Mekong Trip Log

Mekong River Trip log August 25 - 27, 2007
Mekong River Trip Log
August 25, 2007
Saturday somewhere on the Mekong River
Chiang Saen, Thailand
I started early this morning. Immigration at the pier in Chiang Saen opens at 8:00 AM. The boat, The Mekong Princess, was to depart at 9:00 AM.
Last night when the water in the $6 guesthouse I originally checked into completely stopped trickling from the plumbing, I deserted the place. I finally ended up at the Chiang Saen Hillside Hotel. This is a very nice place. It was raining lightly outside. I had walked from the $6 Nameless Guesthouse, through town about 3 kilometers so I was more than a little wet.
The owner/manager was so accommodating at this place it reflects the very spirit of the Thai people. When he heard me tell the desk clerk that I was relocating from a guesthouse down by the River he offered to drive me to pick up my luggage, no problem, no charge. What a nice place to stay. The room was extra clean and was fragrant with a Thai herb, thakrai. This is used in curry and as a room freshener. The room included an excellent early morning breakfast buffet.
I left the hotel at 7:00 AM and again the owner very nicely drove me to the River to where the Mekong Prince was tied up to the shore. This time I had to walk that 8” plank carrying my roller carryon suitcase. Inside was my laptop and my Nikon camera, plus an electronic translator. It would have been a disaster if I slipped and fell into the water.
Once more I climbed through the open window on the lower level bow of the boat. Jean, the Chinese translator was waiting. She took me to my cabin. Imagine my surprise when I saw that I was given the bow starboard suite! They must really be counting on me selling some tours next year. The cabin was spacious and had picture windows both on the side and toward the front.
After shoving my luggage inside the cabin I followed one of the Chinese staff as he took me to the immigration officer. The boat was docked about 1 kilometer upstream from the pier where the immigration office is located. We walked there, with a medium light rain falling all the time. The rain was steady and would probably drop 1” an hour. I had an umbrella and was wearing shorts and sandals, so it didn’t really matter that my lower half was getting wet.
We arrived at the immigration office 10 minutes early. The immigration officer arrived 10 minutes late. There was some minor confusion about the ships’ papers, but he stamped my passport without a problem, except that he put the departure stamp in the entry column. Oh well, not my problem.
Getting back to the boat, I saw right away that there was a real gangplank now stretched to shore. I guess that was for the 8 German tourists who I’m sharing this very large boat with. I took my passport to my room. . . well I started to, but Jean stopped me. Very apologetically she explained to me that they had given me the wrong room by mistake. She was terribly sorry, but I had been relocated to cabin #5. Of course I smiled, (laughing inside) and told her that it was no problem at all.
In fact this cabin while not in the front and a bit smaller is more than adequate. I certainly hadn’t paid for nor did I expect the suite that they first assigned me to. This room is nicely put together, the bed is perfectly firm yet comfortable and the passing jungle scenery is like a National Geographic Special on a 200 inch HD TV screen. I’m very happy with the boat all around. It is an excellent adventure cruise ship.
The boat is built to 4 star hotel standards, in most ways, but still the cabins are boat cabins, not hotel rooms. I think this cabin is more comfortable than either of the ocean going cruise cabins I have been on in the past.
Without any fanfare the boat pulled away from the dock at 9:00 AM. I was reclining on my bed at that time. I went out to take a few photos and watch Chiang Saen disappear around a bend in the river.
Going north (up river), the border with Myanmar (Burma) is roughly 50 kilometers ahead on the west side of the river. This is the same side of the river as Thailand is on. Opposite side of the River is Laos.
As we passed the Myanmar/Thailand border things changed. The power lines that had followed alongside the river were gone. We did pass villages, but there is no power along this long stretch of the river. The first town we passed in Myanmar is located at a place that is known as the Pagoda Forest. There are hundreds of pagodas, built on crypts on the hillside here.
