Sunday, June 1, 2008

Meandering Mekong: boat trip down the Mekong River in the Golden Triangle

Floating through the storied Golden Triangle on a river barge

A giant four-storey building, towering above the tree line on the Golden Triangle, gradually became a dwarf as the barge pulled upstream at 10 knots per hour.

Inside that casino-hotel, sitting on a spit of land where the Ruak river meets the Mekong, time come screeching to a halt.

Outside, the muddy river waits for no man.

At dawn, we climbed aboard the 100-ton combined cargo-passenger ship, and embarked on a 343km journey from Chiang Saen port in Chiang Rai to Jinghong in China.

Located on Burmese soil, the casino, owned by a number of influential Thai politicians, was what many travellers on the Mekong river trip liked to think of as the final frontier of the worldly world.

Next stop: "Saint City". A suspension bridge crossing the Mekong river in the middle of Jinghong town. Heading north, the lush green forests of Laos appeared on the right side of the barge. Burma lay on the left side. Not long after the casino was out of sight, the barge arrived at Wat Kruba Boonchoom.

Here, faith was borderless. The revered monk has never closed his temple's door on devout Thai Buddhists even when relations between Vientiane and Bangkok turned sour.

Small chedi, or affectionately referred to by locals as "instant pagodas", dot the river bank, standing in silent testimony to the Buddhist faith. Visitors, mostly from Laos, Burma and Thailand, build them in a single day to make merit for the next life.

From Burma, the barge took passengers to catch a glimpse of Lao shores at the port town of Muang Mo, a transit point for cargo from Thailand and China. Captain Cho Lai navigates the barge through rapids along the river.

Opposite Muang Mo is, officially, the Burmese port of Wan Pung. Unofficially, it is a contraband haven.

Untaxed goods, mostly electrical appliances and farm commodities, are unloaded here and taken to warehouses in Burma's Tachilek town adjacent to Mae Sai district in Chiang Rai, for further smuggling across the Thai border.

Mae Salong Tours in Chiang Rai has become the first Thai operator to join the Mekong river voyage phenomenon.

A family business owned by Thanomsak Sereewichayaswat, a veterinarian and former leader of a pro-democracy student group more than two decades ago, has gone up and down the Mekong river countless times.
Tai Lue girls pour water in a special performance to welcome guests.

Finding new thrills and spills every time he made the trip, the vet decided to share such experiences with others. The company has two 30-seat speed boats that can travel from Chiang Saen to Jinghong in one day.

For a group tour, a three-decked steel barge, having nine rooms for passengers, is used.

Although nothing on the ship was close to luxurious, the food was plentiful, and good, too.

After lunch, the passengers, beginning to feel indifferent to the endless views of dense tropical forest, prepared for one of life on the river's little excitements.

Some looked on in awe, some cheered and others prayed as Captain Cho Lai, with the help of his three courageous assistants, carefully steered us away from the rapids scattered along this part of the river for more than 100km.

Tang Or and Nam Lor rapids were soon passed uneventfully. While some on board were wondering if they were now the only group of living things left on earth, signs of life emerged as the barge approached hilltribe communities and, later, military camps. Barges running along the Mekong river mostly belong to Chinese.

On the river, the struggle of man and machine against nature continued.

At Sam Sao rapids, as our 27-year-old Chinese captain was zigzagging to avoid big rock hazards, many made sure life jackets were within their reach.

Notorious for its strong currents and whirlpools, this bend in the river has long been known as a cemetery for countless ships that have struck the rocks and sank, and the river bed is littered with the bones of Burmese and Lao rivermen.

This time around, our barge shot through Sam Sao rapids in one piece.

Already 50km from Chiang Saen, the river becomes wider. Waiting downriver to greet survivors of the muddy maelstrom is Ban Pa Khao in Laos, a collection of tribal villages of Tai Leu and Akha tribespeople. What was once an American air base during World War Two can be seen as a small collection of buildings and an unused airstrip from onboard the barge.

