Saturday 30 March 2013

Mekong Swimmer's Club - 5

The mighty Mekong River
The world's twelfth longest river, and the seventh longest in Asia, is the mighty Mekong River. It flows for 4,350 kilometres through six countries, starting in China and finishing in Cambodia, and has featured significantly in my life on two occasions.
     My first brush with the Mekong was during a visit to Thailand. We had taken a series of buses to the rural northeast of the country; we were escaping the noise and hustle of Bangkok in search of a more gentle traditional way of Thai life.
     The 900-kilometre journey started badly for me: the long-distance bus had taken a corner too sharply causing me to lurch against the door whilst using the WC; it sprung open, leaving me pointing ‘Percy’ at the passengers in the back seat. Not a very auspicious start.
     Eight days later, we found ourselves wandering through the village of Sangkhom looking for accommodation, when serendipitously we discovered the idyll of Buoy Guest House.
Gold panning
     It comprised a main house, with seven small bamboo guest huts standing on stilts overlooking the Mekong River, each hut had a mattress, a mosquito net and a bare light bulb, each with a thatched roof extending over a veranda with a rattan chair – a perfect, simplistic, but rustic nirvana. We managed to take the last remaining hut and joined an international assembly of a dozen fellow travellers.
     Our host, Toi, cheerfully provided daily local jaunts which enabled us to experience pot-holing, gold panning, silk worm production and batik painting, whilst his wife rustled up delicious meals three times a day and kept the fridge full of goodies which everyone helped themselves to on a trust system.
     We were an enjoyable group of lotus-eaters, who spent much of our time sitting on the banks of the Mekong, philosophising and setting the world to rights.
A rest during pot-holing 
     One hot lazy afternoon, the group sat gazing languidly over the river to Laos, when someone suggested we swim out to the sand island of ‘Don’, which divided Thailand and Laos. It was hot; the island was about 100 yards away, the river flow was sluggish and the challenge seemed easily achievable.
    With little thought, I plunged into the river with the other six chaps whilst shouts of encouragement rang out from the girls. We swam easily to the halfway mark and then conditions changed; for every stroke forward, we were swept two strokes downriver.
     I saw three or four of the swimmers ahead of me gradually make it to the island and climb out of the water. The closer I came, the faster the flow of water took me downstream, and the more effort I needed to close the gap. I was exhausted.
     With muscles screaming and burning with effort, I finally came to within two metres from the sandbank. The end of the island was looming up. My arms felt like lead. I was not going to make it.
    It took a final desperate and panicked effort to touch the bank and drag myself out. An Australian lad just behind me also made it a few yards further down. We both lay flopped out on the sand, totally exhausted. Never had the feel of sand felt so good.
     Although neither of us voiced it, we had been just seconds away from being swept out into the fast flow of the mighty Mekong and becoming a probable tragedy.
     We rejoined our group, who with juvenile whoops of bravado nervously recounted every stroke of the journey, and then one by one they plunged back in from the top end of the island and struck out for the return journey.
     The Australian and I watched with unspoken trepidation as the others were swept downstream, each gradually making it back safely to the far bank.
‘Well, what do you think?’ I asked.
Four minus two on return journey
     ‘I’m not too happy about it, but what choice do we have?’ he replied.
     ‘We don’t,’ I said, ‘but nor can we stay here all night.’
     Then, as luck would have it, we spotted a tiny canoe with a fisherman coming downstream. We waved frantically and attracted his attention. He saw our predicament, spun his flimsy craft midstream and gestured us to swim out to him            With some reluctance, we dived back into the river in the knowledge that half a swim was better than nothing.
     With great difficulty and skill, our rescuer managed to come alongside each of us. We clung to the side of the canoe with the intensity of a clam as he paddled us back to the riverbank.
     We thanked him profusely and wished him good karma as he paddled off downriver. He will forever be one of my unnamed heroes.
     That evening, it was drinks all round as members of the exclusive ‘Mekong Swimmers Club’ celebrated their achievement. There was plenty of raucous laughter and ribbing for those of us who had hitched a lift home.
    We were lucky that our escapade, done in the machismo of youth, had been reason for a party; it might easily have been for a wake.
     The Mekong River would again feature large in later life, but that’s another story …  
Written by Roy Romsey
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