Across the Mekong

You burn in the Mekong
To prove your worth,
Go long, go long,
Right over the edge of the earth.
—Joanna Newsom


It took all day
on a certain Saturday to bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, a Golden Triangle town alongside the Mekong. A Thai woman was waiting at the bus station with a pick-up truck to take arriving farang to an enterprising guesthouse, the Ban Fai, run by a strangely-accented old Floridan and his Thai wife, aka The Boss; and I went there with two aspiring English teachers from British Columbia and two Dutch students.

We all dined there as well, on a balcony over the Mekong, looking across to the lights of Huay Xai in Laos, and the two Netherlanders, Remy and Neinke, invited me to sit with them. Over dishes of rice and Thai curries, we spoke of Holland and America, our systems of education and welfare, and our sports passions. Remy finished off Neinke's meal, saying, “It's very good to travel with her. I always get extra food.”

They both spoke excellent English, like most Dutch—though Remy's deteriorated with his second bottle of beer, so that Neinke, a pretty blonde girl, would look at me and laugh. The three of us had relocated to the comfortable chairs inside the guesthouse, and Remy went to the computer there several times to make sure the Dutch football team had no injuries or hiccups, because the World Cup final was tomorrow, and the Netherlands would play Spain.

“I wish I could be in Amsterdam for it,” said Remy, “but I don’t know. Man. If we win, it would be so great. If we lose, it’s okay. I’ll take off my orange shirt, I’ll be in Laos. You know some Dutch people wear a white shirt under their orange one, so they can walk home without some drunk Brit saying, ‘Hey you lost!’ If we lose it’s okay. Holland will drink for a few days, then start thinking about next year.”

Now the Dutch and the Spanish are both frenzied for football. The Dutch march in orange armies and watch the games in city squares or bars, and they drink and fist-pump and fight in the streets. The Spanish turn the lights off and listen to music on their bed when a game is on, lest they be carried away by sentiment. Otherwise they watch the game on television at home, shouting at the screen and the mothers of the team, alone with their triumph or their sorrow.

Remy checked the football news at least three times that night, to make sure none of the heroes of Holland had suffered an injury, and he celebrated at least one injury on the Spanish team. He checked again in the morning, rising early to ease his worry on the day of the final game.

To cross into Laos, the traveler reads a book while waiting for the Thai border guards to get their act together, is stamped out of the country, pays his fee of $15 per day of overstay, and is shuffled onto a skiff and carried across the Mekong to the Houay Xai docks. There he buys a Laos visa, $30 for Europeans, $35 for Americans, and Canadians pay much more for some reason.

Houay Xai was a small provincial town of five blocks, a few guesthouses and restaurants, and the county hospital. The change in atmosphere could be felt immediately: no climate shift, but a sea change in the way people lived, towards the clear-skied serenity, warm goodwill, and muggy laziness that characterizes the Laotians.

The two Vancouverites went off to find the slow boat to Luang Prabang, and I went with Remy and Neinke to the Friendship Guesthouse, woke the innkeeper, who was perpetually asleep in front of the television, and got a triple room for 75,000 kip (about $9).

I went down the street to a dim Internet cafe and was there reading my messages when a burly and mustachioed Alaskan came in to Skype some friend of his. In the loud and worn-out voice of a habitual shouter, he described a motorcycle trip he had taken with his haggard wife:

“It’s fucking nuts here, man. I mean, we were driving in the middle of fucking nowhere [laughter like a dying engine], and we spill like five times. I normally spill maybe a little, but five fucking times we spill, the roads are so fucking horrible. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so third world here, it’s insane. We’re out in the fucking jungle, and the roads have all these fucking steep switchbacks, like, man! [More wheezing laughter.] Yeah, yeah, I have a two-fifty CC Honda. You know anything more than one-fifty is illegal here? It’s fucking nuts. It’s worse here than that trip we had in India!”

I told the Netherlanders about this husky Alaskan when we met for lunch at a small restaurant. We sat at a shaded table out on the dirt road, with sandwiches and bottles of Laotian beer.

