More than two years ago Jen and I flew into Phnom Penh with 42 other tired and nervous Peace Corps Trainees. We were met at Pochentong International Airport by a small contingent of veteran volunteers, who had already been living in Cambodia for a year, and then promptly whisked away to the heart of the city and lifeblood of the country: the mighty Mekong.
My first view of the Mekong was from the veranda of the old Foreign Correspondence Club, housed in a French colonial-era building, and a fittingly appropriate place to first discover the river. The Mekong was only fully navigated in 1868 by a team of French explorers commissioned by their government in the name of colonial expansion. The expedition, led by a sickly French naval officer, never made it to the headwaters of the river in Tibet, but did make it as far as Yunnan province in southern China, where the captain died from a bad case of the “pasty foreigner meets tropical Asian disease.” After months on the river dodging falls and rapids and then their captain’s death, the French expedition declared the Mekong too dangerous for navigation and trade.
From my vantage point in the by-gone colonialist’s mansion, the Mekong’s waters looked a calm, muddy brown. However, I was struck by its size and activity; the river seemed to stretch to the horizon, filled with fishing boats and ferries plying its waters. Only later did I learn that where I sat soaking up my first evening in Cambodia is actually a confluence of three rivers: the Tonle Sap, Bassac, and the Mekong. I also later learned that bizarrely, during the wet season, the Mekong becomes so bloated with rain water that the extra water reverses the direction of the Tonle Sap and flows over a hundred kilometers farther north, where it replenishes the Tonle Sap lake and the largest fresh water fisheries in Southeast Asia.
During my service in Cambodia, the view of the Mekong from the Phnom Penh waterfront became a soothing tonic for the soul. Every time I looked out at the river I was reminded of my first day in Cambodia, and consequently of how far I had come since that day. It was there that I learned that I had fallen in love with Cambodia. Sadly, however, I never explored more of the river than what I could see from its banks in Phnom Penh. We never saw the last of the river dolphins, never sailed down its stately current, or swam in its muddy waters (I don’t regret that one). And so, for the last two years, the Mekong remained fixed in my mind as I knew it in Phnom Penh.
Until two weeks ago that is, when Jen and I went to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Like Phnom Penh farther to the south, Vientiane is built alongside the Mekong (though its size and mien are not nearly as impressive) and also claims the architectural remains of French Indochina. The resemblance between the two cities, however, stops there. Where Phnom Penh assaults the senses with the roar of countless motorbikes and garish street shops, Vientiane is so quiet you can nearly hear a pin drop. The roads are virtually empty and the main river drag is downright pleasant. It is a city that only comes alive at sunset for an ephemeral moment when people walk the river and dine on barbequed fish, before they retreat back to their homes after dusk.
We only spent one evening in Vientiane, long enough to tour the city and see some of its more famous temples and stupas. Like most of the other major towns in Southeast Asia, Vientiane has been sacked and rebuilt countless times as it exchanged hands between warring ancient kingdoms. We didn’t stay long enough to really get a feel for the city, however, because our sites were directed northward, towards Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of the country, tucked away in the remote mountains of northern Laos.
Now, as this is still something of a travel blog, I must warn the reader, should you plan a trip to Luang Prabang (which you should), you are strongly advised against riding the bus from Vientiane. Jen and I suffered 12 hours of pothole-riddled mud roads snaking up mountain passes all to the chorus of half a dozen people retching out their previous evening’s dinner. Luang Prabang has an international airport: use it!
Once we had finally arrived in Luang Prabang, we knew immediately that we would stay as long as our short time allowed. Our tuk tuk dropped us off in the old town and with one look we were both smitten. Built on a long, thin peninsula outlined by the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers, the old town of Luang Prabang is reminiscent of the Asia of Old. The peninsula is cut in half by a long, narrow road lined with old French buildings and even older glittering temples. In the morning light, as the sun crept up over the mountains and the shadows hid the motorbikes along the road, we felt like we had entered a world stuck in time.
In Luang Prabang we found our peace by slowing down for a week. After the emotional roller coaster of departing from Cambodia a month ago and then our hectic visit to Vietnam, the quiet beauty along the Mekong was exactly what we needed. We spent our days enjoying the delicacies of France’s culinary legacy in small cafes while also exploring the diverse array of Laos cuisine through a local cooking course.
We explored the surrounding areas by motorbike and bicycle, gaining a small feel for the country at large. The mountains of Laos, we discovered, are regal unlike anywhere else in Southeast Asia. They tower over small rice-growing hamlets and are covered in lush, tropical forests. Their size and terrain, however, did appear to make for hard farming and sluggish transportation. The towns that we visited and the countryside in between bore the hallmarks of a country still wallowing economically at the bottom of the developing world. More than even Cambodia, the rural life of Loas must be hard.
