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Cargo Class Through the Heart of Laos
First appeared in Escape Magazine
 

“Women below decks!” the captain barked as Jude began to follow me onto the roof of the cargo boat. I protested, in Lao, but the captain was adamant. “Women on the roof are bad luck,” he growled, ducking into the pilot house.

As if I hadn't already had enough problems convincing Jude that cruising down the Mekong was a great way to explore Laos.

“A cargo boat???” she had exploded when I had proposed the idea. “No way. Dust, filth, rats, spiders,” she said, shuddering.

It had seemed like a great idea. We would cross the Mekong from the Thailand's Chieng Khong to Ban Huay Xai, then spend two days boating down the Mekong to Laos' old royal capital of Luang Prabang, one of Asia's great towns. A kilometer above Ban Huay Xai was the so-called port where a half dozen wooden boats, each 30 feet long, eight feet wide and five feet high, were moored just offshore. One was due to leave the following morning. I climbed aboard to take a look.

A pilot house sat just back from the short bow. Behind it was the cargo hold, a roof over an open space with a plank floor just above the bilge. The curving walls were unclad, revealing the boat’s raw board ribs and inner surfaces of its hull skin. Perched on the stern behind the exposed diesel engine was an outhouse. The captain asked $20 per person for a two-day journey. Sounded perfect.

But I'm a guy. Jude, less than enthusiastic, envisioned spending two days in the black hole of Calcutta.

We discussed it. Two considerations swung the argument in my favor. One: we could sit on a sheet metal roof and enjoy the breeze and the scenery. Two: we had no choice. Laos has few roads. If we didn't ride the river, we'd have to endure a 135-mile trip north in a hard-seat truck on a washboard dirt road to Luang Nam Tha near the Chinese border. From there, it would be 70 miles along Highway 1 to Muang Xai, and a further 240 miles to intersect with Highway 4 near the Vietnamese border, south to join Highway 7, eventually entering Luang Prabang from the south. The journey around a clock face from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and then north would require at least three days of dust and jouncing. Jude had had her bum bounced over enough country roads to appreciate the appeal of that option. The boat was far better, even with the spiders. “On the roof, you'll be away from their hunting grounds,” I said. She concurred.

We spent the evening exploring Ban Huay Xai. For centuries, it had been a stopping point for Yunnanese caravans traveling between China and Thailand's Chiang Mai. Later, it became a sentinel town guarding Laos' western gateway. When they were Indochina's colonial masters, the French called it Fort Carnot. They built and garrisoned a small fortress on a high bluff just behind the town. Two years before World War II, Thai and French troops skirmished here during a boundary dispute. The French prevailed, the Thai retired, and the town sank into the somnolence from which it is only now emerging.

The French are gone but the fortress remains. Now occupied by the Laotian army, it is off-limits to outsiders. It looks down on the Shan--style (northern Burmese), Wat Jawm Khao Manilat Buddhist temple which itself overlooks the Mekong. A quiet town, it serves as a provisioning post for sapphire prospectors seeking rich lodes in the interior, and for scholars studying the province's 34 tribal groups.

Jude's resistance overcome, we rose at dawn and headed for the landing. “Landing” was a misnomer. The cargo boat sat 15 feet offshore in deep water. Linking it with the muddy shore was a wooden plank, six inches wide. Jude's eyes grew to nearly that width as she contemplated the gangplank. To my delight, she plucked up her courage and danced nimbly across it.

Then the captain issued his admonition, ordering women below decks because of an ancient superstition. Consigned to the cargo hold, Jude’s worst fears were about to be realized. She slunk below and I followed to keep her company, equally miffed that my plans to enjoy the breezes and uninterrupted scenery from the roof had been dashed.

The Mekong is the world's 11th-longest river. Rising in Tibet, it flows 2,800 miles through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea. Virtually ignored for centuries, and then rendered inoperable as a transportation channel by Mao's closure of China and then by the Vietnam War, it is now gaining popularity as a possible navigation route and hydroelectric power source for the six riparian nations.

For landlocked Laos, it could be an artery to the farther world if the very considerable obstacle of the Khone Falls in southern Laos could be surmounted. For the moment, the Mekong’s only use to Laos is that it holds "paa buk" the world's second largest catfish. Six-to-nine feet long and bearing 800 pounds of delicious flesh, each fish sells for up to $5,000 in Bangkok. Small boats like ours ply the river between the major cities. They are the nation's buses and provisioners, carrying passengers and assorted cargo: burlap sacks of rice, water pumps, pigs in wicker pokes, baskets of fruit, cement, and fuel.

