Why bother hurrying, rushing and scrambling when you can travel in a leisurely fashion aboard a slow boat down one of the world’s great rivers — the Mekong?
Boating down rivers seems anachronistic in this modern age, but for those who yearn for a throwback to a time of more elegant travel, a river cruise is hard to beat.
Throw in the allure of a ride down one of the world’s great rivers, past verdure and wilderness, from the Thai border to the dreamy old Lao capital of Luang Prabang, and you’re in for an unforgettable cruise.
There are more efficient ways to travel down the Mekong — the fast boats, for example. Fast boat passengers get to don full-face motorcycle helmets and brightly-coloured life jackets, as they grip tightly onto the gunwale as the small craft hurtles at breakneck speed while emitting an ear-splitting, headache-inducing, high-pitched whine up or downriver.
Children of a village along the Mekong River.
However, you’d better pray that the boatman has the skill and luck to avoid the rapids and sharp rocks sometimes hidden just below the surface of the brown, opaque river. Fast boat accidents are not uncommon in Laos, and given the pace of the small craft, make for spectacular newspaper headlines.
The Mekong is one of the longest rivers in the world, beginning in the icy heights of the Tibetan plateau and coursing through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam in its 4,800km journey to the sea. Upstream in China, it has been blasted and dammed but it runs unimpeded throughout the length of Laos, one of the least developed countries in the world.
At Chiang Kong on the Thai side of the river, I caught a small boatacross the broad, muddy swath of the Mekong into Laos. The cold brown water lapped at the sides of the boat, occasionally spilling in. A few minutes later, I was in Huay Sai, Laos.
Huay Sai looked like a poorer, more dishevelled cousin of the Thai border town that I had just left. The infrastructure was certainly more rickety, it was more disorderly, and the modern world seemed that much more removed.
We were greeted by the silk-shirted representatives of the slow-boat expedition I had signed up for. Their office was just next to the Lao immigration, which was a bustle of mostly slipper-clad, rucksack-carrying foreigners applying for visas, touts and runners offering their services, and unflappable Lao immigration officers.
After immigration formalities, we boarded a minibus to our slow boat.
Our slow boat, the Luang Say, was a 34m steel-hulled, wooden craft constructed of polished teak boards in the traditional Lao style. It had a graceful U-shape, with the bow and stern higher than the middle. The roof was tiered, with a retractable mid-section to allow guests to sun themselves in clement weather.
There was a kitchen towards the back, with a bar and service counter, two flush toilets, a sunning deck in front and the pilot’s cabin towards the front.
Wooden banisters ran down either side of the deck, which was an expanse of polished teak floorboards. Cushioned sofas were arranged informally around coffee tables.
Able to accommodate up to 40 people, the boat had only 10 of us aboard for the two-day, 300-km journey to Luang Prabang. Attending to us were several waiters and our tour captain.
This was a luxury boat, built and serviced in the belief that travel is to be savoured, not endured. Local slow boats also undertake the journey, charging only a fraction of the price, but as the saying goes, you get what you pay for.
We were greeted with cold face towels, hot tea and a briefing as the mooring rope was hauled in and arranged into a neat spiral coil on the front deck. And then we were off.
Just south of Huay Sai was the fishing ground of the fabulous giant Mekong catfish, a creature that can grow up to 3m in length and weigh as much as an adult tiger. A single catch can bring instant wealth to a fisherman, so highly prized is the meat. Alas, overfishing and habitat destruction has wrought havoc on the species, and it is so rare now that a single catch is cause for excitement.
One of the world’s largest freshwater fish, the Mekong catfish is now listed as critically endangered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites).
We watch as Laos drifted by on one side, Thailand on the other, with the swirling, eddying brown waters of the mighty Mekong in between. This was the wet season, and the water level was high enough to drown out most rapids. A few hours later, the Thai border fell away, and we were entirely within Laos.
On either side, the lack of development was striking. There was empty green country, rolling hills covered in vegetation, with an occasional village nestled under a cluster of trees. Scenic and pretty, it was also troubling because all the land around us should have been covered in deep, dense tropical rainforest teeming with life. Instead, what we saw was scrubland.
