The Mekong: A long, soft river

A version of this article originally appeared in East Magazine.

By Roy Hamric

“The Mekong, it’s just a long, soft river.”––Jack Kerouac, in After Me, the Deluge

Part I

The bus pulled into Chiang Khan on the Mekong River as the sun fell behind the mountains lined up like sharks’ teeth to the north in Laos. Moments before, I had traced the Mekong’s blue line on a map. It marked the Mekong River journey I would take riding in cheap buses down a 650-kilometer course along the Laotian-Thai border. The bus pulled onto Chiang Khan’s main road lined with rustic, wood buildings and teak wood guesthouses. At the Suk Som Baan Hotel, the ping of raindrops sounded on the tin roof. The small white room with its simple metal bed frame and white sheets and teak wood flooring were straight out of a Joseph Conrad story. Beyond the three open windows, two-deck Chinese junks loaded with felled trees were docked on the riverbank. The window view  framed a misty picture of the pearl-gray Mekong and the blue-green shoreline of Laos on the far side. I dozed off that night to the high-pitched squeaks of jing-jok lizards scampering across the walls. It was a perfect start to a Mekong River journey through sleepy Laotian river towns. My plan was to start on the Thai side of the Mekong, to cross to the Laotian side at Non Khai for a visit to Vientiane, the capital, and then to take ordinary  buses along the Mekong River south until it disappeared into Cambodia.

After breakfast, I hired a longboat pilot to give me my first taste of one of the longest most mystery-filled rivers in the world. The difference between the river’s two sides was clear the night before. Only two or three lights could be seen on the Laotian side. The boatman shoved off to parse his course through the swiftly flowing river, around large tree limbs and  uprooted trees being swept downstream. On the Laotian side, dozens of bamboo fish traps rested on the bank. Old men and children splashed in the water to chase in fish. Families bathed. Two naked kids wearing Santa Claus hats stopped splashing water on each other to wave hello.

About 5 miles down the river the boatman gunned his 20-horsepower engine through the Kang Kood Koo rapids before turning to circle back to Chiang Khan. He pointed to a grassy water line 25 higher, where the river had crested only one month ago. In Chiang Khan, the  rooftops of the buildings were dotted with red satellite dishes mounted on the shop houses sitting next to the river on slender wood beams  like very still dark spiders.

The Mekong River in Thailand

My first boat ride on the Mekong River fulfilled  a long-held dream. I had pictured its tiny rivulets beginning high in the eastern mountains of Tibet before heading southward,  passing through six countries before finally fanning out into Vietnam’s southern delta in hundreds of web-like streams. For much of its 2,800-mile course, the Mekong River was still a natural, free river. Three bridges span the river in Southeast Asia, one at Vientiane, built in 1990; one in Pakse, Laos, opened in 2000, and one recently completed in Vietnam.

China  has  built seven dams on the Mekong, in Yunnan Province, but so far the river is undammed in Southeast Asia, where it remains a main artery of travel and sustenance. But, the river’s wildest days are clearly over.  China plans to build six more dams along its course. It’s estimated the river’s full hydroelectric potential is equal to the annual petroleum production of Indonesia. China now controls its flow through Southeast Asia. Laos and Thailand have built dams on Mekong tributaries. Laos is counting on exporting hydroelectric energy as a capital resource to energy-starved countries. Proposals to put more dams on the Mekong in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam haven’t yet borne fruit, but its only a matter of time.

“Without doubt, no other river, over such a length, has a more singular or remarkable character.”––Francis Garnier, co-leader, French Commission Expedition to the Mekong River, 1866.

The next morning I boarded a bus to Nong Khai.  An ancient, battered TV and CD player was wired above the driver’s seat. A Thai teenager scanned a magazine with nude centerfolds, and two foreigners were speaking Dutch. The Mekong flowed by only a few hundred feet away for most of the ride. Willem Leutner, in his fifties, a red-cheeked high school psychology teacher, was on holiday. He was being befriended by a barefooted, drunken Thai man, who was shouting louder and louder as if that could make Leutner understand Thai. The driver and passengers all ignored the drunk, his slurred speech and his embarrassing  encounter with the foreigner.

