History Is Made

Photography and Text By Michael O'Shea  © All rights reserved.

At the border with Cambodia we were met by our guide and translator Chanta who's no nonsense manner and dry sense of humor soon earned our respect. We decided to send the team ahead in order to film some B roll while I was left alone to make my way down to Stung Treng, a small provincial center in the remote far north of Cambodia.
I continued through the flooded forests of northern Cambodia for the day and was astounded by the prolific bird life. As the Mekong goes into flood, hundreds of square kilometers of forest are inundated by the swift waters, providing an important spawning ground for fish and a naturally protected nesting site for a myriad of bird species. The current moved me along silently under the canopy allowing for close encounters with various species. In one afternoon I spotted 3 species of hornbill, 2 species of crane, woodpeckers, kingfishers, fish eagles and a range of other species some of which I have still not had time to identify. Just to the east of the flooded forests lie the remote and densely forested mountains of Dangkrek and the sprawling Virichay national park where Tigers, Gibbons and other wildlife continue to roam and just down stream the Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins can often be seen hunting fish.
We spent the following night in a small village on one of the many islands that litter the river. People had only recently begun to return to the area after the local population was decimated by the Pol Pot regime in the early eighties. Although extremely poor the locals we met were proud to be honest farmers and cherished the peace that they now experienced living on the island. We chatted with an energetic old man who was the first to return to the island since those terrible times and he told us that he could still remember the last group of paddlers that had passed through his village. A group of Australians in 1969 on a bamboo raft! I asked how many foreigners had stayed in his village since and he said none. He probably has the impression that paddle craft are the normal mode of transport for foreigners in South East Asia!
One concern that all the locals expressed in the village was that for the first time they were forbidden from hunting wildlife for food and were therefore having a hard time replacing that protein in their diet. This problem was made worse by the periodic raids on their crops by wild monkeys, deer, pigs and birds. With fish stocks rapidly declining for a multitude of reasons they were really struggling and some of the children's stomachs were noticeably bloated from malnourishment. During the time we were there the village had already completely run out of rice stocks and were reluctantly hunting wildlife again. They were forced to eat all of the rice seed that they needed for the next planting season so they effectively had to loan new seed for the coming planting season at extortionate interest rates and thus a vicious cycle of debt was in the process of evolving as this is the second year running that their rice growing efforts have produced a deficit.
I was frustrated to see this happening because having personally developed a wide range of sustainable eco-tourism activities in various areas of the Mekong basin I could see that the locals in this area had an excellent yet completely untapped resource, which could go a long way towards overcoming their poverty. With limited funding and effective training their village and surrounds could easily become a must see stop over for adventure travelers passing between Southern Laos and Northern Cambodia. As it happens, several villages in the islands are strategically located along one of the newest and least traveled land routes that has only recently opened to foreign travelers. At present tourists simply shoot past the flooded forests in roaring speed boats un aware of what lies within the dense foliage yet it is viable for locals to conduct paddle and nature tours through this Mekong Gem and thus create revenue that could alleviate poverty for their communities while making the wildlife more valuable left alive rather than dead.
After the Mekong First Descent Production is finished in early 2005 I plan to devote some time toward gaining Cambodian Government and Lao Government support for developing a sustainable eco-tourism project that integrates protection of wildlife with poverty alleviation along this incredible section of the Mekong River. If anyone out there is interested in assisting such a project in some way then please get in touch.
As I paddled through far northern Cambodia I was surprised to find that the majority of locals I bumped into were actually ethnic Laos whose ancestors had lived in the area for centuries. One of the many strange legacies of colonialism in the 18th century is that national borders were usually drawn up more in line with expansionist ambitions and economics rather than along ethnic groupings.
For the next 4 days I made my way down toward Phnom Penh and the unique phenomena of the Tonle Sap Lake, which is considered by many ecologists to be the beating heart of the lower Mekong Valley. The 13000km square lake which is the largest in Southeast Asia drains into the Mekong River yet from mid may to early October (The Wet Season) the level of the Mekong rises faster than the water levels in the Tonle Sap, reversing the flow with the lake suddenly being filled by the Mekong river until the wet season is over. This extraordinary current reversal and flushing process makes the Tonle Sap one of the worlds most productive lakes providing protein and irrigation waters to nearly half of the Cambodia's population.
I cruised across the lake to a floating village called Kampong Louang where we spent two days hanging out with the local fishermen. With a population of over 3000 the village possessed everything a weary paddler could hope to encounter including floating pubs, grocery stores, restaurants and of course karaoke bars. The residents of Kampong Louang were a mixture of Khmere, Vietnamese and Cham who seemed to live quite harmoniously in a water bound community. Each dry season the village would be floated out toward the center of the lake to be closer to where the fishing action is. Needless to say fishing was the most popular past time on the lake but after interviewing many locals it became apparent that this may not be the case for long.
