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How to Swim the Mekong River

By Joshua Johnson

October 13, 2008

Luang Prabang; as beautiful as it is fun to say. Of all the treasures that Laos gives of so freely, Luang Prabang is to this traveler the most precious. The whole of Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site and unlike many of its crumbling and dilapidated UNESCO peers Luang Prabang a thriving hamlet.  Overlooking the banks of the formidable Mekong river for over 1,000 years, LP is home to an astounding thirty three active monasteries. The town is thus blessed with the tranquil resonance of churning water and soft chanting. A city of 22,000 it has the reticent charm of crumbling French colonialism tempered pleasantly with banyan trees and the sweeping red-tiled roofs of well loved monasteries.

At a time not so distant, Luang Prabang was the seat of a jungle kingdom bearing the same name.  The Mekong river is often called the "the Mother of all rivers", holding the title of the 10th longest and largest (by volume) river in the world. From its source deep in the Tibetan plateau the Mekong winds 2,700 miles south and accepts 15 major tributaries, finally pouring into the sea in a matrix of shining estuaries in the famously fertile land of Vietnam’s Mekong delta. The Mekong has for thousands of years been the source of life and legend for the six countries it courses. Behemoth catfish recorded at over nine feet share the cocoa colored river with equally enormous eels. These slimy, aquatic giants are a source of timeless lore, captured in the carven and painted effigies of water serpents that adorn the riverside villages of Laos.

I saunter down the steep little trail, clutching my fins and shouldering a backpack containing various unneeded items. A little skiff which takes villagers across the massive river has just pulled up and its passengers are carefully unloading as I kick off my sandals and face my destination on the other side of the Mekong. Aprox. 1,200 feet of churning, bubbling current, hungry catfish and diseases yet to be discovered (let alone cured), separates me from the tiny figures milling about on the far shore. The river flows with a subtle yet massive power, the surface constantly emerging upon itself.

The ferry boy has stopped unloading crates to watch me take my first few steps into the river. I'm perhaps 400 feet upstream from my intended destination, for the current, though seemingly placid has been chugging along since China and even the little puttering motor skiffs take a slow arching course from shore to shore. As I step into the water, which is pleasantly warm, the ferry boy catches my eye and double takes. He smirks then smiles and looks about to see if he is the only witness to this apparent suicide attempt.

With no further consideration, I begin to swim.

I don't know why I wanted to swim the Mekong; for the hell of it, I guess. What do they say about the mountain; Because it’s there? Perhaps I wanted to be the only person I'm likely to meet that even considered it. Somehow I got the notion lodged in my head that I wanted to swim the tenth biggest river in the world and try as I may, I simply could not get it out.

Already the current is tugging me along.  With alarm I notice that I’ve been pulled a good thirty feet down river already, on my way to Vietnam I suppose. The heads of disembarking ferry passengers all point to the fool with the flopping blue flippers.

I begin to swim harder, alternating between the breast stroke and laying on my back, kicking for all I'm worth.

I should have stretched, or prayed or some damn thing!

The river tosses and churns. The steady pull of the current is coupled with a constant upheaval of the water and as I watch the shore slip past there are instances of vertigo. I’m not sure if I am moving in the direction of my destination at all, which was still dreadfully distant.

My breath is quickly becoming a rasping chore. Water bubbles up and ripples and tugs then relaxes then swirls, looking like a gently boiling pot of hot chocolate. The back pack I'm wearing is waterproofed so once it fills with Mekong murk it stays filled and is a 30 lb. dead weight begging to sink to the bottom. I don't discover this right away, and anyway I can't let it go, my wallet is inside and my passport and a nice wad of money besides. Not like I'm gonna need anything but a determined search party if I don't start making some real progress.

Something solid and slick is drags along my leg and I shriek, kick harder still and stare up at the high and indifferent clouds wild eyed. I'm moving down stream at an alarming rate. From the shore I’m sure I look like so much jetsom.