After several false starts, we set off at 9 a.m. The boat isn’t as bad as we'd anticipated. The hold is dimly lit by a few windows, hinged wooden sheets that can be pushed outward and propped open with a stick. They illuminate an interior that had not been washed in eons. From time to time, a boatboy pries loose a few floorboards. Bailing with a scoop fashioned from a plastic motor oil container, he tosses oily bilge out the window. Diesel fumes permeate the air, emanating from a half dozen barrels sitting amidships, their paint long since grimed by black oil and dust. Mercifully absent are the spiders, and the rats have apparently abandoned ship, a good and a bad sign.

At the rear of the hold, the enormous engine spews deafening din and overpowering smoke into the cabin. Behind it, a teenaged engineer monitors the gauges, activating the broken ones with a sharp finger rap. The roof is only five feet above the floor; high enough for a Lao but not a foreigner. The toilet on the stern is an even tighter fit; Jude, nearly the size of a Laotian woman, can barely squeeze into it. Just below the open hole, the river rushes by.

Through the windows, we watch the passing scenery, hour after hour. The February sky is already the dun of the landscape, a reminder that the hot
season is only a month away. The sand/silt beaches angle sharply upwards for 40 feet to the buff bluffs, evidence of a swollen river during the rainy season. Along the crests are tall stands of bamboo broken by the occasional kapok tree, its down-filled pods resembling large fruit bats suspended from the branches. From time to time, a Flame of the Forest tree appears, its red blossoms exploding in a dusty sky. Even less frequently, a thatched bamboo house rises from a beach, temporary home to a fishing family. There are a few birds but no animals, not even one of the million elephants ("Lan Xang") which inspired the country's original name.

Sharing space with us are several Lao families. The men tenderly hold their babies, cooing to them or leaning on the window sills, smoking. Saronged women exchange gossip, or display market purchases, commenting on their relative merits and prices. From a wicker basket, one woman withdraws several recently-deceased brown bats, stretching their leathery wings so the others can ooh and ahh over the bargains she has acquired.

Jude soon begins to enjoy herself. Eventually, she sends me to the roof, assuring me she'll be fine. Without a stairway, going topside means exiting the window, standing on the gunwales while clutching the eaves. Hanging over the river, I raise myself and several hands pull me the rest of the way.

On the roof are three other passengers and a half dozen Lao boatboys in their early teens. Julian, a Briton, is trying to get through Laos by living off the land. His gaunt frame and turbulent intestines suggest that frugality is interfering with his pleasure.

More interesting are the boatboys. The youngest is 10, the eldest, 15. They spend most of their time lounging, joking, and playing cards, but when someone on the shore hails the boat and the captain shouts orders, they jump. As the boat eases into shallow water, it is their job to sound the depths with bamboo poles, then lean on those poles to keep the boat from hanging up on the sandy shoals. Other boys scramble to lower a gangplank, anchor the boat with a manila hawser, and shift cargo between boat and shore.

“Where do you stay when the journey is done?” I ask after they have helped several colorfully-dressed Hmong tribesmen aboard.

“On the boat,” the liveliest one answers.

“Where's home?”

“In the Annamite Mountains (on the border with Vietnamese).”

“How often do you travel home?” I ask.

“Maybe once a year,” he replies. “="But I send money to my parents in the village,” he adds.

“Same story for all of you?”

“No, my parents died,”" says another. “Captain and his wife take care of me.”

“Captain” provides them with food, sleeping space on the boat (the roof in the dry season, the hold in the monsoons), and a bit of pocket money. They make the two-way trip twice a week and seem happy with their jobs, although their lack of education and land to farm leave them little else to do. When I ask about the future, they just shrug. “Something will come along, baw pen nyang (no worries).”

