My wife and I are sitting on a terrace outside our small guesthouse in Nong Khai, Thailand. We are on a cliff above the Mekong River. It is night, the river is black and the hills of Laos on the other side of the river are silhouetted in the starlit night. A ghostly antique ship, gaily painted and strewn with lights, creeps by in the night. Mournful but lovely Thai music plays on board and echoes down the valley. It is magical, unforgettable. If I saw nothing in 2 weeks in Thailand but this scene, the trip of 10,000 miles would have been worthwhile. Memories, as the song says, are made of this.

I have been trying to identify the reason the scene made such a strong emotional impact on me. It is more than just the remarkable beauty of the moment. It has something to do with the way this people has been able to build upon history, tradition and myth to create something new, something vibrant and successful. I think of Albuquerque, a city that is more than 300 years old but has almost nothing to show for its long and interesting past.

I think of Santa Fe, where the past has been reduced to a tourist commodity. A few days after returning from our Asian trip, we walked the East Side streets of Canyon Road and Acequia Madre on Christmas Eve. Thousands did likewise, jamming the streets wall to wall, hurrying in the frigid cold, not bothering to stop and chat, not even looking up at the lights they came to see.

The farolitos, small piles of wood, blazing beside the road, the cups of hot chocolate offered to passersby, the impromptu carols and the gay chords of guitars were all things of the past (except on one small alley, where there were only neighbors and a true sense of the time and place survived). Rather than building on the past, Santa Fe, like Albuquerque, like so much of the United States, has destroyed it.

There are a few rivers that played essential roles in making the world we know today. Such is the Rio Grande, without which New Mexico would not have had the civilizations of the past 1,000 years. Such, too, is the Mekong River, where, as the poet Seamus Heaney wrote in another context, hope and history rhyme. The great river is also the pulse and passion of much of our own odyssey through the region.

Like the Rio Grande, the Mekong functions as an international border for hundreds of miles, but in doing so it serves more to unite than divide the nations on its banks, as we would learn in country after country.

More than 2,700 miles long and flowing through every country in mainland Southeast Asia (China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand), the Mekong drains a basin of some 307,000 square miles. At least 70 million people are directly dependent on the river for their livelihood.

We first lay eyes on the storied river when we arrived at the Thai-Lao border city of Nong Khai, after a daylong train trip from the ancient city of Ayutthaya, over a mountain range and through the Northeast, the verdant plain that is the rice bowl of Thailand—and because Thailand is one of the largest rice exporters, also of much of the world.

Despite the success of its agriculture, the Northeast is not a happy place. Chronically poor, suffering from drought intensified by climate change, historically ignored by government policy makers, discriminated against by wealthier and more sophisticated Thais living elsewhere (even the Northeast’s trademark sticky rice is looked down on by southern Thais), the 20 million residents of the Northeast are the core of populist politics that bedevil the Bangkok middle class and elite, and occasioned several coups in recent years.

Photo by Thelma Bowles.

Photo by Thelma Bowles.

Some praise the Northeast as the cultural heart of Thailand, but it is also the origin of the servants and prostitutes forced out by poverty who keep the tourists happy in Bangkok bars and southern beach resorts.

In fact, rapid, unplanned and highly centralized development has divided Thailand into two countries. Most of the wealth and infrastructure and modernism largely serve the 20 million Thais in the Bangkok area; most of the people—some 50 million—along with the freshest food, the longest history, and the truly spectacular landscapes, are elsewhere. Two years ago, the military took over power, in part to forestall a looming civil war between the two Thailands. It was the 19th military coup since the abolition of the absolute monarchy in 1935.

Our first stop in the other Thailand was Nong Khai, a communications hub for road, river and rail traffic that is only 15 miles from the small Laotian capital, Vientiane.

Laotians have had a long and mixed history with Thailand, especially here in the Northeast, where a majority of the people have Lao ancestors. Laotians fled to Thailand to escape from American bombing during the Vietnam war, from civil warfare in Laos between leftist and rightist armies, then from the Communist takeover of Laos. Today, Laotians come to Thailand mainly to escape poverty. For them, as for many Vietnamese, Cambodians, Burmese, Malaysians and Chinese, Thailand is the land of opportunity. Throughout all the regional wars and upheavals, Thailand prospered and offered jobs and homes and peace (and from time to time democratic government and political stability) to its neighbors, as it continues to do today.

We arrived in Nong Khai during the full moon festival, a monthly event celebrated throughout the country but in a variety of ways. The festival in late October is especially large because it coincides with the end of the summer rainy season and also the end of the months-long seclusion of Buddhist monks.

At this time, Nong Khai and nearby areas along the Mekong River are famous—or notorious, depending on your point of view—for the rise of colored balls into the air, supposedly generated spontaneously by changing temperatures underwater. The whole thing is a bit of a tourist trap for Thais from Bangkok and struck us as spurious, an event marked more by traffic jams and drunkenness than any valid tradition.

But we stumbled on a celebration that wasn’t at all spurious or touristy. The promenade and the avenue along the river were blocked off and the whole town had turned out to have fun. Kids were breakdancing, men were playing music, there was song and dance. As always in Thailand, an aromatic and colorful row of street stalls had been set up to sell barbecued meats, grilled fish, rice and noodle soups, and a seemingly endless variety of tropical fruit.

We could have spent a month in Nong Khai and relished every moment of it, but travel, even on a trip as long as two months, means making choices, and the decision to do one thing inevitably means not doing something else. So finally and with considerable reluctance, we left Nong Khai for other adventures. We knew, however, that very soon we would have to return to the great Mekong.