Lunchtime had passed, and we had entered the hottest part of the day. The mercury climbed towards 40ºC (so our mobile phones told us), and wind began to feel like warm butter whipping at our faces as we sped through the countryside. At last, it was the perfect time to go for a swim!
The town of Ye is a good 10km from some pretty unspectacular beaches, but our guesthouse owner had recommended an area upstream of the town where the river was wide and the water was clean. “It’s a great spot with a little village and a hill where you can see the whole of Ye,” he said. The directions were simple, so armed with Google Maps we gave it a try.
Of course we couldn’t find it. We drove so far out of town and up the river that there was an army checkpoint. Two officers sat bored in the heat, so through gestures we explained our situation and asked them if they knew where the village near the river was. They seemed suspicious at first, but when they realised we wanted to go swimming—an innocent pursuit!!—they laughed and gave us some directions back the other way.
We followed their orders, turning off the main highway onto a road that quickly turned from asphalt to dirt. Soon the jungle gave way to a small village of wooden huts, some with locals lazing about on their stoops in the shade. They stared. We smiled and kept going, until we caught sight of a shining river through cracks between the houses. The river looked wide and the water looked clean; there was no hilltop view, but was this the village?
By the time we stopped and climbed off the bike, four kids had appeared and were eyeing us with suspicious curiosity from the safety of their porch. We greeted them, pointed at the river and made swimming motions with our arms: “Can we swim in the river down there?”
A couple of them smiled grins of missing baby teeth. A woman, presumably their mother, appeared and looked slightly startled. We asked her the same question and she smiled politely, motioning for us to go check out the river through the narrow alley next to the house. The kids followed us down, keeping about five paces behind.
The river looked fantastic! Wide and relatively shallow, with a quick current in the middle and nothing but nature on the other side. The water was crystal clear and free of rubbish or algae, and if it weren’t for the palm trees and the heat I could almost imagine we were back in the wilds of Michigan or Germany.
But from where we stood, the bank was too high and the water too shallow to jump in. We gestured to the kids, “Where can we swim?” They pointed downstream, to a small bamboo jetty that extended from the riverbank into deeper water.
By the time we got back to the motorbike, a crowd had appeared. There were more children and some women, joined by a shirtless older man in a red longyi. He motioned to us, “I’ll show you where’s best for swimming, follow me.” We scooted slowly down the narrow road behind him, as residents peeked out of their houses and gave us betel nut-red grins.
The man, who we began to think of as “The Chief”, led us down a slope to an area where the river bank grew wide and we could access the water easily. A lone woman, who was washing her clothes in the river, gave us a surprised look, but other than that there was no one around. “Wow! Very beautiful! A beautiful river!” we said slowly. The Chief smiled.
He then pulled out a Samsung smartphone and began showing us pictures of a little boy sitting with a giant Burmese python. He explained with gestures that it was his youngest son, only four years old, though he had two older boys too. “Wow! Very nice! But what about the snake?” He gave me a thumbs up.
Mook went to change into his swimming gear, wrapping my scarf around his waist for some privacy. The Chief disappeared and returned with a younger guy, who didn’t speak any English but had apparently decided to come hang out with us at the water.
The river was as refreshing as it looked. Mook waded through the shallow bit and jumped towards the deeper water while I waded in up to my knees. The younger guy motioned, “You’re not going in?” “I’m not much of a swimmer,” I tried to explain regretfully. The water did look awesome, but I felt self-conscious jumping in fully clothed while the younger dude and The Chief watched. And when I looked at the bamboo jetty, which was now about 200 metres upriver from where we stood, there was a gaggle of kids just standing and staring.
The Chief left us alone after a few minutes, but the younger guy stood watching Mook in the water. We couldn’t really figure out if he wanted something or if he just thought the sight of a big pale German splashing around in the water was funny. “Beautiful river!” Mook gave him a thumbs up.
A cluster of three or four wooden longboats were moored in the shade of a nearby tree, so I pointed at them and asked, “Do you fish here?” I made a fishing pole gesture, which the guy probably didn’t understand at all because they fish with nets. He smiled and said something in his language, then ran down and furiously began scooping water out of one of the smaller boats. When it was empty enough, he untied it and brought it to us with a few easy pushes.
“Wow, cool boat!” More thumbs up. The guy motioned for us to get in. We could hardly say no, so we hopped aboard.
The guy hopped into the end of the boat and pulled out a long bamboo pole, but instead of pushing gondola-style, he began to row us upstream. I was impressed—we were two heavy foreigners and the current was strong, but he pushed the boat along with ease despite the lack of paddles on the pole.
We got closer and closer to the jetty, and to the flock of children that had been staring at us the whole time. When they saw us coming they retreated onto the river bank, a mixture of confused stares and amused grins. I tried waving at them but no one waved back.
The boat landed on shallow ground at the foot of the jetty, so we hopped out. The jetty formed a bridge between the riverbank and a shallow area, but beneath it was a deep trench where the current gushed powerfully. The locals had tied a rope to the underside of the jetty, and it was possible to grab hold and let your body bob wildly in the strong waves.
Mook gave it a try, swinging on the rope into the current, and hanging there for a while before letting go. The kids on the riverbank laughed as he sloshed through the waves and climbed out. He gave the crowd a thumbs up before jumping in and doing it again, and again. Every time he emerged from the water the kids laughed.
After a few more goes it was time to head back. The young guy turned the boat around, we climbed in, and he sailed us lazily down the river back to where we had left our stuff.
By the time we had arrived, the crowd from the jetty had relocated and The Chief had returned. About seven or eight kids sat on a log, some with smartphones in their hands. The Chief had brought his son along—sans snake—and showed him off with pride before taking out his phone and snapping a few photos.
Then it got a little awkward. We had wanted to relax and go for a casual dip, but we had clearly trespassed into the village’s backyard, and they wouldn’t just leave us to our own devices. So we figured it was probably time to go.
Mook grabbed my scarf and wrapped it around his waist to change back into his shorts, and the kids on the log nonchalantly started to snap photos and take video. Our chaperone and boat captain stood at the ready with Mook’s shorts, and quickly snapped up his wet swim trunks as soon as they hit the ground. While Mook struggled to put his clothes back on in front of an audience, the young guy ran to the river and began washing his trunks.
“Wha–wait! No, no, you don’t have to do that!” But the young guy was already laying the trunks out on a bush to dry. He then rushed over with Mook’s sneakers and offered to help him put them on. The kids snapped away on their phones.
We wanted to spend some money in the village by sticking around for a Coke or a coffee at one of the little shops, but we were afraid they wouldn’t let us pay for the drinks ourselves. Our entourage kept getting bigger, but everyone looked ready to pass the hottest hours of the day in the traditional way—with a nap—instead of watching two foreigners drink coffee. So for the second time that day we gave our heart-felt thanks, then hopped on the motorbike and zoomed away.
For us, the afternoon became a funny memory, but god knows what those kids did with all the photos of Mook changing his clothes.