When we docked in Ban Kok Eak, we were greeted by townspeople waiting for a boat to take them to a market. One man carried a small squealing pig in a bag, hoping to sell it that day. The children that had been playing in the river ran ahead of us – one small boy stopping often to launch rocks from his homemade slingshot with incredible precision.
The kids led us into a village that was bigger than the one we had visited the previous day. Hmong (Highland) people live in the village and Choy told us of their unique alphabet and courting customs (one of which involves kidnapping a wanted bride…a frightening tradition that is now frowned upon, but still occurs).
An elderly woman watched us from her doorway as we passed her house; she smiled and posed – just like the children – to have her picture taken and then wanted to see her portrait on the screen of our devices. Another woman sat on a low stool stitching a pattern for a dress while young girls stood around her looking on. Children appeared holding bracelets for sale and young mothers hurried to display handmade scarves and bags, in hopes we would buy one.
After another delicious on-board lunch, I stepped onto the bow of the ship. I marveled at the captain’s skill as he navigated the boat through rapids. It was rainy season, which meant the landscape was lush, but the river was swollen and moved swiftly downstream, often carrying natrual debris like large tree trunks along with it.
There is no formal training for slow boat captains; the trade is passed down from father to son. Captains must know every rock on the Mekong in order to safely transport passengers from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang – and our captain maneuvered the boat effortlessly.