Bill and Sue-On Hillman: A 50-Year Musical Odyssey


Apocalypse Non
Mekong: "Khong, The mother of water"
Leaving the Thai border town Chiang Khong, we took our hotel's packed lunch (hamburger, chips and noodles) for the longboat trip on the Mekong and boarded a bus at Thai customs. Today's is a much shorter trip across the Mekong to Huay Xai thanks to the new bridge that replaced the boat crossing of a few years back. We paid for our Visa at customs - US$42 - and converted bahts to kips currency. Entering Lao, Beam introduced us to the local guide, Mr. Thong and we boarded a Songthaew truck for the 30-minute ride through fields and towns to the slowboat pier. 

The Mekong river is the longest in Southeast Asia and is the lifeblood of a huge area. It is a vital source of transportation and water to the rice fields before reaching its final destination on the south east coast of Vietnam, where it becomes a sprawling delta, home to 17.5 million people. We were told that Thailand was on one side of the river and Lao on other - but since French Colonial days the river itself belongs to Lao. Thailand is restricted from putting landfill into the river, so they often dig into the banks to make level land for agriculture, buildings and docks.

We boarded our long, narrow boat which was lined with seats and tables on either side of a centre aisle. There were curtained windows along both sides. Just behind the pilots' steering area at the front was an open-ceiling sunroom in which were piled a stack of life jackets. Near the rear was the engine room, toilets and a small bar area selling noodles, snacks, and drinks. The family living quarters were at the rear of the boat. As with many longboats there was a satellite dish antennae on the cabin roof. Our toilets were shared with the family and crew members who lived on the boat.

The brown muddy waters of the Mekong were in contrast to the lush green vegetation on the surrounding hills, cliffs and mountains that rose abruptly from the shoreline. The trip was generally quiet and relaxing and we spent much of our time chatting, writing, reading and taking photos of the scenery that unfolded on either side of the boat. Occasionally we would see locals strolling or working on the shore, fishermen tending their nets, small settlements, the odd school, stands of teak trees, etc. We passed many young children swimming or playing by the waters edge, locals thrashing rice, washing clothes, and taking baths. There were many kids at play because New Year school holidays had begun. Many of the villages were accessible only by river and were without electricity.

Apocalypse Non: When we first planned this Mekong adventure we had visions of  Coppola's Vietnam War film, Apocalypse Now "the smell of napalm in the morning" and every kilometre of the river fraught with danger (read the script). But that was a different time and that river was really the Nung flowing into Cambodia - and the filming was actually done in the Philippines. Our river adventure was a bit safer :) . . . although while the Mekong is generally quite wide, there are some narrow stretches with faster flowing water and numerous whirlpools and rocky outcrops. In fact, the day after we completed our trip, another longboat ran into trouble in a whirlpool and was smashed in two by the rocks. Occupants either swam to shore or clung to the rocks and wreckage until they were rescued by passing boats. One woman, a BBC journalist however, was lost in the current and her body was found later downstream. 

Occasionally, we would meet or pass other craft: local boats, other longboats and the speeding fastboats. These speedboats travel at a high speed and have a poorer safety record. Our captain was careful to avoid the numerous rock outcrops, but the water was mostly smooth with the odd treacherous rapid and whirpool. Current construction projects are creating bridges and dams across the river - many of them made possible by Chinese investment.

This was the time of year when local farmers practiced slash and burn on the hillsides in preparation for the new planting season. The villagers are allowed to clear land in early spring. They cut down the trees, collect whatever ones are usable for lumber, etc., and leave the rest to dry. In April, they can burn whatever is left, and only in April.  The land is then worked up, mostly into terraces, and is ready for planting and the monsoons around the end of June. It's amazing how they can work on such steep hills, but they do so successfully. There were so many fires that a permanent haze covered much of the region, there were sections that were engulfed in heavy smoke and ash and we could hear the crackling of the flames. 

Bamboo poles were jammed into rock crevices at various angles, securing nets just below the surface to strain fish from the fast currents.  Floating plastic bottles functioned as buoys marking off territory and drift net locations. Bamboo sticks lined the shore, each one holding a small fish trap or baited hook. This was the dry season, so there were many sand bars and moist banks. We could see previous higher water level marks on some of the cliff walls. The banks were planted in corn and green beans, with peanuts planted on the sand bars. We also saw herds of grazing cattle and the occasional elephant - but very few birds.

After about seven hours we approached  Pakbeng - the half-way stop for river traffic between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang.

The Songthaew ride from Lao Customs to the Mekong longboat pier

Our longboat: ship's pilots, Guide Thong, Hillmans, Guide Beam, passengers, docks area

Longboat snacks store, toilets, door to engine room, guides, our carry-on lunch
Guide Mr. Thong shares info about the MekongBeam treats us to delicious Corn Soymilk

Life along the Mekong shore

Approaching the half-way stopover: Pakbeng




Copyright 2015
Bill and Sue-On Hillman