THE mighty Mekong River runs through the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos and has a profound influence on both life and travel in this tiny southeast Asian country.
I first crossed the Mekong up near the Thai border, entering the country in a longtail boat under a lowering monsoon sky.
Travellers crowd onto a cargo boat for the journey from here to Luang Prabang. It is a long and uncomfortable journey – two days on a narrow wooden seat.
But it is the only way to see this, the world’s most untamed river, and the people who live with it and on it and by it.
Steep hillsides covered with lush creeper-enmeshed jungle give way to arching fronds of bamboo forest.
The boat passes tiny thatch hut villages, with the occasional crop or orchard hacked out of the jungle, and naked children swimming and waving enthusiastically from the banks.
Even to my inexperienced eye the river looks like it requires careful navigation. Surface whirlpools and rocky outcrops appear and disappear in the brown water.
Approaching Luang Phabang, the river becomes ever wider and more majestic, a great yellow sheet of water towered over by limestone karst cliffs.
We stop, again and again, for villagers and their possessions (live and otherwise) to get on board and the boat sinks lower and lower in the water.
Further south in Laos and on yet another riverboat, I laze on the roof calling out Saba-deeee to the children on the bank. They chorus back, waving and laughing and leaping into the water.
At one village stop in the middle of the afternoon we even persuaded a guy to bring us down some beer.
Sometimes it seems the entire population of a village must be travelling today, when the boat seems like it must be entirely full.
Finally, the Mekong spreads out amongst the Four Thousand Islands before plunging through some enormous rapids and on into Cambodia.
The islands are fringed with palm trees, the interior all rice fields in colours ranging from jade to brilliant lime green. A couple of hours of generator electricity each evening offer the only ‘comforts’.
Taking the slow boats through Laos is not a travel experience for the impatient or comfort conscious but it does show you a bit of real life in this part of the world.