Messing About in Boats — Part 3

17 Mar

We’d clearly got lucky with our choice of stopping places the day before, because my firm belief that hardly any village in Laos will be too small to have someone selling small-ticket items like Lao-style crisps and various liquids from out of their house is comprehensively proved wrong.

By lunchtime, we are out of pop. We are low on drinking water, and what we have is finest boiled Mekong, with a slightly kippered flavour and the odd brown and lurking strand. Plus I gave our last pack of Lao-style crisps to one of Eli’s grandkids.

Oh, yeah. And the river is low, low, low. I note with foreboding that there are hardly any boats on this channel, for the good, sound reason that with the river this height it is a complete bitch. There are relatively few patches deep enough for one to paddle gently along enjoying the view of the banks and the islands and even those, for me, are sullied by the fear of what comes next.

Z, by contrast, is having a fine old time, enjoying stops, enjoying navigating, prattling about the mighty Mekong. I am making mental notes on how to do this better next time we take a similar excursion, and kicking myself for the nth time for not picking up a drybag back in London.

Take all the water we could conceivably drink. Pick up some iodine tablets (hard to get in the UK, and I’m not sure whether the Povidone solution we bought in Cambodia for cuts is toxic). DO NOT, and I repeat NOT, give away emergency snacks to hopeful-looking children. And, if you don’t have a drybag, double-bag literally bloody everything.

Oh, yes, and don’t omit the lifejackets. Not a small detail.

There, are, in fact, companies which offer organized kayaking trips downriver, along a similar route. But the notion of piling into a minivan, joining a group, and pelting down the river following the leader felt rather like a school trip, and the pace of group tours is always wrong for Z (and me).

Three hours of fun white water stuff with guides and appropriate equipment? Definitely. As a means of getting from one place to another? Not so appealing.

It is roughly at this point when I hear a really quite impressive roar of water in the distance, so much so that I begin to think we may have hit one of the celebrated waterfalls ahead of time.

“Can you hear that, Z?” I ask.

“Yep,” he says.

“Would you say it’s louder or quieter than the last set of rapids?”

“Louder,” he says. “Definitely. A lot louder.”

There is a fine line of mist downriver, although the current remains nicely languid. “OK,” I say. “We’re going to hug the bank, pull in once we can see it…”

“And climb up the bank and take a decent look at it and work out what to do,” he says.

We moor at a nice quiet spot, from which I can see the rapids. The channel is about 400 metres wide at this point. The other side looks nice and tranquil, studded with low islands. The chute is decently wide, but long, fast, and with some really ominous-looking turbulence dead centre which looks, to my inexpert eye, like water smashing at some pace into just sub-surface rocks.

Z reckons it is fine, and we can go straight through it. I am not so sure.

“Why don’t you trust my judgement, Mum?” he says.

“Because I’d never forgive myself if anything happened to you,” I say.

“It would be worse if something happened to you,” he says.

I am moved by this sentiment. “No, seriously, Mum,” he says. “What would I do out here in the middle of Asia without you? I wouldn’t get very far.”

There is no one about, though the path up the bank is clearly frequented. We startle a few buffalo, wander along to a nearby house, and explain to the chap who is chopping wood with his machete in the usual pidgin-cum-sign-language that we are headed to Don Det. It’s that way, he says.

His wife wanders down to the bank with us. I point at the rapids, point at the boat, point at the calmer path on the other side of the strand of shrubby islets, trying to ask her which is best. There is a volley of Lao, studded with affirmatives, which continues for some time, leaving all sides baffled.

“Well,” Z says. “She certainly thinks we’re crazy.”

“Yep,” I say. “The problem is, we don’t know why she thinks we’re crazy. Does she think we’re crazy for taking a paddle-boat to Don Det when we don’t know the river? Does she think we’re crazy for wanting to shoot the rapids in a paddle-boat? Or does she think we’re crazy for even contemplating going through all the shallows on the other side instead of taking the easy way down?”

With hindsight, the answer was probably all of the above, and then some. Muppet might just about cover it.

A longtail appears, the first we have seen for some time. We leg it along the bank to watch what it does.

Irritatingly, it does what Z suggested. Straight down, accelerates out, end of. But they know the water, and have an engine. And, unlike with our first set of rapids, there is no one in the water, or even on the bank, to help if I cock up.

We wait around a bit longer. A second longtail does the same. I can’t help but register the alarm on the passengers’ faces, and the amount of water they are shipping. It’s clearly the quickest route. But, equally clearly, not one for the unescorted amateur.

We wait a bit longer to see if a paddle-boat comes past. It doesn’t.

We take the long way round. And, my lord, it is a long way round, even without the 400-metre trip across this tiny fraction of the Mekong.

Z sensibly picks a side channel, marked with prayer flags, which leads to a wat.

It forks. “We need to take this way back to the river,” he says. “Mum, go now. Through those bushes, go now!”

I trust my instincts over his, which, when it comes to matters geographical, is always a mistake. We end at an impasse, meet a young couple on a fishing skiff, who tell us in sign language that Don Det is back the way we came, on the main river, via the channel that Z had identified.

I spend an embarrassing amount of time grappling back upriver through shoals of rocks against an exotic range of currents, painfully aware of our highly skilled audience, while Z remains diplomatically silent and the water in our chariot rises higher.

It’s an interesting, if unattractive, emotional place to be in. There is that typically female space, the self-critical, self-hating one of publicly cocking up manoeuvres such as parking a car, reversing round corners, etc. And the typically male/head of family space, of having decided on a short cut which has gone horribly wrong, and an anger in search of someone to pin it on.

At a safe distance, both emotional and physical, we stop at a village, in search of sustenance for Z and some time off the boat, which is by now quite the albatross, for me at least.

We explain, as per, that we are trying to get to Don Det on our little boat, down there, by paddling. Grandma brings us some fruit, a type of large, segmented young nut, I would guess from a local palm, which Z eats with pleasure.

Dad explains in vigorous, and convincing, sign language that with the river at this height we will need a tow to Don Det, because there are nasty rapids coming up and a lot of rocks. I do not doubt him for a second, and we settle on a price of 70,000 kip.

I am, in a warped way, quietly satisfied when the last leg of our trip to Don Det, in a bigger boat with a similar draft and an engine, proves challenging even to Dad, with Mum and teenage son on hand.

On one stretch Dad is paddling, son is using a bamboo pole, and Mum is in the water helping out. It still takes us fifteen minutes to get the big boat out of the rocks after the rapids, with Z and I sitting dead-centre, like lemons.

On a second stretch, our little boat capsizes on the rapids, and Dad and I have to overturn it and bail it out.

Z, meanwhile, safe in the big boat, is completely buzzed, and retells the story, with discreet elisions, to everyone he meets, likes the look of, or finds within earshot, in Don Det. This trip is doing wonders for his confidence.

Read Part 1 here
Read Part 2 here

2 Responses to “Messing About in Boats — Part 3”

  1. Anne-Marie March 17, 2010 at 3:55 pm #

    What a fantastic adventure. And lovely to have you back in contact again. I can see why there haven’t been any posts for the last few days!

    • MummyT March 17, 2010 at 4:18 pm #

      Yes! We just met a guy whose boat sank on that bit of the Mekong. The pilot had overloaded it. Started shipping water, got them to a sandbar, boat went under, twelve people standing there and the pilot had no credit on his mobile and was in floods of tears. Z has just demolished the largest club sandwich I have ever seen! Off to Vientiane tonight… xxx

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: