Friday 12 April 2013

Eavesdropping by the Mekong

The Mekong - 4,300 km from its starting point on the Tibetan Plateau to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, where it spills out into the South China Sea. It's a river of rapids and big changes in water levels making navigation impossible in places and difficult elsewhere. Add to that dam building for hydro electric power and there is the potential for a water war among the countries of the Mekong. Despite the difficulties, the Mekong is an important trade route between China and the countries to the south. Passenger boats ply short stretches of it and we took what's called a "slowboat" for two days upriver from Luang Prabang in Laos to Huay Xai, a town in northern Laos which serves as a border crossing into Thailand just across the river.

There is a related story (of sorts) below the pictures - scroll down.

The Mekong at Pak Beng, the overnight stop on the two day slowboat ride. The haze is caused by smoke from deliberately lit fires throughout the region.
With Sam Brockie in Luang Prabang - a chance meeting
as he pursues his own travels in SE Asia.
Plenty of room on the roof for our
tandem - the Beast of Bridgwater.

Our ferry made occasional stops along
the way to drop off or pick up
passengers at prearranged spots. This
was one of them.

Anyone for a swim? 

A couple of bamboo canes and
suddenly there's a place to secure
the boat.

Slash and burn agriculture - deliberately
lit fires fill the air with smoke and cinders.
The skipper's wife and deckhand.

Backpackers clutching their Beerlao come ashore at
Pak Beng, where the boat stops for the night. 
Nothing prissy here. You wanna
bring your motorscooter along?
Sure, provided you are prepared
to pay.

Two 10-hour days and not a lot to do except take in the
views - we found it a fascinating way to get a glimpse
of small communities which still have no road access.

The fast way along the river .  The
speedboats have a reputation for
being dangerous - perhaps not
surprising given the navigational
hazards that lie in their way and that,
in this case, only the driver is wearing
a helmet.


Eavesdropping by the Mekong

On the pontoon floating in the Mekong stood a man with a big belly. It hung out over his trousers and over both hung a loose, long sleeved shirt. Aged about 60, he looked a man at ease, comfortable in his surroundings and unlike many of the backpackers who scuttled about trying to ensure they caught the right boat - upriver or downriver depending on their destination.
Somewhere out there the sun is about to set but it's
impossible to see it through the smoke haze.
The man was taking photos of the pontoon with an expensive looking camera - the pontoon seemed a strange subject given the dramatic photo opportunities that abounded elsewhere - the post-apocalyptic scenes of smoke hanging low over the valley and the quaint slowboats tied up on the river’s edge.
I was intrigued - who was this man who stood out from everyone else and what was he doing here? Eventually he fell into conversation with a backpacking couple and from my vantage point perched on a rock nearby a picture began to emerge. The following are notes jotted down afterwards, they are certainly not verbatim and are only part of what he said, for he was a great talker.

Notes of Overhead Conversation - Pak Beng, Monday 8 April 2013

Hydro graphic surveyor runs a company here in Laos. Has seven teams surveying the Mekong. Most of their work is for the Government of Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic), compiling reports on river levels. The Government is particularly concerned about the impact dam building is having on river flows etc.
Recently China has completed three hydro power stations on its side of the border and already the impact is being felt. In 2010, when the dams were under construction, the Mekong fell to its lowest recorded level for the month of March because the Chinese were storing water in the headwaters of the Mekong behind temporary cofferdams. Ferry services on this stretch of the river could not operate. Now the dams are finished and generating power and right now (early April 2013) the Mekong is a metre above its usual level for this time of the year because the Chinese are spilling water. And the months ahead will be interesting, because this season has seen particularly heavy snowfalls in the upper (Tibet) reaches. When that snow melts, there will be more water than usual but how will the Chinese handle it. Scathing about China – “they don’t care about their neighbours”.

On China and Foreign Investment

Laos is only one of two countries in SE Asia that gives foreign investors unfettered access so they can come in and do what they like. The Chinese are investing heavily. In Vientiane, for example, they have built industrial complexes around the city and are gearing up for manufacture. “Who do you think they are doing it for? The people of Laos? Of course not, they are looking after themselves.” Part of it has to do with China’s one child policy. Families can settle here and have more children and eventually each child can end up running part of a business empire.

On Teak Trees

Slash and burn agriculture
“Those are teak trees over there,” says the man and my eyes swivel in the direction he’s pointing. He’s seen me turn and now he knows I’m listening to every word. But I suspect he enjoys having an audience. The backpacking couple have drifted away and now a quietly spoken man is asking the occasional question. It’s hard for me to hear him.
The teak trees look as though they are dying, but they are deciduous. Explains how teak  grows in Burma, across Thailand and into Laos but the variety here has cross pollinated with other species and the grain has a white streak through it. “Here in Laos they try to market it as special, but to western eyes it just doesn’t look right.” Some of the trees are lost thanks to slash and burn agriculture.The smoky haze is from the fires – especially the rice stubble being burnt across the region at this time of the year.

On Bodies in the Mekong

His surveyors find quite a few bodies – people caught in the river. “More bodies than we do dead buffalo”. Found five recently. And they found two with no heads. One was way south at Savannakhet (1,200 km away). Probably engaged in drug dealing – Golden Triangle not far from here. Decapitated and disposed of in the Mekong.

On Minerals and Natural Resources

People seen panning on the river’s edge would have been searching for gold and (?). Laos has big deposits of bauxite (the raw ingredient for aluminium production) including world’s biggest single deposit, plus silver and to a lesser extent gold. But gold “very fine” and needs chemical processing to extract it. Environmental concerns. And there are problems getting to the bauxite. In Australia, which has huge deposits, the bauxite lies under 3-4 metres of topsoil. It can be mined by scraping away the topsoil, removing the bauxite and then pushing the topsoil back into place and planting trees over the lot. In Laos there is no topsoil, the bauxite lies on the surface. Nothing grows on it, but once it’s mined there’s a problem – how do you fill in the holes left behind? The Laos Government is showing caution. While there are plenty of companies prepared to mine, the Government wants to know how the impact can be minimised. At the moment, the only bauxite deposits where anything grows is in the craters left behind by bombs during the Vietnam War era. The craters collect water, and eventually something grows.
The sun emerges and casts a glow on the waters of the Mekong - a
river that is an important trade route between China and its southern
neighbours, but what of its future? As dam building progresses will
it become a series of slowflowing and lifeless lakes?

On Living in Laos

Has lived in Laos 20 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else. Has a Laos wife and all his business interests are here. “People ask, ‘can you eat the food?’” (Puts both hands on his stomach) “Of course, I can. Look at me.”
He moves off to board his slowboat. For me, it’s time for breakfast and to reflect on everything he’s said.


  1. Fascinating account - and one can see the journalist in you coming to the fore! I'm one of your avid followers. Am particularly impressed that time in Laos is so far ahead of us in France ..... 18 April already!

    Warm greetings from Cinais and love to you both, Helen ( & Bob).

  2. Hi Helen, whoops - a typo, stuck in an extra "1", thanks for drawing it to my attention. And lovely to hear from you. We still look back very fondly on our stay with you and Bob and we're delighted you will be able to stay at Waiheke during your visit to NZ. We are now in Thailand at a place called Chiang Khong. It's on the Mekong and from our guesthouse balcony we have an excellent view of the river and Laos on the other side. We also have a perfect view of the venue for a concert tonight to mark the Thai/Buddhist New Year. The warmup music is already underway and it's deafening. We can feel a few Chiang beer and some old fogey dancing coming on. Love to you both. Mike and Judy


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