Zach Wallen of Aquinnah takes on the Mekong River
Photo courtesy of Zach Wallen
In early April, The Times received an unsolicited story from a California journalist who used the story of three young Americans adventuring down the Mekong River as an introduction to a story about the imminent construction of a controversial dam on the river. We contacted one of the river rovers, Zach Wallen of Aquinnah, and asked him to describe their adventure in his own words, which follow.
Daniel Summers, Sam Bove, and I are not an unlikely team. We have known one another since our earliest days, due to our parents' friendship, and since graduating high school, much of our time has been devoted to travel. We have all had experience working on a variety of boats. So, without the constraints of school or full-time jobs, it was relatively painless for us all to come together in the remote and beautifully charming village of Luang Prabang, Laos.
Daniel's route to Laos from his home in Vermont was a long one, via Barcelona, Moscow, Ulan Bator, and Hanoi.
Last August I left the Vineyard to travel parts of the Middle East and Europe. In Turkey, I joined a sailboat that was heading for Palma de Mallorca. After a couple months there, I was hired by a captain to help in the delivery of a 72-foot sailboat from Mallorca to St. Lucia. During this passage in mid-December, Daniel first e-mailed me about his Mekong River plans. So, shortly after arriving in the Caribbean, I hopped a couple of flights to Bangkok and then up to Luang Prabang. [Luang Prabang is about half way between the source of the 3,000-mile-long Mekong on the Tibetan Plateau and its outlet into the South China Sea about 30 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.]
Daniel's original idea had been to build a boat in Vietnam and do a coastal cruise, but the weather there had not been as favorable as expected and he decided to head for the Mekong instead. His plan was to create a craft with a bamboo framework and something like canvas to act as a skin. Then, using plenty of tar and paint you'll have something like a boat. But, after some discussion, we decided it was more practical to go with what we know — plank on frame.
On Valentine's Day we found our location to build. Luang Prabang sits on a tight peninsula created by the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. We were staying in a guesthouse about 100 yards from the water and there was a nice clearing of flat grassy bank — an easy commute.
Tape measure, square, hammers, pencils, a chisel, handsaw, and nails were readily available at small hardware stores and markets all over town. The lumber was a mélange of something close to mahogany boards, wide pine boards, and 2-by-4 framing stock. We did lots of gesturing and haggling and punching numbers in on calculators. After one day of handsawing, we went out and bought a skill saw and an extension cord, our only electric tool, which we plugged into our guesthouse.
There were still some uncertainties about details of the design, which consisted of a few rough sketches, but we figured we'd just get building and sort things out as we went along.
The first eight days, Daniel and I planked and framed the entire boat. The mahogany boards, which would eventually be the floor of the bilge, were laid out flat on the ground and nailed together with the framing stock. The ends were tapered to create a bow and stern. Then, we positioned the bow and stern of our bilge on saw horses so that the center, or amidships, sagged down in a fairly dramatic curve, giving us a form to work from. We then added frames and planks, holding the form in place. It was pretty rough carpentry, resulting in some yawning seams between the planks.
Sam showed up from Phuket, Thailand, the day after we finished planking, fresh off a two-week stint on a 160-foot sailboat. The next couple of weeks we backed the inside of the seams with strips of tin so that our caulking material wouldn't get pushed through, a technique that we'd seen on some local boats. We pounded cotton into the seams, and then applied a mixture of tar and a local tree extract called ki si over the cotton. Finally, tin strips were used on the outside to seal up the seams.
Around this time, we had the idea to bring exercise books for school children in villages along the river. We'd been told there was a shortage of simple exercise books, pens, and pencils. So, we arranged a fundraiser where we put on a slideshow of us building the boat and had a 50/50 raffle. At the end of the night, we'd raised about $100, enough to purchase about 150 books and pens.
After the fundraiser, we built an aft and fore deck, which we varnished. Around this point we also installed the motor. We bought a 7.5-hp gas engine with shaft, propeller, and rudder at the local Chinese market for about $100. We erected a canopy using a latticework of bamboo and blue plastic.
During this time we sea-trialed the boat a few times on the Nam Khan in the evenings with some friends. She was pretty tender, so we added approximately 500 pounds of river stones held in cement bags as ballast. Finally, we were about ready to leave.
A few days before our planned departure, I purchased two suckling pigs that were slaughtered aboard the Hounde. We mused that the blood running into the bilge was some sort of offering to Naga, the river god. One pig we roasted on a spit and the other put in a stew. Many of the families that ran the nearby guesthouses joined us on the bank for the delicious roast.
On March 25, 40 days after we'd begun construction, the Hounde was ready to leave the Nam Khan River. The boat was loaded with 10 gallons of fresh water, 40 liters of gasoline, and five gallons of True Manhood Whiskey. We had bedding, two camping stoves, life jackets, and an array of other items. She was a full boat and must have weighed well over a 1,000 pounds. With a little fanfare we shoved off and made a rough ride down the shallow Nam Khan.
The 10-day trip to Vientiane was a dream. It contained moments of sheer terror, beautiful evenings on pristine Mekong beaches, and surreal walks through remote villages. The rapids were exhausting at times, but we all enjoyed the thrill.
At the end of particularly thrilling days we'd all lie out by our campfire and marvel at how we'd survived another day. On the second day, we lost control of the boat, missed some jagged rocks by mere inches, and ploughed into three fishermen in a rotten little boat. After some dramatic negotiations, which were done by writing figures in the sand, we paid them some money and got out of there. No damage to the Hounde.
