The Mother of All Rivers

The Mother of All Rivers

For such a small place, Laos is surprisingly hard to pin down. You come away feeling the ever-present Mekong, the country's economic and spiritual lifeline, is the one thing you can be sure of.

South East Asia's longest river winds its sinuous but insistent way from top to bottom of this long, thin, landlocked country also known as the "Land of a million Elephants".

Northern Laos |
Northern Laos |

Rising, like all the great rivers of Asia, on the Tibetan plateau, the Mekong makes its way through six countries before emptying into the South China Sea, more than 4,000km (2,500 miles) from its source.

But it is Laos more than any other single nation that seems to belong to the Mekong.

It grew up along the river's banks. The Mekong united the country's many ethnic groups. It remains the major focus of settlement and the national highway of trade.

'Mother of rivers'

The word Mekong translates in Lao as "Mother of Rivers". As one Lao told me: "Its water is our blood."

Its flood plains provide rice, its waters fish (the people's main source of protein) and its 2,000km (1,250-mile) passage through Laos is still the most convenient communication route.

Mekong river | Insider Journey
Mekong river | Insider Journey

The French colonised Laos mainly because they hoped the Mekong would link them to the fabled riches of China.

The upper reaches of the river proved unnavigable. But China itself is busy deepening and widening the river to improve trade and tourism links with South East Asia. Small islands have been blasted away in their entirety.

Mekong river map | Microsoft Corp
Mekong river map | Microsoft Corp


The Chinese are also building dams, siphoning off water needed by countries further downstream, like Laos and Cambodia.

Potential for conflict

This is just one of a host of potential sources of conflict between the six countries sharing the Mekong.

Other concerns include the over-harvesting of fish, pesticide run-off and the dumping of human waste. Massive deforestation has already caused annual flooding.

To manage the resources of the river basin and harness the waters for hydropower and irrigation, the Mekong River Commission was set up in 1995 by Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, with China and Burma as dialogue partners.

Monk of Mekong | TripAdvisor

The director of the Laos Mekong River Committee, Boriboun Sanakisam, took me out in one of the high-speed powerboats favoured by rich, young Thai businessmen keen to do business with their resource-rich neighbour just across the river.

He assured me that the commission provided a forum in which the various neighbours could iron out their problems smoothly, with what Asians like to call their traditional aptitude for consensus.

That Luang, Laos's pride |
That Luang, Laos's pride |


But ever since its 14th century heyday, Laos has found itself the helpless victim of its bigger neighbours as it struggled to play them off against each other.

As a waiter at my hotel told me, Laos is like a small boat that can easily be upset when larger craft come too close.

Changing pace

In the north of the country, I took a small longtail boat down the Mekong and retraced the journey taken by countless Lao kings from the Buddha caves of Tham Ting to the royal jetty at the old capital of Luang Prabang.

The thick, treacly, almost purple-coloured water oozed past and all I could hear were the birds in the forest on either bank. Golden-roofed temples peeked up through the trees.

Boat travel on Mekong | Travel Wire Asia
Boat travel on Mekong | Travel Wire Asia


Four-hundred kilometres (250 miles) downstream, the present capital of Vientiane is beginning to buzz with nightclubs and modern hotels.

But even here, the pace of life is still far slower than in any other Asian capital.

One senses that what Laos really wants is to remain as undisturbed as possible, tucked away behind its mountains and its river.

For the time being, at least, the mood is still: Who cares? As long as we've got the Mekong, life goes on.

This article was first published on on Aug 21, 2001, written by Tim Luard

Tags: river mekong
Akhyari Hananto

I began my career in the banking industry in 1997, and stayed approx 6 years in it. This industry boost his knowledge about the economic condition in Indonesia, both macro and micro, and how to More understand it. My banking career continued in Yogyakarta when I joined in a program funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB),as the coordinator for a program aimed to help improve the quality of learning and teaching process in private universities in Yogyakarta. When the earthquake stroke Yogyakarta, I chose to join an international NGO working in the area of ?disaster response and management, which allows me to help rebuild the city, as well as other disaster-stricken area in Indonesia. I went on to become the coordinator for emergency response in the Asia Pacific region. Then I was assigned for 1 year in Cambodia, as a country coordinator mostly to deliver developmental programs (water and sanitation, education, livelihood). In 2009, he continued his career as a protocol and HR officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Surabaya, and two years later I joined the Political and Economic Section until now, where i have to deal with extensive range of people and government officials, as well as private and government institution troughout eastern Indonesia. I am the founder and Editor-in-Chief in Good News From Indonesia (GNFI), a growing and influential social media movement, and was selected as one of The Most Influential Netizen 2011 by The Marketeers magazine. I also wrote a book on "Fundamentals of Disaster Management in 2007"?, "Good News From Indonesia : Beragam Prestasi Anak Bangsa di dunia"? which was luanched in August 2013, and "Indonesia Bersyukur"? which is launched in Sept 2013. In 2014, 3 books were released in which i was one of the writer; "Indonesia Pelangi Dunia"?, "Indonesia The Untold Stories"? and "Growing! Meretas Jalan Kejayaan" I give lectures to students in lectures nationwide, sharing on full range of issues, from economy, to diplomacy Less
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