Guns, muskmelon breasts and the Laotian Gandhi

An American takes a Mark Twain-like journey by riverboat down the Mekong.

By Rolf Potts
July 6, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Though technically communist for the past quarter-century, Laos has
never really elicited Reaganesque notions of an Evil Empire.

Perhaps this is because, unlike China or Vietnam, Laos has never
produced a marquee-level revolutionary (Chairman Mao and Uncle Ho
had names as simple and direct as social-realist art; Kaysone Phomivane
-- the communist hero of Laos -- sounds like the name for an experimental
blood-pressure medication). Or maybe it's because one cannot imagine
Lao soldiers arming Angolan rebels, training assassins in Madagascar
or crowding into amphibious landing craft off the coast of Santa Barbara.

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Actually, for your average American, it's hard to imagine Lao soldiers,
period.

Thus, I wasn't sure what to think when in the midst of my third week of
traveling down the Mekong River, a couple of Lao soldiers rousted me
out of my sleeping bag at gunpoint and marched me up the sandbar to
what remained of the night's campfire. Chris and Robert, the Americans
who had masterminded this Mekong adventure, were already sitting
there, smirking at me expectantly. Since I was in possession of our only
Lao phrasebook, I knew what those smirks meant: I would have to do the
talking.

Forcing a casual grin (the international symbol for "Please don't shoot
me"), I dug out the phrasebook and started to flip through the pages. The
soldiers awaited my explanation in silence.

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"Nak thawng thiaw," I said finally. "We are tourists."

This sent the younger soldier (who'd obviously downed a bit of rice whiskey before he showed up) into an animated rage, yelling and wildly gesturing at the boat where I'd just been sleeping. I didn't understand a single thing he said, but I got the point. No doubt, the spectacle of Americans piloting a secondhand teakwood boat down the Mekong River must have seemed absurdly suspicious. Imagine a gaggle of Laotians blissfully riding Shetland ponies down the New Jersey Turnpike, and you get a vague idea of what it must have been like for him.

It took 15 minutes with the phrasebook -- plus a half-dozen cigarettes and an entire package of sugar cookies (our treat) -- before the soldiers finally gave up on us and trudged back up the riverbank into the jungle.

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This came as a huge relief, since even in English I would have had a difficult time fully explaining the strange combination of circumstances that had brought me to that sandy stretch of the Mekong 100 miles east of Vientiane.

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It's quite possible that I'm the only person who has ever been inspired to travel the Mekong River after having read Mark Twain.

In "Life on the Mississippi," which I purchased on a whim in Thailand, Twain examines a bygone time on the river that shaped his youth. Humorously comparing America's then hell-bent railroad expansion to the glamorous steamboating days of the past, Twain reveals just how quickly technology can change the mood and attitude of a culture.

As I read this, I was taken by just how much the Mississippi River of the 1880s had in common with the Mekong River of today. Like Twain's Mississippi, the Laotian Mekong is a dividing line, the gateway to a wild and undeveloped frontier. Like Twain's Mississippi, life on the Laotian Mekong is just now being affected by telecommunications, land transport and electricity. Like Twain's Mississippi, life on the Laotian Mekong is just now beginning to forget its civil-war past in favor of a more prosperous and dynamic future. Like Twain's Mississippi, life on the Laotian Mekong is about to change forever.

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I went to Laos hoping to catch a glimpse of a lifestyle that will soon be confined to history.

That, and the fact that -- like countless other American males who went through adolescence in the movie culture of the 1980s -- I grew up with the notion that traveling the Mekong would be as wonderfully exotic as traveling the desert planet of Tatooine, or the Temple of Doom.

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Until quite recently, Laos was, like Bhutan or North Korea, strictly off-limits to adventure travelers. Granted, foreigners have been visiting Laos in small numbers since the early '90s, but they were generally confined to government-monitored package tours and had to apply for permission to visit the more isolated regions of the country. This all changed early this year, when -- in an effort to attract hard currency and open up to the Western world -- Vientiane revoked longtime travel restrictions as part of its 1999 "Visit Laos Year" campaign.

Somehow I doubt this campaign was created to allow foreigners to buy fishing boats and travel 800 miles down the Mekong, but that's OK. That wasn't exactly what I had in mind when I arrived anyhow.

I entered Laos with the intention of hitching my way down the Mekong in local freight boats. The first of these, a small wooden outboard, took me across the Mekong from Thai territory to the Lao village of Houay Xai -- the northernmost customs point on the river, just south of the Burmese border. Situated in the heart of the Golden Triangle (an area of northern Laos, Thailand and Burma that produces 60 percent of the world's heroin supply), Houay Xai has long been an important outpost on the trade route between Yunnan, China and Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Houay Xai also marks the start of the lower Mekong, and serves as a rough midway point between the river's mostly inaccessible Chinese course (which begins with snow-fed headwaters 15,000 feet up in the Tibetan Plateau), and its more well-known Indochina passage, which culminates in the famous Vietnamese Delta. Since the Mekong is navigable for less than 100 miles north of Laos, Houay Xai was a logical starting point for my adventure.

