Young prospectors pause midday at Las Cristinas
The Mekong is one of the world's largest rivers and the lifeblood of Southeast Asia as it flows from Tibet to the South China sea. These Buddhist monks bathe in the Sekong, a tributary of the Mekong.
(Globe Staff Photo /
 Essdras M. Suarez)
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The calmer passage

Through the Khone Falls, where Cambodia and Laos share a history with many tributaries

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / November 28, 2004

LUMPHAT, Cambodia -- As cicadas roared a relentless ''rack! rack! rack!" and bursts of rain pounded the tin roof of a stilted wooden hut, a baby girl, 34 hours old and without a name, slept.

Beneath the bed where the baby lay, a cat prowled in the bookend glow of two oil lamps. The baby's bare chest rose and fell, slowly. Her throat quivered. Her eyes squeezed in sleep, serene despite the prowling below and the pounding above.

That crashing din comes daily during rainy season in the heart of Southeast Asia. But it is fiercest along the Khone Falls, a seven-mile stretch of cataracts and rapids -- the widest in the world -- that cuts across the brown breadth of the Mekong River.

The falls foiled French colonial attempts to run steamships north toward China and helped isolate from the region, and the wider world, many who live near the river. French mapmakers traced a colonial border south of the falls, determining in part who would live in Cambodia, and suffer the cruelties of the Khmer Rouge regime, and who in Laos, struggling in what remains a communist state.

The cataracts, still a churning force of isolation and separation, are the third of four geographic and cultural divides the Globe is journeying across this fall. The French dubbed the last of their failed efforts to navigate the Mekong and the falls' dangerous blockade ''The End of Illusions."

In the century since, many living above and below the falls have witnessed the end of any illusions they may have had, not of colonial conquest, but of what to expect from life. A journey from Cambodia through the falls to Laos intersected time and again with this reckoning. An awareness of death was as vivid as life in a hilly jungle hamlet, below a thundering cataract, in a riverside temple, and in the farming village home of the sleeping newborn.

There, in a two-room hut more than 70 miles southeast of the falls, hot coals smoldered beneath a wide bed, a traditional heat therapy. The mother, Sim Saem, curled on her side, a wool blanket pulled snugly against her chest. Next to her lay the baby, her tiny hands tucked into soft pink mittens.

Outside in the beating rain, a dog yelped, again and again. On the floor beside the bed, a group of cousins and friends kept company beneath a bare bulb powered by a battery.

Caeng Him, a 57-year-old farmer, leaned against a post at the edge of the bulb's weak light and talked with a friend about the violent turns of Cambodian politics. Him said the best regime was that of Prince Sihanouk, before 1970. The current government, a fledgling attempt at democracy overseen by Prime Minister Hun Sen, was not as good. The worst, in any case, came with Pol Pot.

''During his time, we did not even have homes like this," Him said.

In the 1960s, Pol Pot, who had risen from rural roots to embrace hard-line communism as a student in Paris, returned to this rugged northeastern region, home to ethnic tribes and immigrants from Laos and Vietnam, as well as Cambodia's Khmer majority. Then, as now, farmers and oxen plowed puddled fields in a life with few luxuries.

By 1970, Pol Pot and his associates had gained control in the northeast, a base from which the Khmer Rouge would drive across Cambodia. A broader war over communism in Southeast Asia raged, and, beginning in 1971, US bombers flew secret missions over Lumphat hunting the barracks and bridges used by Viet Cong who moved among the Khmer Rouge.

In and around Lumphat, Khmer Rouge leaders shut down schools and markets. They outlawed currency and travel. They silenced newspapers and love songs. Tranuth Sean, a local bureaucrat who had worked as a Khmer Rouge administrator in Lumphat, summarized this strategy: ''They used the stupid man to kick the clever man."

As the Khmer Rouge seized control of the country in 1975, the regime increased attacks on internal ''enemies," targeting minorities, intellectuals, merchants, and dissenters in a purge that killed an estimated 1.7 million people, nearly one in four Cambodians.

