Through the Xayaboury dam: Luang Prabang to Pak Lai

Jurgen

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Excerpt: After a first Gt-Rider “bikes on boat” cruise (“Houai Xai to Luang Prabang”, see trip report: A popular Mekong cruise: Houai Xai to Luang Prabang), David Unkovich organized a follow up journey further down the Big River. I sailed this stretch twice, in a time span of three month (in February and May), so that the story’s illustrations are intermingled, showing variations in the meteorological conditions.



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Pak Lai arrival; David, the trip organizer with the youngest crew member (captain’s son) – a stopover during an awesome cruise on a spectacular river.



The complete ‘fluvial’ trip report is divided into three parts; on some river stretches, however, we sailed twice, in order to join the former arrival point. The three chapters, divided into regions, are the followings:

1. A popular Mekong cruise: Houei Xai to Luang Prabang (23.02.2013 and 22.02.2014)
A popular Mekong cruise: Houai Xai to Luang Prabang
2. Through the Xayaboury dam: Luang Prabang to Pak Lai (25.02.2014 and 23.05.2014) (this text)
3. The empty Mekong: Pak Lai to Vientiane (24.05.2014) (to be published next)



Luang Prabang, stopover and departure.


“I cannot determine the meaning
Of sorrow that fills my breast:
A fable of old, through it streaming,
Allows my mind no rest.
The air is cool in the gloaming
And gently flows the Rhine.
The crest of the mountain is gleaming
In fading rays of sunshine.”

The Lorelei, poem by Heinrich Heine [1]


Heine, the great German poet and traveler, passed away a couple of years before Europeans started to explore the Mekong; otherwise, he might have been enchanted to hear about the pristine Middle Mekong scenery, particularly the Luang Prabang to Pak Lai stretch, adorned with countless “Lorelei” rocks and boulders. This sector is also filled with history, some mystery and, in recent times, controversy.


After sailing from Houay Xay to Luang Prabang, the GT-Rider crew enjoyed a relaxing two days stopover in the Royal City. Every day, early birds are rewarded with the colorful sight of the monks’ alms round (“tak bat”); controversial when it is pushed to commercial absurdity, but serene and genuine at remote spots, where locals sincerely perpetuate a timeless tradition.


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Luang Prabang monk’s morning alms round (tak bat)

Ban Phanom (Phanom village), a neighboring Tai Lue dwelling, along the Nam Khan’s river shore, provides an interesting excursion on Luang Prabang’s outskirts. It is the place where Henri Mouhot, a French naturalist and explorer, the first European to visit this region, passed away. His shrine located in a pristine jungle environment makes an enticing visit before a river cruise. On his journey from Bangkok, the adventurer followed the “Big River”, from Pak Lai to Luang Prabang, putting the Mekong on a map (see a comprehensive trip report on GT-Rider: Revisiting Henri Mouhot’s shrine, near Luang Prabang)


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Two GT-Rider friends visiting Henri Mouhot’s shrine

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Henri Mouhot’s cenotaph (see the comprehensive GT-Rider former trip report)


After Luang Prabang, our sailing destination was a full day downriver, and the boat had to leave in the early morning hours. The cruise started at six thirty, just when the dawn begins to illuminate mount Phousy and its iconic temple. The Royal capital is located near to the middle of the 4’300 kilometers long Mekong River; our first journey, down from Houay Xai, was a 300 kilometers trip, the cruise to Pak Lay would be of 210 kilometers, along a more difficult and less traveled stretch.


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Early morning, boats mooring at Luang Prabang’s pier

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Morning departure from Luang Prabang’s pier

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The pale morning sun illuminating the river.

The first sector, after leaving Luang Prabang is broad and calm, it feels like cruising on a lake, in a circus of dark mountains.


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After Luang Prabang, a calm and broad Mekong

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The Mekong after Luang Prabang, flat like a mirror

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Last glance upriver toward Luang Prabang

In front of Pak Long, a right rim hamlet, fishermen cast their nets while pirogues crisscross the river to transport goods and people

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Early morning small boat trafic


Bikes and folks are well catered for inside the boat, and the youngest one is already craving for some foreigner’s food.