The Laotians learned to make and appreciate baguettes, cheese, and coffee from the French colonists, who ruled the landlocked country for 150 years. They still call foreigners farang, from their word for the Gauls. Before these colonial days, Laos existed as a kingdom for 400 years, known as Lan Xang, the Land of a Million Elephants; and after the French were overthrown, so was the constitutional monarchy. The communists took over, and the Americans added Laos to her lists of Vietnam War villains.

In what is known now as the Secret War, US bombers dropped more ordnance on Laos than was spent in the whole of the Second World War, making little Laos the most bombed country in the world. By either some favor or some curse, a fourth of the bombs failed to explode. Children generally find these and tear them open to sell the scrap metal.

These days the Lao People’s Democratic Republic is as communist as the People’s Republic of China and reached that point after much of the same trials and tribulations. A few Laotians are rich, and many are very poor rural workers, living in the jungle or along the Mekong, the life of the country, and tellingly controlled by the country where it springs—China.

Well we sat in the room during the hot afternoon, watching cheesy Chinese music videos and HBO, and after dusk we went out to eat. I saw in the road Karol the German and said Hello, remarking on the earth’s diminutive span. He was with another Saxon, Lars of Rostock, a tacit and friendly fellow with a bald head, who had been half-coerced into drinking a large glass of Lào-Láo rice wine, the local moonshine. It had not made him blind, but Lars was not entirely in command of his mind, as we had dinner and coffee at a small outdoor restaurant. He changed his order several times, so that we thought he might end up with Chinese noodles and spaghetti sauce in pork broth.

Thus some time passed in our long wait for the game; then Lars said, “Alright, I need a beer or I’m going to fall asleep. Shall we go to a bar?” Dwn the only road in Houay Xai we came to Bar How?, and there was a projector and a screen out front. We settled in with an older Norwegian and talked and drank beers and smoked cigarettes to keep the nerves down as we endured the long hours until the small hour of 1:30.

We talked about travel and where we would go. Karol and Lars, who I called Larry, were going to take a bus to Luang Prabang, and Neinke, Remy and I wanted to take the slow boat down the Mekong. We talked nonsense and asked Neinke to let her hair down, and when she did with a commercial flourish half the table was staring at her. Lars looked around and muttered, “Oh man.”

Over another round of beers, the Norwegian said the following:

"If they're looking for a super-human man, to collect genes from and use for science, they need to get Iggy Pop. He's been at it for forty years. He's sixty years old, and he still gets up there, high and hammered, and he fucking plays [finger-picking in the air] four-hour shows, with his shirt off, and he still looks fit. He sings. He still stage dives. Iggy jumped off the stage in London a few months back. Everyone stepped away, and he landed on his face. Sixty years old. Got right up and kept on with the show. It's unreal. He's had a hard life. A run-in with heroine, with coke. Now it's all booze, but he still looks fit. You look at those guys from Rolling Stones, Richards and Jagger, and they all look like wrecks. They sound like shit. They should! Iggy Pop, he's sixty-years-old, and he's still great. He's superman."

The place began to fill in around us with orange, though not all of them were Dutch, and there were two Spaniards seated in the back with a silent yearning, a glimmer of hope, as the Dutch cried outtheir anthem in tune with the African orchestra—and the kick-off! The game began!

The Netherlands was hard-pressed, those underdogs, but they fended off an aggressive Spain in the first half. The field evened out. It could have gone either way. The Dutch stared when the Dutch Eleven came close; they shouted at the English referee and turned to an English spectator: “You stupid English, you’re ruining the game!” They screamed in pain at missed chances and sighed in relief when Spain slipped up; and they passed ninety minutes in absolute terror and unrelieved suspense.

“I just want someone to score,” they said,—“I don’t care if it’s Spain. It can’t go to shoot-outs. It would be so—what else?”

But it was Spain that scored at the end of the extra time. Utter dejection swept across Bar How? The Dutch lingered, stared at images of foreign victory, and passed stoically through the stages of grief until they had accepted it. Or they stormed away in anger.

I left withmmy friends, returned to the Friendship Guesthouse and woke up the innkeeper. Neinke collapsed on her bed, and Remy was full of drunken energy, perhaps relieved to miss the Amsterdam party now not to be.

