There will be a quickening in the grasslands, a fluttering in the skies, and a bubbling in the waters from now on… but it’s been a silent few weeks along the banks of the upper reaches of the Mekong : that four and a half thousand kilometre (2,800 mile) mighty river which flows from the snowy mountains of Tibet to the sweaty coast of Vietnam.
And it’s quieter all year around…
“There are more people than ever pulling fish from the river and hunting animals in the forests. There’s less bird song. Sometimes you think there’s not a lot left here”, says Noi, one of our guides on a boat trip from Houay Xay to Luang Prabang in the north of Laos.
There’s also an abundance of new mining and large-scale farming ventures, as well as designs for new holiday resorts and at least nine dams.
Not far from where these elephants are daily led down to the river for their morning breakfast, another dam is planned at Pak Beng.
In an anonymous briefing with The Economist magazine, a senior Laotian official lamented the fact that his government had given concessions on a third of its land to foreign companies.
Otherwise : lethal-looking speedboat taxis roar up and down the river, and the foundations of towns and hotels are being dug into the banks, accompanied by the throaty grumble of diggers and trucks.
I’m not qualified to say whether the Mekong can be exploited sympathetically, with any impact on the environment sufficiently mitigated or not. The government in Vientiane knows how important the river is economically as well as environmentally. And as far as the major projects are concerned, sustainability and sensitivity are part of the stated aims.
But big ventures and small can have unintended consequences. Success can be its own worst enemy. And we may have seen a microscopic example of this when we visited a Hmong village on our journey.
Laos has nearly 50 different ethnicities within its borders, which speak around 80 different languages. Among the most famous are the Hmong - and we visited a Hmong community largely living as it has done for centuries.
We paid a little tax to the villagers. Quite right. And we bought a few things made locally. Good. Some of the more thoughtful with us handed out crayons and drawing paper to the children.
But Noi was a little uncomfortable.
And when we asked why, he pointed towards three or four new clearings in the forest, and five or six new houses. Homes that he said could now be afforded thanks to the income from outsiders.
“The children can stay now, and raise their families here. More than before. More hungry.”
I’m not qualified to judge, and I certainly feel uncomfortable attributing anything evil to villagers who are near the very lowest rung of development in the world.
But perhaps the sheer scale of the Mekong - the 12th largest river in the world - is deceiving villagers, companies and government planners alike. Perhaps it seems too big to imagine spoiling.
But little by little, or large chunk by large chunk, it could be destroyed.