Take Me to the River

Take Me to the River

A journey along the Mekong reveals the quiet soul of Laos— lush, insular, timeless, in the wake of a distant war

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.

Twenty-two years after the communist victory, guerrillas still hold out in the mountains; there is enough brigandage that the U.S. embassy discourages road travel between Louangphrabang and Vientiane. In September 1996, Claude Vincent, the founder of the country's largest tourist agency, and several Laotian employees died in an ambush along Highway 13 south of Louangphrabang. The alternative transport, Lao Aviation, will test a tourist's mettle with its loose scheduling and Chinese- and Russian-built turboprops. Embassy staffs fly the state-owned airline, however, and claim the no-frills planes are well maintained. And the airports do post air passengers are covered by insurance signs and request that travelers show all weapons.

Vientiane, though a national capital, has the feel of a provincial Asian city. Just beyond the Lane Xang Hotel, a grande dame with de Gaulle-era plumbing, corn grows on the floodplain and water buffalo rest along the dusty levee. Government ministries and foreign consulates share the broad, untrafficked streets with vegetable gardens and centuries-old temples.

The "new thinking" seems to have mellowed the insular country I encountered in 1992. Then, Laos had only two international phone lines. To file my stories I had to book calls to the United States 12 hours in advance, then ply the hotel operator with packs of Marlboros. Now, Laotian businessmen chat on mobile telephones. Outside the Lane Xang, Mr. Phoutvilay, a former PL soldier, is ready to forgive Americans, forget the war, and floor his three-wheeled tuk-tuk all over town. "No problem, no problem," he repeats, ferrying us to one gracious, untouristed temple after another. The tin roof of his cab bears a jocular hand-printed slogan: have you written your last will?

As for nightlife, if this is Monday, it must be the Hash, a cross-country run hatched in 1938 by several bored British expatriates in Malaysia. The hashers are a hardy, spirited lot— a drinking club with a running problem. We set out a half-hour before sunset to track a four-mile course through the southern suburbs of Vientiane. The 40-strong pack is a sight to behold: Thai, Laotian, English, American, and Australian joggers, urged on by a horn-blowing Swede. The devious trail takes us down narrow lanes, across the grounds of a Buddhist temple, through a hotly contested soccer game. We are refugees from a Monty Python skit: teetering along rice-paddy dikes, scrambling through riverside fields of squash, dodging dumbfounded water buffalo.

IN THE SMOKY DEPARTURE LOUNGE OF VIENTIANE'S WATTAY AIRPORT, the lone clock's hands are frozen at 6:47. My head is throbbing from post-Hash festivities at the Samlo Pub, where we drank Beer Lao by candlelight after the power failed, and from the early-morning propaganda that blasted from a speaker outside my hotel. After an unintelligible Lao Aviation announcement, we join the ruck converging on the Russian AN-24 bound for Phonsavan, the largest town on the Plain of Jars. Our pilot wears a small image pinned on his right breast pocket; Buddha is his wingman. The only seeming requirement on the sold-out, open-seating flight is that all baguettes be stowed in the overhead rack. The plane lumbers over the Mekong, then swings north to follow the narrow valley of the Nam Ngum River through the mountains. The smell of aviation fuel and fresh-baked bread hangs in the cabin.

Halfway through the 40-minute flight a large, empty valley with a long asphalt runway appears: the lost city of Long Tieng. Thirty years ago this mountain-ringed site, code-named "Alternate," was in effect the second-most populous city in Laos, yet it appeared on no maps. As the nerve center for a clandestine war conducted by the C.I.A., Long Tieng's very existence was classified. The fallout from that conflict lingers still. Many of the 450-odd U.S. servicemen who remain M.I.A. in Laos were pilots, and the resolution of their fate is the greatest sticking point between the United States and Laos. And the Laotian countryside, particularly the Plain of Jars, is littered with unexploded ordnance, especially tennis-ball-size cluster bombs, known locally as bombis, which continue to kill and maim innocent children and farmers.

In Vietnam, rules of engagement prohibited bombing within 500 yards of a temple. No such rules applied in Laos, especially on the Plain of Jars, which gets its name from the stone containers— remnants of a vanished culture— scattered across the sere, windswept region. On the rolling grasslands south of Phonsavan, a load of bombs has stitched a straight, horrible scar through a collection of ancient jars. A 10-foot-deep crater yawns just a few yards from a six-ton jar, the largest on the plain. At least 20 nearby containers were shattered or overturned by the force of this needless explosion.

My guide, Singkham Phanouvong, who lived in a cave for part of his childhood to avoid the interminable air strikes, regards the destruction as "a souvenir of America."