In the hut, only Caeng Him and his companion had been born before the Khmer Rouge reign, which ended in 1979. The others, unburdened by such memories, talked easily of approaching days. One woman, Bou Roath, a lean 20-year-old round in the belly, tried to calculate the length of her pregnancy and when she would need the services of the village midwife.

''Maybe this month," she said, giggling.

She chatted with Kim Seang, who cradled in her arms a sleeping boy, one of her four children. The rich do not need, or want, many children, Seang said. But among the poor, a woman without a child is called ''mother of none."

The savage tactics of the Khmer Rouge cut Cambodia's population from roughly 8 million to 6.3 million. In the 25 years since, despite deep poverty that abetted malnutrition, malaria, and other disease, Cambodia has grown to more than 13 million people.

Seang looked toward the coal-heated bed, which is moved from hut to hut to strengthen new mothers.

''It seems to me," she said, wryly, ''one woman comes down from it, and another goes up."

Quietly, Saem, the newest mother, gathered her sleeping baby and, wool blanket in hand, slipped from the heat onto the floor beside Seang. She would return to the bed for two more days, then, after a month, go back to the rice fields. Her baby, in a few years, would join her in the work. But first, as rain kept a chaotic cadence on the roof and in the yard, mother and daughter settled again, for rest.

. . .

A ribbon of rough red road tracked the Srepok River as it flowed west from Lumphat some 70 miles to its meeting with the Mekong.

On a steep slope near a rare stand of towering old-growth forest, farmers pulled clumps of peanuts so soft they creased deeply with the press of a fingernail.

In a hut set back from a flat stretch of the road, an 85-year-old woman, a member of the Tumpuon tribe, lay on the floor. She had been battling diarrhea for days, and her son had already sacrificed two pigs and built a funeral platform in the yard. But the woman swallowed antibiotics and sips of water that helped her, by day's end, to recover.

The route crossed the Srepok on a steel and wood bridge and then, after more jungle flats, ended in the provincial capital of Stung Treng, along the east bank of the muddy Mekong.

French explorers scouting the river en route to Khone Falls passed this settlement roughly 150 years ago. Stung Treng had since grown to a bustling town with a modest central market and hotels for backpacking tourists. Less obviously, some of the narrow speedboats and crowded ferries passing by Stung Treng carried drugs, from the Golden Triangle region of China, Burma, and Laos 600 miles north, and women forced from remote villages to big-city brothels.

Just north of Stung Treng, the Sekong River, a Mekong tributary, flowed in from the northeast. Fifty miles upriver, only 15 miles from the border with Laos, stood the village of Siempang, its riverside huts punctuated by the rise of a Buddhist temple.

In the empty gray of dawn, a young girl with long, black hair crossed the mud-splashed temple grounds and climbed the steps to an open-air dining hall. Then came a boy, in blue trousers and plaid shirt. The children carried buckets holding rice and noodles, bamboo shoots and grilled fish.

Seated on woven mats, seven young monks, robed and shaven, silent and hungry, waited to break their daily 20-hour fast. Villagers had prepared the food as a gift to the monks, who act as messengers between the living and the spirits of the dead. The monks' seven lean torsos angled forward, and spoons clinked against bowls. They sipped, and burped, deeply.

Even such simple rituals had been forbidden under the Khmer Rouge, who executed monks and burned temples. Though the Khmer Rouge fled the capital, Phnom Penh, in 1979, party rebels controlled Siempang, part of a broader base in the north, until 1985. The monks, the oldest of whom was 22, were only beginning to return Buddhism to the river's banks.

For several hours each day, they learned Sanskrit from the chief monk, and English from an earnest city teacher who spoke little himself. They washed robes and bathed in the Sekong. They chopped wood and idled on porches, teasing and wrestling, smoking cigarettes and waiting.

Twice a day, at 6 p.m. and 3:30 a.m., the monks strolled to the concrete temple with shuttered wooden windows to repay the villagers' generosity with ritual prayer.

