Monday, June 09, 2008

Strangers on the Mekong

HUAY XAI: The woman in the flowing yellow skirt strode up and down the steps, striking a pose to aim her oversized camera up the river or down. She took what seemed hundreds of photos at all different angles and directions. Aiming the paparazzi long lens at the boats lining the river bank, shooting at children leaning out of windows or boatmen maneuvering their craft.

She was joined by a Japanese couple who almost seemed to be in camera competition with her. They pulled out a large Pentax and an even larger Canon and together with the woman ridiculously posed with their photographic equipment on the steps above the boat for a group shot.

The engine started and all three reboarded the slow boat to take up their claimed seats. The woman had got on earlier and managed to claim a soft seat, the Japanese couple had to contend with a hard wooden seat covered with a cushion.

The boat was a long and narrow steel hulled vessel with a decking and roof constructed of timber on top. At the front on top of the prow the captain sat himself at the wheel. He wasn't tucked away in a special cabin just up the front with all luggage and cargo stacked behind him. The passengers lined up behind this, with the comfortable seats first and then wooden benches and then just decking up behind. At the stern the engine roared next to the bucket and scoop toilet and the small area reserved for the owner and family to live.

Red curtains

It wasn't just the Japanese couple who had to settle for wooden benches. A group of three Canadians jocks arrived late. It must have been their partying the night before. They initially sat around chatting but not long after launch two of them were intent to set up their hammocks. Their idea would have blocked the access to the back, so the matriarch selling the snacks and drink told them to take it down.

During the voyage one of the jocks got it in his head to try and erect his hammock up the front. Rearranging the luggage he succeeded in doing so and even lying down before the owners tried to persuade him to take it down for his safety. It was only after his pillow fell in the murky water and floated by out of reach that he gave up.

The river flowed on down past green jungly slopes. At regular intervals large grey black rocks protruded at sharp angles which the vessel proceed to navigate around. The rocks sped up the water and caused eddies and whirlpools to form, fighting against these the boat's engine roared as the propeller briefly churned in nothing but air.

The passengers made the most of each of their locations. The wooden benches were rearranged, and cushions put on the deck. After her initial camera obsession the yellow skirt woman was found lying down with her back on some luggage leaving her comfortable seat. The Japanese couple had rigged up a bed using two benches facing each other and the jocks settled for the deck floor.

An aging hippy with long grey dreadlocks and a threadbare shirt was originally content to just gaze at the scene flowing past him. He took it all in through old eyes framed by thick glasses. Only rising occasionally to go to the toilet and never once speaking. During the middle of day he made himself a bed with a single cushion and laid down to sleep rising after a couple of hours to resume his watchfulness.

Blue window

In contrast four Irish girls made their home on a bunch of comfortable seats. They all had an identical uniform of short shorts and singlets. They were looking forward to Thailand's beaches. Their bare legs caused one villager, who boarded halfway along the river, to gawp incessantly like he had never (and he probably hadn't) seen such a thing before.

For two days the boat languidly chugged against the current. Villages dependent on the river for their transport and protein slipped on by. Gardens were carved into the hillside in close proximity to these villages. Buffalos grazing on the banks or cooling off in calmer waters docilely watched the uninteresting boat pass. Boys playing in the water or throwing nets had seen these types of craft before. Occasionally they would wave. Some passengers might wave back.

The first night the boat stopped at Pak Beng, 10 hours after leaving Luang Prabang. Everyone wandered up the slope to get accommodation. Some following touts offering better rooms than they had, others shrugging them off and searching for their own room. The greying hippy slipped from view and didn't return for the second day. The other westerners all returned.

The second day the scenes of the first were repeated. Yellow skirt took so many photos that she held up the boat from leaving. The Japanese couple fussed about their seating arrangements, hung out their hand washed laundry on some wooden benches and took photos of each other with their own big camera.

A Yunnanese business man decided the best way to travel two full days was to be drunk. He proceeded to knock back Beer Lao on the first day, but on the second he came armed with a bottle of cheap whiskey to attack his liver with from eight AM onwards. He found people to play cards with before making a bed.

The landscape was flatter than the previous day. Not as many rocks were needed to be avoided. Once the Thai border was alongside the river was as wide as it would be further south near Vientiane or Savannakhet.

The Irish girls were bored. Even a copy of The Da Vinci Code failed to keep one interested. By the time another 10 hours was up by reaching the end point of Huay Xai they were jumping at the chance to get off. Thailand would have though to wait as the boat arrived too late for a border crossing this day.

The approach of Huay Xai prompted yellow skirt into action after hours of playing solitaire on her iPod. She shot off megabytes worth of worthless photos, pointing it in everyones face before finally packing it away in the jumbo sized bag she was lugging.

Everyone disembarked and slowly wandered up the slope and dispersed their own separate ways. The muddy brown Mekong had been slowly traversed and had thrown together these strangers and was now throwing them apart.

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