Lao and now

Happily adrift on the Mekong be­tween Vientiane and north­ern Thai­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT - JOHN BORTH­WICK

“We think kids are old enough to go to school when they can reach over their head and touch their op­po­site ear,” says the young Lao school­teacher at the vil­lage of Ban Phar Leib on a re­mote stretch of the Mekong River.

Among tribal com­mu­ni­ties, where record-keep­ing can be a low pri­or­ity, the “touch-your-ear” age gauge seems to work well enough. A gag­gle of healthy Lao kids lines up in front of their two-room school to lustily sing us their na­tional an­them. After dis­tribut­ing pens and note­books (but no sweets) we are taken in hand by the grin­ning young­sters and es­corted from the premises, so to speak, through the vil­lage to our ship, Champa Pan­daw.

We’re cruis­ing up the Mekong from Vientiane, cap­i­tal of Laos, to north­ern Thai­land, on a 1000km, 10-day jour­ney. Way up­stream, dams are vo­ra­ciously drain­ing the river, so ini­tially we have had to drive north for sev­eral hours, the wa­ter level at Vientiane be­ing too low for even our ves­sel’s 1.6m draft.

Champa Pan­daw is a flash rein­car­na­tion of the classic Ir­rawaddy Flotilla steamer, all teak and brass, plus air­con­di­tion­ing, en­suites and G&Ts. We turn up­stream and slip into Lao time. (For the Lao peo­ple, the name of their coun­try is not the fran­co­phone in­ven­tion, Laos — rhyming in English with ei­ther “chaos” or “house” — but sim­ply Lao, rhyming with “now”.)

The Mekong, Asia’s “Big Muddy”, tum­bles from heaven to earth, from Ti­bet to the South China Sea, cours­ing 4300km through six coun­tries. The mid-sec­tion of its jour­ney, the 700km pas­sage through land­locked Laos, sees whirlpools and reefs give way to tran­quil, sunny reaches, then nar­row gorges and mazes of sand­banks.

We go ashore of­ten, our first visit be­ing to the for­mer French ad­min­is­tra­tive town of Pak Lai where yel­low­ing colo­nial build­ings stand along­side a Bud­dhist wat.

A monk rings the tem­ple’s long, cu­ri­ously shaped bell, the cas­ing of an old Amer­i­can ar­tillery shell. A red and yel­low ham­mer-and-sickle flag is a re­minder of the sys­tem of gov­ern­ment here. The Lao Peo­ples Demo­cratic Repub­lic (the coun­try’s of­fi­cial name) em­bod­ies a won­drous, multi-lay­ered oxy­moron — one-party demo­cratic com­mu­nist cap­i­tal­ism.

We cruise through gorges where the teak and bam­boo-forested walls would still look fa­mil­iar to its orig­i­nal Iron Age set­tlers, but in fact we are al­ready in the Hy­dro Age. Round­ing a bend, our way is blocked by the huge, new Sayaburi hy­dro-elec­tric dam.

Laos, re­source-poor ex­cept for its Mekong waters, has two dams un­der con­struc­tion and seven more pro­posed. Nick­named “the bat­tery of South­east Asia”, it will sell 95 per cent of the Sayaburi power to neigh­bour­ing Thai­land. We slip into a lock on the western flank of the dam. Gates close be­hind us, wa­ter rushes in and our 200tonne ship ef­fort­lessly climbs a wa­ter stair, as it were.

The Mekong, the world’s 10th-long­est river, is a liq­uid high­way, the eter­nal “route one” of South­east Asian trade and mi­gra­tion. Coun­try boats, with curved hulls like warped pen­cil cases, chug from Vientiane up to Luang Pra­bang and be­yond while yowl­ing “long tail” speed­boats — think of a wa­ter­ski with a hot-rod en­gine and seats — tear from vil­lage to vil­lage. Slen­der pirogues are in the mix, as well as cargo craft plod­ding against the five knot cur­rent as far up as Jinghong, China.