The building of upstream dams, rising population pressure, over fishing and low rainfall have all combined to rapidly decrease fish stocks in recent years. Many of the young men that we spoke to were looking for alternative ways of making a living because surviving off their current catches was no longer viable. Aquaculture was beginning to take off and so was the farming of Siamese crocodiles, which are still said to roam free in remote sections of the lake.
Finally we headed across the vast expanse of water that is the Tonle Sap to perhaps the most impressive historical site to be found in the Mekong Valley. The Angkor Temple complex rates highly among the world's foremost architectural wonders and must be seen to be appreciated.
Built between the 9th and 14th centuries during the peak of Khmere civilization, the sprawling empire encompassed much of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. Angkors 100 or so temples are spread throughout a huge area and are typically engulfed by tropical forest providing a serene and mysterious ambiance. In the classical Angkor era, the city based around the complex was the largest in the world and was home to approximately 1 million people. What most people don't know is that is possible to view much of the Angkorian temple complex by kayak in the rainy season.
The following day we had the pleasure of spending a morning viewing the temples and vistas around Siem Riep from the air with Cambodian West Coast Helicopter Services. Cambodian West Coast helicopters offers flights around all of Cambodia and we took advantage of the clear skies to capture documentary footage.
We conducted a very interesting interview with fisheries expert Mr Patrick Evans in Siem Riep who has spent the past 7 years researching the fisheries of the great lake and helping the Cambodian Authorities create and implement a sustainable management plan. The road towards responsible management of lake resources has been a bumpy one yet great achievements have recently been made with new draft resolutions being passed through parliament and community based management and usage now beginning to take precedence over large scale commercial fishing concessions around the lake.
Unfortunately one of the greatest threats to the great lake and the people who depend on it in Cambodia cannot be overcome with any amount of hard work or responsible management in that country. It is estimated that for each meter less that the Mekong rises during the rainy season, the inundated area of the lake will be reduced by as much as 2000 square kilometers. With 2 mainstream dams already operational in China and another 3 coming on line over the next 10 years it is e expected that wet season flows will never again reach the natural highs which are so important to the lakes eco-system and agricultural irrigation for hundreds of thousands of locals.
With most of the planned Chinese Mekong dams already under construction it is quite simply too late to debate whether or not China has the right to build dams on the Mekong or not. The current and more pressing issue is, what steps China is prepared to take in an attempt to mitigate the imminent costs faced by its down stream neighbors as a result of its dams. The Tonle Sap is expected to be one of the worst affected areas resulting from Chinas Dam building. It was interesting to note that while conducting interviews with fisheries and environmental experts with decades of combined experience that none of them were aware of any Chinese attempts to research the impacts of its dams in Cambodia nor of attempts by China to enter into discussions on how to mitigate the obvious and wide ranging problems created. Beijings refusal to join the Mekong River Commission which represents the regions major international forum on the rivers management is a clear indicator of Chinas reluctance to discuss the sensitive issues related to its damming practices.
With the Mekong Cascade budget running into the many billions of dollars it is worth mentioning that even a contribution of 1% of the projects budget toward mitigation with riparian states would go along way towards alleviating the problems created. Yet sadly, it appears that even as Chinas economy enjoys an era of unprecedented growth and prosperity that no consideration has yet been given to the impoverished peoples from riparian nations who are literally paying the price for Chinas cheap electricity.
We returned to the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh where we met up with the crew from Asian Trails Cambodia who done a great job of arranging all logistical support and obtaining film permits in Cambodia, special thanks go out to the team of Asian Trails. As we paddled out of Phnom Penh we made the typical error of attempting to ask directions from the locals in less than qualified Khmere. Inevitably this led to us going down the western channel rather than the eastern channel of the Mekong and thus hitting the Vietnamese border in a place where we couldn't cross.
For a while it looked like we were in for a 6 hr drive to get into the right channel until after some very interesting negotiations we were smuggled through the no mans land between the two nations on a long tail boat captained by a Khmere lad who was constantly on his mobile phone ringing one military outpost after the other to make sure that machine gun toting border patrols knew who we were. It was quite obvious that lost paddlers weren't particularly welcome in this area and we were all relieved to finally reach the more traveled eastern Channel just as the sun began to set.
After the border formalities we were abducted by a delightful gang of young girls who wasted no time in emptying our pockets of all loose change by selling us everything from Pepsi to accommodation and even a kayak storage service. With an average age of around 8 years these amazing kids ensured that before we even had time to finish asking for something it would turn up at our fingertips all be it with a 20% service charge! I have never encountered such skilled young entrepreneurs and even as they skillfully took full advantage of our complete inability to keep up with the slightly dodgy antics we found it impossible to shake them off because they were so damned cute.