The Thai style of Temple has been replaced with the Burma style. The distinctive difference is in the spires. The Myanmar Buddhist Temples have spires that rise straight upwards getting smaller in concentric rings. Whereas the Thai style temple roof is a steep peaked gable with eaves that float upwards like the wings of birds.
I watched the river and the shore pass by for an hour then went downstairs and took a short nap. The boat is a little noisy down on the lower deck while the motor is going and the boat is steaming upstream. But the regular vibration just put me right to sleep.
This is turning out to be an excellent adventure that is more relaxing than anything I have done in ages. There are no phones (no cell towers here). There is no internet and so I have time to relax and write this trip log quietly. I’m sitting in a corner of the dining salon. The salon has seating for 20 and can hold the boat maximum of 30 easily.
When I came down for lunch, the German speaking guide asked me if I would mind waiting outside for a couple minutes while they organized table seating. “Mai Guan Xi” I said, “no problem”. After a minute he signaled me to come on in and pointed out my table. Since there are only 8 German tourists, seating was not really an issue! But the Chinese can be so damned formal about these things.
Me, well I would have been happy eating outside on deck, except it was still raining. Did the rain ruin the cruise so far? Not a bit. If the sun were out the temperature outside would be 90 or 100 and the tropical sun can fry you to a crisp in minutes. So I reckon that most people would have been sitting in exactly the same chairs, under the roof cover, except they would have been sweating instead of sitting comfortably in 75 degree weather.
I dragged a chair alongside the bridge, up toward the front and sat there with my feet propped on the outer railing. The light rain kept me cool and a little damp, but it wasn’t really irritating. I’m sure it was more comfortable than if I had been sitting in the sun.
Because the dining room is so noisy when the boat is moving and German tourists have apparently complained in the past, the boat parks against shore for lunch. We stopped at a small village that has a nifty sandbar along the shore edge. The captain could ease the boat up onto that sandbar without worrying about damage to the hull.
Lunch consisted of a combination of Chinese food and some Thai food. I didn’t see anything that seemed distinctly Yunnan, which is where the boat crew originates. This boat is the largest boat registered in the Chinese Province of Yunnan.
Our destination 3 days from now is Jinghong, Yunnan Province. It is 334 kilometers from Chiang Saen to Jinghong according to the map that hangs on the wall just outside the dining salon.
While the boat was stopped for lunch we passengers were not allowed to get off onto Laos soil. There is no immigration officer in the village, so getting off was forbidden.
Cruising this river is unlike anything I imagined. Even though I read the book “Mekong River” several times and the author talks about running the rapids, I didn’t picture this 125 foot ship steaming through rock strewn rapids swerving port, then starboard as if we were running an Olympic kayak slalom course.
I had in my mind a vision of a this big slow boat placidly moving upriver while the muddy water flowed quietly by. NOT!
This section of the Mekong River is a roiling, moving mass of water that swirls and churns at every bend and shallow. This is not a quiet river. One person commented to me that “this river is alive!” The captain cannot relax for a moment. He must guide this vessel without relaxing his concentration. After hundreds of journey’s up and down the river, the captain is quite familiar with every shallow and rock hazard. But still, this river is a mass of swirling whirlpools and eddies. It is small really treacherous for the small pirogues that run the river.
It’s almost 6:00 PM China time now and I imagine the boat will be stopping along shore sometime soon. The plan is for us to tie off for the night somewhere along the way on the Laos side again. I was warned that to make it more quiet (and probably to save fuel costs) the electricity will go off and we will be without power for the night. That means manually flushing the toilet using a water dipper and bucket to pour water into the toilet. Again, no big thing. I’m okay without light because I travel with a miners headlight to read by at night anyway. But no power means no air conditioning in the rooms. It makes me doubly glad the temperature is in the mid 70s and not the high 90s.
Well, I’m about out of hot water for my green tea so it must be time to stop writing. Jean gave me a thermos and told me they will gladly keep it full of hot water for me. I’ll be drinking lots of green tea on this cruise. I bought a couple different kinds when I was in China a couple weeks ago, so I have a big supply of tea at the moment. I have found that I can drink green tea all day and never eat a snack.
