Magazine article The Spectator

Mekong: The Mother of All Rivers

Magazine article The Spectator

Mekong: The Mother of All Rivers

Article excerpt

There are few greater pleasures than travelling on a slow boat down a great tropical river. On recent holidays we've taken boats down the Ganges and up the Indus, along the Irrawady and across the Brahamputra; but the most beautiful of them, and certainly the most gently and peacefully sensuous, has to be the Mekong.

The ghats lay below the royal temple, and once served both the temple of the White Parasol of Luang Prabang and the adjacent Palace of the Lord of the Kingdom of a Million Elephants. At the bottom of the long flight of steps lay the wide, brown muddy river, whose name Me-Kong, literally Mama River, recognises its role as the mother of Laos. Peasants with bamboo-brimmed paddy hats waded through the shallows.

Fishermen's skiffs crossed and recrossed with a distant whirr of outboard motors.

More temples and monasteries lined the banks on the far side of the river, near the confluence of the great river with its tributary, the Khan. Along the waterfront were a line of French colonial villas, and beyond them thick woods rising up to the dragons' backs of the mountains.

The long, open, wooden narrowboat was waiting for us at the bottom, with its shady wooden canopy. Leaving the bicycles the Amantaka hotel had lent us lying by the jetty, we helped the children on board and cast off.

The spires and stupas and riverside cafes of Luang Prabang slipped far behind as we headed lazily up the river, with steep wooded hills rising to switchback peaks on either side, slaloming our way through occasional rocks and rapids, watching the riverside life of Laos slip past: a woman breastfeeding a baby on the bank as her husband set fish traps; children splashing in the shallows; an old man planting vegetables in a riverside garden;

three women playing cards on a jetty.

We stopped at one village where the women made beautiful silk shawls, and bought three for the price of a single woollen scarf in London. Later we pulled in at another village where they brewed fiery rice wine called lao lao. Finally we reached our destination just as the sun was sinking, setting the river ablaze: a remote riverside Buddhist complex, the Tam Ting caves. Each rock cavity was full of gilt and lacquered wooden Buddha statues standing amid drifts of incense and marigolds, like crowds of ossified monks in their orange robes, deserted and unguarded in the middle of the jungle, with only herons and egrets and massive plumes of tropical bamboo for company.

It is impossible not to fall for Laos, often said to be the last unspoiled paradise of old French Indo-Chine. Despite 40 years of tropical communism it is still welcoming and innocent, with none of the grim corruption of Thailand or the repression of Burma. …

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