Kids leap off the river bank in front of the superbly carved prow of our longboat, Nagi of the Mekong, which will take two long and lazy days to travel the watery 500km separating Chiang Khong in Thailand from Luang Prabang in northern Laos on this Mekong River cruise. The mythical river originates high in the Tibetan plateau, crosses six countries, then travels 3,000 miles to finally spill out into a vast delta on Vietnam’s south east coast.
Starting out in Chiang Khong, Thailand
Chiang Khong, where I am picked up to join the trip, is little more than one muddy street stretched alongside the mighty Mekong, but it’s popular with the local hill tribes and the streets are bright with colourfully dressed Hmong women who come here to sell their market produce. I arrive the night before my departure and stay at The Hub Pub, a cheap and funky hostel-cum-cycle museum packed with photos of sports-greats and bits of iconic bikes. Over a Singha beer, hostel owner Alan Bate tells me about his round-the-world cycling trip, which earned him an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for fastest circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle.
Nagi’s skipper picks me up in a minibus the following morning and leads me swiftly through Thai and Laos immigration, before boarding the big wooden boat at the tiny port of Huay Xai, along with 15 other passengers. There are plenty of boats that cover the Chiang Khong–Luang Prabang route, including speedboats that do the trip in eight hours. For a slow travel fan, however, the Nagi is ideal, especially as the ticket price includes sightseeing, meals and snacks.
Stilt houses on the Thailand-Laos border © Suphanat/Shutterstock
As our elegant vessel putters out into mid stream, a buffet lunch is served. There’s tongue-burningly spicy chicken curry, crunchy piles of cooked vegetables and my favourite dessert: coconut-flavoured sticky rice khao neeo mamuang topped with slices of ripe mango.
Watching the scenery go by
Deliciously full, I laze on a cushioned seat enjoying the scenery. We pass elephants snorting water at each other like naughty kids and fishermen up to their waists in water, casting nets in wide graceful arcs. At one time they would have caught pa beuk, the Mekong’s legendary giant catfish, which can grow up to three metres long. Nowadays, however, like the river’s freshwater stingray and the blunt-nosed Irrawaddy dolphin, this elusive species is critically endangered and fishing them is illegal.
Stopping at a small village en route we have fun with the local children who run in and out of their grass-thatched houses to show us their pet chickens, then scribble excitedly in the colouring books that we leave behind as we continue on our Mekong River cruise journey.
Reaching the Laos border
The sun is setting over Oudomxay mountain when we arrive in Pakbeng. As the red disc slips beneath a tangle of lush greenery topped with clouds, we leap from the boat and climb the steep hillside into town, avoiding the drug touts who offer weed – and harder substances. Until recently, the Mekong was Laos’ only major transport route and Pakbeng, at the centre of the Golden Triangle, is an overnight town for cargo and passenger ferries.
The river port in Luang Prabang © I Viewfinder/Shutterstock
The Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge is this tiny town’s only real luxury hotel. Rooms are spacious with sleek wooden floors, big beds, air conditioning and a terrace with panoramic views over the river to the Mekong Elephant camp opposite. Grabbing my torch I head down hill to one of the near identical cluster of restaurants perched on a high cliff overlooking the Mekong. Sitting by flickering candlelight I crunch on ping ped grilled duck and sip on the local fermented rice drink lao lao bong as I watch the dark river flow past on its way to Luang Prabang.
Heading to the heart of Laos
As we glide further into the heart of Laos on day two, the Mekong becomes much wider. In the last few decades more than 1,000 new plant and animal species have been discovered in the Greater Mekong region and as rice fields and peanut plantations give way to dense Mekong palm thickets it’s easy to understand why. Soon the river is so wide we can barely see the other side. Surging along, surrounded by choppy white waves, we lunch on tom jeaw pa fish soup, followed by spicy marinated fish dish laap, served with a crisp green papaya salad.
Wat Chom Si in Luang Prabang, Laos © Paifony/Shutterstock
As the waters grow calmer we reach the Pak Ou caves at the mouth of the Ou river and hop ashore to admire the fascinating collection of Buddha statues and images that have been left in these limestone caves over the centuries by local townsfolk. The late afternoon sun is gilding the golden roofs of the city’s temples, when we arrive in the UNESCO World Heritage-classed town of Luang Prabang, in northern Laos. Once the Royal capital of the kingdom of Laos, this picturesque little town is packed with Buddhist temples and crumbling French colonial architecture, crowned by Wat Chom Si on top of the town’s tallest hill.
Exploring Luang Prabang
Over the next few days I learn the traditional trade of silk weaving with locals at Backstreet Academy, visit the French colonial era Royal Palace and shop for colourful local souvenirs, whilst snacking from the large, incredibly cheap ‘eat-all-you-want’ buffets, in Luang Prabang’s night market.
On my last day in town I rise at dawn and stroll through streets lined with golden-roof wats and traditional wooden houses to Sakkaline Road, where I queue to hand over a bag of rice to the monks who come here seeking alms, whilst offering up a silent prayer of thanks for my fabulous trip along the Mekong.
Top image: Mekong river port in Luang Prabang, Laos © i viewfinder/Shutterstock