Laos: Journey down the Mekong River

The sun sets over the Mekong beside the island of Don Khon, in the Four Thousand Islands
Photographer: Justin Foulkes

WORDS: OLIVER BERRY
PHOTOGRAPHS: JUSTIN FOULKES

Flowing down the spine of Southeast Asia, the Mekong River has played a pivotal role in the region’s history, and nowhere more so than in the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Laos. Take a river trip through the province of Champasak, past coffee plantations, hidden temples and thunderous waterfalls all the way to the Cambodian border – and learn how the river continues to shape Laos’s past, present and future

From Pakse to the plateau

Dawn rises hot and humid over the riverside city of Pakse, and another day on the mighty Mekong begins. Tugboats and barges chug downriver, loaded with coal, goods and timber from the city of Vientiane, 640km to the north. A longtail ferry whines past and traffic flows over the city’s bridges, as commuters journey to work and trucks head for the Thai border. Wading birds stalk the muddy shallows, and a fisherman casts his net, hoping to snare catfish.

Mae Nam Khong, they call it: the Mother River. Running for more than 4,345km from the Tibetan Plateau all the way to the South China Sea, this epic waterway stitches together the north and south of Laos like a tangled, teak tinted thread. Throughout its history, it has borne kings and commoners, soldiers and statesmen, monks and martyrs. It’s a sacred waterway that has served as border, battlement and thoroughfare. It’s a geographical landmark, but also an industrial artery, supplying water to villages and towns, carrying passengers and cargo, watering rice paddies and irrigating corn fields. It’s Laos’s lifeline.

“Life in this part of Laos is much calmer compared to Luang Prabang or Vientiane”, says guide Detoudorn Savannalath, as he sips a black coffee in a café near Pakse’s old harbour, overlooking the Mekong’s brown banks. “We like to take our time over things: we speak more slowly, and we don’t hurry. There’s an old joke here that the initials in Laos PDR – the People’s Democratic Republic – actually stand for Please Don’t Rush. Personally, I think the Mekong has shaped our character. Like the river, we follow nature’s rhythm.”

He looks across the waterfront. It’s just after 9am and, by now, most cities in Southeast Asia would be a clamour of mopeds, taxis and hawkers’ stalls. But down by the river, Pakse barely seems to have woken up: locals sit at pavement cafés playing draughts, while the occasional tuk-tuk putters past, and a few vendors sell watermelons and pineapples from carts.

A century ago, Pakse’s riverfront would have presented a different picture. Situated at the confluence of the region’s two biggest waterways, the Se and the Mekong, the city was the gateway to southern Laos, and its faded waterfront buildings stand as testament to its wealth: grand, Colonial-style mansions, with balconies overlooking the Mekong. The river was once the only means of transport through this part of Laos, and control over its currents bestowed power and prosperity.

Although the Mekong’s strategic significance has waned, the river remains as important as ever for people living in rural Laos, especially the farmers of the Bolaven Plateau. These fertile highlands, 48km east of the Mekong, produce nine-tenths of the country’s vegetables and nearly all its coffee crop, nurtured by the volcanic soil, a temperate climate and the Mekong’s muddy, nutrient-rich waters.

Khamsone Souvannakhily is a typical small-scale coffee grower living on the plateau. His thatched stilt house overlooks his family’s fields and is surrounded by chicken coops and coffee bushes. He roasts every batch to order using an antique, cast-iron oven. “Twenty-five years of roasting gives you a very good nose!” he says. I never use a timer – just my nose and my ears.” He kneels down and cranks the wheel, listening for the pop and crackle that signifies the beans are ready. After five minutes, he cuts the gas and opens the roaster’s door. Smoke billows out, and the scent of fresh-roasted coffee fills the air. “Ahh,” he smiles. “That is the smell of Bolaven.”

