Memo from the Lower Mekong

Lotus plants bloom in the early morning alongside a southern backroad
Photos by Stephen Mansfield

Flanking the 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.

Depending 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

Colonial charm
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.

Hocus pocus
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 churning maelstroms.

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 Wat Phu

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.

Getting there:  
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 dishes.

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.

Other information:  
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.


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