Vertigo again, muddled with a shot of panic. I feel alone out here, untethered and tiny. The seconds lurch between the hammer falls of my racing heart. There is no sound but the churn of the river and heaving breath. I hit a pocket of  rambunctious current and it wrenches me forward until I swim through it. I gag on some water and turn on my back, the backpack gleefully sagging below me.

This, dear Joshua, is EXACTLY what your wife, mother, family and friends mean when they say 'be careful'. They are referring to situations precisely of this nature, and here you are, so far from careful it is blasphemous. Why can’t you just go on vacations like other people? 

I think this is it, the middle, The Point of No Return, where it is further to turn around than to continue. I'm winded. I don't know how long I have been going for all I'm worth, but the little shore where the boat pulls up and the fishermen gather to drink and gamble, the place I had planned to emerge triumphant is sweeping past me right now. I'm only a little more than half way there. One thought and one thought only. Over and over and over. SWIMSWIMSWIMSWIM!

Tired, and not pacing myself but blindly thrashing my legs, the shore I swim towards is now uninhabited and the jungle eases past.

My heart thuds against my adams apple as I finally come to set my flippered feet not on land but a tangle of thorny branches. I’m a good 1/4 mile from the ferry landing. Only then do I realize my back pack is fat with water. I scratch my shaky legs on the bramble and finally stand. The vegetation is thick and hateful, spilling from the banks of the jungle right into the river. Trudging painfully forward, I'm alive but I landed in what appears to be Mordor. A happy scrabble of drinking and drunken fishermen slouch at a card game and gamble and shout. As I approach one by one heads turn and the men stand, some a bit wobbly and the smiling ferry boy from the far shore is here, shouting something and wagging his finger at me. The group gives up a little cheer. Women with vegetables and small children laugh and come near. The men raise a little commotion, finding again a damn good reason to clink glasses. Children scamper down and beam, chattering to each other and looking at me.

Rice whiskey sloshes from glasses and I and the gambling men toss one, two, three back, my cup already replaced by a bigger, dirtier brimming mug. Glasses raise to the health of the fool-hearted and we suck down swallows of the potent, clear liquor.

But not all the men are so taken by the smiling and flush faced tourist. Arms crossed, he wears a black tank top and a scant little gold chain.His face reddens as he begins to shout at the men to start playing and slaps the table, checks his empty glass and slams it down, making no secret of his leering at me.

Are you going to swim back? They ask in gestures.

Hell No! I say in gestures.

I hop into the next ferry and to the astonishment of all the tank-topped pack leader stands and yells down to the boat man to charge me a double fare. The boat man looks sheepishly at me and back to Mr. Tank-top, and the order is repeated. Boat man turns to me,his eyes low and mutters, “10 kip.”

“5 kip.” I say, realizing what is happening. 

“Uhhhh... 10 kip?”

Mr. Tank-top watches and so does the crowd, women shift baskets of vegetables on their hips and children kick at the dirt. I stand in the boat, nearly fall, right myself and yell up to the crowd.

"I just swam the Mekong! The Mekong! What did you do today?!?" My eyes are on Mr. Tank-top and I beat my chest and sweep my hand indicating the river behind me.

A grumble of agreement brakes out and rises into a mutiny of praise and shouts;  He swam the Mekong for Buddhas sake! Leave the man be, he's a damned hero!  Yeah, he's no ordinary tourist... ...and so on. Of course I can only infer what was said but Mr. Tank Top sits down and yells for a fresh hand to be dealt, not looking at me or anybody. The next morning I take the ferry across with a mountain bike to explore the trails that snake through and past rice paddies. I step off the boat and take my offering of rice whiskey from the flock of fishermen who seem to not have moved but to perhaps side step to piss into the dust. A young man falls into stride beside me.

"I saw you swim the river yesterday. Were you not afraid of the Dragons?"

"Well, I didn't know about the Dragons until I got to the other side. I'd be a damned fool to tempt the Dragons! I got lucky... of course I'm scared of them!"

He shook his head and smiled. He was glad to hear it, and he walked with me for a long time.

~ Joshua spent 9 months nearly getting himself killed in Southeast Asia. please visit www.confluencecreativemedia.com

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