on 3 March 2009
At the time of writing, on the evidence of a single review, this book gets a grotesquely inadequate two stars. That needs to be redressed, in fairness to the author, and fairness to potential readers, who would be sadly misled if they missed out on this excellent read. If you like travel and exploration and rivers, then you can't not like this. While it may not have the sweaty-palms tension of 'Blood River', the tale of this journey into another 'heart of darkness' is as dramatic as - if less dark than - Tim Butcher's best-seller. By no stretch of mis-information can the six French members of the Mekong Exploration Commission be described as 'dull'. In the image of Napoleon's expedition to the Nile, and in the great tradition of the French Encyclopaedists, this was a 'symposium on the march'. The varying motivations of these savants provide a lot of the book's tensions. 'Monotonous scenery'? While it is true that in places the banks of the Mekong are flat (which is not the same as featureless), you only have to look at Louis Delaporte's marvellous pictures to realise that by far the greatest part of the expedition was through country that was anything but monotonous... (but then I've never been to Shoreham-on-Sea). From the sticky, malarial jungles of Cambodia and Laos to the freezing uplands of Yunnan, they came into contact with little-known hill-tribes, Buddhist monks, isolated Catholic missionaries, rebellious Moslems; tigers, elephants, rhinos and (worst of all) leeches; and exotic plant life. 'A history lacking in deeds of moment'...? The expedition took place, and Keay places it clearly in the context of the other 'Great Game', between France and Britain for imperial domination in South-east Asia. Add to that Keay's authoritative coverage of the Vietnam War, 'Apocalypse Now', Khmer Rouge Cambodia, the Golden Triangle and a lot more in the story of this fascinating and tragic region, and you have a highly satisfying, five-star read.
on 5 January 2015
This book is an extraordinary achievement. The author tells the story of one of the great expeditions of all time, showing how the personalities of the men led to its successes and its failures. And into this he weaves the history of, above all, Laos as well as comments on South-East Asia in general. I couldn't put it down as I sat beside the Mekong in Luang Prabang.
on 27 November 2013
John Keay uses a fluent and engaging style to hold any reader with an interest in South East Asia in this account which I found hard to put down. He brings together the politics, geography and history of the Mekong through the variably brave, farcical and reckless exploration by the French in the 19th century. Cleverly you are taken through the saga while he compares vignetttes of the present - I found that this educated indelibly the geography of the Mekong and much interesting history of all the actors in the development of this marvelous, fascinating part of the world. Some of it is very recognisable today, other aspects are gone forever. Human nature also drew me in from a psychological perspective, especially in relation to the massive consequences over centuries of policy based-evidence and pseudoscience, otherwise known as lying! Read and find out.
on 14 November 2008
This a book about a forgotton French expedition up the Mekong in the nineteenth century. The reason that it was forgotten was that the travellers were inexpressibly dull, the scenery pretty monotonous (1000 miles of riverbank) and the history of the area lacking in any deeds of moment and seemingly devoid of any characters of interest.
One can only blame Keay for writing the book. He also moves around in time a lot to explain the subsequent history of the area traversed. I suspect the is to alleviate his own boredom. It doesn't work.
Anyway, I was glad to finish the book and be rid of those bearded frenchies forever. Ha ha!