Laos – a slow boat down the Mekong

From Chiang Mai it’s a short hop to Chiang Khong where you can cross the border to Huay Xai in Laos. From there my plan was to catch a boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, the country’s second city. I’d already bought a ticket from Mekong Cruises and they provided a transfer to Chiang Khong.

Crossing the border was a mere formality, I just filled out a few forms and paid out some money for the visa. It’s in everyone’s interests to make it as easy as possible. I met my fellow passengers during the process, a family and a retired couple from Australia, and an English-speaking Russian and his Thai wife, all of whom were pleasant company during the cruise.

My map of the cruise route is here.

We were on the Luang Say cruise, a two day trip to Luang Prabang on one of the company’s long, low-slung passenger boats.

You could get there much quicker on a ‘longtail’, one of those speedboats with the extra long propellor. However, I heard second hand that bumping along on the water for several hours is a good way to end up with a very sore backside.

We on the other hand had soft armchairs and various other comforts, like a bar. There’s a lot to be said for taking your time.

And so our cruise down the Mekong began. My video here.

It quickly became apparent there was little else to do other than watch the riverbank slide by…

…and wonder what was hiding in the intense undergrowth.

Sailing along the Mekong was a big tick on my bucket list, something I’d unconsciously wanted to do since I first saw Apocalypse Now. Sadly I was told that it may become difficult as more and more dams are built with Chinese investment. So if it’s something you want to do, make sure you do it soon.

We had two lunches on board, and several snacks, thanks to the boat’s nice lady chef.

This was my first taste of Laotian food (although it’s very similar to Isaan cuisine) and I loved the big, fresh flavours. The raw fresh tamarind was a first. Sour doesn’t quite cover it!

Remember you can click on these galleries to expand the photos if you’re on a computer.

Our cruise included two stops at villages to go and look and maybe buy local handicrafts. Personally I have no desire to gawk at how people live and could happily have done without these stops. I suppose it is a way for the villagers to make a bit of extra money but I don’t remember any of our group buying anything. Our guide also dropped the nugget that often the ‘traditional’ textiles the villagers are selling aren’t actually their own work but something that they’d picked up from a market that will sell well to tourists.

The first village was called Ban Houy Phalam. It’s home to 85 families of the Kamu tribe whose houses are built on stilts with work areas underneath them.

We spent the night at Pakbeng which is the halfway point to our destination. We stayed in a lovely hotel, the Luang Say Lodge, overlooking the river.

The rooms were actually separate buildings off their own wooden walkways, surrounded by lots of unusual plants.

The interiors were lovely although the towel art made me smile. Think I’ll start collecting examples and do a whole post on it.

It was very atmospheric at night listening to the insects and other sounds of the jungle. In the morning you could hear the elephants down at the river having their morning bathe. This is the best time to catch views of the river with the morning mists still rising off the trees on the mountains. My video here.

It was a very pleasant and relaxing stay. The food was okay, nothing amazing, but the rooms were the highlight. You can arrange to stay on a night or two if you wish, and finish the journey on a later boat.

There was a bit of other traffic on the river.

In the morning we stopped at a second village called Ban Baw where for over 600 years three different ethnicities, the Lao Loum (the ethnic majority in Laos), Tai Lue and Shan, have lived in harmony. It seemed more affluent than the first village with a couple of civic buildings.

I’m guessing the pictures on the front of the temple are used for religious instruction. Given how surreal they are, I’d quite like to know the story myself!

Of most interest to me was the handmade still the villagers used for making ‘whisky’ (rice alcohol). I wanted to try it but noone was around so my guide said I could leave some money and fill one of the empty bottles next to the still, and I ended up with this energy drink bottle full of paint stripper. It was an experience but I’m glad I don’t have to drink it all of the time! Don’t confuse this with Mekhong whisky, which is another drink altogether.

Back in the boat the landscape started to change as the jungle gave way to limestone cliffs.

Our final stop was the holy caves of Pak Ou.

Tham Ting the lower cave is also known as the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas as over the centuries local townsfolk have deposited their old or damaged Buddhas here.

What doesn’t get much of a mention is that some of the rock art that is also in the cave predates the Buddhist period that began in the 15th century. Some of it may even be Neolithic.

Up several flights of stairs is a second cave known as Tham Theung (upper cave) which is darker and has fewer Buddhas.

The stairs are pretty tiring but you can get a bit of a view when you stop.

From here is was just another 25km to our final destination Luang Prabang, more of which in the next post…

2 thoughts on “Laos – a slow boat down the Mekong”

  1. You got a much fuller tour than I did some 10 years or so ago. #Pakbeng has developed A LOT – presumably from income from stopover traffic.
    #Did you see a single bird? We didn’t.
    #I look forward to reading about Luang Prabang but fear that it is now overwhelmed with tourists, especially Chinese. In fact, isn’t Laos as a whole becoming overwhelmed by China?
    #BTW I love your enthusiasm for Lao/Isaan food – the best!

    1. Hi, glad you liked the food bits.
      Posts on cooking Laotian food will be coming soon 🙂
      Now you mention it I don’t recall seeing any birds, wonder why that would be.
      I’ve seen a picture on Google of a few sparrow-sized specimens that had been deep-fried and put on sale in a market which might go some way to explaining it.
      I went to LP out of season so it didn’t feel too crowded.
      The tourists I met were Japanese, Australian and American.
      My hotel on the edge of town hardly had any guests and it was beautiful, sitting on a bend of the Mekong, but more of that later 🙂

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