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Mekong Expedition November 2005, River of Dreams

Mekong Expedition November 2005, River of Dreams

A modern-day adventure

Armin Schoch

RIB Expedition and Adventure S.L. in cooperation with Impulse Tourism is on an expedition of the Mekong this November 2005 with two RIBs (Rigid Inflatable Boats) of eight meters length, made by AB Inlatables, Venezuela, and specially equipped for expeditions.

The RIBs are extremely strong and stable inflatables with a hard fibreglass bottom. Tried and tested by coast guard and military service or as expedition boats, they have even become popular for recreational purposes. They are robust, fast, reliable and safe (unsinkable). The expedition boats are 7.25 meters in length, with strong Yamaha outboard engines of 225 HP.

The Mekong is SE Asia’s lifeline and with a length of 4,500 kilometers, one of the major rivers of our planet. On its way from the Tibetan highlands down to the South China Sea it passes through six countries, China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. A battleground of many wars and politically isolated for decades, the region has remained largely unknown until well into the 20th century and has never been traveled in its full length.

The first major expedition started in 1866. Ten French officers, geologists and botanists lead by Doudart de Lagr้e and Francis Garnier went upriver from Saigon in search of the Mekong’s source. They never found it, in fact it was not until 1994 that it was discovered. Nevertheless Garnier reached China after two years of traveling under the most difficult conditions and with every possible complication one could think of. De Lagr้e himself did not make it to China - in the course of the expedition he died of a tropical disease. Details of this historical undertaking are described in Milton Osborne’s book “A River Road to China” published in 1974.

Today’s situation: Since the end of cold war the countries of the Mekong region locked up behind the “bamboo curtain” have started to slowly open up to the rest of the world. But as far as commercial shipping is concerned, the Mekong remains of little importance - even in the 21st century. The river road to China the explorers dreamt of still does not exist. And despite the political changes of the past century, the landscapes along the banks of the Mekong still remain largely unchanged. Recently the countries belonging to the GMS (Greater Mekong Sub-region) signed a treaty that allows navigation in the middle and the upper stretches of the Mekong. The GMS countries are also working on the development of concepts for tourism. Under very critical observation by the world are the projected dams, power plants and rapids blasting along the river and its tributaries. A realization of this project would put the Mekong people and their environment in jeopardy. The natural balance of the river would be destroyed - with consequences that cannot be foreseen.

The new expedition now wants to bring a deeper knowledge and understanding of the whole region, its natural beauty and diversity to a broader public.

The route: The Mekong can be roughly divided into three sections: the upper stretch from the Tibetan headwaters to the Golden Triangle where the borders of Burma (Myanmar), Thailand and Laos meet. Here the river cuts deep into the landscape and is full of rapids. In the middle stretch from the province of Ubon (Thailand) to Champasak (Laos) the Mekong is slowly approaching flat terrain. Its lower reaches begin at the Khone waterfall - here the river leaves Laos and plunges into Cambodia by way of a stretch of enormous waterfalls. In south Vietnam the Mekong finally spreads into a giant delta and reaches the China Sea.

The expedition will take three weeks in November as the river will have enough water to navigate the tricky passages and shallows. It starts in Simao Harbour in the Chinese province of Yunnan. Simao marks the northernmost point of the trip - further upriver the Mekong is impossible to navigate. And even downriver navigation on the Lancangjiang (as the Chinese call the Mekong) is extremely difficult. Rapids and shallows demand utmost concentration and a lot of experience.

The explorers leave China at Guan Luei and follow the river South to the point where the borders of Burma (Myanmar), Thailand und Laos meet: “Sob Ruak” - the Golden Triangle.

At Chiang Saen (Thailand) the river makes a sharp turn into an easterly direction. For a while Thailand will be on the right and Laos to the left river bank. Then the Mekong leaves the border. Population along the banks is sparse now - here mountain tribes like the Hmong and Yao live their secluded lives in an absolutely breathtaking landscape. Further to the East they will reach the Laotian Kings’ residence Luang Prabang. The oldest undestroyed temple city of SE Asia was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995.

Leaving the highlands of Laos, the river becomes considerably wider. It bends in easterly, then in southeasterly directions and forms the border between Thailand and Laos. We pass Savannakhet, and the rapids of Pak Saeng and Song Khon are waiting for us. A pilot is indispensable to master this very difficult section of the river.

There are about 200 kilometres left to the Cambodian border and we are approaching a unique region of wetlands known as “Si Phan Don” (4000 islands). Here the river is up to 14 kilometres wide. The waterfalls of Khon Phapheng lie ahead - a series of cascades and rapids that continue for about 10 kilometers.

Facing those millions of litres of water roaring down into the abyss every single second, the French explorers should have realized that the waterway from Vietnam to China would remain a dream. Even for us in our expedition RIBs there is only one chance: The RIBs are hauled out and transported on land to be launched again on the other side of the waterfalls.

The river is now pouring down into the plains of Cambodia. Very slowly it loses its untamed wildness and allows for regular river navigation. Rice paddies appear along the river banks and become more and more frequent. Rural Cambodia has a very peaceful and secluded atmosphere and it is hard to believe that a generation past this tortured country was suffering under the terrorist regime of Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge.

In South Vietnam it diverts into the nine major arms of its delta and further into a vast net of little rivers and canals. Figures alone are impressive: About 5,000 kilometers of rivers and waterways crisscross the delta area that has a total extension of about 200,000 square kilometers and is one of the biggest rice growing areas in Asia. The expedition ends in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.

The Expedition includes Andy Leemann, an archetypal traveler and sportsman; Armin Schoch who has been living in the region for more than twenty years whose pioneer work led to the first joint-ventures in tourism with totally cut off countries like Laos and Cambodia. Ivor Heyer is our specialist in Rigid Inflatable Boats; G้rard d’ Aboville is another adventurer, having crossed the Atlantic in a rowing boat, amongst other intrepid feats of navigation. Also on board is Jean Pierre Mouzay responsible at Yamaha marine for special markets and is well known as a mechanical genius. Patrick Mage is another sea adventurer to round out the group who are trying to accomplish something the French started in 1866, but failed. We hope that this time, with modern technology, we can conquer one of the oldest rivers in the world.

Further information is available at www.RIBexpedition. com and www.mekongexpedition