by Michael Connelly

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 to know.


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.

Lao boat

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

A 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,
These 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"...
A boat coming up the river with a couple of kids. The boats move slowly but are quite stable, at least at this level of current....
....bear 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.
Your Author, in the woodland drydock with a pair of boats. I am a two minute walk through the woods to the hydro station previously described.
This 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.
A similar boat with the author's foot, size 9.5 boot, to show size.

Look at the size of that bottom plank!
Near 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 boat over.
Boats made from fuel tanks dropped by US airplanes as they headed back to Thailand during the Vietnam war....
....They weren't allowed to land with fuel so the tanks were dropped in Laos, at this point very close to the Thai border....
....Made 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.
Jungle Boy Martin (aged 16)
Ferry 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 recall.
Our 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....
a 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...
Nick Ascot in the hat that's backwards and his friend Edi from Switzerland. Nick runs the travel biz, Edi helps with the website, 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...