Water People of the Mekong
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

The Mekong River passes through five countries and hundreds of communities of Southeast Asia, a flowing road of commerce and culture

Mekong river travel story

My boat driver, Duc, tells me that the Mekong River is like a beautiful woman who seduces you and then destroys you the moment you turn your back on her.

Viewed from above, the Mekong River resembles an immense Anaconda, slithering through the jungle that is Southeast Asia. It is a much polluted, mustard brown, fast moving dump for the detritus of peoples' lives, and simultaneously, the artery that pumps the economic life blood through five countries: But it is not just an avenue for commerce; it supports an ancient and cultured, water-born way of life.

On her chocolate waters, four and five generations often live and die on a single houseboat, sharing one room. Children learn to paddle dugout canoes as soon as they can walk.  

Hand-hollowed logs and jury-rigged canoes are the ubiquitous alternative to autos as the perfect water transport to and from boats and shore. They are not just practical, but valued heirlooms and a physical connection to the ancestors who passed them on. Those who live at the edge between jungle and river carve boats like sculptors carve stone. It is part of what they are.

Mekong river houseboat

At the Mekong's southern terminus, near the mouth of the South China Sea in Vietnam, I stop at the shipyards to watch commercial boat builders steaming long timbers over open fires, bending them to shape in a process unchanged perhaps in a thousand years. No boats, large or small, are launched until the red, black, and white eyes of a Buddha are painted on their prow to guide them along the river.

The morning heat collides with the river’s cool air to coat the landscape in a gauze—like veil, one that gives the visitor the feeling of being in a Renaissance painting. Catfish boil the water in shallow eddies in an insect-feeding frenzy. They are the diminutive cousins of the giants that lurk in one of the most polluted rivers on earth, known for giving up catfish that can weigh 600 pounds. From shore, fishermen endlessly cast their seine nets into the current like cowboys lassoing a steer, then drag them in to shake out a meager haul of minnows. Every other fisherman appears to be an older mama-san puffing mightily on a fat cheroot. I take all this in from a hired water taxi that will take me north to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I have come to see the water people

The Mekong River Marketplace

Mekong river girlNo sooner am I on board than a sprite in a circular plastic washtub paddles up to me, using a palm frond for a paddle. "MERICAN!?" she yells. I simply nod yes, too surprised by her act of seamanship in a fast-moving current to speak. I ask how she manages to keep her vessel from spinning in circles but she just flashes the peace sign and turns to paddle away. Tiny inlets are alive with paddlers of all ages, busy as any commuter lane in a massive city. No one is idle and no landlocked freeway has more traffic or more vehicles. It is a waterborne metropolis in constant motion.

We stop at numerous open markets in ever smaller ports along the way. I walk past buckets of writhing eels and lunging lionfish whose massive canines can easily slash an unsuspecting customer. Sacks of rice are stacked ten high in long rows. I am offered shots of "Cobra Whiskey," but politely refuse, preferring not to willingly ingest snake venom with alcohol that is such a popular local aperitif. We visit a duck auction, and when we stop at a local school the teacher has the students sing the national anthem to me in English. All about me is a world so different from my own and at the same time so familiar. I am most intrigued by the floating markets, impromptu gatherings of vendors that can pop up anywhere. Sellers raise samples of their wares on tall poles to attract customers, and haggling over prices is expected. 

Mekong river cobra whiskey

We drift silently past boats overloaded with tomatoes, potatoes, firewood, clay pots, and anything else that could possibly be bought or sold. I man an oar to help push us along in the clogged river, fending off boats on either side. Peoples' laundry hangs from the rear deck, dried by the sun and wind. Countless brazier fires bring the smell of roasting chestnuts and charred catfish. A young boy in a home-made raft is selling newspapers boat to boat. Money changes hands over the water as I cruise past, a silent observer, witness to an ancient culture in danger of vanishing. 

The most private acts are on full display along the river as it is at once a highway, bathroom, laundry, and drinking source. Naked people bathing in the shallows stop to wave, un-embarrassed by their exposure. Children play and defecate in the same tide pool. The houses that line the river are all open to its waters, having only three walls. Children wave from a back porch while their mother suckles a young sibling at her breast. I see families slurping noodles through a boat window while a lady in a moo-moo brushes her teeth over the bow. A man dips his dog for a bath next to a small boat carrying so many bananas it threatens to capsize.

Mekong river floating markets

A whiff of opium comes to me on the breeze and I notice an ancient mama-san swinging in her hammock on deck, puffing a long bamboo pipe. From an overhead bridge a group of schoolgirls, all dressed in traditional Au Dai wait under their umbrellas for a water taxi, all versions of the same porcelain doll. I am a ghost, floating unnoticed through the dreams that are the daily lives of the water people. 

Size is no deterrent to travel on the river. A full-grown cow protests loudly from a small dugout in mid current while its owner sings to calm it. One couple has found a chest of drawers so large it could sink them, but that only means it will take a little longer to get it home. The deck of a large freighter carries so many coconuts it must surely capsize I think, and yet, I know it will make the same journey with the same cargo tomorrow. There are no unions, no labor or safety laws, so if it fits, it goes.

