Our transport was a longboat, powered by a small inboard motor, owned and piloted by a skilful river man, with a front boatman to help guide him. Fourteen of us crammed into the boat, with our packs. Our Lao guide Som Pon was there too, to take us into the right villages and explain local life to us. We were sitting on narrow slats that soon cut into our backsides, so we eventually rearranged ourselves to sit with our backs against the sides, feet resting on the other side. Reinforcing rods formed arches above our heads to support feed bags as shade!
Of course it had been planned that we would travel in a much larger vessel, which did not eventuate. The longboat had very little freeboard, the river slopping over to cool us every now and then. We were very careful not to move much, fearing we might all end up in the wild muddy water! Stuart’s notes on the trip say “You do not cruise the Mekong, you try to outwit it. The river terraces its way through the mountains. At any point you can see ‘steps’ of water at different levels beside you. Granite spurs do their bit to get the sediment well dispersed, whirlpools the size of houses wave trapped logs as a warning to passing traffic.”
We called in at several villages, one Lao and another Hmong, and were welcomed by very friendly beautiful people. Ban Paktha was a Lao village, full of smiling children, bold men and shy women who looked at us with curiosity.
In Ban Paktha we also met a group of Khymer men who had come on a trading mission. An in-between village sold us Mekong River whiskey, or Lao Lao, a clear liquid in a plastic drink bottle, with either a screw cap or a piece of plastic wrap as a lid. The third village was distinctly different. Houses were built on the ground instead of on stilts, and traditional Hmong clothing was worn by everyone. Ban Huay Nor Hom also sported a mud bath for their pigs; a constant drip of mountain water into an enclosure on the river bank kept the pigs cool and happy! The Medicine man demonstrated his pipe, much to the delight of the children.
By late afternoon we had relaxed into our slots in the boat, thinking that it would all be well. We were in awe of the river, so turbulent, uneven and filled with menacing whirlpools where currents met. It seemed our boatmen were negotiating it all flawlessly.
What happened next and how our plans were changed will all be told tomorrow!