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Southbound on the Mekong
Tiny Laos seems suspended in time, a place where news is scarce and where reliable roads are few and far between. There is one superhighway, however: the Mekong River, which flows the length of the country through mountain jungles, past ancient Khmer ruins, and beneath the sacred Buddha caves of Pak-Ou. Even the best way to catch a ride in Laos hasn't changed in centuries. Just walk down to the "mother of all waters" and hop on a cargo boat headed your way. By Jamie James

Photo: washing the deck of the boat
I heard the Mekong before I saw it. I was galumphing along a slippery gravel trail on a rugged slope in Yunnan, China's deep south. It was a hard road: The grade was steep, almost like a ladder of rubble in some spots, and the air in high Yunnan was as thin as it is in Colorado. My goal was Jihong Qiao, Rainbow Bridge, which Marco Polo himself used to cross the great river on his expedition to Cathay 700 years ago.

My guidebook told me that the "new" Rainbow Bridge had been in continuous use since 1475 (built to replace the bridge that was there in Marco's day) and consisted of 17 massive iron chains stretched across the deep, roaring gorge. The book failed to mention the fact that it was a three-hour hike to the bridge, up and over a steep ridge.

At the start of the trail, I was reminded that sometimes guidebooks not only omit but also lie: A young, sun-weathered farmer tending his orange groves on the lower slopes told me that the bridge had been washed away by a flood in 1986; he thought it had been replaced. A few years earlier, an old man had gone around the county collecting money to rebuild the bridge, but the farmer wasn't sure if it was ever constructed. He said he never went over the hill. Hoping for the best, I started up the precipitous, rocky path.

I knew I was on the right track: On the crest of the ridge, I had passed an elegant Ming-style pavilion, a milestone on the home stretch of the Southwestern Silk Road, the ancient thoroughfare that linked East and West long before Marco—a route as old as history itself. Every now and then I saw a remnant of the ancient pavement, delicately veined blocks of white marble, fitted closely together.

By the time I first saw the glint of the winding, silvery ribbon of the river, the waters were already thundering mightily, echoing off the broad, green shoulders of the gorge. Then Rainbow Bridge swayed into view. The farmer had been right. What lay ahead was a classic suspension span of wooden planks thrown across wire cables, 350 feet (107 meters) long and just wide enough to permit the passage of a donkey with panniers full of pumpkins, which is what came along soon after I did, driven by an old man wearing ragged shorts and a conical straw hat.

Judging from the iron links, every one as big and strong as a weight lifter's thigh, that lay scattered on either side of the river, the original bridge here must have been a magnificent sight. To throw a span across a high ravine like this one, hundreds of feet above a roaring river—much less a bridge constructed of chains with links almost too heavy to budge—seems an almost superhuman feat, an act of hubris. Rivers don't like to be crossed; they want to carry us down.

I had let the Mekong carry me down much of its upper course before, mostly in Laos, but I had never made it this far north on the great river. According to tradition, Yunnan is where Southeast Asia begins, so I wanted to start my Mekong voyage there this time, to enter Laos on the river, follow it down past Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand to the spectacular cataracts on the Laos-Cambodia border, where the river broadens into an aqueous highway.

In high Tibet, where the Mekong starts, it's called Dza Chu, "water on the rocks"; in Thailand it's Mae Nam Khong, "Khong, mother of waters" (from which the English name is derived). It is the quicksilvery spine of Southeast Asia, linking the mountains of the Tibetan Plateau with the South China Sea, forming international boundaries for five nations as it drains 472 billion cubic meters (16,669 billion cubic feet) of water per year. For most Americans, it's merely a place name that evokes painful memories of the Vietnam War, but for the 60 million people who live in the river's floodplain, it is the source of life.

It's also one of the best ways to get around in Southeast Asia—sometimes the only way, especially in Laos, where in many areas highways exist only in theory. I undertook this voyage down the Mekong to see the river one last time as it has endured for millennia. On my first trip to Laos, 15 years ago, this landlocked, sparsely populated, almost entirely undeveloped country struck me as a sort of Shangri-la, caught in a wrinkle of time, the last intact relic of the chain of ancient, exotic civilizations discovered by early adventurers such as Marco Polo. By then Thailand had already been heavily developed, but little Laos remained relatively unscathed. Yet change is now on the way; soon the country will be altered forever, by one of the most ambitious development schemes ever undertaken.

The Chinese government has begun building a series of eight dams on its part of the Mekong. This new system will not result in a huge rise in the water level, as with the monstrous Three Gorges Dam project; the goal on the Mekong is to create hydroelectric power and widen the river's course so big ships can cruise all the way from Yunnan to export markets and raw materials downriver.

Two dams have already been completed on the upper Mekong. Since they were built, floods have resulted in hundreds of deaths and endangered the livelihood of thousands of farmers who pursue traditional agricultural methods, as far south as Cambodia. An ongoing phase of the Chinese plan is dynamiting the many rapids and shoals that have long prevented through-navigation of the Mekong down to the sea. You might expect that there would be an outcry in Laos over the proposed dam scheme, but there's almost no such thing as news reporting here; few people outside the handful of cities have any knowledge about the world beyond their village. (It really isn't in the Lao nature to complain, anyway.) More electricity, more trade, galloping development—a glorious future with no downside, it seems, except the destruction of some of the most spectacular river terrain in the world.

To continue cruising down the Mekong, pick up the June/July issue of Adventure.

Photo Gallery Check out outtakes from photographer Ben Lowy's remarkable journey through Laos down the Mekong River. Enter gallery >>

Photo courtesy of Ben Lowy/Corbis

From the print edition, June/July 2004

Grail Trails: The Appalachian, The Pacific Crest, and The Continental Divide
Off the Face of the Earth: Holocaust survival in the underground labyrinths of western Ukraine
Southbound on the Mekong: The pristine mountain jungle, ancient Khmer ruins, and sacred Buddhist caves of tiny Laos
Health: A World of Hurt: What's ailing the next generation of outdoor athletes

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Related Web Sites

More From Writer Jamie James
The eruption of Krakatoa nearly a century ago literally blew the volcano to bits. Now a new peak grows in its place. A curious lava lover wanted to investigate the rumblings. So he walked there.

Descending the Dragon
Hear Contributing Editor Jon Bowermaster's dispatches from the edge of Vietnam.

International Rivers Network
For the latest information on dam development and its impact on the Mekong Basin, check out this Web site devoted to river preservation.

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June/July 2004

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