By Watt Miller
Editor’s Note: We are happy to present an exciting series of six stories of two Johnson City natives who traveled to Southeast Asia this past January returning safe and healthy before the pandemic struck. Each week make the journey with them through four countries and off the beaten path as Watt researches Asian customs and history for his next novel.
It could be from the pages of a John Le Carre novel – an overnight train traveling through the darkness of northern Thailand.
But instead, this is the real-life story of two aging baby boomers on the beginning of an adventure of a lifetime.
I planned this month-long escapade to conduct research for a sequel to my novel Dreams of Cherry Blossoms published last year. I was a foreign correspondent in Asia for 11 years. Joining me was Johnson City resident Duke Hall, who served in the 1st Marine Division during the Vietnam War.
Our main destinations were Laos and Cambodia. Always looking for adventure, we planned an unconventional means of transportation – a two-day trip on the Mekong River.
An hour or so after our train pulled out of Bangkok station, an attendant came to our cabin with a menu. Duke ordered fried rice with pork and I selected stir-fried vegetables with steamed rice. We also ordered breakfast for the following morning: toast and coffee.
I woke up around three o’clock in the morning and went out to the corridor. Looking out the window I could tell by the light of a full moon we had gained in elevation and where now in the mountains. I continued to gaze out the window unaware of the time. The moon shadows and wispy fog created an eerie feeling. I was alone in the corridor and the only sound was the clacking noise of the train’s wheels on the rails.
We woke up around six or so. What we desperately needed was coffee. By six-thirty still no coffee. Duke decided to reconnoiter and shortly reported that the coffee lady was on her way. The coffee wasn’t anything to write home about but we were in no position to complain.
As scheduled, our train pulled into the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. We took a taxi to our guesthouse, Chill Woods House, which I found on Air B&B. The owner, Prawade, greeted us as we got out of the taxi. Very pleasant and welcoming, he showed us to our two rooms located off to the side of the main buildings. Prawade was an excellent host and terrific cook of traditional Thai dishes.
Chiang Mai was founded in the thirteenth century and vestiges of its past glory as the capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom are evident today from the ruins of the city wall and canals and moats.
There’s much to do and see in Chiang Mai but for us it was merely a brief stop en route to the Mekong River.
The next day we hired a car and driver for the four-hour trip to the ancient city of Chiang Rai. It also was established in the thirteenth century. The Kok River, a tributary of the Mekong, runs through the town.
When we checked into the Baan Warabordee Hotel we asked if the room rate included breakfast. An assistant manager responded with a broad smile, “Breakfast is not included but it’s free.” We laughed about that for days.
Early the following day before sunrise a driver in a van with a woman riding shotgun we assumed was his wife met us at our guesthouse at 6:30 for the four-hour drive to Chiang Khong which is where we began an amazing two-day boat journey down the Mekong River.
But what he really wanted us to know is this:
First, we crossed the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong from Thailand to Laos. Meeting us at the immigration center was our English-speaking river boat guide, Sommay Sumalin, a young man of many talents who did a fantastic job of answering our many questions and explaining our itinerary for the next two days.
“I’m getting married later this year,” he proudly told us. “And I want to have many children.”
Sommay is from northern Laos close to the border with China and also speaks Mandarin Chinese which he uses frequently with the increasing number of Chinese tourists who sign on for a river cruise.
In addition to us there were some 20 other passengers, including other Americans and Europeans. Our wooden, shallow draft vessel was about 50 feet to 60 feet long and eight feet or so wide. A wooden canopy ran the length of the boat but the sides were open, providing clear views of the river.
The atmosphere on board was friendly and laid-back. There was plenty of room, allowing us to mingle or spend time to ourselves enjoying the beautiful passing scenery of sandy river banks framed by forests and soaring rugged mountains.
At 2,700 miles, the Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia. It originates in China and borders or flows through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam where it finally empties into the South China Sea.
A scrumptious buffet lunch of numerous Lao dishes was served both days we were on the river. Our selections included fried rice with mixed vegetables, chicken or pork; fish, beef or pork flavored with fish sauce, lime juice, rice and fresh herbs; and green papaya salad made from shredded unripe papaya, garlic, shrimp paste, fish sauce, tomatoes, long beans, eggplant.
The captain was the owner of the boat and his wife served as chef, preparing all the food in a kitchen at the stern. She was assisted by her three young sons. They made sure there was always a full bowl of fresh fruit, coffee, tea, soft drinks and the local brew, Beer Lao.
During our voyage we saw some villagers at the edge of the river bank panning for gold and others in narrow canoes fishing. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world and that was starkly evident when we made a stop midafternoon.
As our boat docked at river’s edge, young children scampered down a steep, zigzagging trail to greet us, a routine that occurs almost daily during the dry, tourist season. They all had something to sell: tiny caged birds, small rocks painted with Buddhist images, earrings made from river stones, bottle caps and scrap metal among other trinkets. I later read that once the birds are released, which is supposed to bring good luck, they fly back to the owners.
These kids belong to the Khmu hill tribe, an indigenous group inhabiting Southeast Asia for centuries. Over 500,000 live in northern Laos. Most are very poor and traditionally scratched out a living by slash-and-burn farming.
After climbing up the steep embankment, we reached the Khmu hamlet consisting of rough-hewn dwellings with thatched roofs and some on stilts. I walked further up the hill to a one-room school house that looked unstable. Despite lacking basic supplies, the teachers do the best they can to educate the children.
Villagers live on what they can grow, wild game and fishing. There is no electricity and toilets are a hole in the ground. Our guide told us they also depend on what little money they make off tourists.
At the end of our first day, we stopped at the riverside town of Pakbeng. Its main function appeared to be accommodating river boat passengers. I had booked a room at the DP Guesthouse. Our guide had arranged local young men to haul our luggage up the hill to the main street and deposit them at our guesthouse. The room was comfortable with two double beds and bathroom with shower. A balcony provided an excellent view of the Mekong.
We were back on the Mekong early the next morning and quickly settled into the onboard routine of enjoying the passing river scenes, chatting with fellow passengers or reading.
After another lunch of delicious Lao food, we made the first of two stops. Our boat docked at the base of towering limestone cliffs with two massive caves containing thousands of statues of Buddha. You reach the entrance by a white zigzagging staircase. The climb isn’t for the fainthearted. Once inside, close up views reveal that many of the statues are missing hands or have chipped faces or list to the side. Some have been replaced by newer statues.
Our next stop before our final destination was a community known as the Whiskey Village because of its production of a rice brew famous throughout Laos. Lao Lao whiskey, as I can attest, carries a big kick! Numerous local handicrafts were also for sale.
Our memorable river journey came to an end when we arrived at Luang Prabang, Laos.
The ending also marked the beginning of the most exciting and important aspect of our Grand Journey – seeking out several of the strategic sites used by the CIA during the American “secret war” in Laos in the 1960s.