SE Asia #05 Mekong River (Laos)
SE Asia #05 – Mekong River, Laos
This is part 5 of our South East Asian tour of 3 countries and covers our journey on the Mekong River in Laos.
Locations visited on this trip
As discussed in installment 4 of this travel log we arrived in Luang Prabang on the Mekong after a short flight from Hanoi. This is where we boarded our cruise ship, the Mekong Sun, for 5 days on the Mekong River. Our arrival day and the day after were spent in Luang Prabang as covered in the last installment. But then we set sail heading south – downstream.
The Mekong Sun was built in 2006, is 130 ft long, and carries 28 passengers housed in 14 Air Conditioned cabins. All cabins have a French balcony and bathroom. The ship is quite nice with dark polished hardwood wherever the eye can see, both indoor and outdoor common areas and a wonderful crew of 16. As the weather was not rainy or cold we had our meals in the covered outdoor dining room on the main deck.
The area under the white awning is the outdoor dining room
View from indoor dining room through glass partition to outdoor dining room
Sun deck & pilot house
As discussed in prior installments of this Asia series, the air was full of smoke from the burning of the rice fields in anticipation of the start of the rainy season when they plant the new crop. As it turns out, our time on the Mekong provided us the worst smoke of our trip. Not only did it make some of our group ill, everyone was coughing and hacking and visibility was greatly diminished.
The smoke in the air also wrecked havoc with the photography as all the lush green jungles that should have made a wonderful subject or background pallet for river images where shrouded in a thick gray haze sucking most of the green out of the landscape. Not to mention that at times one could not see from one side of the river to the other with any clarity. One can see this smoke in the air in many of my photos, such as the one above and one below. In most images, I tried to diminish it with software which helped quite a bit with the photo but not so much with breathing when one was there. But even so, from time to time the smoke did provide for a great last light image of boats on the river. As one has to adapt to the situation at hand, most of my photos were more intimate where I was closer to the subject and not shooting through long smoke filled distances.
Smoke in the air (un-edited image)
Smokey late afternoon on the Mekong
The Mekong River
The Mekong River is the world's twelfth longest river and the seventh longest in Asia. Its estimated length is 2,703 mi (4,350 km), and it drains an area of 307,000 sq mi (795,000 km2). From its source in the Tibetan Plateau the river runs through China's Yunnan Province, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam and is managed by a joint commission made up of those countries.
As is the case with most rivers in the path of annual monsoon rains, annual flooding is a hallmark of this river. Each year between August and November the river floods with water levels rising 30 or more feet in many areas compared to levels in the dry season. This is a mixed blessing. On one hand the flood waters bring rich silt down into the rice growing regions making for good farming. But, on the other hand the extreme seasonal variations in flow along with the presence of rapids and waterfalls make navigation and shipping on the river difficult. In fact, the difficulty in navigating and bridging the river has caused it to be more of a barrier to trade and travel than a conduit as most rivers are.
Even so, the river has over time become a major trade route between western China and Southeast Asia. Over the course of years, these countries developed a need for electric power as well as a need to control annual flooding. This in turn has resulting in the river becoming heavily dammed, with many more dams planned and under construction. China has built eight hydropower dams on the Mekong mainstream just since 1995. As of November 2016, China had five more under construction, and another 11 planned or proposed. Laos has two dams under construction on the mainstream, and another seven planned or proposed (all funded by and being constructed by China); Cambodia has two planned or proposed. The Mekong is the fastest growing large river basin in the world in terms of hydropower construction.
China is also pushing for major dredging of the river along with the blasting away of rocky outcrops and the widening of narrow sections so that ever larger and larger (Chinese) ships can sail from the China Sea all the way up to Luang Prabang. The locals are taking a dim view of this but the government officials seem to have personal incentives to go along with and encourage these efforts. The lovely gold encrusted palace’s they live in may provide a hint as to why they are so eager to let China come in and build dams and do dredging.
Our trip on the Mekong took place near the end of March which also marks the end of the dry season. So the river was at its annual low point of the year. In some years the river gets so low that even small ships, such as the one we were on, can’t get through but that was not the case this year. But, the low water did make for a much more interesting landscape as many rocks, islands, and small rapids were present that would be submerged in higher water or un-navigable in lower water. In many cases the ship had to find a wide and deep enough channel by weaving between small rock islands to get through some sections. The narrower river also caused the wild water buffalo herds to come down onto the beaches and flood plains to drink and thus closer to the ship where they could be seen better.
