DESCENDING THE MEKONG IN A STRENFIT X500 INFLATABLE KAYAK

Guillaume, Jean-Charles & Benoit from the "des rustines & des ailes” association travelled 300 km down the Mekong River on a 12-day kayak touring & bivouac trip with the Strenfit x500 inflatable kayak. They tell us all about their experiences during this extraordinary nautical adventure.
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February 2018, we left the city of Lyon with the idea of travelling along the length of the Silk Road by bike: A journey of a year between Europe and Asia powered solely by our calf muscles. After a winter in the Balkans, spring in Turkey and summer in the deserts of Central Asia, winter was approaching again. Southern Asia was just a few pedal pushes away. We had been mulling over a new idea for a while whilst pedalling. January 2019, we arrived in Bangkok, happy. We had 16,000 kilometres on the clock and plenty of water had passed under the bridge since we had left Lyon. Our bike trip had come to an end, but a new kayak trip was about to begin. "
 

#1 The Mekong, the mother of all rivers

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The river intrigues us. The Thais refer to it as “mother of all rivers”. The route it follows is fascinating in itself. The river’s source is right in the heart of the Himalayas , in the Tibetan mountains. It then snakes through wild Burmese and Laotian hills before widening out in Cambodia and flowing out into the China Sea in Vietnam. A long journey of 4700 km which makes the Mekong one of the biggest rivers in the world.

A little aquatic detour seems to be in order! So with the challenge on the table, we set off for northern Laos, with our 3 Itiwit X500 inflatable kayaks on our backs, to travel down the river from the village of Houay Xay to the town of Luang Prabang. Over this 300 km stretch, the Mekong is wild and flows through mountains and the Laotian jungle. There are just a few small fishing villages along the way, subsisting peacefully far away from the hustle and bustle of the towns . We set off the meet the river, curious to discover this little corner of Laotian paradise

Navigating on a river is like riding a bike: it is the same in essence and this mode of transport perfectly reflects the spirit of our journey, which is all about soft mobility. Travelling around using only the strength in your legs on a bike or in your arms on a kayak means travelling slowly, on a human level and taking the time to connect with the space around you. In addition to avoiding further damage to our beautiful planet, this way of travelling makes it easier to come into contact with local populations. Kayaks were a good way of melting into the background on this trip because the Laotians travel primarily in dugout canoes on the river. In terms of the soft mobility theme, the Itiwit Strenfit x500 kayaks won us over immediately! Their compact storage size is really impressive and means you can carry them on your back to get to the river on foot. The next stage would be to develop a kayak that could be transported by bike in order to access the river by bike! (We would be the first customers)
 

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#2 Preparation 

Our experience travelling around on bike means that we feel completely confident about travelling alongside a river. But as far as anything to do with the kayak or the river itself, either close up or at a distance, is concerned, we had a steep learning curve ahead! Fortunately the Itiwit brand gave us some great advice before we started out. We had a really accelerated training course via videoconference between Bangkok and the itiwit design centre in Hendaye, France. It is completely amazing! In addition to designing innovative products, the Itiwit team devotes a lot of time and energy to sharing their knowledge and experience in the field with their users, a good example of their close relationship with their partners. In terms of appearance, the Mekong looks calm and peaceful. This is the impression you have when you watch the water gently flowing past you whilst standing on solid ground. However, there are some sections where the river narrows and goes through gorges. Strong currents, turbulence and siphons can appear without any warning. We identified 5 or 6 zones of rapids over the 300 kilometres of descent that we marked on our map. It was difficult to know beforehand how our kayaks would behave in these sections. The day before our big departure, we practised our capsize manoeuvres in the middle of the river, getting back into the kayak and then bailing out the water inside it so that we would know exactly what to do on the day that one of us really falls into the water for the first time! 
 

#3 First paddle strokes

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“Get up, guys, time to wake up! We’re going to the end of the world.” 
7.30 AM. Guillaume encouraged us with some gentle music from another era. It’s strange, we had the same feeling as when we were small and our parents woke us up with the same music for a day of hiking. Each moment in life has its own adventure. Today our end of the world is the Mekong.
Packing our bags and folding the tent takes us a long time. This is completely normal as we are never quite at optimal efficiency on the first days of a trip: 
-“Who can take the bananas?” 
-”Forget it, I haven’t got space at all!”
Luckily the rear hold on the Itiwit X500 kayak is large enough to accommodate a 40 litre water-tight bag and plenty of loose bananas! 11.30 AM and our kayaks are finally ready: it is time to set off. The first paddle strokes are magical, the river carries us along peacefully. Little Laotian shacks line the left bank and slowly we leave the village of Houay Xay. The currents and counter-currents on this very wide river carry us as if we were nothing but little twigs. From solid ground, the river looks so easy. On the water, we see it from a different angle and learn to read it. It is a pleasant surprise to find that the X500 kayaks are even more stable when they are loaded. On each kayak we have about 20 kilogrammes of luggage, including food and water. We pass under the huge bridge that connects the Thai bank to the Laotian bank. Beyond this point, everything is unknown and the real adventure begins. We progress discretely over the first 30 kilometres, because navigating over the border between Laos and Thailand is not really approved of. 
 

