This is the story of a river which begins life on the frozen expanse of the Tibetan plateau. Considered the fourth most important river in Asia, its source was, however, discovered just six years ago, by the French writer and explorer, Michel Peissel. As it flows through China, it is known as the Turbulent River. It then enters Laos, where it is called the Mother of Waters, while for the Cambodians, it is simply the Great Water. Finally, in Vietnam, at the point where it flows into the South China Sea, it becomes The Nine Dragons. This is the story of the Mekong river, as it crosses the countries of south-east Asia, a region full of legends and forgotten cities, lost empires whose remains have survived to the present day, and tribes hidden in the depths of the jungle. But it is also a land scarred by the horrors of human savagery. Dawn is rising in the mountains of Annam and, like every morning, Busneng starts the day with the opium ceremony. There is a traditional rule which allows men to smoke opium once they reach the age of forty, and have had children. Bunseng is forty three years old, and is married to Bojam who is only 29, though a hard life has made her look much older. Together they have had five children, with another now on the way. They live in a modest shack made from bamboo and, unlike the majority of the tribes of south-east Asia, their house is not raised up above the ground. There are two entrance doors, one for men and the other for women, but this division is only used for the wedding ceremonies. Inside there is just one room this is where everyone sleeps, as well as being the kitchen, and the place where they store rice. There are no windows, and around the walls they hang the baskets, tools for working the land, medicinal plants, food and kitchen utensils. Bunseng and his family live in Salaebe, a small village in the north of Laos, very close to the border with China. They belong to the Ekor tribe, one of the thirty ethnic minorities which originated on the high steppes of Tibet and Mongolia and now live in these lands, at an altitude of 1,300 metres. Their fear of the lowlands comes from a Mong proverb which says: “If you don’t fear hunger, stay in the mountains, but if you don’t fear death, then go to the plains”. Activity in the village begins at sunrise, but by this time, the married women have already been at work for hours, cleaning the house and preparing the fire and the food. Then, they meet at the spring, to collect water which they transport in bamboo canes. Twice a day, Bojam has to walk the three kilometres from the spring to the village, carrying on her back a weight of over 50 kilos. Meanwhile, both Chang Vang and Niai, the eldest daughters of Bojam, grind the rice. For the Ekor, rice is not only the basis of their economy and their diet, it is the centre of their lives, and as such, occupies much of their time. Agriculture is their main activity, though they also own buffaloes and farm animals, which are a valuable additional food source, especially at the end of the dry season, when rice is at its scarcest. But today is not just any day in Salaebe. Today is the 5th of February, and the women are preparing the rice, in order to celebrate the new year. Then, they prepare special cakes and rice liqueur. They dye the rice red, green and yellow. Red represents raw meat, blood, and the dragon. The green rice represents the crops, including rice itself, while the yellow represents all other foods. Every home prepares this three-coloured rice, which will be offered to the family spirits. Another important element in the Ekor culture is the ornaments they wear on their traditional costumes, and which both men and women use every day. These are made from cotton, dyed indigo and different shades of blue. The women’s costumes are decorated with complicated embroidery and the half piaster coins of Indochina, and they also wear earrings, bracelets and chokers of rigid silver, made by the silversmiths in nearby Yunnan. Some time after 11 in the morning, the first man ready to work finally appears. The first rains will come soon, and the paddies must be ready to plant the rice. They decided to begin the new year celebrations a few days ago, and the women’s patience is running out. They not only clean the house, grind the rice, prepare the meals and fetch water and wood, but are also responsible for educating the children, and passing on the traditions of their culture. The Ekor are very respectful of the environment, and only cut down trees to make new rice fields when a couple gets married. Every day, they cut only the wood they need to cook and heat, and although other neighbouring tribes have found a good source of income from selling wood to Thai and Vietnamese merchants, the Ekor respect the jungle so much that the women, when they have finished cutting wood, place a leaf in their mouths and sing a song to the forest, thanking it for its generosity. In the afternoon, the men get together to play Delo, a game so ancient not even the players themselves know its origins. They only play Delo twice a year, during the new year celebrations, and when the first rice harvest is in. One of the players throws a wooden top, called a Makan, onto the ground, and his opponent has to hit it with another, similar one. The first one to stop spinning loses. There are no prizes the satisfaction of taking part is enough, as only men above the age of 16 are allowed to play. At nightfall, men, women and children sing and perform the traditional dances. The Ekor are animists, they worship their ancestors and believe in magic and reincarnation. The spirits are invoked by the sound of the drums, while the women dance around Pii Bou, the most venerated spirit of all, the protector of the family and of the rice fields. The Mekong is the river of Buddha, as we can see from the thousands of temples, pagodas and statues along its banks. 