Indifference to fate is typical of the relaxed Laotians. The French reputedly enumerated the character of each of their Indochinese colonies by saying “the Vietnamese plant the rice, Cambodians watch it grow, and the Laotians listen to it grow.” While pejorative, the statement in many ways sums up the Laotian attitude towards life and is, in large part, a key to their charm. It has seen them through some terrible moments when they were pawns in struggles between giant neighbors. Those living in the Plain of Jars were subjected to a vicious secret U.S. bombing campaign that sought to keep the Viet Cong from moving personnel and ordinance along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. According to official U.S. estimates B-52s flew 580,944 sorties —one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day. For nine years, 1.9 million metric tons in all were dropped, equal to half a ton for each Lao citizen, the highest concentration of firepower on a populace in the history of the world. That the Laotians didn't slit my throat when they learned my nationality — indeed smiling and welcoming me into their homes — speaks for the power of “baw pen nyang”.

Hearing gales of laughter below me, I lean over the roof eave and peer in the window to see what is going on. Even upside down, the smile on Jude's face is radiant. “The minute you went up, they took me under their wings,” she says. “I pulled out a dictionary and tried a few words and they all began unwrapping food and inviting me to join them.”

“So you've acclimated?”

“I don't think we understand a word each other is saying but we've been laughing the whole time. I think I'm having more fun down here than I would up there.”

By late afternoon, the cliffs become craggier and we enter a long gorge. The sun is pouring gold into the river as Pak Beng comes up on the port bow. Riverboats lack running lights and while there are plans to install navigation lights along the shore, at the moment the channel is marked by a few concrete pillars whose red paint is peeling. The shoals are treacherous so when the light fades, boats pull for shore.

“Pak” means “mouth” and here, the Beng River disgorges its contribution to the Mekong's waters. Anchoring at the base of a steep hill, we climb a 200-foot path to find ourselves at the terminus of a dirt road. The road was built by the Chinese army as a strategic conduit to counter potential invasions from the south. The price of their labor was the stipulation that the road be declared off-limits to foreigners. Only recently has that stricture been lifted.

Julian has decided to head north to Muang Xai so we part company and go in search of a guesthouse. There are only two in town, houses whose upper story have been partitioned with plywood sheets into tiny, windowless rooms. Jude accurately describes it as “sleeping in a packing crate”. But it is winter, or what passes for it, and the night is cool.

The town resembles the hotel room: dusty boxes stacked atop each other running up the hillsides. Along the single street, restaurants and shops crafted from rough planks sell sundries. Colorfully-costumed Hmong tribesmen mingle with the Laos, both as vendors and buyers at tiny roadside stalls. This is a trade town, end of the line for ancient Chinese trucks. Everything is the color of dirt without a fresh coat of paint visible anywhere.

The townspeople spend the late afternoons looking down from the heights on the gorge below, watching the setting sun lighting the water. We join them to watch boys kick a soccer ball on the beach far below. Beyond them, men tinker with their longboat engines.

As darkness descends, we walk to one of the three restaurants for a dinner of rice and curries. We return to the hotel to read but the electricity dies at 9 p.m. and with it the thumping of the generator. All is silent except for the crickets and a few nightjars singing their gently jangling song. It is a welcome contrast to the rattling boat engine.

“Get back an hour after sunrise,” the captain had warned. We rise at dawn and barely have time to gulp coffee and a rice breakfast, and purchase oranges, bananas, and plastic bottles of water, before the boatboys materialize, smilingly urging us down to the boat.

At the hotel, we’d met two Norwegian women who said they would be joining us. I have just settled onto the roof with the other men when the Norwegians clamber up.

“How'd you get up here?” we ask, waiting for the Captain to order them off.

“The captain gave us permission.”

“But yesterday he was shooing women off the roof.”

“Oh,” one said, "that was the other captain. “We talked with the real captain,” they say, smiling coyly.

“Real captain?”

“His wife. She told us to go for it.”

Laotian women are more independent than their southern sisters but this is a sign of changing times. Thus cleared, Jude comes up to ride with us. We never see the captain above decks again.

Once out of the gorge, the hills move back as we enter a long valley. The slopes are still forested, evidence that few people live here. A handful of farmers till small plots, planting peas and beans in the fertile beach silt the river had deposited a few months earlier.

Mid-morning, I descend to sit beside the captain in the pilot house. I speak Thai but there are enough similarities with Lao that we can converse. Short, wrinkled both from the sun and squinting against it, Boonma wears short-cropped hair like most Lao men. His age is indeterminate but his graying hair says he is in his late 40s, early 50s. He wears what seems to be the male national costume: green military jacket, brown pants, rubber sandals. His smoldering cigarette hangs like an appendage, seldom leaving his lips. He talks past it, exhaling blue words as he grips the wheel. I ask him about the old days.