Answering the echo of a gong as one August afternoon turned to twilight, the monks slipped off their sandals and entered the temple's darkening room. Keo Y, a 20-year-old chosen to serve as chief monk, sat before an 8-foot statue of Buddha. He lighted two candles and led a chant.

As village teenagers kicked a toy between them outside the temple gates, the monks' voices droned in worship of Buddha: ''We follow you. Only your way is the best way for us."

Later, in dead of night broken by a heavy downpour and the bark of frogs, the monks gathered again in the temple and called to the bad spirits of village ancestors, who are believed to lurk in darkness searching for food:

''Please go to another life. It is better for you."

By day, villagers passed the temple toward a string of shops set along the Sekong, where midafternoon cloudbursts rattled tin awnings and soaked two rusting bomb casings, relics of US raids during the Vietnam War. Many residents spoke both Cambodia's Khmer language and Lao; some were born, or had family, across the nearby border. Across the Sekong, cranes and storks, gibbons and macaques made homes in a vast forest guarded as a national park. Americans visited, occasionally, to search for missing soldiers' remains.

Shortly after one round of evening prayers, Keo Y stepped in from a steady rain and climbed the stairs, painted in orange and red, blue and green, to rooms shared by him and three of the others.

In a common area, beneath strings of hanging flags and near a television with a DVD player, Y sat cross-legged, his body wrapped in an orange robe, and turned a pack of cigarettes in his hand. Behind him stood a shrine of tall yellow candles and a statue of Buddha. A bright green gecko clung to a nearby wall.

During an hour of calm conversation, Y clicked his fingernails and, at times, rocked forward in a kind of absent meditation.

He outlined slowly some of the principles of Buddhism, which first took root here some 1,200 years ago: Do not kill any living thing. Do not steal. Do not lie, or speak badly.

Asked about Pol Pot and his followers, Y paused, then spoke in an even voice.

''Human beings, during Khmer Rouge time, became mad," he said. ''They didn't understand what was good, what was bad. Some people killed their own parents."

Most former Khmer Rouge have continued to live easily in Cambodia, unpunished. But their actions, Y said, would yet bring consequences, as they had to Pol Pot, who died in 1998.

''He fell into hell," Y said. ''Human beings who do evil, become evil."

So many farmers and merchants, fathers and daughters had joined forces with Pol Pot. How had a nation of Buddhists turned so brutally upon itself?

Y was quiet for several moments.

''They made people not believe anymore," he said.

He considered longer, then answered:

''Politics were stronger than Buddhism."

. . .

The next morning, at the meeting point of the Sekong and the Mekong, the current swept southward. The Mekong flows more than 2,000 miles from its high mountain headwaters in Tibet to its sprawling delta in southern Vietnam. Along the way, it tumbles through steep terrain in southern China, then slows as it passes alongside Burma, Thailand, and cuts into southern Laos.

Before coming up against the Khone Falls and stretches of impassable rapids farther upriver, in northern Laos and southern China, the French had hoped to make the Mekong an easy shipping lane, a commercial lifeline for the region.

Late in the afternoon, during an hour-long speedboat ride up the Mekong toward the border with Laos and the Khone Falls just beyond, scattered drops began to fall. Within seconds, a flood of rain washed sky and river into one. Colors, of forest, riverbanks, and boat, blurred to a grayish-brown as the downpour deadened the day.

The pilot navigated a series of tight channels, where the broccoli tops of trees, their trunks already submerged by rainy season flow, bowed beneath the deluge.

The rain stopped. Along the left bank of the river stood a small hut, home to Cambodian border guards. There, a man wearing only red underwear solemnly stamped passports. Across the Mekong, on Lao soil, agents wearing English soccer jerseys and jeans stamped the passports again.

A mile north, the chutes, cataracts, and rapids of the Khone Falls stretched between a series of islands across the Mekong. In many places, the river's current swirled down slight slopes. But the biggest of the falls, stretching from the Mekong's eastern bank, crashed in a gray froth. Its roar drowned the sound of floating tree trunks shattering on spikes of stone.

