If you switched the train to a boat and took out the murder, my slow boat cruise down the Mekong River from Thailand to Luang Prabang in Northern Laos, would be a plot-free Agatha Christie.
We were a group of 21 people, including five children and two solo travellers, one of which was me. I knew no murder was afoot, but somehow being in an enclosed moving space with others, made me watch them, wonder about them, attribute stories to them. We sat on the polished wooden benches and watched the river.
The journey takes two days and you glide through green jungle which tumbles down to brown waters which lap onto sandy shores. If you look closely at the sand you will see glinting flakes of silver. The water is flowing as a river should, but it is so busy eddying and swirling in self-contained pockets of intricate activity that it almost forgets where it is going. Small worlds of hidden twigs and rocks and river bed angles cause the surface to jump and fold over itself like a dance. There is an epic story heaving under the surface; the chocolatey water shows hints of shoulders as we navigate through it.
Long green dug out boats hug the banks so camoflagued that they are a mere strip of an idea of a boat, made of shore and water. Water buffalo stand as the rocks, dark backs and pale yellow underbelly, or black rocks occasionally dot the beaches and the water buffalo change colour to match.
But if someone was going to commit a murder, I think, as I watch the river wrapping around us, releasing us and reforming, who would it be?
The Dutch dad travelling with his home-educated family, with his schoolboy humour, showing me pictures of himself on his phone. He clumsily questions our guide at the Lahu tribe village about the cost of schooling. Loud and colonial, he gives the village children useless coloured pens.
The Irish family annoy me and delight me. They are so pleased with themselves, but then they should be, travelling the world with their young children doing parenting right. Or so I think.
When we are at a night market on our night-time stopover at Penang, there are live frogs in plastic bags. I count at least ten frogs croaking feebly, squashed together in a bag, with enough air in the space between the other frogs and the knot at the top of the bag to last a little while. I can hardly bear to know it, let alone see it. The Irish three-year old says
“Mummy, there are frogs in bags, and they are still alive.” Instead of reassuring her that her instinct is right – it is indeed shocking and worrying and confusing, Mum says
“Well at least they will stay fresh.”
Her young eyes widen, stare. Irish Dad says,
“Don’t touch them, we don’t want to stress them more.”
The other solo traveller is a fat man from Hong Kong with an enormous camera, white knee socks and a hectoring mansplaining approach to every topic from car parts to ways of stewing beef. He cracks a rape joke then pays for my dinner. I am furious.
I spend the night dreaming of buying every bag of frogs and setting them free.
In the tiny temple, at the next jungle village, where one old and two young boy monks lounge, there are primitive paintings of the life story of the Buddha. Some of the women who are paying homage to the cartoon Buddhas are inexplicably dressed in modern dresses with 1950’s style shoes.
The solemn German couple wear matching beige and don’t smile. They drink beer and smoke at the back of the boat, and seem like they cannot possibly be on holiday, so dour are their expressions.
Later in the afternoon of the second day, as we near the cave of a thousand Buddhas, the whirling water is deeper, wider, with currents that pull the surface in on itself and make rippled dents. There are flat channels snaking and shimmying through the currents.
A young girl tries to sell us a wild, dying bird in a tiny bamboo cage at the mouth of the Buddha cave. She says she needs one dollar for food. The Dutch dad laughs and asks me if I want to buy the bird as a souvenir.
Maybe it is the unassuming ones who are planning our demise – the gentle hippies discussing yoga, or the Polish couple with gaudy shirts who say they are on a business vacation.
Two water buffalos, one black and one white, have arranged themselves as identical stones, lying at the shallow water’s edge, immovable. They chew in the afternoon sun, as the boat rolls and navigates around rocks.
The self-satisfied travelling families have made friends. The Germans have found some other Germans and are drinking beer with them, all smiles. The man from Hong Kong is playing with his enormous lens.
The five children are jumping and giggling and thudding on the wooden deck. Saipon, our smiling guide, lifts them onto his legs and sets them off; they stab the peace with shrieks.
The only mystery here is the enormity of the lazy Mekong, dense as mud, deep as death.