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 At the end of the curl of a pitted track, a snail trail from a half seen turn hidden in houses, an embankment, tremendously steep, fell down broken concrete steps. At the feet of the steps, riverboats parked at a wet kerb. It was a wharf. It lay beyond the unmarked boundaries of the bamboo bars and baggy shorts.

A sturdy wooden board sank in sand at one end. The other end entered a solitary gap into the side of a boat of shallow draft. The hull was metal. Wooden columns supported the tin roof blooming over aisles of chairs. It was the slow boat to Pak Lai. After signing in with Immigration, anyone could catch it as it travelled in a watery no mans land between two nations. For half its journey, passengers could only leave the slow boat on the left bank of the river.

The slow boat was announced by  the thump of an unseen motor warming. In the plastic seats, the thumping was louder. Red-brown walls separated glass windows that opened. The floor was dusty and dark green. Other passengers gently herded foreign passengers together, hoping they shared a common language. “TAIYO” branded the backs of the red seats of the right aisle. Seats of the left aisle were biro blue.

Behind the aisles of seats, a mat was barely visible, in front of a wall of wood cutting sight along the rest of the boat. The pulverising pumping of the engine beating came from somewhere beyond the wall. People and luggage overflowed from the plastic chairs, across the mat. The people in the boat were Lao, and they were going home. Sticky rice, in white plastic bags, materialised anywhere that a bag could hang. Inside the bags, circled strings gathered meat pieces like stitches pulled tight to puff a sleeve at the shoulder. The meats, marinated before being barbequed dry, stained the air with  spicy aromas.

At the front of the slow boat, a stepped platform lifted a captain to the ship’s wheel. He sat high on a dining chair of wood. He wore a peaked cap, and army greens. A fine gold watch was on his arm. A greying co-pilot sat to the right of the captain, on a lower step. The engine drummed through the wooden wall. Beyond it, and outside, was the province of the bamboo boys. Blurs of legs and gleeful yells came in with the plank. The ropes to the shore fell away. Footsteps skittered across the tin roof overhead.

The engine became louder as it inched the slow boat backwards, towards Cambodia.

Then the engine fired a roar of sound that drowned. The slow boat headed, fast now, from the sun and into the grey mist on the water. The water turned white gold, blue and silver through one window, and pale and oily green outside another. Nothing discernable stitched the disparate colours of a single river as a grinning captain’s foot hit the diesel, hard, his right hand on the wheel.

Fresh wind suddenly blew over the high wake. Cold through the open windows, it swept away the spice of marinade. Semi-spiced, the smell of cold water filled the air. On the Thai side, the right bank, there was sand where once there had been water. Perhaps half a mile away, on the left bank, clay hauled itself out of the water. Distance drained the clay of colour.

The channel was wide. The river wandered among the low hills and across the plains. On both banks, electricity lines trailed roads a road hidden by banana palms. A few thin pirogues, with people holding nets, faded behind as the river mist began dissolving. The sand switched banks, and made islands. To one side, big water-rounded rocks began to appear. The passengers looked at the captain’s back. It said it was safe to sleep and so they did.

The engine died back to a slow thump, midstream, as a high buzzing became unbearable.

A white pirogue, its high nose red, green, and yellow, appeared beside the slow boat’s door. A huge engine dragged its stern to the water. A worried man fell in. His bag flew in behind him. As the man slowly stood up, he radiated happiness. The fast boat waved its tail. The man at the tiller of the flying mosquito smiled from ear to ear, and waved at the captain of the slow boat. He became a blur in a six-foot wall of water, showing what his boat could do. The grinning captain grinned even wider as a red green smear wheeled in circles in front of him. He relaxed even further back on his chair. Boys will be boys. Something of the same was in the co-pilot’s eyes.
By another sandbank, mapped in neat rows of new vegetables, the river started to narrow. Vestiges of old building work stepped thirty feet up from the water. They were channel markers. Other markers floated on the water. Invisible, anchors grasped bunches of three plastic containers, tied together, and filled with air. Long poles of bamboo clasped rocks, holding them with ropes. Mysterious small hemispheres of weed dressed in yellow brown began to walk across the water. A Thai village stepped back, and made way for an enormous villa. The villa filled a steep waterfront, cream behind its balustrades. Two stories, one on each side, winged the three stories at the centre. Two roofs, of terra cotta, tiles topped the stories, like a Chinese pagoda.

