AS a longtime ferryman on the Mekong River, Vanthong Phanthabong can ably steer his 45-foot craft through the turbulence of the chocolate-colored waters that flow down from Himalayan snows.
``Working on the mother of rivers,'' as he calls the mighty Mekong, ``is difficult and dangerous.''
But these days, Mr. Vanthong and his family, who live on their wooden ferry near the former imperial capital of Laos, are also trying to steer past the dramatic currents of change that have come to the Mekong region. The river's watershed is equal in size to France and helps sustains 52 million people from six nations (Laos, China, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam).
``The life around me is changing faster than the river does in the rainy season,'' Vanthong says, as he stands next to his boat, ankle-deep in the river he loves.
Until the late 1980s, this southeast corner of Asia, home to some of the world's poorest people, was war-battered and largely closed.
For nearly half a century, the Mekong was more a watery battleground for revolution than an artery for trade and joint development. It was dubbed the ``river of evil memory.''
Even though the 2,600-mile-long Mekong is one of the world's longest rivers, it has had no tourist boats until recently.
Vanthong points to a large boat heading upstream and says that it carries BMW and Lexus cars to the border with China, where rich merchants will likely pay for the cars with bags of gold. Many of the cars come from Singapore through Thailand in a newly devised land-and-river trade route.
China's burst of economic growth and its opening of trade and better ties with its southern neighbors, marked by the visit of Chinese Premier Li Peng to Hanoi in 1991, have helped bring peace and prosperity to the Mekong region.
But, Vanthong notes sadly, pollution from Chinese factories is traveling downstream, along with more silt from deforested mountains and more migrants who are harvesting too many fish. (The Mekong is home to the world's largest fresh-water fish, the pla beuk catfish, which can grow up to 13 feet, as well as the world's tallest flying bird, the Sarus crane).
In 1992, the first boats from Yunnan Province in China came down the Mekong to the delta in Vietnam, carrying goods from Asia's interior - a longtime but failed goal of European colonialists.
Such a journey was not possible while the Soviet Union held influence over the three states of Indochina: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
NEW market-oriented policies of the communist governments in the Mekong region have helped Vanthong buy a Japanese diesel engine for his boat. Now he can transport goods between China and Thailand more easily. His boat's propeller spurts a rooster tail of spray 10 feet high and sends out a loud buzz that echoes across the wide Mekong and into the jungle hills.
An end to the cold war has reduced fears along the river, he says. Attacks by anticommunist guerrillas against the Laotian government have all but stopped. Such attacks were common during the 1980s, launched across the river from Thailand. And in Cambodia, Vietnamese troops have been withdrawn after a decade of occupation, which was followed by the 1990 peace accord.
Perhaps the biggest change for Vanthong, however, will come this April when the first major bridge across the Mekong will open near the Laotian capital of Vientiane and the Thai city of Nong Khai. (Friendship Bridge, Page 13.)
A smaller bridge exists in the mountainous upper reaches of the river near its origin in Tibet.
The new bridge, built with $30 million in aid from Australia, will put many ferrymen like Vanthong out of business. And it will likely be the first of many to be built along the lower Mekong. At least three more bridges are planned, along with various interconnecting highways. A bridge-and-road system will soon provide the land route to China that the Europeans sought in the last century. By 1995, it will be possible to drive from Singapore to Beijing.
The new bridge, called Mittraphap (Friendship), is ``a powerful symbol of the emerging contacts across the river and the end of conflicts of the past,'' says John Richardson, an Australian diplomat in Bangkok.
Until the 1980s, all but one of the six nations (Thailand) along the river were hard-line socialist or communist, often warring with each other and maintaining largely closed markets. In the post-cold-war world, however, they have made peace with each other, opened their economies, resettled more than 300,000 refugees, and started to cooperate in developing a river that ties them together.
In 1993, a regional body called the Mekong Committee was rejuvenated in an agreement between Thailand and Vietnam that readmits Cambodia, which withdrew in 1978 during the three-year reign of the Khmer Rouge.
The committee, set up in 1957 to develop the river, was not very active during the decades of regional warfare. Now, along with Japan and the Asian Development Bank, the committee's 20-odd Western donors have grand plans for regional development.
The donors, led by Sweden, Australia, Japan, and Germany, ``want to promote stability in the region and link up the countries through economic building,'' says Bengt Juhlin, program coordinator for the committee.
Japan plans to construct roads and an electrification network, as well as to coordinate international aid to the region by starting up an ``Indochina fund.'' A number of hydroelectric projects are planned on Mekong tributaries, while the committee's original plan for the river itself has been dropped.
China may soon join the Mekong Committee, although Burma, officially known as Myanmar, is unlikely to join as long as drug warlords control the so-called ``Golden Triangle'' in northern Burma, Mr. Juhlin says.
The biggest threat now to regional cooperation is competition for the Mekong's water itself. Vietnam worries Thailand might divert waters to dams or to irrigation of its dry northeastern region, a move that would spell disaster for the rice-rich delta.
``We do not oppose any dam project upstream, but we do want to ensure that there is no low flow downstream in the delta, especially during the dry season,'' says Hoang Trong Quang, Vietnam's director of international cooperation in Hanoi's Ministry of Water Resources.
``So far Thailand claims that it will maintain a minimum low flow,'' he adds. ``But we lack adequate information on the flow impact of each project. Thailand is still a security risk for us. We are afraid that low flow will cut off our main `rice bowl' and starve Vietnam.''
If the two nations can work together, it could bring a new era to a region that was once historically the crossroads for Indian, Chinese, and Western culture.
``Thailand thought it could control the Mekong, but with a democratic government now in Bangkok and with changes in Vietnam and Cambodia, the countries are cooperating more,'' Juhlin says.