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Mother Mekong’s moods

By Melody Kemp - posted Friday, 29 August 2008

Two years ago, a Lao friend showed me some grainy black and white shots of Vientiane during the 1966 flood. The famous Morning Market, which opens late morning (as opposed to the Evening Market which opens at sparrows fart), is shown surrounded by water, like a Norman fortress with moat. The king’s brother in a natty tweed suit, peers at the camera through his stylish tortoiseshell glasses. He is sitting in a boat surveying the damage. Later he will die in a Pathet Lao reeducation camp, starved and suffering malaria.

There are ants all over my desk. A sure sign that something is up. That something is the Mekong. In the wet season, it usually sits comfortably three meters below the levée built after the floods of 2000. When you live near the Mekong, you have to watch her moods.

The rising river, only 20m from my front door, was soon close to the top of the dyke, swirling with natural debris, plastic bottles and children's shoes. There was a constant rumble of motor bikes as Lao gawpers came to stare, mesmerised.


People lined the dirt road along the river sheltering under frilly umbrellas and pink motor cycle helmets watching and waiting. Some I think, expected a tidal wave as rumours of a release from an upstream Chinese dam flew about the city. Chinese are increasingly disliked in Laos since they started colonising the country by stealth. Nine provinces in Laos, including Vientiane are now only half jokingly referred to as the Southern Chinese cantons.

In the town centre, teams of laughing and drinking men and women filled sand bags, building the Great Wall of Vientiane. The air was festive more than serious, as blokes swilled the local hootch from old Johnny Walker bottles. Every time a katoey (transvestite) volunteered her services, good natured cheers and hilarity erupted. The men pull poses for us as we take photos.

Laos deal with most situations by opening a bottle. Each morning we would get up and patrol the bank to see how far the water had risen overnight and if any of the many beer shacks had been carried away. Each morning we found piles of empty beer bottles where the neighbourhood Laos had sat and got quietly drunk as the river rose under their bums.

The airport road was cut, though the airport itself was OK. In the absence of English speaking news media, many tourists did not get up early enough to take the wide detour and missed their planes. We found a few desultorily sipping Beer Lao and watching the action, wondering what to do as roads out of town were also flooded. The phones had been out for four days, and electricity supplies erratic.

We walked past people living in plastic covered lean-tos, whose houses and livelihoods had been lost in the flood. Most were ethnic minority people from Laos highlands.

Our night guards reported chest high water south of the city. The wats (temples) south of us are all inundated, women taking canoes over what were neat paths to get to the simh for prayers. Young monks with their saffron robed tied up like sumo wrestlers bucketted water from the abbot’s house. An old man chuckled as he passed us muttering hok sip hok (’66) and waving his arms to emulate when the water came rushing over the banks.


Rafts of vegetation the size of the Fifth Fleet were carried by. In between, I saw the odd banana or forest tree standing strangely erect, a bizarre sight with leaves flapping wildly in the wind.

It was terrifying and wonderful all at once.

The flood that hit Vientiane ten days ago we were told was potentially much worse than that of 1966. It was, the Mekong River Commission posited, the worst in over 100 years.

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About the Author

Melody Kemp is a freelance writer in Asia who worked in labour and development for many years and is a member of the Society for Environmental Journalism (US). She now lives in South-East Asia. You can contact Melody by email at

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