Sunday, January 6, 2008

Making it to the Mekong

Where I am now, the Mekong river provides the border of Thailand and Laos, and I am sitting on the porch of my bungalow looking at Laos as occasional boats make their way up or down the river heading to their various destinations. This town is Chiang Khong, a legal border crossing between the two countries therefore making it a backpacker stronghold in Thailand’s North. From here, you can take a boat to China.

Getting here from Chiang Rai was an interesting journey. I arrived in Chiang Rai after a day of delayed plane rides and airport people watching activities. In Chiang Rai I had the late afternoon to explore the bustling downtown area, and the next morning to do an early morning walking tour of the temples. Then I checked out of my hotel and hopped on a bus to Chiang Saen. I got off and the Tuk Tuk driver was waiting for me (as usual) and I asked him if he could take me on a quick tour of Chiang Saen’s ruins and temples because then I wanted to take the Saengthaew to Chiang Khong. It didn’t cost too much and was a lot of fun, and then he dropped me off at the Saengthaew which was about to leave.

A Saengthaew is a small pickup truck that is lined with benches in the back. The Saengthaew was full so I sat in the front squished between the driver and a middle aged Thai woman. Neither of them spoke any English. I listened to them talk trying to pick up the occasional word or so. The Saenghaew was a manual drive truck, therefore I had to keep my knees to the left to avoid getting in the way. I was not comfortable with leaving my backpack with it’s computer occupant on the top of the truck, so it was also squished into the front and on my lap. The scenery was beautiful however, as the truck wound its way along the Mekong. “Aihhoooooga” went the Saengthaew’s bell, letting the driver know that one of the passenger’s wanted off. The Thai woman and I looked at each other and laughed. I was enjoying this ride.

We reached a town that was in the middle of nowhere and the Saengthaew driver pointed to a waiting area and used his hands to tell me that I should wait there for the next Saenghthaew that would take me the rest of the way to Chiang Khong. I waited for about 20 minutes when another Saenghthaew appeared, and he used his sign language to tell me that he wouldn’t be leaving for about an hour and a half.

I went for a walk to find some food, and found a little grocery store where I bought some kind of stale rice cake for 5 baht. I sat at a table in the store and ate the cake and then started looking around the store, I guess it was the town’s grocery store, although it wasn’t much in the way of supplies. The woman who was keeping the store opened up a banana leaf package and ate a little piece of what was inside, some dark sticky rice with coconut on top. She used her hands to invite me to try some. I did and it was delicious, she gave me the rest. Her friend showed up with an orange that she divided up into three parts, which we ate, throwing the seeds off to the side. They taught me a couple of words in Thai, which I promptly forgot.

I said Khorb Kuhn Ka and Sawatdee Ka (Thank you and Good day) to them and waved as I walked off in the direction of a sign in English that said Hand Weavers -->. It took me down a long road past a schoolyard full of Thai children of all ages learning dances and just having fun. The road took a sharp right turn right on the cliff that looked out over the Mekong, so I stopped and enjoyed the view for a minute, noticing a tobacco plantation growing near the river’s edge. I found the weavers studio and went in to find the cutest old ladies wearing delicate turban like hats and sitting at their looms, weaving.

“Sawatdee Ka” I said, holding my hands up in the prayer position and bowing in the traditional Thai manner. “Sawatdee Ka!” They repeated the gesture, bowing twice as deep and laughing, using gestures to invite me in. I took off my shoes and came in, looking at their handiwork and oohing and ahhing. I picked out a couple of things and found that price can be discussed easily without using words. One of the women pointed to the scarf I was eyeing and held up 1 finger. 100 baht. This was something she made herself on the loom. At the beautiful hill tribe embroidered fabric I was eyeing she held up five fingers, 500 baht. I bought them both, I didn’t bother to try to barter. Not so expensive for beautiful things and lovely people. And this place didn’t look to me like it saw much tourist traffic.

After posing for pictures and thank yous and goodbyes, I made my way back to the Saengthaew stand and waited for the truck to leave. It finally left about a half hour after the agreed upon time, and wound it’s way along the Mekong until we got to Chiang Khong, right before dark.

So here I am, enjoying a day off along the Mekong in a sleepy little backpacker stronghold with lovely bungalows that cost only a few dollars a night. The only problem here is Laos. Laos is really loud in the morning, broadcasting Buddhist prayers on the loudspeaker system all day long starting at about 4:00 in the morning.

Day 2

No noise from across the river except a peaceful bell early in this morning. Apparently Buddha Day is over and Laos is back to normal. A stunning sunrise greeted my day, my bungalow faces East.... From my balcony retreat, I could hear the occasional sound of music wafting over from the other side, a drum, a flutish thing, some kind of hammered tonal instrument. Someday I must go there, not this time.

I rented a small motorbike and headed up to a hill tribe village about 8 km outside of town. I didn’t want to take a motorbike, and tried waited almost two hours for a Saengthaew which never appeared. While waiting, several people asked where I was going and made motorbike gestures, pointing at me. I finally succumbed and went to a place where I could rent one, cheap. The shopkeeper gave me a lesson and I learned in five minutes how to drive one. Luckily the roads are easy and other traffic is scarce, which is good because the signs alone are enough to scare one off the road. Obviously I lived to write this blog. Actually, the freedom and the breeze in my face was quite nice...don't tell my father.

I went up to the hill tribe village and found that there really are places that tourists don’t frequent. The scenery of palms, vines and banana trees, giving way to wooden shacks and laundry hang to dry. “Hello” shouted the occasional child practicing English, “Sawatdee Ka” I replied. Smiles, giggles, and the occasional dirty look from the occasional unwelcoming villager. I stopped and had sticky rice in banana leaf at a store, and bought some chili peppers as I had seen many drying in the villages.

I learned on this trip that almost anything wrapped in a banana leaf and sold as food is probably delicious.

I am having a hard time wanting to rip myself away from this bungalow, which comes with it’s own personal cat, albeit a cat with fleas, but a cat never-the-less. And the cat loves me, it can barely get enough of me. As I write this now, from my porch looking over the Mekong, the cat is asleep in the hammock I have recently abandoned.

Tomorrow, a new adventure…I will leave this lovely town by bus and make my way to another place.
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