Friday, January 9, 2015

Farewell to the Four Thousand Islands

                                                                       by Jim Goodman

typical scenery in Siphandon
       In southern Laos, just above the Cambodian border, the Mekong River suddenly splits into separate streams that swirl around an archipelago the Lao call Siphandon—Four Thousand Islands.  Then it tumbles over the Khone Falls, a broad, massive cataract on the eastern branch and a series of falls over rocky terrain on the western side.  In recent times this has become a popular tourist excursion, a unique scenic area, famed as one of the most tranquil, laid-back places in the country and one of the last homes of the Irrawaddy dolphin.
       Siphandon’s residents are farmers and fishers, living the same way their ancestors did ever since it was first inhabited.  Nothing much ever happened there throughout most of its history, other than seasonal phenomena and religious and life-cycle ceremonies.  For a while though, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Siphandon area attracted intrepid explorers and adventurers seeking to breach the navigation barrier of the Khone Falls and make the Mekong the River Road to China.
river scene near Don Khon
       After an unsuccessful assault on Danang in 1957 and withdrawal to the south, French military forces finally seized Saigon in 1861 and pressured the Vietnamese government the following year to cede the city and its surrounding Mekong Delta provinces.  The next year they compelled Cambodia to become a French protectorate.  But back in Paris the government wasn’t sure keeping Cochinchina, as the southern third of Vietnam was called, was such a good idea.  Saigon was far from being the great commercial port it would become later and the rural area was still sparsely populated.  How could such a colony prosper enough to be worth the costs of maintaining control of it?
       Opposing this view was that propagated by the most enthusiastic imperialists, who argued that the Mekong River was the route to the riches of China.  They didn’t really know much about the river, other than it originated somewhere up on the Tibetan Plateau, or the nature of its course down through Yunnan in southwest China to eventually reach the South China Sea.  So they advocated exploration up the river to verify their claim and thus provide justification for keeping the new colony.
on the edge of the Four Thousand Islands
       In 1866 the French government authorized the Mekong Expedition to explore as far up the river as they could go.  Under the command of Doudart de Lagrée, consisting of six French explorers, including Francis Garnier, one of the most vociferous proponents of the expedition, three interpreters and about a dozen soldiers and militiamen, the group departed Saigon in two steam-powered gunboats on 5 June 1866.
       It was easy enough getting to Phnom Penh, taking an excursion up the Tonle Sap River to see the ruins at Angkor Wat and returning to Phnom Penh.  But when they proceeded upriver to Kratie they had to change to canoes and get past the Sambor Rapids, the first great obstacle to free navigation on the river.  Then, crossing into Laos they encountered the Khone Falls.  Here the cataracts spanned a width of eleven kilometers, with jagged boulders separating falls that were often twenty meters high.  It was an awe-inspiring view, but totally depressing as well, for the falls appeared insurmountable, demolishing the River Road to China dream.
Khone Phapeng Falls
       After hiking around the falls the Expedition team rested in Champassak and continued upriver to Yunnan, mostly on foot, its purpose now simply exploration.  Lagrée died in China and Garnier, subsequently convinced the Red River would be the River Road to China, lost his life during an abortive assault on Hanoi in 1873.  A decade later though, the French successfully seized Hanoi, then Huế, and forced Emperor Tự Đức to confirm Cochinchina as a French colony and the rest of the country as a French protectorate.  They also moved into Laos around the same time, competing with the British, who would soon grab Upper Burma. 
       If it wasn’t going to be the River Road to China, the French still fancied the Mekong as the link between upper and lower Indochina and, perhaps the River Road to the Riches of Laos, like timber, for example.  In the mid-80s they started blasting rocks in the Sambor Rapids and by 1887 steamboats could reach the Khone Falls.  New attempts to find a way through the falls failed and French officials slowly began to consider trans-shipment from below the falls to a point above them.
the retired French locomotive
       In 1893 the French decided, in line with their ‘gunboat diplomacy’ at the time with Siam, contesting sovereignty over Laos, to put gunboats on the Mekong above the Khone Falls.  This also involved finding a way past the falls.  They began laying tracks from Don Khon’s southeast corner to the northern end of the island, a distance of five kilometers.  But when the boat coming up from Cambodia was disassembled for trans-shipment in 1894 there were only enough rails for three kilometers.  Laborers hauled the cargo over the track for the three kilometers while others removed the rails from the section just traveled, relayed them to the front and laid them down on the rest of the track until its terminus.  Finally they reassembled the components and the French had their gunboat on the Mekong.
the bridge linking Don Khon with Don Det
       This feat did not stop everyone from thinking this was not the only way to get past Khone Falls.  In 1902 Peter Hauff, a Norwegian adventurer who moved to Saigon as a young man, managed to steer a 16-meter boat up and over the Khone Falls.  This was an astounding achievement, but didn’t lead to any reassessment of the possibilities for regular commercial traffic through the falls.  Hauff shortly afterwards organized the dispatch of 1200 logs in rafts from Luang Phabang all the way to Saigon.  Amazingly enough, despite the obstacles along the route, the rafts made it.  But this, too, turned out to be a one-off accomplishment.  No one followed him up.
trees on the trail beside Somphanit Falls
cataract of the Somphanit Falls
        The French eventually filled the rest of the Don Khon track with rails, brought in a locomotive in 1897, which could haul up to twelve cargo-laden cars over the tracks, and in 1920 built a bridge to Don Det and extended the line to the north end of that island.  But the train never saw a lot of service, though it remained in operation until 1940.  It sometimes transported river travelers coming up from Saigon and going to Luang Phabang.  But that journey took 35 days and required eight changes of vessels, longer than it took to go from Saigon to Marseilles.  The French eventually abandoned their commercial ambitions for the country.  Laos wasn’t the Land of Riches after all.  It was the Land of Lotus-Eaters.  When they finally departed the only evidence left of their presence in the Four Thousand Islands was the abandoned railway line. 
