Rising frozen in the Tibetan highlands and running through China’s Yunnan
Province, the Mekong defines the geography of Southeast Asia. It is both a
lifeline and a frontier, linking and separating the countries of the region –
Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – before finally emptying into the
South China Sea, south of Saigon.
Our voyage down the Mekong began in
northern Thailand, in the mysterious, notorious area known as the Golden
Triangle, once the heart of the opium trade and for many years closed to
outsiders. Here at the confluence of three rivers, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand
jostle for supremacy. Tourism on the Thai side is developing rapidly. Landlocked
Laos is only just beginning to tap into the tourist business, and the Mekong is
its major asset.
We set off from Chiang Khong, on the Thai side of the
river. Here we boarded the flimsy, narrow, “longtail” ferry boats, luggage and a
dozen passengers jumbled together, to be poled across the current for the brief
crossing into Laos. No quayside or landing stage awaited us, just the boat
pulled up on the sandy shore and a plank for disembarking. The Laos immigration
and customs procedures took a long time and ended with the issuing of tourist
The Mekong has always been a highway for goods and travelers, and
boats of all shapes, speeds and sizes still ply its waters. Recently a number of
the traditional wooden barges were adapted for tourists. We had booked in
advance for a two-day cruise organized by the Luang Say Mekong River Cruise. In
comparison to the other options, ours was a fairly up-market package.
converted river barge, our “slow boat,” 35 meters long, originally a cargo
vessel – solid, wood-built – was simple and practical. There were covered decks
with comfortable seats, cushions and rugs, benches and tables, adequate toilet,
a bar with coffee, tea and mineral water freely available at all times, and
service that was pleasant and helpful. Our luggage was stowed in the hold, and
for the two days on board we made do with an overnight rucksack.
sail at 11 a.m. on our 300 km. voyage south down the legendary Mekong. For some
distance the river serves as the frontier between Laos and Thailand, then Laos
is on both sides. The river is still the chief means of transport for this
region, and used to be the main artery for opium smuggling. Today – who knows?
We see barges similar to ours heavily laden with sacks of – what? – rice? We had
visited the Hall of Opium museum in Thailand the day before, and learned of the
devastating effect that the narcotics trade has had on humans and on society.
Drugs are illegal in Laos, but there has been a rise in “drug tourism,” and
visitors are warned to stay clear of dealers.
The river landscape here is
totally unspoiled, and life untouched by modernity. At times the river is quite
narrow and running fast, with sharp rocky outcrops, rapids and whirlpools which
demand skillful navigation.
The unpredictable waters and shifting bed
make fording or bridging almost impossible. Tribal villages are set back from
the river and the population is sparse.
Farm animals grazing (buffalo,
cattle, goats) and small patches of cultivated land can be seen on the
Fishermen leave bamboo fish traps unattended, rods and nets
attached to the rocks, floating in the water waiting for the catch.
the dry season when the Mekong is low, there is gold panning at the river’s edge
as the muddy sediments containing the gold dust are exposed. The panner
squatting on the shore puts the mud into a large pan with sloping sides, adds
water from the river and swirls the mixture so that the lighter material is
washed away and the heavier particles of gold are left behind.
backbreaking work can bring in a few flakes of gold in a day. We were told that
panners can pick up to five grams a month, which doesn’t seem much. But this
could bring them $100.
An hour later the boat crunches up on to the
pebbly beach and we step ashore, climbing over the sand dunes and into the
forest, to visit the Hmong village of Huay Lam Peu. The Hmong are a hill tribe
from the mountains of north Laos, one of the many ethnic minorities of the
region. Pressure for land has driven some villages, like this one, down to the
more fertile Mekong valley. Until recently their main cash crop was opium,
mostly used for the production of heroin. Now outlawed, its suppression is still
not yet complete.
The Hmong practice animism, a belief in the sentient
spirit of all things. Their priest or shaman communicates with this spirit world
and with the spirits of the ancestors. Their homes are simple bamboo huts on
stilts, with no electricity, water pumped from wells and no access to the
outside world other than by river boat. Everything looked clean and well
The village has a small government school.
villagers took little notice of us as we walked through the village, making no
attempt either to beg or to sell goods.
