Two days on the mighty Mekong River– from Luong Prabong to Huay Xai and a video game partnership with a monk

From Luong Prabong there are several options to get to Huay Xai, the Laos town that borders northern Thailand.  One can take a bus, a speed boat or slow boat along the Mekong River.  I’d had enough of buses over the last several weeks so my choices were slow boat or speed boat along the Mekong.

The slow boat option would allow me to enjoy two 8-10 hour days going upstream on the Mekong with a one night layover in Pak Beng, Laos.  In contrast, the speed boat option could make the entire trip in six hours but it would require me to wear a helmet and earplugs the entire trip – the engine of the fast boat is deafening and the boat goes so fast that if we hit an unseen log or piece of debris, or if we simply hit a wave wrong, the boat would flip and send me flying.  Hundreds die or get injured each year on these speed boats along the Mekong.  With this in mind I decided to play it safe and take the slow boat – it was a good decision.

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Ben had decided to go home a little early so after our last night together in Luong Prabong I made my way to the boat dock along the Mekong the next morning and bought a slow boat ticket to Pak Beng.  The boat crawled along at about 10-15 km per hour but the pace was nice and relaxing – the views weren’t too bad either.

The boat had a variety of passengers – old and young backpackers, locals, and even a monk.

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There were lots of interesting things to observe along the way.  Trees with intricate root systems dotted the shoreline.

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Herds of seemingly wild cattle grazed along the sandy beaches.

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Carved stone markers jutted up from the water and provided guidance to our captain on how to avoid the shallow areas.

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Packs and sacks of grain were packed at the front of the boat – supplies that some of the local passengers would be bringing to their riverside villages.

The boat made many stops at riverside villages along the way.  The local villagers would sit on the sandy beach and await the boat’s arrival, which would bring supplies and arriving family members.

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Near one of the riverside villages the local children use the Mekong as their neighborhood swimming pool, swim suits optional.

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It was at this village that the monk made his stop.

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Further on down the river a line of colorful fishing boats were parked, poles at the ready.

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Like our ride to Muang Ngoi Neua some parts of the ride were quite choppy but we always made it through without problem.

The engine of our boat was powerful and exposed for easy access.

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It had a loud roar but it was not as loud as the engines of the speed boats we heard fly by.

The bathroom on the boat was almost constantly flooded and I sensed some trademark infringement on the bathroom coathanger.

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I will be contacting Hello Kitty and notifying them of their potential claim

After about nine hours the boat arrived at Pak Beng.  Pak Beng is the halfway point between Luong Prabong and Huay Xai. Its economy is almost wholly based on passengers of slow boats going to and from Luong Prabong who need to stop and stay at a guesthouse for the night.

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The town has one ATM and one street which climbs to the top of a hill where the town’s temple sits.

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Despite the town’s small size there were monks busy praying and chanting in the temple.

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Before gearing up for an early bedtime I watched the sun set over the Mekong from the town’s temple.

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The next morning many of the same passengers from the day before and I boarded another slow boat, this one bound for Huay Xai. Huay Xai is a Laos town that borders northern Thailand and the “Golden Triangle”, an area where the opium trade use to thrive in SE Asia.

Like the day before it was enjoyable simply to observe the passing shoreline.  Early in the morning we observed a group of monks washing their Saffron spice orange robes by the river.

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A new pair of monks, one young and one old, had boarded our boat for the ride.  I think these two were the same monks I had seen praying in the temple the night before.

I ended up sharing an interesting experience with the younger of the two monks.  Between intermittently writing a blog post and taking pictures of passing sites on the shoreline I decided to take a break by playing “Limbo” on my netbook.   Limbo is an indie two-dimensional platform puzzle game where you control a small young boy and guide him through treacherous traps that block his way out of some sort of purgatory or “limbo”-esque landscape.

There are numerous ways to die in Limbo – massive spinning saw blades, shadowy monsters, and pits that you can fall into like in the Mario games.  Part of figuring out how to get around these traps and thereby solving the game’s puzzles necessarily requires dying multiple times within the traps themselves. You can’t know how to beat the trap until its beaten you at least 2-3 times.

After I had been playing Limbo for about 15 minutes the younger monk who had been sitting across from me started to take notice.  Eventually he was standing in the aisle of the boat so he could look over my shoulder and observe the gameplay in more detail.

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After asking permission, the young monk let me take a picture with him. The older monk, most likely a mentor of some sort to the younger monk, can be seen peeking from behind.

Within minutes this young monk, who had been silent and somber for the first four hours of the ride, was giggling like a little schoolgirl.  Every time I would fail to make a jump, get sawed in half, or get devoured by a waiting monster, the monk would burst out in laughter – he was truly getting a kick out of my failure.

But at the same time he was rooting for me.  He would observe me come to new puzzles, fail the first four attempts, and along with me he would slowly figure out the steps I would need to tackle the puzzle and advance in the game.  When I would finally beat the puzzle and advance he would let out a mini-cheer.  At one point after I had gotten past one of the most difficult puzzles after several failures I turned around and we gave each other a high five.  It is possible that he had never exchanged a high five with someone before but at the time he definitely knew what it meant – “Success!”

This isolated instance of the monk watching me play my video game, and sharing in my success and my failure, gave me a small glimpse into what is becoming an acceptable secular aspect of monks’ lives in SE Asia.  Like it or not it is 2012 and we are in a technologically age that is evolving rapidly.  To completely refrain from utilizing modern technologies’ benefits would be difficult, if not impossible, for monks, particularly younger monks.  I saw monks all over SE Asia smoking cigarettes, sending texts on cell phones, and doing lots of other things that none of us would ever associate with the religious choice to become a monk.  The one thing that remains constant and will remain constant is the orange robe.  Even if 20 years from now monks all have the new iPhone 25, I believe that they will still don the signature orange robes.

I knew the boat was getting closer to Huay Xai when we started passing large infrastructure.  All the rivers and rolling mountains in Laos have historically made road construction and transport difficult and less effective than boat transport, such as the slow boat I was taking.

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But as technology advances Laos is building more roads and bridges so boat transport will become less of a necessity, though after my two days on the Mekong I hope they never completely abandon it.

The second long day on the slow boat came to an end as the sun started to set.

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Within 20 minutes it was hidden but the sky still glowed.

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That night I grabbed dinner with dinner with a couple Germans and a couple boys from the US who had both been living abroad for several years – lucky guys.

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The next morning was misty and I boarded my final Laos boat ride to cross the Mekong into Chiang Khong, Thailand to begin the final leg of my journey.

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