The tribespeople have traditionally been friendly to visitors, even to crews whose ships were stranded on the banks because of dry season water levels and who inevitably wore out their welcome.
A so-called "Instant pagoda" on the banks of Mekong river near Wat Kruba Boonchoom, a place where the faith of the Thais, Lao and Burmese transcends borders.

Not far from Ban Pa Khao is a place called Khung Saen Pee (curve of a hundred thousand ghosts), named after an old local tradition of floating the bodies of their dead loved ones on the river.

Excitement returned to our Mekong travels as the barge shot over row after row of rushing rapids-Chiang Dao, Wang Wid, Tang Pang Lang and Tang Pang-before arriving at the big Lao port of Xing Kok where there is a road to Luang Nam Tha bordering China, built by China.

On the left bank is Burma's Wan Jiang port which is also a major shipbuilding area and a cattle export hub.

Highlight of the first day of the trip was a passage through the rock-strewn channel at Tang Salam, dubbed the King of the Rapids, which is about 120km from Chiang Saen.

The sun set shortly after the barge dodged the danger of whipping currents caused by differences in water levels before finally mooring at Muang Sing in Laos for a night's sleep.

Captain Cho Lai, having been venturing up and down this "Mother of the Rivers" for 10 years, and although familiar with all the charted shoals and rapids, agreed the Mekong never runs out of challenges.

Day two: The river did not change much. But after being part of an endless tug-of-war between the ship and the Mekong's inexorable current for the length of one day-and somehow emerging the winner-the maze of rocks and the rushing water struck fear into no one, and now were more of a nuisance than a menace.

About 182km from Chiang Saen, the barge arrived at Sob Luay, a port in Burma which is controlled by the United Wa State Army. From here, passengers can get off their ship and travel a further 170km by land to Jinghong in China's Yunnan province.

Also, there is a road linking Sob Luay with a Chinese border town of Ta Lor, where visitors can find tickets to trans-sexual cabaret shows like the famous Tiffany and Alcazar in Pattaya.

The Chinese performers were trained by Thai entertainers from Chiang Mai as part of a "cultural exchange".

For those who had learned to love the languid intricacies of river navigation, they could opt to stay onboard, passing through Long Som and Krai rapids before reaching the upper Mekong Triangle where the borders of China, Laos and Burma meet. There, China has Guan Lei as a major port.

After Guan Lei is Galanpa, an old settlement of the Tai Leu tribe.

The last leg of the 31-hour trip covers a 51km route from Galanpa to Jinghong.

Jinghong is an important town in southwestern Yunnan. The town boasts a vast tropical forest with more than 5,000 kinds of trees. Other major attractions are cultural centres and botanical gardens.

On the way back to Chiang Saen on the same barge after seeing and touring Jinghong, the thrill of river barge travel remained the same.

Travel tips

How to get there: Thai Airways International (tel 02-628-2000) offers several flights to Chiang Rai daily. As well, air-conditioned buses leave Bangkok for Chiang Saen daily from Bangkok's Northern Bus Terminal (Mor Chit). Call 02-936-2852, 02-936-2866.

Chiang Saen is located near the Mekong River. From downtown Chiang Rai, it can be reached by Highway 1016 and 110 via Mae Sai.

Tourists get on board at Chiang Saen port for the river trip to Jinghong in China. By air-conditioned speed boat, it takes one day to reach Jinghong. But by ordinary boat (with private guest rooms) passengers have to stay overnight onboard.

Tours cost 12,000-15,000 baht round trip. For 20,000 baht, a Thai Airways International jet takes you to Kunming from where you return by boat.

A Chinese visa is required for entering Jinghong. Visa fee at the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok is 550 baht. Processing takes about three days.

Mae Salong Tour Co can organise a tour on demand. Call Mae Salong Tour office in Chiang Rai, at 053-716-505-6 or in Bangkok at 02-279-9983.

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