Writing from an abandon roadside thatch hut – taking shelter from driving rain:
“Well, I guess it wouldn’t be so awesome if it weren’t for all the bullshit!” Ed smiles, picking himself up from a muddy bike wreck. He’s victim to the most recent hazard of the journey: washed out dirt roads from the torrential Southeast Asian monsoon season. So far we’ve been chased by dogs, hospitalized, frozen on mountain passes and baked in the brains by tropical heat. We’ve damaged both camera lenses, lost priceless items and broken useful ones. Second degree burns, wrenching diarrhea, and fights between friends. Its been one of the greatest trips of our lives.
But following a river is a tricky business. And not just because of roads and access. Its tricky because – despite what it might show on a textbook map – a river is not a single linear watercourse. If the Mekong is only the Mekong where its called the “Mekong” – then we have yet to even reach the Mekong – having instead been messing around on the same wterway by different names further north (Dza Chu, Lancang Jiang, Nam Khong, etc…).
So if the name “Mekong” is just an arbitrary linguistic distinction, then how do you define a river? Its a much more confusing question than you might think…
We started our journey following the laughably oversimplified concept that a river is a direct course flowing from the furthest point possible to the sea. But as we started traveling this watery road, a strange thing happened: it got big. Way big. So big that it seemed there was more water flowing in our river from different places than from the original “source”. Is it possible that our river has many sources? Infinate “headwaters”? Could it be that – unlike the single wavy line on our map claims – an aerial view of the Mekong would look like a huge, fibrous root system?
Writing huddled with Akse hill people. Grandmothers with babies strapped to their hips and children soaked through from diving for fish. Their day’s catch is flopping in hand woven baskets. Its not the fear of getting wet that holds us all here: its the awesome, painful force and violence of the rain jack-hammering down on the corrugated tin roof:
Lack of roads and river navigability are constantly leading us away from the Mekong’s main channel. Our bike ride today is one that we’ve had time and time again: following one of the river’s countless tributaries back to the Mother Water. In a few short months we’ve seen icicles melt to trickles, creeks stream to rivulets and channels turn to the raging main artery. And all this – from the tiniest dew drop to the mighty delta – makes up the hydrological wonder we know as the Mekong River.
Its a watershed. Meaning, it is composed of every drop of water draining an enormous chunk of the world’s largest continent. Its the flowing water we follow, but its also the water locked in the landscape.
Water and sunlight. The two things on which all life on Earth depends. And the two things found in explosive abundance in the tropical Mekong drainage.
Here in mountainous northern Laos, life booms rampant. Rich moist soil soaks up into vibrant green foliage seeping from every crack. Towering rainforest canopy and thick vines battling for real estate. Each sucking, drinking, and exhaling back into the water table. Local markets teem with exotic fruits – bright spiny Rambutans and wild free-form dragon fruit. A scaly armadillo fruit gushing sweet sour perfection and dizzying variety of green, yellow and red bananas of every taste and size from baseball bat to pinkie toe. Monkeys and wild elephants hide in the thick, and bright feathers chirp out the full gammot of a child’s ray-gun toy. Loas is filled with life and fueled by water.
Writing from the hull of a wooden cattle boat – pulled up on a remote sandy beach waiting out the storm churning muddy water into an un-navigable froth bouncing out of its banks:
Every drop of water in every piece of life here eventually works its way back into the river’s main channel. Our own piss and shit included.
In everyday Western life, we isolate and detach ourselves from our waste stream. Here – beyond the land of toilets or landfills – this is not the case. People utilize the unmistakable reality of a river system: the things you throw in it will never come back to haunt you. Its nature’s great flush. But unfortunately this attitude ignore the other golden rule of riparian ecosystems: everyone here is upstream from somebody, and downstream from someone else. As the region’s population blossoms and development brings increasingly toxic and non-biodegradable waste, its a major challenge to this ancient balance.
