The Lullaby of Laos

A Slow Boat up the Mekong River
  |  Gorp.com

For three days now, we've been traveling the Mekong River by slow boat. It's the dry season in Laos, and the banks rise 20 to 30 feet above the brown, silty water. The crumbling shores barely hold back the encroaching jungle. Locals say a ghost lives in every tree, and I don't doubt them: The pale trunks, gray and twisted, rise 40 feet into a canopy that blocks out the sun.

Laos elicits that tingle of fear and expectation that can only be experienced in the least-traveled parts of the globe. Unfortunately, few destinations today foster that intrigue— that conviction that if something goes wrong, there will be serious consequences to pay. Laos is definitely one of those places.

Perhaps it's because Laos remains sparsely populated and isolated from the rest of the world. Or it may be the communist legacy, which breeds apprehension in the people and hints of darker times. Then there's the history of occupation and submission for the past four hundred years. Add them all up and you have a unique place to explore and attempt to understand.

Once known as Lan Xang, land of the million elephants, the region was under the control of various warlords until it was overtaken, in the 1820's, by Siam (now Thailand). Shortly afterwards, France acquired everything east of the Mekong River, including Laos, and united the local provinces under one principality (as was the custom of most colonial powers). But aside from the grand estates of former civil servants in Luang Prabang and Vientiane, strong coffee and baguettes are all that remain of the French influence.During World War II, the Japanese invaded Indochina with the help of the Vichy regime. Then it was the French again who"liberated" the region as an "independent associate state" in 1945. Soon enough, however, the rise of the Vietnamese-sponsored rebel group Pathet Lao led to a CIA rigged election and a series of successive coup d'itats and counter-coups. With the Soviets supplying armaments to rebels, there was a super power showdown in 1961, when the United States threatened military intervention to stop the spread of the Red menace.

It took a 14 nation conference twelve months in Geneva to finally establish a free and independent coalition government in Laos. But the compromise wouldn't last— war was coming to Indochina.

From our boat, I watch a lone water buffalo edge cautiously to water's edge for a drink. The high-pitched whir of cicadas rises above the drone of the engine. Granite mountains appear in the distance, above the high banks.

I move from the bow to the boat's interior, a cramped and rickety cabin built over the old wooden hull. Like most Southeast Asian river-boats, ours is long and slender, built with a shallow keel to avoid bottom. If anyone moves, it rocks and changes course slightly. The gap between the roof and the bulwark is only ten inches, and the engine fills the space with noise and exhaust fumes. Huddled together in the cabin, it's easy to distinguish Laotians and the Farangs (what they call foreigners).

The two dozen Laotians sit absolutely still, never to stretching, eating, or even shifting position. Their stamina is incredible— probably the result of years of hardship. The six Westerners, by contrast, are in and out of their backpacks, eating, talking boisterously, laughing aloud, and, as the expression goes, rocking the boat. The two groups started out mingling, but before long the cultural spaces were defined: the Laotians all moved towards the bow. Even though there were four times as many of them, they had given us half the boat.

We think each other strange, the locals and Farangs: How, we wonder aloud, can they sit there so disciplined and not even read? Why, they no doubt wonder, are these hyper-active foreigners so desperately in need of constant of stimulation. At one point when I look up the Farangs are all buried in their books and the Laotians are staring, fascinated. But our differences are easily reconciled. Crammed in among our ranks is a family returning home with their son, who spent time in the hospital in Luang Prabang. The young boy keeps tenderly touching his leg. Fear is in his eyes as he watches his bandaged shin and blackened, swollen foot.

Jill passes him a prism toy she carries. He smiles tentatively at the offering, takes it, and peeks into the small device with one eye closed. Suddenly, his face is transformed with a smile of appreciation.

The toy makes its rounds, and the adults are just as fascinated as the children. Some refuse to look, and others find it difficult to peek with one eye, so they cover the off side with a hand. The whole boat laughs, Farang and Laotian, at each person's surprise with what they find in the strange device. After that, we share our bottled water with the family, and they offer sticky rice and spicy dipping sauce.

Most Laotians live at a subsistence level, consuming only what they can grow and barter in their small villages. Many are repatriated refugees, having fled the harsh policies of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party. The rest lived through the draconian seventies— a decade fraught with re-education camps and the constant threat of imprisonment for"political crimes." Yet these are some of the friendliest people we've met on our travels, despite the fact that our countries do not share a peaceful history.