Half an hour from Vientiane, the river was wide again, and the air was almost cold. The hills were sidling higher and steeper towards the sky. The channel hugged Thailand tighter. The slow boat ran fifty feet away from where the river was eating into the soil. On the road beside the river, trucks trundled through tamed countryside. Behind the sand of the other bank, Lao PDR was higher, steeper, and much wilder. The scent of leaves became stronger by the mile. A thin string of smoke crept eastwards, and upwards, behind two isolated wooden houses. The slow boat hugged Thailand even closer. Laotian crests towered behind the big gardens by the river.

On the river beside the gardens, a low pirogue with no propulsion flew on downstream propellers. The pirogues were feathers on the water, children manning some of them. Twenty feet long, and two feet wide, they measured their draft in inches. They ended square at bow and stern. The sand islands came back, and now there were rocky islets among them. The carved soil of the higher bank gave way to yellow brown broken rocks. The bare hands of a river in a rage had torn out a cave. Thatched shade extended from it.
Here, where it was safe, the captain let the co-pilot steer. The co-pilot crouched over the wheel, gripping it hard, with both hands. The captain stretched his legs on the foredeck. When he returned, the slow boat surged forward, with the hand of an utterly happy man upon its wheel. The boat developed a roll. It was a sailor’s walk, on a river.

Deafened into silence, a few passengers slumped in their plastic seats, still awake. They breathed fragrant air. Little splashes of white water came in on the wind through the windows. The green of the water was deeper. Ripples cross-stitched it in grey. The ochre rocks began to blush. As they blushed, grey pudding basin hairlines settled above their reddening faces. Imperceptibly, green mountains had come down to the river. They were higher, and closer on every side.

As the banana plots reappeared in Thailand, the farmer in the seat behind nodded. He pointed to Samphanna on a home printed page that was a tourist’s map. He liked the map, and he liked Indonesian Kopiko lollies. So did the farmers around him. The map and the Kopiko bag travelled from hand to hand. Exclamations, uttered over water spotted paper, drowned in the all-enveloping noise of the engine.

In the city, checked shirts, with open collars, did the work of suits and ties. The open collars were gone. The farmers slung on coats and sweaters, over round necked T-shirts. The T-shirts covered their chests to the base of the throat. Knitted and elasticised bands pulled their jackets and jumpers around the hips of their polyester trousers. Their clothes were plain, the colours conservative. They came from factories in China.
An hour from the Vientiane landing, the white plastic drums were very close to the boat. A sullen rock island perched mid river in a narrow channel, perhaps two hundred feet wide. The engine cut back to a dulling thump. A pirogue was coming through the mountains. The river widened. The slow boat stayed very slow. It inched its way through long bamboo markers. The cliffs were orange-yellow clay. Marthe Bassenne wrote of this part of the river, the “landscape changed by degrees. We rediscovered mountains on the horizon. The temperature also dropped.”

On the left bank, white bags came down to a freight boat, carried on shoulders, with necks twisted out of the way. The bags built a great tablecloth on the freight boat’s foredeck. Paint turned the freight boat light and earnest green. It was a colour loved by western landladies and bureaucrats alike. A house was on the afterdeck. Drying washing took to the air, waving out over the boat’s flooded backyard.

The channel tightened again. The engine gunned, and the captain grinned. He knew the river as well as his family. Water, or dynamite, or both, had ripped the channel clean of rocks. As the channel widened, mountains blurred in and out of haze, and smoke. Somewhere a bell rang. The slow boat nudged a low cliff of baked orange clay. A bag of chestnuts passed on to its roof. A grandmother and her grandson found a space on the crowded mat. A father and a mother watched them with worried faces. Sighing, the parents turned their backs. They started a crabbing climb to wooden houses.
Though the sun was higher, the air kept getting colder. One woman donned a brown and red beanie hat. A big pom-pom fell down to her ponytail. Four people crowded in two blue seats, comforting a little girl. She was sick with noise, and the rolling of the river. Perched on a post, a kingfisher with a gold stomach and a white chest surveyed them. His black eyes were set in a black head. Plumed clumps, like pampas grass, grew in the stretches of bamboo on the banks.