Wild Water buffalo taking advantage of the river for a drink and a bath
Rocky outcroppings exposed by low water
Life on the River
Once one leaves any sort of city such as Luang Prabang, pretty much every facet of life revolves around the river. Until quite recently, most of the villages along with river had no road access and where there was road access it was usually a rarely used rough dirt track that was painstakingly slow to drive and more often than not impassible. However, in the last decade or two, roads have been cut through to many of these villages. In most cases these are still dirt roads, but they are better graded, wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other in spots and not as prone to being washed out. They have also put in a network of proper paved roads connecting the major inhabited areas with these little dirt roads forking off to connect the more remote villages.
Given that life has historically revolved around the river, every family owns some sort of watercraft. Most of these are not much more than skinny canoe looking things many of which have some sort of motor. However there are some larger boats around used for more formal trade and shipping to a major town such as Luang Prabang. Most of the boat motors are two stroke engines which make a hell of a racket and also spew blue/gray fumes due to oil being mixed in with the gasoline (which is required for a two stroke engine). But such engines are much less complicated and thus are easier to fix than four stroke engines used in the western world. Pretty much all the boat repair and maintenance is done locally by hand – many times by the family that owns the boat.
Except for the rice and minor other crops they grow, everything is done from the boat. The main non rice food source is from fishing. When supplies from the outside are needed, the family boat gets them to town and back. When visiting family and friend in neighboring villages travel is by boat.
Small family boat on the river near Luang Prabang
Larger commercial boat
Family boats near the village of Ban Tha Deua. The village is located up the hill, above the annual flood level
Maintaining the hull on the family boat
Tending some fishing nets
Once viable roads and truck transportation of goods has come along , some of the villages closer to the main paved roads are starting to sell their crops or fish outside of their village and some of the villages are starting to have small “convenience” stores with outside goodies. But, even so, life if pretty much how it has been for a thousand years.
Convenience store in the village of Ban Tha Deua
Village of Ban Tha Deua
The little village of Ban Tha Deua is where there was once a ferry crossing of the Mekong River along what is now Route 4. There is now a new modern bridge across the river a quarter mile or so away so the traffic no longer goes through this sleepy little town. I can’t find much info on the town itself (I may even have the wrong name) but according to Google Maps, it looks like it has around 100-200 homes stretched along the old dirt road that used to lead down to the now missing ferry dock and another branching off to the south.
One of two main streets of town
Typical set of family houses on the outskirts of town
As we approached our landing here, the ship blew its horn a few times according to the navigation rules of the area. This of course alerted the town that some excitement was coming to their town. By the time we tied up to the shore (no dock, just the bank of the river), we had an audience of a dozen or so young boys and girls who had heard the horn blast and descended from the village to watch the proceedings down by the river.
Some of the older boys were already down by the river showing off their diving skills from tied up village boats right by where we tied up. But for the most part the children sat in a group watching the light skinned people on the big boat.
One of our forward thinking fellow tourists brought several decks of playing cards with pictures of animals on them to hand out as gifts to the children along our way. This turned out to be a big hit with the kids in this village as well as several others. In fact, it seems that this turned into a robust market with various kids trading cards with other kids to get cards with different animal pictures. It was a wonder, not to mention humbling, to watch how much pleasure these kids got from what we would normally consider as a mundane, throwaway object. Really causes one to reflect on how kids in our society feel inferior if they don’t have the latest iPhone or don’t get as many likes as their classmate.
Part of our welcoming party
Some of the divers joined the welcoming party
Showing off the “Kitty” card, received as a gift
Family boats at Ban Tha Deua
More boats near the village of Ban Tha Deua
Apparently, like Luang Prabang, Ban Tha Deua also has a monetary which in this case is at the top of a long set of steps leading from a main road in town. And, of course there was a young monk in training referencing his cell phone before climbing the stairs.
The next morning we continued sailing down river to the south till mid morning when our route was blocked by a massive dam being constructed (by the Chinese). So, we turned around and headed back north, up stream retracing our route.
Ban Kok San (H'mong village)
Eighteen miles (30km) before passing Luang Prabang where we started is the Village of Ban Kok (Ban Kok San?). This is a H’mong village which is only accessible from the river or by bushwhacking many miles through the jungle. With a lack of road access, this is very much a rustic quiet rural village. It has 43 families and a total population of around 243. Even though it has a one room school house that can hold 20 students this village is still operating as it did many hundred years ago.
Many of the houses and food storage sheds are built well above ground on stilts to protect from flooding as well as pesky wild critters. There is no electricity so no cell phones, TV’s, radios or motorized vehicles. But, interestingly enough, much of the clothing, especially on the children, are modern day western dresses, tee-shirts and shorts. This clothing is probably provided by charity organizations sourced through donations of unwanted clothing from western countries.
