It was a strange set of events
that first led me to Laos with my then-12-year-old-son, Martin.
Yet, there we were, five years ago, in the mid reaches of the
Mighty Mekong River, Laos to the left, Laos to the right, and
ourselves marooned on a sandbar with a broken propellor to our
rear.... It took our crafty boatman about an hour to bash the
prop into functionality with some handy rocks, and then we were
on our way once again down river towards Luang Prabang...
A year later, we were back in the
general area, this time at a place where the Mekong serves as
the border between Thailand and Laos . In this instance, and it
was nothing to do with the gin from duty free and the limes we
had carried from America, we were adrift in a much larger boat,
hoping the current didn't sweep us toward the Lao side of the
river as we were totally sans appropriate visas and other documentation.
We like Laos, but we like to be legal too... That time, it took
us a couple of hours to be rescued, and involved considerably
more modern technology-- cell phones, radios and what all, and
a tow from an equally large boat....
Nick - (click to enlarge)
So our initial aquatic ventures
involving watercraft in Southeast Asia were not entirely trouble
free and inspiring. Yet when our pal Nick, who lives in Northeast
Thailand and who was largely responsible for our being on those
boats in the first place, proposed a trip into central Laos that
involved a shift from one side of the mountains to the other via
a seven kilometer boat ride through a tunnel on narrow boats we
thought, "Well, we're due for a spot of smooth sailing"
and said yes. So last January, Martin (now 16 and a half) and
I endured 36 hours of flying and airport waiting to get back to
Nick's place, and then with him and a Chinese woman from Beijing
and a couple of Swiss guys on holiday, and Nick's wife (Nick having
managed to lose his passport the week before) we headed off to
Laos and her rivers...
Sparing you the description of
the travel to the village where we boarded the boats, we flash
forward to last January, when it was already quite warm in central
Laos by day, this despite it being the "cool and dry"
season. One doesn't want to contemplate what the "hot and
wet" season must be like....
Li in one of the boats
We spent a couple of days in the
village, where we had brought a few hundred dollars worth of books
and medicine (anyone who feels like spending a couple or three
months teaching English in a remote area of Laos for no pay under
somewhat reduced conditions, feel free to drop me a line and I'll
put you in touch with Nick) getting to know the people there a
little, and then it was time to lug our stuff a couple of klics
to the river. A gentle rain falling on us (unseasonable, but there
you have it, we were getting wet and we hadn't even gotten to
the river yet). Then came a gentle pppppppppppppppbbbbbbbbbb and
around the bend swept one, two, three, four boats. Long and low
and narrow, with long straight shafts and props affixed directly
to little gas engines that were balanced on the extremely narrow
transom. Loading them up was a delicate process, and Gail, Nick's
Laotian wife, was very concerned about the passports and cameras,
so we took extra care getting those sealed up.
The trip through the cave was marvelous--
and dark. The only light was the narrow beam and spot cast by
the headlamps worn by the boatmen, one fore and one aft on each
boat. The cave was quite large, limestone having been worn down
for time out of mind, but the ceiling was low enough in a few
places for me to wonder whether it would be navigable during the
monsoon season. We had to get out several times over the next
couple of hours to negotiate sand bars and shallows-- the water
was cool but not cold, and seemed to be free of fish, but hard
The boats were stable enough at
the modest speed we were developing-- I heard Gail tell each crew
that we wanted to go slow and safe-- but I'm not sure she needed
to bother. We ran into some other boats heading downriver, and
they seemed to be making the same speed we were.
We emerged at the other end to
find that however high the mountains were we had just snuck under,
they weren't high enough to stop the clouds we had been under,
and we unloaded the boats in a fine mist that strengthened to
a light drizzle as we waited for something (carts, help, sherpas,
anything...) and watched some rather large monkeys with long black
tails cavort and frolic up above our heads.
I don't think there are any tours
at reasonable price that would take you from one end of the Mekong
to the other, but I think it could be done by the intrepid, starting
in China, sliding past Burma, going into Laos then next to Thailand,
into Cambodia past Phnom Phen (where the river is around a mile
wide-- if you do go, I recommend the view from the Foreign Corespondent's
Club), and finally into Vietnam. Myself, I've been to Cambodia
and have no hankering to return, but China is nice, and Burma,
I have heard people who have been there say, is nice as well.
Laos is one of my favorite places on earth, and northern Vietnam
at least, was a lot of fun when Martin and I went there.