60% of Laotians practice Theravada Buddhism, which was apparently introduced into the country at the end of the eighteenth century. Little by little, it was adopted by the people of the lowlands, who at first resisted accepting this religion along with their own, Pii, the spirit of the earth. Theravada or School of the Ancients is also called the School of the South, because it originated in the countries of south east Asia, such as Laos, Cambodia, Burma or Thailand. According to its followers, the Theravada schools are less corrupt than the Mahayanas or Schools of the North, in reference to China, Mongolia, Nepal, Tibet, Korea and Japan, where they produced the first teachings, and then expanded the doctrine as required. As the Mekong enters Laos, the first city it encounters is Luangprabang. It stands at an altitude of 700 metres, and is only now starting to come back to life, and entering the modern world, after several decades of wars and revolutions. The richness of its traditional architecture, represented by 32 temples, and the colonial buildings constructed by the French in the 1920s, meant that, in 1995, UNESCO declared it a world heritage site. In order to conserve the style of the city, UNESCO is working with two French and five Laotian architects, who are in charge of classifying and restoring existing buildings, and making sure new buildings are in keeping with the architecture of the city. In this way, this city will remain the sanctuary of the last dreamers. The Wats, or centres of prayer, are the most exquisite, refined architecture of Laos. Here, the young monks begin their Buddhist education, are taught to live in accordance with their monastic vows, to pray and meditate. They must follow 227 precepts, as part of the monastic discipline, and if eventually they do take holy orders, their family will gain great merit and prestige. Socially, it is considered appropriate for young Buddhists to be monks for a short period of their lives, normally three months, during which time they must obey ten vows, including the traditional prohibition on stealing, sloth, murder, intoxication and sexual relations. They are also forbidden to eat after midnight, dance, dress up or wear perfume, sleep in raised beds, or accept money for personal use. All the possessions of a monk must come from the charity of a layperson, who, in turn, hopes to improve his luck and ensure at least a certain number of reincarnations. These efforts to gain spiritual approbation are in Laos as religious activity itself. At the end of the day, the monks line up before Buddha and, intoning monotonous chants, recite the mantras, the prayers which help free them from desire and the senses, through moderation, renunciation and meditation, and in this way achieve the qualities of conscience, goodness and wisdom. Buddhism, more than a religion, is a philosophy or a path whose final and only aim to reach Nirvana, the negation of all causes of suffering, dissatisfaction and illness. After crossing the territory of Laos, the waters of the Mekong enter a country plagued by violence and poverty. The scene of political convulsions, the atrocities of war and terrible genocide, very little now remains of the powerful empire of Cambodia which, for five centuries, remained invincible, ruling over a considerable area of south east Asia. In the jungles of the north of the country lies hidden the most incredible legacy of the once supreme Khmer Empire. This is Angkor, “the city of the sleeping forest”, one of the most incredible architectural monuments on earth. However, the origin of Angkor remains veiled in mystery. The texts of the Khmer empire, which were written on palm leaves and skins, have not survived the harsh conditions of the jungle. The only references we have come from the accounts of Chinese and Indian travellers, and the few surviving stone inscriptions. These inscriptions contain constant references to the worship of water. The demographic pressure in Angkor forced them to harvest four crops of rice a year. A Cambodian proverb says that “rice is the heart of war”. The engineers of the empire designed an enormous, complex system of canals, dykes and reservoirs to compensate for the climactic differences and so multiply the crops, creating an economic potential which, for five centuries, allowed one million inhabitants to live and progress. The miracle was that this rational organisation of space, around the monuments, was in perfect harmony with the beliefs, the religious symbolism, and the political power. Founded at the start of the ninth century by king Jayavarman II, Angkor was the capital of Cambodia until the fifteenth century. In 1431 it was sacked by Thai invaders and, for over 400 years, the city remained, forgotten, lost in the depths of time. In 1858 the Frenchman Henri Mouhot revealed it to the western world, and two years later, with the French colonisation of Indochina, a series of archaeologists begin to study and rebuild the city, defying nature and attempting to recover