“Before engines? Downstream was no problem but upstream? Hard, really hard. Men walked along the shore, hauling the boat with thick ropes. Others stayed on board, using bamboo poles to keep it away from the banks. It took weeks.”

“Sounds like a tiring trip.”

“What else could we do? We had to move goods up and down the river and there was only one way to do it. You can see there are still no roads,” he says, sweeping his arm along the horizon.

“Have you always been a boatman?”

“Except during the war. I fought against the right-wing army. And the Americans, too, the CIA who were arming the Hmong tribes. Everybody did. My father fought against the French before the Americans came.”

“Do you miss the excitement of war?”

“Who misses war? Peace is better.”

“And what do you think of Americans now.”

“I don't mind them. They bring money, not bombs.”

I wait.

“Life is too short for politics or enemies,” he concludes.

I can’t resist.

“Why do you object to women sitting on the roof?”

He becomes animated. “Its not me,” he growls. “It's tradition. Women — and men for that matter — aren't allowed on the bow either. If they do, we have to pacify Mae Yang, the spirit that protects it.”

“Why does she get angry?”

“She's a woman, this her boat. Maybe she is jealous of other women.”

He is not a bad man, just tradition bound. Communism may have changed an economic distribution system but old cultural values die
hard. We talk for another half an hour as he replaces one cigarette with another, offering me one each time he draws the pack from his pocket. When someone hails him, he breaks off the conversation and I return to the roof to see what is going on.

A group of farmers on shore want to load baskets of cabbages and other vegetables for sale in Luang Prabang's market. There is another boat in the cove and as our boat is loaded, I walk to it to stretch my legs. On the roof lounges a young Frenchman, faded khaki combat jacket, red bandana folded across his forehead. He is headed upriver.

“Tough trip?” I ask.

“We've been on this river three days, just to get here.” Until he says it, it hadn't occurred to me how swiftly the current flowed.

“I should have ridden it downriver like you are doing. It will take us forever to reach Ban Huay Xai.”

With the cabbages safely in the hold, we set off and soon find ourselves threading a series of small rapids. I now understand why
the Frenchman's upriver journey is taking so long.

In the late afternoon, a conical peak appears on the left and shortly after that, the mouth of the Nam (River) Oo. On the opposite bank is the Tham Thing Cave. The captain ties up below the cave mouth and we follow him up the stairs.

The limestone caverns house guardian spirits holy to river men. Over the centuries boatmen have left Buddha images as propitiation offerings. Hundreds of them in dozens of styles and shapes, crowd the shelves and ledges, tumbling one over the other. Aided by the boatboys, the captain lights incense and candles “for a safe journey.”

Back on the river, we follow the Mekong as it turns southwest to take us the final few miles into Luang Prabang. This stretch is more densely populated. The banks are blanketed in bright green vegetable gardens fenced in bamboo lattice that glow in the afternoon sun. Soon the Buddhist spires on Phu Si Hill appear above the palm trees and, below them, the low concrete houses and raintrees that overlook the river.

Like all of Lao's ports, Luang Prabang's lacks a dock. The traveler descends a gangplank to the beach, a more intimate association between a town and a river than that afforded by a concrete wharf. Climbing the stairs, we enter a town celebrating the annual National Games with athletes from 10 provinces competing over four days. Jude and I find a hotel that looks down on a roofed pavilion where the volleyball and basketball competitions are being staged. The normally -tranquil Laotians are boisterous in supporting their teams; an atmosphere of good-natured rivalry between small towns prevails.

Luang Prabang served as the Lao capital from 1353 to 1545. Its name derived from the holy Buddha image called the Pha Bang presented to the Laos by the Cambodian kings of Angkor Wat. Luang Prabang was an independent kingdom from 1694 until the arrival of the French colonists in the 19th century. It was during this period of independence that most of its principal temples and palaces were built. When the capital was moved to Vientiane 200 miles down the Mekong, Luang Prabang remained the seat of royal power but lapsed into an economic backwater.

It is one Asia's most beautiful towns. Only 16,000 people occupy it, imparting an intimacy not evident in larger, more modern cities. Its wealth of temples and monuments are even more impressive considering how few people were available to create them. Low, wooden buildings with balconies line quiet streets that encircle the holy, stupa-crowned Phou Sy Hill and are embraced by the Mekong and its tributary, the Nam Khan.

