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Take Me to the River

Obsessions insinuate themselves in the strangest places. On a late-summer morning in 1991, I stood atop a crumbling riverbank in northern Thailand and gazed at the ruddy, monsoon-swollen Mekong River and the fog that shrouded the far shore. Somewhere through the vapors lay Laos, an obscure Communist country at the heart of a long-standing mystery that had compelled my newspaper to send me to the Golden Triangle. I had accompanied a Massachusetts businessman who was looking for American servicemen he believed were being held as prisoners of war in Indochina. His five-year quest brought us to Chiang Khong, a one-temple river town, and secret meetings with two Laotian men who claimed to have seen American POW's. As I waited for those shady contacts to arrive, I searched the misted river for their pirogue.

Disembodied sounds floated across the water from Ban Houayxay, Laos, a centuries-old caravan crossing. In the early seventies, the town harbored the largest heroin refinery in Southeast Asia. Rival drug lords had actually fought a war for control of a mile-long opium conduit just a few miles upriver. The green hills of Bokeo province, an area forbidden to foreigners, shook off the fog as the sun rose. The river, known locally as the Mae Nam Khong, the "mother of waters," churned past Ban Houayxay, running southward until a jungled mountain range abruptly turned its course northward, to be swallowed by the haze and high peaks. What lay beyond the bend in the river?Beyond the battlement of mountains?Beyond the official limits?

It seemed I would never know. Our meetings were fruitless; the POW sightings proved a scam. But that was my first tantalizing look at Laos, an enigma wrapped in a riddle inside a police state.

I got a taste of the country the following year, reporting on a three-day trip with a U.S. Senate delegation investigating the POW issue. And five years on, I finally made it across the river to Bokeo. The Laotian government had recently declared Ban Houayxay a point for international entry. The ramshackle town resembles a far-flung outpost more than a provincial capital, but it is an ideal staging point for an expedition down the Mekong. And in a country with no trains, few paved roads, and only a handful of aircraft, the Eternal River, which courses more than 1,000 miles through Laos, is the preferred route for travel and the perfect way to touch the soul of the nation.

it is early january, the height of the cool dry season. The café au lait-colored floodwaters have retreated since the summer rains, exposing dark, glossy boulders resembling the stained teeth of a betel nut addict. Verdant mountains tumble down to the river's edge. The faint smudges of human settlement are overwhelmed by this ancient tableau. Just a few hours after leaving frenetic Bangkok, photographer Luca Trovato and I have reached the most soporific spot in Southeast Asia. For the next 10 days we will travel the length of Laos by boat, plane, truck, and elephant, to savor its cities, ruins, and the simple pleasures of its forests and rivers.

On this side of the Mekong, the strict precepts of Buddhism and the rhythms of the life-giving rains still drive one of the world's least-developed countries— a mountainous land of just 4 1/2 million people in an area slightly larger than Utah. That the Lao People's Democratic Republic has retained its traditional ways is the result of its geographic isolation and its Communist leadership, which took control of the landlocked nation in 1975 and permitted no foreign tourists until 1989. Visitors liken Laos to Thailand before Bangkok became an R&R fleshpot. With little political strife, virtually no major crime, and only a handful of street touts, Laos presents far fewer worries for travelers than does neighboring Cambodia or Vietnam. Outside the capital, Vientiane, and a handful of small cities, tourists are still considered a novelty.

Which is the sensation we're enjoying just an hour into our river trip aboard a rented "fast-boat," a wooden skiff that skips along in excess of 40 mph, powered by a Toyota car engine. The boat stops at the first settlement of note, the village of Ban Paktha, where a market teeters on the muddy flats. While our judicious helmsman, Mr. Bountien, buys a spare propeller, the presence of two pale, towering falangs (or Westerners, a corruption of FranÁais, for the region's early French explorers) provides the merchants with a midday diversion.

Not everyone is amused. A patrol of rifle-toting Laotian soldiers amble along the riverbank, grenades hanging from their uniforms like overripe fruit. Aroused from their torpor by our arrival, Udomxai province's finest inspect our papers, in a maddening vestige of Communism that will be repeated at each new province. Scrutiny has lessened, however, since my 1992 visit to Laos, when my visa was delayed until I submitted a biography and copies of every article I'd written about Indochina. I was also advised: "Hippie-type passengers will not usually be welcomed." Those strictures have receded along with my hairline, yet this circumspect country remains conflicted about outsiders. Laos has no desire to become another Nepal, crowded with backpackers. In 1995, fewer than 9,000 Americans found their way to this Asian anachronism.

Aside from a few "long-tail" boats— wooden craft powered by car engines that are the taxis of the Mekong— life along this distant stretch of the river proceeds much as it did when a French expedition searching for a route to inland China came through 130 years ago. Skilled elephant handlers still work the lush forests for teak and bathe their charges in the river. Peasant women still stand waist-deep in the swift, cold water and pan the silt for gold. And Hmong hill-tribers still torch the mountain slopes to cultivate opium.