The first real line of rapids appeared. It was the dry season, the time of low water. The only sign was a thin, braking white line a hundred metres wide. The slow boat became a very slow boat. The captain’s shoulders hunched tight, and forward. Both his hands held tight to the wheel. The bamboo channel markers formed a curtain close to either side. People were suddenly awake, and frozen, scarcely breathing. Wide gaps separated their shoulders from the coloured plastic of their seats. Silent and immobile, they watched the captain’s back.

The river spread like a sleeping cat. The rocks turned from grim brown back to yellow. The mountains hugged its banks. When the captain took one hand on the wheel, the passengers relaxed. Their backs sagged against the backs of their seats. Some went back to sleep. Others regarded the full time island ahead. It was dressed in low and scrubby mangroves.

The banks became steeper. The walls and islands returned to rock. Again, the engine cut back hard. The slow boat crawled through the rocks. Cloths tied to the wheel were wet with sweat from the captain’s hands. No channel markers floated in the narrow passage. The passengers were awake and frozen forward. Mean little pins of rocks poked sharp ends through the water. Many ripples ringed the pins. All of them were white. The wind steeped the boat in the scent of the green mandarins of the markets.

Suddenly the bamboo lines reappeared. Thin chains handcuffed the plastic drums to the water. The white ripples were behind, and the deafening engine was back. Coming close to a bank bearing a turbine, a man walked on an orange footpath. He waved to a captain he knew. A lone low hut became a village beyond the turbine. The slow boat slipped inside a yellow clay island in mid-river. A good gravel road snaked up a Lao mountain of the left bank. On the mountain of the right bank, a Thai road engineer had taken a road into angles in three dimensions. No sane engineer would build a road around those angles.

A grey metal television antenna topped a blue and white freight boat. A rope tied an island to the boat. Rocks ran into the river from the Lao side of the river. The blonde sand had fled to Thai safety. A relaxed captain, with his engine set to full throttle, ran the slow boat fast. The tops of the rocky islands were water-flattened. Some of the islands wore hats of scoured yellow sand. The slow boat was fairly flying. Either nobody else heard the scraping sound, or it was somewhere where it could do no harm. Mountains, blue on horizons ahead, slowly turned sage green.

A little girl tossed her head to see what her new hat would do. It was a blue pillbox hat with a red stripe. A blue tassel, an inch wide, dropped nine inches down her ponytail. The gold tie of the tassel tried to cling to her hair. Ahead of her, a pony-tailed woman tied her hair back with a fluffy rabbit. The rabbit was pale shell pink, and hundreds of miles from the sea.

In the leisure of being driven, a woman slept. Her face whispered of ancestors in places where the yeti walked. Her sleeping face was wider, and much longer, than the faces around her. Though she had a distinct and normal nose and forehead, her face formed the scooped out shape of a serving dish. The profile of her nose marked the line of a shape spooned from her hairline, across her cheeks, and up to the tip of her nose. There had been another woman like her, in the market, in Vientiane. The women in the market sat on the ground. The basket in front of her held a few small metal objects and a couple of vegetables. The metal objects looked liked bicycle parts.

The slow boat was crowded with faces blended by the river. No one on the boat was fat. Some were faintly Chinese around the cheekbones. A narrow Vietnamese cast moulded a few faces. Many had the moon faces of the lowland Lao. Others had the fine features of the mountain people. Features were not as robust as they were in central Thailand. Faces were not as Asiatic as Chinese faces. Eyes were more inclined to roundness, and they had lids. There were fewer noticeable Mongolian folds. Skin colours ranged from pale pink-brown, like a suntanned northern European, through golden brown, to sun darkened brown. The fairer people tended to be slighter. The darker, square faced people inclined were heavier, almost thickset. The passengers of the slow boat were not from Indonesia, but many looked like Javanese people. ( really enjoyed this paragraph) 

Their ways of interacting with other people were very like Balinese ways. Foreigners, like small children and lunatics, could not look after themselves. Adults had to watch out for them, and keep them safe. In Vientiane, after they were paid, the passenger transport drivers took their passengers by the elbow. They saw them safely across the road. It was hard to imagine drivers doing that in any other capital city.

