by Maria Ruiz
Maria often shares stories with us about Santa Barbara history, her travel all over the world, her dogs, and life.
Asia. The land of pagodas, jade Buddhas, and stir fried foods. What we knew about Asia we could put in a pot sticker at the local Chinese restaurant. We had done Central America and Europe and it was time to move on. Going east seemed the logical next place.
We pulled out a map of the world and looked at the Asian continent. Right dab in the middle sits Thailand. We had heard that it was a western friendly place and easy to visit, so we went.
After we landed in Bangkok, we discovered that we needed a year’s visa which could only be gotten out of the country. The closest place to go was Georgetown, Malaysia.
We rode the train down to Malaysia and soon got it.
With our year’s visa in hand, we discovered that we still needed to leave the country every 90 days. (The same rules are in effect in Malaysia and Indonesia) We could walk across the border with any of the countries bordering Thailand and come back the same day, but we must cross. We took that as an opportunity to visit all the countries in Asia during our two and a half years there.Winding its way south from China, the Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world and flows along and between Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and Vietnam It ends at Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, where millions of people live their whole lives on boats. There are stores and shops, craftsmen plying their trades, children attending school and fish farms all afloat on small vessels. People use smaller boats like cars, to transport them from one big boat to another, to deliver the mail, and to go shopping. We rode on a medium sized water taxi that rang a bell to alert the locals when it arrived. They came out on smaller boats and collected passengers or packages to take them back to their dwellings.
Boats selling vegetables hang samples on a pole so people can choose where to go; corn cobs, squash, and other vegetables are tied high above the deck. One large boat housed a casket maker and the roof was covered with lovely coffins.
We visited a family fish farm and watched as the father opened the trap door into the giant net that held hundreds of fish beneath the large flat boat. The sons tossed in handfuls of little food pellets that they made themselves, and the feeding frenzy made the water boil. Most of the boat was dedicated to the farm but a large cabin at one end was the living quarters for the family.
Every morning, as the dogs woke up they would bark to one another. Then one would jump off his boat and swim to visit a neighbor. Noses would touch and then the swimmer would return home. Babies crawled around on decks and children played on planks. Most of them will never leave the boat communities their entire lives.
One thing that impressed me was the fact that the river is brown. It looks like it has a lot of silt in it. I don’t know how anything can see in that water but it is alive with fish. It also seemed to be quite shallow and I wondered if one could walk across it. However, it takes lives every year.
During the monsoons it becomes a raging torrent. All along the Mekong in every country where it flows, houses and buildings are built on stilts that hold them high above the flooding rampage to which the boats are immune. This river truly defines the life of the people who live on and near it.