Along the Mekong River, a Timeless Place Where Time Marches On


After we walked down the stairs, four women holding umbrellas approached us. They went straight up to Aria and said “sabaidee,” or hello. She said it back, pronouncing the syllables carefully even if she did not know what the word meant.

The next morning, we arranged with our hotel to take a boat over to the island of Don Daeng, in the middle of the Mekong.

We had brought bicycles with us, and I strapped Aria to my back with a baby sling. A herd of water buffalo wandered languidly down the sandy beach to drink at the river.

We biked along dirt paths to villages. There were five main ones on the island, with a total population of 3,000. Locals walked from one to another or sat on the rear of trundling tractors. Outside their homes, women fried up rice cakes in pans.

At lunchtime, we stopped at La Folie, a French-run colonial-style lodge. While our hotel was all modernist glass and concrete, La Folie had polished wooden panels on the floors and walls. It overlooked the river and faced the spine of mountains to the west. We could see Vat Phou in the hills.

Top, a smiling 29-year-old man from Pakse, was working in the dining room. He had just started there one month earlier. When he found out I was from the United States, he asked about the Ultra Music Festival in Miami — Had I heard of it? Had I been there? I shook my head. “I really want to go,” he said. “My favorite D.J.s from around the world go there.”

Photo

A pool overlooking the Mekong River at the River Resort in Champasak in Laos.

He said that was his goal, to be a D.J., and that there were two bars in Pakse where D.J.s played.

Timeless Asia, indeed.

That evening, we took a sunset boat ride on the Mekong with a Dutch couple. Over canapés and bottles of Beer Laos, we spoke with Kanh, a 25-year-old hotel worker accompanying us. He had begun working at River Resort three months earlier.

He was from Pakse, he said, the son of a Vietnamese mother and a father who was Laotian and Chinese. While his mother had been born here, her parents were from Hue, the old imperial capital in central Vietnam. They had fled the fall of South Vietnam to Communist forces in 1975, only to eventually settle in another Communist country.

“He’s the original mixed Southeast Asian,” Tini said with a laugh. Her ancestors, too, were from Hue, and she and her family had also fled Vietnam in 1975. They ended up deep in the American South. So went the vagaries of history.

The next morning, we took a ferry across the river, followed by a bus to a river port to the south, where we hopped on a wooden boat crammed with backpackers for a ride to what is known as the Four Thousand Islands area, or Si Phan Don, on the border with Cambodia. This stretch of the Mekong was filled with small islets and rocks. Waterfalls abounded. It was here that French colonists were unable to navigate ships up the Mekong to southwest China without building a small railroad across Don Khon and Don Det.

We stayed for a couple of nights on the northern side of Don Khon. We got a riverside room at Sengahloune Villa, a more rustic place than the River Resort. The narrow waterways, wooden skiffs and palm trees swaying among the islands reminded me of the backwaters of Kerala in southern India and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, where the Mekong emptied into the South China Sea.

We spent our days biking around the island and watching the sunset from the old French railroad bridge next to our hotel.

One afternoon, we hired a small boat off the southern tip of Don Khon, near the old railway tracks, to see the area’s famous freshwater dolphins. As we strained from our boat to catch a glimpse of the dolphins, we saw a group of monks in saffron robes sitting in a skiff. They had come over from Cambodia. Their boat flew the Cambodian flag, with an image of the main temple at Angkor Wat.

They sat there with umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun and pointed whenever the head or back of a dolphin poked above the water for a few seconds. The river flowed onward, passing around their boat and continuing for hundreds of miles to the ocean far away.

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