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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Our Boat Journey up the Mighty Mekong

The sun was still rising over Luang Prabang as we piled into two trucks heading for the boat pier, our backpacks strapped to the roof. Fifteen minutes later we arrive at our vessel, which is of similar style to other large Mekong river boats. The boat is long and narrow, with the captain’s helm station at the front. The back section of the boat is a series of many dinettes, a similar setup to the dining car of a train. Behind that is the kitchen and engine room.

At half past seven we powered off the pier and began our two day boat adventure up the Mekong. Everyone being robbed of some sleep with the early wake up began to setup makeshift beds on the dinette benches. However, before we could get some shut eye, large concrete piles emerged on the horizon. Upon closer inspection these were bridge pylons for the Chinese built and funded high speed railroad that shoots through northern Laos on its way to Thailand. This is one of the many Belt and Road initiative infrastructure projects that are being speedily completed in many places around the world. Soon after that it seemed we were all asleep, the Mekong just starting to be bathed in the warm light of the sunrise.

We made our first quick stop at the Pak Ou cave. The cave sits right on the Mekong, with a staircase taking you from the river to the mouth of the cave. The cave is filled with many Buddha statues, only a fraction of which we were able to see. After a quick look around we got back on board. It would take around nine peaceful hours to reach our destination. During that time we traveled through very remote areas, with large lumpy mountains flanking the river consistently. Our boat pushed upstream through the churning power of the downstream current with our captain nimbly avoiding rock outcroppings and fishing nets. We saw many remote villages along the banks, some built in a stair-step fashion down steep mountain slopes. “Slash and burn” agriculture practices were evident with many charred patches of forest and a consistent low altitude haze that hung over the river.

As the sun was setting we arrived at a remote beach encircled completely by mountains and set up camp. We had dinner on the boat before walking to an already blazing campfire on the beach. Jeff brought his guitar and began to sing songs as the rest of the group star gazed and sang along. We then started the process of picking where we wanted to sleep. For some of us it was tents or a sleeping mat on the beach for others it was hammocks, couches or the floor on the boat. Late at night a thunderstorm rumbled by, illuminating the entire river valley for brief milliseconds.

On the second day we set off before the sun had risen, the Mekong’s beauty apparent once again. Another nine hours of wonderful river views was ahead of us. During that time a short stop was made at an Khmu village on the banks of the river. The Khmu people are one of ethnic groups which mainly inhabit the remote mountainous areas of Lao and sections of similar topography in other neighboring countries. The village was built on a steep grade with each bamboo stilted house being farther up the hill than its neighbor. After a quick tour with our guide, we hopped back on. Jeff then began the World Economics Bonanza lesson, in which teams where created and given resources in unequally. In this case our resources were paper and tools for cutting paper, with shapes made out of the paper being assigned values. Frantic trading and bargaining began among the teams with no apparent goal or conclusion. That was because, as Jeff later explained, it was not a game but a bonanza meant to simulate how natural resources are bought and sold on the world stage.

Up until then the duration of our journey up the Mekong had been within Laos but now the Mekong became a borderland with Thailand once again. The sun was getting low in the sky as we pulled into the small border town of Huay Xai. Soon the red orb of the sun would set behind a giant Buddha statue that had been constructed in the Thai hills across the river, marking the completion of our river journey.