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The bikes are well stove inside the boat

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The youngest crew member (captain’s son) is hungry again


After a first part on a mirror flat surface, the water begins to be jerky and punctuated with rapids.

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Soon, the first rapids rattled on the boat’s stern

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Rapids after Luang Prabang

To make the sailing more hazardous, fog slowly curtained the waterway.

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Fog building up

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Ghost boats in the fog

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Fog in front of the boat's stern


As the visibility had degraded, the captain moored the boat on the river’s right rim, which, along this stretch, is also Lao territory. As the stopover seemed to last for a while, the bikers' congregation decided to walk up to Ban Khokmanh, the neighboring village.

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Mooring the boat along the right rim

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Walking along the right rim

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Logs waiting to be shipped away


Seeing a flock of “Farangs” blocked by haze and visiting their dwelling was an amazement for the locals; the kids, in their classroom, were cheering us with excitement and laughter.

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Visit to Ban Khokmanh

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Ban Khokmanh people

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Ban Khokmanh visit to a school

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Glance into the classroom

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Glance into the classroom


After about one hour diversion, it was time to board the barge again and to continue our journey.

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Ban Khokmanh dwellers climbing to their homes


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Back to our boat


Our “fog break” was only about thirty kilometers down river from our starting point, approximately opposite Kouangxi (Kuang Si) waterfalls, a famous Luang Prabang’s attraction; usually people visit that place by following a small road along the Mekong’s left rim.


The next river stretch begins to be turbulent; it is also intimately linked to the French colonial history. Henri Mouhot (between 1858 and 1861) mapped this sector for the first time; his description enticed and helped the following « Exploration Commission (travelling from 1866 to 1868)». On the same waters, August Pavie’s tumultuous downriver escape was even more cruxial; taking Luang Prabang’s King Oun Kham on his barge, he saved the sovereign's life as his city was sacked by Tai and Chinese Haws (in 1887). Jerked, but save, they reached Pak Lai, and France definitively won the heart of the aging ruler, securing the metropole’s position as a protective nation.


This downriver flight, however, was no recreational cruise; in his book, Pavie described dramatic scenes as the fugitives where wrecked by the rapids:
“… Some women, really girls, having escaped the sinking of their pirogue, were pacing in every direction what little surface the rising water had yet to cover. Looking for a way off or some means of escape, they were becoming frantic … I can still see them, three of four pale forms dashing over the black rock in the last rays of the setting sun, their clothes brilliant with color. I hear, and will always hear, their heartbreaking shouts to the men and to the gods …”[2]


Three years later, August Pavie sailed down the same length again with his companion Pierre Lefèvre-Pontalis and, anew, closely faced another tragedy (author's free translation from French [3]):
“It was in July 1890, the mission was descending the Mekong from Luang Prabang toward Cambodia … The Keng Louang, at one day from Luang Prabang is the most treacherous place of this part of the Mekong. The Lagrée mission had taken note of his depth of more than sixty meters, during the low water season. Huge boulders clutter the way and when one escapes from their labyrinth, the river reaches a with of thousand meters.
… My companion was busy writing his travel log while I was near to him, relating the catastrophe that, in June 1887, I experienced together with the Laos king… I had just finished my account when we were grasped by strong swirls … suddenly the barge tilts, ink, feather and paper fall into the waves and water dully fills the raft's pirogues… “

This dramatic account goes on for a while; finally, half drawn and after a 800 meters long agitated drift, Pavie and his companions were stranded and helped by riparians at a distance of six kilometers after the rapids.


As our boat sailed through this same itinerary, we were confident in her ability to keep a safe heading, to withstand the whirlpools and to avert treacherous rocks; we were, of course, totally relying on our skipper’s ability to avoid a catastrophe, quite frequent in the past along this murderous river stretch.

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Mekong rapids

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Turbulent and rocky waters

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A skilled fishermen maneuvering in shaky waters


Explorers like Henri Mouhot, Dr. Neis, Warington Smyth and some Mekong Commission members, portrayed the powerful river along this path; a hundred years later, their descriptions are still thrilling and relevant. More recently, Miton Osborne, in his book “Mekong” [4] wrote:

“Travelling north it is easy to sense the frustration that generations of Frenchmen felt as the Mekong alternates between wide, deep reaches of water before suddenly narrowing to become a mass of white water rushing through rock-strewn rapids. At intervals, the markers that were installed to aid navigation still poke above the water, with splotches of faded green and red paint showing where a boat may or may not pass”.

