Rapids, ruins and the end of the river

In which our correspondent wanders the tranquil streets of Thakaek and weathers a dangerous descent.

Topics: Travel, Asia,

By the time Chris and I started down the southeast bend of the river
above Thakaek, the Mik Sip had traveled more miles down the Mekong
than most Lao citizens travel in their lifetimes. As we steered our
northern-style fishing vessel into the southern reaches of the river,
we may as well have been driving a dogsled into downtown Dallas.
Fishermen in small, long-tail powered dugout canoes stared in
confusion or bemusement as Chris and I thumped past in a high-gunneled, canary-yellow craft that was twice as long and half as
maneuverable as anything else on the river.

Since the logistics of a two-man crew pretty much precluded
socializing, Chris and I drove straight through to Thakaek. Piloting
in shifts, we stuck close to the tobacco fields of the Lao shoreline
as the river gradually widened. By late day, we could no longer make
out the fishing boats on the Thai side of the Mekong.

When the sun went down amid an orange halo of burn-off smoke from
the Thai fields, we drove the last two hours to Thakaek by
moonlight. In the dim neon glow, the shores of the Mekong dissolved
into a bluish veil of noises. The rattle of the Mik Sip’s engine
reverberated from the Lao bank with a warping echo, sounding like
some back-masked message from Babel; dim strains of karaoke drifted
across the waters from the Thai shore, as eerie and tuneless as white
noise. Whenever Chris shouted to me from the pilot’s seat, it
sounded like there were 100 of him in a very large and empty room.
Though we certainly weren’t on the river much past 8 p.m., it felt
like time had stopped altogether. We pulled into Thakaek as
enchanted and spooked as Huck and Jim below the Ohio.

I fell asleep in my hotel room within an hour of arriving, and woke
up disoriented at 4:30 in the morning. Hoping to straighten my
bearings, I went for a walk through the darkened pre-dawn streets of
Thakaek.

If Luang Prabang is a tiny Manhattan, then Thakaek is a Laotian St.
Louis — an 1850s-style gateway city, where little girls try on
their mother’s lipstick by kerosene lamp light behind the shuttered
windows of crumbling mint-green Lao-French homes, and blue banners
advertising Pepsodent flutter above dusty piles of red brick in the
old colonial town square, and sad chickens screech like broken radios
in the moments before sunrise.



As I walked, Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, blazed in electric splendor just
across the river — a vision of an alternative future — its riverbanks
hemmed with smart concrete walkways, its avenues webbed over with
telephone lines, its temples as clean and uniform as McDonald’s
franchises.

In a century defined by technological progress and Western standards
of living, the Lao shores of the Mekong often feel like a dusty
asterisk in the history books. Indeed, some 85 percent of Laotians still
survive on a subsistence lifestyle — farming or fishing for food,
building their homes from native materials and occasionally
bartering for consumer items.

Outside influences look to change all that. Just a few decades after
having dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos (as part of an ill-defined “secret war” that reduced the peasant culture of Xieng
Khouang province to rubble), the United States has already poured
$1.5 billion of investment into Laotian modernization and economic-development schemes.

The city of Thakaek, though, symbolizes the potential of a much
stronger influence on Lao society: Thailand. In 1996, Bangkok and
Vientiane signed a memorandum of understanding to build a bridge
connecting Thakakek with Nakhon Phanom. Thus — with the increased
flood of Thai commerce bound to arrive on the Lao shore — Thakaek
represents how Laos is at a sensitive crossroads: primed for changes
that will likely redefine the country in another 20 years.

It has been suggested, of course, that this is a bad thing — that
avoiding foreign influences and maintaining the purity of local
culture is somehow more ideal. But a close look at Lao culture
itself shows how it’s too late to arbitrarily stop time and make
judgments of cultural purity. After all, the basic precepts of Lao
mythology, philosophy and religion are heavily influenced by the
ancient Khmers (who themselves were influenced culturally by India),
most Lao pop culture is already Thai-derived and for hundreds of
years there was no distinct border between Laos and Vietnam.

All of this in addition to the fact that — even in the charming pre-dawn streets of Thakaek — I never once saw any Lao citizens who
could knap flint in the manner of their Stone Age ancestors.

Within two hours of my morning walk, I was back on the river. While
I’d been asleep the night before, Chris had invited Liz and Duncan, a
good-natured young English couple, to join us for the final stretch.

