– Words and Photos by Maciek Klimowicz –
Due to its notorious road conditions, opting for a boat in Laos doesn’t necessarily mean taking it slow – you might actually make it to your destination faster than by bus or car. But cruising the country’s most famous river – the Mekong – is no race, it’s a slow paced pleasure for those in search of serenity.
The Mekong, world’s 12th longest river, travels for 4,300 km across six countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. That’s as long as the Pacific Coast Trail which connects Mexico with Canada, that’s almost the distance from New York to Seattle or nearly half the length of the longest railway in the world –
the Trans-Siberian. Its basin is home to 60 million people and its waters to countless species, including fresh water dolphins, stingrays and crocodiles. It’s known under a variety of names – the Mother Water, the Nine Dragons, the Turbulent Water, and is the most important river in Southeast Asia.
All this makes the Mekong sound mighty, even monumental. Yet the journey we are about to take down its waters, is of a rather modest kind. More an excursion than an escapade, aimed more at relaxation than exploration.
Let’s begin in Pak Beng, a riverside village-slash-town in western Laos. Normally that would be just the halfway point of a classic Mekong river cruise from Huay Xai on the border with Thailand to the colonial gem of Luang Prabang. But if we were to sail the whole length of the cruise on these pages, we would run out of paper to write on. So Pak Beng it is.
To further save space, let’s not talk about Pak Beng for too long, as there isn’t really much to talk about – the whole town seems to depend entirely on the Mekong river traffic, offering cheap accommodation and a bite to the passing through backpackers. There is one place though, that deserves our attention – the Luang Say Lodge, the place where we spend the night.
Luang Say combines traditional Laotian architecture – the main construction material being teak and rosewood – and international level of service. It’s here that we experienced the gentle, friendly manner of Laotian people for the first time. Dinner and breakfast are served in a restaurant overlooking the river and most of the dishes on the menu are made with vegetables grown in the resort’s own organic garden. Follow up the meal comprising traditional Laotian dishes, with a cocktail on the open-air deck, before taking a stroll on an elevated wooden walkway to your bungalow. Set in a lush tropical garden, Luang Say’s bungalows might look modest on the outside but the interiors have a luxurious quality you wouldn’t expect in a remote place such as this. You will rest well here, with the river whispering nearby putting you to sleep.
Waking up the next day is easy, even though it’s still early. Step outside your bungalow into the garden to instantly reconnect with nature – chirping birds, scented flowers, multicoloured butterflies. This connection will stay firm till the end of our journey.
After breakfast, it’s time to board the boat. A short walk down a gentle slope to the river shore and we’re ready to step onto the deck. The boat is long and narrow, with two rows of comfortable sofas on both sides. The captain’s cabin, from which he’ll navigate the Mekong’s treacherous waters, is at the front, the engines are at the back, so if you want some peace and quiet, stay closer to the bow. Though the stern has one advantage too – that’s where a well stocked bar is located. The choice is yours.
The next eight hours might be one of the most peaceful and serene times of your life. Just sit comfortably, ask the crew for a cup of tea made with loose leaves from local plantations, and soak in the atmosphere.
The rolling hills in the distance, the steel grey skies above if you’re taking the cruise during the monsoon season and spotless blue heavens any other time of the year, the sepia-coloured waters of the Mekong make up the frame of this exquisite scenery. In between there’s just green – all its shades visible to the human eye. Some might call this setting monotonous, but I’d choose this kind of monotony over anything else, anytime. Just gazing at it, smelling the gentle scent of the river and the surrounding vegetation, feeling the mild breeze on your face, will put you in a state that can only be described as meditative. Traveling often means discomfort, but not here – here it’s pure bliss.
The boat does stop on the way, twice. Once by a local village and once by a riverside cave. But in all honesty, those stops are unnecessary and feel more like interruptions to the otherwise perfectly smooth ride. And when at around 4 pm we arrive at the pier in Luang Prabang, we don’t feel we got there quickly or too late, everything feels right on time and in its right place.
It’s a peculiar kind of journey, one without any particular highlights or anything standing out, like the sharp grey rocks sticking out from the river’s murky waters. But what might be a fault somewhere else, here is the biggest advantage. This cruise is all about peace and harmony – the one with the nature that surrounds you and the one you might find within, as you float down the mighty Mekong.