Shortly after daybreak in the heart of another of the Khone's cataracts, three fishermen, taut and lean, climbed on top of a nearly-submerged bamboo cage and began a perilous water ballet.

One man, Kamsee Vongsadee, leapt into the current and grabbed a line tied to a second cage. He crossed hand-over-hand, his arms bracing, his body beaten nearly horizontal. He scrambled onto the second cage, leaned and pulled, then hauled out a hefty catfish. Vongsadee tossed the fish over the water to Phong Souvanhvee, a friend and partner.

Vongsadee flung himself back into the water to cross to the first cage. He took the fish from Souvanhvee, and the ballet slowed. A third man piloted the fishermen's long boat toward the cage. Vongsadee waited as the boat's bow rose and fell in the surge of the falls, and then, when the boat leveled, he dropped the catfish, gently, on board.

The fishermen had begun their outing on the north side of Khon Island, where they lived amid a collection of huts, many of which catered to backpackers who lolled in hammocks between meals of fried noodles and cold Beer Lao.

Beginning in the 1860s, French explorers spent nearly 40 years trying to find calmer passages tucked between the smaller islands within the falls. One boat, the Argus, ran aground and turned back. Another, La Marthe, reportedly lost a propeller only a few hundred feet from clearing one tight channel. Finally, the French conceded: Their plan to navigate through the falls had been an illusion.

The French built a rail line across Khon and an island to the north. Until 1940, a slow train shuttled cargo and passengers from below the falls to above. But World War II and the French exit from Indochina a decade later ended the run of the train, whose engine still rusts in a green glade not far from the old rail bed.

Vongsadee and his partners had made their morning commute on wobbly bicycles, riding alongside the island's rice paddies, where water buffalo slept and children worked. Near a sheltered riverside platform, they boarded the wooden boat to navigate channels between low islands. They beached the boat to check shallow trap lines, then motored toward the submerged cages. They approached cautiously, not to conquer the falls, but to make a living from them.

Back on the riverbank, Vongsadee and his team spread the morning's catch, five fish, onto a torn piece of tarp. On one edge, ants mobbed a piece of meat left from another day. A buyer from the local market lifted the fish one after another onto a small metal scale.

Construction of dams as far north as China threatened stocks of Mekong fish, but Vongsadee said he had not yet seen a change. He would continue to work his stretch of the falls, no matter the damage from above or below.

''This is the situation as it is," Vongsadee said. ''This is my opportunity here."

On the platform behind him, Vongsadee's youngest son, Seta, reached into a plastic bowl of shrimp and gobbled them by the handful. Vongsadee's two oldest children had already begun studies at the island's primary school, the first in their family to do so. In a few years, Seta would join them. Vongsadee, his still-wet shirt and shorts clinging to his body, climbed onto the platform and rested near his son.

''He will be busy," the fisherman said. ''The youngest boy has a lot of work to do, to help his father and mother."

. . .

Between soft green stretches of rice paddies on the Mekong's eastern bank, the two jet-black lanes of Route 13, paved only four years ago, ran northward into the long tail of Laos.

Despite massive US bombing raids throughout northern Laos, communist leaders came to power in 1975. Laos's leaders silenced opponents and targeted minorities as they reached southward from the capital, Vientiane, to solidify rule over territories long the domain of diverse factions and ethnic groups.

A mile or two north of the Khone Falls, the Mekong ran smooth and swift. Motorists skirted the falls by following Route 13 to and from the remote riverside border checkpoints, and other travelers cleared the falls by taking flights from the city of Pakse, 80 miles north of the falls, to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and the temples at Angkor Wat.

But by serving as the main blockade to Mekong River navigation, the falls had shielded many living along the river, and more in nearby forested hills, from the modernization that open-river commerce would have brought.

Just south of Pakse, a second paved road led east toward the sheltered villages of the Bolaven Plateau, a high plain of fields and forest. Forty miles onto the plateau, a meager roadside market catered to ethnic Lao who had come to the plateau in recent decades. Other shoppers walked down a mud road from huts and houses crowding Ban Kaing Kong, home to the Ne Ang tribe, who had lived on the plateau for centuries.

