The mekong sup trip

When does a trip start, when does it end?

Sometimes, it start when you are still in an other one, sometimes it starts when you pack your luggage or make an appointment for your vaccin against tropical diseases. Sometimes it starts when you book your plane ticket but this one for sure started some weeks after my return from the Philippines adventure when I got a mail from a stranger asking me if Fool Moon could donate some SUP to a foundation in Northern Thailand.
The stranger introduced himself as Alexandre a Swiss citizen from Geneva who wrote that he and his wife Stephanie had decided to give up their swiss life a few years ago and that they had moved to the poorest region of Thailand to open a foundation close to Nong Khai in the Thai province of Isan. He explained that the goal of the foundation was to help orphans and young people from poor families to learn the skills of the hotel business and then to help them to find a job.
At first I was not sure of the connection between the foundation and SUP but then he wrote that the foundation also proposed, on top of the classes, dormitories, a dining room, a kitchen and some office spaces, plus four bungalows to welcome clients and give the opportunity to the students to train their skills. I also understood that the Isan province was the less known of Thailand, close to Laos and Cambodia with very little tourism and that their idea was to find occupations for their guest. The foundation being some miles away from the Mekong river, they thought that a paddling experience on the river could be a good activity to occupy their guest.
Bea, Ramon and Baker on their way to Sumilon island.
The trip also often begins with a word, an image, a feeling and here after reading this mail I very quickly had a number of words buzzing in my head: Mekong , Thailand, foundation, help, remote, different,…

Some days later, I had a Skype call with Alexandre. He told me a bit more about their project, I told him about Fool Moon and we agreed that we wanted to do something together but of course if I gave boards for free to every person who asked for one, Fool Moon would be nothing else but an old souvenir since a long time so I proposed him instead to come myself to visit him and the foundation, to take a photographer and some paddlers with me, to organize a small trip down the Mekong and then once the trip would be over, to leave a number of boards for the foundation.

In October 2015, I went to Bali to test some of our new boards and took the time to sit with Tommy our Fool Moon photographer who has lived on the island since many years and told him about the project. Tommy who has traveled almost everywhere in South East Asia was really positive about the concept and was also interested to discover a part of Thailand that was still unknown to him.
While talking with Alexandre, we had agreed that the best timing for the trip would be sometime between January and February 2016. This being the best time for paddling the Mekong. At this time of year the water is at its lowest and the current really light. Later on the river can swelt to about 8 meters because of the rains and the Chinese up north open the doors of their dams to feed their power plants.
This is also the time of year when the temperatures are the most bearable. Later on they will reach about 45 degrees day and night but at the beginning of the year we could expect a nice 30 during the day and would even have to bring a fleece for the 15 degrees of the nights.

The trip was starting to take shape and I was getting more and more exited. Tommy was a bit worried about the sickness that we could get from the Mekong river and I was also thinking about river monsters and other snakes. Alexandre reassured us by saying that in this part of the river, there was no sickness that he was aware of, no river monsters either and that snakes were everywhere!!! But that as long as you would not bother them, they would not bother you!

Our last photo shoot was in the turquoise waters of the Philippines where we spent countless hours swimming with the sea turtles but this trip was going to be a bit different. The water was going to be brownish, we will for sure try to spend as little time as possible in it and once outside we were going to watch every other step that we would take!
Alexandre also told me that it would be pretty important for us when paddling down the river to make sure, since this part of the river is the border in between Thailand and Laos, to stay on the Thai side! The region being pretty famous with many kinds of smuggling (drugs, goods, illegal immigrants and other prosperous businesses), the Thai shore were where we wanted to launch ourselves and return if we didn't want to have a free visit of the Vientiane jails or any kind of encounters with unfriendly smugglers or Chinese spies. It would be better for us not to mix our east and west! What a beautiful and exiting adventure this was going to be!
So now we had the destination, Tommy was going to be our photographer and Alexandre and Stephanie who had initiated the adventure were very exited to be part of the paddling crew but, counting me, this was making only 3 paddlers and I needed at least two more.

As always for a great adventure, you also need a great group of people involved in it. Each time that we shoot on Bali, it is quite easy to find good looking surfers with interesting personalities willing to spend some days with us in the water. For our Philippines trips last year, it was a bit more tricky but at the end we came out with a great team but for this trip in the golden triangle it turned out to be even a bit more tricky! I had first asked Alexandre if he could find a good looking girl and a good looking guy with some paddling or at least athletic skills and a taste for adventure in Nong Khai or in the villages surrounding the foundation.
Alexandre kindly replied to me that I didn't really understand what the Isan was about, that it was really far from Bangkok and Koh Samui and that here the people were poor and extremely traditional and that it would be almost impossible to find local models who would know how to swim or accept to climb on a board.
I then contacted some friends in Thailand to see if anyone would know one or two models for the expedition and after many mails, FB and other "messenger" exchanges, I proposed to Vicky and her boyfriend Benoit to join us. Vicky is half Thai, half Swedish and was raised in Phuket and Benoit is a Belgian free entrepreneur who has wandered Asia for a great number of years. They both share their life in between Bangkok, Phuket, Koh PhiPhi and other dream places where they are involved with art, music and other kind of "be free and creative" festivals.

