Mekong Cruising — a month in Indochina

Mekong Cruising — a month in Indochina

Hey, friend. So here it is, my first entry on this blog. Being written as I sip a Beer Lao, sitting on a bench aboard an old, wooden slow-boat travelling up the mighty Mekong River from Laos into Northern Thailand. From my seat, I see hills teeming with lush green jungle, invariably diving together into the Mekong.

I’ve never seen a river like this. It feels part lifeline, part highway, part mother. It provides water, food, transportation and livelihood to the people of the region, as far north as China and as far south as Cambodia.

And I’ve been following it for close to a month. Magically, my relationship with the river has been the one constant since I landed in Phnom Penh on December 30th, the first day of a ‘who-knows-long’ trip around the Pacific, to explore the world, reflect, recharge — and surf!

On the first morning of my trip (and penultimate day of 2019), I landed in scorching Phnom Penh, jetlagged, exhausted from 20 hours of flight, feeling sweaty and yucky. I couldn’t even get a change of clothes as my rucksack somehow didn’t make the transfer in Taipei (#treasureyourtraveltroubles) and so, half delirious, I went to buy a change of clothes at a local market. I was feeling ungrounded, restless and utterly confused.

That was until I got my ass on a boat cruising the Mekong River at sunset. Alone, in silence, far from the buzz of the city, I found refuge in the tranquil haven of the river, its gentle breeze and rolling waves. It revived me, nourished me.

And so that’s how our relationship started. And now nearly a month later, I’m back on a boat, being gently rocked by the mother again.

My initial plan was to begin my trip in Cambodia to attend the wedding of two of my favourite humans (Luc and Nettra), meet with Rob (a friend and ex-colleague previously CTO at Busuu, also on a break) there, together head to Northern Thailand and then journey to Southern Thailand, chartering a yacht and putting to practice our newly-minted skipper licences.

But first, I spent a couple of days in Phnom Penh, soaking in the youthful (over 50% of the population is less than 30 year-old) and enterprising energy of this city. There I met with Vivaddhana, an old friend from my SciencesPo class now leading the national Brazilian Jiu Jitsu federation and involved in a variety of business ventures, as many bright young Cambodians are. It was touching to see that after 7 years apart, the rivers of our lives had joined again on many aspects (martial arts, entrepreneurship, spirituality) and we now probably felt closer than we ever had. I love when that happens. New Year’s Eve was also celebrated in Phnom Penh and we were kindly hosted by Nettra’s mom, in her Pinterest-perfect house overlooking the Mekong.

Next stop was Siem Reap (or “Destroy Thailand” in Khmer…), where the wedding was happening, a place famous around the world for the grandiose Angkor temples, king amongst them Angkor Wat. I was supposed to join the wedding party on their private bus, but after an indulgent NYE and much jet lag, I overslept (oops) in my hostel container bedroom (pitch black helps) and made my way there on my own.

And what a wedding this was! A day-long Khmer affair, it started at 6 a.m. with several of the groom’s friends (myself included) carrying baskets of offerings to the bride. This was followed by a succession of highly symbolic rituals (bride and groom feeding each other, tying knots, receiving blessings from elders), some delicious lunch, a cocktail back at the Méridien, a Western-style wedding ceremony with vows and speeches, a dinner and a party…phew! It was inspiring to witness tradition expressed in such a meaningful way, and made me long for more ritual in my life. It was also touching to hear the vows from the bride and groom, and made me connect more than ever to the possibility of obtaining freedom through unwavering commitment to another.

Also, I was personally honoured and privileged to be entrusted with MCing the evening ceremony and leading vows from their friends, gathered there to witness and support this union ever after.

Dear Luc, dear Nettra,

Before I give the floor to your parents, I would like to say something on behalf of your friends, who have travelled Cambodia and the world to be with you today.

Too often, successes and failures of couples are placed only on them, but we recognize it’s a community endeavor. And so we too, would like to take some vows with you today.

So everyone, please join in and repeat after me.

As your friends we promise,

To walk by your side,

In your journey of growth and exploration

To hold space when you need,

And listen with compassion

To always support you,

In your loving vows and kind intentions.

Not only was the wedding day unforgettable, Luc and Nettra had kindly put together a whole program of pre- and post-wedding activities. It somehow felt like a Sandbox retreat, getting stuck in deep meaningful conversations while living enriching experiences with so many interesting people from all over the world. Together, we visited the ancient temples of Angkor, toured silk farms (and worms!), watched a modern Khmer circus performance, explored night markets and sampled the finest foods.