“So you like that bald German guy?” Remy said to Neinke, for they had been friends long enough for him to infuriate her as an older brother would.

“Who, Larry?”

“I like both of them,” said Neinke.

“You going to hook up in Luang Prabang?”

“I hope we meet both of them in Luang Prabang.”

“I thought you said you hate German guys.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You were talking to him a lot. Putting beer labels on his arm like hmmm.”

“So? I’m going to bed.”

“She likes Larry, huh?”

“Yeah man, definitely.”

“Shut up!”

“We’re not talking to you!”

“You’re talking about me!”

“Go to sleep!”

“I’m going to punch you in the face!”

Remy woke up at 8:30 to reserve boat tickets. He came back at nine and said, “Guys, I got bad news. We have twenty minutes to get to BAP Guesthouse.” I said, with typical morning aptitude, “What? Fuck,” and Neinke added, “Are you serious?”

We asked no more questions, but silently packed our bags, quickly brushed our teeth, and were at the rendevous and down near the boat docks with enough time to buy sandwiches for breakfast and lunch. In accordance with a phenomenon known as Laos Time, our fully-boarded boat did not depart until eleven. It was a two-day voyage, with an overnight in a village called Pak Beng, and the longboat was packed with a strange menagerie of farang, a true cast of characters, perhaps forty in number, which we observed from nailed-down car chairs on the periphery.

There was a tatooed man chattering in American. There was a Spaniard, broad-shouldered as a gladiator, who was wearing no trousers, only boxer shorts, and eventually he took his shirt off as well and strolled up and down the boat in his underwear. He would tryst between the benches with his tiny girlfriend, who was half his size and weight, so that we could not help but wonder about the physics of their love. They had two big rollerbags and a backpack, and he carried them all while she smirked in the lead, with all the pride of the owner of a blue ribbon ox.

This compact Ecuadorian woman who, satyr-like, bore the massive waist and thighs of a much larger woman—she marched up and down the central aisle on some self-appointed mission, sometimes exhorting other passengers in all Babel's tongues, sometimes haranguing her husband, a mild Canadian who had met her when she was a travel agent in Quito—“Robert take a picture of that! Oh look at that! There were rocks in the river Robert! Keep your backpack there! No, you’ll break it, Robert! God you’re so uptight!”—while her two sons, teenagers in long-haired rebellion, laughed at her receeding back.

There was a Chinese tourist sitting in front of Remy who, with that forensic attitude of the East Asian, would photograph repeatedly every passing curiosity. Remy made a game of it—for when the world is too bleakly black for man, man laughs, and by a game man turns annoy into joy. The Dutchman would spot some strange rock in the current, some fisherman in a boat, some naked savage swimming by the shore, a cliff, a tall tree, a beautiful view, and would guess how many seconds would pass before the Chinaman snapped the item up in his long-lens and large-sensor. In this way, Remy passed the hours with his sanity intact.

For the seven hour voyage, I sat next to a Hong Kong woman I'd run into in Burma and Thailand (and reportedly slept on her shoulder), read my book, wrote in a notepad, and looked out at the long world of the river—the wide rushing Mekong, heavy from rain, a rumble of engine, a rush of wind, a sleet-gray sky breaking up under the midday heat to strips of blue, oceans of blue. The hills sloped up from sandy banks, bearing young shoots and old pines and red-blossomed Flame of the Forest. You can imagine that there is no world, nothing beyond those hills: There is only this river under green shores and blue skies with variable weather, the birthplaces of mountain springs, the gallows of the granite shoals; the river, going south with a steady current, no matter how it seems to twist and narrow, roughen and smooth, with lively towns on the banks or strands of lonely solitude; a river always flows, always quests for ocean, until it reaches an unavoidable, unaccountable end at the everlasting sea, returning to the source of it all, and realizing there a world unimagined.