About six hundred French river markers still punctuate the Middle Mekong waterscape. They help the boatmen, even so, if submerged, at high water levels, they are also hazards.

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A French river marker

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About 600 French river markers remain in place

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The old river markers can be hasards a high water levels


Nowadays, the navigation along this river area is sparse; there is no scheduled touristic traffic, the large commercial shipping projects have been frozen and only small local barges and fishermen pirogues are still sailing in these waters.

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A passenger pirogue

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Folks and animals sharing the same pirogue

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A Mekong barge

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The Mekong on a wide and calm course


Our cruise progressed regularly and the passengers were relaxed, confident in the boatman's skills and in the ship’s reliability.

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Our attentive captain

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The youngest crew member, gone for a nap

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Well towed bikes

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Well towed with plenty of space for our small party



The “La Grandière catastrophe”


When watching outside the windows, it was obvious that we were sailing on a bumpy road; some narrow paths, dark jutting boulders, menacing cutting rocks, powerful whirlpools, we had actually reached the deadly “Keng Thong Soum” rapids, a “twisted fast channel”.

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Twisting river

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Rocks and rapids

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A drift toward menacing rocks

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Powerful turbulences

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Passing rocks and a river marker


In 1893, the French had trailed two gunboats over the impassable Khone waterfalls, by means of a bridging railway [5]; a third unit joined the others in 1894, in it was named “La Grandière”, in honor of admiral Pierre-Paul de La Grandière (1807-1876), one of the first governors of French Cochinchina. For the riparian populations, these were powerful, smoking metal monsters, imposing order and respect. During many years, the La Grandière brought a meaningful contribution to the Mekong’s navigation evaluation and, as its military duty came to an end, she continued her service as a commercial boat. On July 15th 1910 she came to a tragic end and sank in profound abysses, juste here, in the Thong Soum rapids (Keng Thong Soum).

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The Massie and the La Grandière gunboats (French National Library picture)

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A wide stretch, still doted with rapids


I learned about this mysterious tragedy in various publications, but the account who intrigued me most was written by Phagna Hiranya Phithack Houmphanh Saignasith, a former Lao minister of the Royal Government [6]. He claims that the boat was loaded with antic Lao treasures, particularly valuable and powerful Buddha images, taken from Luang Prabang’s temples. A tragic end, with such a cargaison, could only reinforce the lingering myth of spirits protecting Lao national treasures.

Another catastrophe occurred in 1931, this time drowning twelve members of the Royal Family (see my former trip report: A popular Mekong cruise: Houai Xai to Luang Prabang)

The sinister series did not stop there. In 1968, a Lao Prince and the British military attaché attempted to localize the La Grandière’s wreckage and its valuable freight. Their flight back, from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, crashed in the Mekong, near to the boat’s sinking site, killing all passengers.

Trapped deep in a Mekong fault, covered with sand layers, protected by swirling waters and, possibly, powerful spirits, the La Grandière might bury its secrets for some more time, even so, members of the Lao Royal House might own a list of the sunken treasury’s items.


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Cruising on top of the La Grandère graveyard

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Lethal rapids

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A dangerous Mekong stretch


As I was preparing my write-up, I got meaningful information from M. Jean-Michel Strobino (already known to GT-rider readers from another report [7]). He had just published his findings about another French monument: the “La Grandière commemorative stupa”.


After scouting the Mekong’s left rim, up river from Thea Deua, and climbing through a tree bush, he stumbled on what was left from this monument. Time, meteorology and tomb looters had taken their toll on the shrine, leaving mostly holes and crumbled stones.

Later on, serendipity had him discover another memorial, this time for a French soldier, accidentally drown in the Big River (a link to Mr. Strobino’s publication is available in my notes [8])

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M. Strobino’s boat, his daughter Vanina and his two guides, on a left rim sandbank, just under the hill with the La Grandière stupa; opposite to the rapids fatal to the boat and to its crew.

