Steaming Down the Mekong


"I particularly prized these long stops.
Although I had no cooking pots to wash, I enjoyed a chance to bathe (in the
river, Laotian way), buy some fruit, and chat with the locals in mi-French,
mi-Laotian. It also gave me time to explore the villages, always welcoming to a
stranger. I poked about bamboo and thatch houses, raised on piles and nestled
among banana palms and flowers and furnished with what the jungle offered —
mats, baskets, and rattan stools. Cooking was done at an open hearth in an
adjoining shed. Under the houses, in the cool shade among the supporting posts,
were the rest of the material things necessary to Laotian life: wooden plows and
handsome ox carts, crossbows, baskets for every purpose, fish traps, gourds, a
foot-operated rice husker, and always a hand loom upon which even the tiniest
girls wove exquisite fabrics. Oxen and water buffalo dozed there too, little
black pigs and brilliant jungle fowl roamed beyond, and an occasional peacock
paraded by in the sun. Surrounding all were the green or gold rice paddies and
the vegetable, cotton, and tobacco patches. In my wanderings I was usually
invited into someone’s house for tea, choum (a strong rice liquor),
snacks, or even for dinner. If nothing else, Laotians are party minded. Before
the novelty of a stranger’s presence, I have seen whole villages stop work,
crowd the receiving cottage to bursting, and with the almost immediate
appearance of food, drink, and musical instruments a party would be on. When the
cause of the impromptu party slipped out to catch the departing boat there
seemed no point in breaking up such a pleasant affair and the hilarious strains
would accompany us around the next bend in the stream.

Not all the Pavie’s stops were
as leisurely. For disembarking passengers there was only a momentary nuzzling of
the bank, the passenger scrambling off and his belongings thrown after him by
obliging fellow passengers. How the departees managed to get boxes, baskets,
babies, and bicycles up the crumbling banks was a mystery. Despite the brevity
of the stop there was nonetheless the usual exchange of news. At one halt we
learned that a seventeen-year-old deckhand had died on an upstream-toiling
barge. Chatting with friends one minute, he had fallen dead the next, said our
riverbank informants. The officiating, yellow-robed Buddhist monks, like
riverine sunflowers, were even then aboard. Though the lad had shipped on at
Savannakhet only a few kilometers downstream, his body could not be returned for
even on the Pavie, the fastest means, it would take a day and a half —
too long in this tropical climate. I wondered when his family would learn of the
loss, but none could say."

Mary Sheperd Slusser
Steaming Down the Mekong
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[Thanks Steve]