Just Back: Local Life Along The Mekong

Steve Waters, The Daily Telegraph, May 3, 2013

It was the squeal, the plop of water and the sudden longing for Danepak which signalled the highlight of our days; Madam Wattana was washing her pig in the Mekong. After scouring its hide with baking soda and lassoing its considerable gut with twine she would, at 1pm each day, swing the porcine missile around her head and launch it into the chocolate-brown foam below.

Contented to have flown and with the ritual complete, he would tread water – in seeming bliss – by the house boat which carried my brother and me as we snaked through Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Augustus Gloop, as the Duroc became known, was our mascot – and, I fear – our last supper.

From our vantage point on the upper deck we viewed the “rice bowl of Asia”, which was home not only to extraordinary people but also to the exotic bestiary which dwells alongside them.

From the orange-clad monks, who sit crossed-legged as they construct cups from the clay, to the traders peddling silk, elder blossom and oddly inaccurate football memorabilia within the maze of Don Wai market – where oil in the mud made rainbows beneath our feet – the people of this region are as welcoming, colourful and energetic as any on Earth.

The grey stone lions that guard Angkor Wat’s holy city (nestled between the great lake of Tonle Sap and the hills of Kulen) are just one reminder of Cambodia’s vast ancestral wealth. A history punctuated by war, persecution and natural disasters has left the landscape scarred but the people hopeful for a better tomorrow. This will be funded in part by the two million tourists who visit this Unesco site each year, drawn as I was by the natural beauty and famed hospitality. The ancient temples, reflected perfectly in the surrounding lakes, are inspirational.

The natural inhabitants of this region, from catfish with whiskers as long as my forearm to the flat-faced Irrawaddy dolphin, are as easy going as the locals despite their critically endangered status.

Alongside the tigers and elephants, these species have made south-east Asia, and the Mekong itself, an important eco-region where travellers work alongside locals to minimise the damage of necessary development.

As with all south-east Asian countries, this is not a nation relegated to the history books or the dull dust of former glories. A trip to any of the cosmopolitan hot spots reveals an exciting fusion of past and future. The sprawling city of Bangkok has some of the grandest hotels on the continent: the Hilton Millennium housed our hangovers for several nights before we headed home. We came away with a fresh outlook and the knowledge that in paradise, even the pigs go swimming.

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