THE MEKONG RIVER, LAOS Setting out on this cycling journey through Asia we
crammed our packs full to overflowing with the gear we expected to need. Along with
the water filter, the specialized bicycle tools, the spool of bailing wire and the spare
parts we somehow squeezed in a many things we would have preferred to leave behind.
Deeply ingrained within us are a whole bag full of hang-ups, foibles, embarrassing
character flaws and strange preferences, not to mention two very different sets of
prejudices and two ways of thinking, one Mexican, one America. As much as we like to
exercise our open mindedness by striving to see each situation from the others
prospective, we cannot keep these idiosyncrasies from coloring what we see. Try as we
might to leave these unpleasant bits of ourselves behind with the excess luggage,
they've come along as stowaways and reveal themselves at the most unpleasant times.
Perhaps this is why we choose to
travel the way we have. Cycling
gives us control. Stop when we
want, go where we want. Pedaling
on our own gives us the power to
decide some of the most basic
elements of life, those most travelers
must hand over to others. By
depending on ourselves, and on one
another, we have the ability to avoid
circumstances that pique the strange
quirks in our personalities. Getting
closer to the Thai-Laos border one
of those situations was soon on the
After a lovely and surprisingly flat
ride to Chiang Saen we came to the
infamous Golden Triangle, the three-
way border with Northern Thailand,
Laos and Burma (Myanmar) that
supplies much of the world's opium.
The plan for the following day was to
pedal another 40 miles to the Thai-
Loas immigration post at Chiang
Khong, ferry across into Laos, and
negotiate for a boat – notoriously
cramped and overloaded - to take us
on the two-day journey down the
Mekong River to the town of Luang
Behind the check-in desk at the
guesthouse Amanda spotted a flier
for a fully organized excursion
promising transportation to the
border, help with immigration, and a
one-day voyage to Luang Prabang
on a comfortable boat with a limited
number of passengers. Normally we
avoid package trips like this one, but
way down at the bottom of the flier
the strangely convincing words,
"Bikes Can Be Loaded" were
The owner of the guesthouse, Mr.
Vipat, a diminutive middle-aged Thai
man with a calm, polite bearing and
an exceptional command of the
English language, immediately gave
us confidence in the excursion. He
explained that he had just four
spaces available and would gladly
offer us two for the remarkably low
price of 1000 baht ($27) each. This
was less than we would pay for
ourselves and the bicycles if we were
to organize the journey on our own,
and we would spend only one day on
the river rather than two. We were
sold. As icing on the cake Mr. Vipat
told us he would be bringing a
bicycle himself to sell in Laos so he
would be particularly conscious of
our extra-special needs.
Early the next morning the lobby of
the guesthouse teemed with a our
fellow passengers, a hodgepodge of
international backpackers, plus two
out of place, fastidious German
retirees, both male, with massive,
square, radiation-proof suitcases.
After strapping everyone's luggage
to the roof racks of the three
minivans there seemed to be no
more room for the bicycles, but Mr.
Vipat was unfazed. Adjusting his
rimless spectacles he said in a
quietly placid voice, "Now lets place
the bicycles on top." Perched at the
pinnacle of the pyramid of luggage
our bikes were lashed to the
minivan. Speeding to the border on
the winding, potholed, mountain road
I expected the bikes to come
crashing down at any moment but
the lashing held and we arrived at
the immigration office a full hour
before the official opening time.
Once again Mr. Vipat was true to his
word. He had planned this early
arrive in anticipation of the normally
long morning queue and he
disappeared into the building
with a bundle of twenty passports. A
few moments later he emerged with
a surprised look and a crooked half
smile at having secured the exit
stamps and early permission to
cross the Mekong River to the Laos
side of the border.
As we unloaded the bags and bikes
from the roof of the minivan he
admitted, "This is the second time I
have done this trip with a group. It
gets easier each time." Once the
bikes and bags were stacked in a
narrow, wobbly flat-bottomed canoe-
like boat we crossed the mud-brown
Mekong to the Laotian side and
again Mr. Vipat seemed surprised at
The diminutive plump male Laotian
Immigration Officer glanced at the
visas we had obtained nearly two
months earlier in Bangkok and
stamped our passports without even
acknowledging us. At the top of the
hill above the immigration office Mr.
Vipat stood with three small,
motorized, golf-cart-like vehicles
called tuk-tuks with bench seating in
back sufficiently sized for four
medium Smurfs. With remarkable
organizational skills he wedged
twenty full sized Westerners and
their luggage into these three circus
With no room for the bikes he
suggested that Amanda and I cycle
to the port dock while he would take our bags with him in the tuk-tuk. I refused,
feeling the sudden dread of being lost in a border town without our
possessions. But he insisted it was an easy ride and traced with his fingers the
long, convoluted one-way streets that the tuk-tuks must follow in the opposite
direction before getting to the port. On bicycles we could ride against traffic on
the one-way street, he insisted we would get there in a few minutes.
