The mighty Mekong, rising in the Tibetan plateau the Mekong cuts a slice through China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, safe to say it’s one of the worlds great rivers and the lifeblood for so many in this part of the world. The reddish brown slick that is the Mekong sits just a metre or so away from our faces slipping by with a fluid silence that just seems so fitting in this nation of tranquility. From a distance the surface is smooth, polished and passive; up close the serpent is awoken to whirlpools, eddies and blisters of up-rushing water to dispel any myth that the Mekong is a lumbering beast. All the action is below the water, a menace obvious but barely seen below a surface so rarely broken or torn to tumbling wash. The Mekong slips rapidly by as we power in the opposite direction heading to the Thai border, our long matchstick of a boat surges relentlessly against the tide of nations that washes down against us.
On grey fabric car seats quite literally ripped out of a small van and rigged to sit loose on a timber floor of wide painted panels we’re arranged in long rows down the boat, the long thin space more akin to an aeroplane than a water vessel. A huge motor roars open and exposed to the world in the back near the toilet farting out exhaust fumes into the rear of the boat driving us against this current that pours forth never ending. There’s a boat full of young tourists, the party loving south east Asian variety who love the cheap beer and easy thrills equally, and we’re in the midst of it barefoot like the rest, our thongs stashed somewhere at the front of the boat; we feel so old. Carved timber rails line either side below the oddly fine brocade trim to form a window view more akin to a window in an old English house than a wobbly boat in Laos. I content myself to write while Charlie contents himself with the view, the wildlife inside the boat as well as outside.
As the long planks of the boat flex and bend over a waters surface that is more variable than it looks a jungle oasis passes by, the humid tropical world crawls with a density of plant life so uncommon to Australian eyes. So passive, so tranquil it seems from here but it wasn’t always so; we all know of the Vietnam war but the name is misleading, the war spilled over into the entire region more than most people know.
From 1964-68 a civil war racked the nation of Laos fought between forces backed by the US and Northern Vietnam until in 1968 when North Vietnam stopped backing the Pathet Lao and moved in themselves as the North Vietnamese army. After this the US ramped up their backing of their militias within Laos and the Thai army jumped in on the American side, so we have three groups going at it now. In 1969 Nixon began drawing down the war in Vietnam but escalated the war in Laos essentially shifting the same war to ravage a new country; cue more complication. In 1970, Cambodia Closed the port in Sihanoukville which was used by North Vietnam as a supply chain, Cambodia then also collapsed into war offering another log to the fire. Welcome to the party South Vietnam, in 1971 Thai forces attempt to fortify their positions and the US back an incursion from southern Vietnam, who knows how many logs are in the fire now. The North Vietnamese crush the U.S. incursion and took hold of more cities it had previously not attempted to take, Laos is not doing well out of a war that isn’t credited to this country.
In 1973 peace was sought somewhat as an afterthought to the conclusion of the Vietnam war, Laos became a welcome beneficiary of an agreement to cease a war it was never meant to be part of. Laos was never a focus of the Vietnam war but still 50,000 Lao civilians were killed in nine years of fighting. The fighting cost lives and damaged the country but the aftermath, some argue, may have been more damaging. Post war generals grew rich off corruption, drug dealing and prostitution rackets throwing the country into a corrupt mess, the regular roadkill discarded after greater powers have had their way. Add to this the newfound access to western media and culture and this quiet buddhist nation has never been the same, Laos and Lao culture as it was known was dented never to be repaired in full.
The halfway point of our trip up the Mekong is a tiny town of timber buildings clinging to the steep slopes that rise from the relentless water called Pak Beng. Dinner at the guest house restaurant is a complete failure, no one’s there until a guy comes in, possibly without pants but we it’s hard to tell when all the lights are off. Sure enough, on go the pants, yep, we basically woke up a nude guy; might need to head into town to find more food.
After our restorative time in Luang Prabang to now sliding up the Mekong looking out at fishing nets hanging off bamboo poles beside goats and water buffalo roaming free it’s a little hard to imagine Laos being any more tranquil, traditional and peaceful. Appearances can be deceiving. So recently this nation along with its neighbours was thrown into war and left to rack and ruin. For whatever reason, however it happens, Laos from what we can see seems to have been able to rise from the ashes to reclaim itself making the aftermath a dent and gladly little more. Sincere people, lush jungle and the grand Mekong speak at volume to us of a place that knows nothing of war and violence. What a testament it is to Laos that the country that so few really know about has left that baggage so far behind, bravo.