Over the last two days, we’ve luxuriated in some of the grandest river scenery in the world. The Mekong River flows for 3000 miles out of Tibet and through every country in SE Asia, spilling at last into the Mekong delta of Vietnam. In the north of Thailand and Laos, near the golden triangle where these two countries and Burma meet, the river is typically about 1000 feet wide and moves slowly through lush hillsides of verdant rain forest, tribal villages amid the rolling hills, precipitous limestone cliffs draped in green like those of the famous Li River in China,
and also small cultivated plots of peanuts, sweet potatoes, or corn right on the broad sandy banks.
In the morning it’s very misty, because of the cooling temperatures and all the moisture about, and makes for a much different and chillier ride. For a few hours, fog hovered on the limestone hills mimicking Sung dynasty Chinese paintings. Later the remaining moisture placed some graceful white puffy clouds to adorn the lush landscape.
For the 200 miles you move slowly downriver on the barge-like, flat-bottomed short boat, you also view a way of life out of a primordial time, with villagers fishing out of low slung long boats. Or planting bamboo fishing poles and nets into the jagged rock outcroppings that pierce the river dramatically. Or panning for gold along the banks.
Some of the tribes are open to the outsiders cruising the river so we can experience their culture and possibly buy some of their goods. Otherwise, they subsist on fishing, crops, and the naturally growing fruits – or they grow rice for sale as well as for their own use. One large village we visited, numbering about 450 people, was large and prosperous enough that most villagers had rice huts for storing their excess through the winter. And it was electrified, with electric meters spinning away in the middle of town.
Everyone there seemed to have a satellite dish, and you could hear radios playing. However, they still adhered to ancient animist beliefs despite the collision with the modern world. Another village, more oriented to tourist crafts and appeals for buying, combined several different tribes in one village, with amity and intermarriage now part of their lifestyle.
An hour from the start of our journey, we left Thailand altogether and began our stay in Laos. The river ride was the last of an array of transport in Thailand that seemed somehow typical of travel in this area. Just on the way to the river, we were driven in an air-conditioned van, then were ferried across the Mekong in a narrow long-boat, walked to and fro, shifted to a Lao version of the songthaew (flat-bed truck with canopy and benches) and then finally settled onto our nicely outfitted variation of a river barge. In the previous days, we had also sampled the sleek skytrain of Bangkok, Thai songthaews, mountain bikes, a long-tailed ferryboat, a bamboo raft, the three-wheeled motorcycle driven tuk-tuk, a Bangkok Air jet-prop (quickest), and last but not least, an elephant (slowest). We have been, in many ways, on the move.
A final note about the river cruise. One special pleasure of this part of our trip was the company of three couples from three different countries, whom we just happened to sit by when the boat took off on the first day. One came from England, another from Australia and the third from Switzerland, but we all found so many things to talk about as a group and in separate conversations throughout our 15 hours on the river. The talk ranged from business and economic questions to politics in each country to health care and pension systems to cycling and trekking, not to mention travel, of course, for these were widely experienced travelers. The English woman commented at the end of the trip how delightful our group had made the voyage, for it turned a picturesque experience into a lively cross-cultural one as well.
(For more pictures from Laos in a slide show, see the end of our Laos itinerary page by clicking here.)