The Mekong River meanders more than 4,350 km from its source in Tibet, through China, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. It is the major artery for these regions, delivering food, transport, energy, water and life to millions of people along its snaking course.
The river is a lifeline to the landlocked People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. I have visited twice in the last six months. The first trip was to stay with a British expat who has built himself a bamboo and straw house on the island of Don Det, where he survives off rice and stir-fried frog, for my series New Lives in the Wild (returning in November). The second time, I went with eight amateur anglers for BBC2’s The Big Fish, in which fishermen and women compete in a global fishing competition, against each other and the environment.
Big Fish judge Mai at Khone Falls
The show is as much about the places and the landscapes as it is about the fish, and the star of the latest programme is the mighty Mekong River. Its chocolaty-brown waters are home to more than a thousand species, many of which remain unrecorded.
In places, the river seems so dense it can be hard to see anything. It’s also very wide, dotted with tiny islands and rapids. At regular intervals along the banks of Laos sit small settlements. I visited one (with no name) in order to board one of the boats used to ferry locals along and across the river.
The air was thick and heavy with humidity, and sweat streamed from our bodies. The heat in this part of the world is oppressive. Laos has an October–April dry season and a wet season for the rest of the year. There are variations in temperature in the north and south, but March and April are usually the hottest months, reaching 35°C in the Mekong valley.
Even at 5am, the makeshift riverside market bustled with life. Fishermen delivered sackfuls of catfish and carp, while women sat on buckets picking the small fish from the nets that hung from the trees. Bags of frogs and unidentifiable insects were on sale alongside the more familiar chickens and pigs.
The boatmen navigated the shallows carefully, with adapted long-shaft engines that hold their propellers near the surface of the water to help the boats fight the strong currents. The noise they make, like revving dirt bikes, is one of the most evocative sounds of the Mekong.
Ben Fogle in action on Big Fish
The dry season had long ended but the river I looked out at was still unseasonably low. Islands that would otherwise be submerged had appeared. Whole forests had surfaced, reclaimed from the water, the trees stooped and bent low by the force of the water.
Further along the banks of the river, the rice paddies were parched brown and lifeless. By now they should have been waterlogged. The weather here was “late”: the rains had not come. Like the river, the fish stocks were low, which provided a huge challenge for our anglers and an even bigger one for the locals. Without the rains, the fish will not migrate upriver.
Big Fish contestants wade through the Mekong River
The Mekong should be one of the most abundant and rich freshwater habitats in the world. Here in Laos, men dance around dressed as women, waving giant wooden phalluses to encourage the rain to return.
The fishing techniques here are well known. Locals use precarious high wires to cross the raging currents and inspect their fishing nets and traps. Intricate dams channel the water along manmade canals, at the end of which bamboo sieves collect any fish. Most impressive are the mid-river traps, set at low water during the dry season, that I saw now marooned in seemingly impenetrable white water rapids.
I joined a local fisherman to help him check his traps. He gestured to a tree enveloped by the white water before leaping into the water and swimming to the tree and hauling himself into its branches above the water. Next it was my turn. One wrong move and I would have been swept into the fury of water downstream. I dived and could feel myself jostled by the swirling currents; the weight of the river dragged at my legs as I grabbed for one of the branches and clambered to safety.
The fisherman took a rope with a wooden anchor and swung it like a lasso towards the trap in the water. The anchor connected like a grappling hook and he tied the other end of the rope to the tree. Then he leapt into the river, his slender body bouncing across its surface as he clung on to the rope. With a couple of swift movements he was on the trap. He shook his head to confirm that not only was the trap empty but I wouldn’t have to make the perilous leap myself.
We didn’t make our Big Fish anglers follow suit, but we did take them to Khone Falls. Tethered to the steep cliffs, they had to be inventive and resilient if they were to catch anything in what is sometimes described as the widest waterfall in the world. One slip and they’d be gone for ever. Here, for locals and visitors alike, fishing really is a life-or-death experience.
Earth’s Wildest Waters: the Big Fish is on Sundays on BBC2 at 8pm