the work of the ancient kings and builders. But, with the difficult political and social situation of Cambodia, they were doomed to failure, and once more Angkor was left to be devoured by the jungle. The entrances to the site are guarded by the genies of the heavens, 27 stone giants standing at either side of the road leading to Angkor Wat, the culmination of Khmer art. Balance, harmony, a sense of rhythm, of proportion and perspective. Henri Mouhot in his account of his Travels through the kingdoms of Siam, Cambodia and Laos describes it thus: “Beyond a wide space cleared of all vegetation, stretches an immense colonnade, crowned by five towers in the shape of lotus flowers. Against the deep blue of the sky, and the intense green of the jungle which serve as the backdrop to this solitude, the line of an architecture which is both elegant and majestic seemed to me the monumental profile of an enormous cemetery, the final resting place of an entire, extinct race.” The beauty and femininity of the apsaras, celestial nymphs and dancers of the universe, accompany the visitor as he walks around Angkor Wat. But the recent history of Cambodia is very different from the splendour of the past. In 1975, Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot, plunged his country into the most profound hell. While neighbouring Vietnam was fighting a bloody struggle against the American invader, Pol Pot founded the clandestine Kampuchea Workers Party, a movement first planned in the 1950s in the classrooms of the Sorbonne university in Paris, where Pol Pot had been given a grant to study. In 1965, on a visit to China at the start of the Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot discovered radical politics. A peasant revolt marked the beginning of a declaration of armed struggle, but Pol Pot and his army of Khmers Rouges did not develop their vision of a revolutionary society until they had succeeded in gaining absolute power. Events speeded up as the war against the Americans in Vietnam escalated. The coup d’état by general Lon Nol, and the proclamation of the Khmer Republic unleashed civil war. Five years later, in April 1975, the Khmers Rouges succeeded in conquering the capital, Phnom Penh. The population, weary of war, welcomed the victors as heroes bringing peace. But what they could never have imagined was that that very same day a nightmare had begun, and would continue for four long years. The worst was yet to come. Immediately, massive evacuation from the capital began, and the population was interned in communes, made to do forced labour. All basic rights were abolished, and the most absolute reign of terror began. In a matter of hours, Phnom Penh became a ghost town, and all forms of property were abolished. The markets, the currency, the media, telephones and the postal service all disappeared. Pol Pot, Big Brother number one, was finally able to put into practice what he had dreamt of so long; The intellectuals must learn from the young, illiterate peasants. Anyone who had received secondary education was condemned to be executed. Wearing glasses, and not having calluses on your hands made you a candidate for death. 90% of doctors were killed. Babies were murdered by throwing them against the trees and, using hoes in order to save ammunition, thousands of Cambodians were wiped out. The fields of Cambodia were soon strewn with dead bodies in a holocaust comparable to that of Hitler or Stalin, and which cost the lives of two million people that is, a third of the population. Toul Kork, a suburb of Phnom Penh, was the place chosen to bury over twenty thousand victims. Today, we can still see the mass graves of the most horrific, blood-curdling place in south east Asia. In the centre of Toul Kork a monument reminds us just what humans are capable of. And the most horrifying thing of all is that the assassins were boys and girls of between ten and fifteen years old, who were turned into killing machines through sessions of political indoctrination. Jem Phang was one of these young people, recruited from a monastery when just 11 years old. Pol Pot was not the cause of the genocide, quite the opposite, he managed to raise the production of rice, and there was food for everyone. If they had let him govern for longer, this country would have developed. Those really responsible for the holocaust were the Vietnamese, who hate us. They infiltrated our organisations, and manipulated the ignorant local leaders, in order to wipe out our culture. The Democratic Régime of Kampuchea converted the Tuol Svary catholic school into the main detention and interrogation centre of the political police. Known as S-21, it remains the greatest symbol of Pol Pot’s reign of terror. Its archives provide chilling, detailed accounts of the prisoners who passed through here. Interrogations were carried out by young fanatics, eager to prove themselves. If the victim confessed to some crime, he was sentenced to death, and if not, the interrogators murdered him anyway, simply with a blow to the head. In order to stop the torture, prisoners had to declare themselves guilty of one of three basic accusations: either they were agents of the CIA, the KGB or the Vietnamese secret services. Daily, they were subjected to such brutal punishment that many of them simply could no longer bear it, and took their own lives, throwing themselves from the upper floors. To avoid these suicides, the Khmers Rouges put barbed wire around