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Mother River

Flowing down the spine of Southeast Asia, the Mekong River has played a pivotal role in the region’s history, and nowhere more so than in the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Laos. Take a river trip through the province of Champasak, past coffee plantations, hidden temples and thunderous waterfalls all the way to the Cambodian border – and learn how the river continues to shape Laos’ past, present and future
The sun sets over the Mekong beside the island of Don Khon, in the Four Thousand Islands

From Pakse to the plateau

Dawn rises hot and humid over the riverside city of Pakse, and another day on the mighty Mekong begins. Tugboats and barges chug downriver, loaded with coal, goods and timber from the city of Vientiane, 400 miles to the north. A longtail ferry whines past and traffc flows over the city’s bridges, as commuters journey to work and trucks head for the Thai border. Wading birds stalk the muddy shallows, and a fisherman casts his net, hoping to snare catfish.

Mae Nam Khong, they call it: the Mother River. Running for more than 2,700 miles from the Tibetan Plateau all the way to the South China Sea, this epic waterway stitches together the north and south of Laos like a tangled, teak-tinted thread. Throughout its history, it has borne kings and commoners, soldiers and statesmen, monks and martyrs. It’s a sacred waterway that has served as border, battlement and thoroughfare. It’s a geographical landmark, but also an industrial artery, supplying water for villages and towns, carrying passengers and cargo, watering rice paddies and irrigating corn fields. It’s Laos’ lifeline.

The double waterfall of Tad Fane tumbles 120m down into the jungle, about 25 miles east of Pakse on the Bolaven Plateau

‘Life in this part of Laos is much calmer compared to Luang Prabang or Vientiane,’ says guide Detoudorn Savannalath, as he sips a black coffee in a café near Pakse’s old harbour, overlooking the Mekong’s brown banks. ‘We like to take our time over things: we speak more slowly, and we don’t hurry. There’s an old joke here that the initials in Laos PDR – the People’s Democratic Republic – actually stand for Please Don’t Rush. Personally, I think the Mekong has shaped our character. Like the river, we follow nature’s rhythm.’

Around 20,000 tonnes of coffee are produced in Laos every year
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Find the complete article and many more in this issue of Lonely Planet - September 2017
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