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My first intentional act in the Lao People's Democratic Republic was to climb the hill in the center of Houay Xai and visit Chomekaou Manirath temple, which with its water-stained walls and painted cement dragon sculptures looks like something out of a neglected 1950s-era amusement park. I'd hoped to catch a good view of the sun setting over the Mekong from the main hall of the temple, but I was instead distracted by the hall itself, which was covered with cartoonish, colorfully entertaining paintings featuring sex and violence. In one frame of the mural, a handsome young prince fends off a pack of armed attackers with his bare hands. In another frame, the prince appears to be dry-humping a beautiful young lass on the verandah of his palace. In yet another frame, the prince lounges blissfully in a bedroom full of topless female attendants, all of whom sport dreamy smiles and breasts as big as muskmelons.

Inspired, I wandered off to try to find someone to explain to me the significance of the murals. In the courtyard, a knot of saffron-robed teenage monks mixed concrete in a small metal cauldron, laughing unmonkishly and slugging each other jestfully when the gravelly gray brew accidentally spilled onto the ground. A caged monkey stared at me from his perch in a courtyard corner, then -- when I stared back for too long -- haughtily flopped a plastic pail over his head. Black butterflies fluttered about aimlessly. I returned to the main hall to find a young Lao couple showing the mural to their small baby. Encouraged, I pointed to the frame featuring the muskmelon-breasted women.

"What is this?" I asked them hopefully. "Who are all these people?"

The young wife just laughed and handed me her tiny son, who gurgled happily and slapped at my face as we watched the sun slide down over the Mekong.

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I never found out the meaning of the murals, but it didn't really matter anymore.

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Laos has its own historical version of Gandhi, named Kommadan, who led peaceful protests against French rule in the early part of this century. Unlike Gandhi, Kommadan was also known to assassinate people. Lao history and mythology is full of such ironies and surprises.

I learned about the Lao Gandhi on the morning of my second day in Houay Xai, from a young schoolteacher named Xouliphone, whom I'd originally befriended in the hope that he would help me find a passage on the freight boat downriver. Xouliphone did indeed find me a freight boat, but not before spending three hours aimlessly showing me around town and chatting me up. Lao people, I discovered, are rarely in a hurry to do anything.

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"Houay Xai Upper Secondary School has 698 students," Xouliphone told me as we walked along the school's parking lot, which was packed with nearly identical purple and red Flamingo Sportcycles; "294 of them are girls."

"Wow," I replied politely.

"Houay Xai Upper Secondary School has 22 teachers," he said. "Nine are women. And we have four typewriters."

"Interesting," I said.

But none of this was really all that interesting until Xouliphone told me about the Gandhi who assassinated people.

Like so many people from Lao lore (including Sikhot, the Lao Achilles -- whose Achilles heel was in fact his anus, because he met his doom when an assassin hid out in his pit latrine), Kommadan is a quirky, tragic figure. Kommadan -- who actually was not an ethnic Lao, but a hill tribesman from the southern mountains of Laos -- started his resistance to French rule with a series of assassinations and armed raids on southern villages in 1905. Kommadan's major bone of contention was the colonial French policy of forced taxation, forced labor and forced resettlement.

When Kommadan's armed raids met with indecisive results, he changed strategies and launched a peaceful letter-writing campaign in 1908, imploring the French to give his people a voice in the political process. Kommadan's letters eventually resulted in an official meeting with Jean-Jacques Dauplay, the local French commissioner, late in 1910. Had Kommadan been keeping up on his recent history, he never would have agreed to meet with Dauplay: One year earlier, the same French official had invited a Lao rebel chief named Bac Mu to his house under the pretense of viewing photographs; once inside, Bac Mu was summarily bayoneted to death.

Kommadan encountered a near rerun of this diplomatic strategy in 1910, when -- 10 minutes into their negotiations -- the French commissioner nonchalantly picked up his Browning rifle and began to pump the Lao Gandhi full of bullets. Kommadan barely escaped with his life, and, when his wounds had healed, returned to the business of armed raids and assassinations. Kommadan lived like a Pancho Villa-style outlaw for the next 25 years, hiding out in the mountains and stirring up anti-colonial, anti-taxation sentiment. In 1926, he resumed his letter-writing campaign, this time calling for a written statute of what today would be termed minority rights. His letters addressed reconciliation and diplomacy, but for some reason he couldn't break his habit of assassinating people. He was finally hunted down and killed by Vietnamese mercenaries in 1936.

After relating the story of Kommadan, feeding me lunch and telling me more statistical information than any sane person needs to know about Houay Xai Upper Secondary School, Xouliphone found me passage downriver to Pak Beng on a boat loaded with Sprite, Pepsi, floor tiles, laundry detergent, Chinese cookies and three old ladies. I could have kept things simple and taken the tourist ferry, but I wasn't in a hurry and I wanted to try something different.