Daily Life and the Gods, Riverside

Where the river slows and widens, the Mekong offers proof that land is not required to sustain a city. Hundreds of boats collect like massive log jams. They will stay and fish for a while and then move on like the aquatic gypsies they are. Both residents and visitors must walk over dozens of boats to reach their own; no permission is asked for, no apologies offered or accepted; it is simply communal life. Neighbors come and go with the passing hours. There are no doors, no locks, and no privacy. Life is lived for all to see in the open. For the elderly or infirm, the market comes to them. Intrepid entrepreneurs buy cheaply in the city, and for a hefty markup, ferry it to those whose life keeps them isolated. 

Mekong river woman paddling

At a rare clearing on shore, emerald rice paddies are filled with women in woven hats, bent in half, busy with the harvest. Behind them a towering mountain of green forest rises above the jungle, framing the scene with its cloud-shrouded summit. The women cover their arms and faces because in the class-conscious society, dark skin betrays a laborer who is looked down on by some. Where the river meets the occasional dirt road, graves of village ancestors are piled with "spirit" money to help them along their journey to the next world. Tiny motorbikes cough and belch smoke in their effort to carry massive pigs, some weighing hundreds of pounds, in wicker baskets, lying prone across the rear rack. Such driving on the rutted, pitted river trails seems an impossible balancing act. 

Even more intriguing are the Day-Glo painted temples of the Cao Dai religion. Founded in the mid-1920's, it immediately drew a following that has failed to gain hold outside of rural Vietnam, and to attempt to decipher it would take an additional story. Cao Dai has many deities, and judging from the pictures on the temple walls they run the gamut from Janis Joplin to Gandhi, from Joan Baez to Winston Churchill. It is a local phenomenon that I think best to just observe and enjoy rather than try to assign meaning to any of it through the lens of my Christian upbringing.

As we pass from northern Vietnam into Southern Cambodia, the jungle takes on new dimensions. Bamboo hundreds of feet tall hug the shore, sometimes so heavy they collapse into the river. The impenetrable greenness is unchanging hour after hour, broken only occasionally by a rollicking group of monkeys shaking the trees and a fair number of crocodiles that shadow our boat, showing only their eyes above the water, waiting for, and willing an easy meal to appear. A small herd of water buffalo graze on shore near an eddy. Every now and then a thin pillar of smoke betrays a jungle moonshiner out of reach of local laws. Villages are scarcer than in the south but even there in a land so remote, each roof sports an ancient television antenna. 

Ignored or Revered as a Towering Foreigner

Curiosity takes me into more than one house, and at the final one I find a family watching a tiny black and white television powered by an old car battery. They are thoroughly enjoying their American import about a talking horse but have little interest in their strange visitor. I have to wonder how I would react should a stranger knock at my door and simply ask to come in. On this journey my requests are never refused but usually met with indifference.

bathers in the Mekong river

Our final stop in Vietnam is at Chao Doc, a former U.S. military base during the American War. Rather than being received as a returning enemy we are hustled into rickshaws for a city tour that quickly becomes a small parade as the local populace welcomes us with open arms. Apparently, Chao Doc receives few outside visitors. Just south of Phnom Penh, a ferry carrying dozens of robed monks passes us. From the top deck they wave and shout, take selfies, and generally act very un-monk like. My taxi driver spits into the water and mumbles something I am sure is derogatory about the young novices.

Mekong river travelArriving in Phnom Penh, fishing boats surround us and everyone asks where I came from. The word "America" means little to most of them. I am simply an exotic stranger and that makes me the topic of conversation. I am both touched and embarrassed by the friendliness of the people in both countries on this journey, both of whom my own country tried to bomb off the face of the Earth less than a half century ago. Animosity was replaced long ago by a genuine quest for friendship, not to mention a zeal for commerce and the tourist dollar.

As rivers go, the Mekong is becoming a power player even though it is only the 12th longest river on earth and the 7th longest in Asia. It flows for 2,703 miles, (4,350 km) through 5 countries, but it hosts no less than 35 hydroelectric dams, either in existence or under construction. That makes it one of the largest electricity producing basins on earth.

During this journey, which I ended up completing twice, I thought of the river as more than the sum of its parts. It was a time warp that allowed me to travel through the past while observing the present, and a pretty good window into how ancient life on the river will continue. It showed me that what is old is also contemporary, and what is different is also very much the same. 

Sometimes you have to go to a remote river to remember that.

James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in forty-some countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.

Related Features:
Not the Usual Tour of HCMC: Medicines, Markets, and Floating Temples - Claudia B. Flisi
Moonshine With a Monkey on the Mekong in Laos - James Michael Dorsey
Dug-outs Downstream in PNG - Tony Robinson-Smith
Following My Fixer into the Underground in Laos - James Michael Dorsey

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