Mekong River, Laos: Mekong River adventures in a Safari Kayak
October 12, 2000
The Mekong, flowing from the frigid Tibetan plateau to an immeasurably vast delta on the South China Sea, is the twelfth longest river in the world and the world’s tenth in terms of volume of water. It is not a navigable whole, much to the chagrin of the French former colonizers of Indochina. Rapids obstruct the river’s course in several places. Of these, the mighty falls in the Sihandon (four thousand islands) region of the Lao Mekong just north of the Cambodian border, Somphamit to the west and the larger and more ferocious Khon Phapheng to the east, are splendidly impressive and would certainly excite interest among the intreped readers of Canoe & Kayak, Whitewater Paddling and similar publications. Unknown to recreational paddlers in the wider world, the mighty Mekong’s immense falls patiently await the attentions of the likes of Shannon Carroll and Doug Ammons.
Both sets of falls offer Class V+ dangers and thrills; the time to attempt either would be in July and August when the Mekong is running full and swift. In January there is more rock than water in evidence and fearless local fisher folk clamber over slickly wet rock surfaces to rig precarious, flimsy but visibly effective fish traps over the tumultuous billows and crashing surf. A brief experience of tubing the comparatively demure Nam Song River at Van Vieng in Laos encouraged me to try tubing the Mekong, Then brown as oxtail soup, full and flowing at a brisk walking pace, in August 1999.
Dire warnings of probable disasters and the menace supposedly posed by electric eels (they are, in fact, both rare and shy) reduced my tube trip to a mere three kilometers, from Mr. Tho’s inexpensive bungalow resort on Don Det to the sturdy old railroad bridge linking Don Det and Don Khon. A light railway was constructed early last century to bypass the falls and make the Mekong a navigable waterway of sorts; it was abandoned in 1945 and the rails are now used for fencing local yards.
Khong Phapheng Falls
For the locals who inhabit the thirty-odd inhabited islands of Siphandon, the Mekong is both larder and highway: every adult, wrinkled crone and toddler can handle a wooden canoe with confidence and adroit skill but tubing was seemingly unknown in Siphandon until then.
Kayak recreational tourism has to be one of the cleanest and nicest form of tourism; we pollute hardly at all. If we spend relatively little, that modest expenditure finds its way into the packets of the lower-middle entrepreneurial class and peasantry of the locality, rather than the metropolitan wealthy who own vast hotels and resorts. Ideally, I would like to see Siphandon become a year-round kayaking resort for responsible kayakers; the local children are well nourished, cheery, self-confident and healthy but they could use some better clothes.
My Innova Safari kayak now lies at Mr. Tho’s ramshackle thatched-hut resort on Don Det; readers of this article are welcome to use it so long as they stay at Mr. Tho’s or have a meal there. Should you feel you need it, written authorization may be had from me by e-mail at email@example.com
From the Chinese truck tube (“Double Coin Brand”) rented from Mr. Pye in Muang Khong to an inflatable kayak is none too great a step. Then a resident of Osaka in Japan, I ordered an Innova Safari kayak to be sent to Mr. Pon’s guest house at Muang Khong on the island of Don Khong ( Don means island in Lao, as Ko does in Thai and -shima in Japanese) from the Innova distributors in the U.S.A. (www.innovakayak.com). The Innova, made by the painstaking Bohemians of Gumotex in the Czech Republic, proved to be everything the American distributor claimed; it is tough, buoyant, comfortable and light enough to haul around and carry with ease.
The morning of the kayak’s inflation drew a crowd of onlookers and eager participants; the kayak’s rightful owner was brusquely elbowed aside while every available man and youth in the village tried the Innova experience, to be followed by Mr. Pon’s serving girls – almost certainly his second or third cousins, for everyone in Siphandon seems to be related to everyone else. Squealing with glee, the two waitresses crossed the navigation channel to Hat Xai Khun, accepted the plaudits of all onlookers and returned aglow with triumph.
In January the Mekong is low and sluggish, a mere shadow of its mighty self in July and August. Still, I had not been in any kind of kayak or canoe in moving water for over two decades and the 22 kilometer passage from Muang Khong to the old railroad bridge at Ban Khon was a languid delight of six hours, enlivened by numerous stretches of Class I whitewater, rather fewer stretches of Class II and one lamentably brief stretch of Class III.
Every village on Don Som and the other islands passed contributed a host of enthusiastic, if bemused, onlookers; a simple kayak journey had the improbable air of a royal progress, like the young Elizabeth Tudor being rowed on the Thames. A bright red inflatable kayak had never been seen before in Siphandon. Being now neither young (alas) nor unduly given to strenuous endeavors I was content to return from Ban Khon to Muang Khong with the light Innova by powered launch (an informal waterbus service makes the journey several times a day) and then to return with the current. A muscular and enthusiastic young American set an interesting precedent by taking the Innova, in the unaccustomed role of a cargo vessel, thrice from Mr. Thos on Don Det to Ban Nakasong on the eastern Mekong shore to bring back crates of Beer Lao on the grounds that Beer Lao was to be had cheaper at Ban Nakasong; this entailed strenuous and unceasing paddling against the Mekong current, a fairly demanding feat.
A glance at a detailed map of Siphandon suggested possibilities beyond unswerving adherence to the main channel, that had been delineated by navigation markers in the French period. Bearing to the west of Don Som takes one into quiet water frequented only by local fishers, local delivery boats and occasional waterborne commuters (grannies, aunties, tiny children and piglets).
I regret not having taken the westernmost channel from Muang Saen on Don Khong through the maze of islands to Don Xang and thence to Don Det; there simply wasn’t enough time. It shall be done by other outsiders, if not by me.
There is a drawback to exploring the more minor channels of the Mekong when the water is low and sluggish. In January such channels are often blocked by green water weed in dense mats like the thick white polystyrene used for encasing computers and refrigerators. An hour or so spent struggling out of this heavy, clogging and impeding stuff can upset the best laid plans; I was overtaken by nightfall in a baffling maze of bushes and islands west of Don Det. Forward progress in the starlight appeared impracticable, a night spent in the Innova would have offered a midnight feast for every mosquito in Siphandon and invited agonizingly stiff joints the next day. While pondering these uninviting alternatives, your chronicler was cheered to observe a bonfire flare up a mere hundred or two meters away. After forty minutes of struggling with the mats of weed, I bumped into a moored canoe, struggled up the riverbank leading to a small community on Don Puey. Let it suffice to say that the civil and hospitable people in this insular hamlet, Don Puey being an island with maybe 25 families, offered the forlorn wayfarer a change of clothes, a hot meal and a bed with a mosquito net. A payment of approximately $4.00 was readily accepted (costs in Laos are low, except for the visa and the expenses incurred in getting there in the first place. My spouse complained bitterly that on occasion I was spending over $20.00 in a single day!).
Now, let me offer suggestions: go to Laos in July and/ or August. The truly adventurous could try doing the falls mentioned above. Those with more time but less enthusiasm might consider a kayak/canoe trip from Luang Nam Tha down the Nam Tha River to its confluence with the Mekong and a journey downstream to Siphandon. Whether a kayak journey from, say, Jinghong in China to the river’s mouth in Vietnam is politically possible is necessarily open to question. Sooner or later someone will do it; why not you, dear reader?
Professor of English
Yosu National University – Korea