The Great Floating Pig Barn on the Mekong

  To my brother Justin

In February 2016 I left Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and rode a bus five hours over jagged green mountains to where the Mekong forms the Laos-Thailand border.

It was the dry season, and sandbars like reptile skins rose up from the river. I crossed over the Mekong on the new concrete bridge built to open a trucking corridor between China and Thailand, then rode a tuk-tuk a few miles to the Lao border town of Huay Xay, a former French outpost seeming to have long ago lost a battle against tropical sun and entropy. The river ran like smelted lead and tin, sluggish and bluntly gleaming in the sun, stringy and bled out as if not just its volume but its vitality were at low ebb. In fact, the flow of the Mekong through Laos is now controlled by a massive dam system a couple of hundred miles to the north in China, where it descends through the foothills of the Himalaya.

I hefted up my pack and struck out walking north and west along the Mekong. The road was pale concrete that swung around long curves as the landscape lifted and fell, the river flashing coppery in the hazy light. I was heading for a Chinese casino twenty miles upstream, right at the heart of the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Laos, Thailand, and Burma meet, and from there hoped to continue north along the Mekong where it forms the Lao-Burma border. A few sclerotic motorbikes putted past me, and occasional shiny pickups whooshed by in a blur of paint and chrome. Stilt houses of wood and thatch stood in clusters with all their color drained away, dusty flowers wilted in barren yards, waiting with the river for the rainy season to swell and bloom again.

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