After the haunted plain of jars, Champasak Province, in the far southern panhandle, comes as a relief. Founded in 1905, the provincial seat, Pakse, pales next to wondrous Louangphrabang, yet it does have the Champasak Palace Hotel, a six-story whitewashed elephant, which is the only hotel I have ever stayed in that has a machine-gun bunker, tastefully landscaped with bougainvillea.

The region's recorded history stretches back at least 1,500 years, to the time of Wat Phu, a temple complex 25 miles south of Pakse. At the foot of a soaring, jungle-clad mountain capped with a phallus-like rock formation, Wat Phu has been used for religious purposes, possibly including human sacrifice, for nearly two millennia. King- doms now long dead bequeathed a legacy of laterite and sandstone straight out of an Indiana Jones movie set. A frangipani-shaded staircase climbs to a sanctuary festooned with carvings of Hindu deities. One thousand years ago Wat Phu was a seat of Khmer culture; now cattle and a handful of tourists wander the ruins.

The relative buzz of Pakse vanishes just a few miles to the east, where the 60-mile-wide Bolovens Plateau rises from the Mekong River valley. The massif holds orchards, rich wildlife, and tough, self-reliant Mon-Khmer hill tribes that have only recently begun to interact with the ethnic Lao. Their wariness comes naturally: the lowland Lao historically raided the highlands to supply a thriving slave market in Cambodia. The hill people also had little use for the French. When the colonial authorities tried to suppress a local cult in 1901, the people of the Bolovens revolted; it took the French 35 years to restore order.

Prosperous settlements line the road to the market town of Saravan, once an important stop along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The hill people have left their mountain fastness for better land, reliable water, schooling for their children. Cash crops, such as coffee, provide a relatively good income, yet life remains a struggle. Beneath their raised houses, the Katu people store rosewood coffins; in a land with a life expectancy of 52 years, death is never far away.

Laos has few means of generating revenue aside from timber and hydropower. Large tracts of the Bolovens have been logged and replanted with fast-growing eucalyptus; a Korean company is building a 100-megawatt dam along the plateau's eastern escarpment. But a planned $1.5 billion hydroelectric project in the upper panhandle is mired in controversy. The Nam Theun II dam would flood 175 square miles of the Nakai Plateau, a barely explored area that harbors the saola, an oxlike creature unknown to biologists until 1992. This "lost world" forest bordering Vietnam also shelters newly discovered species of wild pig and muntjac deer. It may seem incredible after the wartime beating it took, but Laos has the most unspoiled environment in Southeast Asia.

Away from its few cities, Laos remains a hunter-gatherer society. In the countryside, nearly every Laotian male seems to own a homemade slingshot or muzzle-loaded rifle and scours the forest for bush meat. The morning market in Saravan is notorious for its trade in game illegally taken from the Bolovens, although our guide, Xa Thepvonga, assures me that the authorities have clamped down. The dusty, sun-blasted bazaar does display a large sign forbidding the sale of mammals and birds. Directly beneath the proclamation, a man offers a blue whistling thrush. Whether the songbird ends up in a cage or a cooking pot, the man doesn't care. I buy the thrush for 1,500 kip, about $1.60, with the intention of setting it free in the forest. Money for the hunter; merit for me.

This is Laos's dilemma: how to preserve enough of its rich landscape to attract eco-tourists yet exploit its abundant natural resources to sustain its people. As good Buddhists, the Lao adhere to the Middle Path, seeking balance in all aspects of life. The best tack, they argue, lies in developments like Tad Lo, a resort on the western face of the Bolovens, where the Xe Set River tumbles down a series of waterfalls.

The ambiance of Tad Lo is classic old Asia: rustic bungalows decorated with woven-bamboo walls, rattan furniture, and ceiling fans. The grounds are planted with poinsettias, hibiscus, and a long-leafed epiphyte the Lao call "tongue of the mother-in-law." Suay tribesmen offer elephant rides through the surrounding forest of bamboo, rosewood, and padaung.

And a few miles upstream stands the Tad Lo dam. While its 1991 construction spelled the demise of an 80-foot waterfall, Laos now earns hard currency selling electricity to energy-hungry Thailand.

"Bad for the natives, but good for economic development," says Mr. Xa. He rubs a thumb and forefinger together, the international sign for profits. "It is a balance."

