Between Friendship Bridges
There were rats in Vientiane harbor. The port city re-established by the French is a bit of an anachronism in that the river, for most of the year, laps the shallow banks of a sandbar nearly a half a kilometer from the riverfront road. I wanted to push on to Nung Khai and it didn’t take Gerben much convincing to push us off from the fragrant bilge of the restaurant barge we’d docked behind and prepare for what we thought would be an hour or two of smooth, downriver sailing to hot showers, good food and the innate weirdness of Mut Mee guesthouse. I calculated that we’d be forced to ride the river in darkness for about a half an hour. I was wrong.
Nearly as soon as the lights of the world’s most underwhelming capital city faded behind the flats, the sun began to drop, leaving us floating in the silent world of commuting fishermen and flickering florescences announcing roadside gas stations and fish farms along the banks on the Thai side. Ever since the dam-crazed Chinese constipated the Mekong with their concrete, the fishermen along the river in three countries have been suffering. Their constant changes in water flow, unannounced to those living downstream, have all but destroyed the native sea weed that grew on the floor of the Mekong, feeding the population of fish nearly all the downstream nations depend upon to some extent. The massive giant catfish – a monster that had been known to reach 450 kilograms in its heyday – is nearly extinct now, and 90% of the fishermen perform their ritual taking in of their enormous drift nets to find nothing but new holes and plastic bottles. It’s a sad world, a twilight world in more ways than one, that we navigate now with the aid of a few little flashlights and our nascent, two week old riverman instincts. More than rocks now, it is the fishermen’s drift nets that pose the greatest risks. Most of them re clearly marked with empty plastic bottles every 5 meters or so, but even in the daylight, it’s hard to spot the ends of the nets from a safe distance, and earlier in the day I was forced to make a number of 180 degree turns mid-river to avoid fouling our propeller. In the dark, Gerben would yell “net!” and make the sign to cut the engine. At the last possible minute, I’d cut the thing and hold our course as best as I was able over the net and restart it only after we’d cleared the hazard.
An hour in, we started to see the Friendship Bridge in every streetlight and shrimp farm. Could that light around the corner be Nung Khai? The banks of the river play strange tricks in the dark, destroying depth perception and leaving me guessing at times where the true river ended and some patch of dark, fallow land began. Long spits of sand looped seemingly out of nowhere and hooked around us as we floated downstream. The fishermen, who would normally give us a wave and a nod, looked at us suspiciously from behind their dark baclavas as we passed by the nearest. If not for our obvious amateurishness, we could be a perfect fit for the smugglers who must ply the river every night, ferrying Muong tribesmen, illegal workers and phony Sony electronics back and forth, to and from Thailand. It’s hard to imagine that this isn’t a nightly issue, but we didn’t see anyone that seemed to be heading to the far bank. We stuck to mid-river and coasted past everyone we saw with little more than a signal passed with a flashlight.
At night, it is also easier to see the differences between Laos and Thailand, if anyone needed more evidence. The Thai side is sprinkled with well lit roads traveled by speeding, late model pick up trucks. Loud music blares from riverside restaurants and karaoke bars. On our left, in Laos, darkness reigns. All sounds issue from a bubble – the clink of a cow bell or the sudden torture of a rusty old Hino truck engine struggling against some unseen load, its bed rattling and pounding from the holes in the dirt track. There is no light on the left. Maybe a lone farmhouse marked with a sodium vapor light off in the interior or one of the old sand harvesting rigs along the bank where a worker has forgotten to switch off the cabin light. The sand harvesters are peculiar machines, but I guess they’d have to be. Giant vacuum pumps suck sand and water off the bottom of the river and then spit it up into the air. The heavier sand lands first – mostly onto huge conveyor belts that heave it up the bank to dry in massive piles. The water fountains out and lands in channels that must constantly be retrenched, to flow back into the river. On the Thai side, these operations are accompanied by huge Japanese earthmoving equipment, while the Laos manage with rusting, malfunctioning barges and a Kolao backhoe or two. The Thais have also figured out how to farm a vast number of fish and shrimp for local consumption. These fish parks resemble parking lots on the river, with huge Halogen lamps pouring false sunlight into the murky water 24 hours a day. The inmates are confined to five square meter cages made of plastic netting which lie submerged in the river. When their time has come, the cages are lifted out of the water with cranes and transferred to truck-mounted tanks. It’s incredibly efficient, and I wondered if some of the older guys working on the rigs might feel a twinge of pity for their historical prey. Maybe, on nights when the electricity goes out because of a storm on shore, they crawl out on their bellies and slash a hole in one of the plastic cages with a rusty machete. Most of the fish would swim out, gulping bigger breaths of muddy water and searching for the food they instinctively know is just a little deeper down… They make a nice metaphor for the hordes of travelers in SouthEast Asia – everyone scrawling the same banalities on the same bathroom walls and eating dare food from the same food stalls until we imagine a barrier falls and an opportunity is presented. Out we swim, away from the wooden frogs, Hugo Boss suits and Elephant adventures, but in our race to the bottom, do we really know what is growing from the slime down there?
I guess we learn little in less time more than how quickly we can get to the bottom. The stock in trade are pithy little Facebook messages to our envious friends back home. Loose babel about the good food and the beautiful temples, followed with mostly empty promises to tell more over a beer. Maybe the illusion – as with the fish – is that anyone really cares at all. Or that those cares we manufacture “on the road” will ever supplant the most insignificant cares endemic to “home” and our lives on our own pre-ordained place on the food chain.
The moon rose full over the middle of the Mekong about an hour before we reached the concrete mass of the Friendship Bridge. Amusingly, the lights on the Thai side piers shone bright in the night but the Laotians had neglected to replace the broken elements on their side. We drifted under the thing, staring up at the sky and breathing the cool air deep – me in the back with the low-idling motor and Gerben up front on the raised prow of the “Pohoda”. Three weeks before, we’d pedaled our fixed-gear cruisers over this bridge heading for Laos and the significance of the geometry, the passage of time and the bright moon guiding us down the river could hardly have been lost. Within 20 minutes we’d lashed the boat to the floating restaurant beneath Mut Mee guesthouse and were negotiating a couple of cold Leo beers from Kevin – a Hawaiian transplant to Thailand. Taking pity on our sorry state, we were both covered with a week’s worth of grime, motor grease and sand, he offered us a couple of cushions on the back bar patio and even bought us a couple of beers. We kicked back, listening to him describe life in Nung Khai in his easy-going, come what may drawl. Strings of Christmas tree lights reflected in the river and Four Tet played softly through the boat’s sound system. We really felt like we were home. Dozing off beneath the mosquito net Kevin had rigged for us, I mentioned to Gerben that we didn’t have Thai visas… The boat slapped against the current behind us, completely out of gasoline and with about a hundred other demonstrable mechanical flaws spanning various states of seriousness. We both drifted off, not particularly worried, for some reason. Illegal again.