National Geographic : 1951 Apr
485 National Geographic Photographer Maynard Owen Williams Laotian Swains Rehearse by Day Their New Year's Love Court, a Nighttime Spectacle When the moon came out in Savannakhet, the photographer heard boys and girls exchanging love's compliments with extemporaneous verses. These youths bore a tinsel tower to the women's shelter. That day Mrs. Williams in Washington read three obscurely related items: One, a let ter from Saigon saying that Williams might return by steamer; one, a telegram an nouncing his arrival in Paris by plane; one, a newspaper paragraph telling how the ship that would have been his was lost at sea off Socotra, with 69 dead. Not until he returned home was the frayed good-luck charm, carrying Laotian prayers for safe return, removed from his wrist! As one motors south from Savannakhet to ward Stungtreng, there is an ominous sound which increases to a steady roar. Downriver one sees clouds of mist hanging in the color less sky. By sound and sight one knows that he has come to a rock barrier over which the mighty Mekong tumbles and against whose deadly currents and sharp crags no river traffic can make its way. Before airplanes made light of earthly ob stacles, steamboats had fought their way up China's Yangtze gorges. But no boat has triumphed over the Falls of Paphang, near Khone, on this other great river of Asia. A century ago, statesmen thought that one might follow the Mekong to China. But the Paphang Falls stopped Ernest M. L. Doudart de Lagree and Francis Garnier. When Jean Dupuis in 1873 showed that the Red River was the route toward Yunnan, Tonkin took first place in the race for empire. Long native river boats, now motorized, do triumph over portions of the river and chug upstream to Luang Prabang. Scores of ferries also hurdle river barriers along the 1,600-mile Mandarin Road and lesser high ways, and crossing the Mekong in several places is routine. The approach of nightfall in the tropical jungle has a nostalgic quality. The rude torch held by a friendly native, standing in heavy forest or close to an upended serpent of stone, conjures a sense of fellowship in black magic. Now, along such trails, it is not always the light of a friendly, smoky torch or flash of fireflies, but the sharp crack of a sniper's rifle.