In the late ’60s and early ’70s the thought of a trip down the Mekong was the stuff of nightmares. The place was a war zone, and the only way to see it was courtesy of Uncle Sam. But thankfully times change, and today the great river that runs from China through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam is accessible to anyone who wants to put paddle to water, assuming you have the proper paperwork and know your way around.
Which is a good reason to find an outfitter who can handle the logistics. Some top adventure companies offer trips on the Mekong, but these are mostly cruises. For journeys by kayak, Bangkok-based river explorer Steve Van Beek brings something extra: 40 years of residence in Southeast Asia and almost as many years exploring the region’s rivers.
I first met Steve about 20 years ago when I was passing through Bangkok on my way to Nepal. A mutual friend told me I had to call him when I was there because Steve had been living in Bangkok for decades and had a profound knowledge of Southeast Asia. Despite jet lag and a short layover I rang him up, we met for lunch, and our paths have been crossing ever since.
Steve was the guy I called for news from the street when a coup took place in Bangkok. He was a source for Thai literature, a repository of cultural and historical knowledge, and an engaging storyteller. His book, Slithering South, chronicled the first full paddle descent of Thailand’s Chao Phraya River — a trip he made solo — and shed light on the characters and culture of these remote regions accessible only by water.
Now he runs tours on the rivers of Southeast Asia, primarily the Mekong as it makes its way through Laos. Outside magazine called one of his trips “one of 48 trips of a lifetime.” Joshua Kurlantzick in The New York Times reported on a startling discovery he made on one of his tours. National Geographic Adventure also featured his trips in a story about Mekong River journeys.
All of which made me begin thinking about the Mekong — in a positive light these days — and wondering if I can cross paths again with Steve, this time on the water. I’ve never been on a river trip with him, and it’s time to get my paddling skills in shape.