Friday, March 18, 2011

Chiang Mai, Thailand, March 8, 2011

For this seasoned traveler, the two day slow boat trip up the Mekong River from Luang Prabang was one of the travel experiences of a lifetime. I’m not sure, in retrospect, why that was so. Was it the stately pace, just about twice as fast as Rasa Manis, with nonstop entertainment on the riverbanks? The remoteness of the scenic mountains? The water buffalo, goats, and elephants drinking and swimming in the river? The bits of human life that appeared along the banks when the sun wasn’t too hot – fishing, harvesting seaweed, bathing? The excitement of going through rapids? Figuring out how the skippers avoided the rocks and shoals?
Was it carrying my pack up and down very long, steep embankments and over narrow gangplanks with the young European backpackers? Watching the liveaboard crew tend their small children and eat their meals with their hands? Imagining how trade was done by women transporting big bags of stuff – cabbages, dishes, shoes-from one river town to another? The prospect that soon, this part of the Mekong may be dammed by the Chinese? The thrill of doing it by myself?
The riverboat journey ended in Huay Xai, Laos, where the Mekong lies in a delta and separates Laos from Thailand, not far from China and Burma (the Golden Triangle). One could not help but be struck by the differences on the Thai side of the river: electric wires, imposing government office buildings, cars buzzing along highways, fields managed for agribusiness, industry, new seawalls, lavish temples, metal roofs. Culturally, the peoples occupying the two sides of the river are virtually the same – but how differently history and politics have treated them.
I spent five days in northern Thailand before flying back to Phuket. I really wanted to see if there was a real Thailand away from “spoiled” Phuket. I have to say I did not find it, but I had a good time looking at temples and lots to buy, visiting the highest mountain in the country, and taking a Thai cooking class.


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