“In Thailand,” Leutner said, “most rural people believe in spirits. That means this man is not himself now.  He’s under the control of an evil spirit, and if they do something to embarrass him they make him lose face, plus they would also lose face too because they would have to show their emotions. Thais always try not to show their emotions in public. They feel sorry for someone who does. So they just ignore him.”

It was his third trip to Thailand. “The Dutch are the Chinese of Europe,” he said. “You will see us everywhere.” He described his recent vacation to Malawi, where he said the women taught him to dance from the hips down.  But, Thailand, he said, it has something even more special. He lived with a Thai woman for six months.  “The place has woken me up to something inside me that I never thought I had,” he said. “I have a different energy inside me now. I am growing inside. I will return to teach in a few months, but I will come back to live here later. I’ve discussed it with friends in Holland. They don’t understand.” Scenes of modern Thailand flashed by. A barefooted rice farmer knee-deep in water talking on his cellphone. Small engine-powered plows, replacing the water buffalo, furrowed straight rows in flooded rice paddies. The road entered Nong Khai lined by verdant ponds filled with two-foot lily pads and pink flowers. The drunk Thai was sleeping peacefully.

River bank farming in Thailand

 A Way Station at Nong Khai

That evening, I dropped into The Meeting Place, a legendary expat bar to visit with the owner, Alan Patterson, an Australian, who was something of a Mr. Fix-It for expats. From his bar-restaurant-guesthouse, he provided immigration forms to cross the border, or he might try to sell you a house, a banana plantation, a fish farm–or just introduce you to aging Vietnam veterans who lived in the area in small houses or rooms with a Thai wife or girlfriend. They congregated to The Meeting Place both day and night to while away the time.

“This is command central,” said Patterson, who had lived in Nong Khai for nine years. He sat behind his horseshoe shaped desk surrounded by a computer, a TV tuned to CNN, a fax, several  mobile phones, three clocks showing time for Bangkok, Perth and Honolulu, and assorted sales brochures and maps.

Expats and Thais kept kept drifting in as we talked. “About 80 expats live in the area, and maybe 20 in town,” he said. “They come in and out and they don’t get on each others’ nerves too much. A lot of them are sick with this or that, living on their government checks. They’re good for the economy.” Then his voiced trailed off. “There aren’t many Americans in the area––easily four times more Germans, Dutch and Finnish.”

From his desk, Patterson  managed his Web site which promoted the Mekong River area and his business schemes.  “We had beautiful houses built here in the boom era that still haven’t been sold,” he said. “Prices started around 1 million baht (US $30,000).  You get great value for your money. I want to build a retirement community here for vets––and make sure they don’t get jerked around by the Thai mafia.”

Leaving, I noticed a bar tab list nailed to the wall alongside large magazine centerfolds of Asian women. “VICTIMS,” it read, followed by 10 scribbled names, ending with the name, “God.”

“An Englishman wrote that. He makes us laugh a lot,” said a red-haired man sitting at the bar, one forearm tattooed with “Airborne” and the other “Singha,” a Thai beer.

Looking at a row of weathered foreigners sitting on the bar stools in mid-day took me back to a feeling of Vietnam. Lke clockwork, paranoia surfaced in the room. A white-haired, haggard man with a pockmarked, swollen face, his nose a dull purple, slurred, “You look like you’re from Langley. CIA, right? I can always tell. You’re from Langley, right?” Everyone’s head turned to look. We were on Vietnam and Laos time, a long time ago, and it was time to leave.

The riverfront of Nong Khai was lined with restaurants––all with a verandah view of the Mekong flowing past. At sunset, the sky and river took turns mirroring red, orange, pink, gold, deep blue-gray and black. Then the lights of Friendship Bridge flashed on linking Thailand to Laos in a tiny chain of gold. Vientaine awaited across the river. (Part II to come)

An empty passenger boat on the Mekong River

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