As an aside I would mention
that although Martin was keen to build one of these Lao boats,
I found only reasons not to-- for one thing, even the shortest
are unbelievably heavy. The planks are around an inch thick or
better, and are solid tropical hardwood (technically some is softwood,
but it's damned hard softwood, trust me), so they start off heavy
and then get heavier as they soak up river water and rain. Next
the freeboard, at the lowest point, when fully laden, is as close
as I'd like to see to zip. We're talking a couple of inches or
so for quite a long piece of the middle of the boat. Long and
narrow, they are well suited to the twisty, often narrow and usually
shallow rivers in Laos, but wouldn't work as well in the broader,
more wind swept and deeper rivers near us in Maine. And they are
heavy-- these are not cartoppy boats. Even a 12 footer weighs
a lot and a longer boat would be way heavier still... For us,
Monfort's canoes and Mouse boats make quite a bit more sense.
Yet these are great fun
to be in if you happen to be on a river in Laos, a circumstance
that I highly recommend.
(click pictures to enlarge)
Electricity in central Laos-- hydro power, *very* low
head, like about one
three plank jobbie, one each for the sides and one for the
bottom. Planks are about an inch thick, a smidge more perhaps.
*Heavy* doesn't describe these boats. They are used both
in the interior in Laos, where this was, near Ban Boneng
just upriver from the Konglo Cave. The Chinese woman in
the red vest is our pal Li,
boats are made of either teak or one of the umpteen varietyies
of mahogany, and range from around 12 feet to over 20 feet
long. Often paddled solo, they carry two and gear easily
and are thye real transportation workhorses in the region,
especially in the mountains where roads require a whole
new vocabulary to describe "bad"...
boat coming up the river with a couple of kids. The boats
move slowly but are quite stable, at least at this level
in mind this was the "cool and dry season" so
the rivers were low and moving slowly, and it was only 80F
or so at midday....
.....Of course at night, it was cold as hell, but this was
our second trip at this time of year (January) to the highlands
of Laos, so we were well prepared. This time. Let's not
talk about the first time.
Author, in the woodland drydock with a pair of boats. I
am a two minute walk through the woods to the hydro station
shows one of the two boats-- you can see it's slightly different
at the stern, quite wide, in fact I think this is two planks
wide. Note the notch in the penultimate crossmember, suggesting
that this boat was used with a motor. Honda produces a rig
for the region, which includes a motor and a very long shaft
with a small propeller.
similar boat with the author's foot, size 9.5 boot, to show
at the size of that bottom plank!
KUANKATCHA the village we stayed at right before we went
through the KONGLO CAVE. Name of River? Don't know... We
were hanging out, waiting for our boats to arrive, when
these three guys came by.
Li amidships, waiting patiently for more gear (probably
200-250 pounds) and the boat guys - a stern man and a fellow
at the front. Note the Honda rig I mentioned in the next
made from fuel tanks dropped by US airplanes as they headed
back to Thailand during the Vietnam war....
weren't allowed to land with fuel so the tanks were dropped
in Laos, at this point very close to the Thai border....
of aluminum, they have proven very durable, and ply the
waters near a humongous river now dammed to create a resevoir
to generate electricity, most of which will go to Thailand.
Boy Martin (aged 16)
boats in Laos (anything else is unknown on the Mekong River)
to ferry people from Thakaek (Laos) to Nakorn Phanom (Thailand)
and back. Cost of a ride was about 50¢ one way as I
pal Li from China, Me, Gail, Edi, and the long haired guy
is Chris, also from Switzerland, who was rambling through
Thailand and just came along for fun. This cart was INCREDIBLY
uncomfotable, primarily because we were going across rutted
roats, rutted fields, and just plain ruts, dragged by a
tractor-like thing, for hours in the rain.... This was not
the high point of the trip....
quartet of Lao girls in the viallage mentioned above-- the
girl in the mostly purple shirt was one of the bravest kids
in terms of interacting, talking, playing around. They were
all exceedingly cute kids... This was by the river-- the
girls had just gone for a swim (which I think counted as
a bath, all the village girls in the water for a while and
then a while later all the village boys went swimming at
the same time.)
The Medicine Handover-- guy in the middle in the blue jacket
is the village doctor, person handing him the Symbolic Box
is Gail, Nick's wife, who took us on the trip because Nick
couldn't go. I am actually in this picture, right smack
dab in the middle-- that big white nose is mine. We took
several hundred dollars worth of meds there-- mostly antibiotics
and anti-diahrea meds. We all chipped in and I think Nick
has some other donors as well. Laos has a truly miserable
life expectancy, something like 50 or 55 at birth, high
infant mortality, and is plagued by malaria and dengue fever
as well as the usual tropical miseries...
Ascot in the hat that's backwards and his friend Edi from
Switzerland. Nick runs the travel biz, Edi helps with the
, has a wife and stepchildren in Thailand he
supports full time and lives with two months of the year--
rest of the time he spends miserable and earning money in
Switzerland where he has no wife and children. Edi was on
the trip with us, and Nick was suipposed to be, but he couldn't
go because he lost his passport a few days before we were
supposed to leave...