So now I had my team of interesting characters, Tommy my old friend who left the states many years ago to become a "peace corps " volunteer in the Philippines and who now lives in Bali becoming one of the best surf and travel photographer in South East Asia, Stephanie and Alexandre who one day gave up their cosy Swiss life for the poorest region of Thailand in order to help, Vicky born from a Thai mother and a Swedish father and raised in a diving center in Phuket, Benoit "lost in translation" for a great number of years in Asia and myself for whom traveling stopped a long time ago to be about reaching a destination but rather a way of living my life.

Alexandre had already started to do some location scouting for us before we arrived but Tommy and myself had agreed to meet at the foundation 3 days before the shooting and to take this time to do more scouting.
Before travelling to a new place, your mind is often filled with images of what you hope or think that you will find. I was imagining that we would find many "River Kwai" bridges or many replicas of the "Jim Thompson" house that I visit every time that I am in Bangkok. Tommy on his side was hoping to find an old monastery hidden in a misty forest with smiling monks in orange robes.
So for the next 3 days Tommy, Alexandre and myself woke up at 5am and ate miles and miles of dust roads in all the directions of the Isan province.
At this early time of the day, most of the villages were still asleep, the rice fields were covered by darkness and Alexandre and myself were trying to keep our eyes open but Tommy who on top of being a great photographer is a very good story teller and who never seams to be needing a rest would entertain us with improbable but hilarious stories. He would start like " Did I tell you the story of my first job as a waiter in a Seattle pizzeria where I got fired after my first order" and we would say no Tommy, tell us. Or he would say " did I tell you about this time where I had an interview in Santa Barbara for an IT job and that I got stuck in a traffic jam in between Zsazsa Gabor and Pewee Herman" and we would say no Tommy, tell us. And then he would say " Zsazsa and Pewee! Can you imagine? What a looser I was!..." And he would go for hours and make us laugh a lot.
Later on Alex told me "I like this guy, a guy who can make me laugh at 5 in the morning in a rice field lost somewhere in the Golden Triangle can only be a good guy”.

At the end, we didn't find my Jim Thompson's house, neither did we find Tommy's smiling monks but we found an unreal 999 lotus lake with hundreds of purple-pink flowers opening themselves everyday in between 6 and 10 am. We found a rice nursery, the only place at this time of year where the rice fields were not of a burned yellow but of a beautiful Fool Moon green. We found an old stupa and we found the part of the Mekong from where we wanted to start our descent.
We decided that the 999 lotus lake would be perfect for a warm up on the first morning of the shooting. Than we would go to the Stupa and the rice nursery where we wanted to make pictures with Vicky and Benoit riding a tuk-tuk and that we would start our Mekong expedition the next day.

As always on an adventure like that, you need a bit of luck and we had plenty but to bring excitement, the bad luck is also never really far.
An example of good luck was when, for instance, despite all our scouting we were not able to book a tuk-tuk before the shooting. While driving the days before we saw a few when crossing some villages but frankly speaking, most of them looked pretty rusted and not so photogenic. We saw one or two looking a bit better but on our way to the rice field the day of the shooting we didn't find any. It was like as if suddenly they had all disappeared and we got more and more desperate while getting closer to the field and we were already thinking of a plan B and how to get the pictures we wanted without this important accessory. And then absolutely like magic when we arrived at the exact location that we had spotted the day before, a tuk-tuk was waiting on the side of the road! And not any kind of tuk-tuk but the most beautiful one that we had ever seen in this part of Thailand. To make it better, when we asked the owner how much it could cost to rent it for one or two hours, he smiled and said that he didn't need money but that a few beers for him and his two buddies who were resting with him by the side of the road would be more than enough!

