Rhythm of the Mekong

Travel cover Though landlocked, Laos is defined by its scenic waterways and locals and tourists alike are ferried down the Mekong River.

Chane Thaphone points to the line of trees that run parallel to the water's edge off the boat's port side. "Water up, October, 20 metres," he says in broken English over the hum of the engine and the splash of the prow. He's pointing to the bottommost outline of the trees, where the jungle's roots are exposed. Below this lies the Mekong's flood zone, an expanding and contracting band of sand, rocky outcroppings and even the occasional cultivated plot of land - fenced in by bamboo sticks that will be washed away during the coming inundation that ebbs and surges from April, when the river reaches its lowest level, to October, when the monsoons raise the 3,200km long waterway to its peak state. We're cruising through northern Laos on board Chane's home, a curtained houseboat now crammed with 80 passengers. Its painted wooden boards cut a course through the churning water as Chane's father, poker-faced at the skipper's wheel, zigzags through an invisible channel where the water runs deep enough to allow passage. Looking from a distance like giant moss-covered stones, the mountains slope down to water's edge at 45-degree angles.

This is the seasonal rhythm of Laos, where life moves largely according to the rise and fall of the river. It explains, in part, why the country is best seen by water, and today it's easier than ever to do so. Due to a new border crossing with Vietnam and an increase in passenger boat traffic up the Nam Ou, a major Mekong tributary, one can now cross the country from the Thai to Vietnamese borders almost entirely by riverboat. Last month, with the water level low and still falling, I cut a V-shaped route through the northern part of country, south-east down the Mekong, then north-east up the Nam Ou. Though landlocked, Laos is defined by its waterways, and by the Mekong especially. The river runs the length of the country north to south, defining much of its western border with Thailand. Along with its tributaries, it provides food, byways and a washbasin for those living alongside it. The river's fish, often salted and pounded into a paste, traditionally provides the main protein source for its dependents, and the staple of Lao cuisine, sticky rice, is often served with a chilli and fish-paste dip, or with khai pene, the river weed harvested and dried from its banks.

Against a backdrop of crags shrouded in clouds, the two faces of the country reveal themselves along these banks, for Laos, like the fantasy land of Maurice Sendak, is a place both friendly and wild. The Mekong slow boat to Luang Prabang sets off close to one of the wilder sections, an area known as the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. The once lawless hillsides here and northwards, where the Mekong forms the Burmese-Laos border, were the seat of Asia's opium trade in the mid-20th century, earning a reputation for banditry and drug-running. The Mekong has always had a dark side that drew men to it, some of whom it never let go. It's not by chance that Francis Ford Coppola chose the Mekong as a stand-in for Joseph Conrad's Congo in Apocalypse Now, his retelling of the latter's Heart of Darkness, for the river has seen its share of crazy Kurtzes in real life. In Mad About the Mekong, historian John Keay tells the little-known story of the 19th century French explorer Francis Garnier, part of a colonial expedition to explore the river's potential for navigation in the hope of finding a route to China. Garnier himself admitted to suffering from an irrational obsession with the river, une monomanie du Mekong, a desire to conquer the headwaters that proved impervious to reason, impracticability and even disease.

On their corner of the Golden Triangle, the Thais have done an impressive job of converting this perverse allure into a tourist attraction, for you're more likely to run into tour buses than gun smugglers on the Thai side of the border, where most travellers start their Mekong journey. At the Hall of Opium, near the dilapidated town of Chiang Saen on the Thai side of the river, a slick and captivating multimedia presentation describes the role of opium in Asian conflict and colonisation, including life-size dioramas of traditional opium dens, complete with the gurgling of water pipes. Meanwhile, the Chinese have been doing their part to tame the upper Mekong, blasting through rapids that until recently made the stretch north of here, the part that runs between Laos and Burma and into China's Yunnan province, unnavigable. The results are now visible at Chiang Saen's port, where goods from Yunnan province are unloaded onto Thai soil from Chinese vessels, their red stars flapping in the breeze. Over on the Laos side of the stream, there's an air of tranquillity rather than Conradian horror at Houayxai, a hop over on the ferry from Chiang Khong, a Thai town about 60 kilometres downstream from Chiang Saen. Most Mekong passenger boats depart from here, where chanting monks, clad in orange, wake the residents at 7am on their morning alms rounds. It's for the better, since only travellers that rise early are assured one of the better (that is, cushioned) seats on the slow boat to Luang Prabang, a two-day ride that has become justifiably popular among travellers on the South-east Asian circuit.

