One of my most relaxing and enjoyable travel experiences in recent years has been a 36 hours’ boat cruise on the timeless Mekong River from Luang Prabang in Laos into northern Thailand. (A map of the route is at end of my Blog)
Departing Luang Prabang at sunrise, we cruised for 1½ hours (the average speed travelling northwards against the current was about 20 kph), before stopping at the Pak Ou Caves: deep grottos cut deep into a basalt cliff, home to small Buddha statues and a colony of bats. During the war years of the 1970s they were used by local villagers to shelter from US bombing raids.
The rest of the morning we spent cruising upstream, overtaking the slower, larger wooden boats, but left behind in the wake of the sleek, narrow speedboats whose passengers wore motorcycle helmets (including saffron robed monks).
We passed small herds of white cattle poised on the sandy riverbanks, water buffalo submerged up to their heads, large protruding rocks surrounded by fast flowing eddies, a few fishermen casting nets and hillsides of red earth and trees.
Lunch of rice, chicken curry, vegetables & bananas on board was followed by an early afternoon stop at Bor village, home to Lao plains people and only accessible by boat. Simple wooden raised houses, lots of stored chopped logs for fires, women weaving cotton shawls, groups of giggling children, chickens pecking in the dust, a Buddhist temple decorated with painted motifs, the absent men up in the hills – the unhurried,languid air was redolent of the pages of Joseph Conrad.
We continued heading west upriver, the air hot and still with hardly a breeze after a light shower of rain. A few thick-horned goats stood sentinel on the rocks above the water and majestic pale trunked trees towered vertically through the forest canopy.
Simple villages of wood & thatch suddenly appeared and just as quickly were left behind, whilst colourfully painted blue & red boats were moored against the pale brown sandy riverbanks.
Just before sunset we arrived at Luang Say Lodge, situated just to the west of the fairly sizeable town of Pak Beng and perched a good way above the high water line along the ridge of a richly vegetated hill.
Above: Lang Say Lodge.
This attractive jungle lodge of 20 rooms offers a ceiling fan, mosquito net over a double bed, hot water shower, flush loo & large shutters opening onto the Mekong. We dined on spring rolls, grilled beef, chicken in satay sauce, vegetables, banana, rice & coconut fritters with honey to a cacophony of insect noise from the surrounding trees.
We awoke early the next morning to the sounds of fluting birdsong, whilst a grey light was cast over the river before the sun had risen over the top of the hills on the opposite bank. After a breakfast of mango on hot sticky rice, delicious red pawpaw & lime, crème caramel & toast we climbed back aboard the boat as the sun’s rays were hitting the placid, brown Mekong waters.
We cruised for the rest of the morning, passing fishermen casting nets from longboats, banana plantations and browsing goats. A few swallows made an appearance, flying eastwards downriver. There was only a vague notion of the progression of time as we continued over light rapids, past whirlpools and through a narrow gap between rocks, but for the most part we chugged at a steady pace along the wide, brown, glassy surface of the Mekong, flanked by pale sandy riverbanks, black basalt rocks & deep green vegetation.
Forbidding grey rain clouds built up at lunchtime, and then heavy rain fell as we visited the Hmu village of Ben Houei Phalam, slipping in the mud with umbrellas in hand whilst the villagers looked on in amusement, wisely sheltering inside houses of bamboo.
By late afternoon we reached the invisible frontier with Thailand at Pak Tha, where the river widened significantly and the hills receded a good distance back from the water along both banks (Laos to the east, Thailand to the west). After crossing the border there was a noticeable increase in the number of buildings, people and commercial activity. Ducks, swallows and Little Pratincoles were flying around the boat and resting on mid-river sandbanks.
We disembarked at Huai Say on the eastern bank of the Mekong to clear Laos Immigration & Customs before crossing the river by long-tailed boat to Chiang Khung on the Thai side of the river. From here the road transfer to Anantara’s Golden Triangle Elephant Camp takes just over 1 hour, a journey through well cultivated countryside of rice, maize & bananas, the forest cut back to a high contour line along the steep hills, following the west bank of the romantic, graceful Mekong River.