ON THE PENINSULA WHICH TAKES ITS NAME, the Mekong River is its most evocative icon. Aeons ago, before national boundaries snaked across the Mekong Basin, a multitude of ethnic groups formed a rich human tapestry across this ancient land. Over time, kingdoms arose. Then, colonial powers arrived and, when they left, civil strife took hold in their wake. So it was that only 20 years ago, the region was still home to some conflict, it was considerably closed to the world beyond, and had a large proportion of its population mired in poverty.