I’d also taken a chance on renting a scooter my first day in Siem Reap. While the voice of safety within screamed “you’ll lose a limb if you scoot around in South East Asia”, the voice of freedom shut it up — and I’m happy it did. Zooming around the city and temples with a scooter was the ultimate feeling of freedom, and the risk was calculated. I was too safe back home anyway and one of the deeper purpose of my trip was to tilt the balance back to more freedom and trade it for a bit less safety. Back in the summer, I had realised that most of the choices we make about our life (work, love, passions) can be plotted on a Freedom vs Safety spectrum.

This realisation had me come to the conclusion that I was over-indexing on safety, sacrificing too much freedom and in turn affecting my happiness, flow and creativity. 5 years ago, it was the opposite: before I joined Busuu and arrived in London, I was over-indexing on freedom, but with little to no financial safety and so I had to sort my life out. Quitting my job and embarking on this trip was a way to tilt the balance once again.

Back to the scooter: in the near-absence of traffic signage in Cambodia, you find that there is a strange, subtle harmony within all the apparent chaos. I had noticed that on Day One, fresh from the plane, in the tuk-tuk to my hostel: while there don’t seem to be any road rules with everyone carving their way through, the whole thing is smooth and most interestingly — especially compared to the Western gridlocks of Marseille or Lisbon — absolutely silent. No honks, no shouts. Not even music blasting. Everyone is super aware of what everyone else is doing and it all works out like a big ballet. I like to think that traffic in Cambodia (and future will tell whether this applies to other countries in the region) is like one big organism, similar to a school of fish, where drivers instinctively understand what they can and cannot do. So Rob and I learned the rules pretty fast and soon enough, we were slicing through traffic like locals.

Even after the wedding was over and most people had left, a few stuck around for another round of Cambodia, including sunrise at Angkor, adventurous foods (including snake, tarantula, lizard and scorpio). and day-long scooter trips in the outback to find some ancient temples. Indiana Jones and Lara Croft had nothing on us.

I made some lifelong friends during those days and especially bonded with Shirah, the worldliest person and kindest adventurer I know. Thank you for our time together and good luck for your doctoral defence!

But, there comes a point though when you have to go. I felt it was time when I realised I knew the city well and could navigate it without a map.

So Rob and I proceeded to research the journey to our next stop, Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand. As mentioned previously, the original plan was to head there before travelling down south to Phuket, where our charter yacht was waiting for us to sail it.

But plans change, and while the start and end points have remained, we took a little detour, as you do on such trip. Inviting chance is actually one of my guiding principles for this trip. Oh, I haven’t told you about them yet, have I? Probably one of the best moves I did to prepare this trip was to read Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. I’d had the book on my reading list for years already, since I’d heard author (and all-round life experimenter) Tim Ferris rave about it consistently. Below is my visual summary of the book.

Vagabonding helped me articulate how I wanted to live my own vagabonding journey and I came out with 5 principles:

– Slow Down

– Invite Chance

– Treasure Troubles

– Prevent > Repair

– Mix It Up

Inviting chance, we decided, rather than going straight to Cambodia, to head to the 4000 islands of South Laos after reading online that it “would be a crime to miss out on them”. We also had this romantic idea to buy a motorised, long tail fishing boat and navigate the up the Mekong with it (which turned out to be impractical, if not impossible given the current historically low Mekong water levels).

So, off to Laos.

After a day travelling through Cambodia and a memorable border crossing involving walking through a no-man’s land between the Cambodian side and the Laotian side, we made it to Don Det, “capital” of the 4000 islands.

Surrounded by the Mekong, this small island is only a few kilometers around. In a typical island style, the one word that comes to mind when thinking about Don Det is chill. Laid back locals, hammocks, no cars, waterfalls, reggae, happy shakes, bicycles, magic mushroom shakes and sandy beaches, it’s a backpacker’s paradise. A stark contrast from the bustling, hectic and tourist-packed streets of Siem Reap.

There’s also something about Lao people — only magnified by the island vibes. While their Khmer neighbours are often confident, proud hustlers, Lao people seem more quiet and laid back. You feel this with mainland Lao people, even in bigger cities like Pakse, Vientiane or Luang Prabang.

What were supposed to only be a couple of days in Don Det turned into 5. Why not? We’re not in a hurry and we’re loving the place!

