Bamboo Blue: Jerome's Mekong
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Bamboo Blue: Jerome's Mekong (Feb 2019)
Entering Laos, every voice said, "You must do the slowboat ride on the Mekong River," but my new travel-mate Jerome said, "Kyle, we are not doing the slow boat. It's all drunk tourists and moves too fast." Looking back at Jerome with curiosity, I watched him spend the next several days drawing up blueprints to build a raft out of bamboo for us to float down the Mekong River. While I had very little confidence he could pull this mission off, I would've been right beside him if he actually did it.
On our final day in Pakbeng, Laos, we went on a hunt to buy bamboo from locals, but instead found ourselves buying a fishing boat. Several people expressed concern that the Mighty Mekong River was too dangerous for two western-world individuals to paddle down, but Jerome had a dream with a vision. I could never take that away from someone.
We had three stipulations; Jerome wanted bamboo build on all four sides to act as a raft if the river became too active, I wanted life jackets, seats, and paddles built, and we agreed on $100 as our limit of what we'd spend. When my Hive Bar local friend told me the boat-seller wanted 900,000 Lao kip for the boat, our jaws dropped when the currency app checked that to be $99 USD. The men spent their day working on our boat and we went shopping for 8 days on the Mekong River.
We bought plastic to keep our backpacks covered, plenty of fruit, noodles, crackers, and eggs, a hatchet, and a Lao national flag to hang on the front of our boat while we paddled through the country. Our first day was rough as the river around Pakbeng didn't flow too heavily so we learned our teamwork paddling techniques. About four miles down river, we saw a beautiful beach full of firewood which would ultimately become our home for the night. We didn't get very far on day one. It's not very clear the distance of our entire journey, but the most accurate estimate I found was roughly 65 miles/105 kilometres.
Jerome had a tent for his hitch-hiking journey while I had a cooking stove. We met in Fang, Thailand at a night market, being the only two people not from Thailand. It turned out we both had to leave the country on the exact same day. We decided to try hitching together, which neither of us had ever done with another person. It began horribly with no rides picking us up, but turned into the funniest hitching day either of us ever had, a comical border crossing into Laos, and a partnership that quickly grew into a brotherhood.
During our seven days on the Mekong, we docked our boat to enter any village that we passed. We walked into their reality, drawing loads of attention from students in their school classrooms, men working (which we loved to help), and women wanting to cook us noodles. Even the chickens, dogs, and cows couldn't understand why two 'white men' were entering their village with big smiles on their faces. We bought BeerLao, more eggs, and filled water before continuing on our way down the river. It was night two that we had our most intense moment when I woke up at 3:00 AM to see Jerome sitting up in the tent. Assuming he was cold, he gave me a look as to say, "Be quiet." Once I heard the rustling in the trees behind our tent, I understood. Without making a sound, we looked through the tent window to see the largest furry creature I'd ever seen in my life sniffing our backpacks. Visualize a very large elephant and then add more bulk. The bull-like creature snooted and snorted at our bags before looking over at us as if to say, "Lay back down." Jerome and I both froze, lying on our backs, eliminating our breath for the remainder of this experience. The beast walked over to the back of the tent where we could smell it just inches from our heads. We were so still we couldn't even panic while it sniffed and even touched us. Luckily it didn't step on the tent or we'd be smashed, but instead it continued on its journey down the sandy hill as we watched it walk away. We let out a sigh of relief, breathing all the heavy breaths we'd been holding in.
During the rest of our journey, we experienced sunshine, river swims, an abundance of tame wildlife, a world of children screaming hello as we paddled by their village, and an adventure unlike any other on the Mekong River. We reached rough, rocky waters at one point, igniting the first fear I'd seen in Jerome's eyes. We hailed down a motor boat fisherman to ask for advice, but without language, we managed to tie our boat to his for him to hitch us around the rocky section. Jerome and I continuously laughed that we were able to catch a boat-hitch on the Mekong River, a first I'm sure.
Reaching Luang Prabang was a sad reality when civilization norms took over once again. We'd see airplanes, tourist boats, and a whole bunch of people taking away from the silence that we were so grateful to have for the last 8 days. There has never been an adventure in my life quite like 'The Adventures of J & K, featuring Bamboo Blue!'