The Mekong River and the Journey So Far Week 8 17th June 2011

It seemed to be a feature of our travels in Australia that at times we followed rivers from source to sea. In some respects we have continued that approach in Asia. Probably difficult to avoid as rivers so much represent the geography and the way in which human development of the land occurs.

A large part of our journey through Cambodia and Laos has been the frequent contact with the Mekong River.

If we hadn't been driving we'd have travelled by boat. Much easier.


Like most long rivers crossing several countries (or states in Aus) the river, and the associated way of life, is under threat from development. There are many dams on the Mekong and tributaries and plans for more dams on the Mekong. A large proportion of the final flow enters from tributaries in Laos and Cambodia.

The Mekong is a little different to other rivers in the region (like the Irrawaddy and the Ganges) in that it has natural rapids that prevent navigation along its full length. The design of boats changes over its length and I guess people get out and walk, carrying things.

It also has the fascination of the seasonal reversing of flow into Tonle Sap. 

We've shown a few photos of bridges over the Mekong. They are recent additions. No doubt trade and development will increase as the recent turbulent past is left behind.

Discussion of the itinerary before we left was limited. The Mekong and the changing cultures has been what Ali planned and which was a surprise to me. Certainly in Phonsavan and Luang Prabang we have begun to see the influence of Chinese from Yunnan.

With only a day's drive to the China border the Mekong is still only 350m above sea level.

Nearing the end of our visit to Laos is perhaps a good time to think about the journey so far. Now that the first few weeks of getting into some sort of routine are over. Now that we aren't so concerned about finding somewhere safe to sleep. Or finding an ATM for money. Now that we can negotiate local markets and restaurants with minimal drama and not go hungry. Now that we can successfully buy diesel. And now that we can regularly fill the water tanks and empty loo and grey water without having minor emergencies.

We've so far travelled through four countries and encountered many more cultures. We've observed local habits. Taken lots of photographs, but never enough of the people. We've travelled through populated plains and less populated hills. Seen wats, temples and mosques in profusion on the plains, but disappear for long stretches in the hills.  We've briefly looked at the history of "Indo China". A time when it was united under the Khmer Empire and times when its been fragmented, colonised and revolutionised. We've seen evidence of unimaginable cruelty and the aftermath of war.

We've also met the most friendly and helpful of people. At times we've imposed upon them. Total strangers disrupting their world. And can't help noticing that people who have very much less material wealth than us are so generous.

Where we anticipated widespread corruption and the need to negotiate our spending carefully we've also been pleasantly confused by simple honesty.

The lack of easily observable wildlife and birds is unusual for us. We are not alone in this but hopefully our powers of observation will improve. Perhaps we should have left more time for trekking, but then there are so many things to see and so little time. 

We've eaten food from kerbside stalls and up-market restaurants. And enjoyed most of it. Only the occasional mistake, like the stewed chicken bones in a bespoke rest area. We've noticed the chilli hot meals we started out with slowly become less spicy until the noodles in Northern Laos taste bland. We've eaten Malay, Moslem, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Cambodian, Lao, and probably some we didn't recognise the origin of. And its varied by region in too many ways to write or even think about from single meals.

We've chosen from menus by guesswork and used sign language and pointing when there isn't a menu. Had a chuckle when the menu arrived with no English. Asked for directions while not being able to pronounce where we want to go to. Then checked, just in case.

Local markets, supermarkets and minimarkets have been explored while trying to decipher indecipherable labels and indentify unidentifiable fruit and veggie. We've experienced the total frustration of trying to buy milk and other basics when we don't know what they are called. And the almost frightening prospect of buying meat when it doesn't look like any meat we've ever seen previously.

We've seen the mammoth welcoming, and recognisable, signs of "Tesco Lotus" in Southern Thailand evaporate in favour of more traditional, and very confusing to us, shopping. Continually adjusting our home cooking as some ingredients disappear and new ones appear. 

Our stomachs are still intact though occasionally reminding us of their presence. We've experienced the smugness of having our own loo with us for those inevitable minor emergencies that we should have expected but which have fortunately been infrequent.