The La Grandière stupa was erected on a hill, near to the Mekong rim, opposite to the rocks fatal to the tragic boat. It honors the memory of the ship’s crew and, particularly, of important colonial personalities, General Beylié and Dr Major Rouffiandis, who were granted official funerals in France

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The La Grandière stupa with Ms Vannina Strobino in front of the remaining stones showing the monument's scale

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Partial view of the stupa remains

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Ms Vannina Strobino, at the stupa’s site and, behind her, the view on the river’s right rim


A link to download Mr. Strobino’s illustrated write-up (in French), is given in the notes[8]; later on a comprehensive research report will be published.

Slightly downriver from the sinking boat’s site, a new landmark in now spanning the Mekong.

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There are still whirling waters before the new Tha Deua bridge

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The new Tha Deua - Pak Khone bridge at the horizon

The Pak Khone - Thea Deua bridge is an essential link along Laos national highway #4, it replaces the intermittent ferry-boat operation with a permanent connection between Luang Prabang and Xayaboury [9]. Financed with a South Korean loan, it was opened to the traffic on October 12th, 2013.
(see also GT-Rider trip report : A Mekong Promenade - Part 5: Xayaboury, Laos west of the Mekong)

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Approaching the Pak Khone - Thea Deua bridge

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The Pak Khone - Thea Deua bridge spanning the horizon

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The Pak Khone - Tha Deua bridge

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The former ferry pier

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Kids in Tha Deua (picture from a former land trip)

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Under the new span

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Sailing away from the bridge

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The bridge already behind us


After the Tha Deua bridge, the Mekong still flows on a dangerous course. The Keng Si Nhok (Si Nhok rapids), situated ten kilometers downstream are punctuated by islands and prominent rocks, reducing the boats’ maneuverability.
« Most of the pilots consulted ranked Keng Si Nhok as the rapid of most concern (in terms of risk and danger) between Luang Prabang and Vientiane.”(10)


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The Mekong still on a dangerous course

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A rocky waterway

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Ubiquitous logs stuck on rocks by the low water level

From the boat’s deck, the rapids seem less thrilling, the whirlpools’ rattling and shaking, however, are impressive, while the regular boat’s motor roaring provides a sense of safety. Comfortably installed on the barge’s stern, it was an appropriate place to hum a Pogue’s refrain [11]:
“River, river have mercy
Take me down to the sea
For if I perish on these rocks
My love no more I'll see”


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Rocks and rapids

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Rattling rapids

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Logs trapped on boulders

Some kilometers further down, near Ban Pakneun, one more majestic rapid, the Keng Luang (Most Important Rapid), awaits the boatmen with a series of navigation hazards, submerged rocks and strong currents.

Braving the jagged boulders and the swirling waters, riparian are busy to catch their meal out of the strong flow. The Mekong river is a generous source of proteins and the largest inland fishery in the World [12]. A vast majority of the population rely directly on its largess for their livelihood.

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Climbing jagged rocks for a fishing position

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The Mekong is the World’s largest inland fishery

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Patiently waiting for a catch

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Small motorized fishermen’s boats

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A short respite, a broad Mekong path, calm as a lake




The river taming dilemma



This region is also the construction site of the controversial Xayaboury dam [13].

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The last bend before the Xayaboury dam

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Approaching the Xayaboury dam

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A rock barrier and a hillside village catering for the Xayaboury dam

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A new hillside village, near the Xayaboury dam

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Sailing through the Keng Luang, the turbulent waters before the Xayaboury dam

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Xayaboury dam cranes punctuating the horizon

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Xayaboury dam construction site

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Xayaboury dam construction site

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Xayaboury dam construction site

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Flattening the hills to encroach the Xayaboury dam

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Xayaboury dam cranes and concrete walls

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Xayaboury dam cranes and concrete walls


“Running for more than 2,600 miles, the Mekong River produces fish when it flows free and clean electricity when it’s dammed. Therein lies Southeast Asia’s dilemma”.
(From: “Harnessing the Mekong or Killing It?” National Geographic Magazine, June 2015)


The epithet “controversial” is frequently associated to the Xayaboury dam. This is not only due to ecologic resentment against heavy human environmental intervention, it also has a political basis.