the walls of the entire building. When it came to torturing their victims, the executioners made no distinction between a frail old woman, an innocent girl, or a foreign journalist who had been unable to flee the country in time. In four years, over 17,000 people were executed in the S-21 concentration camp. In one of the rooms, we can still see the piles of clothes of those innocent victims, exterminated by their own people. Only two people managed to escape from this prison alive, thanks to their artistic skills. The sculptor Im Chann was saved because he had to finish a bust of Pol Pot. Today is the first time In Chann has returned to the concentration camp he was released from. Vann Nath, the other survivor, was Pol Pot’s official portrait painter, and he painted the pictures of the atrocities we saw earlier. These are the testimonies of a past which Vann Nath wanted to immortalise in his paintings, in the hope that what happened in Cambodia will never be forgotten. We had to get up at four in the morning and do half an hour of gym with the iron shackles around our ankles. Though we were half naked, we were searched every morning. Then, we were forced to remain lying on the ground for the rest of the day. It was forbidden to sit up, or talk. Often, they would beat our backs with a bamboo cane, and we only ate once a day, a little rice. On the fifteenth of April, 1998, Pol Pot died at the age of 70, in a small shack in the jungle of Thailand, where he had taken refuge along with the last Khmers Rouges. His death came at a very opportune moment Bill Clinton had begun legal proceedings to have him captured brought to trial. Apparently, Phnom Penh has returned to normality, and the streets are once again filled with vehicles, and people whose only wish is for lasting peace. But we mustn’t forget that behind every face, every look, there lies a tragedy, because every single one of these men and women has lost at least one loved one. Physically at least, the survivors have overcome the horror of those years, but they still bear profound psychological scars. People literally paralysed by fear, family violence, juvenile delinquency, alcoholism and drugs these are just some of the terrible legacies of that bloody régime. But, hidden beneath the ground, throughout Cambodia, there remains yet another tragedy, which has already mutilated 35,000 people, two decades after the wars. Between 7 and 9 million anti-personnel mines still lie in waiting, for the next victim, and every day, ten more names are added to the terrible list of victims. A mine costs between 2 and 30$, and in major arms deals, many weapons manufacturers simply give them away. But, to locate and defuse a single mine costs a minimum of 1,200$ Most of the victims are innocent civilians, woman going to the river for water, men working in the rice fields, or children playing. In 1980, a group of former American soldiers, who had fought in the Vietnam War founded this centre on the outskirts of Phnom Penh Here, they provide medical and psychological care to mine victims. It is the largest factory of false limbs in south east Asia, and every year 1,000 people learn how to walk again. In the workshops, they have produced over twenty thousand false limbs, and the majority of the workers are amputees. Here they have found new life, new hope with which to face the future with optimism. Enrique Figaredo is a jesuit from Asturias, in the north of Spain, and for eight years has been the head of the “Casa de las Palomas Blancas” (The House of the White Doves), a professional training school specialised in the manufacture of wheelchairs, and which is known as one of the best in the country. Every week, he and sister Kampat travel round the villages of Cambodia, giving wheelchairs to those who most need them. It’s a long time since any westerner has been to this region, and the moment he gets out of the car, Kike, as he likes to be called, is surrounded by curious children. Mien Khan was widowed five years ago, and lives in a modest shack with her four daughters Nampyk, the youngest, suffers paralysis of the legs which, among other things, prevents her from going to school. In the yard, Kike helps Nampyk as she tries out her wheelchair for the first time. Every year, someone from the mission will come and visit her, to check the condition of the wheelchair. From now on, Nampyk will be able to make her own way to school, and play with her friends. At least she’ll be able to live a slightly more normal life. Back at the car, a peasant tells them that, in a house on the outskirts of the village, live two brothers, polio victims, in subhuman conditions. Kao and Tok Lai have spent their short lives sitting on this bed, taking care of their grandmother. The younger one is also autistic. They tell Kike that their parents left a long time ago, to look for work, and never returned. Kike is worried. If he doesn’t find the parents, he can’t take the children to the mission. He’ll never forget the sad look of Tok Lai. Our journey along the Mekong is coming to an end. Before flowing into the China Sea, in Vietnam, the river forms an extensive and complex delta, known as The Nine Dragons. A network of 5,000 kilometres of natural and artificial canals carries the waters to the rice fields. Rice is the most important crop in Vietnam, and provides a living for 70% of the population. Each hectare of land produces 8 tonnes of rice a year. All land belongs to the government, which