After nearly five hours and 100 miles of river travel, we arrive at Pakbeng. Sore of joint and hard of hearing, I feel for those earlier explorers. The treacherous Mekong, plagued with rapids, boulders, and sandbars, is not the smooth waterway the French— and I— hoped to find. Nor is Pakbeng a pleasant way station. It is a one-street town clinging to the side of a mountain; its only blessing is its location, halfway along the two-day voyage to our first destination, the old royal capital, Louangphrabang.

Pakbeng's small market carries the usual profusion of Asian fruits and vegetables, some cultivated by Hmong in the surrounding hills. There's also a local delicacy: rats split and roasted with the flair of a rotisserie-chicken franchise. Our guesthouse, the grandly named Phu Vieng Hotel, meets community standards: squat toilet, scoop-and-bucket "shower," and meals cooked over fires. Paradoxically, the place has a generator-powered television tricked out with a satellite dish: Thai soap operas are the centerpiece of Pakbeng culture. Dinner comes well after the plummeting sun has stained the Mekong the color of smoked salmon. At our darkened table the indistinguishable food tastes of onions and beans but, thankfully, no rodents. We turn in early and spend the night shivering atop thin mattresses and beneath thinner blankets, listening to the ongoing reverie of rural Laotian life: Drunken husbands. Indignant wives. Coughing children. Impudent dogs and roosters.

Though it is difficult to fathom while enduring these nocturnal vignettes, Laos was the "domino" that worked President Eisenhower into such a geopolitical lather. For centuries Laos has served as a buffer between its larger, more powerful neighbors. During the Indochinese war the former French protectorate became a bulwark against Communism, and suffered grievously. From 1964 until 1973 the United States conducted secret bombing missions against the Vietcong's supply lifeline, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and other targets inside the neutral nation. So much ordnance fell— more than 1,000 pounds of explosives for each inhabitant— that Laos holds the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare.

Inside Laos a confusing three-way struggle raged between the Communist-backed Pathet Lao (PL), American-backed conservatives, and neutralists. After the Communist victory, Laos was instantly forgotten by the Cold Warriors. Before 1975 it had been a backwater kingdom; after the takeover it became a backwater socialist state— Albania with palm trees. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, its financial and ideological patron, Laos has warmed to a cautious economic reform policy called chin ta nakan mai, or "new thinking." But the reforms won't prepare Laos for prime time. This is not a land of five-star hotels or rarefied cuisine. The unhurried people and their tranquil land are the attractions.

LUCA AND I HIRE A NEW FAST BOAT AND PILOT IN PAKBENG and proceed downriver. The Mekong becomes wider, a bit domesticated. Fishermen check bamboo traps for carp and catfish. Crops of pumpkin, cilantro, and beans sprout along the riverbanks. Slow boats loaded with nyaa lao, a purplish grass used in mattresses, labor against the current. Below the caves of Pak Ou, which devout Buddhists have crammed with 4,000 gilded images, we lose our propeller on an underwater rock. Our new, injudicious pilot smiles sheepishly: he has no spare. Worse, he has only a thin paddle that proves useless in steering against the current. With the river running at nearly 10 knots, we rattle over shoals and bob through small whirlpools at amusement-park speed. Luca waves a $10 bill— the equivalent of two weeks' pay in Laos— at the pilots of several boats chugging upstream. No deal. Using our boat's thwarts as makeshift oars, we flail furiously at the water, finally making shore on the outskirts of Louangphrabang.

Downriver, the gilded spire of That Chomsi temple flickers in the afternoon sunlight atop the holy Phu Si hill. Traveling to remote Louangphrabang has always required significant effort; possibly the first Western visitor, French naturalist Henri Mouhot, did not arrive until 1861. In its splendid mountain isolation, it retains a sylvan beauty and a serene cityscape punctuated by nearly three dozen pre-colonial temples. Even as other cities in Asia are radically transformed, Louangphrabang endures— the best-preserved city, and best-kept secret, in all of Southeast Asia. In 1995, the United Nations gave World Heritage status to this historic cultural treasure.

In the wake of my boating adventure, I can empathize with Louis de Carné, a member of the 1866-68 French Mekong Exploration Commission, who wrote that Louangphrabang "had been to us what an oasis is to a caravan wearied by a long march." Today the colonial-era Villa Santi hotel, the former residence of the queen, creates the same sensation. The two-story house, converted five years ago into a small inn and restaurant by Princess Khampha, is redolent with the scents of lemongrass, varnished wood, and lost empires.

In this socialist republic, royalty is still a touchy subject. Locals meet questions about the last king of Laos, Savang Vatthana, with nervous laughter. The monarch was exiled to a cave near the Vietnamese border in 1977 and never seen alive again.

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