Adrian Bridge takes a Mekong cruise through Laos, where, despite the encroachment of the modern world, the ‘Mother of Water’ remains the region’s spiritual lifeblood.
My first impression of the Mekong was disappointing. Night had fallen and as we sped north from Chiang Rai to the evocatively named “Golden Triangle” (the meeting point of Thailand, Laos and Burma), I was full of eager anticipation at the prospect of setting eyes on one of the world’s greatest rivers.
Known locally as the Mae Nam Khong (the “mother of water”), the Mekong extends over more than 2,700 miles from its source on the Tibetan plateau to the vast delta in Vietnam, where it flows into the South China Sea. Along the way it passes through some of the most exotic terrain in the world: the tropical province of Yunnan in south-west China and the south-east Asian treasure troves of Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The name alone is enough to make the spirits soar.
I had waited a long time for this moment. But when finally we reached the river there wasn’t much to see. It was pitch-black and all I could make out was a swirling dark, inky mass. Rather more noticeable was what looked like a ghastly, garishly lit temple on the other side of the bank.
“That,” I was informed, “is the casino. It is for the Chinese workers involved in building projects in Laos. But quite a lot of Thai people go there too.” My heart sank. The Mekong of my imagination – pristine, pure, magnificent – had been contaminated. I had a horrible feeling that I’d missed the boat.
Fortunately, as we know, first impressions can be misleading.
The Luang Say
“Here begins our great adventure,” declared the feisty Frenchwoman (almost certainly in her seventh decade) as we set forth along the river from the town of Houei Say on the Laos/Thai border.
We were sitting on the deck at the front of the Luang Say, a converted barge redolent of an earlier era and perfect for those wanting to see the river up close, but also in style.
We had not long left behind the hustle and hassle of a border post in which, in addition to that casino, there were clear signs of industrial activity (much of the trade in these parts consists of concrete coming south and timber going north).
On either side, lush vegetation clung to the hills that hugged the course of the river and the sun warmed our faces. The captain was kept busy negotiating what looked like mini whirlpools and clusters of rocks, on some of which were unmanned rods (it wasn’t quite the season for the giant catfish found in these parts, but there were plenty of rich pickings down there).
Even if time and expense allowed, it would be impossible to travel the entire length of the Mekong by boat as many parts are unnavigable (as I was subsequently to discover at the spectacular Khone Phapheng – the “Niagara of the East”).
But there are long stretches that can be experienced on the water. Having a week to play with, I opted for two separate Mekong journeys, one in the north and one in the south of Laos, the south-east Asian country that intrigued me most.
Rather than the larger ships that ply the river in the Cambodian flood plains, I chose to sail in two barges that have been tastefully converted by their French owners into vessels that evoke something of the spirit of what travel in this part of the world would have been like when it was better known as Indo-China.
It takes a while to tune into the rhythm of the river, but at some point during that first afternoon I stopped trying to discover more about my fellow passengers – we were 20 in total and a mixture of primarily European nationalities and ages (from early thirties to mid-sixties) – and instead focused on the sound of the water lapping the stern and the sight of the trees and the dramatic rock formations climbing the shores.
There were occasional signs of human habitation (wooden houses on stilts rising through the foliage) and agricultural activity (peanut crops planted in the fertile sands exposed when the river is low), and there was a shout of joy when we spotted an elephant. But for the most part we were the sole boat on the river and the scenery appeared untouched. Towards dusk, in scenes that had a primeval quality to them, children with beautifully cheery faces came down to the water to play and to bathe; to smile and to wave.
“This is indeed a great adventure,” I told the feisty Frenchwoman as we approached the lodge in the hills close to Pakbeng in which we would take refuge for the night. Later that evening, enjoying aperitifs on a terrace overlooking the river, we drank in the scene from a different perspective and compared notes. The words “wonderful,” “heavenly”, “stupendous” kept cropping up. “What’s not to like?” said one of the British contingent, a retired teacher who together with her husband was undertaking a 31-day tour of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The two-day cruise on the Luang Say covers 125 miles and in addition to the night at the lodge (a beautiful construction of dark wood) includes stops at a couple of traditional local villages in which women sit guard over drying rice husks at risk from clucking chickens, piglets run free and monks in orange robes sit in quiet contemplation. If you’re hardy (or foolhardy) enough, you can even sample the local firewater – the deadly cobra snake whiskey.
On the final stretch of the journey, I asked Lee Kee, our guide, whether there was any residual resentment at the years of French rule – or indeed the bombardment the country received more recently at the hands of the Americans when it became the most bombed country on the planet. “We forgive,” he said, displaying admirable Buddhist magnanimity. “Bar pen yung!” (Never mind).
Just short of Luang Prabang there was a stop at the caves of Pak Ou, which contain some 4,000 statues of the Buddha. It was an extraordinary sight, particularly powerful in the late afternoon light and a fitting prelude to the magnificent city of golden domes and temples and colonial-era majesty that lay at journey’s end just a few miles downstream.
