This morning we took a trip down the Mekong River, as famous at it is exotic, from Luang Prabang to the Kuang Si Waterfalls. Along the sleepy shores, jungles rose up perfect green mountains, punctuated by dirt roads, allowing access. The shore alternated from limestone cliffs to lush forest to san
dy banks, where a dozen children would play, their clothes spread across the banks as they splashed each other beside parked boats and bamboo paddles stuck upright into the ground. On another shore water buffalo waded, drank, sat, slept along the quiet banks, oblivious of this boat of camera-toting tourists. Below us, around us, quietly passed the water, which borrowed its color from hot chocolate.
It seemed embarrassingly conspicuous, the two of us, white Westerners, being ferried in a long boat, painted in the rainbow of South Beach, chipping turquoise and faded orange, sitting on the schoolchildren chairs, our butts at water level. I felt like Graham Greene in Africa, being carried on my jungle expedition on a high chair on the backs of the natives. But my guilt was a guilt of color, as our driver had been paid fairly, and my self-consciousness was only a personal reflection of my fair skin, sitting in the back of the boat.
Outside the open windows, the Laotians carried on as if we were not there, alternately gawking at or ignoring these Americans fascinated by all of the green in all directions, which, if discovered in our own country, would have been covered with phone lines and cell towers and sprawling resorts and country homes and Ted Turner. There would be a gas station with a glowing sign along the shore, boat docks and cigarette boats.
Only an occasional boat passed, here with a fisherman hauling in a net, there with a family of four, the youngest bailing as the boat motored slowly ahead upstream.
We pulled up on a beach, beside a small local boat to walk up the dirt pathway, rutted with the evidence of a monsoon season since passed, into a small village where the homes sat on stunted stilts, reminding us again of the strength of nature’s rains. We stopped at the front porch of a home, where the whole family sat outside, sheltered from the sun, from June’s heat. Our boat driver and the patriarch negotiated in Lao, and we hopped in the truckbed
for the 7 km ride to the falls, being driven by a teenage Lao, past terraced fields and more water buffalo, the terrain unfurling around us, behind us, from green mountain to dirt road, to barren field. We forded a creek, which surely would be impassible a portion of the year.
In this time of year, there was only an occasional moped or bicycle, adding to the tranquility, the hot sun burning our arms, lulling us into a stupor. I am imaging a line of mini busses here in high season, like a camel caravan to the source of water. My mind wanders and I think of a cruise ship dumping 2,000 people into a Caribbean port, changing the character of the destination and of the environment, and again I am thankful that I could reach Luang Prabang. I am thankful that everyone can’t. Geography has cursed the land with poor soil, and unnavigable rivers, but that this same geography has saved it from the fate of Hanoi or Bangkok, engorged with traffic, exceeding its boundaries, sprawling like the most desperate of our own cities.
At the falls, our driver dropped us off and waited in the parking lot, packed with trucks, tuk-tuks, and a few minivans. The tuk-tuk drivers rested in hammocks set up in the back cabin, while others spent time chatting in the shelter, waiting for their meal tickets to finish playing in the falls so they could drive them back to their waiting launches or back to the city.
From the initial hundred foot drop, the water carved its way through the forest, resulting in smaller falls, each with a pool at its base, entertaining Lao children and British backpackers. A local celebration hosted a hundred or more, enjoying live local music, which meandered its way through the trees, playing a soundtrack for swimming. One of the water holes had a rope swing. At another, a Laotian pre-teen showed the Australians how to stand on a precipice slippery from moss and where to jump off the 6-foot waterfall to miss the underwater rocks.
We swam in the chilly water, standing on hidden rocks when we needed to warm up or sitting in the natural jacuzzis to be massaged by the movement of water. On this Saturday, we were joined by perhaps 100 people, equally divided between the swimming holes. On the shores, the local picnics looked like our own, with bottles of Pepsi and Fanta lined up beside the food, which doubtless was much different.
The ride back was upriver, taking longer, riding close to the shore to avoid the midstream rapids, taking us even closer to the water buffalo and the rocky cliffs. There is something in the ear, a sleepy sultry tropical stupor, which gives me peace. Where at home, I can barely stand in a checkout line without reading a magazine, here I can just stare into the distance, absorbing the environment, thinking of nothing. I believe tomorrow I will sit and write, the stories now stirring in my head. Only one day on the river, and I have Mekong on the mind.
By Matthew Stone
Travel to Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Laos