Located in the heart of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS), the former Lao royal town of Luang Prabang is the ideal base for exploring the mighty Mekong River, which is the world’s 12th longest river with its snow-fed headwaters lying high on the Tibetan Plateau in China’s Qinghai Province.
With its length of some 4,200 km, the living Mekong tumbles through deep gorges to enter China’s mountainous Yunnan Province at Deqin in Shangri-La, passing the area of Dali and winding its way through tropical Xishuangbanna. From Jinghong, formerly called Chiang Hung, the river reaches mainland southeast Asia along the borders of Myanmar’s Shan State and Laos, before reaching the infamous Golden Triangle where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet.
From the old town of Chiang Saen, it passes a short area in northern Thailand, before entering Laos and reaching both the former royal city of Luang Prabang and the present capital Vientiane. After forming the border between southern Laos and northeast Thailand, the Mekong crashes over the spectacular Khon Phapheng Falls and then passes into Cambodia, where it enters a broad floodplain to reach the capital Phnom Penh and its huge alluvial delta in the southern part of Viet Nam.
To travel on the Mekong River in style, there is no better place to choose than Luang Prabang, which is in easy reach from Chiang Mai by plane with Lao Airlines. As guest of the Luang Prabang-based Mekong River Cruises www.cruisemekong.com, I was invited to join a pioneering and unique three-day river cruise on July 18-20, 2009. On board of the newly-constructed river vessel, RV Mekong Sun, the drama of religion and culture of lands along the river unfolds, as well as the drama of different lifestyles of a richly-mixed population.
This 3 days/2 nights cruise took me from the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang with its more than 30 Buddhist temple sites up the Mekong River to Bokeo Province – some 400 km. At Huai Xai, is the small Lao town, where you are able to cross the border by ferryboat to Chiang Khong in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand.
The RV Mekong Sun with its 14 cabins is the most comfortable ship capable of mastering the wild sections of the Upper Mekong River. Between Luang Prabang and the Golden Triangle, the Mekong Sun is the only cabin cruiser available. Accommodation and service is top level and guests enjoy a very exclusive yet casual traveling experience while they reside in comfortable cabins and marvel on previously inaccessible wonders of the Mekong. A selection of Asian and continental food is provided throughout the cruise. Wine and beer, as well as spirituous beverages, are available. A well-stocked library is on board to let time run quickly.
Day 1 (July 18): Luang Prabang – Pak Ou – Hmong Ek Village
As embarkation was at 8:00 am in the early morning, you arrive at the docking station of the RV Mekong in a moment, when the first smaller slow boats of the busy port in Luang Prabang are leaving for their daily sightseeing excursions. It takes one hour to make the boat ready for departure, which is powered by a huge Chinese diesel engine, but the noise is dampened and not disturbing at all for the embarking passengers.
Managing director Mr. Oth, 48, a native from Pak Xe in the south of Laos, has brought his family along and is responsible for a crew of 16 workers, including a captain and pilot for the river. Right after the departure, there appears on the right, the sight of Wat Xieng Thong, which can be reached by a lion-guarded staircase. Its sweeping roofs in the early morning sun stand testimony that this religious gem is a fine example of the Lao temple architecture.
We cruised north for approximately two hours and arrived at the famous Tham Ting Caves, where thousands of small Buddha statues were standing inside the caverns. This sacred pilgrimage site is located just opposite of the wide mouth of the Nam Ou-River, which is believed to be the old immigration road of the Lao people coming from southern China more than 1,000 years ago. Relaxing on the deck of the RV Mekong, you can soak up the still untouched and timeless scenery.
River traffic suddenly thins out as you proceed further upstream, and you can enjoy the fantastic mountainous landscapes along the river, which now flows from east to west. Thick bamboo jungles and rice fields of shifting cultivation can be seen on both sides of the river. Villages of the different Lao ethnic groups appear. Small villages of Lao Lum (real Lao people) with stilt houses near the river, and Lao Theung (mostly Khamu) a bit hidden above or even a Lao Sung (Hmong) earthbound resettlement, alternate with each other.