But of course you also can never be too sure that bad luck is not going to play with your nerves a bit too. The evening before the first day of shooting, we had to go pick-up Vicky and Benoit at 7 pm at the Udon Thani airport since they were arriving from Bangkok but at 5, we had a huge tropical storm. For the past days we only had a big blue sky over our heads but this afternoon the sky started to fill up with clouds and clouds, at the beginning, of a light grey color but a bit before 5 it became dark dark grey and just before turning completely to black everything exploded. We had for the next 20 minutes a more than heavy tropical rain mixed with a kind of hooting tornado. Many trees and shacks went down and all the city electricity at the same time. With the electricity off, all lights, air conditioning, ventilators but also in the hotel all the water system went dead.
In a situation like that, you always have a first reaction of positive thinking where you think "ok, no panic, it's a small adventure, it's almost fun and in half an hour the problem will be fixed" but 1 hour later, we were still plunged in the dark of our rooms starting to sweat heavily and facing a new problem "if I keep my door shot, I have no air and will suffocate slowly but if I open the mosquitos will get in!". But then your positive thinking comes back and you think that it can not last for ever and that electricity will for sure be back within an hour. A bit before midnight you understand that it won't. Your stomach start to make strange noises since the hotel restaurant had been closed because of the storm and all you had to eat was half of the potato chips bag that you had bought two days earlier in a kind of local 7/11 and that at the time you never finished because it tasted like it was ten years old. But here, in the darkness of your room, with the help of your I-phone's flash light, that's all that your were able to find at the bottom of your back-pack and now, it's bubbling in your belly because your options were pretty limited.
By this time we had asked Vicky and Benoit to find a way to come to the hotel by themselves and to be ready for next morning 5am when we'll have to head for the 999 Lotus Lake. I had a few hours left to take some rest. I wanted to wake up at 4 to prepare for all the things that we needed for the shooting, boards, paddles, rash guards and thought then that it would be really nice and helpful if the electricity could be restored during my sleep since it would help a lot to take a shower and not have to prepare what we needed at the light of a dying I-phone. But of course, it's exactly what I had to do the next morning.
On the road to the lake, we were shocked to see all the damage that the storm had caused the night before and I started to be worried for the lotuses but when we arrived at the lake the first lights of the day were rising and we were welcomed by and incredibly peaceful sight, the flowers still closed but we could feel that they would start to open soon and that we will experience one of the most beautiful paddling experience ever.
You can spend all your life in your comfort zone. That is what most people do. Maybe by choice but more often because it is simply so much easier. You can paddle everyday at home in front of your door step if you want but some will always be more attracted by the high waves of a far away ocean storm rather than the safety of their local spot. And I can say that I and my travel companions were part of this second group. We had left home many weeks, months, year before. We traveled to Bangkok and took a "Thai Smile" low cost flight to the less visited state of Thailand and here we were going to paddle a lake that no one else had ever paddled before. We had left our fears of snakes, insects and other leeches at home. We pumped our boards, Tommy jumped in the long tail of a local fisherman and we went to meet the Lotuses.
What an incredible and unforgettable experience. We paddled and paddled, Tommy shot and shot and we came back to shore some hours later with big smiles and a purple-pink light halo in our pupils.
This was the first morning of our shooting and I started to relax a bit because I knew then that our trip was already a success.

The next morning was the start of our Mekong expedition. One more time, we wanted to start early so we decided to drive in the evening to the Poopae resort a small hotel set on a cliff overlooking the river. We took a short rest there and at 5, we drove an other hour up north were two long tails were waiting for us to bring us an other hour up stream.
So one more time we unloaded our pick-ups, pumped our boards in the early morning. To make it a bit better all the river was plunged in a thick layer of fog. We couldn't see the Laos on the other side and could barely see ourselves. Were my companions happy? worried? a bit depressed and dreaming of a warm bed and a hot shower? Nobody talked too much and we all kept our emotions for ourselves. I knew that Tommy was worried for the light. I knew that Stephanie and Alexandre were happy to be here but also exhausted because of the expectations of the foundation. They had a big opening ceremony planed in 2 weeks time with all the most important representatives of the Isan province as well as the Swiss ambassador to Thailand. I could feel that they welcomed this little diversion but also knew that the timing was not the best for them. Vicky and Benoit, I was sure, were more used to late night parties and late morning siestas rather than early morning wake up calls. We all climbed silently in the long tails and let the boatmen drive us into the dense fog.

As always in this trip the magic has to happen a bit later when the sun started to show thru the white blanket surrounding us. It took 2 or 3 hours to go from this white fog to the big blue sky and in the middle we experienced an unreal golden light that made our paddling experience an other thing out of this world. We unloaded the boats and started our descent. We were alone in the world. The water was completely flat, a very light stream was making the paddling extremely easy. Popping out of the fog, small islands of light brown sand appeared. We slalomed in between them and bushes of mangroves. We heard screaming monkeys. We saw one fishing village on the bank of the river where children who for sure couldn't at first be really certain of what they were seeing sent us, after their first surprise, big smiles and shy "hellos”.

What was better? The lotuses or what we were experiencing here on the river? None for sure. At this level of intensity, their is no scale that can really apply but I was thinking for myself that this was the only true reason why I had started the Fool Moon adventure many years before. To experience unreal moments like that. Moments of pure harmony where everything make sense and where you understand that life is a beautiful journey.

Where will be the next trip? where will Fool Moon lead me this time? I'm thinking about Burma or Sri Lanka at the moment but maybe that I will get a mail, a phone call or a sign that will bring Fool Moon back to the Philippines or Thailand again or why not, Papua New Guinea or Fiji?
Who knows? We'll see…
story by
Pierre-Yves Hocké
Fool Moon founder

written in Hong Kong - Bali - Nong Khai - Bangkok / January 2016

a big Khop khoen krab to my travel companions, Vicky, Stéphanie, Alexandre, Benoit and Tommy

all pictures by © Tommy Schultz
www.tommyschultz.com

visit and support the PIMALI foundation today
www.pilmali.org

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