The visa office at the Laos border town of Huay Xai is a small building up a steep slope from the Mekong river. It was milling with a crowd of people at 10 in the morning, mostly young backpackers. After more than an hour, your passport, stamped with a visa, is delivered.

This is the heart of the golden triangle, once the main source of opium and heroin to the world. Burma is just a few miles west and the Chinese border is close by. Opium wars between drug lords based in Burma, Laos and Thailand were frequent in the 1960s and ’70s. A major fight for the drug trade happened in 1967, when three different drug lords fought it out over several tons of opium headed for the heroin refinery in Huay Xai. Since then much of the trade has shifted to Afghanistan but people may still occasionally see the body of a victim of the gang war floating down the river.

Now it has become an exotic tourist location. Tour agencies in Thailand offer day-long trips to ‘the golden triangle’. Many tourists in Huay Xia cross the Mekong from Thailand, hoping to enter the once forbidden country, either for an onward journey by road or more likely to sail down the Mekong.

Speed boats

There are two modes of transport. The riskier one is on speed boats, small canoe like craft sitting six people, protected by helmets and life jackets, which whiz by to the town of Luang Prabang in Laos in just a day. Here the river flows past huge rocks submerged in the water, both visible and below the surface, through sparsely populated hills. Barges and passenger boats are strewn along the river banks.

Later, the Mekong courses through broad fertile valleys, the thickly populated rice bowl of Indochina. But here it still has a pristine quality, made menacing by the outcrops of sharp rock waiting to snap a careless boat into many pieces. The river can be half a km wide or narrow down at some points to 50 metres. The heavily forested hills, with rare villages and only occasional patches of cultivated banana trees, make the area wild and inaccessible.

The journey on comfortable slow boats takes two days, with a break for the night at the tourist stop of Pak Beng. The boats that can seat 80 to 120 people are run by a family which lives at the rear. The pilot has grown on the river, knowledge of its rocks and eddies passing on from father to son over thousands of journeys. It requires more skill and closer knowledge than for a pilot on the Hooghly or the Irrawady to know their sandbanks, since disaster can lurk at every wrong turn.

On the way, a French lady, not conventionally pretty, takes out a large red kite and lets the breeze in the wake of the moving boat waft it above the river like some mythical bird that brings good luck. For a brief while we are captivated by the magical world it evokes as it floats above the water, rising or falling as the air currents take it.

The hamlet of Pak Beng is little more than an overnight stop for the boats that ply between Huay Xia and Luang Prabang. There are several guest houses and restaurants in the slopes above the river. The modest rooms are around $10 to $15 a night, are air-conditioned and have a clean bathroom. The Lao food varies.

I walked into a crowded restaurant that looked promising. A young English customer strongly recommended a “buffalo bamboo”. It was a disappointing repast.

We arrive the next evening at Luang Prabang, a charming town with a strong French architectural influence. The guesthouses there are clean and comfortable, but at $20 or more a night a bit pricey. Most of them line the road that runs above the Mekong, parallel to the great river. I walk into a riverside café for breakfast. It is served by a young boy wearing lipstick and makeup. Another Lao mystery to unravel?

Laos is a traumatised society as during the Vietnam war it suffered the heaviest saturation bombing in history, when 2.3 million tons of bombs, 40 per cent of them anti-personnel cluster bombs were dropped on the eastern part of the country bordering Vietnam. This was more than in all of World War II. In the nine years of bombing whole rural societies were wiped off the map, and the tens of thousands of unexploded bombs still claim victims, many of them children. For many decades since then, the country’s communist government closed it to all foreigners, until recently.

Navigation impossible

The Mekong is for the most part not navigable, as the Mekong Exploration Commission of the French discovered in 1886 as it struggled up the river for two years. After floundering for months through malarial jungles and the daunting barrier of the Khon Falls on the border of Laos and Cambodia, where “heaven meets hades round every bend of the river” they were finally stopped by the Tang ho rapids, 150 km of “boiling rapids and spuming cataracts” just before the river enters the gorges of China. Like the British exploration of the Nile in Africa, the French mapping of the Mekong was the first step for it to colonise the countries of Indochina — Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Mekong delta as the river empties out into the South China Sea, just south of Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it is now called, is a world away. Not quite as large or forbidding as the Sundarbans, the delta of the Brahmaputra and the Ganga in Bangladesh, its islands are big and provide ample rice and fish, the staple diet here to the families which live there.

Traffic on the arms of the Mekong, before it empties into the South China Sea is crowded with barges and boats. The Mekong delta is so fertile that it provides much of the food to Cambodia and southern Vietnam.

The Mekong is the soul of Indochina, witness to the brutal wars that swept its people, its waters providing rich crops of rice and fish. Yet the river not so much unites the region as it provides a ready border and is home to cultures that have much in common.

HOW TO GET THERE

Many airlines fly you to Bangkok from India. You get a visa on arrival at the airport for 1,000 Thai baht (30 baht make about Rs.53).

From Bangkok you can go by air to Chiang Mai or take a comfortable overnight train with air-conditioned sleeper cars.

At Chiang Mai, tour operators at your hotel will book you on the two-day boat trip from Huay Xie to Luang Prabang.

The cost of 1,900 bahts (around 65 US dollars) includes an air-conditioned coach to Chiang Khong on the Thai side of the Mekong (which takes eight hours), stay and food at a cheap hotel there, transport by boat across the river to Huay Xie, and the cost of the two-day boat ride to Luang Prabang. It does not include the cost of the Laos visa which you get at the border, and it costs $40 for Indians, or for hotel stay in Pak Bang.

Keywords: LaosOpium warsMekong