We stopped at villages to re-provision. Besides rice and noodles, food in the villages was pretty scarce. We were usually able to buy eggs and canned mackerel. There were never any fruit or vegetables for sale. Gasoline was occasionally available at little bamboo floating docks. We divided the exercise books between three different villages where we stopped. True Manhood Whiskey and cigarettes were also given to various fishermen that we'd come in contact with.
About 30 kilometers upriver from Vientiane, we pulled up on the bank of a riverside estate. It was a beautiful property with a great tree house and a waterside fire pit. We met the caretaker and the owner who invited us to stay as long as we needed. I spent Sunday night in the city so I could get more pages in my passport at the embassy first thing on Monday morning.
Daniel and Sam slept on the boat that night and they received a visit from a pack of well-armed Lao guys around midnight. Two of them wielded AK-47s and others had pistols. Their leader spoke English pretty well. He questioned Sam and Dan about what they were doing and took some photos. They claimed to be police, but were dressed like such cowboys that Sam and Daniel were dubious. After some discussion, they simply left.
The next morning, however, soon after I returned from town, the "cowboys" did as well — this time in a 70-foot steel boat. They were very amiable and even fed us some lunch. At this point, we were resigned to our fate of the Hounde being seized and as we were towed alongside toward Vientiane we drank most of a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. Some of the police even joined us for a drink. We'd been given the bottle to be used to bribe officials, but these officials weren't taking bribes.
At a customs station in Vientiane, we were politely asked to sign a handwritten statement that we accepted that the authorities were seizing the vessel and that we would use public transportation for our remaining time in the country. The officials seemed amused by our boat and the trip, but they said that traveling along the Mekong was of particular concern because it makes up the border with Thailand for much of its length in Laos. This is something we had heard in Luang Prabang, so we weren't too surprised at the turn of events.
The next few days in the capital had us filled with some despair as our Hounde sat stuck in the pound. We briefly befriended a Lebanese gem dealer who had good contacts that were affiliated with the UN in Vientiane. Unfortunately, after a long talk with officials, they were still unwillingly to compromise, and we recognized that the ride of the Hounde was in fact over.
For the March 25 entry in the Hounde's Log, see mvtimes.com.
Log of M/V Hounde
Thursday, March 25, 2011 (1st day on the river)
Engine still giving problems as we continue down a lazy Mekong. Water in bilge attacks engine's electrical components as it's picked up and sprayed by flywheel. Keeping a dry bilge is established as imperative and requires a moderate effort of bailing as water is entering through the rudder post and an invisible crack behind a frame that was sustained during our rocky exit from the Nam Khan.
Mekong is wide and gentle for first few miles downstream of Luang Prabang. Concrete spires, set on large river-rock formations, that serve as channel markers can be seen quite often. Those painted red are left to starboard and greens to port as we head downriver. Trying to gauge distance traveled is only really left to speculation and anticipating what's around the next bend to imagination.
Before long, we are in a roiling stew of fast-moving river, with currents going every direction. These opposing currents spawn whirlpools all around of various sizes. We had been told of the dangers of these vortexes in Luang Prabang and had been left skeptical of their existence, but sure enough a larger whirlpool's power can spin the vessel dangerously out of control and their depth can envelope our gunwales, possibly swamping the boat.
Playing the current and avoiding the swirls takes practice and teamwork. The helmsman must stay focused 100 percent in any sort of rapids to avoid getting put into a spin. The engine man must work consistently on keeping a dry bilge and operating the throttle. Quick bursts of power are often required to get through particularly risky sets of rapids. The bowman serves as a good lookout and if necessary uses the paddle to keep the bow pointed downstream.
We enter our first powerful sets of rapids about two hours out of Luang Prabang. The drama begins abruptly and without warning. One minute is a lazy drift downstream with a silenced engine and the next everyone is at their battle stations ready to put it all on the line with the ditch bag out and ready for a quick escape. Sam is on the tiller, Daniel on the engine, and Zach on the bow.
The river is winding through narrow hallways of black, unforgiving rock that makes up the "bank" past countless river villages. The rocky banks are often lined with fishers and their bamboo contraptions all of whom stop and stare as the three falangs (westerners) in their strange craft float by, as if they're expecting us to wipe out at any moment. But, Sam's fine job on the helm gets us through safely. In a couple of the fiercest rapids, the motor failed and we were left near helpless, the Hounde spinning out of control, and the sound of rushing water striking fear into our hearts. Luckily, it was never long before Daniel was able to fire up the Yang Chun (7.5-hp Chinese knock-off Honda) and escape the rocks unscathed.
As it is the dry season, the river in many places is running through relatively narrow channels within a much larger floodplain that fills up during the monsoon. On the muddy bank of one such floodplain we decided to moor up and spend the night. The day's journey had taken its physical and emotional toll, and we were all relieved to eat and rest. Unfortunately, the Mekong is riddled with swarms of gnats during the twilight hours, and they were driven into frenzies by our lamps. This drove Sam and Daniel into cooking on the cramped aft deck with the protection of mosquito nets, but when Daniel spilled most of the food on deck and Sam mistakenly poured gasoline into the wok we decided to scrap the whole thing and start over onshore. We dined on potatoes and onions with tomato sauce and the bugs were kept at bay by a campfire. We all drank some True Manhood Whisky, five gallons of which is stored onboard in a plastic water jug.
Zach Wallen lives in Aquinnah when he's on this side of the world. In an email dated April 13, he wrote, "There is interest amongst the crew to do a similar trip in Burma. We have our sights set on the Myeik Archipelago and a possible mission of delivering aid to some remote island."