At the foot of Lasagongma Mountain, 5224 metres above sea level, the Mekong takes its first icy breaths. Under Tibet’s cobalt skies, it tumbles toward flatter earth, into tropical Southeast Asia, where it meets the ocean at Vietnam. It’s a journey of 4,350 kilometres through six countries, making the Mekong the world’s tenth longest river. It is Laos’ Mae Nam Khong, or Mother of Rivers. The title mother is bestowed on great rivers by both Thai and Lao people; perhaps unsurprisingly, the Khong in Mae Nam Khong is derived from the Sanskrit Ganga of Grandmother Ganges herself. The Mekong gives shape to Laos’ western border with Thailand, and divides it from Burma just north of the Golden Triangle, where opium and arms trading have been replaced by casinos and Chinese cargo. The river is Laos’ pulse and lifeblood. It is its backbone too, a line of defence that has helped the landlocked nation survive. I am sailing along the northern arc of the border between Thailand and Laos, following the Mekong from Chiang Kong back to my temporary home in Luang Prabang, and Iain. It is a two day passage on a Luang Say cruise, with days spent on the water and a night at a lodge halfway, in Pakbeng. Watching the scenery go by, taking photos – and a few notes – are all I plan to do. Thailand is on the river’s right bank, where a shrine gleams gold behind leaves of dull jade. Steps lead up to it, skirted by a banister sculpted into a writhing naga. The mythical serpent is a guardian of treasure, often associated with water. Thai flags flutter between the King’s flag of yellow silk. Across the river – in Laos – three women are bathing on the shore, wrapped in sarongs, beside a royal blue long-tail boat. Today’s laundry – trousers, sinhs, Hello Kitty sheets – blows in the breeze on the river bank. Further up the river other Lao people fish and unload sacks from wooden boats, dragging them onto pebbly shores. Twenty minutes downstream, we reach a checkpoint where our boat stops. From here, both sides of the river belong to Laos, and I notice its red, white and blue flag flying beside a small concrete building where Vulee, our guide, takes the foreign passengers’ passports for inspection. Our white fibreglass cruiser waits in the shadow of a boat with a large wooden box – like a house – planted on its deck. The ‘house’ is painted turquoise; the hull, brick-red. A satellite dish dangles from a shutter. Men carry red and white sacks of Thai Elephant Brand cement from long-tail boats to the shore. Our boat pulls away and continues downstream, where the land looks layered – almost segmented – and changes colours around each of the river’s gentle bends. The metallic water joins the muddy mauve of the river bank, scattered with dark stones. Rising above the mud, long strands of grass gather in clusters, forming soft mounds of verdant green, where I imagine creatures living in clans. Behind the grass, another layer begins: tall trees with brittle branches and bronzed leaves. They are made striking by treetops beyond counting, an emerald green backdrop seen through a haze of sunlight. Further along the river, the palette changes: the scrub on hills grows in powdered cinnamon earth. Rows of sudden green sit beside bristled patches that have been recently cleared for farming. Two years is all the soil can handle, Vuelee says, before farmers abandon old strips and clear a place for new crops. On the other side of the river, the landscape is starkly different: the bank is a sandy beach, where brown cows lie sun tanning. Our boat pulls up to it and a handful of village children in brightly coloured clothes run up, clutching embroidered purses, woven bracelets, anklets and tiny bags. I stay on the boat and photograph them from behind its polished wood, wary of being adorned with things I don’t want to buy. They stand waiting as the first people in our group balance their way down the gangplank and onto the sand. I watch the children for a minute longer as they watch me, but when I disembark, they neither plead nor pounce. Instead, they form a loose ring of tiny people, half holding out their wares while trailing our sturdy white-skinned group. I am practiced at gently ignoring people; I smile at them and shake my head occasionally. They seem unsurprised. They, too, are practiced. We make our way up a dusty hill towards Huay Nor Khom Village, where the children live, and pause outside a school. The village on the opposite side of the river is also in view, with its school. Both were built recently, says Vulee, and both villages are inhabited by Hmong people, the smallest of Laos’ recognised ethnic groups. The villagers lived in the highlands before the government encouraged them to relocate to more easily accessible areas, where schools and running water could be provided. Forty five Hmong families – or around 300 people – were moved down from northern Laos to the village, Vulee says. Later, he tells me he is also Hmong. A baby chicken – a fluff of soft, pale yellow feathers – hops along in the dust at my feet. I reach down and scoop up his