Several meals, 2 hrs of wizzy dizzies, some magic tricks and a couple of bike chases later they finally set us free to go and crash, completely exhausted at the only guesthouse in town. The next morning they were at it again and before I knew it I was commandeered into paddling around piles of kids in the village canals. By 10.00am I managed to flip the last of my abductors off the kayak and escaped into the swift waters of the Mekong while I still had the chance. Hanging out with the kids of the Mekong is definitely one of the coolest aspects of paddling this great river.
I proceeded down a complex system of tiny canals en-route to Chau Doc. At one stage I was mobbed by an entire village when I stopped at a small riverside restaurant for lunch. It was quite clear that few if any foreigners had boated through this part of the delta and it was a lot of fun trying to communicate by sign language. That night I met the team in the bustling upper delta town of Chau Doc. At Chau doc the locals have taken aquaculture on the Mekong to new heights with thousands of floating nurseries with as many as 20,000 full grown fish in each one.
One thing I noticed while traveling through the delta is how industrious the Vietnamese are. The whole nation is constantly toiling night and day in an effort to improve their lot. Three decades of war followed by another 3 decades of communism may have slowed down the pace of development but with dramatic moves towards economic liberalization Vietnam is definitely shaping up to become South East Asia's newest tiger.
As we proceeded south we made a point of visiting several sites of major battles during the Vietnam War. Visiting such war relics in Vietnam was of particular interest to me, as my late father was conscripted into the Australian Armed services and forced to serve in Vietnam as a machine gunner with the 8th Australian Rifle Regiment from 1969 -70. The horrors of that conflict left terrible scars with most of the infantrymen whom saw action, yet as always with such conflicts it is the civilian population who ultimately pay the most terrible price for war. When interviewing locals about their involvement in the war and why they chose to support either side in the conflict there was one comment, which seemed very relevant to current world events.
A former Viet Cong Guerilla called Phuoc summed up the sentiments of so many Vietnamese when he stated I didn't care too much for the ideology of either side, I was just a farmer but eventually I went to war because we had foreigners from the other side of the world over here killing my countrymen by the thousands, I just wanted to support whom ever opposed them . It is painfully obvious that the current US administration has learnt nothing from the 2 million or so deaths caused primarily by US intervention in Vietnam. With the Bush administration recently proving that it can invade nations at will with absolute impunity from international law, one has to wonder which nations are on the list to be invaded next and how many more millions of innocent lives will be lost to such aggressive foreign policy.
The Mekong delta is one of the richest agricultural regions on earth due primarily to the abundant nutrient rich sediment that is flushed down the Mekong river each year. Despite the widespread use of defoliants by US forces in the 60's and 70's which destroyed vast tracts of previously arable land, the delta still produces approximately 45% of Vietnams rice output and is critical in ranking the nation as the Worlds second largest producer. We stopped at various locations to chat with rice farmers and to learn about the processes that produce such bountiful crops. Surprisingly, besides the husking and packaging of the grain, the majority of the process still follows the time honored techniques that have been passed down through countless generations.
The seasonal ebb and flow of the Mekong River is an integral part of life for all 17 million people living in the delta. As with most of the lower Mekong, the river and its tributaries provide the foundation on which human existence evolved in the area and over countless generations the rivers vitality and bounty have been woven into the very fabric of society. With so many lives depending directly on this incredible resource it is refreshing to see greater cooperation regarding water utilization than ever before between the nations of the lower Mekong via the Mekong River Commission Secretariat. Unfortunately, Chinas refusal to join the commission means that some of the most pressing issues concerning the rivers vitality will not be addressed unless the decision is made in Beijing to work closely with riparian Mekong states. The world can only wait and see whether China has the good will to discuss such issues with its neighbors or whether cheap electricity at the expense of riparian states is the order of the day.
As we proceeded down through the delta the realization that the journey would soon come to an end began to hit home and on the 8th of September 2004 the day of reckoning arrived. As I paddled the final leg down an increasingly wide channel I noticed the distant palm and mangrove covered banks that had flanked me for the entire day faded into the water. Beyond them lay the shimmering waters of the South China Sea. My body surged with adrenalin as swells from the ocean began to pick up my kayak and slam it down into the trough that separated them. Brian and Hutch were all smiles as they knocked back some cold Heinekens between shots on the 20 seater support speedboat in which they traveled.
The further we navigated away from the river mouth the larger the swells became until suddenly the speedboat powered a little too fast down the back side of a large wave and pitched its bow into the oncoming wall of water, taking in hundreds of liters through the front hatch. As the passengers frantically bailed with what ever they could find the captain wisely decided to high tail it back up into the estuary before they sank and I was left to complete this amazing kayak descent just as I had started it, solo!
