The mighty Mekong is perhaps more important in Laos than any other country it passes through. The river connects small riverside villages and provides two-thirds of the rural population with food for fishing. It is a place where children play and families bathe, where men fish and women wash their clothes. A place where people sit and think, cows and buffaloes roam free, and monks shed their robes and behave like brothers. It is revered in the eyes of the animists who depend on it – for life, memories, meaning.
Of the two days I spent on the slow boat to Thailand, a few seconds shared with a Laotian woman were the most memorable. She was a mother with sad eyes, wrapped in a traditional Lao skirt dotted with golds and browns. After continual coinciding glances with the woman, I realise that she is just as enchanted with me as I with her. We are in the back of the boat, in the engine room – the hottest, loudest, smelliest place to be – sitting with a dozen other Laotians on the floor. She looks exhausted, but pensive. Remote, but compassionate.