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UP A CRAZY RIVER? CRUISING THE MAGNIFICENT MEKONG.

BY JOHN BORTHWICK

The Mekong River isn’t so much crazy as alive with curiosities and contradictions. Head upstream to run aground on a few.

“We think a kid is old enough to go to school when he or she can reach over their head and touch their opposite ear,” says the young schoolteacher at the Lao village of Ban Phar Leib on a remote stretch of the Mekong. It seems as good as any other system.

A gaggle of healthy kids line-up before their two-room school to lustily sing the Lao national anthem before escorting us back to our good river ship, Champa Pandaw. We’re cruising upriver from Vientiane to northern Thailand on a one thousand kilometre, ten-day trip. Our vessel is a flash reincarnation of the classic Irrawaddy Flotilla steamers of early last century, with plenty of added teak and brass, gin and tonic.

The Mekong River tumbles from heaven to earth, from Tibet to the South China Sea, coursing 4300 km across six countries. Its 700km passage through Laos is a corridor of whirlpools and reefs, then tranquil, sunny reaches, and, just as quickly again, steep gorges and hidden sandbanks.

Our first excursion ashore is to the old French town of Pak Lai where a hammer-and-sickle flag on the main street is an ample clue to the system of government in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Embodying multiple oxymorons, the governance here might be called “One-party, democratic, Marxist, communist capitalism.” Go figure.

Next day, on rounding a river bend we find our way blocked by the huge new Sayaburi hydroelectric dam. Laos, resource-poor but for its Mekong flow, has two dams under construction and seven more proposed. Nicknamed “the battery of Southeast Asia,” it will sell 95 percent of the Sayaburi power to Thailand. The long-term downside of the short-term upside is that so many dams are being built along the Mekong that downstream nations like Cambodia and Vietnam are in for an increasingly dry century.

The Mekong is a liquid highway, its own Silk Route of trade and migration. Our Lao captain, 62-year old Xieng Souk divines the river’s whorls and eddies like a palmist might read a hand. No digital gizmos for him, just two eyes that for 40 years have studied and stored the nuances of every braided channel and dragon-toothed shoal in this magnificent river.

Our ship’s 23 passengers are British, American, Australian, Swiss and French. Curiously, one French couple will dine with everyone except their fellow countrymen. Meanwhile, the Americans first have to suss out on which side of the Hocus Potus line their peers stand or fall. Having discerned that none of them is yet enthralled by their new tweeter dude, they proceed to sup without fear of political indigestion.

On land we visit schools (some, sadly, with no teacher) and small wats (the temple gong often made of an old artillery shell). Three hundred km north of Vientiane we hit the tourist mecca of Luang Prabang. With its 32 temples, this trifecta of Buddhism, France and Lao kings is one of the best-preserved colonial towns in Asia. At dawn each day monks drift through its UNESCO-protected streets, accepting food donations from would-be merit-makers. Ironically, too much of it, being sugar drinks and noodle snacks, is also diabetes-making.

A few hours later in trendy cafes along those same historic streets, cosmopolitan hipsta baristas serve lattes to flashpackers at equally cosmopolitan prices. Meanwhile, Luang Prabang’s golden-roofed wats glitter against the river’s slow-boat tide. I love its 1904 Royal Palace, now the National Museum. Where else can you see a photo of a laughing Ho Chi Minh and the last Lao King, Sisavangvattana kicking out the jams, dancing with two pretty women?

Having wandered the gilded, 400-year old Wat Xieng Thong, for me the best spiritual trip in town is to be beside the river at sunset with a chilled Beer Lao and a plate of chicken satay. The strangest trip in town is just across the road, a gaggle of “Hello, Mister” girls spruiking in front of a World Heritage-listed massage parlour.

Next day Thailand appears on our port bow, marked by — what else but — a miniature Dutch windmill. Again, go figure. On the Lao shore we see vast banana plantations, all for export to China. It’s an indicator that we are approaching the Special Economic Zone, a huge Chinese concession in Laos where the dominant “economic activity”, beside bananas, appears to be a casino complex for fly-in-fly-out foreign gamblers.

At Chiang Khong it is time for us to farewell the fine Champa Pandaw and step ashore in Thailand’s once-notorious Golden Triangle. This Mekong junction, where three countries meet, previously had a hell reputation as a smugglers’ haven. The opium warlords and Kuomintang mule trains are now long gone and cabbages have replaced poppies on the Thailand side of the river. The largest structure, at the Thai apex of the Triangle, is a lofty golden Buddha serenely contemplating the Mekong confluence.

It’s a different story on the other shores. Upstream in Myanmar, the biggest building visible is a contemporary, secular temple — a casino. Downstream in Laos is another massive casino, Chinese-built and crowned (literally) by a huge, European-style crown. Meanwhile, also on the Lao side, facing the Buddha is a splendid golden dome that might be either a mosque or cathedral — or even a casino. It is, in fact, the Lao Immigration office. More go figure.

See Pandaw Cruises, www.pandaw.com