Friday 29 October 2010

Apocalypse Then

The Mekong River, the aorta of Indochina, meanders through the Laotian jungle like a long brown snake.

It takes two days by boat from Huoy Xai to Luang Prabang. You can go by speedboat in seven hours, but this is only really a viable option if you regard your life and luggage as frivolous luxuries worth squandering for the sake of a few hours and some rigorous spine compression. The only remaining question is whether to take the public slowboat, with its wooden benches and couple of hundred Thais and Laotians drinking, gambling and squabbling over the solitary lavatory, or a private one, bedecked with old bus seats, picnic chairs and a table for lunching and playing leisurely games of backgammon as the lush green scenery rolls effortlessly by. The drinking and gambling might entertain me for an hour or so, but two days? Relative comfort triumphs in a swift, bloodless tussle.

I imagined the Slow Boat's slowness would make the greatest impression upon me, but it was quickly usurped by the extraordinarily sense of complete remoteness. The great river runs through barbaric wilderness, tamed in just a few choice spots by a cluster of houses where hill tribes meet the water, and with it the fragments of civilisation that traverse its length. We stop at a couple of them (next post) and spend the night in Pak Beng, a halfway house of a place if ever there were one.

All that time on the boat affords you plenty of opportunities to reflect. And despite my best efforts, though probably understandably, I can't stop thinking about Apocalypse Now. Of the prospect of being subjected to a brutal attack by stick firing tribesmen or the face of a dead black guy being silently consumed by the murky water. But moreover, by the notion that I am actually playing out that drama in reverse. Not for me an irresistible journey into the magnetic Darkness of the soul, rather the slow but steady draw of a revelatory gravity, and a gradual stumbling from darkness into Light.

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