Published: February 15th 2011February 14th 2011
Aixiang, a man with a broad smile and a three pack a day habit, has spent all of his fifty years living next to the Mekong. He knows the 20 mile stretch between Ganlanba and Jinghong like the back of his hand, but of the other 2,800 miles he hasn't much idea. He constantly referred to the 'old days' - meaning the 70's, when he was a teenager and during the course of the day he spent with us he told us how 'his' river had changed.
When Aixiang was a lad, the river offered it's bounty up to surrounding villagers. They fished, they collected river moss, and they panned for gold. We came across ladies fashioning the moss into paper-thin pancakes - green lace tracery spread onto circular orange boards - before being slipped off onto a huge plastic tarpaulin, and laid out in front of a three hundred year old wat. The pancakes dry for a day in the sunlight before being sold at market. Four or five pieces sell for four or five yuan. A pittance. A lot of work for very little return. And of course the moss has to be collected. We searched the banks
of the Mekong, looking for those who were looking for the moss. Aixiang shouted into the early morning murk. A man answered and punted towards us on a narrow bamboo raft. I marvelled at his balance. And noticed the dark water lapping over his socked feet. Unperturbed he moved off, in search of the bright green gold, still laughing and talking. A mile or two upstream we came across more collectors. Two ladies wading in the shallows, heads down, moving slowly, concentrated. One, her gold capped teeth glinting in the weak sun, moved towards the bank, and ballerina style, arched her leg out behind her. A wave of water wooshed out of her wellington boot. Did these people ever have trouble with arthritis we wondered. Aixiang shrugged. 'They sometimes have a bit of pain, but they just carry on'.
At this point the current was strong, the river fast flowing. It was a spot associated with local legend and superstition. Aixiang pointed to a huge rock in the middle of the river and told us that locals believe that the Buddha travelled down the Mekong and spread out his robe to dry at that very spot - the rock
is considered sacred, but it's still a point fraught with danger. Families who had only one son, wouldn't permit him to cross the river at this point, not wanting to run the risk of losing him. Occasionally a child would be swept away while bathing. The river gave and it took away. But modernisation has bought positive change. Now, most people have running water and no longer need to wash in the river. In the 'old days' the only way to travel between Ganlanba and Jinghong was by boat; it was a slow and arduous journey involving an overnight stay in the town, for villagers who needed to sell their rice, corn and pineapples at market. In the 80's progress meant a tractor could make the trip on a dirt road in one day. In the 90's the tractor was replaced by a bus. Aixiang doesn't remember the last time he travelled on the river and says it's more than twenty years since he swam in it. Nowadays many children don't learn to swim at all. Nor are villagers permitted to fish or pan for gold. The river is losing it's immediate intimate connection with local lives. But memories remain.
An Array Of Pancakes.
Pancakes drying in the sunlight.
We met Yu Dun who showed us her 'shajing' or sand gold, a treasure collected from the Mekong over four back-breaking years. She wears her necklace and earings every day, believing that if she takes them off she'll fall ill. She thinks the gold protects her from 'bad' spirits. Her hair ornaments were hidden away, used for special occasions, but she unwrapped them from layers of tissue paper and proudly displayed them on her outstretched palm.
Nowadays, the most precious treasure the river offers is it's water itself. As we walked along it's banks past plots of chillis, tomatoes, peanuts and eggplant, fields of corn and pumpkins and plantations of bananas it became clear that the river was one huge irrigation canal, fertile, rich, sustaining. Villagers now grow wealthy from rubber plantations planted on it's slopes. At an old bathing point, we talked to two women washing piles of freshly picked green salad, in the muddy waters. Their family had just built a new house. Tomorrow there would be a feast - not only vegetables, but two cows and two pigs were to be slaughtered for the occasion. Next to them a woman did her laundry, surrounded by large
plastic bowls and soapy detergent.
For the moment, the river continues to provide, continues to flow, even though locals seem to have little thought or feeling for it. We were able to speak to Aixiang, Yu Dun and many others, thanks to Wendy and Echo from BannaView Tours. They offer trips to ethnic villages, homestays and a great insight into local cultures. For information contact firstname.lastname@example.org
There are more photos below