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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Radical self-expression, cake & spirituality: Larry Harvey sketches Burning Man 2017 in Penang’s famous patisserie

Every year, thousands of people head to the Nevada desert in the US to watch a giant effigy burn spectacularly with fireworks and pyrotechnics, a reenactment of a winter solstice burning ritual much like Indians burning effigies of Ravana on Dusshera.

While Dusshera celebrates the victory of good over evil, the Burning Man Festival is an iconic arts event, believed to be the world’s largest interactive art exhibition, where thousands of people make and experience art while surviving in the harsh desert conditions with their own supplies and the charity of fellow ‘Burners’.

A temporary city, Black Rock City, comes up in the desert for the duration of the festival and disappears completely soon after the event. Looking for an experience of a lifetime, about 70,000 ‘Burners’, as the festivalgoers are called, participate to enjoy the 10 Burning Man principles at play – radical self-expression, radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy.

No commerce is allowed, and Burners ‘gift’ each other art, food and other necessities to survive. The festival attracts everyone from hippies to Silicon Valley magnates and its phenomenal success is evident from its ticket sales this year – 30,000 tickets for the main shows were sold out within 30 minutes of going online. For a taste of what it’s really like, check this out.

I got a wonderful opportunity to meet the co-founder of the festival, Larry Harvey, when he was in Penang to attend the George Town Festival – a month-long arts & culture festival that celebrates community and heritage along with mind-blowing international cultural performances.

 

Rithy Panh, GTF director Joe Sidek and Larry Harvey at GTF 2016

Larry was a part of a talk titled ‘Stories, Humanity and What About the Arts?’ along with renowned Cambodian director Rithy Panh. The talk was a revelation, in terms of how two different personalities from vastly different worlds use human figures to give out seemingly different messages. Check out Rithy Panh’s work here.

I didn’t get to speak with Larry then, but was lucky enough to catch him at an unguarded moment at ChinaHouse – Penang’s most famous patisserie. ChinaHouse serves some of the yummiest cakes on the island and encourages visitors to explore the artist within while they satisfy their sugar cravings. Giant drawing sheets cover the tables and crayons are handy to doodle your favourite superhero or cat.

 

Patrons at ChinaHouse

The best drawings go up on display!

Patrons’ artwork on display at ChinaHouse

When I met Larry, he had just put down a green-coloured crayon and picked up his coffee mug.  Guess what he was drawing? The Burning Man 2017 effigy of course! “This place invites radical self-expression,” he remarked the moment I sat down. “That is one of Burning Man’s 10 principles!”

Munching on some chocolate cake, he added, “I’m already thinking of what I want next year’s Burning Man to look like. I was waiting for my food and I sketched a design that I thought might embody our theme. It’s going to be about spirituality and rituals next year.”
Sketch of the effigy that will be burnt at Burning Man Festival in 2017

“It won’t be anything supernatural, because we don’t pretend to be a religion. So, it won’t be about some supreme being, but it will very much be about the idea that being should be supreme,” he told me, showing me the first draft of the effigy that will be burnt in the Man Pavilion in 2017. Honestly, I felt a frisson of thrill when I saw it, like I was privy to something that others were dying to know about. This was back in August, when GTF was still in full swing. If you go to the website now, you can see a slight variation of this sketch on the site. I was also quite amazed that a five-day festival requires year-long, painstaking effort, from multiple actors.

Larry agreed, adding that building the effigy and the pavilion supporting it – called the Man Pavilion – itself requires a massive collaborative effort. And this would be just one among the many other interactive art works on display. “Many talents and many hands would be employed in creating the final design of the effigy,” he added. The Man Pavilion is located at the geographical centre of the Black Rock City and is the major attraction at the festival.

Larry’s enthusiasm about the festival, which turned 30 this year, is unwavering and infectious. The idea of community participating in art is still dear to him. “Burning Man is premised on the idea that we have to merge art with daily life and that it should require a community for its creation, a community participating in it in some fashion for it to be complete. It should also generate a community beyond the scope of the original artwork whenever it’s possible.”

Speaking about community transcending art, there are plans afoot to run the festival year-long at a separate location in Nevada. That’s excellent news for people complaining about tickets running out every year!

The Burning Man co-founder also had some interesting things to say about Penang and the George Town Festival. “GTF is diverse, just as Penang is. Even more so, since it draws people from around the world. It is certainly creative. I have met some very interesting artists while I was here and it seems to be growing. It brings thousands and thousands of people.”

Well, that is a meeting I won’t quite forget in a hurry. Now, let me log on and check if Burning Man 2017 tickets are available. Ciao!