It is here, at Tad Lo, that I free the whistling thrush. The bird hops onto a table from the cramped basket, then unceremoniously falls off and rolls into the undergrowth. Its purplish, spangled wings cruelly clipped, the bird is helpless. Mr. Xa persuades the staff to display the thrush in a bamboo cage on the resort's bar. It will sing, he tells them, and please visitors. If they eat the bird, he warns, they will suffer bad fortune. I leave Tad Lo with little faith in the songbird's long-term prospects. This is a country, I remind myself, where some protein-starved people eat rats. Anything is fair game. After 10 days here I have nearly lost track of time. A slow ferry carries us from Pakse the two miles across the Mekong, a passage that may soon be rendered obsolete: a Japanese firm is slated to begin work on a bridge.

We cross into Thailand at the Chong Mek checkpoint, where a dozen overloaded timber trucks are waiting to exit Laos, and hire a taxi for the 50-mile trip to the provincial capital of Ubon Ratchathani. In just a few hours, Bangkok will be ours. Crowds. Decadence. Pollution. Streets without birdsong.

The driver pops a cassette of Thai rap music into the tape player and takes his late-model sedan up to 60 mph on the smooth highway. Laos recedes in the rear window, a fading dream. And the world is suddenly a more efficient, less magical place.

Laos Travel Precautions
Tourists in Laos should never stray too far from established routes. Unexploded ordnance (UXO) is still a concern, particularly in rural parts of Xieng Khuang and Saravan provinces. The ruins of Wat Phu and the major archaeological sites on the Plain of Jars are considered safe. Americans traveling overland outside urban centers should contact the U.S. embassy for current road and security information, especially conditions along Highway 13 between Vientiane and Louangphrabang, where vehicles have been ambushed by insurgents. The U.S. State Department has an on-line Consular Information Sheet (http://travel.state.gov/laos.html) with updated travel and safety tips.

Competent guides from reputable Lao tour agencies such as Lane-Xang Travel and SODETOUR, which work with a number of overseas tour operators, can help visitors avoid the dangers of UXO, facilitate unpredictable travel connections, and negotiate the country's creaky bureaucracy. I arranged my itinerary through Absolute Asia (800/736-8187), a New York-based company specializing in custom-designed tours of the Far East. Another company with expertise is the Swiss firm Diethelm, which has a Vientiane office (856-21/215-920).

Health Concerns
Medical services in Laos are limited and fall short of Western standards. Cash payment for treatment may be expected. Tourists may want to consider a supplemental medical policy with overseas coverage, including medical evacuation. The Centers for Disease Control provides information on serious diseases in Southeast Asia, and on inoculations (404/332-4559; www.cdc.gov/travel/seasia.htm); get malaria prophylaxis before departing. Bring a fully stocked traveler's first-aid kit, including insect repellent (mosquitoes here can carry dengue fever); if you are going to the remoter regions, pack a sterile syringe— the provincial hospitals are poorly equipped. The blood supply is not screened for HIV. Bottled water is widely available.

The Facts
Curiosity, flexibility, and good humor are the most important things to bring to Laos. The country functions at its own pace, which is part of its subtle charm.

What to Bring
Laos is a tropical country, and temperatures during the March-May hot season can approach 100 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the Mekong River valley. The best time to visit is November through mid-February, when Laos enjoys its coolest, driest weather. Pack lightweight wash-and-wear clothing; laundry service is available only at tourist hotels in the larger cities. Bring a sweater if your trip includes the Bolovens Plateau or the Plain of Jars, where overnight winter temperatures can dip to near freezing.

Good walking shoes, sandals, and a rain poncho or windbreaker, sun hat, and flashlight are also essential. Shorts, sleeveless shirts, and tank tops are not acceptable attire when visiting Buddhist temples— and you will see a lot of temples.

Tourist hotels in Vientiane, Louangphrabang, and Pakse take major credit cards; banks in these cities also cash traveler's checks. In most of the country, the relatively stable Laotian kip, Thai baht, and U.S. dollar are all acceptable currencies. If you do change money in Laos, request the largest denomination— the 1,000-kip note— worth just over $1.

Laos is renowned for its hand-loomed cotton and silk textiles. Ban Phanom village, near Louangphrabang, and Ban Saphai village, outside of Pakse, are famed weaving centers. In Vientiane, antiques and hill-tribe artifacts can be had at the morning market and numerous gift shops along nearby Samsenthai Road.

Lonely Planet's Laos: Travel Survival Kit, written by Joe Cummings, is the essential traveling companion. Their Web site includes useful reports from travelers. Prowl used-book stores for The Ravens(Bantam), Christopher Robbins's book about the secret air war in Laos.
— C. R. C.

On the Web
Lao Net— A good foundation for travelers interested in the culture of Laos. Check the news updates or do research on history, language, religion.

Tourist Survival Guide — Important emergency contact and transportation information. Print it out and take it with you.

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