twilight at Siphandon
       Years later, when Laos opened the country to tourists in the 1990s, the Four Thousand Islands began attracting a new kind of explorer—tourists.  Highway 13 linked Pakse with Ban Khenat village, in the heart of Siphandon, from where travelers boarded small boats up to Don Khong or down to Don Det.  A luxury hotel went up on Don Khong, the large island at the north side of Siphandon, from where tourists could take a boat ride south through the islands down to the falls.  The great majority of visitors, however, were budget-minded backpackers, heading for the cheap guesthouses on Don Det and Don Khon.  In the early 2000s you could get a room for a dollar a night and share a bathroom/shower or, for just two dollars, a room with its own shower. 
beginning of the Somphanit Falls
       Rooms were furnished with a bed, table and chair, mosquito net and oil lamp, for there was no electricity anywhere except one up-market hotel on Don Khon that had its own generator.  Guests there had hot water, lights and refrigerator.  Backpackers didn’t think they needed such amenities.  They didn’t stay up late anyway, for early morning was the best hiking time.  Fishing boats were out early, buffaloes wading offshore, birds fluttering in the trees.  Walking along the shores of Don Det and Don Khon gave you great views of the little islets speckling the river surface, especially in the dry season.  More of them were visible then, some just little clumps of grassy earth a few meters wide, others long and narrow and some big enough for a small hamlet.
       The bridge connecting the two islands was still in place and you could follow the old French railway line from one end to the other.  The old locomotive stood in a field on Don Khon, but the railway tracks had all been removed, used as fences by the villagers or to span narrow creeks.  From the bridge a trail ran along the west side of Don Khon, following a rocky branch of the river and the several cataracts of the Somphanit Falls.  The trail stayed high on the bank with a clear view to appreciate the power of the river as it roared over the boulders.   
Somphanit Falls has several cataracts.
       To see the Khone Phapeng Falls on the eastern side of Siphandon is a different experience.  You have to take a boat to a viewing stand below the falls.  There’s no way to walk along the route of the falls, which span a wider section of the river than the ones on the western side of Don Khon.  The sound of the Khone Phapeng Falls is much greater, almost deafening, and standing on the viewing stand you can try to imagine just which route Peter Hauff used to take his boat up and over the falls and how he managed to convey his orders to his crew.
       Besides the river scenery, Siphandon’s other main attraction is the presence of the Irrawaddy dolphin in the pool of water along the border with Cambodia.  Less than ninety dolphins swim in this part of the river.  To see them you boarded a boat at the former loading dock at the south end of Don Khon, got a temporary visit permit from the Cambodian border police and then spent an hour or so afloat scanning the waters around you for glimpses of the dolphins as they broke the surface of the water for an intake of air.  The dolphins did this rather quickly and mostly all you saw was the back and fin creasing the surface and then submerging, and that you caught mainly from the corner of your eye.  Occasionally you could see the entire body and in any case the only hours you could be confident of spotting them were just after sunrise and just before sunset. 
Don Det early morning
              Unfortunately, it’s going to get even harder to see any dolphins at all soon.  Already an endangered species, when construction begins this year on the Don Sahong Dam the dolphins seemed doomed to extinction.  The dam will straddle the Hou Sahong channel between Don Sahong and Don Sadam, right above the dolphins’ habitat.  This is the principal upriver migration route for the dolphins and other river species of fish, such as carp and catfish, including the pladuck, a rare type of catfish that can reach three meters in length and weigh up to nearly three hundred kilograms.
       Supporters of the project, mainly Lao government officials and spokesmen for the Malaysian engineering company contracted to build it, say that the removal of traps from other channels will induce the fish to use these instead.  Opponents argue that has not worked in other cases where dams blocked traditional fish migration routes.  The project will also divert a large portion of the river that runs over the nearby Khon Phapeng Falls, considerably reducing its majesty, and permanently submerge parts of the archipelago, obliterating the unique scenery of the entire southeast quarter of Siphandon. 
Siphandon sunset
       Dam advocates say the country is poor and has few exploitable resources besides waterpower.  The completed dam will generate 260 mw of electricity, which will be sold to Thailand and Cambodia.  Opponents counter the benefits are not worth the environmental damage.  It will destroy the nature of what the Mekong Secretariat in 1994 described as “an ecologically unique area that is essentially a microcosm of the entire Lower Mekong River…Such a site is so rare in nature that every effort should be made to preserve all of Siphandon.”
       Twenty years later that recommendation has been ignored.  Removal of traps from other channels and evacuation of people from the construction vicinity began this month.  At least the people will have someplace to go and start life afresh.  As for the fish, particularly the dolphins, they will have to endure the blasting of rocks in and below the Hou Sahong channel, intense industrial activity, changes in the water flow, constant disturbance, disorientation and stress. 
       How the dam project will affect the rest of Siphandon is difficult to predict.  Certainly fewer tourists will come, as there will be less to enjoy.  The dolphins face a gloomy future, though.  Like the evacuated farmers and fishers they’ll have to bid farewell to the Four Thousand Islands.  But they are not likely to find a new place to live.  They won’t have the option that humans have.  They’ll just become extinct, like the pterodactyl, the ichthyosaur, the saber-toothed tiger and, apparently, the human duty to preserve the natural beauty of the earth.
"a site so rare in nature"

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