A cruise down the river Mekong in Laos is the perfect introduction to this gentle country, which many people believe still retains the essence of southeast Asia
We shivered against the early morning chill as we made our way by car in the heart of northern Thailand’s corner of the Golden Triangle along the road from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong. As the sun made its tentative efforts to herald a new day, wisps of cloud clung obstinately to the toothy peaks of the mountains that surrounded us in the watery early morning light.
Our destination was the small pier, where the briefest longtail boat taxi-ride would take us across the river to the Laotian town of Huai Say and the beginning of our journey down a section of one of the world’s longest rivers.
There is an old French saying that the Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow. Our leisurely two-day boat trip downstream to Laos’ celebrated former royal capital, Luang Prabang, seemed like a fittingly gentle introduction to this country, which many people believe still holds the essence of southeast Asia.
Cruising the Mekong Lao-style meant a purpose-built traditional-style 34-metre wooden river barge called the Luang Say, with an old-fashioned deck dotted with colonial-style steamer chairs that accommodated its 30 predominately European passengers.
Having set off with Thailand on one side and Laos on the other, we soon left the border behind where the river gently meanders into the depths of the Laotian countryside. As the captain deftly dodged jagged boulders and swirling rapids, we were soon enveloped by a fairytale landscape of towering peaks and lush jungle in numerous shades of green.
As we glided downstream, wrapped in blankets to fend off the stiff river breezes, it felt like very little had changed for centuries: villagers bathed along the water’s edge, children splashed and waved, and the only modern incursion was the occasional ear-piercing roar of the longtail boats that offer a breakneck taxi service connecting the villages along the riverbank. In this remote corner, the Mekong dominates and is at the centre of every aspect of local life.
The original name for Laos, Lan Xiang, means land of a million elephants, but for all its romanticism, Laos has a complicated history. After colonialism and a bitter 20-year civil war, the People’s Republic of Laos was formed in 1975. One of the world’s poorest nations and one of the few communist states in the world, over 90 per cent of its population follow Theravada Buddhism. Travelling through Laos, you get a strong sense of somewhere not altogether existing in the modern world.
You can get glimpses of Laos’ diverse ethnic make-up as you journey down the river. There are over 130 distinct groups living in Laos, such as the Hmong, who populate the mountains of northern Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, and whose villages can also be seen dotted along the banks of the river.
Further downstream, we stopped at the tiny village of Gon Dturn, whose name romantically translates as “before waking up”. As we scrambled up from the pebbly riverside, a greeting party of barefoot local children rushed down to meet us. Home to the Lao Luong people, the village, with its teak houses set on stilts among the trees, is known for its cloth, made by women who sit outside, working hand looms. Having distributed what ballpoint pens we could find for the children, and stocked up on souvenirs, we boarded the boat and set off again.
As evening began to descend, our next stop was the Luang Say Lodge, a cluster of houses set on stilts poking up through the jungle and linked by a series of elevated walkways. It’s a romantic spot and the basic but comfortable rooms have head-on views of the river.
The following day, more of the unspoilt landscape of this remote region unfurled like an ever-changing tapestry as we resumed our course and slipped gently downriver. Sitting on the boat, with nothing to do but observe, we soaked it all in. Just upstream from Luang Prabang are the evocative Pak Ou caves. Reached by a set of vertiginous stairs hewn from the steep rocky banks, the caves, which were originally dedicated to the river spirits, are now temples with every available space decorated with thousands of images of Buddha, in an extraordinary and atmospheric display of devotion.
In late afternoon, our journey came to an end, as the sightseeing barges became more plentiful and we arrived at the steep flight of steps that lead from the river to Luang Prabang. One of the Mekong’s and southeast Asia’s most enchanting cities, despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang still feels like a bit of a discovery.
Perched on a spit of land where the Namhkam river flows into the Mekong, this former royal capital is dotted with French colonial remnants and its skyline is studded with the unmistakable pitched roofs of over 30 Buddhist temples, or wats, the most spectacular of which is the gold-tinged three-tiered roof of the 16th-century royal Temple of Wat Xieng. You can see Luang Prabang’s sizeable population of saffron-robed monks each morning at daybreak, silently filing along the streets, accepting alms from local residents. There are cafes, craft shops and restaurants but what captivates the most, is the city’s beguiling atmosphere, as languid as the river, which proved to be the ideal partner on our journey.
British Airways, Thai Airways, Eva Air and Qantas fly non-stop to Bangkok.
Where to eat
The Apsara in Luang Prabang has river views, a welcoming atmosphere and an Asian menu with some European touches.
One of Luang Prabang’s priciest restaurants, L’Elephant oozes old colonial-style elegance with a predominately French-inspired menu.
Also recommended is The 3 Nagas at the hotel of the same name in Luang Prabang.