In colonial times the French tried to turn the Mekong into a transport corridor for trade and development of Indochina. They used boats like this to transport goods up river and monitor teak logs they floated down river toward Saigon. The plan was never quite profitable, and this sleepy corner of an already sleepy country remained largely unchanged despite the flurry of upheaval and war in surrounding provinces and countries.
Languid is the best word to describe this part of the world. The river drifts slowly along, small villages line the banks, and the sun and humidity mean life proceeds at a relaxed pace as it has for a very long time.
The area was not always a quiet backwater. In fact, before the Tai people (including the majority of ethnic Lao) migrated down the river in the 8th century, this region was the original homeland of the Khmer, part of the Lao-Thoeng (upland Lao) ethnic category. The Khmer migrated from what is today southern Laos to the flat lands of Cambodia and the Mekong Delta, forming there a network of pre-Angkorian townships that the Chinese called Funan around the 2nd century CE. The Funan evolved into a more developed civilization known (also by the Chinese, who traded with all of these peoples) as Chenla. "Water" Chenla was located in the Mekong Delta, while "Land" Chenla was centered near the town of Champasak. Some ruins of the capital survive, semi-hidden below a small village on the side of the river. The Khmer never forgot their origins, and as the empire's power grew in the 8th century, they expanded into Champasak and built a beautiful temple linked to Angkor by a stone road. We visited the ruins of that temple, Wat Phu.
The temple is built into the side of a mountain at the location of a natural spring where the Chenla civilization had built an earlier temple. In fact, the people who inhabited the area before the arrival of Hinduism likely worshipped animal spirits at this same spot, which commands an amazing view of the river valley below.
After exploring the temple and the view we headed back to the boat for two days of nothing but slow floating. Above, a temple in a riverside village.
We actually stopped in one small fishing village to explore. It was was completely free of tourist infrastructure. No selling of trinkets and little interest in us meant our first real village visit (and there would be many more) was quiet and peaceful. The company that runs the boat supports the village school, though I found out later that they do not give very much and I wish we had come prepared with supplies for the kids or something else helpful. Something to consider before coming to this region of the world.
The village was poor, but not destitute. People had work, were well fed, and the temple was well supplied. Everyone has a television, electricity and a satellite dish with Thai TV channels.
Typical Lao-Loum (lowland Lao) houses are built on stilts to protect against river flooding and also create an outdoor zone for living and storage. These houses are built from mahogany with some interesting architectural flourishes.
The second day we stopped at Khon and Det islands, backpacker havens and the last navigable part of the Mekong before the Cambodian border. We looked for, but did not see, any rare Irrawaddy Dolphins in the waters. Maybe next time.