When the sun went down, we decided to spend the night on a secluded sandbank near the opposite village of Hmong Ek. Passengers can enjoy the lounge on the upper deck where movies can be watched on a big screen. Alternatively, you can just relax in your own private cabin.
DAY 2 (July 19): Hmong Ek Village – Pak Beng – Barbecue Site
Leaving early in the morning at 7:00 am, American breakfast was served just one hour later, but you can join the locals to eat their sticky rice and fish. The diversity of the landscapes is astonishing, now slipping through narrow rock formations, then slithering between forested hills. In the background, you hear magical birds and the cries of wild monkeys. Along some protruding sandbanks, some young women were busy with gold washing. I was enjoying the tranquility of northern Laos, a real retreat from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
Around noon, we had a short one-hour stop in the marketplace of Pak Beng. The time spent there permitted a few of the crewmembers to go shopping at the nearby market. I visited Pak Beng Lodge, just opposite a newly-established elephant camp, to check my incoming Internet email messages.
Actually, Pak Beng will be developed as an important crossroads at the Mekong River. There is National Route 2, which links Pak Beng with Oudom Xai, a provincial capital, from where people can continue to Boten at the China border or to Dien Bien Phu crossing the Lao-Vietnamese border at Sobhoun. In the other direction of Pak Beng and across the river, the road continues to Muong Ngeun in Sayabouri Province to link to Nan in Thailand. The necessary ferry point at the Mekong River, a few kilometers up Pak Beng, is already in service.
The afternoon cruise continued along green and heavily-forested hills until the river starts heading northwards again towards Pak Tha where the Nam Tha River finds its way into the Mekong. Before reaching there, we stopped our cruise boat on a secluded sandbank to hold a romantic barbecue party that lasted into the breaking night. Lao Beer was served and Lao Lao, the local rice liquor, together with sticky rice and grilled fish, pork, and chicken. Some of the happy crewmembers indulged in playing local music and dancing the popular ramwong. Later, even some stars popped up above us in the cloudy sky, but brilliant enough to watch. What a setting, I thought, and found it hard going to sleep.
DAY 3 (July 20): Barbecue Site – Pak Tha – Huai Xai/Chiang Khong
Cruising started again in the early morning shortly after sunrise. After a small breakfast with strengthening Lao Coffee, time ran quickly. Near noon, we passed Pak Tha, where the water becomes muddy. I was told that the Chinese promote to grow more and more rubber plantations in Luang Nam Tha Province and the results are the dwindling forests, erosions, and mudslides.
After a last local lunch, it was time to say goodbye to the Laotian crew. In the distance, I saw Phu Chi Fa Mountain in Ciang Rai Province. Check-out and disembarking followed later in the afternoon around 4:00 pm. Luckily, there was still enough time to pass the Lao Immigration checkpoint at Huai Xai. From there, you cross the mighty Mekong River in a small long-tail boat (40Baht pp) to proceed to the Thai border checkpoint in Chiang Khong, which normally closes at 6:00 pm. The cruise ship continued up to the Golden Triangle, where the Chinese will open a new casino complex soon right at the bank of the Mekong River. Will this be the beginning of a Chinese invasion coming south, I wondered?
My return trip to Chiang Mai was organized by the nice people of Nam Khong Guesthouse, who also run a tour office in Chiang Mai with visa services for Laos, Myanmar, China, and Viet Nam. The transfer from Chiang Khong to Chiang Mai in a modern minibus (250B pp) departed at 7:00 pm to arrive in Chiang Mai around midnight.
An overwhelmingly impressive tour was over, and I will certainly wait for the next one.
Reinhard Hohler is an experienced tour director and GMS Media travel consultant based in Chiang Mai. For further information, he can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.