Our cap­tain, 62-year-old Xieng Souk, reads the river’s whorls like a palmist might view a hand. No elec­tron­ics for him, just eyes that for 40 years have stud­ied ev­ery braided chan­nel, bar and dragon-toothed shoal. We travel only by day­light and moor at night be­side jun­gle beaches.

The 23 pas­sen­gers on my voy­age con­sist of roughly equal num­bers of Bri­tish, Amer­i­cans, Aus­tralians, Swiss and French. With no fixed seat­ing at meals, we move and mix freely. I hear fas­ci­nat­ing life-tales of French-era Viet­nam, lob­ster fish­ing in Maine, sub­ma­rine ser­vice and much more. Two Amer­i­can cou­ples, trav­el­ling sep­a­rately, must dis­creetly as­sess on which side of today’s “Trump line” their com­pa­tri­ots fall. Sens­ing affin­ity, they can then go with the Mekong flow.

Hik­ing ashore each day in the vil­lages of an­i­mist Hmong and Khmu peo­ple, or Bud­dhist Lao com­mu­ni­ties, we get almost enough ex­er­cise to work off our Cam­bo­dian chefs’ ex­cel­lent three-course feasts.

On land we visit schools (some, sadly, with no teacher), small wats, mar­kets and lo­cal weavers. It’s a wa­ter mar­gin world of wood smoke, bam­boo and thatch, plus satel­lite dishes, out­boards and mo­bile phones.

We roll ever north­wards past gold pan­ners, slash-and­burn crop­pers, reed gath­er­ers and boat builders. Lu­mi­nous forests might still shel­ter gib­bons, lan­gurs and per­haps even clouded leop­ards, but such crea­tures now keep sen­si­bly be­yond the range of hunters’ ri­fles and thus tourist lenses.

On sur­pris­ingly cold morn­ings we wake to find dense mists cloak­ing the river. The sun soon burns through the monochrome dawn and the land­scape takes on colour like a pho­to­graphic print de­vel­op­ing. The shore, too, morphs from low dunes to jun­gle walls and fer­tile flats.

Then, 300km north of Vientiane, we hit the mecca of Luang Pra­bang.

With its 32 tem­ples, this mother-lode of Bud­dhism, French her­itage and royal Lao his­tory is one of the best­p­re­served colo­nial towns in Asia. At dawn monks drift through its UNESCO-listed streets, accepting food do­na­tions from would-be merit-mak­ers. (Does a pho­tog­ra­pher score de­mer­its by giv­ing them 1/30th sec­ond at ISO 400 rather than more noo­dles and sugar drinks?)

A few hours later in trendy cafes along those same his­toric streets, Western hip­ster baris­tas hawk lat­tes at Western prices to flash-pack­ers.

Luang Pra­bang’s golden-roofed wats glit­ter against the river’s slow-boat tide. We linger for two nights, with plenty to do. I love the 1904 Royal Palace, now the Na­tional Museum. Where else can you see un­der one roof a 1959 Ford Ed­sel (post-re­gal, clapped-out), a Queens­land boomerang (Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment gift) and a moon rock (of­fi­cial Richard Nixon gift be­fore he bombed the neu­tral king­dom), plus a photo of laugh­ing Ho Chi Minh danc­ing with Sisa­vang Vatthana, the last Lao king, and two girls?

Other than the gilded, 400-year-old Wat Xieng Thong tem­ple, the best spir­i­tual trip in town is to find a river­bank cafe from which to con­tem­plate a Mekong sun­set over a chilled Beer Lao and fresh-grilled sa­tays. The most anoma­lous trip is to look across the road and see a World Her­itage-listed mas­sage par­lour.

Con­tin­u­ing north, we visit the manda­tory but crowdthronged Pak Ou caves, where 4000 Buddha stat­ues over­look the river.

De­spite be­ing dammed, and then dou­ble damned by the dy­na­mit­ing of reefs, the Mekong muse never fails. For hours we can sit gaz­ing from the decks, thoughts lost

Champa Pan­daw, top; dancers in Hmong dress; above cen­tre; Wat Xieng Thong tem­ple, above; cosy com­mu­nal space aboard Champa Pan­daw, above op­po­site

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