We've survived higher temperatures and humidity than we are normally used to. We've also enjoyed the relief of lower temperatures in the hills. And we've been reminded that we don't have the energy of our youth.

Roads that don't exist on the map have been happily followed while those on the map have been missed because we couldn't read the signs, if indeed they even existed. Travelled major roads that have been unsealed and potholed while finding unexpected freshly sealed roads.

We've taken more photographs than we can possibly recall while filtering out a very few for the blog. Taken photographs of haystacks as they change shape with regions. Photographs of what can be carried on a motorbike. Endless photographs of houses with as many architectural features as we've had hot dinners. Wondered at the variety of dress and many styles of boat.

We are quietly pleased with the outcome of all our planning. Of course there have been hiccoughs, but so far so good. Though we keep wondering if our luck will hold. We really do feel fortunate.

Tardis is holding up well. The solar regulator failure so early was a disappointment but we managed a temporary fix and are close to getting back to normal. The fuel problem with one tank has had us mystified for some time but is now understood with a short term solution and we feel also close to a final resolution. A bit of a relief as it may be important crossing the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.

Driving has been interesting. We realised that most of the commentary on driving in Asia was written by people coming from a Western perspective wondering why the rules weren't followed. A very American approach if I might be so bold. Our approach has been to observe what conventions the locals do follow, then imitate them. So far the traffic volumes have been very low, and speeds equally low. Most traffic is very local with the very occasional longer distance vehicle. Speed limit in built up areas seems to be 30 km/h in Laos. Its very difficult to move faster. We are used to higher speeds when judging how traffic is moving. It will be some time before we are used to moving like snails. The locals are of course very good at it. To make it more complicated of course there are so many different types of vehicles, from bullock carts hand held tractors with trailers, through bicycles and motorbikes, tuk tuks, cars, and trucks of all shapes and sizes.

Thus, contrary to everything we've read there are well understood protocols. Some of which are regional or even specific to one town. Also contrary to expectations there is a degree of caring which means vehicles of all sorts slow to give others space to pull out. Whatever, its very different to the relatively aggressive, higher speed, driving in Brisbane.

Interesting as well is crossing the road. The slow traffic speed means that its easier to walk diagonally, into the flow on the far side. Easier than the shortest distance straight across.

We do expect the driver habits to change as we enter China. Change as the roads and traffic mix change.

Communications has been good. Mobile phone internet every night in Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos. Didn't connect in Thailand but it was only for about 10 days or so.

We are still talking to each other with a few ups and downs when we get tired. It took a bit of adjustment at the beginning of living as nomads in a confined space in unfamiliar countries (as it always will). But we knew that. Not terminal and we'll be able to laugh about it later. At least we can generally agree on this wee summary. We will adjust again as Susanna, our Chinese guide, joins us tomorrow.

We still aren't really quite sure why we are doing this, but driving to Kirsty's wedding in Scotland seemed like a good idea at the time. It still does.

So far we've been rewarded with some of nature's most fascinating work and explored some of (wo)man's. Always with a sense that we are skating over the top of so much and catching only glimpses. We can only hope that our interest is maintained. So far we can definitely say that we haven't had time to be bored.

We hope you are enjoying it also.

First Two Days in China, Mohan to Jint Hont Week 9 18th - 19th June 2011

Al Mon, 20 Jun 11 13:37:58 +1000
Great Blog!, we are enjoying travelling with you on this fantastic voyage. (St Patricks footprints sounds like Peel/Port Erin area on the Isle of Man?), Loved the Plain of Jars photos and story - keep it up.
Allen and Suzanne

Julian Wed, 22 Jun 11 20:39:24 +1000
thanks Al. Yes, St Patricks footprints on the top of the hill between Port Erin and Cregneish. Not too far from the "Druid's Circle".

Kaylea Mon, 11 Jul 11 18:42:31 +1000
This atirlce keeps it real, no doubt.

Sorry, comments closed.