Whirlwind on the river

From tribal villages to neon prosperity, the Mekong crosses some stunning landscapes, writes John Borthwick.

I'm about to "do" four countries in one day. In the pre-dawn darkness at Chiang Saen, northern Thailand, I step aboard a sleek Chinese ferry, Golden Peacock No.8. Minutes later, it pushes out into the Mekong River, turning north against the swift current. The journey up this “Danube of the Orient” will take us 340 kilometres up through Thailand, Laos and Burma to Jinghong in China's Yunnan province.

The captain navigates the black waters by spotlight and, I suspect, a degree of wing-and-a-prayer faith. He tiptoes the 30-metre boat between hidden reefs and shoals but just north of the Golden Triangle, we shudder to a halt, aground on a bar. No amount of revving the powerful twin diesels can budge us. Finally, a surge in the river lifts the bow and the current swings us free.

The moon falls like a pearl into Burma. Come dawn, we see the river stretching ahead, framed by symmetrical shores of virgin jungle and empty river beaches. To our right is Laos, with mist-shrouded Burma to the west. Contrasting with their tranquil shores, the river is a tumultuous chicane of reefs, rapids and whirlpools.

Regular passenger services began on this backdoor route to China only two years ago. The journey north against the current to Jinghong takes about 14 hours, with another 12 hours back downstream. There are no stops in Burma or Laos, although northbound ferries, if running late, must wait overnight at the Chinese border before proceeding to Jinghong.

A hostess hands out a breakfast of Thai-style doughnuts and coffee to the 50 passengers, mainly Thai tourists and Chinese traders. All have reserved seats – there are no strap-hangers or deck-space squatters, nor any chickens, goats or pigs on this neat craft. Introducing myself to the Thai Buddhist monk near me, I ask his name. "Just plain 'Monk', please,” he answers in excellent English. He turns out to be a surprisingly well-travelled monk, having visited more parts of Australia than many Australians.

My travelling companion is Gin, the owner of a guest house in Chiang Saen. He points out a village on the Lao bank that was once infamous for opium smuggling. "They took payment only in gold because you couldn't trust any banknotes around here." Ironically, the suppression of opiates greatly benefited the village, the wooden huts of which have now been replaced by modern homes thanks to the even greater profits being made in amphetamines.

Golden Peacock No.8 muscles its way upstream, buffeted by eddies and rapids and weaving a slalom between jagged outcrops. On the lush Burmese shore, a golden spire juts from a temple. Not far away, a dozen Akha tribal villagers set out, paddling a long, narrow canoe. A Laotian longtail speedboat rockets past them, an image of the 21st century hurdling the 19th.

Passengers move to the ferry's rear deck to watch jungle shores recede. Four national flags fly from the stern – not surprisingly, China's is the largest. Ahead, the river's surface changes constantly, from millpond-smooth to roiling whirlpools. Similarly, it broadens and narrows, from hundreds of metres wide to 50 metres in tight gorges.

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The middle-aged Thai passengers turn out to be a glee club of sorts and are soon singing on the outside deck. One woman, Sam, leaning on the rail, is wide-eyed and wordless with the pleasure of it all – the wind rush, the restless river, the teak and bamboo that crowd the banks. She points out tiny kingfishers and wagtails, explaining to me that the Thai name for the latter is nok dao lom, which translates as "bird that humps the wind".

The Mekong's luminous forests shelter animals like gibbons, clouded leopards and langurs, with scientists still discovering scores more species there. "Burma and Laos look like Thailand did a long time before but UNESCO needs to protect them very soon," says Gin. As we pass from Burma into China, I see what he means. The western shore has transformed from untamed jungle and copses of giant bamboo into rubber plantations and hillsides corduroyed with crops. Logged slopes, too steep for such intensive cultivation, are collapsing into landslips.

