The following took place on the 'Mekong Discovery Trail' from Strung Treng to Kratie in the north east. When people ask me what the toughest ride of this route around the world was, I would say this one.
Not only the physical challenge, but the mental one too. The unknown was the thing that got me the most. There was little or no up to date information on the route and relying on people was difficult with the language barrier, especially as their well intended advice could have had serious repercussions.
A government initiative anticlimactically launched in 2011 for tourists, the 'MDT' seemed like it would be a more interesting option to the busy and poorly surfaced highway south to Kratie. So, ahead of schedule, and after a good rest on one of the 1000 islands along the Mekong river in Laos, we decided to go for it and see.
After an almost quaint ride out of town, something that is very hard to experience in Southeast Asia, we crossed a few rickety bridges, saluted schoolchildren playing on the green banks of the river and soon arrived at a small boat terminal. Actually it was more like a raft stop, but we were able to charter a vessel across the Mekong river for a dollar or two.
Arriving on Koh Preah, we soon realised that not many tourists had come this way on bicycles, much to the tourism sectors disappointment. There were however some Eco-tourism projects going on, made evident by some chalk signs in English, and the occasional foreign NGO logo. Following our instincts we turned south in the early afternoon, passed wallowing water buffalo and ramshackle farmhouses, to find a typical raised stilted house with some place names listed outside. It appeared to be makeshift travel agency. Indeed, we were able to organise a longboat to take us south to the next river island- Koh Rougniv. The boat fare seemed reasonable for a private service that could just about accommodate our bicycles if we stayed centered to avoid wobble in what became a fast and tricky to navigate section of this international waterway. Ducking for bits of trees, our proficient captain scooted left and right to avoid vegetation exposed in this dry season, we were enjoying the journey, basking in the late afternoon sun and satisfied with our progress south, albeit not all by pedal power.
We had found just enough information on the internet the previous day to know that the island we were heading to was about 50 kms long and 15kms wide. We had taken screenshots of a map with dotted paths, but details about where to stay, trail conditions, and water stops were non-existent. We realised as we landed on the island, a good 40kms north east of where we thought we had paid to arrive, that this government Initiative was under-funded, under-visited and thus living up to the Mekong DISCOVERY Trail it was billed as.
As the sun began to set, and the temperature crawled down below 35c, we found a place to get a litre or two of water and saddled up in earnest. Four hours later, we were still sweating, covered in mud, in the pitch black, having spent most of the time feeling lost and frequently worried about not being able to see or hear each other. In that time we were guided only once by a farmer, who we had heard before we saw as he broke through the darkness riding a cart pulled by water buffalo. He didn't seem too shocked by the partial sight of us, which we took to be re-assuring. He just pointed and grunted into the dark abyss at a 45 degree angle away from the direction we had been travelling.
Hours were spent pushing our heavy bikes over deep sand, wet mud and through cartwheel channels so deep and thin that our panniers were regularly flipped off. Exasperated we just had to press on as we could not camp in this marshy land. Then a flicker of light appeared, and then a fence to our left. It was the first man-made object we had seen for a while. We followed the fence, and sure enough, an inquisitive family peered at us as we unknowingly wandered passed their stilt house. We looked as bewildered as they did and after a few tricky conversations with them, we had secured somewhere to sleep in our tent near their house and had collected some water from a borehole full of skank and bugs. Boiled up, it was better than nothing, and we certainly needed it after sweating out litres. They family were kind and gave us some rice with fish sauce and a coconut. It was enough for us that night, and we managed to get a few hours of sleep.
At 5.30 am we called out the name of the town we were looking for with a questioning tone, were pointed south, and pushed our bikes off. The sand was thick,but dry, so occasionally we were able to ride through what had changed from dense tropical forest to teak woods. It was beautiful, if somewhat scary, as we still had little clue how long it would take to get to town, and we were already baking. Our navigation apps were almost useless on this island. They showed no roads, tracks or settlements, just us as a spinning blue arrow. We had still not seen the river since arriving on the island some 15hours prior, but sensed that if we crossed to the west we would see the water, and then be assured that we could follow it south to where the town supposedly was.
There was some fun riding to be had over rolling sandy ridges as the path became more substantial. We had a wonderful breakfast of sweets, some green oranges and some energy gels, in the scorching sun. We had mere dribbles of water left and my anxiety was pretty severe. I peered back, worried for Niamh, but as always, there she was focused, content and strong. We rounded a wooded area and then, much to my relief we saw a hut, then another, then a house, a boat ramp, and the region-wide sign for refreshment- Cigarette logos, out the front of a wooden shop. We drank so much we thought our stomachs would burst, but the sweetness and coolness made our eyes relax in their sockets again and we soon had the energy to push on, further south.
The river had turned to meet us and we rode downstream, sure enough, by early afternoon we had arrived at a conurbation. It was not as substantial as it looked on our screenshots, but there was life and the familiar hum of mopeds. We saw a sign and turned to cross the sharpened headland of the island to a boat terminal. 60 US cents later and sheltering under tarpaulin, we were chugging across a tributary of the Mekong south east to an actual town and much to our excitement a guesthouse with air-conditioning and bug free mattress. It was a rewarding way to end an experience that I would later, in the comfort of a cool room, come to appreciate for the raw and bare journey it was. Because at the time it felt like a scary one, where we were alone in the wilderness and too close to the danger zone of exhaustion and dehydration. I learned from this that I am not tough. Stubborn, but not tough. Niamh handled it better than I did, and I simply couldn’t stop thinking, ‘ What if we are going around in circles, what if we are here for days, what if we never drink again?’
To top off the experience, we were treated to the sight of frolicking Irrawady River Dolphins. These pink grey mammals are critically low in number are relaxed around boats, thus likely explaining their predicament. Their snubbed face and childish grins popped up from the surface, making us smile too. The boat ride also gave us a chance to reflect on how our plight of short-term absence from the creature comforts of civilisation, was relatively comfortable and insignificant compared to their innocent battle to avoid extinction.