This is the account of a journey that Percorsi di Viaggio has recently made. Let me tell you that this has been a highly exciting and very photogenic journey, a journey mid-way between natural and ethnic, one that led us to visit an unknown number of local villages inhabited by tribes almost all originating from China. All this in a fascinating and varied setting made of hills of different aspect: some covered by luxuriant woods and inhabited by various species of wild animals including bears, deers and tigers; others stripped of vegetation due to the fires started by farmers to re-fertilize the fields, but not for this less suggestive.
We visited Northern Laos in a journey that took us from the border with Thailand, near the province of Chiang Rai, up to Vientiane. Part of the journey was along what for years was considered the main communication route of this country, the Mekong River, which crosses Laos almost along its entire length, marking the border with Thailand for many kilometres, until it flows inside Cambodia. From there, it will continue its journey up to its mouth, in part along winding roads, sometimes dirt tracks and often roads full of holes, roads that climb and then descend on the sides of the country’s highest hills.
Breathtaking landscapes, at times even dramatic routes whose end was almost impossible to imagine, with hairpin bends, some uphill and some downhill, constantly traveled by trucks that, trudging along, move goods to and from China, to and from Vietnam. Along these, we saw poor but dignified villages spring up from time to time, rich in their own history, culture and traditions. Villages where, accompanied by Phonsi, our skilled guide, we were allowed to visit houses, villages where water is a common good and everyone has to go and get it from the fountains that arise in one or more parts of the village.
A life where inhabitants are forced to steal inches from the land for their crops which, sometimes, do not develop on terraces but vertically. Other ‘suspended people’ who nevertheless do not hesitate to welcome you with a sincere smile that fills your heart, but also makes you realise how privileged we are.
It all started at dawn on that first day of travel when we crossed the border to embark on a traditional boat that would take us over the course of a day to our first stop: Pakbeng.
A comfortable and spacious boat, a dozen traveling companions, a guide, Deng, also very helpful, and below us the Mekong, a vast, yellow, muddy liquid which flowed in our same direction, at times placid, at times more impetuous, at times agitated by the rapids.
During the first stretch, the river marks the border between Laos and Thailand representing, if not really a land, a ‘nobody’s water’, which is really a water for everyone, where fishing boats move casually from one to the other side as if a border didn’t exist at all. Laos and Thailand are countries linked by a solid friendship, and military garrisons to protect the border along both banks of the river are not perceived as needed here.
With my eyes I follow the route of our boat, which, based on emerging and non-emerging rocks and on the depth of the river, sails alternating one bank of the river and the other in a sort of ping pong match. It is as if, in spite of ourselves, on the one hand we did not want to distance ourselves from where we came from, and on the other hand Laos wants to appear unreachable. And perhaps, metaphorically speaking, it is a little unreachable.
It is with a touch of melancholy that I think about my friend Corrado, who loved crossing borders on foot to stay, for a few seconds, with one foot already in one country and one foot still in the other. I realise that I am experiencing a similar situation, perhaps less solid and a little more liquid. He also loved the Mekong, Corrado, to the point of mentioning it in the title of his first novel: ‘Father Mekong’.
With its approximately 4880 kilometres, the Mekong is the seventh longest river in the world and the fourth longest in Asia. It has its source in China and its mouth in the South China Sea, the large and grandiose Mekong Delta in Vietnam, and its waters touch Burma, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia.
In Laos, the Mekong is particularly important and cannot be considered only as a waterway, as it represents the lifeblood of the country’s economy and of the people who live along its banks. It provides a source of food, water and transportation, it represents an important source of hydroelectric energy, as well as an ecosystem that supports a diverse range of plants and animal species. It is therefore obvious that many cities and villages depend on this river.
This is the case, for example, of the village of Karg Lare, our only stop along the way, which stands on the left bank of the Mekong and it is inhabited by members of the Khamu ethnic group. It is a relatively recent settlement created by government-sponsored migration from mountainous areas, where inhabitants were more exposed to disease, where the level of hygiene was very poor and, for logistic reasons, access to education was minimal. In their original settlement, the inhabitants dedicated themselves to hunting and smoking opium; in the new village, as well as having greater access to water resources, they have spaces used as schools and can enjoy the support of shipping companies on the Mekong which in turn bring visitors.
The village can be reached from the river bank by climbing an improbable stairway. It is located high enough not to be reached by the floods during rainy season, and it is made up of wooden or bamboo houses built on stilts. While crossing it, you meet many children, some of whom take care of others even smaller than them; there are poultry, piglets and adult inhabitants, some of whom, now accustomed to foreigners, socialise with them thanks also to the help of the guide, while others look at you with such a curious gaze that you almost wonder if you are the attraction for them and not the other way around. Then the faces light up with that disarming smile that restores the right roles and brings you back to normal.
The rest of the time passes between rock formations which break up the monotony of the river landscape, herds of water buffaloes in the wild who drink along the banks of the river, fishermen who cast their nets from the shore or from above boats so small that I fail to understand how they manage to keep themselves in balance. Time also flows among the inevitable children who dive into the river, fully dressed or completely naked, but still carefree; kids who do not let a single boat pass without shouting their greetings. And to complete the scenery of this humanity that lives along the river, the gold seekers appear completely unexpected: men and women who lean into the water with a sieve in their hands, seeking their fortune in the form of precious yellow stones.
And finally we arrive in sight of Pakbeng. Defining it a village is as simplistic as it is excessive to define it a town. But beyond the size, this place that has seen its growth precisely as a function of the cruises on the Mekong gives you a sense of peace from the moment of disembarkation that will be accentuated with the silences before the evening, and those of the night. Silences that not even the peaceful flow of the Mekong seems to want to disturb, much less a dawn where the sun, appearing in the back side of our room (which is windowless), seems to want to enter our lives discreetly. Tiptoeing.
Only the trumpeting of the elephants, if you’re lucky, could interrupt the quietness, bringing you back to a reality which, although not the usual one, wants to remind you that the rest of the world is around you.
In front of the resort, on the other bank of the great river, there is an elephant sanctuary dedicated to the care of these pachyderms which used to be ‘a million’; their population is today reduced to about 800 throughout the country. The Mekong Elephant Park is home to just under a dozen of them, including a recently born cub, and has set itself the goal of raising public awareness of the situation of elephants in Laos, whose survival is seriously threatened with extinction. The other main purpose is to provide support to recovered animals, protecting them from the abuses of the logging and tourism industry, and returning them to a life as elephants, letting them live in peace as such.
With a little luck, at dawn, the elephants come down to the river bank to quench their thirst. The best way to start our day is to admire them from the comfort of our terrace, without causing them the slightest disturbance, before getting back in the car for another stretch of our journey in Laos.