Along the Mekong

3 Feb

Since we moved to Southeast Asia, taking a boat on the Mekong River has been on my bucket list. A frequent reader of this blog may know of my mild boat obsession: I love boats of all shapes and sizes. Boating on the Mekong is listed as a must in my trusty (sometimes) 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, as well as the Lonely Planet guides for every country in the area. The Mekong River is an integral part of all of the countries it flows through; beginning in China, it runs through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, before forming a huge delta in Vietnam and emptying into the South China Sea. It is the 12th largest river in the world, and is over 2,703 miles long. The people who live along its banks are dependent upon the river for food, transportation, and a host of other items. In short, the river is big and important, and I really wanted to take a boat down it.

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Sunset over the Mekong, looking back at Thailand

The Mekong flows into Thailand from Myanmar, and forms a large portion of the northern border with Laos (the s is silent). After meeting up with Mo, my dear teaching buddy, we headed north from Chiang Mai to cross the river into Laos. Our border crossing turned into a bit of an adventure; the bus from Chiang Mai dropped us on the side of the highway, with nothing in sight but a long line of tuk-tuks. With no bargaining possibilities, we paid to zoom the 4km to the border. In the past few years, Thailand and Laos have constructed several Friendship Bridges linking the two countries. The 4th official Friendship Bridge connects the small towns of Chiang Khong in Thailand to Houay Xay in Laos. The bridge approach is a giant, gleaming white archway that rises up out of the middle of nowhere. Tuk-tuk paid for, we exited Thai immigration and waited patiently for the bus to cross (no walking allowed). When it arrived, we found ourselves in the middle of a herd of mainland Chinese tourists laden down with the equivalent of a Costco shopping spree: 48-packs of TP, giant pillows, etc. In the scramble that followed, we somehow shoved our way aboard, and rode the short distance squashed like sardines. Several immigration forms and another tuk-tuk ride later, we safely arrived in the Lao PDR, ready for our boat adventure!

At this point, a little history of Laos seems important (you knew this was coming, didn’t you?). The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is a one-party socialist situation with communist roots. Prior to European arrival, the Lao kings had ruled fairly steadily amid various spats with Thailand and Burma. Then the French appeared in Indochina. In 1893, the existing three Lao kingdoms of Luang Prabang, Vientianne, and Champasak were united as a French protectorate. Colonialism didn’t do much for the economy, but the country did absorb quite a bit of French culture, as reflected in the food and architecture in the cities. Laos gained independence in 1953 as a constitutional monarchy; however, the calm was short-lived.

Bombs turned into bracelets

Bombs turned into bracelets

The Vietnam War quickly spilled into the neighboring countries. The newly formed Pathet Lao, the Lao communist party, took up residence in caves in the northern part of the country, and with the support of the Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge, began to fight the monarchy in an escalating civil war. The US proceeded to drop over two million tons of ordnance on the Pathet Lao in a tragically misguided effort to stop the spread of communism. Laos has the unhappy distinction of being the most-bombed country of the Vietnam War, although the US did not acknowledge having done so for years afterwards. UXO (unexploded ordnance) is still a huge issue in Laos. Rather than deterring communism, the bombing campaign increased popular support for the Pathet Lao, and the monarchy was overthrown in 1975. The king and his family disappeared mysteriously… The government is ranked as one of the most corrupt in the world, with a poor human rights record, especially among the Hmong and other hill tribes, and many Lao live below the poverty line.

All that being said, the country of Laos is gorgeous. Orestes, Mo, and I spent two full days floating down the Mekong on a converted rice barge, admiring the amazing scenery. We made an overnight stop in the small town of Pak Beng, as well as short visits to multiple hill tribe villages and the Pak Ou caves, which are filled with a zillion Buddha statues. We sampled potent rice whiskey, and had a few spells of refreshingly chilly weather (although some of us were colder than others – see Mo below). It’s hard to explain just how big the Mekong is. From the high water marks on the banks, it is clear that the river is an unstoppable force; I kept pondering the sheer amounts of water surrounding us and being awestruck all over again. Relaxing on the boat was delightful, and I loved every minute of it. Orestes’ two cents on our boating experience? “It was relaxing but I wish it was shorter.” So there you have some differing opinions. 🙂

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Boat ride selfie!

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Where is Mo?

 

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2 Responses to “Along the Mekong”

  1. elaine mccormick February 6, 2015 at 6:48 pm #

    Wow; sounds like a fabulous time. I truly enjoy reading about your travel adventures; keep them coming. Love you both. Mom

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Vientiane | The Jacksons Take Thailand - November 5, 2016

    […] We spent the remainder of our time in Vientiane ambling about, seeing the sights and taking refreshment breaks. We visited the Lao National History Museum, which is housed in an old colonial villa. As with many museums in Southeast Asia, a visible lacking of funding leads to outdated displays that show a decided lack of upkeep. In several spots on the second floor, I was a little worried we might fall through the dodgy wooden floorboards. However, the museum was interesting as it went through all of Lao history from the Stone Age to 2007 AD or so. The blatant anti-American and anti-Western sentiment in the exhibits about the Vietnam War is readily apparent; to be fair, we did bomb Laos excessively during this period, so lingering resentment is completely understandable. (For more on Laos history, check out my post here.) […]

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