The slash-and-burn form of agriculture practised by the native population over generations had destroyed the original rainforest cover for as far as the eye could see, except in pockets where the land was too steep or in valleys. What remained was secondary forest or scrub recovering from the slashing and burning.
The apparent wilderness was an illusion. The river was like a living thing, roaring, gurgling, moving, surging. We could tell by the fluttering of vegetation along the banks that the current was deep and strong. There was very little boat traffic — the country was vast and empty.
The quietness, the cool of the river, the sheer vastness of open space and the blue sky acted like a balm, and I felt free and at peace.
Watching the forest go by.
Lunch was served on board as Laos drifted indolently by. The cook had laboured in the small kitchen for a rather scrumptious buffet lunch — steamed vegetables with a tomato dip ulam-style, fish with coconut milk and herbs steamed in banana leaves, chicken curry, Laotian buffalo stew and fresh fruit for dessert.
As evening fell, we came to our stop-over for the night, the town of Pakbeng. The Luang Say had its own riverside accommodation — we were to put up in teak bungalows built on a sloping bank overlooking the river. Inside, the rooms were all polished teakwood, equipped with en suite bathrooms, hot and cold water, mosquito nets over the bed and a spectacular view of the river.
The night was cool and dark with the rushing river below, and dinner was served on a wide wooden terrace, a multi-course meal quite exquisite for its use of fragrant herbs and fresh ingredients.
Mist clouded the river the next morning as I set off on the unpaved path behind the resort for the 1km walk into Pakbeng town. If Huay Sai had seemed rustic, Pakbeng was even more so, a settlement carved out of the jungle on the banks of the river where boats clustered, unloading cargo and passengers, with a line of laden lorries awaiting their turn.
The Luang Say is a steelhulled wooden boat built in the traditional Laotian style.
A semi-paved road lined with a straggle of shops, guesthouses and restaurants made up the centre of town. The open marketplace was fascinating for its glimpse into Lao rural life: trestle tables groaning with fresh produce, packets of paa-dek (Laotian fermented fish sauce), various roots, ferns, fish, frogs; a meat section, bloody and red, with cleavers flashing as they rose and fell; villagers on narrow benches squeezed beneath plastic tarpaulins being served breakfast from cauldrons of bubbling stew.
We continued down the river beneath a subdued sky, and a few of us sat out on the sun deck in front. Mile after mile of green, empty country floated by, punctuated by an occasional village or a stand of teak trees. One of my fellow passengers, a retired opera singer, regaled us with insider stories of an opera singer’s craft, although he refused to break into song out here in the vast open amphitheater.
The other passengers were retired couples from Australia and Canada and a group of Australians on a jaunt through South-East Asia.
The boat pulled up at a village, one of several stops along the river. For the village, the river was the road, its lifeline, and it defined the way of life. Most of the villages we stopped at offered some sort of local craft, usually cloth weaving, although we were also invited to try lao-lao, locally-brewed rice liquor.
The villages survived through agriculture and fishing, and so could not be said to be truly poor, as the land was lush, the weather was good and there was plenty of water. However, there were few signs of modern life – none of the motorcycles, outboard motors or satellite TV dishes so widespread in rural Thailand.
Wooden houses were raised on stilts, and there were always children everywhere, smiling shyly. There was usually a small Buddhist temple orwat and, in the larger villages, a school. It seemed to us that rural Lao life had always been like this, self-sufficient, with limited contact with the outside world.
On board, we indulged in hot tea, coffee and cold soft drinks while the Aussies developed a taste for alcoholic beverage around tea-time. Every now and then, the attentive crew would pamper us with snacks, such as fruit slices or roasted peanuts. We lounged in slothful repose, watching Laos drift idly by.
When we travel, we usually journey to reach a destination. When the destination is the journey, however, the world comes to you, and discovery is just a bend of the river away. Not going anywhere in a hurry, one rediscover places within oneself on a slow boat down the Mekong.