Before the Vietnam War, the America's CIA was in the Lao hills training Hmong tribesmen to "fight for their homeland." Their leader, Vang Pao, traded in opium— often using American cargo planes to transport his illicit goods. By 1964, the Unite States military had air operations centers in five regions of Laos. When the British writer Paul Theroux passed through while writing The Great Railway Bazaar, he called Laos, "one of America's expensive practical jokes."

It is well known that United States bombers regularly crossed Laos on raids to North Vietnam from bases in Thailand during the war. What is less well remembered is that on return runs the B-52s would often empty their payload over eastern Laos— fulfilling orders "to release all ordinance." The United States ended up dropping more bombs on Laos than on Germany and Japan during World War II. Many remain unexploded, which, like the landmines, is an ongoing problem in countries formerly plagued by war.

Traveling through Laos is a humbling experience. First there's the emotional baggage of being an American and seeing the legacy of our foreign policy. Then there're the ubiquitous bureaucracy— we have to prostrate ourselves to officials at every village who have spent the last 20 years as cogs in an authoritarian regime.

Continuing upriver for the rest of the afternoon, we pass isolated villages where passengers continue to embark. Finally just ten passengers remain. Six are foreigners. Without no light to continue, the captain cuts the engine, and we glide slowly to the starboard riverbank. His son scurries across the roof , pushing off the bottom with a long pole to keep us from running aground.

It is very quiet, and soon it will be dark.

Jill and I give each other looks: "What now?"

The captain motions us ashore. We stand on the muddy riverbank, nothing around but the ghostly forest and a tiny village up the hill.

"Anybody have a tent?" Jill asks, half joking.

A woman comes gracefully down the trail and motions us to follow her. We walk a winding path past bamboo homes and fenced-in livestock. Finally we climb a ladder to her single-room hut.

"Hawng nam?" Jill says, asking for the bathroom.

The woman points to the river.

The wood floor is clean swept, and the walls have shutters that open as windows. Our host places a few candles at our feet, and soon the abode is glowing warmly. Outside, the entire village had gathered to catch glimpses of the strangers.

The woman's eight children are excited to have us visiting, and ask incessantly for pens. It's the only English they know.

"Mai shai pen," the mother says, laying down the law. No pens.

Motioning for us to sit on the floor, she points to her mouth to ask us if we are hungry. We nod, and she sparks a kerosene burner in the back of the house.

We eat a modest meal of noodle soup seasoned with fish sauce as the family looks on. When we've finished, our hostess asks another pantomime question: She put her hand to her mouth, draws in a deep breath, and leans her head back with a long,"aaahhhh"

We decline on the opium.

Instead, I take a walk out into the darkness. There are three paths leaving the village: one upriver, one down, the third, straight into the jungle. Uncertain, I walk towards the water.

It is difficult walking through the village at night with only candlelight slipping through the cracks in bamboo huts. Children, in bursts of after-dinner energy, are making a noise from inside. Adults ignore them, talking amongst themselves and smoking cherub or chewing beetle nut.

I sit by the moving water, listening to the children and admiring the inexplicable number of stars overhead. Maybe some good can come from Laos's centuries of misfortune, I think. Aside from North Korea, this is the least developed country on the planet. It has retained nearly all its natural resources, and neither tourism nor multinational corporations have yet exploited the culture. If the country's leadership learns something from the economic and environmental plight of its neighbors, and from the mistakes of the West, Laos may very well hold a unique position in the twenty-first century.

A voice interrupts my musings. From the village comes the soft song of a young mother. The light notes floats above the children's boisterous play. It is joined by another voice. Soon half a dozen lullabies waft through the air.

I don't know of what the village mothers sing, each her own story I suppose, but without urging or protest the children's yelling dies down, leaving only the songs lingering in the air.

Slowly, after a while, the songs fall away, from six to four to two, and then, finally, to just one voice. With her last note fading, I am left only with the beat of my heart.

As I find my way back to our hut in the jungle, to spend another night on the banks of the Mekong, I can't help but feel touched by the music. Yes, there is hope for Laos.

Until the next time, safe travels.

All Original Material Copyright © Dan Kaplan. All Rights Reserved.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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