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Enjoy a meander down the magnificent Mekong

by Jeff Kingston

THE MEKONG: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, by Milton Osborne. Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2000, $24.

This elegiac tribute to the Mekong River is an occasion for a comfortable chair and a languorous afternoon. The intrepid armchair traveler is transported to this magnificent locale and can almost see the morning mists hanging over the banks of the river, experience that frisson of skirting whirlpools and enjoy the sunsets lingering over an aperitif.

Milton Osborne mines the written record for many interesting stories about life on and along the Mekong, dwelling longest on colonial-era explorations.

It is surprising to learn that it was not until 1994 that the exact location of the Mekong’s source was traced to Tibet. It is also fascinating to read about how the swollen river backs up in the rainy season, reversing course and flooding Cambodia’s great lake, the Tonle Sap. This natural phenomenon stocks the lake with a bountiful fish harvest, providing an estimated 60 percent of the protein intake of Cambodia’s population. Moreover, the Cambodian rice harvest also benefits from this natural process of irrigation and fertilization, helping to explain how the great civilization of Angkor was able to sustain itself.

The French “discoverers” of the mid-19th century were not the first Europeans to grace Angkor; the Portuguese enjoy this honor, and they were centuries behind the Chinese, who left records from a visit in 1296-1297. The Chinese envoy left a record rich in Sinic disdain for the deeply bronzed local population and women who apparently urinated standing up.

Father Gaspar da Cruz, a Portuguese Dominican missionary, left the first European record of travel on the Mekong, writing about his two years in Cambodia between 1555 and 1557. His evangelizing endeavors did not bear fruit, but in the 1580s others from his order followed in his footsteps, still looking for converts. Instead they found Angkor Wat and left early detailed descriptions of this awe-inspiring complex. These 17th-century descriptions discounted the possibility of Cambodians producing such grandeur, theorizing that it might have been the work of Alexander the Great or wandering Jews from China!

Apparently, Portuguese freebooters also arrived on the scene in the 1590s, involving themselves in various palace intrigues and local rivalries, cutting a swath of deception and destruction that gave Cambodians their first taste of Western intrusiveness.

Travelers to Luang Prabang, the charming backwater nestled between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers in Laos, will finally learn why the grave of Henri Mouhot is in such a forlorn spot overlooking the Nam Khan. This Frenchman conveyed the romance and splendor of Angkor to Europeans in the mid-19th century but died in 1861, probably of malaria, at this final campsite, leaving a written record of his pain and knowledge of impending death. Compatriots August Pavie and Doudart de Lagree constructed a tomb over his grave later that century, and a few years ago UNESCO rediscovered the grave site, cleared the jungle and, with money from his hometown in France, gave him a proper tomb.

Osborne’s account of the 1866 Mekong River expedition led by de Lagree and Francis Garnier captures the tenor of the times and the esprit of obsessed explorers eager to sacrifice everything for their goal. The expedition was well-equipped — if not ably manned — to explore whether the Mekong was navigable from the delta region of Vietnam to China, a back door into the Middle Kingdom that would enable the French to steal a march on their British rivals. Their dreams were thwarted by the Khone Falls, but they could console (or drown) themselves in the 700 liters of wine and 300 liters of brandy they had brought for the arduous journey.

Osborne’s sketches of the Indochinese abattoir that engulfed the nations contiguous to the Mekong for much of the last half of the 20th century are too brief to convey much more than the gist of the tragedies. Given his diplomatic work in the region during this era, and the fascinating glimpses he affords us of his experiences, it is a pity that he did not give himself a little more rein in this section.

The final section ends on a somber note, focusing on the environmental threats to the majestic Mekong. Anyone who travels the Mekong soon learns that the adjacent population does not treat it with anything remotely approaching Osborne’s reverence, and instead uses it as a convenient sewer. Such environmental damage pales when compared to the threat of massive dam projects planned to tame the flow of water and tap its hydroelectric potential.

In Osborne’s view, the problems of the Mekong will be shared among the six countries along its banks, but China will be in a position to determine the severity of these problems. Lamentably, “. . . so far as the Mekong is concerned, this may mean that China’s pursuit of economic growth through industrial development occurs at the expense of the downstream countries, as dams continue to be built to generate hydro power that will fuel industry in Yunnan and further afield.” The carefully planned disruption, dislocation and devastation of the Three Gorges project has gained greater notoriety, but the same mind-set now imperils the Mekong and those who depend on its bounty.