When I heard him talk about his journey down the remote Mekong River in a leaky, 20-foot wooden boat that he’d purchased from a local, I knew there’d be some amazing images. But to hear him tell the story of his adventure first-hand, filled with amazing people, harrowing rapids, up-close and personal animal encounters, and true courage in the face of the unknown…well, it blew my mind.
Be warned: don’t read any further if you’re not prepared to book a trip when you get to the end of this post. The fact that Ben had the guts to leave a fulfilling and stable job (at Adobe!) is aspirational, but his recount of the trip is downright wanderlust inducing
This group of young kids and a few men helped Ben when his boat got stuck.
Lex: How long had you been traveling? Why this specific trip to Laos?
Ben: I’d been traveling for a year and a half already, and was finding it hard to escape the more “scripted” backpacking experience. One day I sat looking at the Mekong River, probably drinking some sort of predictable tourist drink, and thought, “I should get a boat.” By the end of the next day, I had a boat, motor and supplies, all for about $300 USD.
Though I was accustomed to traveling in a rustic fashion, this portion of the trip was going to take about six weeks, totaling around 1,100 miles in a small, 20-foot boat, completely by myself. I was used to backpacking, but not like this. All I had was the boat I was in, some food and fruit (that I would end up giving away), a Lonely Planet guide, some cash, and the hope that people would help me along the way.
Luckily, I began this unique portion of my trip with the owner of the place I was staying in, Don. He spoke a few words of English, and helped me through the first four days of the trip to learn a few phrases and make sure the boat wouldn’t sink.
For some context on the size of the boat, Ben’s is the one pulled up on the shore.
Lex: What was the most difficult part of the journey?
Ben: I decided I wanted to travel up a small tributary off of the Mekong, the Hinboun. Part of it flowed through a cave, and all of the travel books said it was a cool sight to see.
The problem was that the cave was upstream instead of down, and my little boat wasn’t equipped for such. I got a good start – and some help from a group of kids and a few men – but ultimately had to go on a bigger boat as part of a small tour to see the cave.
This leg of the trip was a definite try on my patience, but also affirmed my faith in others. I had to search often to fill up my little gas tank, even in places that seemed like they were completely in the middle of nowhere. I would be out in the jungle, floating along, almost in trouble, and somehow, someone would always come along within minutes to help. Each day was an extreme leap of faith, but the fear eventually subsided as I continued along my journey.
The Cave Along the Hinbou
Lex: What was one thing unique to Laos in that time period?
Ben: During the leg of my trip up the Hinboun, I met Un, a young man living with his parents, who graciously welcomed me into their home. One of the things that struck me as fascinating was the family’s access to electricity, despite their lack of access to other Western amenities. The houses along the river had refrigerators and TVs, but people still did their business in an outhouse and bathed in the river.
One of the nights I spent with Un and his family, we sat in the living room watching a Jackie Chan movie! The juxtaposition of rural life and technology was unique to the area and time.
A home along the River, complete with electricity lines and an outhouse.
Lex: What advice would you give to someone else looking to travel for a long period of time?
Ben: If you want to go, just go. If you think about it, every day you make a choice to either go into work or not go into work. The hardest part is conceiving that it’s possible to choose not to go into work.
I would also say that 99.9% of the people you meet are really nice and things just work out. I had a couple of days where I wasn’t sure I was going to make it down the river, but you get more confident as you go. As I traveled, the boat had some issues, but someone was always there to help me plug the leaks, and luckily I’d bought a spare blade for when the motor got caught on a fish net. Being a foreigner in Laos makes you more vulnerable, but also puts you in a position to be taken care of by other people. I was able to participate in a few holiday traditions with the groups I met, ride in the back of a truck with a bunch of goats, and even accidentally illegally enter Thailand without a visa.
Lex: I know folks will want to know – what kind of gear did you use?
Ben: In my 2.5 years traveling, I didn’t bring the best equipment to be honest, but it worked well for me. I used a pocket point-and-shoot Kyocera SL300R. It had two features that came in handy quite a bit: a sunlight visible screen that you could really see in full daylight, and a rotating lens. The camera allowed me to attain a level of unobtrusive photography because the lens allowed me to get candid photos with people looking straight on, even though they were standing to my right.
Lex: So WHY did you come back?
I never decided to come back – I came back to go to one of my best friend’s weddings in California. When I returned, I was offered a position on Lightroom 1.0 – a contract position for fourteen months that seemed like a great opportunity (and was). Once that was over, I worked at a start-up in California for about a year, then ended up back at Adobe working on Lightroom 3.0.
It’s hard to believe, but although traveling is a rewarding experience, I needed a break from it. It was nice to be back to sleeping in a real bed.
Near the end of the trip in Si Pan Don.
Many thanks to Ben for sitting down with me to talk about his trip, and for letting us share his inspiring story that I wish I could say was my own.
Are you an avid traveler like Ben? Or have you always wanted to be? I hope this story inspires you to finally take that trip.