The three old ladies had a boombox and gave me my first exposure to Lao pop music, which sounds torturously similar to a sack-full of cats cascading downhill to a synthesized backbeat. On a more pleasant note, they'd brought a basket full of bananas, and they thought it was infinitely funny that I could eat so many of them. They also found it a real hoot when I took out my Lao phrasebook and (unsuccessfully) tried to make conversation with them. I ultimately gave up and climbed out onto the tin-sheeted roof of the boat to watch the river go by.

This type of diesel-powered freight boat, called "huahoua-liem" by the Lao, operates on an apprentice-pilot system not unlike what Mark Twain experienced on the Mississippi. The older pilot sits at the front of the 60-foot craft in a small cabin and mans the wheel, while the cub pilots sit in the back to heft freight, bail water, maintain the engine and -- presumably -- learn the river's routes and dangers. Officially, Laos' roads now move more freight than the Mekong (the last time the river out-hauled the road was in 1991), but these river pilots have job security in the steady downriver commerce (much of it illegal) from Thailand and China to the old royal capital of Luang Prabang.

Originally, the French had hoped to compete with British Hong Kong by using the Mekong as a backdoor trade route to China, but this was proved impossible by the Francis Garnier Mekong expedition of 1866-68. Garnier, a hardy 26-year-old French naval officer who deserves a place among the great explorers of the 19th century, spent two years on the river before finally reaching China, even though his trade officer concluded as early as the cataracts of northern Cambodia that "steamers can never plough through the Mekong, as they do the Amazon or the Mississippi, and Saigon can never be united to the western provinces of China by this immense riverway."

Ultimately, attempts at economically exploiting the Laotian Mekong were a flop for France, as Laos accounted for only 1 percent (and most of that opium) of France's foreign trade in Indochina.

Because of the Mekong's failure as an international superhighway, it is one of the very few great rivers of the world that retain a somewhat pristine character. As I sat on the tin roof of the boat, I took in sights that probably hadn't changed much since Garnier arrived 133 years ago: rattan-and-thatch homes clinging to hillsides at the high-water mark; smiling locals cooly navigating rapids in dugout canoes; sarong-wrapped women bathing beneath black-rock cliffs at sundown; naked, sunbrowned kids clowning around in the shallows, gleefully calling out to me as I drifted by, long and pale atop my riverboat.

However, "pristine" is a purely relative term here at the end of the 20th century. Whereas the Garnier expedition described the Laotian wilderness as an "unending, unpenetrable forest," the land I saw from the riverboat was marred with countless stretches of smoldering burn-off and deforested clear-cuts. The burn-off is the result of traditionally practiced "shifting cultivation" (as of 1990, 1 million Lao still practiced slash-and-burn agriculture), but the clear-cuts are evidence of a more recent phenomenon: Thai loggers, who began to exploit Lao forests when Thailand banned commercial logging a decade ago. Three hundred thousand hectares of Laotian forest are lost annually, despite recent government efforts to reduce both shifting cultivation and foreign logging interests.

The most obvious result of this deforestation is the lack of wildlife. Whereas Garnier reported seeing all manner of tigers, leopards, wild elephants, monkeys, crocodiles and boa constrictors haunting the shores of the Mekong, all I noticed was a smattering of birds and insects.

Just before dark, our riverboat pulled into the village of Pak Beng, which is perched on a steep slope overlooking a gorgeous, canyon-like stretch of river. In 1997, Pak Beng featured three guesthouses; by the time I arrived, that number had grown to 15 -- all of them built to house the "Visit Lao Year" onslaught of backpackers headed up or downriver between Luang Prabang and Houay Xai.

Despite the hotel boom, Pak Beng still resembles a dusty cow-town from some Wild West movie, right down to the splintered wood-slat sidewalks, the storefront dry-goods shops and the squint-eyed, cheroot-smoking locals. My hotel room cost a dollar, opened with a skeleton key and didn't have electricity or running water. The only restaurant in town with an English-language menu featured "Minced Skin With Sliced Paper" and "The Fried Insides of a Hen." After dark, barefoot little boys shyly sidled up to me in the street and whispered "O-pee-umm?" If I didn't immediately react, the little boys would wink and pantomime taking a hit from a hookah.

The chickens of Pak Beng ran wild in the streets and screamed all night like the tortured souls of murderers. I didn't get much sleep.

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Too tired the next day to look for freight boats, I departed for Luang Prabang on the tourist ferry, which contained five Americans, two Norwegians, six Hmong hill tribespeople, 20 sacks of rice and one hog-tied hog. I'd had the intention of climbing atop the roof of the boat to look for elephants and stare out at the karst limestone formations, but the Americans and Norwegians proved too entertaining. Sometimes the best-laid plans are undermined by simple camaraderie: I spent most of the Pak Beng-Luang Prabang transit drinking whiskey, playing spades and trading inane pirate jibes ("Shiver me timbers!") with my fellow travelers. We made Luang Prabang by nightfall.

Had I been any better at talking to women, and had an Italian traveler not bled to death in a Luang Prabang hospital, and had a Paklay restaurant owner not made such a big display of seating me at an outside table one Friday morning, my Mekong travel might well have ended there.

Such were the odds that eventually landed me on a rickety secondhand fishing boat with two Americans headed downriver.


Rolf Potts

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

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