The population survives through a combination of fishing, hunting, and gathering. There also seems to be a bit of farming and they have some domesticated livestock such as water buffalo and some variety of pig or hog. The pigs just wander around the village during the day. However there are several fenced in pens with access to small sheds throughout the village so I presume the pigs go there at night.
Family home built on stilts
Livestock pen and shelter
H’mong school girl in the one room open air school
One room school house
Kuang Si (Waterfall) National Park
Kuang Si National Park is home to several attractions including a bear sanctuary, a butterfly reserve, some caves and the main attraction of the Kuang Si waterfall. It is 18 miles from Luang Prabang (about a 30-40 minute drive) where the road dead ends at the little village of Thapene which in turn is right at the entrance to the park. Needless to say, the sole purpose of this village is to offer food and souvenirs to the many local and foreign tourists which frequent this park.
Here you’ll find open air sit down restaurants, take-a-way food stands, clothing stalls and other handicraft shops. But, for the most part these are more makeshift stalls that are open to the street rather than proper buildings.
The village of Thapene
Fresh fish on the barbeque at a street side stall in Thapene Village
At the end of town is the entrance to the park where you pay the equivalent of roughly $2.50 USD for entrance to the park which is a steal as the main access to the falls if nicely paved, they pick up the litter, there are trash receptacles in the most popular areas and the landscape is, well, maintained.
Depending on which path you take, you will first come to, and walk through a bear sanctuary. Here, the Australian NGO called “Free the Bears” has several enclosures housing endangered Asiatic Black Bears (aka Moon Bears) that have been rescued and are no longer able to fend for themselves in the wild. It seems that these bears and hunted and farmed to support Chinese cures to “relieve internal heat” (it’s also prescribed for anything from hangovers to cancer and is found in common bath products). This sanctuary houses 23 bears that are now allowed to roam and enjoy life outside of a cage. These guys are really cute.
After another few minute walk up the gently rising path you discover that you are near a river. This is the Nam Xi River (also known as the Kuang Si or Kuang Xi). This river only runs a few miles from its source in the park and out to the Mekong River. But even though it is not very long it does offer some spectacular features.
As you continue up the path, you first encounter some low and wide water falls behind each of which is a glorious turquoise colored pool suitable for swimming (changing rooms are available). These pools are surrounded by tropical trees that let in just the right amount of light. The turquoise or aquamarine color of the water is caused by sediments in the water from the limestone. Where the mineral rich water flows slowly, just a little bump in the river bed forms a mini underwater dam that the water must rise up to get over. As it does this, some of the limestone minerals in the water leach out and fall to the river bed, making that little bump, just a little bit bigger. Now add in hundreds of years and those bumps are now several feet high with a sizable pool of water behind each one and the water flowing over the edge in a cascade.
Pools below the waterfall
More pools below the waterfall
People swimming in one of the lower pools
Continue on up the path and you come to the main attraction which is the Kuang Si Waterfall (or Tat Kuang Si). The name translates into “Waterfall of the Deer Dig”. Legend has it that a wise old man summoned the water by digging into the earth. Then a golden deer made its home under a rock protruding from under the new waters.
This water fall is quite beautiful to see. It is not all that large as waterfalls go with a total drop of 200 ft (60m) where the water enters the series of pools we just talked about. One really nice thing about this particular waterfall and the pools is that the water keeps flowing even in the dry season when many other rivers and streams dry up.
Near the bottom of the waterfall is a wooden bridge over the river so you can see the waterfall from both sides. Most people photograph the falls from the bridge (I sure do hate selfies) but I found a perspective I preferred from a sandy area just on the other side of the bridge.
Although we didn’t make the hike, if you follow the trail to the top of the water fall and then continue upstream (where there are more pools) you’ll come to the cave from which the river emanates. This underground river is fed by an aquifer that provides a continuous flow. It is said that this hike to the cave takes about 40 minutes. Apparently there is another fee of around $1.20 which grants you entrance to the cave and in season you also get a freshly picked banana thrown into the bargain.
Kuang Si Waterfall
Bridge over river below falls
I hope you enjoyed reading about the Laos leg of our SE Asia trip and will come back for the rest of this journey.
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website.
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Thanks for reading – Dan
(All images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way.
Keywords: Ban Kok San, Ban Tha Deua, Blog, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogSEAsia, H'mong village, Kwangsi Waterfall, Kwangsi Waterfall National Park, Laos, Luang Prabang, Mekong River (Laos), Mekong Sun, Thapene Village
Lovely shots of the waterfalls and park, and of course, the cute kids. Thanks for the tour and the education - always great to get an email from you!
In spite of whatever smoke may have been present, you still got some very interesting pictures and good short stories to go with them.
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