Take a slow boat to Luang Prabang
I f you are entering Laos through northern Thailand don’t rush to get to your destination. Arriving at the fabled Golden Triangle, channel the spirit of the early explorers and discover Laos by its mighty waterway, the Mekong. Famed as one of the world’s mightiest, this “mother of all rivers” is rich in unique flora and fauna. Its biodiversity is second only to the Amazon and a large proportion of the Mekong’s watershed is actually in Laos. If you feel like slowing down and enjoying the natural splendors of this renowned waterway and lifeline of millions of people, we recommend you embark on one of a number of cruises that operate up and down the Mekong between the Thai border at Houay Xay to Luang Prabang.
Our group for the two-day trip met in Chiang Khong, on the Thai side, where we were assisted across the Friendship Bridge and driven to the boat, where we departed at 8 am for the 328-kilometer journey. We enjoyed breakfast while passing through the flat plain of Houay Xay. The river flows south from here so it is slightly faster cruising to Luang Prabang than the reverse journey upstream to Houay Xay.
You can see a lot of activity in the morning, fishermen out casting their nets, ladies harvesting river weed, and children playing beside the river. There is always movement on the water from different types of boats, traders going to sell items, people moving goods, and even some larger cargo vessels. The river is quite flat and wide at Houay Xay but after an hour or so, the boat encounters more dramatic scenery as you enter the mountains of Northern Laos that will funnel you down to Luang Prabang. The trip is largely composed of gently flowing waters with the odd roaring rapids to negotiate and mammoth grey slab river rocks which seem to have been placed by giants.
Along the way, the cruise docks at a very basic Khmu village for a visit and to drop off some deliveries at the school. It’s a steep climb up the hillside to arrive at a village consisting of very rustic bamboo houses. The boat also pays a toll to the village as a way to help the villagers with much-needed income. They are completely dependent on the river for travel and their survival as there is no road in or out of the village.
Lunch is served around noon. All food is cooked on the boat and is fresh and delicious using local produce. We enjoyed a varied selection of dishes including addictive crispy spring rolls with peanut sauce, sautéed eggplant, Luang Prabang salad, and lemongrass stuffed with pork. The cruise includes free-flow tea and coffee at the bar where you can also buy soft drinks and harder beverages. With such libations on offer, the onboard restroom is a godsend. The boat is spacious, clean, and tastefully decorated. Our guide was friendly and knowledgeable and spent a lot of time going over information and addressing any concerns passengers had. Gently moving with the river is a calming experience and soon some passengers stretched out and dozed off, lulled by the movement of the boat and abundant fresh air. On this stretch, we saw many locals panning for gold on the bank with their large wooden pans and lots of people in small boats traveling between villages.
Pakbeng is the major stop of the trip, halfway along the journey. Boats dock here overnight as they do not travel after dark. There are a number of accommodation options available for different budgets. We stayed at the chic new Le Grand Pakbeng. Situated on a hilltop, this resort has wonderful views overlooking the Mekong. Remember you will arrive late in the afternoon and leave the following morning, so you will only be able to experience a little of the area. If you want to spend longer than one night, it can be arranged beforehand.
We departed early the next morning before the sun could push through the darkness. Traveling through a shady blue-hued gorge we made our way toward our first stop for the day, a whiskey village. Here, villagers display their local rice whiskey and demonstrate the old-fashioned production in stills. Brace yourself and try a sip of this potent beverage. Ladies also weave here, so do browse the scarves for some nice souvenirs and also support the village. We reached the grottos of Pak Ou shortly after in the afternoon. It is filled with hundreds of Buddha statues from the primitive to the ornate and is one of the most popular attractions in Laos, venerated since time immemorial and connected with royal events and folklore.
Arriving in Luang Prabang in the late afternoon, we were greeted by a proliferation of lush coconut palms that obscured the city from view. Passing the impressive steps at Wat Xiengthong is quite a memorable way to make an entrance into the former royal capital, just as kings and explorers did in the past.
Lao Airlines has frequent flights to Luang Prabang from Vientiane, Bangkok, Hanoi, and Siem Reap.
The author traveled with Shompoo Cruise (shompoo-cruise.com), but there are local public boats available, too.
Text BY Anita Preston
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Anita Preston / Evensong Film