Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mekong, Upriver

January 12, 2009

...we made our way down the dusty hill to where the slow boats were moored. The trip upriver to Huay Xai was touted to be 5 -6 hours, but it took us 9 1/2. Such is Lao Time. I felt sorry for those trying to cross into Thailand as we docked just 5 minutes before the immigration post closed. But this was the way I had intended to pass the day, and it was heaven to drift quietly up the Mekong, watching the mountains drop away into jungle. Our boat had long, ornately carved rails, between which soft bus seats were laid in rows to pamper spoiled white asses. The passengers were all European at first, including a French woman who seemed unable to sit still for 5 seconds. As we continued upriver, the pilot stopped about a dozen times for locals who stood on the high rock crop banks waving shirts. We stopped at one village that had a market right on the bank, and seemed to be selling nothing but T-shirts. Nearby, a couple sat eating in their pirogue, clearly embarrassed to be the subject of every one's photos.

Our pilot steered us past the low jungled hills, past the shores of rock and sand. The rocks had been carved during rainy season in a pattern that was almost purposeful, methodical. He used a proper captain's wheel, unlike the single bamboo shafts attached to the afts of the pirogues. Both his steering house and the bow contained small altars, the latter more ornate, its joss sticks lit before launching. On board, an old woman sat with her three granddaughters, none of whom moved for the entire trip. The woman seemed to have knee trouble, and was asking the French bata-bata butterfly for treatment. Again, interesting how Europeans are seen as a source of medical treatment. A Frenchman sitting nearby rubbed some sort of salve into the afflicted joint. I watched all of this to the soundtrack of my iPod, listening mostly to '60s stuff, and slightly chagrined that the "Oldies" setting now includes music from my college days.

We reached Huay Xai at dusk and grabbed a room. The owner was a gorgeous woman in her '50s, with the glamour and dress of a beauty queen. There were photos of her in her younger day, resembling two daughters well represented in the adjoining photos. Clearly brought up with great expectations, I wondered how they felt about waiting on and cooking for tourists.

We walked up the main street, taking all of 5 minutes. It was all very Thai, even on this side of the river. At the base of the long steps leading up to the Wat, a man whispered hello from the shadows of the naga's head, a clear attempt to sell drugs. We ignored him and found a restaurant on a deck overlooking the Mekong, the sun's final act being to accent the purple hills with pink. A Korean girl sat behind us, filling out her journal, and across the room, a man sat at a keyboard, his crooning being a vast improvement over the previous BGM of bad pop songs. As the Xmas lights came on, Miki and I raised our final toast with Beer Lao...

On the turntable: Genesis, "Plays Live"

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