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
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
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
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
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
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.