Bangkok to Hanoi: On the Mekong

Stuart sat in the front when we started, perched on narrow slats

Stuart sat in the front when we started, perched on narrow slats

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!

looking forwards after we had rearranged ourselves

looking forwards after we had rearranged ourselves

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.

typical river village

typical river village

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.

Lisa wearing Stuart's hat, front boatman, late afternoon

Lisa wearing Stuart’s hat, front boatman, late afternoon

What happened next and how our plans were changed will all be told tomorrow!

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16 thoughts on “Bangkok to Hanoi: On the Mekong

  1. wonderful images accompanying the daring adventure description.
    i have fond memories of paddling then hiking up to the Huong Tich cave
    a most beautiful temple on the Chua Huong mountain 🙂

  2. yes, we noticed that too … it was even funnier the next day when we travelled in speedboats … we had to wear very heavy motor bike helmets which would have sunk us straight to the bottom if we went in! Of course the helmets were meant to protect us if we hit a rock in the river 🙂

      • There are sections, of course, and also the seasons! I can see the water, while still pretty low, is full of mud from the beginning of the Monsoon. It was brown when I was there, but not soupy like that! One of the books I read about her, John Keay’s “Mad About the Mekong” recounts the 1860s French Exploration Commission’s expedition – it must have been hell but makes thrilling reading, along with reproductions of some of the official artist’s sketches – so like Stuart’s.

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