A lucky break in Paklay

In which our correspondent gets drunk on rice whiskey one night and finds himself invited onto a boat the morning after.

Published July 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Bus travel in Laos (to use a word popular when I was in junior high) sucks.

Had my transit from Luang Prabang to Paklay been 30 minutes long and featured loudspeakers blasting Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," it might have been bearable -- even entertaining. Unfortunately, my breakneck plunge into the nether boondocks of Sayaburi province lasted all day and featured a nonstop barrage of Lao pop music that sounded like a racquetball court full of drunken little girls incoherently scolding pet chinchillas to a synthesized backbeat. I suffered woefully.

When I first boarded the small bus (actually, an old Russian truck with wood-slat benches) -- a vehicle which under any rational code of comfort and sanity could fit 15 people -- I was amazed to discover that the Luang Prabang bus authority had sold tickets to 32 people. Since there were no other Westerners on board who could share my dismay, I took out my notebook and wrote the number down: 32. Chagrined, I circled it for emphasis.

One hour later, there were 45 people (and numerous chickens) crammed into the bus, and I could no longer move my arms to reach my notebook.

Laos (a country the size of Great Britain) has only 2,100 miles of tarred roads. None of these tarred roads, apparently, are located southwest of Luang Prabang. Nevertheless, our bus driver navigated the dusty highway with a hell-bent sense of speed lust that would have been impressive if it hadn't been so terrifying. I found myself flushed with relief when (because there is no bridge) we had to leave the trucks and load into boats to cross the Mekong. On the other side, all 45 of us (not counting chickens) crammed into a nearly identical truck with a nearly identical driver.

If the peanut fields and hardwood forests of Sayaburi province are as enchanted as the pleasure domes of Xanadu, I'd have no way of knowing: From mid-morning to dusk, my day went by in a fish-tailing rush of billowing dirt, screeching chickens and blurred scenery.

Once I'd arrived in Paklay and checked into a guesthouse, I immediately staggered down to the river. Although I'd roughly been following the Mekong valley all day on the buses, I wanted to sit still for a moment -- to center myself with the quiet beauty of the water itself. The riverside was full of sarong-wrapped bathers at sundown; I stripped down and joined their ranks. The hills of the far shore glowed with late-day brush fires.

Paklay is an old French garrison town that owes its existence to the river. Located on the southwestern-most bend on the Mekong above Vientiane, it served for years as the point where land caravans from Bangkok unloaded their goods into boats up- and downriver. It was little more than a frontier outpost for the French, and it still wasn't much when I visited. "If commerce were in any way active," Bassenne wrote in 1909, "this poor village would soon grow. But it is still in an embryo state." Considering that Route 13 from Luang Prabang to Vientiane via Vang Vieng is now completely paved (thus rendering the river route impractical), it's likely that Paklay will remain in an embryo state indefinitely.

As I was splashing around in the gentle shoreside currents of the Mekong that evening, a couple of young Lao guys jogged down into the water and practically dragged me out onto dry land. At first I thought I'd been doing something wrong, but they soon made it clear that they just wanted me to drink with them. A bottle of rice whiskey was procured, and we were toasting each other's health before I'd even dried off. Considering that we were so close to the pier, I optimistically assumed that the fellows were river pilots who'd like nothing better than to take me down the river the next day. As it turned out, they were truck drivers.

We drank hearty anyhow. Since they didn't know much English and I didn't know much Lao, we prefaced each toast by counting in each other's language.

"Three, four, five, six, seven!" the truck guys would yell.

"Sam, sii, ha, hok, jet!" I would reply, and another round of high-octane rice whiskey ("a liquor so strong as to destroy the taste" reported Garnier in 1866) would go down the hatch.

I report with pride that I was the last one to vomit that evening.

The following morning I reported to the customs house at the pier and was told that the river was too low for the huahoua-leim freight boats.

"But you can pay for a speedboat!" the Paklay customs officer told me brightly. I retreated into town to eat a baguette and mull this over.

