There is a surreal beauty about the vast reservoir on Laos' Nakai plateau. Authorities are hoping the body of water half the size of Singapore, under a huge sky, surrounded by range upon range of blue-green hills clothed in tropical jungle, will eventually attract tourists.
On a study trip organised by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Nam Theun 2 Power Company (NTPC) last year, a group of journalists from the region including The Straits Times were given extensive access to the reservoir, the dam and power station, and relocated villagers, most of whom are 'Vietic' people; Laos is a patchwork of some 40 ethnic groups.
The tops of dead trees protrude from the water now, and the boatmen of the Nam Theun 2 (NT2) Power Corporation manoeuvre between them at great speed and with great skill.
The rotting debris of submerged vegetation has made it necessary to oxygenate the water that passes through the turbines of the NT2 power station and into a 27km channel that cuts through the stunning landscape of the Gnommalath plain with its jagged karst outcrops.
On the banks of the reservoir, where the high winds that funnel through what was once the valley of the Nam Theun river, a once-pristine tropical wilderness, huddle new villages housing communities displaced by the rising waters.
Once subsistence communities living off the forests and slash-and-burn agriculture, the 1,240 families from 17 to 18 settlements have been located in 16 villages, given new wooden and rattan houses with their own plots, 0.66ha of land each to farm, an electricity connection, and 650 boats with which to fish in the reservoir.
Schools and health clinics have been provided. Close monitoring shows health and school attendance, and even incomes, are up over what they were before - no real surprise given that the settlements were previously very remote, with little road connectivity.
700 school children are now enrolled who would otherwise not have been - a 90 per cent rise in primary school enrolment. Previously, there was a 70 per cent rate of parasitic infections in the communities; that is now down to seven per cent, thanks mainly to clean water extracted by hand pumps from bore wells.
Problems include the fact that the 0.66ha of land for cultivation is not very good for cultivation. Several of the villagers were unenthusiastic about the agricultural plots; some were not cultivating them at all, depending instead on fishing to earn an income.
The shift from a virtually cashless subsistence lifestyle, to one that must be linked to markets and needs cash flow to purchase daily necessities, is a tectonic one. Imagine a banker and his urban family being relocated to a jungle for the rest of their life and given some hand tools and a book on medicinal plants and told they must survive.
Among the problems identified in evaluations include indebtedness of the relocated villagers. Illegal extraction of forest produce is also a major problem.
There is also concern that as the resettled families depend more on fishing, with links to urban markets engineered by the NTPC, there may be a risk of overfishing in the reservoir even though large sections of it are reserved only for them.
Mr Soun Nilsvang, the NTPC's deputy manager for resettlement and a trained rural agronomist, said getting them to embrace a market economy had been difficult. Many did not trust banks to keep their money. Others did not see the need to generate more income than was barely adequate for their daily needs.
All the villagers met by the journalists expressed appreciation that the new settlements were 'more convenient' with schools and clinics nearby and everyone within shouting distance. But it may take a generation for the communities to fully adapt to a cash economy, Mr Soun Nilsvang admitted.
Along with the cash economy, plastic has been introduced to their lives; now waste disposal in the villages is a challenge.
Yet NT2 has won grudging praise even from environmental activists who are against Laos' plans to construct dozens of dams across the country – including on the Mekong mainstream. The mainstream dams in particular will have transnational implications, affecting Vietnam and Cambodia and to some degree Thailand as well.
NT2 was hugely controversial to begin with. It is South-east Asia’s first trans basin hydro power project – taking water from one river, Nam Theun, damming it and diverting it to another river, the Xe Bang Fai. Both are tributaries of the Mekong.
I recall attending a World Bank stakeholder meeting on NT2 in Bangkok several years ago. It was clear even then that the project was going to go ahead regardless of objections. It had morphed into a poverty alleviation and development project. There is something to be said however for the pressure from environmental groups; it helped drive better project design.
'What characterises this project is that there has been a high degree of consultation with affected people,' said Ms Elizabeth Mann, a senior social safeguard specialist with the ADB's Vientiane office.
'And it was the developer's responsibility to pay for the social aspects; the government provided the legal framework.
'But (the lifestyle in the new settlements) was never going to be an exact replacement for what they lost; it's still a work in progress.
'Some have adapted very quickly, and some slowly, but in general there has been a positive impact on livelihood. We have identified about 25 families who are vulnerable and need more support.'
One powerful driver will be the TV sets that now occupy almost every house - and the schools that occupy the children by day.
In one of the villages, a middle-aged woman, Hom, is one of the few who does not have a TV. But her 13-year-old grandson, Mai, goes to a friend's house every evening to watch TV.
'Sometimes he doesn't come back, and I have to go and fetch him,' his grandmother said.
Mai gave a shy smile when asked what he watched. Thai soap operas, was his answer.
And asked what he wanted to be when he grows up, he said: 'A policeman.'