The four of us made it two days downriver from Thakaek — and not
more than an hour past Savannakhet — when I personally drove the Mik
Sip over a submerged rock shoal, snapped the propeller off and set
us adrift in the swift current.

“Well,” Chris said with a trademark phlegmatic drawl that indicated
he was panicking, “if we don’t start paddling right now, we’re gonna
lose this boat.”

Thus began our descent of the Khemmarat rapids.

If any English-language travel guidebooks offer the slightest shred
of specific advice on navigating difficult sections of the Mekong, I
am not aware of their existence.

Going into the Khemmarat rapids, the best description of our watery
obstacle came from Marte Bassenne’s 1909 travelogue — which vaguely
placed the rapids somewhere between Savannakhet and Pakse, and grimly
noted that this stretch of the Mekong River “is like a common grave
of unlucky victims, because one seldom finds a corpse.” Francis
Garnier, whose expedition team portaged around the rapids in 1866,
wrote of Khemmarat: “Nothing can express the horror of this spot,
where the yellow waters twist over and through the long narrow pass,
breaking against the rock with a fearful noise.”

Chris and I had disregarded the hyperbole of our French predecessors
for three reasons. First, we were in the middle of dry season, so
the rapids would not be as fierce as Garnier and Bassenne had
witnessed. Second, we had purchased a sheaf of detailed
topographical maps of the area from the national geographic service
in Vientiane. Third, we figured that the ubiquitous Lao fishermen —
who had been quite helpful in pantomiming instruction thus far —
would warn us if we were about to motor into certain death.

After I broke the propeller on the shoal below Savannakhet, we were
able to paddle to a broken concrete pylon away from the current and
save the boat. During the French colonial era, that pylon might
have warned me off the rocks in the first place. Unfortunately for
us, the Savannakhet to Pakse portion of the river isn’t used for long-haul commerce anymore, and the century-old pylons have been worn down
to amorphous lumps of cement and cobbles. For our purposes, the
pylon did little more than provide me with something to steady the
boat on as Chris plunged under the stern to install a new propeller.

Once the Mik Sip was up and running, we headed downstream for what
would become 36 continuous hours of melodramatics. Low water had
indeed provided us with a weaker current — but it had also split the
river into a foaming braid of channels splayed out amid a maze of
rocks. When we weren’t churning through the whitewater, it seemed,
we were getting stuck on a shoal.

Chris drawled nervously at us the whole time, and continuously
improvised methods of staving off disaster. When the channel
narrowed to a boil, Chris put Liz in the bow and had her signal
upcoming dangers. When waves from the rapids began to wash over the
gunwales, he had me squat over the engine with a plastic mat so we
wouldn’t stall out in the middle of the whitewater.

Around sundown the first day, we eddied-out near a huge riverside
sand dune that made for a perfect campsite. After collecting my
share of the night’s firewood, I went down to the water’s edge to
watch the first stars come out. Something about the day’s dangers
had sharpened my senses; I listened to the languorous murmur of the
river with an acute feeling of joy. As I breathed in, I imagined the
tiny bits of oxygen attaching to the wet walls of my lungs and
sifting off into my bloodstream.

Just after noon the following day, we came upon the most daunting
rapid we’d seen yet: a fat tongue of water that spilled out in a
fury between two huge black rocks. Intimidated, we stopped for lunch.

Positioning himself high on the bank above the rapid, Chris peeled a
hard-boiled egg and stared out at the foaming water with an edgy
silence. When he’d finished eating, he came down from his perch.
“To hell with it,” he said.

Five minutes later, he took us straight down the middle of the
tongue, and that was the end of the Khemmarat rapids.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

Years ago, Lao myth tells us, men and gods used to meet. As
generally happens in such situations, the humans blew that
arrangement by being foolish and arrogant.

When mankind insolently refused to seek a livelihood beyond hunting
and fishing, the gods flooded the world. Three chieftains managed to
escape the flood by building a floating house. When the waters
receded, the gods gave the chieftains a buffalo, so they could plow
the earth, plant crops and live in a civilized manner. When the
buffalo died, three gourds grew from its nose — and when the
chieftains cut open the gourds, humans poured out to populate the
world.

