Thailand: Along the Mekong

Thailand: Along the Mekong

Swirling clouds of red dust calm and slowly settle. The droning rattle and hum ceases. Four strange figures emerge from the murk with vividly colored bowls on their heads. They step away from unusual contraptions that look like bicycles, only bigger. And the sound they produce is very peculiar. It's almost loud enough to compete with a monsoon downpour. Bringing up the rear, a strange kind of house appears, moving stolidly along on four wheels and packed with bags and all kinds of goods.

To some, it may well seem that extraterrestrial beings have landed in the middle of the jungle village of Don Chai, situated in Bokeo, a province of Laos, just a couple of miles from the Mekong, the 2,700-mile long river that springs to life in China's Tsinghai province. It forms portions of the border between Laos and Myanmar, and Laos and Thailand, and eventually drains into the South China Sea below Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Only 100 kilometers away from Don Chai, in Thailand, the times are pulsating: big towns, traffic tangles, mobile phones, television, crowded beaches and so on  -  all the conveniences. But here in Laos, things are very different. Just two years ago strangers were not allowed to enter. And it's not so very easy to gain en­trance today. Foreigners, or 'farangs' as the locals call us, are very seldom guests in this corner of the jungle. No wonder some of Don Chai's inhabitants might conclude we're a scouting party of alien life forms.