Amanda could see that I was on the verge saying something to Mr. Vipat that I
would later regret and she said quietly, "Rich, let's just pedal. It's not too far.
So we pedaled our clunky touring bikes like Lance Armstrong. Without the
weight of our heavy packs we sped through the town and Amanda easily found
the way to the port.
There we found several boats, deceiving in their size by their cigarette-narrow
shape, all poking their noses into the riverbank with tapered wooden planks
leaning from mud to deck. One of the tuk-tuks had arrived and we spotted a few
of our gang walking the plank toward one of the nicer boats.
In the front were rows of hard wooden benches down each side. These
benches were designed for two-people but were placed so close together front
to back that it was impossible for anyone larger than a child to sit with legs
forward. Amanda hurried aboard to claim the last two comfortable seats further
back. These narrow gray recliners with high headrests had once been the back
seats of Toyotas and Hyundais that the resourceful Laotians had removed from
minivans and attached them to the deck with bent nails.
Out on the bank I handed the bicycles to the boat porter who lashed them to the
steel-sheeted roof. When the other tuk-tuks arrived I carried our packs,
balancing one in each hand like a tight-wire walker, up the plank over the muddy
water and onto the boat. Somehow I managed to avoid falling into the drink.
Taking in the amenities of our vessel I strolled the deck. The captain sat on a
stool in front. Passengers and cargo were in the center. Two surprisingly nice
toilets, a western and a squatter, were in back just before the massive,
unmuffled petrol engine at the rear. The sides of the boat had tasseled curtains
to block out the sun and Amanda adjusted her curtain as I realized a mutiny had
Mr. Vipat was more than a little irritated to find that a group of international
backpackers had been loaded onto our boat and they occupied most of the
comfortable seats. First politely then more insistently he requested tickets from
this second group who themselves were growing increasingly suspicious of the
Laotian guesthouse operator who had delivered them to the boat ticketless.
Finally, in exasperation Mr. Vipat read the names from his list of passengers and
demanded that anyone not on the list disembark. The backpackers refused.
A clash of cultures developed. Thais avoid personal conflict to save face.
We've since learned that the Laotians, even more extreme in their sidestepping
of an argument, will give away their profit to steer clear of unpleasant
negotiations. So Mr. Vipat was caught in a tight bind. Matched in disagreement
against a group of backpackers, some of whom view conflict with the locals a
sport, Mr. Vipat had few options.
Swirling through my very American brain I felt a desire to protect this little man
who had worked so hard to make this trip run smoothly. I wanted to stand up
and help him eject the stowaways. I felt sorry that he was forced to do
something so distastefully contrary to his cultural norms. Yet I also realized that
he was in a business that served falang (foreigners) and if he did not for solve
the problem himself he would forever be stepped on by those willing to take
advantage of him.
The standoff dragged on for more than an hour, then two. Sitting firmly in the
comfortable seats with arms crossed the backpackers refused to yield. Pleading,
Mr. Vipat explained that it was his boat and the stowaways must get off. Each
minute we sat in port was a minute of light we would desperately need later in
the day to navigate around the dangerous barely-submerged rocks of the
Finally the resolve of one of the stowaways, a cheery Irish girl, cracked. She
came to an agreement with Mr. Vipat that she would move to one of the bench
seats, relinquishing here comfortable seat. The others soon followed and we all
With the stowaway situation settled we thought we could leave but the
authorities had other ideas. The port officer was determined to delay our
departure. Mr. Vipat, having spent the morning pleading with falang
backpackers was now forced to beg to the Lao government official.
The official knew, of course, that if we did not leave by a certain hour we would
be unable to arrive before dark and must stop somewhere along the river. This
use of time as a negotiating ploy is very effective against the overly scheduled
westerner and works particularly well against the American mindset.
Tell me beforehand that it will take five hours for the boat to leave the dock and I
can deal with it. But to make me sit there for no apparent reason is pure
torture. Amanda's Mexican upbringing helps her cope with these situations
much better. She has spent a good portion of her youth waiting in line at the
Tijuana-San Diego border and has suffered the whims of U.S. Immigration
officials. She pulled out a book, propped up her feet and enjoyed the day. I
gnashed my teeth, seething that I was trapped on a motionless boat. I dreamed
of clipping on my panniers and pedaling away from the prison.
Five hours after we boarded Mr. Vipat explained that the official would not allow
us to sail the full distance to Luang Prabang in one day. He explained, "There is
a small village half-way down the river at a place called Pak Ben. If you like I can
find a guesthouse there to spend the night. Shall we vote?"
