Chuck Hillig's Travel Blog

Well, I'm going to be doing a lot of traveling over the next 6-7 months so I thought that I'd better re-activate my travel blog. The last time I posted anything here was way back in 2006 when I was traveling through SE Asia. Feel free to read my entries back then about my earlier adventures through India,Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines and Hong Kong. This time (at least for the next six weeks), I'll be traveling through Greece and Turkey.

Monday, May 01, 2006

In northern Thailand...

The 2-day boat trip up the Mekong River was stunningly beautiful. Although the boat as about 100 feet long, there were only five passengers: Phillip and Elizabeth (who live and work in Tokyo) and Tom and Barbara (who live full-time in Chiang Mai....a town in northern Thailand that I'll be visiting in a few days. The boat that I took upriver from Luang Prabang went through some fairly remote areas, and, at times, we only saw a few very small villages every hour or so. The rest of the time, the mountains and the unpenetrable Laotian jungle right came down to the river. During the monsoons, (which are coming fairly soon) the river is at least 25 feet higher than it is right now. Since most of the people who live along the river are fisherman, it's really impossible to overstate the importance of this river to the life of these villages. When the Mekong is low (as it is now) the locals are able to position nets on bamboo poles and fix them to the exposed craggy rocks. They're trying to catch these huge catfish that are swimming upstream to spawn in the north. Some of these fish are more than 12 feet in length and, because they're so highly valued, catching one can bring instant wealth to the successful fisherman. The crew of seven served us excellent food on the boat and were quite attentive. The five western passengers spent the hours chatting, reading or even perching ourselves on the bow of the boat and, seemingly, flying over the water like the "King of the World." Quite magical...especially with my iPod adding a new dimension to the experience. In the afternnoon, however, we encounted some rain showers that, I suspect, had been kicked up by Cyclone Mala...a Category-4 hurricane that was slowly moving up the Bay of Bengal towards Mynamar (Burma) to the west of us. When we reached the halfway point on Saturday night, we pulled in for the night and had dinner at an incredibly beautiful lodge perched high on the mountainside overlooking the Mekong. We each had private bungalows and were directed to be sure to sleep under the mosquito netting that was hanging above the bed. This area, the host explained, had many mosquitoes that carried the malaria virus. Indeed, the insect life that showed up after the night descended upon us was something out of a science-fiction movie. Lots of creepy-crawlies all over the place. After some enlightening conversations, all of us happily retreated behind our mosquito netting until the morning. Because the water in the river had dropped so much, however, we had to transfer our stuff to a smaller boat in the morning in order to continue to our final destination. The Mekong is filled with amazingly strange currents that appear to upwell from beneath the muddy surface and which create eddies and whirlpools. Every so often, the the captain had to maneuver the boat through narrow, white-water passages between jagged rocks which were not more than 10 feet from the sides of the boat. Very cool, indeed. In the last hour, the staff told us that Thailand was now on the left side of the river and Lao was on the right. When we finally arrived, we had to, naturally, pull into the Laotian side first to go through immigration. Happily, they didn't charge us an exit fee like they do in Cambodia and Vietnam. After we all got through, we jumped into a small boat to cross the Mekong for a last time to go through immigration in Thailand where we were all given 30-day visas. Tom and Barbara got a ride to their home in Chiang Mai while Philip, Elizabeth and I spent the night at the Bamboo Riverside Hotel....a very laid-back Guest house in Chiang Khong with a commanding view of the river and of the Laotian town on the opposite bank. After a great conversation about life and its meaning that evening, we called it a day. Monday, May 1st is a legal holiday here and so a lot of businesses are closed. However, the buses were running, and I caught one over to Chiang Rai (not to be confused with Chiang Mai). I plan to stay here for a few days and then to get a bus down to Chiang Mai to, possibly, hook up again with Tom and Barbara. Now that I'm in Thailand, I'll have to get used to traffic driving on the left again. (As you may remember, they drive on the right over in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.) Meanwhile, the exchange rate over here is one US dollar to about 38 Thai Baht. More later...

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