Thailand: Along the Mekong

Text: Beatrix Keckeis • Photography: Beatrix Keckeis

Swirling clouds of red dust calm and slowly settle. The droning rattle and hum ceases. Four strange figures emerge from the murk with vividly colored bowls on their heads. They step away from unusual contraptions that look like bicycles, only bigger. And the sound they produce is very peculiar. It's almost loud enough to compete with a monsoon downpour. Bringing up the rear, a strange kind of house appears, moving stolidly along on four wheels and packed with bags and all kinds of goods.

To some, it may well seem that extraterrestrial beings have landed in the middle of the jungle village of Don Chai, situated in Bokeo, a province of Laos, just a couple of miles from the Mekong, the 2,700-mile long river that springs to life in China's Tsinghai province. It forms portions of the border between Laos and Myanmar, and Laos and Thailand, and eventually drains into the South China Sea below Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Only 100 kilometers away from Don Chai, in Thailand, the times are pulsating: big towns, traffic tangles, mobile phones, television, crowded beaches and so on - all the conveniences. But here in Laos, things are very different. Just two years ago strangers were not allowed to enter. And it's not so very easy to gain en­trance today. Foreigners, or 'farangs' as the locals call us, are very seldom guests in this corner of the jungle. No wonder some of Don Chai's inhabitants might conclude we're a scouting party of alien life forms.

Their curiosity is definitely piqued. Eyes follow our every movement, the little ones hidden behind the fabric of their mothers' skirts. They all keep their distance until our helmets are removed. Then of course we're revealed as merely a group of motorcyclists on 250cc four-stroke Hondas, accompanied by an ancient but reliable jeep. David, a native Australian and Thailand resident for more than 20 years, is our tour guide; Jimmy, from Vienna, Austria, our tour organizer; and Naan, from Chiang Mai, Thailand, is our tour leader. The rest of us are Brett, another Australian working in Thailand; Ahmet, a German citizen with Turkish roots; and me, Trixi, from Vienna. All of us are en route to the Golden Triangle, the infamous area bordering Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma).

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