Skinny boats

The wooden boat we are in is long, probably three metres, and thin. Its sides rise up to my shoulders – but that’s because I’m sitting on the floor of it, knees pulled up to my chest, room for one other person beside me. I’m at the back, and two others are fitted in front of us split by a piece of wooden framing before the pile of packs which are covered in black plastic bags (the students amongst us) or water resistant covers (PhD’s with money, who’ve made this trip before). We wear old motorbike helmets, tied under our chins and visors down in anticipation of the spray. Between by knees and face I balance my small day pack, careful not to lose it to the river, holding a book, camera, snacks, and other more practical things. The book is extremely ambitious, bought a few days earlier and so far unread as our journeys has consisted of a collective of bumpy vehicles propelled by some kind of unreliable machinery, or pulled by animals.


There is a group of us, enough to fill four of these boats, and a driver at the back of each, pushed up against the last two in the boat, holding on with one hand (though he looks so comfortable I suspect he doesn’t need to). His other hand rests on the throttle, a piece of wood attached to an outboard motor – scavenged from an old lawn mower. The violent noise interrupts the Me Kong rivers slow trawl south as we ride it North, to the jungle in Laos. It rains. The Me Kong sprays our faces with its dark orange wetness and the damp of my left arm, close to the water, slowly spreads across my chest and I enjoy the feeling of being allowed to be completely wet and dirty without inviting contempt.

Rapids flow in little peaks over rocks under the murky water, invisible to us as we zig zag them, a little worry about the rain and the river swelling. Time is constant, unkempt, the river guiding movement, guiding the people on its banks, and everything seems to whirr.

The girl seated next to me yells above the sound of the outboard motor, hope it doesn’t rain the whole way. But mostly we’re alone in our rectangles, each of us looking out at the wide river as we wind through steep cliffs and dirty sand beaches with jungles running off them. The river is a slow avalanche and we ride up it, eight hours of it, knees to chest, backs against the wood. The driver’s shirt flaps against my helmet. Half way along we break at a small hut on the river for Bai Lieng (fried rice – a recent staple of our diet).

Bugs on their journey caught in gusts stick to the wet of my helmet, and it’s no small miracle that we’re still zipping upstream. Occasionally I watch a fish jump skywards, silver turning dirt orange as it continues to swim.

The boat drivers, touching the water daily, learning the life-sustaining river’s bends, have an economic dedication. People in wooden huts buoyed up with straw and plastic drums live atop the river further south, floating towns on the water with cages of crocodiles and submerged containers of cramped fish – foreign amusement. The river has created an ecosystem of people above its aquatic community. Men fish and children swim naked while babies sleep in hammocks strung above broken timber slats that show through to the water a few feet below. The river is a trans-boundary snake intersecting Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia.

The wind increases and the boat picks up speed to compensate, revving hard against small swells that propel the boat in a jump forward before nosing the next one. The sameness of the colours is comforting, slabs of dark grey sky broken by green jungle and rock. Around us, noises of foreign insects, felt things, cracks in the clouds letting the light stream out above the jungle. Our senses that were not long ago surprised by the unfamiliar have become comfortable in the slap of the boat on rough water.

A car or plane doesn’t give you the slowness of a two-stroke motor on the Me Kong, the submergence into a foreign space. Smooth travel doesn’t catch in your throat and jerk like the outboard motor spitting petrol and water. The art of travel – to be lost from time – achieved in wet solicitude with flying fish.

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