water & dreams

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Water & Dreams

I take this title from Gaston Bachelard’s Water and Dreams. In this – one of a series of attempts by Bachelard to talk about the poesis of material things – Bachelard describes the sensuous qualities of water:  taste, the feel of being supported, overwhelmed, drowned. It is nurturing and destroying, and it – the very material qualities of water – provide a template for thinking about affect, thinking about dreams. 

I don’t want to follow Bachelard too far down his rabbit hole. He proposes a particular kind of unity that is projected upon experience, as if the channel between material and mind was unfiltered by language and, to use an abused word, culture. But I do want to follow him some distance. I want to talk about the way that the Mekong River’s flow affected me and others living next to it. All of us, living up and down the river’s bank, heard the same murmur and gurgle as it went by. We heard the thing belch, grow violent for seemingly no reason, and collapse back in on itself. 



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Shrine of Father Inthranakaracha

Shrine of Father Inthranakaracha
Photo: AAJ
Din Phiang Cave, Sangkhom
Nong Khai

It is little wonder that the Mekong is haunted by nagas – great serpentine beasts that, according to my interlocutors, used to slide up out of the mud and listen to the sermons of monks. They could change shape, and so a stranger at the back of a temple could be whispered to be something more than he seemed. My own presence in the town where I conducted my ethnographic fieldwork was rationalized by a spirit medium, who announced that I had been just such a beast in a previous life. A little one, and not so good. This latter explained why I’d come back as a foreigner, and not as someone better.


police respecting naga

Traffic police pay respect to naga
Photo: Khaosot
Nong Khai municipality

Nagas leave tracks when the come out of the river. They climb across cars and make a distinct footprint. These prints are seen alternately as a sign of divinity, a caution to avoid the riverbank, a curiosity, and a fun thing to go and look at. Also, possibly, as a prank.


Kae Bon Dancer

Kae Bon Dancer at Riverside Shrine
Photo: AAJ
Wat Mahabut, Bangkok


mekong flood

Mekong Flood
Photo: AAJ
Ban Buek

But it’s not the naga that I want to address here. It’s the material quality. The flow of this river is nothing like other rivers rivers that I grew up next to. Its surface is in constant motion in three dimensions: forwards and backwards, up and down. 

The Mekong, where it flows past Ban Beuk, is nothing like rivers here. Its surface is in constant motion in three directions; its flow is hypnotic. It normally flows from west to east, until the monsoons engorge it and it, at least further downstream in Cambodia, reverses and flows from east to west. It flows up and down, too: whirlpools the size of a fist form on the surface with great sucking sounds, travel a few meters downstream, then dissipate. Plateaus of water bubble up from underneath. These are expected when the river flows over a great rock [kaeng or, to refer more directly to the rock and less to the rapid, the hin]; but many are unpredictable: they form seemingly from nowhere and disappear into the swirl. There is an endless churn in the red-brown flow. 

At nights of the full moon, nagas come to the surface and belch pale fire into the air. Nai, my friend and, when I’m there, housemate, saw one once, hearing its distinct hissing sound and, turning, saw the fireball rise from the water’s surface. 


river bank

Riverbank Collapse
Photo: AAJ
Ban Beuk 2016


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Let us return to dreams. We like to think of dreams as meaningful – everyone does. We might attribute particular states of mind to dreams; they might tell us what we’re ruminating about, what we’re stressed out about, what we’ve repressed. In short, for us, dreams are about ourselves.

Dreams on the Mekong are not like this. They are social. If I see a ghost in a dream, I’ve seen a ghost. It is one point of evidence that a ghost is present. Similarly, if I communicate with a tall, beautiful woman dressed in green, I’m being stalked by a tree spirit. In the mid-1990s, a series of dreams went about murdering migrant workers from the area, as sexually insatiable widow ghosts would attack men dozing in the daytime and literally fuck them to death. 

Here are two dreams about water. Consider the link expressed here in my fieldnotes between the material of the water and dreams. 

“At night, I close my eyes and all I can see is the dam.”

Lert told me this as he lay back in the hammock underneath his house, as we both waited for the afternoon heat to fade and the time to come for the evening’s fishing. 

