The next week of our journey by boat, from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, unfolded in fits of beauty, frustration and some scattered, minor disasters. With Marieke and all her gear unloaded and heading with the strong current, we expected to make much better time, but we were also facing the most challenging bits on the river ahead. Many times, we felt that we were the first foreign people to do something like this – mostly when we were negotiating the prices for boat parts in the Chinese market in Luang Prabang, but more often along the river itself, where we were truly alone with ourselves and our limited abilities.
The motor, a Chinese Honda knock off they’d manufactured by exploding a real Honda engine and casting all the parts, was holding up to the strain surprisingly well, tapping out a neat little staccato like a lawnmower engine in the middle of some anonymous, suburban midsummer day. I quickly grew to associate that familiar, pleasant sound with the river itself, and was left speechless when, at rare moments, we ran out of fuel and were left drifting in the immense silence of the river. The steering apparatus, on the other hand, was rapidly deteriorating, thanks to KenFriend’s lazy bit of work, and despite all of our efforts to fix it up by installing the proper parts and tweaking the direction of the motor a bit, we still were left with an inch of play in the rudder, which made accurate steering a joke. I was rapidly growing a weird new muscle in my left arm from maintaining constant pressure to hold course. Was this what was meant by a “steady hand on the tiller?” I thought not, exactly.
From the relatively wide, muddy banks flanking the Mekong at Luang Prabang – perhaps some 200 meters from shore to shore – we passed quickly into a narrower, rockier part of the river. One aspect of the Mekong I will never forget is its capacity to change character completely in the blink of an eye. Wide, placid streams narrow into a terrifying churn in a matter of a few hundred meters, no clue given as to where all the water had gone, aside from the sense that through the inch of wood beneath our feet, the roiling stream extends down into blackness, rocks and certain death. Sounds a bit dramatic, but all of us who could swim and had experience with rip currents tried hard to avoid looking too long at the sucking whirlpools passing beneath us. It was popular legend that nobody had ever swum the breadth of the Mekong at Luang Prabang, that the surface current concealed a treacherous power below which was nearly ten times faster and stronger.
Of the two rapids we’d been warned about specifically by everyone who knew the river, we passed through one the second day. The main trouble was, in typical Asian style, nobody had ever experienced a map before, so the location of the second “killer” cataract was to remain unknown until we stumbled on it. Every kilometer or so, the river would narrow and rocks started to loom. The fishermen, who choose such places to cast their wide, circular throw nets just watched us grimly as we floated by. In the old days, before Route 13 was paved and built up to provide a trade route between Luang Prabang and the South, rivermen used to be picked up every day to pilot the boats through familiar hazards, and dropped off at the end of their domain to make their way home by foot. It was a method we were prepared to employ, if things got too hairy, and we’d asked Mama from Oudomphong guesthouse to scrawl out some plaintive phrases to that effect in Laotian script. As it turned out, we never used them, but probably would have been disappointed had the need arisen. Sensibly, and after the intractably lazy fashion of the Lao people, the old rivermen have mostly retired, taking up fishing, television watching and spitting on the roads of their thatched villages – a safe distance from the potential terrors of the river. Nearly 100% of Laotians cannot swim and are terrified of the river, despite the fact that their lives are mainly made upon it.
The Mekong winds back and forth upon itself in this untraveled area, lost in time and space between the relative modernity of the Route 13 corridor and the sparsely populated jungles of North-Eastern Thailand. It snakes out far to the West and dives South before hitting the Thai border and eventually making another series of squiggles before heading due East to Vientiane. When we hit the first rapids, I was steering, and suddenly felt the boat launch forward as though someone had switched on a rocket engine in the back. The whirlpools gathered behind submerged rocks, making ominous sucking sounds, and as we sailed over one I could feel and see the timbers of the little boat flex and warp under my feet. The boat pitched hard to the right, its heavy tail end possessed by the river spirits no longer obeyed the inadequate little rudder at all. As we progressed, I figured out the right moment to escape from the intractable “V” currents, sending us shooting past the rocks at full speed, but retaining some control, more or less. As we came out of the rapids and the river splashed out non-threateningly again to wider banks, I cut the motor low and drifted for a while to take stock. We’d taken a lot of water – mostly from over the gunwales – and the rudder felt a little loose, but we’d come out of it little more than damp. For a brief moment, I think we all felt a sense of solitude, pride, relief – the normal after effects of a solid rush of adrenaline that has passed through and left a happy exhaustion in its wake.
Camping along the way was done on a series of pristine sandy spits, shadowed by towering hills and presided over by a waxing moon. At some points, after our driftwood fire had burned low, the blueish moonscape of the white sand in that spectral light seemed to mute all sounds but the croak of a lonely frog or piping of a stray Plover somewhere out in the mist. One night, a massive fruit bat flew just over us, casting the shadow of its huge wings over the beach as it passed. A normal evening consisted of landing the boat, searching for firewood and starting up two fires – one for sitting around and one for cooking. Nights were early – we rarely stayed up past 10 pm.
Although we avoided natural disasters pretty well, the first three days were marred by regular old human stupidity. On the second day out, Amber had decided she needed something from her elephantine backpack, which was stowed in the back of the boat along with all the others. When I was driving, she was not expected to pay visits to the rear of the boat, but it was James on captain duty. Clambering over the engine, she managed to put all her weight on her left had, directly on top of the exhaust system and ironically half an inch shy of the warning “Extreamly Hot Not to Touch!” engraved boldly onto the metal by some thoughtful Chinese engineer. We were all treated to a day long monologue on how she’s “normally really good with pain, but like, this reeeeely hurts,” punctuated by gasps, curses and sobs. Not being entirely heartless yet, I attempted to get her to take the hand out of the river water she was soaking it in and into a clean bandage with antiseptic burn cream. She protested loud and often, until I gave up. Later that night I succeeded in getting it wrapped and treated, but she insisted on continuing to fiddle with everything until the bandage was black and covered in mud within an hour or so.
The second shoe fell when James, who was resident cook, caught some sort of food poisoning. Laboring under the delusion that sand was a good substitute for warm water and soap, his sickness didn’t come as a surprise, but a sudden rainstorm ensured he had a thoroughly miserable night. Gerben and I had elicited condescending tough guy looks from the master outdoor duo for clandestinely sneaking off to wash our bowls and spoons with soap. It also didn’t help James that he and the princess were both on strong antibiotics as a precaution against Malaria. It must have been a hell of a night for him.
On the downside for us, we lost our cook and third pilot for the better part of two days. Fortunately, the food mainly consisted of rice and instant noodles with some veggies chopped in, which we were more than capable of preparing for ourselves. Life went on downriver. At about 19 kilometers per hour. By the fourth day, we were setting up our last camp about 60 km from Vientiane. It was at the base of a small village, which we took turns visiting to get a taste of some food that didn’t have grains of sand mixed in to surprise us. My noodle soup had two or three unidentifiable meats in it, but I wolfed it down greedily, followed close with a cold beer Lao in a bottle – a luxury. Barely feeling my land legs, the earth wobbled gently under me as I played camera games with the proprietor’s son and showed the woman pictures of my wife. They’re just some little wallet sized snaps taken for visa photos before we left Prague, but I try not to look at them more than once a day. Even now, I feel a sharp twinge of missing Barbara. Her quiet patience, thoughtful intelligence and dignified pride – all of which would be such an asset to me now on this boat, just as they are everywhere else. “I love you B,” I say, and pour a sip of beer onto the compacted dirt beneath the setting Lao sun. A small family of water buffalo make their way home through clouds of dust raised by a dirty old Toyota pick-up.