Lao river traders at home

Traveling long-distances for more than half the year, many Lao river traders are all too familiar with living onboard their boats. Clambering on to a cargo boat, one can immediately see that boats are not simply a carrier of goods but are also a second home for traders.

All boats allow the creation of a home atmosphere but bigger ones, with more living space, can provide more and better lifestyle possibilities. The structure of large boats is different from the small ones even though the main purpose of the boat is the same: the transportation of people and goods. The big boats – which are about 120 tonnes – have two levels. The top one is used as the living space with a kitchen and toilet in the back. On smaller sized boats, there is only one storey and so the living quarters and cargo space are next to each other.

Some boats have a small chicken coop attached at the very rear of the boat where one or two chickens are raised during trading trips. Not only are the chickens raised for food but they are also a functional alarm clock helping to wake the crew in the early morning when the boat is docked in isolated places. Many boats also have a small garden for home grown vegetables where they tend to onions, chillies, lemongrass, parsley, and peppermint.

Wealthy traders who own large boats can have all the conveniences of a luxurious home. They can afford to furnish their quarters with dining table sets, coffee and tea nooks, and entertainment facilities such as TVs, CD players and VCD players. Some may even have piles of movies, comedy shows, and songs, and a modern stereo with surround-sound karaoke facilities.

Before considering renovating their land-based house, it is their boat that most traders prefer to upgrade and furnish first. The boat is where they share their suffering, their love, and their happiness. They consider it their home.

The connection they form with different people and lands of the Lao long-distance river traders creates a special sense of home and community. Lao traders make their home along the course of the Mekong. They share a transborder worldview that allows, instead of obstructs, riverine social relations and the creation of “home” along the way.

To read the exclusive series of New Mandala posts on Mekong River traders, go to the full list of Golden Boat update posts.