downy, weightless body. A German man gestures to the camera around my neck – “Take a picture?” – and the chick and I are photographed together. We follow Vulee into a home beneath a thatched roof. It is dim inside, and surprisingly cool. Streaks of light sneak through cracks in its wooden walls. Two dogs are lazing on the packed earth floor, under cobs of corn drying on a length of twine. A puppy and an adolescent chicken trot between the sleeping dogs. I coo at the puppy, photographing it from my haunches, and notice two of the village girls standing in a corner. They have tired of selling handicrafts and regard me with curiosity as I look through a lens at all these commonplace things. Timidly, they peer at the camera screen, warming to my smile. We communicate in grunts and giggles, waiting for the puppy to look up and then peering at the result on the camera. They want to be the focus of my glass lens too and so, tentatively at first, go behind it, posing, and shriek when they see themselves on the camera’s screen. They smile sweetly with their milk teeth, now that I’m a person, not just a tourist. Outside, other children are still hanging around, lackadaisically holding out their handicrafts. An elderly woman in a brightly coloured, embroidered tunic has joined them, a green and pink scarf covering her thinning hair. She too has fistfuls of handicrafts, but instead of hovering she approaches the tourists in turn, tapping us on the arm, tugging at our shirtsleeves, holding out her wares. We continue plodding conspicuously through the village, squinting ahead in the piercing light, taking it all in, photographing our surroundings – all the way to the boat, where our life of cold drinks, handtowels and repose awaits us. We pass hill after lush green hill, muted beneath a grey haze of heat. People appear among the charcoal boulders and unruly bush, coming out from their hiding places in the hills. Some throw spidery fishing nets from boats; others have wedged fishing rods into crevices and left them to bring in the day’s catch. Children throw their arms in the air, wave, and wake me from sunny slumber with a distant Hello! Women in broad-brimmed hats crouch at the river’s edge holding large flat pans, scouring the mud for flakes of gold. I watch the river, passing the hours. Along its edges, water has bleached lines across rocks: records of the Mekong’s levels during seasons past. The rocks change as often as the foliage, giving each stretch of water its own character. There are flat granite slabs, all tilted in a single direction, and tightly stacked clusters of beige. On the opposite bank, the river’s edge is scattered with small grey stones. As we approach Pakbeng, they grow craggier, sharper, and bamboo poles dangle off them, steering boats away from danger. “Our captain knows every rock in these waters,” Vulee chimes in, as if reading my mind, and within the hour we are all watching the sun go down from a balcony at Luang Say Lodge, chilled lemongrass tea in our hands. Morning has broken, but midnight seemed almost more alive with its chirping insect orchestra. I woke in the night to the unfamiliar, natural darkness: a cloak only seen away from the light of a town. The night air sifted through the bungalow’s windows, which had no glass, and I grasped for the warmth of my sleeping partner, absent, in my white cloud of a bed. A day on the river strikes me as a very pleasant prospect indeed, without yesterday’s guilty idleness. The sun has not yet risen and the sky is shrouded in morning mist. Blue-grey vapour leads to Luang Prabang, and layers of indigo mountain form our horizon. In bed last night, I thought of leaving Luang Prabang behind and staying forever in equal measure. Rather than wish my last two weeks away, I return to the present, where I sit facing the bracing cold of a wind-swept morning under the warmth of a blanket, eyes streaming as we sail ahead. I am comfortably stuffed with breakfast: eggs, bacon, toast and mango jam, fresh pineapple, purple sticky rice with coconut, ripe papaya and crème caramel. Like me, the sun is slow to wake up today and skates across the glassy pink water, stealing behind hills before rising above them to create her most extravagant performance yet. I drink it in. An hour or so downstream, a village appears on my left with tiny rattan and bamboo homes on stilts, dwarfed by sturdy trees. Beyond the village, a stream froths into the mighty Mekong: a running rivulet from yet another hilly outcrop. The water is a wide pea-green belt between the jagged rocks and sandy banks, wide enough for all of Laos to drink from, and the rainy season hasn’t yet come. The passengers on the boat seem especially calm today: hypnotised by slow boat travel and the prospect of another day ahead. Later, we will stop at a village to see weaving and whisky-making. We’ll eat lunch and visit the Pak Ou Caves before arriving in Luang Prabang, but – for now – the hours ahead are mine. I settle into a seat beside the water and gaze the morning away.
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