At the restaurant, the owner made a big show of seating me at an outside table in view of his (presumably jealous) neighbors. He proudly presented me with his English-language menu, which featured such delectable dishes as "Prawn Soaking Fish Sauce" and "Sour Soup Skid and Prawn."

Entrees aside, the most interesting detail about the menu was that it had been made from an old communist children's book. On the cover (which now read "MENU" in blue Magic Marker) was a sentimentalized drawing of Lenin, looking beatific and suspiciously Jesus-like, surrounded by adoring children. The pages inside had been torn out and replaced with a laminated menu card that listed prices in Lao kip, Thai baht and U.S. dollars.

Communism is unraveling, it seems, in the dusty corners of Laos.

Halfway through my baguette, I looked up to notice two Americans staring at me from the street. The sandy-haired one, who introduced himself as Chris, held a plastic jug full of cherry-red gasoline. The other one was Robert. He said, "Still interested in going down the Mekong with us?"

I would later discover that half of the Mik Sip crew had turned up sick and couldn't make the trip, but at that moment I didn't even ask why I'd been invited: Within 20 minutes, I had purchased some food and a blanket and was stretched out languorously in the bow of the boat that would eventually take me to the Cambodian border.

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Traveling downriver in a handmade fishing boat makes the Mekong seem so much more immediate and alive. From the bow of the Mik Sip, I noticed details that I had missed on the larger, louder huahoua-leim freight boats: white-bellied birds darting for insects just over the surface of the water; slowly rotting skeletons of huge old riverboats in the shore mud; ashes from slash-and-burn fires fluttering through the air like brittle black feathers; butterflies as big as my hand. Fishermen clung to the rock outcroppings where the channel of the Mekong narrowed to a boil, sweeping the foamy water with their big, V-shaped nets. Lao families panned for gold on the gravel shoals, using a wicker-basket/wooden-pan technique that hasn't changed in 100 years. Dead dogs bobbed -- bug-eyed, bloated and morbidly comical -- in the eddies.

Robert steered us through the channels of the Mekong like he'd being doing it all his life (with Chris spotting pylons with the binoculars, Robert unflinchingly ran a rapid that had swallowed a French gunboat in 1910). Whenever we lost a propeller to rocks or gravel, Robert and Chris would curse, paddle us to shore and have a new one jury-rigged within minutes. Both of these guys would eventually teach me the ways of the river, Mark Twain-style -- Chris with the cantankerous patience of Captain Bixby; Robert with the no-nonsense bluntness of Captain Ahab.

Just after sundown, we stopped for the night at a sandbar. Robert's years of experience on Bristol Bay gave our camp a decided air of competence and efficiency: In the fading light, he managed to pound 20 nails into the gunnels of the Mik Sip, grease the drive shaft, top off the engine oil, build a fire and cook us a dinner consisting of baked potatoes with garlic, coconut-milk vegetable curry, cucumber salad, French bread with cheese, oranges, papayas, Lao whiskey and cowboy coffee.

During dinner, Chris -- a Nevada City carpenter of indeterminate age (I'd thought he was just a few years my senior until he offhandedly mentioned that he'd joined the Navy the year I was born) -- kept us entertained with old road stories, such as the time when his Colorado River rafting guide stripped naked and declared himself God after eating a wild mushroom, or the time he saw a cow tumble 1,000 feet down a Peruvian mountainside.

After we'd finished eating, Robert tuned in his shortwave radio and we listened to Orson Welles' famously constipated rendering of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, which for some reason was playing on the Voice of America. Sitting on the banks of the Mekong in Laos, it sounded creepy and mesmerizing, like a transmission from another galaxy.

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The following day we made it to Vientiane -- a national capital so unassuming and bucolic that, thinking it just another Lao Mekong town, we passed it by accident and had to backtrack seven miles before we finally arrived.

By the time I would leave the Laotian capital, I would be the co-owner of the Mik Sip -- and the primary instigator of a rather foolhardy conspiracy to take the boat down the most notorious rapids on the Laotian Mekong.

By Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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