Posts Tagged Mekong

Luang Prabang, Laos

Some places in the world have called to me since I was young and first read Jack London or Samuel Clemens. Laos is not one of those places but more of a location that you slowly become aware of as one of the strange names in a geography class with no context or identifying markings. To be honest, if it was not between us and our destination we would not travel here but it is….so we are here.

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Laos is a small land locked country with dozens of tribes making up a diverse group of humble, modest and friendly people. The cultural focus on education and language jumps out at us immediately and we find we are asked questions about our culture as much as we ask about theirs. After so long in Cambodia, the bright eyed and inquisitive nature of the Laos people is a nice change.

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The remote mid-sized town (it does have a new international airport) we arrived at is called Luang Prabang and sits on the Mekong and a few other rivers that wind themselves down from the foothills of the Himalayas. Not far from here is the fictional location that found Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. The frontier feel is palpable and comparable to being on the Amazon. This town is the entry point for some of the most remote locations and tribes in SE Asia. Most people come here to head off on weeklong treks into the hills to stay with some of these tribes. There is a valley near the border that is thought to have been for 50 years now, the vector for the world’s only treatment resistant malaria.

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Trekking sounds fun but we just don’t have it in us, so we spent our 5 days or so in Laos, wandering the river and town. Tamara discovered a craft village that taught foreigners how to weave silk, make dyed yarn from natural plants and create bamboo baskets. She had a great time and I rested up from the stress of travel with some great beer and a book. If you are interested the beer is called BeerLao, is very light and made from Jasmine Rice. It is one of my new favorite beers and one of the few exports for the entire country.

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We did a touch of hiking on the trip and found ourselves at a travertine waterfall that wound its way down a hill through limestone deposits that caused the water to look crystal clear blue. The limestone causes buildups that create step pools. It was only when we started to swim did we discover the tiny fish the size of baby fingers would nip at our toes. It didn’t hurt but did cause some urgent yelps, until we saw how small they were.

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The only issue we had was the pollution caused by the farmers burning the Teak forests to make room for more rice patties. The smoke would burn our eyes and drop ash on anything that sat for longer than an hour. Only when the rain came down from the mountains, did the newly scrubbed air feel fit to breathe.

Not sure if it is the length of our trip, the illness we got in Cambodia or the stress of culture after culture, place after place but we are exhausted and seem unable to relax fully. Not that relaxing is something I have ever known how to do. I would love to hire a boat and travel up into the remote parts of the upper Mekong, or spend a week visiting some Hmong tribe living on a isolated mountain…..I just don’t have it in me. Tamara is so happy to explore the internal through crafting and making things that it seems best to rest up, heal up and drink another beer.

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Mekong Delta

So for accuracy’s sake… I have to confess that the journey from Saigon to Phnom Penh is a simple 7 hour bus ride west ($6) over roads that are described on the internet as “reliable yet spleen destroying”. Now that you know the easy way, let me tell you the way we chose to get to Cambodia, via the Mekong Delta. For context….the Delta is huge…as in the size of some countries big.

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With visions of a whole new area of the world to explore, we caught a tourist bus that took us 4 hours south to one of the 5 mouths of the Mekong. This area is known for the tough stout residents  cultural adaptations to life on the river. One of these adaptations is the uses of coconuts. They seem to only grow coconuts and use every part of them for anything possible. Fabrics, food, walls and mats, hats, drinks. Life revolves around the river and coconuts.

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We got a ride on a small boat that traveled an hour or so up one of the natural canals, stopping off for lunch at a small restaurant (grass hut home). While the young ones did the cooking and tried to sell coconut related products, the older family members organized a music “thing”, that sounded like nothing I had ever heard before.

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Then (from what I remember) we took the back of a tractor-motorcycle contraption across the island to the other side, then another boat to another island, then a bus to the nearest town (not sure the name) where we recovered from the oppressive humidity and heat in a decent hotel.  As the sun set, large spectral birds cast threatening shadows as they hovered outside our window. It was only when we saw the smiling children holding strings, did it dawn on us that they were kites being flown in the dusk breezes.

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Next morning, we took a power boat up the river to one of the largest floating markets in the world where families were selling cabbages, potatoes, meats of various sources and even live animals. As we wondered (via boat) around the market, the locals hurried with their work, stocking the boats that would pull up, negotiating prices and teaching their children lessons of some sort between sales. Some families rarely leave the boats or the massive delta. I wonder where they think we come from?

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Later in the afternoon, we took yet another bus to a frontier town near the border of Cambodia. Frontier towns are always nasty and usually sketchy locations at best. This town (Cho Du, I think) was one of the worse places we have ever visited. The narrow three story city is dirty, worn and smelled as bad as they come. Some areas we would walk, we found our eyes burning with smells of indescribable filth. The air of distrust and fear was directed at some source that I could never quite figure out or saw. (likely gangs or smugglers I guess)

Braving the heat, humidity and what felt like “warning looks” from mothers holding tight to their toddlers, we made our way down to the river. There sitting in her boat, as if she was waiting for us was a toothless ancient old woman, smoking a pipe and pointing and laughing at us like we had clown wigs on. We smiled back and she waved to us to get on the boat and made a motion that she would take us around on her boat. She held up a unreasonable number of fingers (the price) and we paid it as she continued to laugh at us like the fools we were. She would look at our shoes or our camera and just bust up laughing at how preposterous we were and personally, I didn’t disagree with her. I found her worn face so captivating that I ended up taking more photos of her than the river life around us. Eventually, she got very quiet, all the while wrestling the large gas motor with her large baked forearms.

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Dusk caught us by surprise and we quickly made it back to our horrible hotel to hide in the florescent light from what, I don’t know but do not doubt was there. The morning came with us dressed, packed and ready to catch the first boat north. The six hour speed boat trip was broken up by two border crossings (one to exit Vietnam and one to enter Cambodia), but ended with us finally reaching Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

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I can’t say that I recommended the path we took and I would not do it again but it did help us to see and understand more about a huge group of people and their lives on the river.

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We can already tell that this country of Cambodia is far different than anywhere we have been. More soon.

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