Sisyphus Rides Down the Mekong

Float Mekong

Let’s drift.

We had developed a weird tendency to severely underestimate physical challenge. Our bus from Chiang Rai deposited us somewhere nondescript in the Thai border town of Chiang Khong, and we half-remembered assurances from the internet that the Lao border was eminently walkable. Tuk-tuks swarmed us the moment we disembarked our bus and scooted impatiently alongside us for the first ten minutes of our walk.

“It’s hot,” they noted, although clearly we felt it more than they. We had our backpacks, and we had just been on a bus for three hours, and also it was noon. Didn’t we  want to rest our weary, shambling corpses in this trundling convenience wagon?

“No thanks!” we chirped. “We love walking!” We were idiots.

About six kilometers and several soaked t-shirts later, we arrived at the border and shakily produced our exit cards, dripping and stained with sweat as they were. We could barely lift our arms, and wondered if we could pay anyone to drag us physically down to the water. From the border we were directed down to the banks of the river, where people took our ridiculous bags onto their canoes and rowed us across to a new land. We were in Laos.

As we faced down the second bout of paperwork at the Lao immigration office (land borders can be not fun), we noted a series of comics plastered on every wall. Two blond cartoon honkies strolled down a street in rural Lao: bellies out, hair long and unwashed, a cloud of marijuana smoke permanently affixed about their heads like halos or pet clouds. They each carried buckets of alcohol in their sopping hands, they each had a series of terrible tattoos, and each wore touristy harem pants with multiple holes and stains. These comic characters cared not for Lao culture, and the Lao figures in the backs of each panel cringed and demurely tried to reclaim their spoiled innocence. Please, the immigration comics seemed to plead, do not be these douchebags.

We reacted with our deeply instilled sense of aloof self-pride. Why did the immigration office have to depict us like this? Wasn’t it kind of icky to declare that all white people were rampaging, classless boors that treated Southeast Asia as their own no-rules, no-consequences playground? What a horrible stereotype. Our noses raised in the air. Our pinkies extended. We crossed our arms and prepared to snoot it up.

Then we met the other white people who were in Laos.

The border town with Thailand served as a launching point for riverboats that would shuttle you downstream, over two beautiful days apparently, towards glorious Luang Prabang. We rose early, corralled ourselves down to our boat, grabbed our seats and stowed our bags. The boat slowly filled, but the front section remained empty for some time.

After hours of waiting, a crowd of snivelling Australian teenagers stumbled aboard, each carrying a case of cheap Lao lager. They instantly made friends with some Brits and Americans, and over the two coming days, we discovered why the immigration office might have had a reasonably low opinion.

It was hard to be too annoyed by a bunch of racist teenaged turds, though: here we were, floating down the Mekong! There was sun, the gentle breeze kept the mosquitoes at bay, and everywhere was beautiful Lao countryside. Trees and rocks and buffalo, rolling hills and great open fields of grass, and also the mysteries of the Lao nation. We picked up a woman at one port and then seemingly stranded her on the edge of a forest. She held a bundle of goods wrapped in a soft pink blanket, and she stared out at the sunset, waiting. We imagined her lover rowing towards her in a paddleboat made of reeds; we imagined her as a spirit of the land, waiting for us to drift out of sight so that she could become one with the forest again.

The magic began to dwindle only around hour seven or eight of that first day. It was still beautiful, but most of the seats on the boat were re-purposed from the backs of old vans. Our derelict conveyance was maybe dangerously overfull, and there were definitely motorbikes and live chickens held on the roof above us. The Australian kids were drunk and telling each other why Aboriginals were bad, and I was very nearly done my book and running out of ways to distract myself.

At night we tried to console ourselves with cheap bathtub liquors and buffalo sausage. Tomorrow was another day: we could sleep tonight, regain our strength and recharge our endurance. And maybe all of the goons from our boat would be dead from alcohol poisoning by morning.

Though they certainly tried to put themselves out of our misery, the drunken teens returned the next day, groaning and desperate for an early morning pick-me-up. We did not return to our initial sense of wonder and awe with the Lao countryside, because our seats were still uncomfortable, and the boat appeared to be ever more capsizing to its left side. Most of the back of the deck was beginning to stink like urine, as the kids made a conga line of beer peeing.

The hardest part of these sorts of trips is always the boredom. You don’t want to be bored, and moreover you feel pretty terrible about it: you are on a covered boat, moving not even by your own physical power, for cheap. It is drifting through beautiful lands and ancient woods, and everywhere there are birds and trees and open skies. And yet, it is interminable. It is long, and there’s only so long you can stare at the trees, and after your second day drifting slowly down the Mekong wondering constantly if your boat might sink, the tedium takes over.

I resist for a long time, and then deal in to a modified version of crazy 8 being played by a German, a Dutchman, and a Chinese woman. The rules make no sense, and the Dutch guy adds to them continuously, laboriously, and alters them as he tries to tilt the game to his favour. The Chinese woman outsmarts him, and I think maybe she has learned to count cards, however it is possible in this game. We talk about the river and buffalo meat, and the words eventually get hazy because I feel like we are saying the same things over and over.

People stop talking, because it feels like there is nothing left to talk about. I have a new book, but my eyes drip off the page with every glance, and I can’t keep any words in my head. My iPod batteries are dead. I can’t even work up the ire to hate on the young racist Australians anymore, which has thusfar proved a most sustaining passtime. The chair has grown remarkably uncomfortable, to the point that I think it may have been replaced with coiled barbed wire during our overnight respite from the boat.

Mekong Rider

“Floating down the river on the mighty Mekong” — actual rap lyric

Faith and Ty sit across the aisle from me, and I can’t even bring myself to talk to them. Faith has written a rap about our excursion on this boat, which makes reference to the multiple screaming babies (you can’t have a mode of transport without agitated infants). We find it funny, and laugh and laugh, but it is the kind of laughter that emerges from desperation, from an all-night coffee bender. It is the laughter of 4:34 a.m., the laughter of no soft beds nearby, the laughter of dehydration and the spins. I demand that she write more, that maybe she put out an album.

I have never been so bored in my life. I imagine that the boat is being powered by several indentured mermaids, and even that vision seems hum-drum and yawn inducing.

But eventually we arrive in Luang Prabang. Our bags are thrown to us from the depths of our mermaid boat, and I trundle away with a new cardgame in my repertoire and a rap tune to hum to myself. It is a Tuesday evening in Laos.

11 thoughts on “Sisyphus Rides Down the Mekong

  1. I feel your pain with binge drinking teenagers, and with boredom on long rides that are supposed to be interesting and fun and exotic and riveting simply because you’re in a new country. Great writing, and I look forward to reading more!

  2. I have been on the slow boat to luang prabang, but our boat had wooden benches about 4 inches wide (very uncomfortable) and we almost tipped once, which by far was the most exciting part of the boat trip. It was pretty long and boring. Luckily I did not have any screaming babies or obnoxious teens. I loved Luang Prabang though, and the speed boats were way too scary!

    • Our boat was just a few months ago, I think they upgraded all (or most) of the slow boats to the car seats rather than the wooden planks. We read about the plank boats (and the terrifying speed boats) and were not excited about what was to come.

      • Oh I am glad they upgraded, I may even have to go on them again then.:) although taking a two year old on that boat may be the stupidest idea I have ever had…maybe we will just fly.

  3. interesting insight into your ride along the mekong. i always thought of the mekong very lovingly, i couldn’t imagine it otherwise. but the way you describe it, with the agitated babies, and annoying drunks, and lull from the river (powered by mermaids) is so unique. thanks for sharing this! i am so jealous and can only hope to visit laos one day.

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