Because this region is inhabited! Even in sparsely populated northern Laos, people are an unmistakably integrated part of this landscape. Like the waters themselves, we’ve seen one culture flow into the next – often oblivious to all but their nearest neighbors – but all connected by this flowing waterway they call home.
People who live here quite literally have Mekong in their veins. The River is water, transportation, laundry, recreation, income, bathroom and waste disposal. Fish and rice – domains of the Dragon.
Writing from a roadside noodle shop. Hot hearty Pho: make-it-your-own style with spicy pickled peppers and fresh mint. The noodle lady’s son dashes in from the rain proudly presenting a flopping snake on a fishing line – the day’s dinner catch.
Ever since Yunnan in Southern China, every culture we’ve encountered has had its own special water rituals and festivals. For the Dai people in the Xishuanbanna region, the Chinese national Dragon Boat Festival didn’t mean a whole lot, but each town and village traditionally holds its own water splashing fest. A strange Han Chinese tourist spot puts a wall around a typically idyllic stilted village and charges admission to camera-laden tourists from Beijing and Shanghai photo-assaulting “China’s Thailand”. Indeed, we’ve heard that Thai can be a better language to know out here than even Mandarin. People and houses look different – and just outside the “Dai Village” walls, the twice-daily “authentic water splash!” ends, the stench of Native-reservation-come-Disneyland clears, and normal life on the river begins again. And so does the rain.
I remember the rainy season in Cambodia. It was regular: most of the season, anyways. Every day it would rain about an hour in the afternoon. You could practically set a watch by it. It was one of the things I fell in love with about Khmer culture. In the West, if there was a daily natural phenomena which entirely shut down everything, news casters would be counting up dollar figures in lost GDP revenue and it would be the number one complaint on every tongue. But in Cambodia everyone gravitates to protected porches, where they smile lazily at one another and stare at the flooding streets. Its a culture which has a word for recreationally sitting on the floor.
In the thick green rubber plantations and forest hills in Laos, the rain is a good deal less regular. But equally as fierce.
The first few drops are big, fat and smack bare skin painfully. At this point, you have a little less than three minutes to find shelter. Because when it comes in earnest, it comes with a fury that will double you over and make it hard to open your eyes. Forget any notions that rain is made up of sovereign, individual drops: these monsoons come in sheets, curtains and blankets. Its nothing like a high-pressure shower, its more like a bathtub poured on your head. You find yourself drowning, swimming in a river from the sky.
Which is great for biking. Or rather, great for not biking – great because sometimes biking becomes a tunnel of focus and attention and you forget that you’re really here to see, meet, experience and interact. The rain forces you to stop, slow down and remember this. Rain is a universal here: universally understood and appreciated. When it starts raining, every house, awning, hut or store is fare game to get inside. Because of these downpours, we’ve ended up munching mangoes with laughing grandmothers on a family porch, doing homework with village teens and messing around with fresh litters of puppies. We’ve helped build a school and played village doctor because of the rain; sipped jasmine tea listening to rain, and smoked big ol’ crazy bamboo bongs. It is an instant invitation to conversation, connection and laughter. Then, as instantly as it started, it passes: and our wheels hit the road with a few more friends in our hearts.
Writing from the back of my BIKE.
Writing from the back of my bike. Water flowing through my hair, sheeting my skin, slathering clothes to my body. Writing from the back of my bike because – no matter how hospitable, how friendly and how kind – sometime there simply isn’t shelter. Sometimes a lonely jungle road turns into a torrential river. Writing from the back of my bike, barely able to open my eyes loosing all sense of direction, water suffocating, cleansing, purifying soaked flesh turning to water – water blurring a green world of lush life, hot sun and steam – Mekong water filling every piece of me every pedal stroke a stroke through the river’s vertical flow – Mekong pouring us along crawling, swimming inch by inch. Mekong under our skin. Mekong under our eyeballs. Mekong under our toe nails. Mekong in our brain circuitry. Mekong from the sky. And yes – Mekong in our blood, too.