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THE MEKONG

A river of ill repute

by Stephen Mansfield

THE MEKONG: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, by Milton Osborn. Allen & Unwin, 2001, 295 pp., b/w & color photos, $25 (cloth)

The waters of the Mekong, the world’s 12th-longest and Southeast Asia’s foremost river, do not, like the Thames, run sweetly. Nor have they inspired poets to dream on the river’s banks, or ever accorded those who live alongside it an uninterrupted sense of well being. To writer Colin Thubron, recalling the brutalities of the Khmer Rouge and the re-education camps of Vietnam and Laos, it was a “river of evil memory.”

Despite its strategic importance and monumental dimensions — 4,350 km long, an annual discharge of 475 billion cubic meters, and a drainage basin that covers 795,000 sq. km — the Mekong has never occupied the same place in the Western imagination as the Nile, Amazon and Ganges have. This may be because these rivers were linked with the colonial penetrations of Britain and Spain, while France’s empire in Indochina came relatively late in the day. The Mekong swelled in the consciousness of Americans during the Vietnam War, but then abruptly dried to a trickle. Only now is it reaching something like normal levels in the awareness of non-Asians and being accorded its rightful place alongside the other great rivers of the world.

Closely associated with the Mekong for over four decades, Milton Osborn has condensed his knowledge of the river into what is probably the definitive book on the subject. It has been a good decade, in fact, for musings on the river. John Hoskin’s “The Mekong: A River and its People,” journalist Jon Swain’s “River of Time,” the anthropology of Liesbeth Suiter’s “The Mekong Currency” and Edward A. Gargan’s “The River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong” all indicate a level of interest in the river unparalleled since the 19th century, when a number of works by French explorers (many of which are now being reissued) first appeared in translation.

Osborn’s work is the most complete of these accounts. By turns anecdotal, descriptive and analytical, Osborn melds the discipline of academic research with the keen eye and attention to detail of our best travel writers and journalistic sleuths. Such is Osborn’s commitment to research that it takes him beyond the confines of the river to the complex of temples at Angkor Wat, Lake Erhai in Dali (whose waters, polluted by raw sewage and agricultural runoff, replenish the Mekong), and even to the village of Saint-Vincent-de-Mercuze beneath the cliffs of the Grande-Chartreuse mountains in France, to visit the bizarre Khmer-style monument and family mausoleum of Doudart de Lagree, leader of the ill-fated but eventful Mekong Expedition of 1866.

Osborn dwells at length on the expedition, the brainchild of Francis Garnier. The journey Lagree and Garnier undertook was important because it sought to prove that a viable navigational route for trade could be established with China, a dream that has persisted to the present day. Writing to a friend in the French community in Saigon, Garnier, a romantic who openly confessed to being “hypnotized by the river,” made the remarkably prescient observation that “The adventurous part of our journey is beginning, but we are not organized to undertake adventures, and it is probable that we will pay for this.” Preparedness being a prerequisite for any exploration team, it seems extraordinary that the French, about to enter a malaria-bedeviled zone, could have stowed away 700 bottles of wine to sustain them, but sent back their stock of quinine to save on portage.

Those who have explored the environs of the Mekong, its tributaries, riverine states and settlements, will know that its majesty is drawn from its setting rather than from any intrinsic beauty found in its often ocherous waters. It is this riverine sphere, the role of the Mekong as a mold for historic settlement and as a vector for ideas, that Osborn explores in depth. Although the physical features of the river are described, it is the human configurations, the interaction between the waterway and those who utilize it, whose history and ancestry has been shaped by it, that interest Osborn’s anthropological eye. Osborn’s book is as much about people as it is about places, and his compagnons de route among the river’s indigenes are many. So apparently, are his readers. Current and imminent reprints suggest that the book has become required reading.

While legions of journalists, military personnel, photographers turned writers and specialists of one type or another have provided us with accurate descriptions of cities like Saigon and Phnom Penh in the 1960s, only a handful of writers, such as Graham Green and Norman Lewis, have described for us what it was like to live in those places in the ’50s, with their “combination of French chic and Asian exoticism.” Osborn gives us that most precious of things — images of a world that can never be recovered. In describing one of the numerous court ceremonies in Phnom Penh, the author witnesses “the sounds of the court brahmins blowing on their conch shells, the boom of gongs to indicate when homage was to be paid, and the sight of a palace servant crawling across the floor to hand the king his spectacles and his speech of welcome.”

Osborn’s long acquaintance with the river has allowed him to view the grandiose schemes that have been dreamed up to harness its potential with a perspective that is often lacking among the committees that draw up such programs. Of plans to develop the Mekong with a series of gigantic dams, Osborn recalls an earlier time when it was thought that developing the river’s economic potential “would act as a counter to communism as well as bringing benefits to populations in countries in desperate need of development,” a tactic that “offered a potent mix of altruism and presumed good strategic sense.”

The Mekong is clearly an unfinished story, a river whose destiny remains in the balance. Coaxed from obscurity for the time being, there are no assurances that it will not slip out of focus once again as new bridges undermine its utility, and its waters fall into a becalmed neglect, its few remaining vessels drifting upon its surface like ghost ships.

The river flows on, less bloodied than in the past, but not without its troubles.