The exact source of the Mekong is unknown, but it’s believed to lie about 5,000 metres above sea level in the highlands of Tibet. From there the great river flows through the Chinese province of Yunan and eventually turns into a border river between Myanmar and Laos. In the Golden Triangle Thailand takes charge of the west bank of the Mekong for a few hundred kilometres, after which the river flows across Cambodia and Vietnam where it finally ends up meeting the South China Sea. The river is estimated to cover a distance of somewhere between 4,350 and 4,900 kilometres.
While there is lively boat traffic in the region between the Golden Triangle and Luang Prabang, which was the capital of Laos during French colonial rule, further south in Isaan there is little life on the river. Now and then a few fishermen fling their nets around, now and again fish farms pop up in the water, in which black or red tilapia allow themselves to be fed – and on the embankments, one can sometimes see little gardens, planted with tomatoes, coriander, chilli, cabbages, pumpkins and beans.
Amidst this rustic tranquillity the Hai Sok pier in Nong Kai appears like an ants’ nest. Here, from sunrise to sunset there are countless men engaged in loading up their wares at top speed – smaller containers and cartons are simply pushed down the slippery slides, larger containers or delicate produce are carried up the steps and landing-stages on the men’s shoulders. Almost every minute, small boats come rocking over the waters, laden tower-high with colourful mattresses, refrigerators, plastic stools, cartons and casks. This way, the transport operators avoid the long queues at the 1994-erected Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge – as well as the bridge toll.
The longer I watch this trade, the more I notice that all the goods here are moving in just one direction – from Thailand to Laos. The boats that return to this pier from Laos are, without exception, empty. The wares appear to me like pieces of meat which are plucked out of the trucks, pressed into motion, mixed anew, and pummelled into the boats in a fresh order and form. Here, at Hai Sok Pier, Thailand appears like a gigantic production machine – and Laos, like a sausage skin, an empty rectum that wants to be stuffed.
First Publication: 28-2-2014