Laos: A Journey down the Mekong

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 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’ past, present and future


Mother River

The sun 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, 400 miles 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 2,700 miles 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 for villages and towns, carrying passengers and cargo, watering rice paddies and irrigating corn fields. It’s Laos’ 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 three-wheeled handcarts.

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. Thirty miles east of the Mekong, these fertile highlands 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 typical of the small-scale coffee growers 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’ 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

Thirty miles 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, first and foremost, 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 25 miles 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’s 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 not to 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.

The 4000 islands of Laos

As the Mekong flows south towards Cambodia and reaches its widest point, it also changes – becoming not one river, but many. About 20 miles north of Laos’ southern border, the Mekong fractures into a web of creeks and tributaries, creating an archipelago of small river islands known in the local language as Si Phan Don – the Four Thousand Islands. Most of the channels are too shallow or narrow to navigate, so the only vessels on this stretch of the Mekong are longtail ferries and fishing skiffs, motors whining as they weave their way through the maze of waterways.

Big boats are a rare sight around Si Phan Don these days, but it was a different story in the late 19th century. During the French colonial era, a project was hatched to transform the Mekong into a trading highway linking all of Indochina, cementing French control over Southeast Asia, and bringing its builders untold riches into the bargain. Unfortunately, there was an obstacle: the roaring falls of Khone Phapheng, the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia. Four times as wide as Niagara Falls, and with an average flow 10 times as great as Victoria Falls’, Khone Phapheng is a churning cauldron of whitewater, crashing and foaming over a span of jagged rocks and shattered boulders nearly six miles wide.

Unsurprisingly, it’s impassable by boat – and also presented a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in the French plans to finally tame the Mekong. Undeterred, engineers decided to circumvent the problem by constructing a four-mile portage railway across the islands of Don Det and Don Khon. But the railway, which opened in 1893, was too complex and costly to be commercially viable, and it closed in the early 1940s. A rusting locomotive and a few twisted bits of track are all that remain of Don Khon’s railway.

These days, the only traffic on the islands comes from backpackers on bicycles and water buffalo mooching beside rice paddies. Here, as in bygone days, the main means of transport isn’t road, or rail – it’s the river. Mr Jong is someone who knows all about the Mekong’s capricious currents. A part-time fisherman, he also runs sightseeing trips on the river to spot rare Irrawaddy dolphins, which sometimes stray into the Mekong’s waters. He’s made his living on the river for more than 10 years, but still doesn’t altogether trust it.

‘You never know what the river is going to do,’ he says, puffing on a roll-up as he guides his boat out from a side channel. ‘The currents change all the time, especially in the wet season, when the water is deeper and the flow is stronger. Sandbars appear and rocks are hidden. Then it feels like the river is against you. But at this time of year, she is calm and quiet.’

He cuts the boat’s motor, letting it drift downstream as he waits for the dolphins. It’s early evening, and the river is a picture of stillness: the only sound is the gloop of water against the boat’s hull, and the distant bray of cattle. An egret skims across the water, coming to roost in a rain tree, its white plumage standing out against the orange sky. Eddies and whorls appear in the water, then vanish, swallowed up by the current.

‘Pa kha! Dolphin!’ shouts Mr Jong, pointing over the boat’s prow. There’s a splash, a ripple, a flash of pale pink and the hint of a tail – then the dolphin is gone again. ‘We are lucky,’ says Mr Jong. ‘I think it’s a sign that the river is glad we are here today.’

He steers the boat round in a lazy arc, heading back towards Don Khon. Behind him, the boat’s wake spreads out across the Mekong. Fireflies sparkle over the water, and the river reflects back a burnt orange sky. Currents shift, seasons change, but for people living along the banks of the Mekong, the Mother River flows on.


Photography by Justin Foulkes.