Archive | August, 2011

Meeting the River

30 Aug

A Leaf in the Klongs of Bangkok

The Chao Praya is not the Mekong, but its waters have been fuel to one of Southeast Asia’s most powerful kingdoms for centuries, and today I sit on its urban banks. Though I had crossed the Chao Praya many times over the course of a year in 1998, my first deep memory of this river and its power was in April of 1999. My father stood on a balcony, over twenty floors above the streets, looking down on Bangkok’s great waterway. He stood there first for minutes, but then what seemed like hours. For me, the river had been a convenience, a way to move around the traffic of Bangkok; the novelty of traveling over water had not worn off, but my fascination had. My father, all of 57 years at the time, was wholly moved by the sheer number of vessels that floated, wove, swerved, and otherwise charted their way through their own potential logjam.

At first I shrugged off his fascination. After all, I had been living a life on the canals and waterways of Thailand’s coastal plains for a year. Water was just a part of things, a given, without which the culture, agriculture, and commerce of Thailand would be entirely different. In fact, without waterways like the Chao Praya and the canal systems people developed around it, Thailand would not have been the top Asian exporter of rice in 1998, nor would the kingdoms of Ayudaya and Sukhothai, or the modern Thai kingdom based in Bangkok, have been a force powerful enough to keep Khmer, Burman, and later colonial powers ultimately at bay for over eight centuries (with a slight anomaly concerning Burma).

The formula is simple: Rivers equal sustenance, sustenance makes vitality, and vitality supports civilization. But what is not so simple is the way we forget our rivers. While living in Thailand in 1998, the Mae Klong River (just west of the Chao Praya basin) fed me my mangoes, my rice, my fish, my soul. I sat above the river in evenings when the air cooled just enough for me to clear my mind. The breeze breathed space, and my heart opened. A temple across the river sat still, silent, soft in the evening light. The occasional bell would sound, or a boat would pass. My memories of the river still sit more deeply than any memories I have of roads or traffic. Yet I spent more time on roads than on the river that year; and I would pose that we spend more time moving from place to place on the great new infrastructure of our times – roads – than our world’s great riparian arteries.

Hence, caught in the movement of Bangkok’s burgeoning street life, I shrugged away my father’s fascination with the Chao Praya and its chaotic flow of vessels. That is, until he spoke. “This is unbelievable.” And it was. My father and mother had traveled across the Pacific to see me living my last year as a teenager in Thailand, and it was unbelievable. After waiting long months away from my family, I finally met my father where he met the river.

In two weeks, we will be at the headwaters of the Mekong, a river so vastly long that people at its Tibetan origin endure some of our populated world’s coldest winters, while at its Vietnamese exit the weather undulates a few degrees from monsoon season to “cool season” to hot season. Many rivers carry this story, though perhaps without the extremes. The Chao Praya moves water, minerals, and waste from Thailand’s cool northern highlands into the heavy heat of Thailand’s central plains. The Mississippi moves crisp Minnesotan waters through a heartland of rice and cotton into a swampy and warm delta at the Gulf of Mexico. It is special to see a river move from its icy, swift origins to its slow and soupy meander. It is special to see a river in its chaos and in its flow. As my father helped me remember, it is special to see a river at all.

– Max Woodfin, Bangkok


25 Aug

In the Mekong headwaters

In the Mekong headwaters, the far northern reaches of Asia’s monsoons are tapering. By September, the rains will subside and the torrents will wash their way down through Yunnan, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, to swell into the sea at Vietnam’s great delta. A group of eight students and three guides will begin their journey a day’s drive north of where this photograph was taken. For three months, they will explore, float, dream, and investigate along the course of this great river system. The writing here is my personal story of this journey, a journey I have endeavored several times but have yet to fully document.

In the weeks to come, you will come to understand the purpose of our journey, just as we will begin to understand our own reasons for tracing the Mekong River from its source to its ultimate destination.  From the flanks of the Tibetan Plateau to the great rice basins where the relics of war continue to hold people’s hearts and minds, we will face the world with openness, looking to our inner being as a source for outer compassion.  I invite you to join us on our journey, and me in my reflections on the state of this great river.  Welcome to The Written River.

-Max Woodfin

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