Thursday, June 28, 2012

Day 10 - Down A Lazy River

It is almost noon, and we're comfortably motoring up the Mekong. I say comfortably, because our boat for this two day trip is quite large, made of beautiful wood, with modern cushioned seats for about 40 people. In the far back is a bar and the latrine. But there's no one to serve at the bar as we are only 6, the boatman and his wife, our guide Fun, me and Ellery, and a young girl we picked up at a checkpoint about an hour ago. I thought her joining us might provide some opportunity for talk, as she's about Ellery's age I suspect. Instead, she quietly climbed on the boat and went to the back and has been sitting there silently ever since. Indeed, the whole ride is quiet, just the hum of the boat engine and the water lapping against it as Ellery reads and our guide sleeps. (Funny, just as I write this, the boatman turns on some music, and then just as quickly turned it off).

Eric, the travel agent in the US, discouraged us from taking this boat trip, saying that the river isn't so interesting here and it's a long two days. That's probably true; every so often we see fishermen, villagers panning for gold, or kids playing on one of the sandy shoals, and we've passed one or two Wats, temples, overlooking the river, but there's really nothing but the spectacular views of the mountains. Still, I think it's a perfect interlude. The weather is nice, and it gives us time to relax and read, reflect and rest, after what now seems like the hustle of the last 9 days. Smelling the cool, lush odor of the jungle is intoxicating.

So, returning to this morning, not much of note happened. The usual wake up, shower, pack the bags, get in the car, head to yet another border. Here, on the Thai side of the river, there was a some hustle and bustle, as we had our pictures taken for the necessary Lao visas and were stamped out of Thailand. Then a very quick water taxi ride to the other side, to Laos, where government officials leisurely, almost defiantly, took their time in reviewing our papers and issuing our visas. A tuk tuk then took us to the boat jetty, and this is where we've been ever since.

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Our first stop was a small village. It wasn't a long walk from the river to the village, but it was hidden behind the vegetation, and I realized that we've probably passed dozens of such villages without knowing it. Here, Fun explained, the people are "middle landers.". The government has moved them closer to the river, from the hills, apparently so that they can arrange schooling for the children and bring them electricity and other modern conveniences. I'm not sure I buy that excuse, but certainly the people don't appear to be suffering much from the move. The village was full of children of all kinds - human, chicks, piglets running everywhere, and laughing. There was a lot of laughter, as most of the adults were off working in the fields. The few we saw were either carrying children, sling-style, or older. The older women had tattoos, very intricate patterns, on their arms. Their language is kumao, similar to khemer. Houses are bamboo, built just a few feet high. The main house is one large open room with mats for sleeping, and the kitchen is separate. This village received electricity only last year, and just like that, every house now has a satellite dish and a tv.

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The rest of the day was more of the same - slow, relaxing ride up the river. We arrived at the hotel overlooking the river around 4, and then walked down the main street of Pakbeng, a one-street town catering only to the backpackers who come this way. Guest houses and cafes offering cheap food and free wi-Fi, and stalls selling cheap Chinese toothpaste and clothing clearly left behind by backpackers who passed through. But as the commercial zone peters out, you see the other side of this town; trash and waste piled along the street, tiny children picking through it, broken plastic sandals and rags being sold. A very depressing reminder of what life is really like in a developing country.