The River Is The Road

View From The RiverSomewhere in Laos: October 29, 2008

It was a boat trip for the ages. The first day, as we all boarded the boat the excitement in the air was palpable and the young backpackers certainly got their party on. Amidst howls of “BeerLao!” in clipped English accents and young Irish brogues the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang pushed off from the pier and slowly made its way downriver. On the first day we made three stops at riverside vilages, straight out of a National Geographic special or an old movie about Swift Boats in Vietnam. There was ample room on the wide and even longer boat, my seat reasonably comfortable and the conversation with the Austrlaian couple and the American next to me was good. The hours passed by under a veil of emerald jungle-clad peaks, blue skies and the muddy brown Mekong. All the while, T.S. Eliot’s memorable verse kept running through my mind:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,/Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;/Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;/Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges./The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten/By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable./Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder/Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated

Here the river is the road. The sun is bright, with a few scattered and pregnant clouds dashing across the blue skies in a cool breeze. Farms come straight down to the banks of the river and pointy boats, as if they were carved out of a single teak log are everywhere. There are few conical bamboo hats, but thatched huts abound watching over rice paddies and cabbage fields.

We stopped in Pak Beng, a small village on the steep Eastern bank of the Mekong for the night. I had little energy but to eat and sleep. I awoke to a fried egg and baguette sandwich and a delightful banana pancake, walked down to the river and climbed aboard.

But this boat was smaller–and hence–more crowded. The revelers of yesterday, except for a hardcore group from Newcastle and Ireland who started drinking at 9am, were much more sedate. The seats were smaller, harder and much more uncomfortable. And yet, even as we stopped at more villages to gather more passengers for the journey south the day was wonderful. I saw two elephants, countless water buffaloes (one of my favorite animals), lots of goats, a few birds I was unable to identify and little else except the ever-present muddy Mekong. I sat with the American again and a wonderful couple from Rotterdam.

Swiftly, but slowly did the days pass, for river travel is on an altogether different clock–one that knows no seconds, no minutes or even hours, just the constant thrumming of the engines, the turning of the screw and the wide sweeps and timeless vistas around the rocky bends of the Mekong. This is not Western time, nor is it timeless: it exists only in itself, in the moment, the swirl of muddy brown water, that unpropitiated god, the delicate flight of herons, rice paddies and fields of bok choy, thatched huts and children waving from the banks at the falang (a Thai and Lao word for foreigners). And not least the silent but always present eyes of the water buffaloes just watching, always watching.

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