Magazine article The Spectator

River Deep, Mountain High

Magazine article The Spectator

River Deep, Mountain High

Article excerpt

My only previous visit to the Laotian border town of Ban Houei Xai was more than 30 years ago. It was a helicopter ride arranged by the American embassy in Vientiane to see a bonfire of opium which was intended to show the world that Laos was eliminating the opium crop of the Golden Triangle. The keen interest shown by my fellow journalists was less to do with the efficacy of this doomed drugeradication programme, more to do with how the opium being destroyed compared with their nightly pipes at Madame Lulu's.

Now this scruffy little place is the jumping-off point for one of the world's most magical river journeys, 200 miles downstream to the former royal capital of Luang Prabang, Southeast Asia's least spoilt town.

The Luang Say, our boat, was a marvel of technical and historical improvisation. Once a rice barge, it had been converted into a low, elegant wooden passenger vessel. The boat was skirted with carved railings and had three or four seating zones with chairs, cushions, viewing platforms and centrally located tables on which to rest beverages, binoculars, Scrabble sets and recently published Notting Hill novels.

The Mekong is touted as one of the world's top ten rivers, but it is relatively unknown, and underused because of its huge fluctuations in volume and a series of rapids and waterfalls which render it impassable down towards the Cambodian border. Its source lies in an arid portion of the eastern Tibetan plateau. It gains volume and speed as it passes through China, Burma and Thailand before reaching our point of departure. Here it is relatively frisky, somewhere between 100 and 200 yards wide and the colour of a brooding muddy puddle. Within the completely untouched jungle gorges of northern Laos, it is an exquisite tableau of frenzied yet discrete activities -- whirlpools, eddies, rapids, islets with an occasional display of tree trunks, palms and assorted herbal detritus. This being the height of the rainy season (or 'Green Season' as travel PRs try to rename it), the central channel is pumping down hundreds of thousands of tonnes of water every few seconds, mainly via a central channel which is up to 80 feet deep.

There are only a handful of settlements along the steep banks, but they rarely consist of more than a half-dozen bamboo huts with a number of elegant pirogues for fishing. …

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