Camera-wielding Western tourists ambush a dawn procession of monks in this once-tranquil royal capital. Chinese engineers erect huge dams and blow up rapids on one of the world's...

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LUANG PRABANG, Laos — Camera-wielding Western tourists ambush a dawn procession of monks in this once-tranquil royal capital. Chinese engineers erect huge dams and blow up rapids on one of the world’s last great untamed rivers.

Bulldozers are churning up jungled hillsides to lay roads into tribal villages of “Asia’s last frontier.” It’s the basin of the mighty Mekong River, a culturally diverse, environmentally rich but economically impoverished region that is poised for vast transformation.

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On the planning boards for these borderlands between China and the bulk of Southeast Asia are extensive road networks, electric power grids, tourism infrastructure and dozens of other projects totaling some $100 billion.

But opinions vary starkly about how such 21st-century inputs — together with China’s heavy hand — will affect the isolated rice-growing villages, fishing hamlets and little market towns still living by ancient modes and rhythms.

“The ideal scenario would obviously be a prosperous region — a growth of some 6 percent-plus — but more importantly a prosperous region with equitable growth and an equilibrium with the environment,” says Rajat M. Nag, who heads the Mekong Department of the Asian Development Bank, a key player in the region.

Meeting with fellow Lahu tribesmen near the Thailand-Myanmar border, Japhet Jakui is highly skeptical. He decries blasting of Mekong rapids by the Chinese and the increasingly easy, rapid river transport that allows amphetamine traffickers to reach tribal children as young as 4.

“All Lahu people love this river, but they will be hurt and they won’t be able to do anything about it,” says Japhet, head of the Lahu National Development Organization, one of many non-governmental groups that fear voices of the region’s 60 million inhabitants, many of them from ethnic minorities, won’t be heard.

A major concern is China, especially its exploitation of the Mekong, the 3,032-mile-long lifeblood of the region endowed with biodiversity comparable to that of the Amazon.

The world’s 12th-longest river springs out of the Tibetan highlands to flow through China’s Yunnan province and on past the homelands of dozens of Southeast Asian tribal groups and historic cities like Luang Prabang before emptying into the South China Sea in Vietnam.

Without consulting downstream nations, the Chinese built two dams and are putting up or planning six others on their stretch of the river. They are also behind the continued blasting of rapids in Thailand and Laos to allow passage of larger craft. The Chinese also plan as many as 13 dams on another major basin river, the Salween, and are engaged in extensive logging of Myanmar’s great northern forests.

“The Mekong Basin is unique in the world, an agrarian society of great diversity and environmental richness that will go the way of the industrialized world if developers have their way,” said Witoon Permpongsacharoen, who heads the Project for Ecological Recovery. “Why can’t it find its own way to development that would keep its unique character?”