Around six we arrived in Pak Beng, a little town of guesthouses hanging from a hill over the west bank of the river. Dozens of longboats were moored there, and the steep and muddy bank was crowded with the envoys of the inns—men and women shouting about beds and their proximity to the docks and their views of the river. Remy, Neinke and I got our bags, waited for the crowd to clear out, then haggled out a good deal from one of the innkeepers and followed him to his little hotel. The three of us remarked on more strange travelers around the town. At the restaurant across the road, where I slurped a stew of water buffalo and coconut milk, there were bubbly Seattleites, demanding Germans, and this pompous Floridan who wanted to bargain for everything.

“Okay,” he was saying to the poor waiter, as his guests, another brash American and two polite French girls, watched on,—“Okay, so we take four BeerLao, eight-thousand kip each, and we get a free fish. I want a good fish, you know, not some crap fish.”

This went on for a long time, long enough for Remy to start muttering about it, and finally to turn around and say, “You know you don't usually bargain in restaurants. The prices are set. They're on the menu. And it's only like a few cents.”

The Floridan tried to defend his rude ways, but we ignored him. An old Laotian came around with a bottle of homemade Lào-Láo, stuffed full of roots and leaves, which he poured into a small cup for us. It tasted foul and made us more than drunk.

“I like all the different travelers you see,” Remy remarked,—“there’s us, with just five weeks here. There’s you, gone for years with a tiny backpack full of books. There’s that Florida guy, being an asshole and arguing with everyone over a few cents, and that crazy lady on the boat shouting at her husband and marching up and down taking pictures, and all those tourists with their huge bags, and the old people with hiking shoes and socks and big hats, all their adventure gear—and us with our flip-flops and no idea where to go.”

“It’s better that way,” I said, amused.

In the morning Pak Beng was just like any other town. Tables of chopped meat and fresh vegetables crowd the little market. The stall-owners pull the boards out from the open entryways. Bells chime in the Buddhist temple, looking down on the sun rising over the Mekong. Then the tourists all wake up and shuffle down to their longboats, bearing sandwiches and water bottles, and the boats leave two hours after schedule.

We had a much smaller boat for this second run, another seven hours downriver to Luang Prabang. It was small and cramped as a slave ship, and the three of us sat against the walls in the front, eventually crammed in there by luggage and other passengers, as the whole of the boat was by the same. There was no room for the Ecuadorian march (though I afterwards heard complaints about her from the aft of the ship), but the improved scenery made up for the lack of entertaining passengers. Karst cliffs rose steeply out of the water, in high ridges and mid-current formations, and there were fishermen in the eddies and forests on the top. Thatch villages were set in the crooks of rolling hillscapes. The sun was bright and the air smelt fresh and cool, and in the afternoon we came to the docks of Lao's old colonial capital.

Luang Prabang was geographically a little like San Francisco, in that the oldest and nicest quarter of town was confined and compressed on a slivered peninsula, formed by the final twist of the river Nam Khan on its winding way to join the mighty Mekong, which flowed past the city’s western side. This narrow peninsula was a theme park of French architecture, bars, bakeries, tourist agencies, and guesthouses, ringed by riverfront esplanades, bisected by alleys, and penning in a few forgotten temples between the well-kept colonial townhouses. Only four streets ran up the city, including those that followed the twin rivers.

On the inside end of the peninsula, there was a steep altar of a hill called Phu Si, with trees on the slopes and a Wat Tham on the narrow top, but nobody ever went up there, except the monks, because it was too hot. The Royal Palace stood across from this hill, and the street between hosted a night market, erected around sunset, which became more annoying the more you traversed it. Traffic was reduced to two skinny lines between the three rows of stalls, all selling the same things—blankets, art, trinkets, and nick-nacks. A low roof of interconnected red tarpaulins enforced a bent posture, and cooing Thais and travel-planned Westerners constantly obstructed the flow of the lanes.

Now turn right on the southern end of this gauntlet, into an alleyway lit up like a stage—a steaming, reeking, crowded and noisesome alley—and there was the food market, a much more delightful place. Outside the alley there were sandwich stalls with piles of baguettes, and if you said “Laos style” they’ll fill them with chicken and tofu and pork skin and chili sauce, as well as a few vegetables, for $1; and there were fruit shake stands and ice coffee stands, who sweetened the deal with a diabetic dose of condensed milk.

