The splashing of water lures me out to my stern balcony. They must be diving under the ship to fix the faulty propeller, I think. As I lean over the edge of the railing, I discover I am wrong: four Lao children are swimming gleefully around the boat on a competitive circuit, the weakest swimmer ending up dangerously swept downriver by the strong Mekong current before grasping the stern of a longtail boat docked nearby. He struggles hard to keep up and eventually disappears with the others upstream again.
The clean, sandy beach where we have docked for repairs presents cameos of life along this mighty Indochinese river. A woman in a straw hat busily plants her vegetable seedlings, while keeping an eye on her nearby toddler, who happily digs her own holes. Another woman waters her sandy field, and scolds children who come too near as they practice their somersaults, cartwheels and handstands. Three children emerge from the water and run to join the gymnastic group, one of the littlest pausing to remove her chafing, sandy underwear and continue on unimpeded.
From the beach, one of the crew beckons me to join them. He and a group of passengers seem to be heading inland. Clearly, the
repairs are going to take a while. Within minutes, I emerge on the wide, sandy expanse, impressed by how the muddy Mekong, during the drier season, can sport beaches to compete with the seaside resorts of the world. Our small group climbs the dunes into the jungle to discover wooden pens containing healthy piglets, sows and ducks. A few more steps upward, and the stilted
thatched traditional Lao homes emerge, neatly arranged along a main artery parallel to the Mekong. Hearing giggles
behind me, I turn just in time to see two naked boys of seven or eight years rushing past, wet clothes in hand. They grin at me unabashed, then stop at a clothesline up ahead and neatly lay out their shorts and shirts to dry, disappearing into their home.
Every adult and child we encounter smiles broadly and the traditional greeting echoes throughout the village “Sabaidee!” Hens and chicks scuttle under a home, two pot-bellied pigs squeal their way under a fence and trot past us, ducks of all kinds paddle around a small central pond, and random dogs and kittens sun themselves on ledges and in doorways. Mothers wearing the intricately woven sarong skirts lean in doorways with babies on their hips, and occasionally call out to older children, perhaps admonishing them to behave. Giddy children follow our progress, as we tour their empty new school (it’s Friday afternoon), complete with five classrooms, desks and blackboards. The villagers saved for years to buy the construction materials to build this school, and now they are able to educate not only their little ones but also several other nearby villages’. Neatly piled bricks, wood, and bags of cement under eaves suggest that another construction project may be under way soon.
Heading to the top of the village, at the highest point, we come upon a temple, home to a handful of monks. A boy of eight or so in a saffron robe is busy sweeping the large fallen teak leaves and debris from around the temple grounds. An old monk
and his young apprentices sit idly under a thatched pavilion, talking and relaxing. Saffron robes catch the saturated rays of sun on a clothesline behind the temple. Marigolds, Helliconia, and Crown of Thorn flowers abound, adding even more color and a sense of paradise to this elevated, peaceful scene above the Mekong.
As we come back down through the village on our way back to our boat, an old woman with high cheek bones and twinkling eyes strolls past elegantly, clothed in a woven Lao skirt and simple shirt, with a towel regally wrapped around her head. “Sabaidee!” she repeats again and again, smiling at each of us toothlessly. Something about her makes me wonder if she dressed up just for us.
Returning to the Mekong Sun, our floating home, I return to the orchid-ringed sun deck and take in the soft light of the waning sun on the river. The breeze is fresh and I marvel at how this major waterway and South East Asian lifeline can be so clean and smell so sweet in the Pacific Century. It can’t last for long, I fear. The Chinese and Thai have many dams planned in the next decade, and the industry that is so absent now will arrive, no doubt marring the beauty of this land and spoiling the purity of these waters. I only hope that the happiness and serenity of Khokphu village and many others along the river’s edge will survive the inevitable development ahead.