Update 6: 6th July 2003

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Mekong map        Akha tribeswomenAkha tribeswomen

After two drizzly days in the sleepy Thai port of Chiang Saen, I finally got a lift on the Xishuangbanna Jinshui Company’s Vessel No 3, bound for China and Jinghong. Loading was done the old-fashioned way – from hand to hand, over many hours – and duly laden with several tons of flour, rice, energy drinks, lobster paste and (would you believe) instant noodles, we left on 2nd July under a stunning blue sky.

Travelling in the rainy season certainly has its advantages. My scorching experiences of April are a thing of the past; the days now are warm, breezy and moist, and most afternoons the sun forces its way through the clouds in a blaze of splendour. It’s been fascinating to travel on the Mekong in both dry and rainy seasons, and one thing I can definitely say is that the river doesn’t look right when low. Like a depleted reservoir, its skeleton is exposed. Much better to see it in full flow.

At the last moment I gained a fellow-passenger – a saffron-robed novice Thai monk, who shared my cabin for the first two nights, then disembarked mysteriously at an isolated jetty on the Burmese bank. Like the crew, he spoke no English, so although we talked a lot neither of us had the faintest idea what the other was saying.

We spent the first night moored to the Lao bank, and at the first hint of daybreak the engines roared into life. Too early for me: I rolled over in my bunk and went back to sleep. At about 9am I was rudely awoken by a great commotion. The crew were running about wildly, yelling as only Chinese lungs can. Three of them had stripped off and donned lifejackets. We must be sinking! But we didn’t seem to have hit anything, and the engines were humming healthily. Eventually all became clear. The first mate had spotted a wild pig on a rock in midstream. With considerable daring the captain nosed the vessel through choppy waters up against the rock. The crew jumped ashore brandishing clubs. The pig tried to swim to safety but the men leaped into the water after it, and soon both men and pig were racing away on the current. At the last moment a line was thrown from the ship and all were saved. The pig didn’t seem grateful, squealing and biting, but at last they subdued it and tied it to a rail. Needless to say, our supper that night was pork.

Most of the next day we spent moored on the Burmese side while an army of locals emptied the forward holds into waiting lorries. An officious little man announced himself as the port inspector, which I thought rather grandiose as the port was just a hut and a jetty. Akha tribeswomen came and went, the medallions in their headgear flashing silver in the sunshine. The ship’s cook did some trading with them. At 4pm we finally left this romantic spot, and next morning I was stamped into China.

On the bridge later that day, the captain suddenly grabbed my arm and yelled “Monkey!” A bit cheeky, I thought – but then he pointed to the forested riverbank where sure enough a couple of young monkeys were playing in a tree. He sounded his klaxon and the whole family leaped into sight, screeching at us as they swung gracefully from branch to branch up the hillside. I remembered that monkey liver is a Yunnan delicacy, and made a mental note to steer clear of it.

Late in the afternoon we emerged into a broad emerald-green plain and the city of Jinghong appeared on the skyline. A thrilling moment. As capital of Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture Jinghong is home to tens of thousands of Dai people, cousins of the Akha and Thai Lu hilltribes that I’d left behind in Laos. I looked forward to being back among those infectious smiling faces again.

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