Stories from Siphandon in Southern Laos

The name “Siphandon” refers to about 4,000 (siphan in Lao) islands (don) in the Mekong River located in the Khong District of Champasak Province in Southern Laos. In this area, near the Cambodian border, the Mekong spreads to a width of about 14 kilometers with all manner of large and small islands and cascades emerging from the river. The Mekong boasts the world’s largest freshwater fishery, and the Siphandon area supports people’s livelihoods with abundant aquatic resources. Less than 100 Irrawaddy Dolphins, commonly known as Mekong River Dolphins, an endangered species, also live here (WWF).

The area was ruled by the Kingdom of Champasak from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Under that dynasty, the Lao version of the Ramayana (Phra Lak Phra Lam) was disseminated, and stories inscribed on bailan (manuscript materials made from palm leaves, used for recording Buddhist tales and other narratives) are still found at temples in the area. “The Legend of the Water Buffalo King”, introduced in this section, derives from the Phra Lak Phra Lam.

It is in this area that plans for constructing a hydroelectric dam are progressing. Mekong River fish make seasonal migrations, but in Siphandon there is only one route they can use year round, and the dam would obstruct it. For this reason, there are fears that the dam would damage the fisheries and have an enormous negative impact on the populations and diversity of fish. It would also have a devastating impact on the Irrawaddy Dolphin, which appears in one of the stories introduced in this section.