Our sole excursion into the mountains for an adventure (which Laos is famous for), was a day long kayaking trip down the Nam Khan river, the main local tributary to the Mekong. We spent much of our day at a bizarre waterfall above the river. Running only during the wet season, the waterfall raged down a hillside right through the forest, between trees and over boulder terraces, creating stepped pools large enough for us (and elephants) to swim in.
Following the waterfall back down to the river in the afternoon, we hopped in our kayaks and proceeded to soar down the bloated river for several hours. The river wound through hillocks covered in corn, sticky rice, and teak tree plantations. The only sign of human activity was an occasional fisherman paddling furiously across the wide river in a shallow long boat. The houses along the river were nothing more than thatched shacks, big enough for a single family and perched precariously on the banks of the river, looking like something out of Apocalypse Now. The ride evoked dueling emotions: a lingering appreciation for the river’s natural beauty but a sadness for the families eking out a life along it.
We left Luang Prabang differently than we arrived. We booked a couple of seats on the daily slow boat that runs between Luang Prabang and the Thai border, two days up river along the Mekong. We chose this route because of its fame amongst other Southeast Asian travelers and because I was eager to see the river that I had known for two years from a different perspective. While in Cambodia I had also read a lot about the Laos government’s proposed hydroelectric dam projects. They were rather controversial within the region and unambiguously opposed by local environmental groups. China had built three major hydroelectric dams along the main channel of the Mekong several years ago, and in the process had displaced tens of thousands of residents. Recent studies have also shown that these Chinese dams have seriously disrupted life for endemic and rare species in the Mekong. Not surprisingly, there are now fears that the proposed Laos dams would cause even further damage along the river, mostly by blocking migratory fish from their spawning grounds and impeding sediment important for fertilizing the delta’s highly productive farming region in Vietnam. The dams would also be the end for most of the fishing communities along the river (though we were told these same communities have largely overfished the river already).
But like most major development projects like these dams, the devil’s in the details. Laos, as I mentioned, is one of the poorest countries in the world, and from my observations certainly far less prosperous than its surrounding neighbors. Laos government officials are angrily defending their need to dam the Mekong in order to raise badly needed revenues for rural development by selling the electricity to the heavy energy consumers Thailand and Vietnam (ironically two countries politically opposing the dams). The dams would also provide electricity throughout the country to villages that still exist somewhere between the 18th and 19th centuries.
A Mekong River Commission, comprised of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, have officially agreed to place a moratorium on the dam projects for the time being, pending future studies on the impact of the dams. Like any good neighbor, however, Laos has secretly begun preparing the future site of the dam by building roads and clearing forests. And even more clandestine, they are doing it with the assistance of a Thai firm that stands to receive most of the initial profits from the sale of electricity until the Laos government pays back the company. While we didn’t see any signs of it while in Laos, local and international media say that the Laos government is also carrying out a massive public relations campaign to convince the people living on the river that the dams will mean jobs and a higher standard of living. For this last part, it may not all be untruth.
For our trip up the Mekong, however, we saw no sign of dams. The river still flows deep and strong, filled with mud and debris, mercilessly carving its way through verdant hills and jagged mountains. I like to believe that our trip may have been one of the last chances to see the Mekong river free flowing and unleashed. It was a stately trip that took us slowly out of the mountains and from lush jungle to cultivated farms. We entered an altered state (that is to say a fairly mind-numbing state) along the river, stopping for a night at a small outpost filled with gap-year backpackers drinking their way through Southeast Asia and hotels riddled with bedbugs. The two days washed by quickly and before we knew it, we were crossing the border into Thailand and saying our goodbyes to Laos and the Mekong.
Along the Mekong, the countries of Southeast Asia are deciding their fates. They all share the same river and are in their own way intimately connected to it. How they choose to protect it or harness its power will reflect what they choose to prioritize as they continue to develop. For Thailand, a country already plugged into the modern age, the Mekong has great potential to fuel its continued prosperity. Laos and Cambodia, though they still lag far behind their bigger neighbors, will have to figure out how to compromise with each other, as each sees different visions for the river. Laos needs money and electricity, while Cambodia continues to rely on the fertile water that the Mekong flushes into its rice fields and fish nets. Vietnam, at the bottom end of the river, has to deal with the river as it comes, and so has a great interest in seeing it protected. When I first caught site of the Mekong two years ago, little did I fully comprehend just how much the river means to this part of the world, and how integral its fate is linked with the fates of the people who live alongside it.