The better homes combine squarish French colonial architecture, with its penchant for colonnades and arches, with Lao motifs. Just as appealing are the numerous two-story wooden houses louvers, with their attractive shutters and louvers and their accordion doors that form the front wall of the ground floor. When opened, the doors reveal the shopfront where goods are displayed for sale. Most houses are stained a natural brown but some sport bright pastels. Despite the diversity in styles, the buildings complement each other. In few Asian towns is a stroll down a street such a pleasure.

Sharing the streets and lanes are numerous Buddhist wats (monasteries). Unlike religious buildings in many nations of the communist world, Lao wats functioned through the height of Communist rule. The quiet courtyards are filled with fragrant frangipani trees and the walls are decorated with depictions of village activity or scenes from Buddha's life.

In Luang Prabang one catches a hint of the dilemma now facing the nation: a tug-of-war between a desire for economic prosperity and a desire to preserve Laos' unique culture. Isolated far from the sea, Laos fears becoming a walnut caught between the twin pinchers of China and Thailand, serving as little more than a way station for trade between southern China — which needs Thailand's warm water ports — and Thailand, which needs China's domestic markets. It has already seen the Chinese build discos in Luang Nam Tha and Thai businessmen raze Vientiane's old French colonial buildings to construct supermarkets. It is one reason that today, three years after the Friendship Bridge linking Vientiane with Thailand was completed, Laotian authorities refuse to permit trucks or private vehicles to cross the Mekong into their quiet nation.

Luang Prabang has already made its choice. It has closed its inner core to development, permitting UNESCO to declare the entire town a Cultural Heritage site. Lao authorities are working closely with foreign architects — notably the French — to renovate old buildings along traditional lines to ensure the town looks as it did earlier in the century.

The beneficiary is the traveler, who can experience Asia as it once was. In the morning, orange-robed monks pad barefoot through the street to receive alms from the Buddhist faithful. The open markets are filled with produce that farmers rise long before dawn to bring from outlying villages. There is a cohesiveness to Luang Prabang and its citizenry that is missing in many Asian cities, a quality which gives it its tranquility.

After several days of exploration, taking frequent breaks to sip filter coffee and savor delicious baguettes — both legacies of French presence — Jude and I decide to continue downriver to Vientiane. In the late afternoon, we descend to the riverbank where stevedores are carrying huge sacks of rice from barges to the banks. Merchants weigh the grains in large balances, two pans hung from a wooden yardarm. Female accountants jot the amounts in notebooks and clutch thick stacks of tattered Lao kip, a currency that has been devalued to the point that it takes dozens of bills for a simple purchase. Elsewhere, men huddle around trussed, protesting black pigs, haggling over prices.

Seeing a riverboat being loaded with cargo, we approach the captain about transportation to Vientiane.

“We're going upriver,” he says. “Anyway, you're too late. The river downstream from here is too low. You'll have to wait until next monsoon.”

That leaves two choices, Highway 13, or flying. The highway has been a battleground for decades. When I first came here in 1970, it was impossible to travel because the buses were always shot up by the Communist Pathet Lao. After Independence in 1975, it was impossible to travel because buses were shot up by right-wing guerrillas. Now the principal miscreants are bandits; a friend, a long-time French resident, was ambushed and killed along with three companions just last year.

The road has just been resurfaced, however, and to protect it during the Games, the government has stationed two battalions of soldiers along it. At the bus station, we learn that two buses a day depart for Vientiane. At last, in this small window of security, I can realize my dream of riding down it and into the broad valley that holds the capital city.

But the next morning, having elected to take the second bus, we arrive at the station to find a milling crowd.

“Is the Vientiane bus late?”

“Very. It won't arrive today.”

“What's the problem?”

“Broken down at Kasi [several dozen miles south].”

Nothing is ever certain in Laos and while that is part of its charm, it has denied us the chance to realize another dream. Instead, we fly to Vientiane in a Lao Aviation turbo-prop 18-seater, gazing down on the highway far below. “Baw pen nyang”. We've realized one dream; we'll save the other one for later. Far below, the broad brown ribbon of the Mekong courses towards the sea, minus two bits of flotsam.

 
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