The boatman’s gnarled fist trembled as he rested it upon the tiller, though whether from fever or nervousness I couldn’t tell. Malaria had given his eyes a reflective sheen, as if they were somehow gazing inwards, rather than perpetually scanning the river ahead in search of a navigable channel. A veteran of Indochina’s many wars, every morning at 8.00 am he set off from Pakse jetty in southern Laos, ferrying boatloads of villagers and the occasional tourist on a twelve hour journey down the Mekong to the Cambodian border. He’d seen a lot in his time, you could tell, but now he was a worried man.
“I’ve never known it this bad,” he told me in French. “Each year the water is lower. A few years ago we would run up until June, but now… Maybe we can’t get to Cambodia.” He gave a dry cough which may have been laughter.
The Mekong is a giant among rivers. Twelfth-longest in the world, it rises high on the Tibetan Plateau, winding across China and Burma, running along the border between Thailand and Laos, flowing through Cambodia and fanning out into Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. The Vietnamese call it Cuu Long – the Nine Dragons – and the river has loomed large in Asian mythology since ancient times. But the Mekong is facing two very modern threats: China’s growing demand for energy, and climate change.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body backed by all Mekong countries except China and Burma, has in the past expressed concern over Chinese dams constructed along the river’s upper reaches, which they believe have led to increased fluctuations in the Mekong’s water levels. The river has always had seasonal variations, and in the dry season – roughly from May to July – ferry traffic comes to a halt. But since the dams began operating, the MRC has found that water levels are varying more than ever. As yet the full environmental impact is unknown, but with more dams planned, the question for the millions of people who depend upon it for their livelihood is stark: Could the Mekong one day stop flowing altogether?
The boatman took the longboat in a series of arcs in search of deeper water. We were nearing Champasak, a small, dusty township strung out along the river which was the improbable former royal capital of Laos. Inland lay a magnificent Khmer temple, designated as a World Heritage Site in 2001. Wat Phu is like Angkor in miniature, with an avenue of frangipani trees leading up to the temple past a series of barays, or man-made reservoirs. Each February a festival is held here, but the rest of the time the site is eerily deserted, the only sounds the muted clank of wind chimes above the shrill chorus of cicadas.
A small crowd was waiting at the Champasak jetty, seeing off an elderly orange-clad monk. As he boarded they all put their hands together in prayer and bowed. A group of Cambodians, distinguishable from the Lao by their colourful krama scarves, ushered the monk forwards along the boat, the women standing well clear to avoid accidentally touching him. Safely ensconced in the prow he looked around, beaming at everyone benevolently, and we cast off into the river once more.
This part of Laos is known as Si Phan Don – the 4000 Islands – some large enough to support villages of stilt houses, others no more than a few shrubs protruding above the mud-brown water like spears of broccoli, which would be completely submerged when the monsoon arrived. But the rains were months away; it was mid-March, and the dun-coloured bushland along the riverbanks shimmered in the heat.
Suddenly there was sickening lurch and a loud grating sound from beneath us. Shouts of alarm quickly turned to laughter, and a group of men vaulted over the side into the blood-warm river to push us free – it was barely waist-deep. Once clear we steered a course for the opposite bank, past fishermen in bobbing dugouts marooned in mid-stream. The shining water flowed thick as mercury around them, rippling and gurgling as we left them in our wake.
We ran aground twice more that afternoon before we reached Don Khong island. Dusk was falling as the passengers disembarked, and from the nearby wat came the flat, atonal chanting of the monks carrying across the still water. I made my way over to the boatman, hunkered down in the stern with a cigarette.
“I’m sorry Monsieur, this is as far as we go.” He proffered a bundle of muddy banknotes, refunding me half the fare. I asked what the chances were of another boat heading downriver later that week.
“Not this week. No more water until next year. This was the last boat to Cambodia.”