Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Mekong Drifting

Well, the planet will not fly off to the sun afterall! I wasn't too far off with the Oscars (well done, Scorsese), though despite giving 'Pan's Labyrinth' a clutch of Oscars for cinematography and art direction, they couldn't give it best Foreign Movie. Idiots.

Things are just getting better and better here. Our slow boat down the Mekong was wonderful. As our really quite comfortable boat chugged downstream, we lazed, watched the scenery, read or played cards. It was exactly the kind of relaxing time we needed.

The scenery itself was stupendous. Small golden beaches separated large outcroppings of volcanic rock, the sandstone in which they had been encased worn away by the water. The Mekong is low right now, so these rocks, which in rainier times would be submerged, towered above us. And then there were the fishing rods sticking out of these rocky masses, bamboo poles, some holding nets, others apparently holding fishing lines. Other nets were floated using old plastic bottles. Occasionally we would pass groups of children who would wave as we passed, laughing and shouting 'Sabai Dii' (hello/goodbye). Then there were cows, wandering strangely on the sand, sand that oftentimes piled steeply behind them. It was the real Asia.

Laos is one of the most backward of all the Asian countries. People still live in bamboo huts along the river banks, and fish or grow meagre harvests of spring onions and cabbage. They are so friendly though. Always happy to see you and never pushing something in your face like their Thai counterparts.

In the evening of our first day boating, we stopped in Pakbeng for the night. Despite being a small village (with a deceptively large population of 2,500), backpackers and other falang were to be seen everywhere. We were warned that our accommodation would be basic, but, despite the water being cold and the electricity being limited, everyone found them far more than adequate. Simple, but clean, and very attractive.

Our meal was had in an Indian restaurant. Naturally I went for the catfish curry, but there was chicken madras, spinach and cauliflower, and naan bread besides. Not to mention the excellent, and very cheap, Beer Lao. After only two large bottles I was in very good form. Right across from our restaurant, a new hotel was just opening and was celebrating with a large party. With an early morning ahead of us though, gatecrashing was not an option.

The next day was one of more relaxed boating. I finished 'Time Out of Joint', enjoyable, and certainly pointing at where Dick was going (it's an early work), but a little mundane in its ending. Worth reading though.

In the afternoon, as Chan, our guide, confused Zooey and me with the rules to some strange Laos card game, it began to rain. And rain. And thunder. And lightning. Our captain stopped the boat fearful of the wind. What wind? Eh, that really strong wind that the storm we now found ourselves in threw at us. All hands on deck sought to close the curtains and then let fall the canvas covers over the windows as buckets of water swept in. Then suddenly the boat started to tip over and everyone rushed to one side to counterbalance the effect. For some reason I felt no threat at all and was almost content to keep on reading were it not for the water splashing over my pages. And I was right. Within five minutes all was back to normal.

We visited a Buddhist shrine in some caves next. Unfortunately I cannot quite understand Chan, our guide, who is enthusiastic, but overestimates his command of the English language. I got snippets about the shrine, but in the end, with a borrowed torch from Charles (of all days I had left mine behind that morning), I looked for bats instead. None to be seen.

Our destination was Luang Prabang and we arrived around 5.30. I will be brief as I am rushing to meet Alastair and Lynn (yes, that Alastair and Lynn). After a brief jumbo (converted truck) ride to our guesthouse, unfortunately a little out of town, I ended up in a really fabulous bungelow. We soon left for the night market, a far more peaceful experience than anything we have encountered so far, where we ate from the stalls. Some girl started waving to me from a table. I obviously thought she was waving at someone else, but as I looked I recognised the guy beside her. It was Alastair and Lynn from Bangkok! They had been travelling in the reverse direction (Cambodia and Vietnam) and were now dreading going back to Bangkok. In fact they regretted spending so much time in Thailand at all. They confirmed what I have been suspecting; the further away from Thailand the better it gets. The rest of the group were happy to sit with them and later we three stuck around for a beer, Charles joining us and went over 'old times'. It was great to see them, but I'd better go now to see them again. I'll talk of today, tomorrow.


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