Past a clutch of wooden buildings at the edge of the village, an old man squatted beside a shallow pond. A young girl stood under a lime tree and hoisted a long bamboo pole to clip the fruit. One splashed into a canal dug deeply through the scattered orchard.

The 85-year-old man had left the village early that day, as always, to tend his eight stubborn cows. He carried a blunt hoe, coaxing the herd into a clearing. Then, after resting by the pond, he rose and turned onto a slick narrow trail for a walk to the tribal cemetery.

The old man's feet moved steadily, if slowly. He had not been expected to make it this far. Pead, or ''Runt," they had named him, the smallest of his mother's children.

Pead, who like many in the tribe used only one name, had been born into a large family, brothers and sisters meant to help in the fields and the home. But the first of them had died in childhood, and the last long before reaching Pead's age. Pead could not remember how many siblings there had been, nor imagine why he was the one who remained.

''I just do my work, protecting the cows, taking care of the crops, and I don't die," Pead said.

Pead's losses continued: One of his six children did not survive infancy. One of Pead's sons had worse luck: Of his 12 children, seven died young.

Such long odds for survival had become, simply, fact, and families fought back by having many children. Near the mud road, dozens of huts teemed with young villagers. They nursed at mothers' breasts and clung to the backs of older siblings. The stronger ones crawled, or ran, or hunched in a crowd to play marbles. Most of the parents among them had a story to tell, of others who had died early, victims of malnutrition, malaria, or other disease.

Of the 517 villagers, 167 were 10 or younger. The tribal chief, a stern 48-year-old named Thong Den, kept a worn notebook that tracked the results of government efforts to teach birth control. He said 30 children were born in 1999, but only seven in the last two years. Yet infants continued to suffer: Of those seven, two had died.

Pead trudged, his flip-flop sandals clicking lightly as he walked farther toward the tribal cemetery. At a clearing, he passed a moss-covered stone, where earlier generations of the tribe's men had gathered to pray before battle. The trail widened and descended toward a creek, then climbed a steep hill toward coffee trees and rice fields. Torrential afternoon rains primed fertile land and gorged streams and rivers that wound toward the Mekong, adding to the river's surge over the Khone Falls, 110 miles to the southwest.

The Ne Ang farmers worked the rainy season to grow lettuce, rice, pumpkins, and peanuts to feed their families. The coffee, which could fetch high prices on world markets, they sold cheaply to local merchants.

Before reaching the creek, Pead looked back, then ducked through a low opening in a tangle of brush. Shoots of cardamom grew in the shade of thick-trunked trees. A trail tightened between the reach of low-hanging branches. In the sunlight of the more open trail, the call of cicadas had risen as a friendly whistle. In the darkened cemetery approach, they screeched, tauntingly.

Buddhism, the religion of most Lao, had penetrated the plateau, but the Ne Ang guarded their own spiritual beliefs. Each year, tribal members gathered around a wide grassy oval for a drumming ceremony and water buffalo sacrifice. And they remembered the dead in simpler ways. Pead led his family's ritual meals, inviting spirits of ancestors to their table.

''A little person who has died, I call to eat," Pead said, his expression and voice worn flat. ''But the ones I respect most are the old."

Pead stopped near three short mounds of raised earth. At the end of one mound were offerings to the dead: An oil lamp. Two woven baskets, rotted into the soil. A blue plastic cup and two mustard-colored bowls, filled with rainwater. At the end of another mound, a bottle, two bowls, and a machete remained.

Pead's wife, who had died eight years earlier at 60, was buried deeper in the jungle. Pead passed the first adult-sized mound, on the left of the trail, and headed toward his wife's grave. He ducked beneath a low branch, shuffled a few more steps, then stopped.

A tree trunk had fallen across the trail, and vines tightened the blockade. Pead grabbed a branch and tugged weakly. He stood and stared past trunk and vines, into dark jungle.

''There is too much," he said.

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