In Don Det, watching a classic Meking sunset with Rob at a riverside bar, I met Elsa, a French entrepreneur travelling around Asia. Destiny’s hand was impossible to ignore in us meeting: as it turned out, we knew each other, even though we didn’t remember how. By an impossible coincidence, she was the one who had inherited my spot in the Babababarrio camp at Nowhere (a Spanish, regional Burn event) when I decided not to go last year! We also shared many dear friends in Paris, and funniest of all, were Facebook friends — though we’d never exchanged messages. How we initially met eludes us to this day. Oh yeah, and she’d also matched with Rob on Tinder the day before. Small world!

We hit it off pretty hard and a steamy romance ensued over the next few days, amidst cycling trips through the island, swimming in the Mekong and river cruises to see dolphins and late night karaokes with a bunch of crazy drunk local teenagers. We even got to play a game of pétanque against a crew of local aficionados, lost without a chance.

The time to move on came again. Elsa had told us about a motorcycle route north of the islands, the famous Pakse Loop which runs through the Bolaven plateau, highlands known for their coffee plantations and picturesque waterfalls. Elsa joined our crew and we were now a trio zooming through the loop on our scooters.

We saw some gigantic waterfalls at Tad Yuan and Tad Lo, and even went swimming under them, setting a trend with other tourists bravely following soon after.

Riding further, we took a chance and turned at Captain Hook’s coffee plantation. The plantation is farmed by a small Kuta community (hill tribe of Lao) in a recluse village where most locals have never ventured past the next town. Inspired by the authentic nature of the village which felt like a time capsule to agrarian times, replete with its roosters, pigs and cows freely roaming around, we elected to spend the night there and taste local hospitality. It did not disappoint as we were invited to share a meal in Captain Hook’s house, where 26 people over 5 generations live! I put aside my vegetarianism and joined in a delicious chicken hotpot (after internally thanking the animals for their meat, of course).

Next morning, Captain Cook took us through his plantation and explained the whole coffee growing and refining process, often sidetracking to give a well-woven world history of coffee (and colonialism). He also showed us a host of traditional plant medicines growing in the wild, and I felt immense respect for the community’s closeness to the earth and their land. We also learned about the many beliefs and traditions of the Kuta tribes (mostly Animistic), some of which definitely struck an uneasy chord of value judgements in our fellow tourists. Don’t know which one won the cultural shock prize though, between children starting to smoke tobacco around 3 year-old or the yearly, village-wide “kicking a puppy to death” ceremony to bring good luck. A valuable and fascinating insight into cultural divide. Others have written about this cultural experience here, so I won’t dwell on it too much.

Back on the road. We had initially planned to rent scooters in Pakse, drive through the Loop and bring them back. But in the spirit of adventure and inviting chance, we decided instead to negotiate return them up north in Thakhek so we could avoid going back and rather, ride across the country. The price to pay for the rental company’s trust was Rob’s passport — at least one of them — which was duly returned in Thakhek.

We drove miles and miles, through pretty good roads, and sometimes pretty bad, dirt ones.

After a full-on day motorbiking over 300 kms in the outback with zero comfort and lots of dust, where locals never see a farang, we made it to Thakhek, back to our tourist bubble and boarded a bus to Luang Prabang in the North.

Luang Prabang really reminds me of Kyoto. A millennial town, previously the seat of an empire, rich in temples, craft and gastronomy. Also, slow, clean, comfortable. After 5 days of intense travelling in the Laotian outback, this was exactly what we needed and so we treated ourselves to gourmet food, spa treatments and temple visits. We even had Galette des Rois (the French influence is felt here).

A very welcome stop before embarking on the next leg of our journey — Luang Prabang to Thailand via slowboat on the Mekong. We also parted ways with Elsa, who stayed there before going East, while we are going West. I know it’s just a goodbye though – we’ll meet again on our respective adventures I’m sure.

The journey is 2 days to Huay Xai, after which we’ll take a bus to Chiang Mai. We’re sharing the boat with both Laotians and tourist, and it feels like a mini-cruise. The boat is big and sturdy, and we get the best views of the river and mountains around it. It is gently rolling on the Mekong — especially compared to the local speedboats, those crazy fast long tail boats which look like a surfboard with an engine strapped at the back and whose captains wear helmets (passengers none). It would have been a fun ride, but I sure couldn’t have been writing all this!

Wow! You’ve made it to the end of this entry 👏🏾

I’ll try not to procrastinate too much to keep this journal updated, but in the meantime you can follow a more visual and up-to-date account of my adventure on insta (@diary_of_a_vagabond).

Tschüss for now!


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