Gently up the Mekong
The Mekong River is so central to the life of Southeast Asia that some people refer to the Lao, Cambodians and Vietnamese collectively as "the people of the Mekong," despite the tremendous racial diversity spread across these three countries. Picture everything south of Cairo, Illinois, in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, western Kentucky and Tennessee as an isolated peninsula jutting into the South China Sea, transpose the Mekong for the Mississippi, and you will begin to grasp the prominence and significance of this vast watery artery.
Like the Mississippi of Twainian yore, the Mekong is simultaneously home, harbor, highway and horror, its inexorable flow the lifeblood of commerce, agriculture, transport and the creative imagination. From its banks the Khmer Rouge ambushed transport ships bringing supplies up to embattled Phnom Penh from Saigon before either city had fallen, and down its waters floated countless bodies, victims of the genocide. But without it Southeast Asia would not be the rice basket of the world, one enormous system of paddies providing tons of food to millions of people.
And just as in the glory days of the Mississippi Riverboats and that river's seething, teeming commerce, the Mekong is a place some people are born, raised and grow up without scarcely going ashore. Last week we and a horde of other tourists hoping to experience the romance piled into a sleek speedboat for the five hour journey upriver from Phnom Penh to Siem Riep, on the far side of the Tonle Sap, the vast inland sea that is an appendage of the great river. The boat was narrow and claustrophic, like an airplane fuselage without wings, and we and many others opted for the airy and exhilarating "top deck". A sunburn waiting to happen.
One need not fear the annual floods, which spill the banks and flood vast expanses of the land, when one's house floats. Along the Mekong there are entire floating cities. Fishermen raft together in family groups in mid-stream, working their fish traps. Towns built on the banks spill into the river; what were once docks become watery neighborhoods. We zipped past it all.