Mekong River

Trip Start Jan 13, 2013
Trip End Feb 05, 2013

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Thursday, January 24, 2013

Left Luang Prabang early this morning by boat for a trip up the Mekong River.  It was a bit surreal to be floating down the Mekong - which is a beautiful river even in this dry season.  The 12th longest in the world, it starts in Tibet and flows through China, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam into the South China Sea. Over 60 million people depend upon the Mekong and its tributaries for food, water transportation and many other aspects of their daily lives.  The river support a diverse population of fish, 2nd only to the Amazon River.

 China’s construction of dams and a navigation channel along the upper reaches of the Mekong threatens this complex ecosystem. Five megadams have already been built, eight are underway, and several more are being planned.  Laos has recently borrowed 3 billion dollars from China and over the protests of countries downstream, have begun construction of their first dam.  Their goal is build 8 dams across the Mekong and become the "battery of SE Asia. - mostly furnishing power fro China.

Scientists studying the river have stated "serious and irreversible environmental damage", and contribute to growing inequality in the countries of the Lower Mekong basin with the poorer households along the river being adversely affected, while only the rich would feel the benefits.  One environmental group reported that only 3 groups would benefit from the dams -  "the people who constructed the dam, the government who will get money from the dam and the banks who loaned the money to build the dam."

A trip down the Mekong gives an impression of the value of the river to the families along the Mekong.  The banks are lined with small gardens where sustenance farmers grow crops for food and to sell in the markets in Luang Prabang.  We saw many, many people fishing, the river was busy with boat traffic, and families were bating, doing laundry and panning for gold in the river.

It is hard to see any outcome except a complete social and environmental catastrophe! 

Our boat, and the others we saw on the river, are owned by families and provide their income.  They also live on the boat, in small one room quarters in the back.  Many had laundry and cooking utensils hanging, and we saw women cooking and children playing. Most were decorated with flowers, Buddha images and bright colors.

Most of the boats were filled with tourists going to visit Pak Ou caves.  Quite an amazing place.  Filled with thousands of old or damaged Buddha statues placed there by local people over the last five centuries. 

 After lunch across the river, visited Ban Muangkeo, a rural village that has been adopted by Road Scholar.  Quite a different picture of Lao life than in Luang Prabang.  Incredible poverty with no access to clean water, sanitation, health care, etc.  We took school supplies to the children, who sang a song for us.  We then sang Row, Row, Row Your Boat to them.  From the expressions on their faces, I suspect they thought we a bit strange.  

This evening attended a performance at the Royal Ballet Theatre. For many years, the Royal Ballet troupe performed Phra-Lak Phra-Lam, the Lao version of the sacred poem, the Ramayana, in the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang. Then in 1975, after 15 centuries of annual performances, the Theatre was banned and the master artists and teachers had to look for other work. In 1993, after an absence of more than 15 years, the Institution of Cultural Research and the Provincial Government Office in Luang Prabang established a committee to revive limited performances of Phra-Lak Phra-Lam for festivals. In 2002, the Theatre was re-established and has been performing at home and abroad since.  It was a beautiful performance. 

Finally to bed - these Rad Scholar trips are exhausting!!  Feel asleep to the sound of crickets and a really cool-sounding owl.
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