Mekong Dreaming

Life and Death along a Changing River

Book Pages: 208 Illustrations: 12 illustrations Published: August 2020

Anthropology, Asian Studies > Southeast Asia, Religious Studies

The Mekong River has undergone vast infrastructural changes in recent years, including the construction of dams across its main stream. These projects, along with the introduction of new fish species, changing political fortunes, and international migrant labor, have all made a profound impact upon the lives of those residing on the great river. It also impacts how they dream. In Mekong Dreaming, Andrew Alan Johnson explores the changing relationship between the river and the residents of Ban Beuk, a village on the Thailand-Laos border, by focusing on the effect that construction has had on human and inhuman elements of the villagers' world. Johnson shows how inhabitants come to terms with the profound impact that remote, intangible, and yet powerful forces—from global markets and remote bureaucrats to ghosts, spirits, and gods—have on their livelihoods. Through dreams, migration, new religious practices, and new ways of dwelling on a changed river, inhabitants struggle to understand and affect the distant, the inassimilable, and the occult, which offer both sources of power and potential disaster.


Mekong Dreaming is both an exemplary work of ethnography and a timely and important intervention in contemporary debates in anthropological theory. Focusing on northeast Thailand and the effects of dam construction on the Mekong among local fishing and farming communities, this book's original contribution consists in its foregrounding of uncertainty and unknowability in the lived experience of non-western cosmologies.” — Stuart J. McLean, coeditor of Crumpled Paper Boat: Experiments in Ethnographic Writing

“Andrew Alan Johnson's lucid and richly detailed ethnography of the Thai-Lao border shows how the inchoate and the unknowable can be apprehended through genuinely empirical research. In this masterful analysis, Johnson shows how a marginalized population grapples with the intensified environmental uncertainties generated by modern technology and political upheaval by deploying a cosmological vision that enfolds piety, potentiality, and materiality in a tangled experiential frame.” — Michael Herzfeld, author of Siege of the Spirits: Community and Polity in Bangkok

"The book is clearly written, presenting a compelling narrative of daily life and also delving into complex topics without drowning in academic jargon. As such it is accessible for both students and experts. . . . The power of Johnson’s approach is that rather than simply casting uncertainty as a negative, he explores the ways in which uncertainty—the power of 'maybe'—can act as a potency rather than simply something to be worked around." — Erin B. Taylor, Anthropology Book Forum

Mekong Dreaming is a lovely, fluent ethnography of a river and its political ecology, focusing on the people on one bank of the Mekong where it forms a border between Thailand and Laos…. Johnson’s style is crisp and engaging and his dealings with recent theory are all concrete and pointed…. Johnson has produced political ethnography of a high order.”

— Leo Coleman, PoLAR Online


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Price: $25.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Andrew Alan Johnson is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of Ghosts of the New City: Spirits, Urbanity, and the Ruins of Progress in Chiang Mai.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction.  Through a Glass, Darkly  1
1. Naga and Garuda  29
2. River Beings  69
3. Dwelling under Distant Suns  104
4. The River Grew Tired of Us  130
5. Human and Inhuman Worlds  161
Notes  171
Bibliography  179
Index  193
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-1082-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0977-1