Memo from the Lower Mekong
|Lotus plants bloom in the early morning
alongside a southern backroad
Photos by Stephen Mansfield
pristine shores of the Mekong River in Southern Laos, the town of Pakse is a melting pot
of animist ritual, French colonial food and architecture, ancient Khmer ruins and
spectacular natural scenery. Stephen Mansfield heads downstream.
on your temperament, the Lao Aviation flight from Vientiane to Pakse is either
exhilarating or hair-raising. The Australian engineer in the seat behind me was making a
valiant effort to contain a phobia for planes that have no right to be in the air by
resorting to humor, a device noted several times on previous trips to Laos.
"The good news," he was telling the passenger beside him, "is that in the
event of an emergency landing, the plain below is almost entirely flat. The bad news? It'
covered in secondary forest!" In an increasingly despoiled world, the news of a
canopy of teak, rosewood and katou trees below should have been heart-warming.
It's hard to believe that the old French town of Pakse is one of only four Lao cities
marked on the Penguin World Map. Standing in front of the few desultory shops that face
the Mekong river and its grubby Conradian pier, with its one vulgar temple and haughty
Boun Oum Palace, the town feels more like a small Indian settlement clinging to the banks
of the Ganges than a major keystone to the country's southern route.
|Perfectly preserved murals at Wat Phu
Without a doubt the best accommodation for atmosphere in Pakse is the Hotel Salachampa, a
rambling French villa of indeterminate age right in the middle of town. Each evening I was
summoned by the Laotian maitre d' to the teak-floored upstairs dining room for a princely
served French meal, four of the Lao staff in languid attendance throughout. More colonial
deja vu was forthcoming in the morning with the appearance of a hearty French planter's
breakfast of baguettes, papaya and eggs, served with a pot of hot, fortifying beverage,
brewed from the aromatic beans grown along the so-called Coffee Road - a rural artery that
runs from Pakse to the market town of Paksong.
By 6:30am the strong sun was soaking up the muddy puddles and malarial curbs in the town,
drying out the water stained walls and dispelling a little of Pakse's most pervasive
monsoonal smell - mildew. The French missionaries were only partly successful in
converting the inhabitants of the villages I called at. They have continued to remain half
Catholic, half animist - an arrangement much to the liking of the Ta Oy minority, who
sensibly reason that two beliefs are better than one.
This is the shamanistic south, the provenance of phi spirits inhabiting all matter;
a place where the visitor should not wander impulsively into an animist graveyard but
might peer over the fence or brambles surrounding it. Nor may you touch the sacred temples
hung with shaman masks in the villages, like the one at Ban Paleng, where a buffalo
sacrifice is held every March.
Operating the ferry on
the Mekong crossing to Khone Island
Reminders of the proximity
of the spirit world abound in these little visited areas of southern Laos. Under the roof
of one of the village houses, which is being rigged up with electric power points and
low-tension cables, a shaman is conducting the exorcism of a malign phi. This is at the
instigation of the woman who owns the house. Her hens have been tardy with their eggs and
her muktum trees have been discharging their fruit prematurely, a sure sign that
hostile spirits are at work.
As the first-time visitor leaves Pakse to join Route 13, there is the first glimpse of
rice fields, mango trees, and the overgrown track off Route 13 that leads to the fifth
century Khmer ruin of Ou Moung. The paddies nearby are empty but there are some curious
figures wading through ponds and ditches, severed into torsos above the water line.
Searching for mint, water-lily stems and the leaves of marguerites and lotus flowers, they
are foraging for natural additives destined to end up in herb soups, fermented fish
dishes, the occasional buffalo stews or tamarind jam. As we enter the jungle gloom,
dwarfed by an immense canopy of trees, we see the modest ruin of Ou Moung for the first
time. From this jumble of subsided laterite, blunted lingams and carvings of defiant
deities, grew a century later the great Khmer temple of Wat Phu that lies just a few
kilometers across the Mekong.
A little over 130km south of Pakse, Route 13, still hugging the slow course of the Mekong,
arrives at Khong Falls, the largest waterfall on the river. Khone Falls is a generic term
for the two main cascades, Phapheng and Somphamit Falls. Along with several smaller
barriers, they collectively form a 13km complex of cataracts through the beautiful islands
of the Mekong. These are known locally as the "Four Thousand islands," a
forgivable exaggeration that nonetheless gives an idea of the immensity of the Mekong as
it fans out into a complex tracery of channels transforming tranquil ochre waters into
The boiler of the old
French locomotive that used to run between the islands of the Mekong
The largest of the islands
is Khone itself, 23km long and eight wide, set in the middle of this nexus of channels. At
an old French villa turned guest house, and now called the Sala Don Khone, visitors can be
put up in spacious Mekong facing rooms overlooking a garden with longan trees. The French
resigned themselves to the fact that the Mekong was unnavigable here and built instead a
5km stretch of railway line linking Det Island down by the Cambodian border with Khone
Island. After wading through a pool of noxious black water, I discovered the original
locomotive abandoned in an overgrown grove of trees and weeds, its rusting boiler wreathed
in creepers of a toxic fruit called mak toum ngai. The original tracks have long
been cannibalized for other uses, and bits of old French rolling stock pop up all over
these islands as roofing, fences and foot bridges across brooks and culverts.
The trees of south Laos provide a companionable presence to almost any trip taken through
this magnificent region. Each tree, if you know how to read it, is a cipher to the
history, culture and customs of the region. In one village a stone Buddha sits under a
rain tree, its roots entwined around the yellow folds of the statue. Ancient frangipani
trees undermine the masonry at Wat Phu, flanking the laterite steps up to the mountain
lingam above the temple. Thickets of betel tree on Don Khone explain the many red-stained
teeth and lips of the avuncular, unreformed Lao elder. Rubber plantations, now fallen into
disuse, recall the days when latex was sent off to the Michelin factory in France. In
those days, hardwoods were floated down the Mekong to Cambodia and the South China Sea.
But somewhat sadly, the whir of the sawmill has become the new leitmotif of the south. And
while it may not be too late, great gauges in the forests are ominous warning signs.
|The main sanctuary at the Khmer ruin of
For the time being however,
the ancestral voices and spirits of the south, aided by strong traditions and an admixture
of common sense, hold marginal sway over the forces that threaten to turn these green,
unbeaten tracks of southern Laos into cement dust and ash.
There are daily flights to Pakse, as well as buses, leaving from Vientiane. It is also
possible to cross the Mekong near Pakse from Thailand.
When to go:
Nov-Apr are the driest months, though temperatures soar in the latter two months. The
rainy season between June and late September can make travel in this region very difficult
as many of the back roads and trails are flooded.
Where to stay:
The Hotel Salachampa (Tel: 212273) in the center of town is the most atmospheric place to
stay at US$25 a night. A much cheaper option is the Vannapha Guest House (Tel: 212502),
where rooms with fans go for around $2. They have a small restaurant with good local
What to eat:
Mekong fish dishes are good in Pakse. Baguettes filled with pate called khao jii,
are sold on the street near the Hotel Salachampa. Because of a small resident population
of Chinese, there are several Sino-Lao restaurants in Pakse. The cheapest places to eat
are at stalls set up in and around the market.
Footprints Guides publish the best guidebook to Laos. The Rough Guide is also very good,
with the Lonely Planet Laos coming in a good third. Dervla Murphy's account of travel in
the country, One Foot in Laos, is recommended. Lao Hill Tribes: Traditions and
Patterns of Existence, documents the ethnic side of the country.