We returned to our slow boat for
a delicious lunch cooked on board – rice with meat and vegetables and freshly
caught river fish steamed and served in a banana leaf package, followed by fruit
and tea. It was now somewhat cool, and we wrapped up in the blankets provided
and laid back. The world floated by, the timeless scenery of Southeast Asia,
unchanged over centuries, the pace of life matching the tranquillity of our slow
boat. From time to time the calm was shattered by the roar of a passing
speedboat, the alternative river transport which takes six hours instead of two
days to cover our stretch of the river. These fivemeter- long terrors can
accommodate up to eight passengers and are powered by a Toyota car engine. Crash
helmets are worn and you take your life into your own hands. Skimming the Mekong
rapids and whirlpools, they can reach speeds of 50 km. an
Recommended only if you are a thrill freak and really short of
Night sailing is not allowed. The halfway stop for the slow boats
is the small town of Pakbeng, which boasts a harbor and landing stage, and is
largely dependent on river traffic for its existence. As boats arrive,
passengers step ashore and scramble to secure overnight
There are several simple guest houses, all much the same,
all pretty basic. There is a market, and the main street is lined with eating
places and shops aimed at the visitors.
Our cruise package included
accommodation outside the town, at the top-of-the market Luang Say Lodge, a
series of attractive wooden cabins, beautifully situated overlooking the river,
linked by wooden walkways. Not luxurious by any means, but quite acceptable. Our
room was spacious and the beds comfortable, but electricity here is sporadic,
there is no reception for mobile phones, the mosquitoes are bothersome and we
never managed to coax hot water from the gas heater. Never mind – dinner and
breakfast were excellent and when we woke up in the morning, the view across the
river was superb.
The slow boat was gradually bringing us closer to
The tribal village visited on our second day was less
primitive than the previous one, with villagers greeting the visitors,
demonstrating their craft skills and offering embroidery and woven articles for
The main crop is cotton, and we saw villagers spinning and weaving.
This tribe combines animism with Buddhism and a brand new temple was shown to us
with much pride.
Our final excursion was a visit to the Pak Ou caves, an
important Buddhist shrine. The boat was moored to the rocks, and the caves
reached after a steep climb up the cliff. The cave temple is an ancient
repository for thousands of Buddha images, discarded as damaged or replaced by
new models. The lower cave has just enough natural light for viewing the rows
and rows of serenely smiling statues. The upper one is dark and a flashlight is
Our river voyage ended at Luang Prabang. As we approached, signs
of development could be seen on both sides, logging of forests, mining, roads
with trucks, urbanization and the villages more densely populated with concrete
houses. Our brief respite in the wilderness was over, and our slow boat tied up
for the last time.
Luang Prabang is the jewel in the Laotian
Neatly laid out on a promontory between the Mekong and Nam Khan
rivers, the Old City is a legacy of red tiled temples and the elegant
Franco-Indochinese mansions of the colonial era, many of them now boutique
hotels and fine restaurants. (At last, un petit café and an authentic croissant
for breakfast.) Formerly the capital and seat of kings, the city has a royal
mystique, and at the same time warmly welcomes tourists. The Royal Palace Museum
and the magnificent Wat Xiang Thong temple are but two of the many outstanding
monuments to the city’s past. This a good place to shop for gifts, and there are
many excursions on offer. Not to be missed is the early morning parade through
the city center of saffron-robed monks, holding bowls to collect alms from
It is possible to continue voyaging down the Mekong from Luang
Prabang, but there is no regular passenger service, and for the remainder of our
tour we travelled by road. Further south there are cruises linking Vientiane and
Phnom Penh (the capitals of Laos and Cambodia), and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on
Vietnam’s coast. As it approaches the Mekong Delta, the river divides into
dozens of distributaries, flowing deep and wide toward the sea, still very much
the lifeline and the heartbeat of this vibrant continent, but bearing little
resemblance to the pristine waters of the wilderness through which we had