Odd houses came and went on the Thai side of the river. They were no longer square and even shapes. The wooden houses were in both steep and flat spots. Protruding upper rooms rested on poles. Electricity wires still ran from post to post. On the roads each side of the river, vehicles no longer passed the boat. The roads of the left bank curled blue and empty. The roads of the right bank twisted yellow and empty.

Another Thai village came. Blue tiled roofs shocked eyes attuned to the subtle colours of the river. The river reflected back, a thousand fold, things people brought to it within themselves. Remnant huge forest trees of the Thai village receded. The slow boat headed into a narrow channel in the broken rock. As the red brown rocks tumbled down the mountains, the slow boat’s passengers could almost touch them. The captain’s grin was ear to ear again.

On the Lao bank was a province of undeveloped slash and burn. People wore brown clothes in the shade. On their feet were sandals, ready to slip off at doors. On the sand, the clay, and the rocks, and in pirogues, people were under thatch hats. The hats were the shapes of the roofs of the temples of Vientiane. Heads went into in cones, cut off square. From the base of the cone, a round brim curved out like a hip roof, sheltering shoulders.

The slow boat was very slow, as it began a long and laborious winding. Mountains breathed the river in and out. Most of the rocks were bi-coloured, a greyish band above, and a reddish stump below. Sometimes the rocks were only a few feet away. No vegetables grew on the rocky islands. Floods had flattened the tops, leaving sand on a few, and bare rock on most. Two and a half hours out from the wharf in Vientiane, still the air was almost cold. People had not taken off their jackets and jumpers.

The river swung west, beneath a Laotian village. Water swallows flashed white stomachs as they darted. An earthy swallow smell of cup nests in the bamboos wandered over the water. The slow boat headed straight for the sun at full throttle. On this part of the river, Marthe Bassenne wrote, “it was a day of rapids.” The river flowed through banded rocks, with “all slopes” terrain all around, free of plains and flats. On the left bank, the grey-green mountains were clad in trees. On the Thai side, mountains had been “developed.” One mountain’s Thai face was completely bald. Its devastation was black.

The mountains closed in, 300 yards up on each side. The slow boat rolled at full speed into the next set of rapids. The channel narrowed to sixty feet between the rocks. The captain slowed right down. He slid the slow boat sideways, out of a tight bend, dodging low circles of a whirlpool. It was waiting to suck down stern of boat. This was a place for slipping on the wristband of a waterproof passport bag. If a washed up body had a name, people keeping records might want to know what it was.

Occasional river plains appeared below the mountains. More and more of the Laotian forest was bamboo forest. White umbrella frames, deciduous forest trees, rose out of the paler bamboo. The trees were, isolates in a sea of grass as tall as trees. Tall shrubs grew if they could get a foothold. The country looked drier than it had. Somewhere in the rugged ride of the hours of rapids, the rocks of the river had changed. The stone islands and islets were orange-yellow below. They wore a band of yellow-grey above.

As the river widened, a women from a seat ahead clambered over the mat and disappeared for a little time behind the wooden wall. In the lavatory, a platform stood three feet above the bottom of the boat. It was a perch, for squatting. Beside it, saucepans floated in two tanks of water. One tank, hot, steamed beside a wooden wall. The wall was thin. It barely dulled the sound of an engine intent on slitting eardrums. The slow boat rolled through another rapid. “Look before you leap” took on new meaning. A handrail, newly seen, brought salvation. The engine’s noise cut back to only being unbearable.

The rocks were fifty feet away and going further. Sand and banana palms reappeared. The captain strung tight across the wheel. Then the slow boat was through the white line. The white line camped between two rocks on either side of the channel. They were a hundred yards apart. The captain and the river relaxed. A flying mosquito of helmeted passengers howled down-stream, hard into the entrance of Hell’s kitchen. Looking the fast boat’s blur was to hope for each passenger their end would be as quick as the boat hurtling them towards it.