Looking toward shore (the Burma side) I see two water buffalo standing alongside the river on a sand bar by the shore. There must be a village nearby, but I cannot see it. The jungle growth here is dense and looks like original growth. There has been no teak harvesting in this area. If there is anywhere in Southeast Asia that might still harbor wild tigers this must be the place! I’m sure I won’t see one, but this area is wild enough, with villages far enough apart that I imagine there is plenty of tiger food running around.
Speaking of food, I haven’t seen one fisherman since we left the dock this morning. It’s true that it is raining and the river is running deep muddy brown, but I still expected to see some fishermen. At the market last night I saw lots of fresh caught fish. Some of them were huge. This river must be teeming with fish. Next year I’ll pack a rod and reel when I do this cruise.
The captain edged the boat up to shore somewhere on the Laos side of the river at around 7:30 PM. It was raining again, with light rain turning periodically into torrential downpours. The motor was turned off and dinner tonight was served by candlelight. The guide referred to it as romantic. It is fuel efficient if nothing else.
We parked about 15 or 20 kilometers upstream from a Laos town named Wang Reng.
The village children came down and stood on shoring staring at us while the boat crew tied the boat cables around a large tree. Dinner was a dozen dishes, pork and beef with vegetable. And surprisingly mashed potatoes. The potatoes did have some peppers and onions in them, but definitely were mashed potatoes. I was about the only person to eat them and that was just about all I ate, a large pot of them!
Did I mention that I am on board with a tour group of 8 Germans. The boat is owned by a partnership of a German and Chinese tour agency. The boat was German designed and is operated by a Chinese crew.
There is one Chinese translator who speaks both English and German. Then there is the tour group guide who is also Chinese and speaks German and a little English. He has talked to me a few times, but doesn’t like to use his English too much I think. Then there is a staff of four females who take care of serving food and cleaning the rooms. In addition to those five, there are another 8 or 10 male crew members. We have 9 passengers and 15 crew and staff! The service is pretty good.
The one thing I would like to see different is their communication about what will happen next. I don’t seem to find out what is going on until we have stopped or are stopping. But it isn’t any big thing. It would be easier to plan what I will do next if I knew what the captain had planned next. After dinner I went to bed, wishing I had grabbed a shower while we were tying up to the shore.
Trip log August 26, 2007
Somewhere on the Mekong River,
North of Chiang Saen about 100 kilometers.

Well just after I finished writing yesterday evening they fortuitously turned the power back on, so I grabbed a shower fast while the water pump was still operating.
The beds are smallish, but I guess equal to a standard twin size bed. I slept well and comfortably. There are no lights at night, because the motor is turned off. Except in the hallway and exterior of the boat where an emergency battery powers these lights all night.
I heard the first rattle of the steel cable being pulled in around 5:30 or 6:00 AM this morning. The crew was obviously trying to go about their work quietly because there was no laughter and no slamming of hatch covers or tools onto the metal decks. Around 7:30 the boat motor and generator started up. I jumped up and immediately shaved and showered. Breakfast was to be around 8:00 AM and I knew the power would go off while we ate. Yes, I showered again and again at noon. In the tropics I find I take 3 or 4 fast showers a day whenever the opportunity is there to do so.
Breakfast offerings today included toast, jam, several types of fruit, some meat, fried eggs and hard boiled eggs. They had a thermos of hot water for my green tea as well. There is always fruit and some cookies sitting on the side table in the dining room. So plenty of food is available all day.
As soon as breakfast was done, the boat started up and pulled away from shore. I regretted not being able to go ashore here. If we cannot land anywhere, this river trip will not feel complete to me.
All during breakfast there was a fierce downpour. Rain came down so fast and hard that I could barely see across the river. At this point I think the River is probably 300 to 400 yards wide. As the boat pulled away from shore, I climbed up onto the third level and took a seat under the patio roof with my feet on the railing once again. We cruised for about an hour with the rain diminishing, but never stopping. Again the wind blew light raindrops onto me. I have taken to wearing shorts, sandals and a nylon t-shirt that dries quickly. I change shirts several times during the day, allowing the wet shirts to dry.
