Yesterday I woke up early to beat the heat, rented a bike, and set off with the morning commute of uniformed schoolchildren. My goal was Somphamit Falls, 3 kilometers from the village. The claustrophobic village road, where neighbors and guesthouses and simple restaurants of thatch roof and tables hug the narrow dirt road, receded behind me. I pedaled past dead rice fields, simple elevated houses, pigs and chickens, and the occasional wandering cow pack that barely blinked at the honking of a motorbike’s horn. 15 minutes later I reached the ticket booth for the falls.
Relieved of 35,000 kip (roughly $4 US), I walked over a rickety wood bridge, through an empty ticket turnstile, and out to the newly built, half-finished restaurant at the head of the falls. As I approached, I could feel the rumbling, hear the roar, but all I could see was the forest and a few hand-painted signs assuring me I wasn’t lost. My first taste was the rusted water wheel flashing in the golden morning sun as turkeys grazed around the sedate green stream. Just steps away, over a muddy path and the newly poured concrete base of a future viewing platform, the Mekong River starts its angry descent, gnashing through rock and crevice, as multiple tendrils devour the earth across a wide series of small gorges.
From here I could see the river approaching me, a wide, deceivingly calm plateau of water, seeming to pause just a moment before tumbling into the teeth of Somphamit. Turning 180 degrees, I looked down the gorge, a couple kilometers out, where waterfall after waterfall of the Mekong pour into the funnel that recedes into the distance.
Along the kilometer stretch, a path takes in every possible viewpoint and angle. Just when I thought there couldn’t possibly be more, another series of waterfalls revealed themselves. Below on the jagged rocks amid the foaming and gnashing white waters, a man wearing a conical bamboo hat balanced barefooted, hauling fishing nets out of the waters and casting them out, over and over. He appeared to have reached this spot by a series of bamboo ladders that to my unpracticed eye looked terrifying and flimsy.
After I savored the waterfall (mostly to myself), I reclaimed my bike and set off around the island, following the path of the old French railroad. Not much remains to prove there ever was a railroad across Don Khon and Don Det to the mainland, except a flat trail, the bridge connecting the two islands, a rusting locomotive pulled out of the jungle in 1990, and stretches of metal railroad ties that villagers recycled as fences.
The French never really knew what to do with Laos. They came here during the wave of European imperialistic ambitions, hoping to develop a thriving trade along the Mekong River. The French-led Mekong Exploration Commission of 1867-68 set off to map the possibilities of the Mekong, only to discover that major stretches were unnavigable. That didn’t stop the French – and specifically Auguste Pavie, an explorer who nurtured alliances for the French among the Lao nobility by stoking their resentment of Siamese control of the Mekong. (At the time, the kingdoms of Laos – Luang Prabang, Champasak, and Vientiane – were vassal states to Siam, now known as Thailand). The French convinced Luang Prabang to rebel from Siamese control and pay tribute to France instead, a decision helped when Pavie rescued the king of Luang Prabang from attacks by the White Tai in 1887, which Siam did nothing to stop. Throw in some French “gunboat diplomacy” aimed at Bangkok and by 1893, Laos was under French control.
Don Khon is an example of the French desire to justify their imperialistic empire in Laos. With the wide, dangerous waterfalls throughout this section of the Mekong, it was impossible for boats to pass, stifling any development of a trade route. The French built a tiny stretch of rail across the islands here to move goods from below the falls up the river, where they could be reloaded onto the boats above the falls. Alas, the trade route never really flourished and upkeep to the railroad in the tropic conditions was too costly. The center of trade and exports remained in Bangkok. The French gave up and Laos became an almost forgotten imperial acquisition, minimally governed and imposed with heavy taxes to pay for the administration costs. Resentment brewed….but the story of Laos’ revolt from French rule, the Indochina Wars, and the United States’ secret war in Laos that led to Laos being the most bombed country in all of human history….I’ll leave that for another day.