“In 2010 an environmental assessment sponsored by the MRC called for a ten-year moratorium on construction of mainstream dams, citing their potentially devastating effects on regional food supplies and the likelihood of “irreversible environmental damage.” But Laos, a poor and long isolated country that is now courting foreign investment, aims to become the “battery of Southeast Asia” by selling hydroelectricity to Thailand and other neighbors—and it was not deterred by opposition from the MRC or even from Vietnam, its traditional ally. In late 2012, after years of denials, Laotian officials admitted that construction of the Thai financed Xayaburi dam, on a remote stretch of the Mekong in northern Laos, was under way ».
(From: “Harnessing the Mekong or Killing It?” National Geographic Magazine, June 2015)


As our boat had to manœuvre around the construction site and had to be moored for a while, we got stuck on the rocky rim. Volunteers jumped in the muddy flow to push the barge away ; no harm, just drenched trousers.

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Rocky rim trapping our boat

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Volunteers pushing the barge away

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Job done, walking back to rejoin the floating boat


Sailing again, we slowly drifted away from the dam’s construction site, wondering how long boats would be able to pass this man-made barrier. A lock is due to be constructed, as well as fish ladders; how practical they are in the local environment and with local species has still to be assessed.


According to a recent Lao News Agency report (07/03/2016), the hydropower project is now 60% complete and should be finished in October 2019[15].

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The GT-Rider group passing the Xayaboury dam construction site

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Along the Xayaboury dam construction site

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Slowly sailing away from the Xayaboury dam construction site


The remaining itinerary toward Paklai is laid-back and less eventful; passing a couple of hamlets, crossing impressive karst boulders and rocks crowned with the ubiquitous trapped logs, it is a relaxing cruise, conducive to daydreaming and drowsiness.

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A boat landing and a couple of shacks

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River home

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Hamlet along the river’s rim

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River’s public transportation

A large karst boulder, in a river bend, provides a scenic subject toward a background already tinted by the afternoon hues.

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Picture of the boat’s stern with the spirits’ offerings and an impressive karst boulder

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A scenic karst boulder

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Along a karst mountain wall

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Peaceful riverscape

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Trapped log

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Along the Mekong rim

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Afternoon colors already tinting the landscape

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Relaxed boat’s passengers

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Advertisement for a nap!

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Happy about the comfortable stern position to take pictures; a privilege only granted to private cruise passengers


The French adventurers, from the “Mekong Exploration Commission (1866-68)”, have described their journey along the Big River in attractive accounts. For downstream travelers, however, these narratives have to be read in the reverse direction, like a Japanese book. As we are slowly approaching our destination, we can appreciate a Louis de Carné’s sketch[14]:
“We left Paclaï , on the 19th of April (1867), for the capital of the kingdom of Luang-Prabang, to which that poor village belongs. The hills grow higher, come nearer, and hem-in the river, from which a belt of gray and rugged rocks separates them, and they are covered with fine vegetation. The white trunks of some kind of huge trees stand out from green, like marble pillars. A sharp bend of the river shut it in before us like a lake; and at the back of the picture a high mountain showed its steep outlines through a veil of blue vapors, which seem to shiver in the cold.

My attention was, (moreover), at times drawn off to the difficulties of navigation. This becomes once more dangerous at a short distance from Paclaï. Sharp rocks rise in the waters like needles, and we had to get past them by a method already familiar to us – hauling ourselves on by rattan cable. We entered a gorge where mountains , softly lighted, rose in a second row behind the hills, reproducing their tossed and tumbled shapes as if they had been their magnified shadows”.


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Warm afternoon hues


Our long slender boat, typically used in Laos to ferry passengers, had never failed to provide us with a sense of safety; we also trusted our captain’s skills to guide us through a reputably dangerous part of the river, averting hazardous jutting rocks and dealing with the swirling currents.

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Approaching Pak Lai – our day’s cruise destination

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The joyous GT-rider cruise companions (one more is behind the camera and another one is missing, as he joined later, for the second sailing down this same stretch)


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In front of Pak Lai pier

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Five forty in the afternoon, the boat is moored at its destination, after a thirteen hours cruise.

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The bikes unloading operation – supervised by our “Fearless Leader”

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Strong helping hands – “Versys 77” back to dry land.