Around 9:30 A.M. as I was lying down for an early nap, I felt the boat begin to slow. This always means something interesting is about to happen. I pulled on a pair of shorts and just as I was opening the cabin door, Jean knocked on it. She warned me that we were going to pull up to shore and then walk to a small village where some gifts would be given to the children at the 1 room schoolhouse.
A light rain was still coming down, so I grabbed an umbrella, pulled on my nylon safari long legged pants and decided to wear river sandals so they would clean up easier. I could see that the trail would be a muddy quagmire. I stuffed a large plastic bag into a pocket to cover the camera if needed. Then I walked up to the bow meeting room where the German guide was giving his group a talk about what to expect. German is just not close enough to Spanish. I really couldn’t figure out much of what he said.
Gi came over and translated the highlights for me. We are to go to the village school where the boat gives small gifts to the children and teacher each time it passes. This time they have brought a batter operated wall clock for the teacher to teach the kids how to tell time. They also brought some candy and hair ornaments for the girls.
As soon as we started walking up the trail, I knew this would be a tricky. The rain had slowed, but was still coming down lightly. The trail was muddy, sticky and slippery. Right away I moved into the lead at the front of the pack and picked my way carefully, but quickly up the trail, following a 16 year old girl who was carrying an umbrella and wearing rubber rain boots and a fancy long skirt and very low cut top.
One thing I missed that the German guide advised his group about was that these village people live very rough. He advised his group (I later learned) that many of the women would be bare breasted, as I soon discovered for myself.
The trail became steeper, slicker and much more treacherous. Looking behind, I saw that I had left the others far behind, so I took a short break to give them a chance to catch up, but they were very slow and I was bored, so I left them and followed the girl up the hill to the village.
As I entered the village, imagine my surprise when standing at the top of the muddy hill, waiting to greet me, was a group of Akka village women and children. The women ranged in age from 20 to 90 and they all had vest like shirts that left their breasts swaying free. I discovered most every adult female had a kid strapped onto her back, with the kid hanging from a cloth papoose. The fabric from the carrying sling wrapped around beneath the women’s breasts almost like a corset.
I saw one hunchbacked old lady, who must be 85 or even 95 years old. She was topless like all the others. When she saw me staring into her yard she walked over to the 3 foot pig retaining fence and gave me a huge black toothed smile. (these village women chew a local bark that turns their teeth a “beautiful” black) Then so strangely, she reached out and wanted to shake my hand! Of course I shook hers, while taking a photo left handed.
She laughed and even posed a bit while all the time speaking rapidly to me in the local dialect which has heavy French overtones. Even so, there were no words I could understand, so it wasn’t French she was speaking. She and I chatted for a couple minutes and then I walked back into the main part of the village, because I could still not see nor hear the rest of our group.
They were there alright, just treading daintily along the slippery mud path. By then the rain had stopped and the air was warming up quickly. The group finally caught up with me and together we walked over to the schoolhouse. Inside there were about 45 children ages 5 to 12 years old, sitting at long benches. These kids were so quiet and orderly, I was really impressed.
The guide had told his group not to take any photos until after the gifts were handed to the teacher, but my camera had been going non-stop since I left the boat. That was another thing I missed by not speaking German. I was shooting mostly in what I call stealth mode. That is with the camera aimed in a general direction, but without looking at the camera or through the view finder at all. Sometimes the camera hangs down at my side (vertically framed shots) while others I hold my hands cupped in front of me with the camera cradled in my hands like I’m resting. While in fact I am snapping photos like a crazy person.
I’ve found that almost nobody realizes what I am doing, when I use this stealth mode photography. It gives me some real life shots and in this case I kept taking photos the entire time the gifts were handed out. It was dark inside the schoolroom. (No electricity, radios, TV’s, telephones, cell phones or disc players anywhere in this town) In fact, the battery operated wall clock that was the gift from the boat is the only electric device in the village!
