Cruising the Mekong River

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A river seems a magic thing. A magic, moving, living part of the earth itself.
Laura Gilpin, author and photographer

There is something uniquely joyful about standing at the confluence of two rivers, watching them rush unheeding towards each other to merge into one. The waters meet with some resistance, holding onto their identity, colour, consistency, for a little longer, before finally losing themselves in each other.

On our last day in Luang Prabang, we cycled to the confluence of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan River. Up till this point, I had only passed by rivers on roads, or over bridges. I hadn’t even given much thought to them, except for wondering if that is where my drinking water came from. But as I stood at the sacred confluence, watching the Nam Khan River drain into the Mekong, but not without resistance, so that you could make out the different waters even half a km away, I went into a peaceful trance.

The lush green hills in the backdrop soothed my eyes, and the gentle tinkling of the waters, my soul. I think I stood there for hours, or maybe it was just minutes. I felt a quiet elation, realizing how small I was, but feeling my spirit envelop the entire cosmos.

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The confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers

At the point where I stood, the waters of the Mekong River had already journeyed a staggering 2,000kms, birthing in the Tibetan plateau in China, flowing through Myanmar and Thailand before entering Laos. The twelfth longest in the world, the river had as much more to go, passing through Cambodia and finally emptying into the South China Sea via Vietnam. Its total length is 4,350km, almost double the length of Brahmaputra, the longest river in India. For landlocked Laos, it is a boon.

If only the river could tell me her journey. She’d have happy stories, about meeting many people, helping them with their daily lives, nourishing them with the fish and seaweed in her waters. But she’d also have horror stories, of giant rocks being thrown in her path to block her way, making her change her course, restricting her identity, endangering the very people she cares for.

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The muddy brown river, rich with minerals, has evoked the imagination of many who depended on her for their subsistence. Academics say, as Buddhism is the predominant religion of people living along the Mekong River, many folk narratives centre around Buddha creating the river.

The Laos version, which I heard during Garavek theatre, had a different theme. It went something like this: There were once two kings, who were very close friends. They visited each other often and exchanged gifts as a mark of their friendship. On one occasion, they presented gifts of meat to each other.

However, the gifts were unequal in size, and one of the kings got offended at the perceived low value of his gift. Their legendary friendship soured into rivalry, and the two kings soon declared war on each other.

The war was intense and went on for many days, as both sides were equally matched. Finally, the Gods took mercy on the living beings quivering in fear and dying, and released the Mekong River, dividing the two friends forever.

Another version of this story says that the gods cast a supernatural spell on the two kings to make them stop fighting, and then ordered them both to construct rivers as penance – one of them being the Mekong.

I pondered over the story and the many lives that the river shapes as I journeyed up the Mekong river in the Nava Mekong cruise. Villages hidden behind seemingly endless lush green hills lay on either sides, and once in a while, we came across a river-facing shrine. I stood on the uncovered deck, taking in the gentle breeze and the splendid views.

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Cruising down the Mekong River in Nava Mekong

Luang Prabang has a rich history of river boat racing. As a matter of fact, almost every temple we went to had a pair of long boats in their sheds. The races apparently take place during off-peak seasons, and people from nearby villages eagerly participate. However, the races take place in the Nam Khan river and not Mekong, which is considered dangerous due its speed and uneven river bed. Our boat, too, cut a zig zag course across the river, avoiding the spots with high layers of rocks that were marked with stone markers.

On board the Nava Mekong, we had our first introduction to authentic Lao food. For appetizers, we were served fried seaweed, and for the main course, it was Mekong fish steamed in herbs, and a tangy, colourful Mekong fish salad. I was quite skeptical about the kaipen, or fried seaweed, but once I tasted it, I couldn’t stop eating it like chips! Here’s an excellent article by a travel writer about how kaipen is made by villagers. I definitely have to plan a food trip to Laos!

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Kaipen – fried seaweed. Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Incidentally, the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia is on the Mekong River at the Cambodia–Laos border. But that’s a trip for another day. Luckily for us, there is another majestic waterfall just an hour’s drive from Luang Prabang. There are, in fact, three such waterfalls nearby, but the biggest one is Tad Kuang Si.

The one hour drive through nearby villages was the perfect prelude for the natural beauty to come. Rows and rows of paddy fields with quaint little houses dotted the countryside. And the hills! From emerald green to dark blue in the distance, they were a nature photographer’s delight!

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We did not visit the butterfly park en route (as we have a pretty dashing one in Penang 😉 but did pass through the bear sanctuary at the foot of the falls. About five or six bears rescued from poachers were snoozing in the wooden play area fitted out with hammocks. It broke my heart to see these wild creatures living in such a restricted manner.

Our hotel manager told us that the bears will soon be moved to a bigger enclosure. Poachers capture the bears and extract their bile for use in Chinese medicines. It appalls me that we have enslaved every species on this planet for personal gain.

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At the bear sanctuary near Kuang Si waterfall

Our first glimpse of the waterfall made me do a double take. Blue, so blue! Tad Kuang Si is a 50-m waterfall and has multiple levels, each one more beautiful than the last. At the penultimate level, the drop is the largest, making for a very picturesque spot and a free shower! The water rushes down with such force that it jumps back out and sprays its many admirers taking selfies in front of it.

We hiked all the way to the top, hoping for a magnificent view, but the waterfall is surrounded by jungle, making it impossible to see all the way down. I could see about 40 feet down, and in the distance, the omnipresent green mountains. It sort of felt like standing at the precipice of a valley. Suddenly overcome by the thrill of adventure, I yelled out, ‘I’m ON TOP OF THE WORLD!’ For a split second of euphoria, I felt my voice rise up and lose itself in nature. It felt bloody awesome!

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At the Kuang Si Falls

We then made our way back down to one of the pools formed at the lower levels for a dip. I imagined myself sitting in a corner, like in a Jacuzzi, letting the cool waters wash over me, refreshing me. That’s exactly how it didn’t happen.

First, the water was freezing cold. And by freezing, I mean, FREEZING! Second, the floor of the waterfall was covered with sharp, pointy rocks and algae-covered slippery stones. The strong force of the water made every step perilous. One slip and you’d be flailing to come back up and possibly injure yourself in the process, too. I think we took a million baby steps to finally get all the way in.

After about half an hour of stepping and waiting and stepping and waiting, I got the courage to try to swim. I started with a languorous breast stroke towards source of the mini-waterfall. After about 15 strokes, I turned around to see how far I had come and saw that I was right where I started! The force of the water was amazing!

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Daring to swim in the waterfall!

I then took a deep breath and did some freestyle, finally managing to cover about 10 m, but I panicked, sputtered, did an about turn and came flailing back. Oh well, at least I tried!

Refreshed and aching in all the right places after the experience, we made our way towards ‘Carpe Diem’ a restaurant situated along one of the waterfall routes. I cannot quite describe in words what it’s like to dine next to a roaring waterfall, but it was something I’ll never forget, that’s for sure!

I did so many things on this trip that I had never imagined I would! Stick around, I have many more such awesome stories and experiences to share!

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