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Beauty in Peril - Saving the Mekong River

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

„Yes, yes, we are in Laos now, ha ha ha!“ The Mekong boatman laughs while we (illegally) dock on a lone island in the middle of the river. This islet is part of neighbouring Laos, but the border is literally fluid. It follows underwater cliffs and not the centre of the river. While we were having a drink on this beautiful sand-and-rock setting, we might have been questioned by the Laotian immigration why we did not present our passport before. As for the other matters, the local rum SangSom served us well. Driven by a passion to create a world-class quality Thai liquor, Mr Chula Kanchanakaksha, who is widely acknowledged as Thailand’s best master blender for his unique ability to balance both the art and science of spirit blending, created “SangSom” in 1977. An exclusive ageing process in oak casks and the use of fine Thai herbs as key ingredients have been the secret of the distinctively ‘Thai’ taste of SangSom that is loved the world over. The name “SangSom” means “moonlight” in Thai, and it perfectly captures a smooth drinking pleasure under the gentle ambience of the moon. We had a gentle ambience of crazy tourists with a local boatman on Laos islet.

The Mekong River is the world's twelfth longest river and the seventh longest in Asia. Its estimated length is 4,350 km and it drains an area of 795,000 km2. From the Tibetan Plateau, the river runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The extreme seasonal variations in flow and the presence of rapids and waterfalls in the Mekong make navigation difficult. Even so, the river is a major trade route between western China and Southeast Asia. Now, several countries want the Mekong to be navigable in its totality, and this includes ruining a unique ecosystem and livelihood of people living on its banks or depending on the river systems. We have visited several villages in the Chiang Khong area, in the Chiang Rai province, far to the north of Thailand.

Northern Thailand is often promoted as great outdoors, and indeed it is a lovely place to hike and enjoy nature. Fertile river valleys criss-cross between the rolling hills, giving a mesmerising experience of river and mountain cultures. Its culture is diverse as much as it is ancient and includes Thai people as well as hill tribes such as Hmnog and Akha. Climate is superb, as the mornings can be quite cold for Thailand and days are not too hot. Excellent climate for less spicy meals and harder drinks. This gives tremendous joy for all those who love pork dishes, veggies and all things deep-fried. It is least spicy in all of Thailand, tending to be more bitter or bitter-hot, followed with huge amounts of sticky rice, (kow nee-o or kow neung in local dialect).

For our five-days journey, we stayed in Chiang Khong, a somewhat sleepy but historically important town along the Mekong River. This was for a long time a market town for local hill tribes and trade with northern Laos. Connection to Laos is strong. On the opposide side of the Mekong is Huay Xai, a small town where travellers may catch a two-day slow boat trip to Luang Prabang. The story with Laos does not stop here. Every Wednesday morning, the Mekong is traversed in long boats by Lao merchants who sell their products at Jam Pong morning market. Cheap Chinese textiles may not be of interest for everyone, but various grilled fish, live frogs and eels, known and unknown fruits, and above all the merchants themselves are bait for an early morning arrival.

Those who stay long enough may have a splendid lunch or early dinner at Sabay Dee restaurant, probably the most known eatery in Chiang Khong, where northern-style appetiser is served, together with excellent curries and spicy soups, not to mention several bottles of Leo Beer. Being in the borderland, however, we couldn’t say no to BeerLao from Laos, which comes in better version if it is dark beer.

Fish comes in abundance, particularly if one comes to the Mekong piers and tries fresh catch of the day. But, glorious days of fishery may be over, as the changes come quickly and questions are raised over the future of this beautiful river. We had a chance to hear about these issues from Mr Niwat Roikeaw, better known as the Teacher Kru Tee, from the Rak Chiang Khong Group. He explained to us that the Mekong is not just a river, it is practically a civilisation by itself. The Mekong has 1100 species of animals, the same as the Amazon. More than 100 ethnic groups live by the river, with their own cultural and religious systems, epitomised in civilisational bliss of Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Luang Prabang in Laos. Still, this heritage is becoming poorer as days pass by. The construction of dams on the river, reef blasting, channelizing of Mekong, using chemicals for agriculture and banana plantations, wrong way of fishing, and waste affect immensely the whole ecosystem.

Dams are the worst problem. The first dam was built 22 years ago in China and the process does not stop. New dams are planned next to the existing ones and they all affect the level of water, cause draught and floods. There are twelve working dams on the Mekong today; however, not the only Mekong is affected, as the area is characterised by many tributaries and smaller rivers. Mekong river system has its seasonality which affects agriculture and fishery. Naturally, April is the driest month and waters are shallow. From May until August, the river grows due to the monsoons, and after that, it diminishes again. The whole food chain depends on this annual circle.

The Mekong may have a pleasing look this year. It is green and blue, transparent and lovely. This is not good news, however. Because of the sedimentation, Mekong’s natural colour is brown, and this sedimentation gives food for fish, river algae and seaweed. The building of dams causes the loss of sedimentation. One would ask, why are the Chinese investors doing something which hurts themselves. The answer is not so easy and straight-forward, as the Chinese officials claim they bring development to the region. Kru Tee and his group are not fighting the development per se, but the way how the river is understood. The annual rhythm of Mekong must be respected; instead of that, Chinese dams are withholding the water when it is monsoon and release the water in the dry season, destroying the natural system.

“Development” is also calling for the destruction of river reefs on 97 kilometres of the Mekong, where the river forms the border between Thailand and Laos. The reason is to make way for larger ships to navigate through the whole river. We did sail around these reefs up’n’ down the stream and it indeed makes a problem for any ship to go through in the dry season. Scientists claim the reefs are a useless bunch of rocks on the way and support the claim to put a good deal of dynamites into them and blast them to oblivion. Residents disagree. Apart from beautiful scenery, fishermen know perfectly that these reefs are an important part of fish and bird habitat, and part of natural beauty which is a sovereign right of every nation. Luckily, the Thai government decided to stop the destruction of reefs, causing great headaches to Chinese engineers.

The North remembers; this might be a good example of generational protection of lifestyle, autonomy, sovereignty and livelihood in so many places in the world. However, these might only be some of the voices heard. Ecology is important, but more important are jobs and economic sustainability for the locals. That is why a balance between preservation and development should be found.

Trip to the North of Thailand has been funded by Rotary Club International


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