The alley itself was first lined with tables of regional delights: Mekong riverweed, fried fish in banana leaves, papaya salad, and cold, crisp spring rolls—then a few barbeque grills smoked up chicken and fish, and finally several buffets served Laos dishes from great tureens, for $1 a plate. There were picnic tables all along for diners, mostly farang, to sit, and the lane between all this was wide enough for maybe two peole to walk abreast. There were usually three.

On our way to the market, the two Dutch and I met Lars and Karol, whose twelve-hour bus had taken seventeen, and had been full of vomiting Laotians. We gorged ourselves on sandwiches, papaya salad, and fried food, washed down with the excellent BeerLao, and went down to a bar in the old French Quarter. Lars brought out his plastic bottle of stupefying Lào-Láo, and we made a good time of it, closing the bar at the late hour of eleven.

The next day the five of us, along with a Quebecois named Charles and another Dutchman named Luuk, set out to go to the Kouangxi Waterfalls, about an hour out of town. The broadway of Luang Prabang was lined with tuk-tuk drivers all selling the same thing, “Hey waterfall, waterfall?” except at night when they say, “Ganja? You want ganja?” We all walked down this thoroughfare after breakfast, talking to each and trying to haggle.

Now there was some rule limiting the tuk-tuks to a maximum of six farang passengers, and we exceeded that maximum by one. At great length, we accepted one driver, who had been following us down the road and parking along our intended path, for some amount per person. He was a frog-faced Laotian, sweating profusely, half-crazed on jaba and Red Bull, who drove around in a circle, shouting at people, parking in the road and trying to get one of us to go in a different tuk-tuk, but that was not the deal. At the police register he apparently wanted us to pay for the waterfall tickets through him—“Waterfall, no pay! I pay!”—and was enraged when we refused. He paid the police the seven-man fine, then left us with another driver, a kindly old man, professional and sober, who drove us back to the register and paid the fine a second time, before driving out to Kouangxi.

Thus we came to the waterfalls, which were exceedingly beautiful—the jungle, the walkways, the falls, the pools so pristinely blue, and girls walking all over in bikinis. My friends and I went up past several swimming pools to the main fall, which was so perfectly tropical, so picturesque, it appeared to be man-made. Some wooden stairs led up to the top of this high cascade. Following the advice of some Aussies, we left the stair at the top, going right on a wet and pathless slope slick with algae, past the sign that said "DO NOT SWIMMING," and up a rolling waterfall, passing our bags up to the agile Remy before climbing ourselves, until we made our way onto a sort of terraced ledge at the very top of the fall. There was a wide pool like a basin, deep enough to jump into, that poured over onto the ponds far below, blue and beautiful.

After an hour in that paradise, we climbed back down to the wooden stair and returned to our tuk-tuk driver, joking and laughing all the way back to Luang Prabang.

The next day I invited an American girl, Lauren of Boston, to come breakfast with us at the Scandinavian Bakery in the French Quarter. Lauren's speech when I met her included the same exclamations of exaggerated surprise—“Wow! Amazing! Ohmygod!”—that Remy and Neinke had caricatured for Americans. This made me more attached to her in a way, like yeah, this is American and I'm American so fuck you. I am commonly mistaken for being Dutch or German, and commonly told, "But you're not a real American," and told that real Americans talk in a nasally drone of metallic vowels and constantly say, "That's awesome!"

Lauren was a real American, or rather a real New Englander. She went to an East Coast college where the students can attend class in the nude, was critical of American policies, and had been teaching English in a town in China called Qufu, the famed birthplace of Confucius. I asked her all about China, since I was excited about going there, and I planned to go to Qufu as well.

Well that day Laren went to the waterfalls, Remy slept and watched movies on an iPod, Lars and Neinke rode bikes out into the countryside and returned sunburned and happy, Karol did his thing, Luuk and Charles were leaving, and I went all over town to arrange a Chinese visa; and that night I was delighted to have two real Americans join us for dinner—Lauren and a Texan from Dallas named Bonner Dobbs. We sat by the Nam Khan drinking beer and talking about America, surprising the Europeans by the revelation that yes, we did all have guns at home. And then we went to a big terraced bar called Laos Laos and sat there until it closed.

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