The view from above
From the window of the small propeller plane heading south of Luang Prabang there was no mistaking what was below: the mighty Mekong.
Mighty was the word. The river, a swirling mass of golden and brown water, glistening in the late morning sun, was like a huge artery snaking its way through a wild tropical landscape. It was the single defining physical feature; visual confirmation that this indeed was the source of all life and fertility in this delicious stretch of south-east Asia.
I sat and chatted to a fellow passenger about travels in the region (the croissants in Vientiane were good, apparently; rubbing shoulders with backpackers and floating between beer bars on rubber tubes at Vang Vieng was fun). But every so often I turned away for another glimpse of that incredible river below.
La Folie Lodge
How about this for a hotel transfer? I had just been driven from Pakse to a spot on the southern side of the river close to the ancient city of Champasak and was greeted by a barge-like vessel, in the middle of which were two wicker chairs from which I would be able to observe proceedings as we crossed (the river at this point is almost a mile wide).
Once we reached the other side and the island of Don Daeng, I spotted the next means of transport: a strange cart driven by what looked like a tractor. I jumped on board and within seconds we were chugging up the extended sand bank to the aptly named La Folie, a wonderful little oasis consisting of 12 tastefully decorated bungalows in lush surroundings, a bar with dark wood furnishings and walls of Fifties-style posters advertising Vermouth Martini, Sandeman Sherry and Kalini the Great Magician. There was also a swimming pool, from which I enjoyed views of a perfect sunset over the Mekong.
Across the water lay the splendours of Wat Phou, an extensive temple complex built by the Khmer civilisation some two hundred years before attention was turned to Angkor Wat. The visit there was to come later; as, too, was an early-morning cycle ride around the car-free island, punctuated by wide-eyed smiles and cries of “sabaidee” (hello!).
For that first hour, though, I sat enjoying the warm evening breeze and a wonderful calm – and looking forward to retiring to the bar.
The 4,000 Islands
When the French decided they wanted to improve policing of their new colony of Laos they hoped they would be able to transport the necessary arms and supplies north from Vietnam and Cambodia along the river. Unfortunately there was a problem: the roaring mass of water at Khone Phapheng.
They hit upon an ingenious solution: the construction of a four-mile long railway track across the island of Khone, which links the upper and lower Mekong. Incredibly, they dismantled entire warships at one end of the island, transported the parts by rail to the other and then reconstructed them, enabling them to continue upstream to Vientiane, the administrative centre of French-ruled Laos.
The now disused tracks can still be seen on Khone Island, as can the rusty remains of one of the locomotives used to transport the ships. Here, too, can be seen several colonial-era buildings, which still exude a certain elegance despite the peeling paintwork.
The Khone Phapheng waterfall, just a few miles from the border with Cambodia, was the dramatic starting point for my second Mekong journey: a cruise upstream to the town of Pakse, travelling through the region known as the “4,000 Islands” (another hugely evocative name).
In this part of southern Laos, the river splits into several channels that wind their way around a huge collection of islands, some, like Khone, large enough to be inhabited, others little more than a few tufts of trees.
The early part of the journey has to be done by smaller longtail boats – as the French discovered, there are far too many obstacles for larger ships. The bulk of it, though, was on board the Wat Phou, another tastefully converted old vessel (previously used as a rice barge), this one containing 12 compact but comfortable cabins.
My companions this time were, appropriately, all French, a group of mixed ages and interests and temperaments, very few of whom spoke English. My rusty O-level French was sorely tested over meals of sticky rice and spicy beef stew as we cruised though scenery that was consistently inspirational.
On this cruise, too, there were land-based diversions: in addition to Khone Island, there was a journey into the jungle to see the ruins of the mysterious Oum Moung temple. There was a stop at a small village where labourers wearing the archetypal conical hats worked the fields, while white-shirted schoolchildren gleefully recited their lessons by rote.
There was also Wat Phou, the ancient Khmer temple complex lined with frangipani trees, phallic pillars and a cluster of buildings dedicated to Hindu deities, including Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu, and a stone on which human sacrifices were once made. It may not have the cachet of Angkor Wat, built some 200 years later, but Wat Phou is another great reminder of the Khmer civilisation and one, moreover, you do not have to share with tens of thousands of others.
The prize attraction, however, was always the river itself. Over the course of three days we saw it in all its colours (chocolate brown, metallic grey, silvery blue, inky black) and at all times (sunrise, midday, late afternoon, dusk). We experienced its power and its majesty and, as we watched fishermen hauling in their catch, the silver scales glittering in the sun, we felt its life-sustaining force.
Turned out I hadn’t missed the boat after all.
Way to go The writer travelled with Audley Travel (01993 838125; audleytravel.com). A 10-night trip covering the two cruises he took, international flights via Bangkok, all transfers, guides and full board on the Luang Say and Wat Phou cruises, costs from £2,990 per person.
When to go November to April is the best period for a Mekong cruise.
Before you go Read Norman Lewis’s A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam (Eland Publishing).