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Tale of an early morning on the misty Upper Mekong

Pandaw Blog Compeition 2023 - 2nd Prize Winner

I was gently roused in my bunk by the vibration of the boat as the engines started up, it was 6.30am. It is first light as I wander on deck and see the crew preparing to cast off the mooring ropes from the forest trees that had secured us overnight at our improvised berth. For it would have been impossible to navigate this fast running, gurgling, rock strewn river in the dark, for this is the mighty Mekong River, also and aptly named in this region as, River of Stone and Dragon Running River.

It was slightly chilly at 7.00am as the boat was gently manoeuvred by her twin engines into position to head downstream and once there, she gracefully picked up speed to gather steerage. The landscape of heavily forested mountains took on an ethereal presence cloaked in the yellow grey of early morning mist, as did the swirls of blue grey mist eddying up from the river.

Our vessel, The Sabaidee Pandaw, is three years old and modelled on the 19th century Burmese Irrawaddy Flotilla steamers, although my wife insisted it was an Agatha Christie Death on the Nile style of boat! Anyhow the nostalgia was good, as was the highly varnished teak that adorned most of this wonderfully appointed boat. She is small, with only 14 guest berths, but perfectly formed, at 147 feet long, 31 feet wide and a draught of 8 feet. We imperiously got up to our cruising speed, which to me appeared very fast but then it had to be to have good steerage on the fast flowing water.

The skill of the captain is astonishing as he steered a twisting course between the rocks, constantly alternating from one bank to the other and only rarely in the middle of the stream. Because of the continual shifting pattern of the river, rocks and sandbanks, charts are, I am told, redundant before they can be printed. As are depth sounders which are equally unhelpful and would be constantly pinging like a pin ball machine. The safe passage is solely down to the calm and experience of the man at the helm, who has over twenty years experience on this part of the river and I’m glad for that! River of Stone.

It is low water on the ever twisting river, narrow in parts and fringed by uncinate rocks, it conjures in my mind the giant skeletal remains of Naga, the Buddhist mythical serpent that guards many of their temples. Dragon Running River.

The engines rev up as we navigate a particularly wild bit of river that is hissing and spitting and the menacingly serrated rocks, resembling monsters teeth on each side, are at times less than five meters away. The skill of the crew get us through, it’s just another day at the office for them but almost certainly one of the best offices in the world.

I glance around again at the fast moving landscape of the northern highlands, dense with deciduous forest and home to a plethora of wonderful animal life, who at this time of the morning were surprisingly silent. As the day warms up and the mist begins to dissipate from the highly folded mountains, their colour gradually turns from lilac to purple to bluey green. This is Laos and further taking in the sweeping views I cannot see any sign of man or man’s presence, all is virgin jungle and magnificent for it. Here the river has retained its amazing blend of permanence and history.

We now enter a serene and more friendly section of the river and the rocks are more like dragons scales than teeth, there are also inviting looking sandy beaches, some in the middle of the river!

This reverie has completely taken me out of myself and as I gather my thoughts I realise it is almost 8.00am and time for breakfast. On deck of course so I can continue to take in the wonderful ever changing vista.



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Bob posted in Aug 2023

Oh, my. Jim Wingrove absolutely nailed it. Early morning on the Upper Mekong. Congratulations to him. As a veteran of that same cruise (only going up river, February 2020, as the Great Pandemic was unfolding), his prose—poetry, really—placed me right there again. Almost like it was yesterday.

Thank you, Pandaw, for sharing the joys of your passion.