The dam had been sending Lert dreams for years now. 

“[The dam’s Chinese engineers] promise that they built it solidly, but I don’t believe [them]. When I see the dam [behind my closed eyelids], I see the white wall of the dam. But then I look, and there is a hole. A crack. Through the break, I can see the water of the river moving. The crack is long and black, stained and dirty, running from the base of the dam to the top. Dark water is spilling out from the crack. Every minute, a little bit more. It makes a sound when it does [he makes the sound]. It has a smell, like mud. It tells me that one day the dam will break open. And when it does, everyone here will die. Everything here will disappear, fallen into that black water.”

Lert took this dream to the spirit medium in the town, who tried to contact his counterpart in Laos, but the spirit made things worse. He had just finished adjudicating a farmer’s dispute, and misinterpreted Lert’s fear as a desire to get more water from Laos – a dispute very similar to the one he just discussed. “I will poke a hole in the dam!” the spirit said, and Lert, already drunk, got angry and started to shout at the spirit. 

He already had seen the dam, and knew better what was happening.


sunrise over laos

Sunrise Over Laos
Photo: AAJ
Ban Beuk 2015

Juxtaposed with Lert’s vision of the breaking dam is another, similar vision, another dream of water flowing from a distant source. One night, like Lert, I, too, dreamed of the river. In my case, I dreamed of an island. I had been sleeping in a hut at the edge of the river, facing east across the flow into Lao PDR. The first thing that I saw each morning was the sun, reddened by the smoke hanging in the morning air, rising over an island midstream. Standing up from the center of the island, just where the sun rose, was the stump of a takhian tree (Hopea odorata). 

In my dream, I saw this island clearly. Each leaf on each tree was fully illuminated from all directions, making the colors stand out as if drawn in crayon. Near the base of the takhian tree, crystal-clear water was gushing from a spring, but the water seemed viscous and thick. Thick globs of transparent fluid rolled off of the tree’s leaves and plopped down with an audible smack, disappearing into the reddish-brown Mekong water. They left football-sized chunks of perfectly clear water in the otherwise opaque stream.

Over breakfast, Thip, a woman in her early 40’s and the sister of the man (Nai) in whose compound I was living, asked me about my dreams. She had started asking me to describe them in detail each morning some weeks before, after I had given her and her sister, Yai, lottery tickets as gifts, one of which turned out to be a winner (Thip and Yai won about USD 200 each – not a small amount). But my dreams always disappointed her – she hoped to hear about a prominent animal that would "really" be a code for a particular number, or perhaps a lottery number given to me by a woman wearing ancient Lao dress, and the litany of anxieties infesting my junior academic’s subconscious frankly bored her. 

This dream, however, did not. She listened with interest to my description, a description that, I should note, might paint a different picture in Lao than it does in English (compare terms like “nam yot khon-khon, sii sai, meuan kaew [viscous drops of water, clear like crystal]” instead of “thick globs of transparent fluid”). The takhian tree, too, was significant. It was a kind that often was host to dangerous but potentially powerful spirits known to give fortune to people – especially men – that they fancied. Thip asked me for more and more details, and I filled them in as best as I could. At last, she was quiet. “So, what do you think it means?” I asked. 

She shrugged, “I don’t know. The island’s king [chao don] was talking to you,” she said succinctly. “But sometimes it’s hard to understand him when he speaks. The water is coming from him.” She thought for a moment. “Or maybe it was the tree.”

What I want to point out here are the similarities between Lert’s dream and mine. In both, something full of potential spills forth from a space. There is an engagement with the material of the water, and obsession with its color, its texture and its sound. There is a sense that the water is something more than what it is, that it speaks in a garbled way, like there are voices in its murmur. 


The Thai word ploen refers to the feeling of being (pleasurably) carried along with a flow - the flow of water, the flow of consciousness, the flow of thought. In this video, I juxtapose the ploen of the Mekong with a musical genre from the banks of the Mekong that also seeks to evoke this sense of flow: lam ploen. Nothing much happens in this video. That’s not the point. The point is to watch the flow and listen to the flow. To allow oneself to be carried along with it.


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