leases it to the peasants, who work it. In exchange, they have to give 10% of the harvest. The success of the harvest depends on the summer monsoons. If these do not come, the level of the river falls so much that the seawater invades the rice fields, destroying the crop and causing starvation. Cantho is the largest city in the delta. It’s small in size, but with a large population. It’s five in the morning, and in one corner of the market, the Lee family runs a flourishing fish business. Hue is thirty years old, and she is responsible for organising the sale of the merchandise every morning. Her biggest customer is the government itself, which in turn, sells to the restaurants and the workers in the state factories. Along with her, another fifteen members of the family help to unload, classify and clean the fish. The market in Cantho is an example of the rich gastronomy of Vietnam. Over five hundred different dishes, but all of them served with rice. The Vietnamese boast that they eat everything that flies, except the airplanes, everything that swims, except the boats, and everything with legs, except the tables. And they’re not far wrong some market stalls sell delicacies which would turn the stomach of most westerners. Vietnamese markets are also a good place to witness the ingenious ways in which people earn a living, and the ear cleaners, a job with a long, venerable tradition, is a good example. Eight o’clock in the morning, and the Lee’s are still busy at work. They transport the fish in primitive fish-farming boats. One of the Hue brothers, and his eldest son, Dhan, who’s twelve years old, are responsible for unloading. All types of boats come to the market to buy and sell many different things in the numerous floating markets around the delta. Most people live in small villages, and never very far from the water, which is their only means of transport. There are some roads in the delta, built by the French when they colonised this country, and the Americans during the war. Most road transport depends on the ferries, but travelling this way is not easy. Because of lack of space, the farmers lay out the rice to dry along the roads, making it very difficult for traffic. So, the Mekong has become the only real way to transport goods. The small boats, in turn, supply the much larger ones, which travel to the most remote villages of the delta. It’s nine o’clock in the morning, and in the floating market of Phong Dien, a few kilometres to the south of Cantho, it’s almost impossible to move. At times, it’s difficult to know where the land ends and the water begins. The delta was, until the eighteenth century, part of the Khmer Kingdom of neighbouring Cambodia, and was the last region to be annexed by Vietnam. The Cambodians have not forgotten this territory, which still today they call Lower Cambodia. It is one more reason for the mutual hatred between the two countries. Like the river, the streets of Cantho are bustling with people. We mustn’t forget that 77 million people live in Vietnam, with a population density of 230 inhabitants per square kilometre. Around ten o’clock in the morning, the Lee family gets ready to return home. Today they have sold fish worth ,405$ an absolute fortune if we consider that the average salary of a civil servant is not even 30$ a month. They are a typical upper middle class family, with annual net income of almost a 5400$. The Lees live quarter of an hour from the market, on the other side of the main branch of the Mekong, in a group of floating houses. Their life revolves around the water and fishing so much so that Tuang, the grandfather, spends his spare time trying to catch the odd little fish. As soon as they get back, the women have to take care of the children, while the men prepare the fish for the next day. The technique they use to breed and store the fish is very simple, but very effective. The fish are kept inside cages underneath the houses, and all they have to do to catch them is lift the trap doors in the floor, and put down a net. The current of the river constantly renews the water inside the cages. Then, the fish are taken to the fish–farming boat, where they are sorted by size. The smallest are returned to the cages. In another room, Na Trang prepares the food for the fish, a paste made with flour and dried fish. ThenuDanh, Hue’s son, and his cousin distribute it through the cages. As soon as they have finished feeding the fish, Danh goes off to school. At twelve o’clock, all activity stops. It’s time for lunch. Normally, the women and children eat first, in a separate room. For the Lee family, lunch is almost a sacred ceremony, especially for the men. This is the only time in the day they can relax and chat. Surrounded by a delicious variety of dishes of rice, vegetables and fish, they start eating, all the time laughing and discussing their favourite subject, the family business, the atmosphere helped by the rice liquor. The women, in the background, make sure they have everything they need. Soon, it will be night again, and little by little the inhabitants of the Mekong delta return to their homes. Danh and his friends spend the last hours of the day watching television. Tomorrow, they will again have to get up at four o’clock in the morning to help their mother in the market, then return home to feed the fish, before rushing off to school. But Danh doesn’t mind, he well knows that, in a few years this flourishing business will be his.