What drew us there was this vintage motorbike that we really loved. Anne has a photo with it that she may add to her blog post. The fishermen were actually living right there, in tents and shacks set up right on the shore. They invited us over to drink shots of rice whiskey with them, which we did. We hung out there for about 30 minutes, playing with their dog and having the most basic of conversations, mostly with hands and onomatopoeia.

Crossing the border from Thailand into Laos by a teeny tiny boat.

These are the slow boats that commute with people up and down the Mekong river every day. They packed over 150 of us and our backpacks into one of these boats. We felt like sardines, but we were having a lot of fun.

View of the boat at the beginning of the trip, when everyone was calm and sitting. By the end, it was a big party, with a crew of British kids keeping it loud and beer-filled towards the back of the boat.

Our boat captain. He was wearing rolled up brown fabric pants and a cool shirt - he could have fit in great with the hipster kids in San Francisco.

All along the way we'd pass villages, where kids were having the times of their lives, swimming and playing in the water. When they saw the boat, they'd start screaming and waving at us, sometimes even starting to swim fast towards us. 

Sometimes, the Mekong reminded me of the Danube and my hometown.

We made two friends on this trip: Scott and Mitch from Eugene, Oregon. We ended up hanging out with them for the following 5 days and enjoyed the company of fellow and like-minded Americans.This is them and Anne killing time on the boat with a game of Uno.

The views from the boat were breathtaking. The landscape the entire time was rolling hills covered with the most dense jungle you could ever imagine. We went past villages with houses built on stilts and made of palm tree leaves and bamboo. The smaller villages didn't seem to have electricity. I didn't take too many photos, just sat there and watched life on the Mekong go by in front of my eyes and tried to imprint it into my visual memory.

The party on the boat is getting started! People tried to climb up on the roof, but the captain yelled at them to get back inside. People were hanging out from the boat "windows" mostly on one side, making the boat tilt sideways, so the driver had to yell at us again. Yell is too strong of a word, since people in Laos never get angry. He just waved and mumbled some words on Lao language, but nobody saw or paid any attention to him. So, someone else had to go over to the trouble-makers and tell them in English what they were supposed not to do.

The Brit boys party crew.

Scott killing time with a Beerlao and some doodles.

Mitch, killing time with a Beerlao and a cigarette. Some moments on the trip, like this one, made me miss smoking, but I kept strong and didn't give in. I gave in drinking beer again: that big bottle costs only 1.3 USD here, even in restaurants.

There were hundreds of sandy beaches everywhere, and that made me think of Willits, a place dear to me by a river in Mendocino, northern California. My friends and I have a favorite patch of sand on the Eel river outside of Willits - here on the Mekong, there were hundreds of such lonesome and idyllic patches of sand. If there's something I regret is that the boat didn't make a stop at one of these beaches to let us go for a swim.

Dinner in Pak Beng, where we spent the second night. Here we met an Irish guy (on the right end of the photo), who was moving to Sao Paulo, Brazil to be with a Brazilian girl he fell in love with and whom he met when he was traveling in Russia. Small world, eh? He was just smoking a ciggie on the street outside our restaurant, we saw him and started talking to him. Then invited him up to get dinner and a beer with us.

8:30am third day - boarding the boat again. I can't describe the hassle of putting your backpack in and especially taking it out of the boat. All backpacks were stored under the floor, so they had to take some wood panels out of the floor to open the cavity underneath, tightly pack in all our backpacks, and then put the floor paneling back on. When you get off, there's a bit of chaos, because you have 150 people waiting for their backpacks to be taken out of the belly of the boat and matched with their owner. Despite all this chaos, everything works out well.

Market on the side of the river.

On the second day, the boat was even smaller than on the first day and we were squeezed in even tighter.You don't have a seat number assigned, and seats are on a first-come basis. If you come early, you get the good seats at the front of the boat. Get there late and you're stuck in the back, hanging for 9 hours next to a deafening engine.

I spent many of the 9 hours on the second day listening to "This American Life" episodes. One great aspect of traveling and long bus/boat rides is it gives you big chunks of time during which you can really immerse yourself in reading a good book or listening to a great podcast.

We arrived safely in Luang Prabang on the 3rd day in the evening. After spending a few days in this beautiful sleepy town, we are now getting ready to embark on another long voyage: a 24 hour night bus over windy roads, that will take us from Laos to Vietnam.