Across the plateau in Paksong village, Mrs Nang is selling her produce at the morning market: smoked frog kebabs, Mekong catfish, aubergines, courgettes, dragon-fruit and manioc, another staple crop of the plateau. “Bolaven is Laos’s garden,” says Mrs Nang, as she stuffs dried bullfrogs into a bag for a customer. “Farming is easy here. You put something in the ground and it grows. We have the river to thank for that.”

Downriver to Wat Phu

Forty-eight kilometres east of the plateau at Pakse’s port, cruise-boats and floating hotels are getting ready for the journey south down the Mekong. Supplies are loaded, engines cough into life, and passengers settle into their cabins for the long journey.

Slowly, city suburbs give way to villages and rice paddies. Stilt houses appear beside the water. Cows pad along the banks, and water buffalo cool off in the shallows. Rain trees rise along the banks, and occasionally, the golden top of a temple pokes above the mist. They’re a reminder that the Mekong is a sacred river. The river’s role as purifier and life-giver provides a central pillar of Buddhist belief in Laos, and ancient temples line its jungled banks, including the oldest and holiest of all, Wat Phu.

Sprawling up a forested mountain 40km to the south of Pakse, this ancient temple was built a millennia ago by the same Hindu culture that constructed the temple of Angkor Wat across the border in Cambodia – the Khmers. The first temple here was built between the 11th and 13th centuries, and dedicated to Shiva; a road once ran all the way from here to Angkor Wat. After the Khmer culture declined, the temple was reclaimed by Buddhists, but later fell into ruin and was swallowed up by the jungle. There it remained until 1914, when French geologist Henri Parmentier stumbled upon it.

Perched on the edge of a rocky hillside, accessed by a steep stone staircase lined by gnarled frangipani trees, it looks like a lost set from Indiana Jones. Carvings of Hindu gods dance across the temple’s ink-black walls, half-obscured by creepers. Fallen columns lie in the undergrowth, cloaked in moss and lichen. And inside, golden statues raised by Buddhist worshippers glint in the half light: gilded Buddhas sheltered by parasols, surrounded by a sea of marigold and lotus flowers. Since its rediscovery, the temple has become an important site of pilgrimage, especially at full moon when monks trek from the banks of the Mekong to the temple to pray. Apart from the odd mobile phone or selfie stick, it’s a form of devotion that has changed little in 10 centuries.

Below the mountain, conservationists are restoring the lower buildings of the complex, and the sound of hammers and chisels rings in the morning air, while women tout trinkets and offerings to pilgrims. Among them is Mrs Taem, who’s making bouquets of incense wrapped in flowers for worshippers to leave at the temple. “It is important to make the offerings with care, and to not rush,” she says, her fingers trimming the stalks before pinning them in place. “Of course, we would like them all to be perfect, but that’s impossible – and anyway, it encourages us to try again. That is a good lesson for life, I think,” she adds.

Mrs Taem and her fellow craftswomen come from the old port of Muang Champasak, close to the temple site. A century ago, this was another of the Mekong’s most important ports, but, these days, it’s a forgotten backwater, bypassed by most travellers thanks to the arrival of Route 13, Laos’ main north-south road, which runs along the opposite bank.

But, while the river traffic has all but disappeared, the old life of the Mekong lingers on in other ways. The river provides the water with which local farmers irrigate their rice paddies, and, without it, the crops would wither in the heat. During the monsoon, the Mekong often breaks its banks, flooding the plain and its rice paddies under several feet of water.

“The river is like a mistress,” says rice farmer Kai Ketthavong, as he takes a break in his fields. “Most of the time, she is good to you, but sometimes, she wants to teach you a lesson. It is a fact of life, and part of nature. We have lived by the river for a thousand years, and we will for another thousand yet.”

He returns to work. Afternoon melts into evening and the sun sets over the mountains, turning the river’s waters peach-pink. The drone of evening prayer drifts from a nearby temple, and Mr Ketthavong heads home for supper, trudging along a dike between his rice paddies.

To travel this great journey to Laos NOW, check out LPMI’s January 2018 issue. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.