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#4 Morning mist

Every morning, Mother Nature organises the most amazing show for us when we poke our heads out of the tent. The hills surrounding us are covered in mist, there is a really mystical atmosphere. Only the biggest trees in the jungle, the ones that are head taller than all the others, stand out. They appear and then disappear like ghosts. The birds are singing and the sound of water gently wakes us. The early-riser of the day gets up and boils the water for our coffee. On the first day, whilst sipping our coffee on the top of our sand dune, we realised that we are actually doing what we had been dreaming about on our bikes for months. At exactly 10 AM, the sun comes out. It’s time to knuckle down, pack up camp and load up the kayaks! With the sun, we climb back on board our vessels. Every morning it’s a real pleasure to experience the enjoyable sensation of the first few paddle strokes of the day. This feeling reminds us of how we felt during the first few days of the bike trip, when, at night, the journey is paused, and then with the first push on the pedals the next day, it starts again. 

#5 The little villages we visit at lunchtime

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Most of the villages we come across on the way are only connected to the rest of the country by the river. Some of them are quite large and are where the local primary school is located. Others are so small that they are really just a handful of homes. Generally speaking, we go past 2 small villages every day. Lunchtime is a real adventure. We have to stop to find something to eat and fill up on drinking water. Often it’s the children who spot us first. Amused, they watch us arrive with our strange orange dugouts. Even if we look as if we are a blot on the landscape with our cosmonaut equipment, we share the same means of transport for travelling on the river and this point in common subconsciously creates an initial bond with the locals.

The first day, when we were walking towards the village, we were surprised by the complete silence. Everything was very calm, nothing was happening. We went past the village stores and spotted the owner sleeping slumped over the counter. It was hot. We must have arrived as the villagers were enjoying their siesta… Actually, time has stood still in Laos! The Laotians we meet along the way make the most of every moment and live life to a different rhythm to ours, which means very laid back. Once the sun is high in the sky, they spend the rest of the day resting, fishing and enjoying a drink with friends. Stress doesn’t really seem to exist here.

Communication is difficult. One day, in one of these villages, a teacher who spoke a few words of English, greeted us and showed us all round the village during our lunch break as if we were his guests. On one occasion, two villagers who were eating together saw us get out of the kayaks in the middle of the village and curious, they asked us to join them at their table. Another time, children helped us to pull the kayaks out of the water and up onto the bank. With our catch-all sign, they quickly understood that our stomachs were rumbling and took us the village mother. That day we found ourselves eating our noodle soup in that lady’s garden, surrounded by 30 curious children! One thing is certain, the magic worked every lunchtime and from nothing, we always managed to get what we needed and had some unforgettable experiences at the same time. 
 

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#6 Camping under the stars

Even during our year-long cycling trip, we had never had so many dream sites for setting up camp as along the Mekong. The sediment swept along by the river in the rainy season creates fine sandy beaches on the banks in the dry season. Every evening we put up the tent in the middle of the bush on yet another beach from paradise. It is one of the best moments of the day. After an afternoon of paddling in full sun, a good shower in the Mekong is essential. Using the bailing scoops from the kayaks, we enjoy a local-style shower! With our feet in the sand and one of us cooking and the others putting the tent up, we watch the last boats of the day go by on the river. Sometimes a local catches sight of us and looks at us with curiosity, and when we wave at them, they smile. 
As soon as we had entered into the hills of Laos on the river, we were travelling through an unreal landscape until we reached our final destination, Luang Prabang. The fields of bananas and wooden shacks have given over to hills and jungle. The river is no longer as wide as it was, and has started to snake through the hills, leading us to villages which are only accessible by river. With our straw hats on our heads, we have experienced and navigated on a mythical river with the amusing sensation of playing at being explorers from times gone-by.. This unforgettable experience has opened up new horizons for us. We have now realized our childhood dream. 
 

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