Secrets of the Mekong
By Peggy Wright
There is no pier. Instead, we climb down the muddy riverbank, navigate a plank, and cross over a neighbouring vessel to reach ours. We make ourselves comfortable sitting on floor cushions.
In a former life this converted barge plied the river hauling rice and supplies, but today she makes her living hauling the likes of us-two robust adventurers from British Columbia. We are on the Mekong River in northern Laos, embarking upon a two-day slow boat journey, bound for the world heritage city of Luang Prabang.
Dodging pinnacle-like rocks rising from the water, our boat navigates endless rapids. Sand bars-most planted in peanuts force our pilot to maneuver from bank to bank. The vivid green countryside is dotted with bamboo dwellings, and at river's edge children play, dogs run, women pan for gold, and water buffalo luxuriate, half sub merged-a glimpse of Lao life.
Teak and palm trees carpet the nearby mountainsides, and low mist hugs the tops of hills, creating an ethereal visual experience. It's peaceful, lush, tropical, mesmerizing. We are halfway around the world among people whose language we cannot understand, yet I know this is where I am meant to be-discovering the secrets of this mighty river.
The 4,880-km-long Mekong births in the Himalayas. The 11th longest river in the world, it courses through China, Thai land, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia before emptying into the sea in Vietnam. For land-locked Laos, a country with few roads, it is a river highway. Stopping downstream to register our boat, we see soldiers with shoulder-slung rifles passing by with three chow dogs. My sister's camera lifts for a shot and I quietly suggest, "Not such a good idea."
"Where are they going?" I ask our guide.
"To the jungle," he replies . "To do what?"
"To catch snakes." "With rifles? To eat?" "Yes."
We are offered a Lao coffee dark, no transparency, perhaps born of the river-and a Lao treat of chili-marinated raw fish in a plastic bag. "Good to eat with beer," we are told. We accept the muddy coffee. Big chunks of the riverbank are torn away, and sand depos its, a source of building material for local homes, create small beaches. We meet a small number of Khamu people, members of the largest of Laos' many ethnic tribes, in a village where we watch men make knives. A hand-propelled funnel of air fans coals to generate heat high enough to bend the steel. The new knives are then sharpened by hand, rubbed against stone, and lubricated with water intensive labour with impressive results.
Laughing children follow us, many half-clothed, but we see self-sufficiency. Ducks, chickens, chicks, pot-bellied pigs, tiny piglets, and dogs with puppies are everywhere. A young woman spreads rice to dry, constantly having to shoo away opportunistic hens. A child pounds rice, separating grains from hulls. It's a visit back in time, but as the children call out "goodbye" and "au revoir," we know we have been preceded by others.
As the evening wraps the river in shadows, we witness an indescribable light show. We have reached Pakbeng, the halfway point. Our overnight stay at a French colonial lodge, high on the riverbank, delivers unexpected opulence. Here we meet up with other river travellers, mostly from Europe. Together, from the open-air dining room with its commanding views and its bougainvillea, we toast an amazing journey and share our secrets of the Mekong.