The boat sets off from Houayxai at noon, leaving Thailand behind us, snaking a course downstream into Laos through shallow waters in which eddies swirl. The sun dapples the surface as it sinks into the mountains beyond the right bank, the passengers comparing travel notes, some even playing guitar like it's Kathmandu in the 1960s. Over the hours, the landscape's geometry reveals itself: clouds, sky, jungled slopes descending on either side, striated outcroppings all through the river, fishing nets strung up with bamboo poles, and rivulets cutting through the flood basin's encrusted sandbanks. We stay the night at Pakbeng, an isolated town where some locals are singing karaoke, before setting off at 9am the next day. Pausing at one riverside settlement, villagers load goods onto the houseboat's roof, including three huge bamboo cane basket-cages filled with live birds - two with chickens, one with ducks. An errant fowl almost goes overboard, but Chane catches it and stuffs it, unceremoniously, beak first, back into its carrying case. The journey reaches its peak in terms of luxury at the French colonial city of Luang Prabang, the capital of northern Laos. An astonishingly picturesque UN world heritage site nestled on a peninsula next to the Mekong, Luang Prabang caters to upscale tourists and backpackers alike, with posh eateries, boutique hotels and rows of shops selling Western grub and travellers' essentials. Continuing the journey via water requires downgrading to the type of boat used by the French explorers in the 19th century, an oversized canoe or pirogue, today powered not by a team of overworked oarsmen but by an inboard engine mounted in the back - a sputtering contraption of exposed gears and spinning belts seemingly held together by spare bits of wire, rubber bands and perhaps chewing gum. Back in the 19th century, the French expedition faced an crucial choice just north of Luang Prabang. Coming from the south, they contemplated turning eastward up the Nam Ou, the more trafficked course at the time. Had they done so, they might have found their coveted trade route to China. Bent on conquering the Mekong, they chose unwisely. The impenetrable rapids near the Golden Triangle soon drove them out of the water, and the expedition's commander did not live to see Saigon again, let alone Paris, dying of a fever in the jungles to the north. The Nam Ou is reachable by doubling back upstream from Luang Prabang for a couple of hours. As were the French, visitors are mesmerised by a vast collection of Buddha statues in a cave at the village of Pak Ou, which overlooks the confluence of the two rivers; the bodhisattvas seem to be focused single-pointedly on the importance of this fork. A sheer rock face greets those who make the right hand turn at Pak Ou, signalling a change in scenery, for the tributary's course is narrower and more dramatic, the water descending in stages through rapids, between sections at times so placid the surface glistens as it reflects the clouds and rocky peaks. Until recently one had to charter a boat to head up the Nam Ou, but vessels now ply the waters regularly. Here's where the real adventure begin. Within an hour, a clang rings out and the engine stops. The propeller just hit a rock. Grounded, the skipper signals for all men on board to jump into the rushing water and push the boat back onto a navigable course. Soaked but floating again, we continue the journey and overnight at Nong Khiaw, a village of wooden shacks topped by corrugated iron with an occasional guest house. In the red muddy-puddled streets, children operate tiny battery-powered boats, and even here, the sound of singing carries up the slopes into the moonlit night. The Laotians know how to enjoy themselves. It's still another day's ride upstream to the village of Muong Khoua, where it's now possible to take a dirt road into northern Vietnam via the border crossing at Tay Trang, a route opened in 2007 and still largely under construction, with major roadworks along the way. We spend the night at Muong Khoua and rise before dawn, trudging down to the river. There being no bridge, vehicles cross by ferry barge, albeit one that reaches halfway to the other side before it even moves; at the river's lowest ebb, lorries could probably ford the stream. Despite this, it's difficult to see the other side, where a bus is waiting, bound for the Vietnamese city of Dien Bien Phu, for the village has no street lamps and the moon has set. A motorised pirogue appears, taking foot passengers across for a couple thousand Laotian kip, the equivalent of pennies. The skiff sputters into the watery blackness. The journey's circle is now complete, having floated from the edge of the heart of darkness at the Golden Triangle to Luang Prabang's air of civilisation and now back again, each successive stage of the journey seeing fewer tourists. There's less than a handful of foreign faces on board this final leg, and the experience itself is entirely local: The Dien Bien Phu bus has 22 numbered seats, but the operators cram almost twice as many on board, plus as many sacks of grain and produce as can be squeezed into the remaining pockets of air. For this newly opened cross-border trade route, cargo, not comfort, is the priority. I spend most of my last five hours in Laos with a sack of dried red chillies where my legs should be, the bus lurching round bends as it trundles through the dirt, with backhoes and bulldozers still in the process of creating something worthy of the name "road." I wish I could say I enjoyed this last section; though endurable, the bus ride was an unpleasant experience even by budget travel standards. Like the French explorers and others captivated by the Mekong over the years, I much prefer the water. travel@thenational.ae

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