One the slow boat, the worst was past. Instead of hunching forward with every muscle corded all the time the captain often sat back tall. Routinely, he adjusted his peaked cap to a more fetching angle. Passengers attuned to the roll accompanied by the slow engine stopped yo-yoing between sleep and freezing with a forward stare. As they relaxed, they looked around at mountains, sandy beaches, and trees. The bag of Kopiko lollies passed from hand to hand again, encountering smiles as it went.

On the right bank, Thailand looked lower, flatter, sleeker, and more prosperous. The mountains were home to farms. A mobile phone tower sat at the foot of a mountain. From here, Thailand looked like Australia of the 1970s, with new pylons, and rude practicality. On the left bank, the forested mountains steepened out of Chinese paintings without frames. Lao waited for the Australian 1960s, and its bulldozers.

A valley broadened and so did the islands. There were long stretches of yellow beaches. Vertical crazy paving covered the rock faces. On the river, rapids were oddments. The slow boat ripped straight through them, barely rolling. If someone had passed through here with gelignite, he had done a good job. Sometimes the gaps between the poles on the water and the pockmarked rock faces were down to forty feet. The captain lunched on fragrant meats as the slow boat slipped through the gaps. Mountains marked every horizon, misty, and blue.

On the sand of the Lao side, a few people with many bags of vegetables waited for another boat. A little way upstream, two freight boats were waddling down to them. Each boat bore a rusted house. Beached on one of the long foredecks was a roofed pirogue. The pirogue had blinds along its sides. The channel was two hundred and fifty metres wide. The spray blew in, and the slow boat’s motor blared at full bore. The smell of forest was stronger than ever. The mountains drove the horizons higher. They greened again.

Fine boned cattle came down to a sandy beach, to water. Behind them, a post and rail fence, and a thatched roof, peeped out of the shrubs. A white egret cast its long neck out as it surveyed disturbance in its fishing ground. Sometimes the flocks of the water swallows tumbled. Despite them, and the occasional cows coming down to water, from yards with bamboo fences, the huge landscapes felt devoid of life. There was no knowing whether there were few birds and animals, or whether they were nocturnal, or whether they were not here at all.

The chameleon blue and green clad mountains were cones. A stupa stood like a grandstand on a Thai point, white painted, and tiled in grey-brown of wood. The channel zigzagged. The sun fell behind. Spray blew in, over faces, on the stiff wind. The boat turned hard to come through rocks as it headed back into the sun. There were villages on both banks. A Thai ute parked on another point jutting into the river. “Chiang Khan,” said the farmer behind. Kopiko coated his tongue.

After the empty miles through the mountains, the houses of Chiang Khan looked large and luxurious. Loudspeakers hung on electricity poles. Boats had pulled in underneath the houses of the western side. On land, the mountains and the prosperity were illusory. Long, low, and brown Chiang Khan was a small town in one of the poorest provinces in Thailand. The boats for hire rarely left their riverside kerb. The mountain behind the town faded into rolling hills. The hills were gone by Loei, an hour away, on the back of the small truck that was the local bus. From the local bus, life and the short papaya trees were easy to see. Often it stopped and started every few hundred yards. It was easy to avoid accidentally photographing a barracks. The local bus was a school bus, too, and a free ride for monks in orange robes.

The truck to Loei was not the only bus. By the small fruit and vegetable market, big buses arrived from Bangkok. People alighted from aircraft seats and air conditioning. As the buses opened their doors, saccharine Asian pop filtered out from audiovisual CDs, replete with dancing girls. The industry of this town was tourism. There were many central Thai faces in the town.

The women at the small market, in an open sided shed, sold raw meat and vegetables, cooked meals, and brewed coffee. Outside the market, shops sold goods at fixed prices. Some shops sold Lao blankets and weavings, carried over the river. The blankets and weavings were good quality. Their fixed prices as reasonable as a foreign visitor could expect.

In some of the shops, women stuffed fluffy cotton into bags of pocketed pink netting. They squished the quilts inside woven cotton covers. They squeezed the cotton quilts into clear plastic bags. They slipped in price tickets. They stood the bags on shelves. The quilts were the quilts on guesthouse beds, on both sides of the river. They were easy to wash, light, and warm on cold nights. Carried in a clear plastic bag, a Chiang Khan quilt was a talisman. Thai people tried to start a conversation as soon as they saw it. Foiled by language, they took the carrier’s other bags. They lifted the bags to wherever the bags had to go. The bags were heavy with books and weavings.