There was not much to vote on and the decision was unanimous. Finally after
an eternity spent with the nose of the boat stuck in the mud the captain turned
over the engine with a roar and pushed from the bank with a long stout bamboo
The Mekong River is fed by the rains of Southern China, growing as it flows
along the borders of Myanmar and Thailand before plunging into the heart of
Laos and providing the main transportation artery of the nation. Along the steep
banks white sandy beaches give way to tiered vegetable gardens at the upper
edges where the soil is darker and more fertile. Pillars of stone jut from the
water along the shoreline, often protruding out into the depths of the channel.
As we sputtered down stream we encountered patches every few kilometers
where the bank flattened to allow footpaths leading to stilted bamboo huts
and a handful of tethered cattle. Fishing nets strung untended from the rocks
stretched across churning eddies and men wearing the traditional round pointed
straw hats shuttled between them to check on the catch and maintain the
filament tangle free. At one point we passed a neat stack of logs waiting to be
floated downstream while an elephant dragged another toward the pile.
Every so often the captain would steer through a narrow valley in the rocks
where the rushing current swirled in small whirlpools and the boat was pulled in
unpredictable directions. With no reverse gear and a volatile current the
captain spoke to no one and watched the brown water intently.
Just as dusk was setting in he suddenly turned toward the back of the boat with
a puzzled, terrified expression on his face. Before we could figure out what had
happened his son ran down the center isle stripping off his clothing, grabbed
hold of the anchor line and dove into the river. Swimming frantically ahead he
mounted one of the pillars of stone, his bare feet gripping the rock as he
clambered up the side, then wrapped the line around a natural post and held
tight. Swung by the force of the current like a pendulum the boat crashed to a
halt against the rock.
Mr. Vipat, as alarmed as the rest of us, spoke with the captain then explained,
"Okay, now we make a stop here to wait for another boat."
Amanda looked up from her book then sat up straight, "A stop? Here?"
With a shrug of the shoulders and a smile Mr. Vipat gave the bad news, "This
boat has lost the propeller."
Alarmed Amanda blurted, "Rich! Did he say the boat lost its propeller? How did
we lose our propeller? Did it just fall off?" Not waiting for an answer she
continued, "What if we're the last boat? How do we signal that we need help? I
read that it's dangerous to be on the river at night. How can we see that we're
not crashing into the rocks? And the bikes. How are we gonna get the bikes
onto another boat?"
On and on it went. Questions that briefly flitted though her brain were
transmitted at light-speed to her tongue before being filtered by whatever
upstairs cortex it is that does that type of filtering. A torrent of queries flowed
over me, all unanswerable at the moment, and each grating further on my
already swirling mind.
Like many Latin Americans, Amanda deals with stressful situations by talking.
She asks questions. She debates the possibilities. She offers solutions on
subjects she knows nothing about. I, on the other had, become quiet. I
consider the options. I think about what might happen next. I ponder.
My need for silence to think things through does not mix well with Amanda's
desire to reason out the problem. She asks questions I know are rhetorical, yet I
fall for it every time and answer with increasing frustration, "I don't know." Then
I'll mumble, "How should I know?" Gritting my teeth I'll say, "Maybe you should
ask someone else." And finally, "Will you please be quiet so I can think!"
As we were about to launch into an argument one of the older German men said
something unintelligible and pointed toward a big rock upriver. And that's when
we heard a chorus of male Scandinavian voices singing at the top of their lungs,
"Like A Virgin. Touched for the very first tiiiiiimmmme. Like a viiiiiiiirrrrrrrrgin.
Put your boooody next to miiiiiiine. Ohew ohew ohew." Sputtering closer we
discovered our rescue vessel complete with a small I-Pod boom box
reverberating far above speaker capacity. And that brings me to the second
reason why Amanda and I try to avoid organized excursions.
Already overloaded the captain of our rescue craft agreed to accept another
boatload of passengers and his assistant helped us shuttle the bikes from roof
to roof. We stood in the isle, crammed together with fifty new friends and a
handful of very drunk, very musical Norwegians. Their boom box spewed a
string of dance hits from the 80's, songs that those of us who came to adulthood
at the time fervently wish we could forget, and their thirst emptied the cooler of
the onboard galley.
It was the second night of a new moon and when the sun disappeared behind
the looming cliffs nothing filled its place to illuminate the perils ahead. Through
pitch darkness the captain slowly plied through the murky water as he watched
for familiar landmarks to steer us safely through.
Amanda talked nonstop. "Rich, do you think he can see where we're going? He
must know the river really well, don't you think? This is dangerous. I can't
believe how dangerous it is. You always see on CNN, 'Overloaded ferry
capsized at night.' Which way do you think we should swim if we sink? Should
we go for this bank or that one? Do you have your passport and money belt
strapped to your waist? You should. I'm going to. How would they identify us if
they have to pull us out of the river? Go ahead, strap on your money belt."