As soon as the clock was handed over, I turned on my flash and began taking photos of the kids, then showing them their pictures. This was the first time that many of them had ever seen a photo and especially a photo of themselves. I took the time to allow every child in the room to see his or her photo as I moved slowly around the room. Meanwhile the Germans grew rapidly bored and left me alone with the kids while they walked out, moving back toward the boat.
All too soon I heard the boat horn sounding, calling us back to continue up river. The walk downhill was sure to be worse than going up, so I found a sturdy stick to use as a prop. My sandals were caked 3” thick with brown mud on the bottoms. My pants legs were also caked with mud. I had expected that to happen, which is why I was wearing the quick drying nylon safari pants.
When I got to the river, I placed my camera inside my hat on a dry rock and then walked into the water up to my knees. Still wearing them, I scrubbed my pants until all the mud was gone. The muddy brown Mekong River Water closely matched the dark brown khaki color of my pants. The sandals took some scrubbing and I never quite got them clean before everyone else was up on deck and impatiently waiting for me.
When I got back on deck, the crew took my sandals and gave me a pair of plastic sandals to wear while they scrubbed my sandals clean! The service is quite something.
Looking back to shore I see two dozen children of all ages standing there to watch us leave. They had followed behind me as I left the school house. Many of the coming all the way to the shore. I felt like Keith, the pied piper of Laos! I wave, they wave back. As we get further from the village they continue to wave until I cannot see them any longer.
This nameless Akka village stop was the highlight of this boat trip so far. I felt as if I was in the middle of a Discovery Planet production. This was different from the visits I have made to mountain villages that are closer to roads and to civilization. There are always many signs of the real world at those villages. Gasoline, generators, sometimes motor bikes. Always radios and frequently solar cells to power TVs and many times cell phones as well. Here there were none of those things. This tiny Laotian village is hundreds of kilometers from any town or road. The only road is the Mekong River!
That was a tough uphill walk and a tougher downhill slide. So now I think I’ll go take a nap! More later.
August 27, 2007
Mekong River, at the China/Laos border

After leaving the nameless village yesterday afternoon, the next few hours on the boat were uneventful. I napped, wrote in this trip log and worked on a Mekong River website page.
The Captain tied up to the shore again, just like before. This time he left the motor running during dinner so we had electric light instead of candlelight.
This morning the sky was overcast, but there was no rain. The temperature was in the mid-70s. I went up on deck at 7:30 as the boat left shore and headed at full speed upstream.
At 8:00 AM breakfast was served, while the boat continued north. Around 9:00 AM we arrived at Guan Lei, the border check point between China and Laos. Here all boats stop for paperwork clearance.
The breakfast bell rang hard several times, calling us all to the dining cabin. We were given customs and health declarations to fill out. Within minutes the immigration and customs officer climbed aboard and began an inspection of all cabins. One of the officers came over to us. He used an infrared heat measuring device to measure each of our forehead temperatures. This is a carry over from the SARS epidemic. I suppose if you are running a fever, they will quarantine you or turn you away, I hope I never find out. The same devices, except larger bulk style, operate at the airports upon your arrival by air in Beijing and Shanghai.
Our boat was tied up alongside 5 other cargo boats. To get to shore we walked, climbed and leaped from one deck to the next. Again, I outdistanced the group and waited on shore while they picked their way daintily across the decks laden with cargo.
We walked up a relatively steep hill, maybe 300 yards to the customs building. The immigration officer routinely stamped our passports and we walked back down to the boat. I was quite far ahead of everyone else, so I pulled my laptop out and connected through a wireless cell phone card that works everywhere in China that there are cell towers.
It was fun to IChat with my granddaughter, Chelsea, back in Arizona for 15 minutes before the boat pulled out and I lost my connection. Now it is Myanmar on the left (west bank) and China on the East shore.
We ended the day on schedule in Jinghong, China arriving at the dock at 2:30 PM. That ended my 3 day cruise on the Mekong River. It was a really superb 3 days.
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