In the streets and lanes, there were red and white elections posters. The loudspeakers attached to the electricity poles blared voices in mid-morning. On along a blue road that shuffled in front of a Wat, there was a traffic light. Tourists took photographs when the light for the main road turned red. Cars and scooters stopped for it.

Beside a Wat that sparkled in the sun, children sang in a classroom. At the back of the Wat, a man told a story of tragedy with his hands. He stood beside a log hollowed into a pirogue. Its back was broken. The man pointed at splinters six feet long as he showed what the river had done. There were two people on it when the pirogue hit the rock. The rock snapped hardwood three inches thick. It may have snapped the necks of the passengers as well.

The strange light of this east -west section of the river created a paradise for painters. The river itself had painted the town’s jutting point in little water tumbled rocks. They tumbled in warm reds, browns, greys, oranges, yellows and black, down to the dark green water. Children stepped from the warm colours into the cool river, with airtight tubes of tyres about their waists. Somewhere here, Thai artist Somboon Hormtientong lived and painted perfectly balanced colours of the delicate shapes hanging on walls of art galleries in Bangkok and Germany. Away from the river, men who lived in pre-history had painted in the caves of the National Park Phu Pha Mann.

On the river, the slow boat sailed through a sepia drawing. Louis Delaporte sketched the “Keng Chan” camp of Doudart de Lagree’s expedition, the Mekong Exploration Commission, in 1867. Delaporte decreased the proportions of the river, and its landscape, to fit the whole into a single sketch. He saved both the scale of the landscape, and the sight of the explorers. Their shelter was on a sandy beach beside a sheltered pool. They made it from whatever they had to hand, including thatch and rocks, and a sheet of corrugated iron. [9]

After Chiang Khan, only a few flying mosquitoes came screaming down the river. The roar of the motor never dropped as the slow boat made up the time it had lost in the rocks. The last few passengers awake over the home printed maps drifted asleep despite the engine’s drumming. The haze thickened greyer again. The river was smooth sailing in a zigzag motion.

The land about grew imperceptibly wilder, higher, and steeper. Rocks dimmed to ochred brown. The river had dumped long banks of sand on orange clay. A lone deciduous tree in a Laotian forest of pale green bamboo captured five nests of birds in the tangle of its umbrella frame. The Mekong became a grey sea of white gold twinkling.

For the first time in many days, a tiny patch of blue sky tore a hole in the blanket of dry cloud overhead. The river too was blue. Chips of silver glittered on its face. Plumes of slow burning hill fires appeared, grey strings on sun mottled mountainsides. The mountains draped themselves in every shade of olive green. Yellow green bamboo fringed their feet and flooded the river flats.

The river turned course again. The slow boat headed north through the warm air. It traversed what seemed a wide slow swamp of gunmetal green, shot in pale yellow gold, sometimes thirty feet from the banks where mountains grew. The milk run of stops and starts began afresh. Passengers left for Lao on both sides of the river. Where the mountains lifted the horizons high, seven hours from Vientiane, spiced darkness was coming early. It was a long way between houses. The peopled banks, and their boats, were long gone.

Rare banana gardens broke through the dark sage of the right bank. When the banana gardens came, they were ten acres in extent, and the smell of smoke grew stronger. A lone fisherman appeared on a bank beside a pirogue. He wore blue trousers, a black and yellow shirt, and a black beanie hat. He grinned a lop-sided grin at the people on the slow boat. Then he pulled his net in. A last flying mosquito remonstrated past, faster than its fellows had been. Heads of passengers were devoid of helmets. Even at the speed it travelled, the screaming mosquito would not near Chiang Khan before darkness. On both sides of Chiang Khan, rocks waited. They hid in whirlpools, and in needles under the water.

The river was like a sheltered bay of the sea. On the slow boat, people gathered their bags and boxes. The sinking sun polished undersides of dark green waves in the current. Ripples flashed red gold.

  1. Moving among mountains: Pak Lay to the Thai-Lao border
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