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"He Likes It! Hey Mikey..."

The Mekong
by Milton Osborne
Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2000

Every now and then, there are books that I feel obligated to read. It might be about a subject that is important to me, or it might be by a highly-regarded scholar.

In a bookstore in Phnom Penh, I came across a copy of Milton Osborne's The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future, and that tiresome sense of obligation kicked in. Osborne is a recognized authority on Cambodia, and if you are going to maintain a website called "mekong.net," surely you ought to read a book called The Mekong.

Years ago, I had read and admired Osborne's Before Kampuchea. So why did I resist reading The Mekong? I can't say. It sat on my shelf for a year and a half, taunting me with its unread, probably-damn-dull, authoritative wisdom.

Sigh. Time to get it over with. I pulled the book off the shelf. Or, if you prefer archaic pop-culture references, I poured the milk on my cereal:

"What's this stuff?"
"Some cereal. It's supposed to be good for you."
"I'm not gonna try it."
"Let's get Mikey!"
"Yeah! He won't eat it. He hates everything!"
"He likes it! Hey Mikey!"

Imagine my surprise: this book is wonderful. I had anticipated a dull tome with lots of statistics about tons of fish and cubic feet of water, and page after monotonous page about river commissions and development funding. What I found was part travelogue, part history, and part analysis, combined to create a thoughtful and engaging book that deserves to be a part of anyone's library.

The first portion of the book touches briefly on familiar aspects of ancient Southeast Asian history: the rise and fall of Funan, Chenla, and other Khmer, Thai, and Vietnamese empires. The distinguishing feature of the book, however, are the chapters on early European exploration of the Mekong. That history extends back farther than most of us realize. The first European to known to have visited what we now call Cambodia was a Portuguese missionary, Father da Cruz, in 1555.

Osborne describes early attempts to establish trade routes, and early incidents of gunboat diplomacy by both Portugal and France. He also describes the "discovery" of Angkor. A common misconception is that the temples at Angkor were first revealed by the French naturalist Henri Mouhot. Hardly: even setting aside the fact that the temples were still occupied by monks when Mouhot arrived, the first reference to Angkor in a European publication appeared in 1603. It may, however, be fair to say that the temples were more-or-less forgotten among European scholars. The first published description of Angkor in the 19th century appeared in the works of a French missionary, Father Emile Bouillevaux, who visited Angkor in 1850. Bouillevaux, however, "did not publish his account of Angkor until 1857, and when he did it was an austere and essentially unsympathetic account by a man who was later described as a 'tireless chatterbox.' Not least, it seems, he was affronted by the naked breasts of the carvings of apsaras, or heavenly beings, which decorate Angkor Wat in their hundreds."

None of this, however, detracts from Mouhot's phenomenal accomplishments. Mouhot traveled up the Mekong and the Tonle Sap, reaching Angkor in January 1860. His sketches and detailed descriptions finally brought due attention to the phenomenal temples.

Continuing up the Mekong in 1861, Mouhot fell gravely ill. His last journal entry, recorded twelve days before his death in November 1861, read simply: "Have pity on me, oh my God." If there was any mercy in his sad fate, it is that his name lives on, nearly a century and a half after his death.

It is difficult for modern travelers to conceive of the profound hardships and dangers facing these pioneering explorers. Osborne's book does an outstanding job of conveying the heroism of their journeys. This is particularly true in Osborne's account of the mission of Doudart de Lagrée and Francis Garnier. Lagrée and Garnier left Saigon on June 5, 1866, determined to follow the Mekong into China. They dreamed that it might be a viable route for commerce through lands of undiscovered riches, and though their hopes proved futile, their contribution to the geographic knowledge of the time was enormous.

The final chapters of the book discuss the Mekong's "uncertain future." Decades of war delayed "development" of the Mekong, but the countries along the river have now begun to set their sights on harnessing its potential.

There are several proposals for dams along the river and its tributaries. Such dams could conceivably generate massive amounts of clean energy... but not without a price. Fish catches downstream from dams have declined dramatically; in the case of the Theun Hinboum Dam, completed in central Laos in 1998, catches have decreased by as much as 70%. Smaller countries -- like Cambodia -- are particularly wary of proposals to create dams upstream in China. The Chinese insist that the impact downstream will be minimal. Other analysts are skeptical.

Discussing the proposed Nam Theun 2 dam in Laos, Osborne nicely summarizes the difficulty of plotting the Mekong's future:

"Given the errors of the past, in Southeast Asia or elsewhere, there is every reason to approach the issue of building dams on the Mekong's tributaries with healthy scepticism. But that scepticism must not be allowed to obscure the possibility that precautions can be taken to minimise the negative impacts that inevitably accompany large-scale infrastructure projects. To argue otherwise is to adopt the position that the future is not open; that it is not possible to learn from the past. There is a risk that in opposing a project such as Nam Theun 2 some, at least, of its critics are placing their own concept of 'development' ahead of the concepts held by the Lao themselves. Certainly, in the straitened economic cicumstances of Laos itself, and of the region as a whole, it is difficult to see viable alternatives that are available to the government of Laos as it searches for ways to improve the lot of its population. All this said, there is no argument against the strictest oversight of the Nam Theun 2 project if, finally, it goes ahead. Most critically of all, the final test of the desirability of building the dam relates to the questions of benefit. Improving Laos's balance of payments by selling electricty to Thailand will only be of value if improvement in the country's economic situation is genuinely of benefit to the population as a whole. And the fact that those who will be displaced if the dam is built are members of the wider population must not be forgotten."

The ecosystems of the Mekong are complex and delicately balanced. Will it be possible to develop the river without disrupting that delicate balance? Osborne poses the questions articulately, but does not pretend to be able to answer them. This reflects one more of the book's many strengths. Osborne does not tell us what to think; he encourages us to think on our own.

A good analysis will always be thought-provoking. Osborne's book is that, and more. In a word, it's charming. It's filled with well-told tales and intriguing oddities: where else would we learn the terrible fate of poor Princess Nucheat Khatr Vorpheak? "At some time in the ninteenth century -- no one seems to be sure of the exact date -- this princess was taken by a great crocodile, only to have her body miraculously recovered. More than a hundred years later Sihanouk communed with her spirit, seeking her guidance on issues of foreign policy."

Readers who find their curiosity whetted by The Mekong will probably want to read Osborne's River Road to China, a longer account of Lagrée and Garnier's two-year trek along the Mekong.

Reads will also find an abundance of other sources suggested by the book's excellent bibliography. Ah, a bibiliography: A hallmark of an "educational" book. You know, those dull books that are supposed to be good for you.

Never mind that this book was supposed to be good for me. I liked it! Hey Milton!

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