I proceeded out for another 4 kilometers until I was well beyond the axis of the two points of land that marked the rivers southern most mouth. As I approached the invisible finish line I had wondered several times, what would go through my mind once the goal had finally been achieved.
When I laid my paddle to rest across my lap and took in the perfect sunset a feeling of peace and contentedness enveloped me, it was a sensation beyond words or thoughts and I had no urge to rush it, so, as darkness descended I surrendered myself to the deep sense of harmony that seemed like it could go on indefinitely
I made it!
Mekong First Descent Awareness Effort:
In addition to successfully pulling off a world first, one of the primary goals of the Mekong First Descent Project is to use the expedition to create greater global awareness of the natural and cultural heritage of the Mekong valley including some of the more important issues facing the Mekong's peoples and environments.
During the expedition the projects dedicated production team captured more than 110 hrs of high quality footage for the purpose of creating a documentary series. In addition we have a further 10 hrs of archival and stock footage available. Due to lack of sponsorship the project team are currently attempting to locate a partner to assist in post production and distribution of this documentary on a percentage basis. Anyone with information regarding this should contact our project coordinator at www.info@mekongfirstdescent.org
Furthermore we are also interested in developing awareness via print and Internet media so please feel free to contact us with the details of interested publishers or ideas.
Special Thanks!
Making a 5 month world first expedition through six nations is a major undertaking and it has only been made possible with the support of a long list of people, companies and organizations. I would like to take a moment to thank those who have made this descent possible.
In no particular order I would like to thank Australian Geographic Society for their generous grant, which helped get the project off the ground. For the first detailed post expedition article in Australia with great pictures, the Australian Geographic Magazine is the place to look.
Lao Airlines whose sponsorship of flights and comprehensive network of destinations allowed our team to fly all of the most important destinations in the region including flights to and from : Vientiane, Bangkok, Jinghong, Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, Siem Riep and Luang Prabang.
The team from Asian Trails Cambodia and Vietnam who sponsored comprehensive ground support in those countries. Both teams excelled in the services they provided and I have no hesitation in recommending them to anyone planning to travel in South East Asia.
Rob and Rickster from Bomber Gear kayak equipment supplies decked us out with the best cold weather paddle gear on the market with the end result that I did not freeze to death in the Himalayas. Your gear is bomber and has more than stood up to the test. Keep up the great work with innovative new designs.
Same goes with the team from Equinox Extreme, Karana and Travel gear. Your tents, dry bags, clothes and accessories are all top notch. Equipment failure was something we didn't have time for and fortunately didn't need to worry about with your products.
Feelfree kayaks for the awesome explore kayaks that we were privileged to use in the lower Mekong. It's a great new design and I will be purchasing some more for use in paddle tours.
Wildside Green Discovery helped us out with a range of services in the Lao.P.D.R. No one knows Laos like Wildside Green Discovery.
Todd and Christian from Admotiv Thailand For supporting us all the way in any way they could. Your assistance has been invaluable and greatly is appreciated.
Adventure Technology (AT) paddles supplied us with the best new white water and touring paddles that money can buy. I went through 3 paddles in 3 weeks before AT came on board and since then we haven't broken one. Cheers guys.
To the crew down there in Malaysia who were simply awesome when we needed help, Carl Traeholt, Margie and Kresten.
To Abdul Halim and Juwanno in Sumaterra, thanks a lot and I'm sorry for turning the perception into a pot plant holder!
To Azadee and Andy from sabaidee.com in Laos. Thanks for all of the online support. You guys rock.
Ton and the Paradise Resort in the Golden triangle thanks for a great stay and allowing us to replace the lost kilos from China with endless supplies of Sushi!
The team from the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) for assisting us with publicity and contacts from the earliest stages.
To the webmasters of Outdooreyes.com, Wetdawg.com, Wetass Chronicals and Peddler for following the expedition on line.
Eric Southwick: We would have been screwed without your contributions Wick, thanks a million.
Sourisay and the Lao Mekong River Commission for general support and arranging permit in Laos.
Marcus Gillmore: Gilly, thanks for being there when I most needed it. You da man!
An extra special thanks go out to the two most important ladies in my life, Yutah and Mum Anything is possible with the right support network and you two formed the backbone of mine.
Alan Boatman of Geo systems international for logistical and organizational support.
Brian Eustis and Hutch Brown for capturing the bulk of the descent on film. You guys done a great job and ultimately saved the day.
Hoopy for keeping the office under control during the most frantic days of preparation.
The list of people that assisted the expedition and documentary throughout is far longer than shown here. We would like to gratefully thank all contributors who have come and gone over the past 2 years for making this expedition dream become a reality.
Thank you!
Best Regards, Mick O'Shea
Mekong First Descent Project Team Leader.

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