The mighty Mekong runs 4350 kilometres from Tibet through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam to the South China Sea, an eddying, worrying tide alive with shoals and history. Its earliest settlements, in northern Thailand, date back more than 4000 years. While the first European to note the river was the Portuguese explorer Antonio de Faria in 1540, systematic exploration began only with an 1866 French probe upstream to Yunnan. Their verdict: too many falls and rapids for the river to ever be easily navigable.

Our ferry flies in the face of their finding, as do the 100-tonne barges laden with everything from cars to cattle that daily plough up or downstream from China. The Chinese have blasted away major reefs to clear a passage for these large vessels to Jinghong and further north. While commercial navigation is now a fact, such "improvements", along with dams, have raised major environmental concerns among Lower Mekong nations.

The Mekong River Commission protests that China's dam projects disregard serious consequences downstream.

Its member nations argue – with little effect – that dams have caused the Mekong dolphin and manatee to become endangered, water levels to drop (with vessels regularly running aground) and fish catches to fall dramatically.

I realise that the tribal villages and old Lao country boats have disappeared. Unheralded, we have left Laos's 770-kilometre stretch of the Mekong. Both banks are now China. Gone too are the familiar, local longtail shuttle-boats, as Chinese officials do not permit unregulated, private craft on their part of the river.

At three in the afternoon, we round a sunny bend and find ourselves amid a melee of cargo barges, wharves and shipyards – the Chinese frontier port of Guan Le.

To get ashore for immigration formalities, we clamber across wide-bellied boats being hand-loaded with sacks of garlic and apples. Monk, Gin and I climb 100 steps to the top of the riverbank to be confronted not by a village but a large, tile-and-glass international checkpoint, a small shopping centre and high-voltage powerlines stretching away towards Beijing.

Our paperwork done, the Golden Peacock resumes its up-river charge. The Mekong is now sometimes no wider than 30 metres, with the gorges steeper and the torrent even more rapid. It also carries a different name, Lancang Jiang, just one of several it wears in its journey as the world's 11th-longest river. In Tibet, the great river is known as Dza Chu, in Thailand as Mae Nam Khong and in Vietnam as Song Me Kong.

About 7pm, the Golden Peacock No.8 pulls alongside the wharf at Jinghong to conclude our trip as it began, in darkness. The prosperous capital of Yunnan's Xishuangbanna prefecture greets us with more neon in one block than in the whole of Chiang Saen.

The Mekong tide is always turning. Ironically, many local place names here derive from Thai, harking back more than 1000 years to when Thai tribes and kingdoms dominated the region.

Jinghong was then Chiang Rung, “City of Dawn” and Xishuangbanna was Sipsongpanna, “Twelve Rice Fields”. And my fast-forward cruise of four countries in one day would have been an upstream epic of at least 40 days in a very leaky boat.

The writer travelled courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Thai Airways International (phone 1300 651 960; see www.thaiairways.com.au) flies three times daily from Sydney to Bangkok, with frequent connections to Chiang Rai in far northern Thailand. Chiang Saen is about 100 kilometres north-east of Chiang Rai on the Mekong River and is reached by bus or hire car.

ON THE RIVER

Xishuangbanna Tianda Tourism and Shipping operates Mekong River ferries direct to (and from) Jinghong in Yunnan province, China, departing from Chiang Saen port in Chiang Rai province, Thailand. There are up to three departures a week, usually Monday, Wednesday and Friday, depending upon river flow, demand and other factors. During low-water months, March to May, services may be suspended. Upstream trips leave Chiang Saen at 5am but passports must be submitted to Thai immigration officials by 4pm on the preceding day.

VISA

Passengers must hold a Chinese visa. The nearest Chinese consulate is in Chiang Mai, 200 kilometres south of Chiang Rai.

PRICE

Each passenger has a reserved seat, which costs 800 Chinese yuan (one way) but is paid in Thai baht equivalent, about 4006 baht (about $140).

BOOKING

For tickets, Chiang Saen accommodation and immigration liaison, plus Jinghong bookings (if required), contact Gin's Guest House and Tour, Chiang Saen, phone +66 053 650 847, email ginsguesthouse_tour@hotmail.com.

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