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03 September 2011

Crossing the River

Mountains and jungle, streams and plain blur by for hours. Small limestone escarpments jut out from the forest, tangled roots and vines leaping from the cliff tops to the forest floor below. Small villages and fields of assorted crops spring into being whenever the mountainous landscape subsides. Dusty roads bud off of the main track, wandering outward. Our put-putting bus crawls up and over steep mountain passes, and often walking seems like a swifter option.
Looking across the Mekong to Houaysai, Laos.
Having flown from Krabi Province to Bangkok, and then taken a night bus from the capital to Chiang Mai, I had yet to see much of Thailand’s countryside by the light of day. Rolling along through this lush landscape, I begin to fill the gaps in between the destinations, to better understand the makeup of the landscape and envision what the lives of the people must be like.
Chiang Kong is the final stop. The mighty Mekong cuts along the northern edge of town, and Laos begins on the opposite bank. The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, and specifically the village of Houaysai, is our destination for the evening but lunch comes first. Having foregone any serious breakfast and it now being well into the afternoon, we are famished. We wander about until finding a small pair of tables and chairs under an overhang, bedroom visible in back, small kitchen spilling out into the street.
A lovely old woman offers us a seat and I take the final opportunity to indulge in some (more) Pad Thai while still in the dish’s motherland. Glorious rice noodles, bean sprouts, and lime! Erin laughs at the little dogs trotting the streets, adorned in extremely diverse size, pattern, and color sweaters. She has been fascinated by the absurd quantity of sweatered dogs since Chiang Mai (this is a tropical country), and has proposed several times to chronicle the Thai sweater-dog culture in a photo-essay. I offer my full support and she grabs her camera and chases out into the street for a coveted shot.
Our boatman prepares to guide us across the water.
Supplementing our extremely limited Thai with large smiles, we thank our hostess and move on. A final Thai Tuk-tuk trucks us to the boat ramp. Stamps and nods, passports in hand we hop into a longtail boat, my first international river crossing. This passage also marks my return to the Mekong and my fifth crossing of this mighty river, although the first along the water’s surface.
Three years ago, I undertook two separate journeys into the high peaks of northwestern Yunnan Province, where the Mekong (known in China as the Lancang Jiang) runs swift and narrow through the towering Hengduan Mountains, and along the eastern flank of the sacred mountain Kawagebo. Throughout this region, giant snow-capped peaks descend dramatically thousands of meters into narrow gorges where some of Asia’s greatest rivers rage in close proximity. The Mekong, Salween (Nu Jiang in Chinese), and Yangtze Rivers flow southward off the Tibetan plateau through this extreme landscape, running parallel to each other in a three hundred kilometer corridor. The region is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and protected area for its amazing topography and rich biodiversity.
Gateway to another realm.
Each crossing of the river was a unique and transformative experience. The first began with perceived threats from some drunken Tibetans with a club, a forced march across the prayer flag-laden bridge in the middle of the night, and ended with shots of baijiu (rice liquor), cigarettes, and chatting about Saddam Hussein in their military surplus tent on the banks. The third crossing was the starting point of the circumambulation of Kawagebo. I was left standing on the eastern bank, dropped by a bus in what seemed like the wrong place. Despite my misgivings, I traversed the footbridge to find three large waterfalls cascading down the walls of a narrow canyon cutting into the mountains, as if a gateway into another realm. Awe-struck, I left the churning Lancang Jiang behind and headed up-canyon on what became an epic journey. The fourth occurred while I was stuffed in the back of a multi-day bus, a stowaway amidst bulging, dirty baggage and sweating Tibetans, so I have no recollection of the actual moment we crossed the river. I was being smuggled out of a closed region of Tibet by my friends and guides I met on the pilgrimage, the final stage of that rigorous journey. The following morning I awoke at sunrise to look across the deep cleft of the Lancang River valley to the sacred peak I had connected so deeply with, shining white in the morning light.
The motor of the longtail fires up and our boatman shoves us off. Four weeks in Thailand come to a close. As the river surrounds us, I reflect on my shared past with the mighty Mekong, and smile at this infinitely more casual crossing of the calm waters, sitting comfortably with a friend, legally entering and exploring a new land, a new people. I run my fingers through the cool, muddy waters, and excitedly await whatever the opposite bank holds for me.

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