I was ready to strap my money belt around her neck when one of the elderly
German men, sitting in the isle on his hard-shelled suitcase, pointed up the bank
and said something in his guttural, throat clearing language.
High up on the bank the electric lights from the town of Pak Ben illuminated the
night. The captain swung the boat around and plunged it head first into the
mud. Planks out the Norwegians made a mad dash for the few free rooms while
we waited to unload our bags and bikes, unable to see anything in the
Amanda stood guard on the bank while I shuttled back and forth until we had all
eight panniers and two duffel bags in a pile. As I returned to the boat to take the
bikes from the roof one of the drunk Norwegians passed Amanda and said in a
slurred accent, "Somebody stole my bag."
Misunderstanding the word "bag" for "bike" Amanda yelled to me, "Ricardo, did
you hear that? Somebody stole his bike." Then to the drunk she said, "Where
was your bike? I didn't see any other bikes. Was it on the roof? I can't believe
it was stolen. What are you going to do?"
The utterly confused Norwegian walked the plank back to the boat to continue
the search. Later he discovered that one of his drinking buddies accidentally
carried his bag to a guesthouse.
As the boatman handed the bicycles down I struggled to find Amanda in the
darkness. Surrounded by a group of scraggly children she was saying, "No, no,
no. Thank you little people but we don't need any help."
They began to walk off as I said, "Don't chase them away. There's no path. It's
all sand. We're going to have to carry the bikes all the way up the bank. We
need their help."
Handing one bag to each of the little people and two to the bigger kids we
marched single file up the steep sandy beach. The smallest boy, no more than
four years old, struggled under the weight of his burden but continued to bring
up the rear of our small group as we found our way to the guesthouse.
Arriving at the reception we found Mr. Vipat handing out room keys. Not only
had he secured rooms for the official passengers, he had huddled the
stowaways together with our groups and made sure they were not homeless.
Humbled by the honorable integrity of the man, the stowaways took their keys
with great thanks and headed up to their rooms while the Norwegians and their
counterparts had to find accommodation in the overcrowded village.
As Mr. Vipat handed out keys Amanda and I doled out payment to our porters.
Passing around the small bills we made sure each child got the same amount
but the older boys tried to bargain for more. When Amanda opened her wallet
to show that she had no more money the littlest boy placed his bill back into it.
She said, "No, no sweetie. That's for you. Here, you keep it." She opened his
tiny hand and gave him the balled up bill. Opening his other hand like a
miniature magician, the boy showed us a second bill. Not wanting to miss the
smallest child in all the commotion, we had both paid him.
At sunrise the next morning our porters and ten of their friends were huddled at
the spot where we had locked the bicycles. Apparently we had paid too well with
the new, unfamiliar currency and the entire village school had emptied in
anticipation of the two overloaded, overpaying, easily confused cyclists.
Single file we marched down the steep sandy bank to find Mr. Vipat directing the
loading of a different boat. Before we had a chance to ask about our new
conveyance he disappeared for two hours. By this point we were all, except for
the two German men, laughing at each new bump in our journey.
When Mr. Vipat appeared on the hill above the boat screaming furiously at the
government official, the laughing ceased. The official delighted in the
humiliation of our guide and stood with his arms wide as if basking in his own
power. Mr. Vipat raged, turning a bright red, pointing at our boat then at
another, a half filled ferry with a cargo of fifty-pound bags of rice stacked in the
Amanda launched a bombardment of questions in my direction, "Look how angry
Mr. Vipat is. Do you think the official wants us to go on that boat? He is pointing
at that boat. How many people can that boat hold with all of those bags in
back? Who is that guy, anyway. He's not wearing a uniform. And he's smiling.
Do you think he wants Mr. Vipat to get angry. He seems to be enjoying it. I
wonder if this is how the officials humiliate people, by making them get angry to
lose face. This is a communist country. Maybe they don't like it when foreigners
get nicer boats than the locals." On and on it went.
Unseen Mr. Vipat delivered to the official a large wad of kip, the Lao currency,
and we were permitted to depart. Three hours late, the captain started the boat
and pushed from the bank with a bamboo pole as Mr. Vipat explained the
problem. "He wanted us to go on the other boat. The one with the cargo..."
"…Ah, Mr. Vipat," Amanda tried to interrupt.
"…I told him there was no room. The seats are benches…."
Amanda raised her hand like a schoolgirl, "But… But …. Mr. Vipat."
I thought to myself, "Oh no, here we go again."
He continued, "…as you saw, I had to explain the situat… yes?" he pointed to
"Mr. Vipat, I think we are moving upriver, the way we came yesterday… the
Suddenly his eyes grew wide, he looked up at the bank then turned and yelled
to the captain. The boat made a large sweeping turn and we sailed downriver
toward Luang Prabang.