13.10.2013 - 21.10.2013 33 °C
Lachlan and I have spent the last five days in Bangkok, Thailand, after crossing the Laos-Thai border at Houay Xai, in the north of Thailand. At Houay Xai the Mekong River forms the border between the two countries for some kilometres (as it also does along another section of border, in the south) and to get to the border, we travelled upstream from Luang Prabang (in Laos) for two days on one of the Mekong River 'slow boats'.
The Mekong is a wide, watery, muddy-brown alley of life, curling its way south from the Tibetan plateau in south-western China to the Mekong delta in the southern tip of Vietnam. The section of river that we were on, in northern Laos, is 3000 km from the Mekong delta, putting us further upstream than if we were in the most uppermost parts of the Murray River (Australia's longest river). Where we were on the Mekong, in Laos, the river is between 300 and 500 metres wide, and about half-way along its route to the sea. The water is a muddy cocoa brown, in some places rushing along and forming humps and ridges where obstacles are under the surface of the water, but also flowing gently enough for children to play in at the edges where there are low sand banks undergoing constant deposition and erosion.
People use the river in many different ways, and boats are a neccessity. Small narrow boats are used to move people short distances, to reach flat sand bars in order to prepare them for sowing crops once the wet season flood waters have receded, for transporting sacks of corn, harvested from small clearings on the flattest parts of the steeply sloping forested hillsides that drop in to the river, and for putting out and pulling in fish nets. Bamboo fish traps are also used, their presence detectable by two vertical bamboo uprights poking up out of the water, with part of the trap door lid showing just above the water level. Beneath the water, the trap itself is a conical basket on its side, with the wide opening facing upstream so that the water flows straight through the basket, trapping the fish that come in with the flow because they are unable to swim out against the flow. Along the river bank, there are goats chewing on bushes, and buffalo, (both black, and pale pink, skin-coloured ones) grazing or sunk in to the water cooling off, with just horns and the top half of the head showing.
The slow boats are driver-owned long narrow wooden boats painted bright blue, with open sides but covered roofs, and seating for around 70 passengers. The very back end of the boat contains rooms where the boat owner's family live, then there is an engine 'room' (really a quite open area), then a toilet, and then a small kiosk where you can buy a drink or instant noodles. There are oodles of these boats chugging about the river, picking up and dropping off locals at the bottoms of small river bank landings and transporting tourists between the bigger towns. We travelled for about 9 hours and only covered about 150 km each day, but it was a very relaxing way to see the river (speed boats are also on offer, but too fast to see a thing, including dangerous obstacles in the water), relax and do some reading, and spend time reflecting on our trip.
As of today, we have been travelling overland from Helsinki for exactly 14 weeks (since Lachlan arrived in Finland) and we are nearly at the last leg of our journey. Today we take the train south to Butterworth in Malaysia, and then we have just ten more hours by bus to get to Singapore. The last leg of our trip involves taking a boat from Singapore on October 25th. Ok, I guess we should confess, it is actually a cruise ship, but you only live once and as much as we wanted to take a cargo ship there were none to be had at the right time of the year! We spend a week at sea on the boat (called 'Voyager of the Seas', it is relocating from northern to southern hemisphere, in time with the peak cruise seasons), arriving in Darwin temporarily on October 31st (we have ten hours there, in which time we plan to visit our tennants, check out our house, unload some of our un-useful gear from our bags and replace it with more cruise-useful items from the lock-up) and then spending another week at sea, sailing east around Cape York and then south along the east coast of Australia, until arriving in Sydney on November 7th.
Our trip has really been good, and without too many tense moments. That said, the last week did not go entirely to plan, because we had planned to take the train down to Bangkok from Chiang Mai, in the north of the country. However, when we got to Chiang Mai we learned that the train line is closed for repairs, and so we needed to take the bus to Bangkok instead. So we caught an overnight bus to Bangkok, which was actually very comfortable, but when we arrived in Bangkok it was raining a ton and was not overly conducive to walking about and sightseeing. We experienced very electrical storms for two days, and I think if I hadn't been conditioned by living in Darwin, I might have been hiding under the bed! There were many very close flashes and bangs at various points. The soonest we could get a train south towards Singapore was today, so we have spent our time shopping for cruise boat attire, catching busses (some have wooden flooors and are very quaint), and riding the ferry and visiting markets, including one floating one where we ate lunch on a pontoon.
ok, it's time to go to the train station.
All the best,