Mekong River Paddle - From Muang Thadua to Na Leng

The first time travelling on land with the boat.


This 4 part series of blogs are written by Felix from Germany, who joined me for the adventure down the Mekong River. I have not edited any of the grammar as it portrays his voice better in this form. Thanks Felix!

28 October 2017

We already had informed us a little bit about the damn which awaited us a few kilometers down the river when we were in Luang Prabang. As nobody in Luang Prabang could really tell us how to get around the damn we were actually considering at that time if we should finish our boat project in Luang Prabang. But, we both didn’t want to stop our boat adventure in Luang Prabang and we both were thinking: in Asia everything is possible. That’s exactly what I really appreciate in Asia: If there is a problem people put all effort into it to help you solve the problem. Just, awesome people. So, why should we not get the boat around the damn somehow?

Especially, I was thinking of the great old German movie Fitzcarraldo from the 80s. In that movie Fitzcarraldo (the protagonist) is hauling an enormous river boat across a small mountain with aid from the local Peruvian Indians. He’s doing this because he needs to make a fortune in the rubber business to fulfill his dream of building an opera in the jungle. I was thinking, if they can get a big river boat across a mountain, we can also get our small boat around the damn.

Anyway, as we arrived in Muang Thadua we parked our boat next to two guys who were also in their boat. So, we first made the attempt to ask them (of course with body language again) how to get the boat around the damn. However, the conversation didn’t result in any success. So, we decided that I would go to the village and look for some food and at the same time try to ask some more people how to get the boat around the damn.

A few meters up the road in the village there was a small shop. So, I stopped and asked (body language) for some food and told the man about our problem. He made me understand that there’s no place in the village to get food. Faster as I could think I was on the back of his scooter on the way to a restaurant. I was thinking we would drive just a few meters.

However, it ended up in an about 15 minutes ride. He brought me to a place with two small restaurants, where about 10 men and women had lunch. 
I first ordered some noodle soup for Markus and me and then tried my luck and asked in English if someone could speak English and know how to get around the damn with a small fisher boat.

Indeed, one man could speak pretty good English and he started to discuss with the other people how to get around the damn. Then, he told me that they could organize a small bus for us to transport the boat to another river, namely the Nam Houng river. On that river we could ride back to the Mekong and like that go around the damn.

It sounded pretty reasonable and adventurous to me. Then, he called someone on his mobile phone and said that he arranged a small bus for us and that they would charge us about 20$.

I was stocked that it went so fast and agreed with him. But, I was even more stocked when we drove back on the motorbike to our boat. Exactly, at the same time we approached the boat on the motorbike a small bus appeared in front of us and drove the way down towards our boat.

Indeed, it was the bus which should bring our boat to the other river. The driver of the bus approached the boat with the back of the bus and stopped with only a few meters left to the boat.

So, the first problem was solved. The next problem was: how to get the boat out of the water and in/on the bus. The bus was a classic local bus. This means, the back of the bus is open, on the sides are grids and there is one bench on each side of the bus for the people to sit. On one bench maybe about five people can fit.

We were five men (including Markus and me) and one woman who had to get the boat ready for transportation. First, we loaded our stuff in the back of the bus. Then, the men started to pull the boat towards the back of the bus. It became clear pretty fast that they wanted to put the boat in the back of the bus. Markus and I were looking skeptical as the boat was obviously way longer than the space in the back of the bus. On the one side we were helping them to lift the boat up but at the same time we tried to make them understand that the boat would never fit into the bus.

However, one of the men noticed that they are experts and they knew what they are doing. We still didn’t believe it. It was obvious that the boat was way too long so that not even half of it would fit into the back of the bus. The men didn’t want to listen, so we kept on lifting the boat in the back of the bus.

Of course, the result was: Not even half of the boat fit into the bus and, therefore, the back of the boat (outside the bus) didn’t stay in the air without us holding it. 
As the men accepted that the boat doesn’t fit in the back of the bus, the next plan was to put it on top of the bus. The idea was a bit better. However, I was skeptical if we had enough power to put the boat on top of the bus because the boat was f*** heavy.

First, they tied a rope to the front of the boat and one guy took the rope and put it lengthwise over the bus to the front of the bus. From there he pulled on the boat, while the other 4 of us lifted the boat up the bus. I felt my spine compressing under the weight of the boat when we had it half the way up the bus. And I was already mentally saying goodbye to our bus as I thought we would collapse under the weight and the boat would hit the ground and be destroyed.

However, I don’t know how, but somehow we succeeded to get it on top of the bus. There, the men tied it on the bus. The only thing we forgot to remove was the bamboo stick with the Laos’ flag which was installed on the back of our boat. So, of course, only a few meters after we started to drive with the bus there was an electricity wire across the street which hit the bamboo stick such that it broke and our Laos’ flag fell on the street. I saw the flag lying on the ground in the side mirror of the bus. However, luckily, Markus went on bicycle and was behind us. So, he could save the flag.

The ride in the bus was not really comfortable. The bus was cracking constantly under the weight of the boat. I thought the bus would collapse any second under the weight of the boat and bury me in the bus like a sardine in a can. At that point, I was actually quite jealous on Markus that he didn’t have to be in the bus. 
We rode about 30 minutes in the bus to the Nam Houng river.

Of course, the men had explained to Markus where we wanted to meet him before we started to ride. I was still surprised that Markus arrived only a few minutes after us at the spot we wanted to meet.

From there, we still had to drive a small and tight trail to the river. It was a small dirt trail and it was so tight that we didn’t nearly fit through it. Additionally, the last part of it went down a small hill and at this part the trail was also sloping. When we rode down the small hill I felt the weight shifting towards one side of the bus and the wheels of the other side already slightly lifting up. Especially, with the boat on the bus resulting in a higher center of gravity the bus was way easier to tip over.

Nevertheless, luckily, the bus didn’t tip over. I was impressed how cool the driver stayed while navigating down that small dirt trail. It seemed to me like he’s doing things like this every day. 
When we were down the small hill I got out of the bus. Now, the driver turned the bus and drove backwards to the river. He approached the river really fast. Markus and I were already waving and shouting that he should stop because he was driving way too far backwards. He didn’t react such that both of the back wheels were now deep in the water and in the mud. Jackpot! But, I will talk about that later.

Now we first had to get the boat from the bus. The problem was that now we were only three men to lift the boat down the bus. We already had big problems to lift it up with five men. So, with three men it seemed like a real challenge. Somehow, we managed to get the boat in one piece from the bus. But afterwards I had an abrasion on my shoulder where I kept the weight of the boat and I felt 5 cm smaller than before. Exactly, what my back needs.

Anyway, we were really lucky when we saw our boat lying in the river without having taking any damage. 
Now there was only the problem with the bus left. Of course, the bus couldn’t move because the wheels kept on spinning in the mud. We pushed the bus from the back while the driver tried to accelerate. However, the bus didn’t move. It actually got worse and worse as the wheels buried itself deeper and deeper in the mud. We did some further attempts including trying to put some wood under the wheels to improve the grid.

Further, two more men joined us for help with a small plow with which we tried to pull the bus out of the mud. However, we didn’t have any success. So, after about half an hour we gave up. The driver called someone on his mobile phone who had a bigger vehicle to come to help him.

As it was already about 4pm and a bigger vehicle would come to help him out we decided to leave to reach our next destination Xayaboury during daylight. So, the big adventure down the Nam Houng river started.