Below the rapids of Khemmarat, where the Mekong gradually twists its
way down into an isolated, sun-baked canyon, one is tempted to take
this myth at face value. The only inhabitants of this limestone
gorge — which is fluted with ledges and fringed at the top with
virgin forest — were gypsy fishermen, who seem to have secretly
dodged the mythic flood and held on to their uncivilized ways.
Living directly on the canyon cliffs in thatch huts, and climbing
from ledge to ledge on an elaborate system of wooden ladders, the
river gypsies looked otherworldly — larger than life — like they
were impassively waiting for Jesus to come back and make them fishers
of men.

We camped that night on a narrow dune that hadn’t seen footprints in
ages. I entertained myself for the good part of an hour just walking
the contours of the sand, turning every so often to watch the tiny
avalanches set off by my presence. When I awoke in the bow of the
Mik Sip the following morning, the sand next to the boat was laced
with the tracks of voyeuristic rodents.

South of the canyon, the Mekong swelled to a width of over a mile and
doglegged away from Thailand. On this clean blue stretch of river,
the waters were once again awash with passenger ferries and huahoua-leim freighters, plying the stretch between Pakse and the Thai border.

By the time we’d arrived in Pakse to order an enormous restaurant
dinner and toast our survival, Chris was already overstaying his
visa. He departed for Thailand the next day, leaving me the sole
owner and most experienced operator of the Mik Sip.

In a way, my Mekong adventure ended with the passage through the
rapids and the canyon.

This is not to say that the river becomes any less interesting,
beautiful or even challenging below Pakse — it just means that
after Pakse I assumed the helm of the Mik Sip, and I wasn’t able to
pay attention to much beyond the course of the river and the boat
itself.

Like Twain had in his river piloting days, I had lost the river by
learning the river: I had traded aesthetics for science. But for me
– as for Twain — the challenge of driving the riverboat was
reward enough for all the lost splendor.

As we made our way downriver, Liz and Duncan would point out the big
white-and-brown birds of prey soaring above, the abandoned fishing
villages that sagged like shipwrecks on the sandbars or the finger-sized fish that jumped from the water and skittered along in our
wake. We even stopped for several hours at the ruins of Wat Phou —
a haunting, half-collapsed sandstone temple where pre-Angkor Khmer
statues lie headless, half-buried and stained with Pepsi and
one’s sense of being amid “time-worn dreams of adolescent reverie”
(as Garnier put it) is offset by the trash-strewn, weed-tangled
feeling of touring a recently abandoned drive-in movie theater.

For the most part, though, I was lost in a curiously satisfying world
of pylons, channels and currents — of bilge water and the correct
fuel mixture for our 10-horsepower Briggs and Stratton.

Two days below Pakse — 22 days after having first boarded the
trusty yellow boat — I drove the Mik Sip into Cambodian waters on
the Lepou tributary of the Mekong.

Just above its Laotian terminus, the Mekong enters a new geophysical
region — splitting into dozens of channels and thousands of small
islands. Appropriately, the Lao name for the area is Siphandone —
“4,000 Islands.” Graced with freshwater dolphins, peaceful lagoons
and majestic waterfalls (including Khong Phapheng, reputedly the
world’s widest waterfall), Siphandone has no rival as a landlocked
tropical island paradise.

After our final day on the river, Liz and Duncan threw me a farewell
dinner on Khong island, the largest and most accessible of the 4,000
islands. After dinner, we went to the community basketball court,
where a raucous pop concert was already under way.

Onstage, a group of teenage girls performed a sequence of bump-and-grind dance moves to the rhythms of the music. Dressed in frumpy
orange dresses and wearing socks under their sandals, the girls
looked strangely dated, like something I might find in the pages of
my mom’s 1961 Westphalia, Kan., high school yearbook.

The Lao pop music itself (which is perhaps still recovering from a
short-lived 1976 Communist edict banning rock music, cosmetics and
animal sacrifices) was awful beyond metaphors.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

The following morning, I rose early to take the pre-dawn ferry to the
mainland, where — in deference to my expired visa — I would catch a
series of buses to the Thai border. Joining me at the first bus stop
was one of the orange-dress dancing girls from the night before.
Standing there in her subdued street clothes — sleepy and wistful —
she looked like a morning-after Cinderella.

Which is what I felt like, after three weeks of clean sand,
campfires and silent sunrises on the shores of the Mekong.

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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