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Another Versys efficiently unloaded


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A part of the mounts on solid ground

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Nana Guest House, our uphill dwelling for the night

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Some GT-Rider friends staying at the same place

Good evening Pak Lai; next departure is tomorrow morning, the cruise to Vientiane

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Pak Lai, late afternoon, hillside view.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

Notes:

[1] Die Lorelei – Heinrich Heine
Die Lorelei :Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten
Lorelei - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


[2] A la Conquête des Cœurs
Le Pays des Millions d'Éléphants et du Parasol blanc. Les Pavillons Noirs. — Déo-uan-tri.
ÉDITIONS BOSSARD 43, RUE MADAME, 43 PARIS , 1921
Page 65


[3]Mission Pavie Indo-Chine 1879-1895
Geogreaphie et voyages, volume 5
Voyages dans le Haut Laos et sur les Frontières de Chine et de Birmanie
Par Pierre Lefèvre-Pontalis
Introduction par August Pavie
Ernest Leroux, Editeur Paris, 1902


[4] Mekong
Turbulent past, uncertain future
Milton Osborne
Allen & Unnwin, Australia 2000


[5] An interesting wrtite up about the gun boats and the train is available (in French language) from Mr. J-M Strobino: “Laos, le chemin de fer des canonnières, La Vie du Rail, n°2329, Janvier 1992 » It is available through the following link: JM Strobino


[6]Histoires Vraies et Vécues au Laos
Extraits des Souvenirs et Mémoires de
Phagna Hiranya Phithack, Houmphanh Saignasith
Paris Novembre 1990
eDocument


[7] Mr. Jean-Michel STROBINO is Nice city’s «Historic Heritage Center» Director and a recognized Laos scholar. In 1989, during a mission in Laos and by serendipity, he rediscovered Henri Mouhot’s monument, near Ban Phanom, and was instrumental in its rehabilitation.
See this GT-Rider trip report: S.E Asia Motorcycle Touring Forums | GT-Rider.com


[8] Mr. J.-M. Strobino’s latest publication: “Nouvelles Trouvailles au Fil du Mékong » (.pdf) as well as his other reports can be viewed and downloaded from the following link :
JM Strobino


[9] Xayaboury: I use the GT-Rider map spelling. Lao names transliteration are never straightforward and this is maybe one of the worse example. The French usually used an “x” when English transliteration would be an “s”. Than “u” and “ou” try to render the same sound, as do “i” and “y”. Finally, for simplification purposes, the Lao government banned the letter “r” (which is pronounced “l” ) from their written language. As many signboards still date back to colonial times, every spelling might be found along the roads, on maps or official documents, for instance: Sainyabuli, Sayabouli, Sayabouly, Sayaboury, Sayabouri, Xaignabouli, Xaignabouri, Xayaburi, Xayaboury


[10] Risk assessment of waterways (chapter 5)
Waterways - Mekong River Commission www.mrcmekong.org/.../NAP-Risk-Analysis-Volume-I-Waterways.pdf
edocument


[11] The Pogues, lyrics :
THE POGUES LYRICS - Lorelei


[12] Mekong River Basin


[13] Some comments about the Xayaburi dam:
Media Kit on the Xayaburi Dam
Multiple dams are an ominous threat to life on the Mekong River
Harnessing the Mekong


[14] Travels on the Mekong
Louis de Carné
White Lotus Bangkok 1995


[15] :: KPL :: Lao News Agency
Lao News Agency, 07/03/2016
Xayaboury hydropower project 60% complete
 
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DavidFL

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An extremely informative read Jurgen. You always dig out fabulous bits of history to make the trips so rewarding – makes you want to go back again, before it is all gone on the river with the dam developments.
 

DavidFL

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I loved this report on the river & the dangers of the rocks, reefs & rapids that Jurgen has mentioned.

Now interestingly enough I was in Luang Prabang recently discussing new GTR Mekong boat trips with the boat skipper & the subject of the Xayaboury dam & possibly another cruise through the dam came up.
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No cannot - too dangerous.
1. The lock closing & opening is far too turbulent for small boats!! The water rises or drops 16 metres.
2. The river has backed up & the waters are all calm now, so that you cannot see waters swirling around the rocks & reefs making it very difficult to navigate safely.
The local boats from Luang Prabang don't want to go down there anymore. Only bigger boats with a GPS may go.