Its headwaters flow out of the Tibetan Plateau along with the Huang He and Yangtze rivers in an area that is part of Qinghai Province, China. Its name is Lan Xang Jiang—literally, the “Turbulent River”—and it flows southeast through Yunnan Province and the Hengduan Mountains for more than fourteen hundred miles before it turns fully south and takes on a different name for the rest of its journey: the Mekong.
Its currents are no less turbulent in Burma or Laos where the river is a line of demarcation, the place where China ends and Southeast Asia begins—but here its name has a different meaning, given by peasant farmers in Laos who depend on its waters for fish, transportation, irrigation and life.
Mekong is the “Mother of Water.”
It’s an appropriate name given that the river crosses nearly three thousand miles on its journey from the mountainous terrain of Tibet to its delta in Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea—and at various points along that path you can stand in Laos and look north across its waters into China, south into Cambodia, east into Vietnam, or west into Burma and Thailand.
No matter the border, the Mekong has been an indiscriminate giver and taker of life in Southeast Asia for thousands of years.
It’s a paradox like civilization’s other great rivers—be it the Nile, Indus, Euphrates, Ganges or China’s Sorrow the Huang He—for without its waters life is a daily struggle for survival; yet with its waters life is a daily bet that natural disasters and diseases will visit someone else’s village, because it’s not if, but when it’s going to happen that’s the relevant question.
My first glimpse of the Mekong came from the window seat of an MA-6 at about three thousand feet as it was on final approach to Pakse International Airport. The twin turbo-prop engines and narrow fuselage fitted for about four dozen or so passengers weren’t designed to instill one’s confidence in flying—and the plane being manufactured in China was no help in that regard, either—but for someone who has never had a fear of flying the one thing that was a very real concern as the plane descended through clouds and banked hard to the right was the weather. It was summer, the beginning of the rainy season in this part of the world, and for the last ten minutes the plane had been buffeted up, down, left and right at the behest of high winds and torrential rain—but then the river came into view, and whatever worried thoughts I’d had were pushed from my mind. I stared out the window, trying to take in as much as possible, because this river, more than anything else, was a visible symbol that represented why I’d embarked on this journey in the first place: my dad survived a war that he fought beside this river; my uncle died in that same war; and now I was here because of a war, too—that other indiscriminate giver and taker of life.
This new war began before my nieces were born but it continues today, even as they prepare for middle school, which means the only world they’ve ever known has been one that’s at war, and they can’t picture it in any other form. I belong to the other group—the one made up of people who not only remember how it was before but who, because of this war, have lost something along the way. Not a spouse or mom or dad or brother or sister, like so many others, but a small group of society that lost a part of our humanity all the same.
When you’ve lost something that important you go searching for it.
I did, anyway.
The MA-6 descended rather smoothly, all things considered—though we’d been so low flying over the river that it felt like we were making a water landing. I could see villages, boats and people whose way of life I’d known and experienced only through books, pictures, and videos, but one I’d soon walk amongst. The runway was an elevated strip of asphalt cut through a rice paddy, and the terminal was built to resemble a Buddhist temple. The plane landed and I disembarked with the rest of the passengers onto a tarmac area that was considerably lower than the runway. No doubt it was meant to facilitate the runoff of water during the rainy season. It also meant sloshing with carry-on luggage through seventy-five meters of ankle deep water.
But I didn’t care about that.
I stood on the tarmac as the other passengers scurried to the terminal. The sky was low and gray and I braced myself outwardly against the rain and wind. Inwardly I steeled myself for what was ahead. The first flight on this journey had been more than three weeks ago, but in reality my whole life had led me to this place. I had seventy-five meters left to cross on foot, one final passenger terminal to navigate, and a rendezvous with destiny on the other side—for at that point I would have gone as far as possible by all other means. For the rest of this journey I’d be relying on the river.