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A Break in the River

Posted by Tom Haines, Globe Travel Writer  January 23, 2009 04:04 PM

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An incredibly vivid photo essay of the Khone Falls fishermen by photographer Suthep Kristsanavarin was posted today at globalpost.com. The falls are the world's widest series of cataracts and the geographic feature that has effectively split the Mekong River in two.

It is in many ways a remote region, and one that certainly changes little during four years, the amount of time since Globe photographer Essdras Suarez and I journeyed from Cambodia into Laos as part of our Crossing Divides project.

khonefalls2.bmp
(Globe Staff: Essdras M Suarez)

In that story, I wrote:

"The falls foiled French colonial attempts to run steamships north toward China and helped isolate from the region, and the wider world, many who live near the river. French mapmakers traced a colonial border south of the falls, determining in part who would live in Cambodia, and suffer the cruelties of the Khmer Rouge regime, and who in Laos, struggling in what remains a communist state.

... The French dubbed the last of their failed efforts to navigate the Mekong and the falls' dangerous blockade 'The End of Illusions.'"

We followed the fishermen for their daily work. I wrote:

"Shortly after daybreak in the heart of another of the Khone's cataracts, three fishermen, taut and lean, climbed on top of a nearly-submerged bamboo cage and began a perilous water ballet.

One man, Kamsee Vongsadee, leapt into the current and grabbed a line tied to a second cage. He crossed hand-over-hand, his arms bracing, his body beaten nearly horizontal.

He scrambled onto the second cage, leaned and pulled, then hauled out a hefty catfish. Vongsadee tossed the fish over the water to Phong Souvanhvee, a friend and partner.

Vongsadee flung himself back into the water to cross to the first cage. He took the fish from Souvanhvee, and the ballet slowed. A third man piloted the fishermen's long boat toward the cage. Vongsadee waited as the boat's bow rose and fell in the surge of the falls, and then, when the boat leveled, he dropped the catfish, gently, on board."

You can find the entire account of the journey to Khone Falls and beyond here.

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