Not Your Typical Slow Boat to Laos
Over the years I’d heard all the horror stories about crossing from northern Thailand into Laos and taking a slow boat to Luang Prabang. Each day hundreds of travelers cross the Mekong River and join the crush at Lao Immigration, where they wait to be stamped into the country. Once approved, they’re herded like cattle aboard flimsy boats where overcrowding is so serious that some passengers are forced to sit on the floor for two days. One man even told me his luggage had been stored on the deck over the engine and by the end of the day his vinyl bag had melted into an unspeakable mess from the heat of the engine. Each time I heard another tale of woe I nodded sympathetically, thankful that I would be sailing on the luxurious Luang Say Cruise offered by Mekong Cruises.
Rather than fighting crowds, I was met by a representative of the company in Chiang Khong on the Thai side of the border, who showed me to the longtail boat for the short ride across the river. On the other side, a second employee greeted me as I stepped off the boat and escorted me to the offices of Mekong Cruises, located conveniently next door to the Lao PDR Immigration office. As my luggage was spirited away, I filled out paperwork in the relative calm of the office while sipping tea and munching on sweet bananas, after which I was artfully inserted at the front of the crowd waiting for the Immigration office to open. Soon, officers stepped to the windows and began collecting passports from outstretched hands, stacking them into an impossibly high pile that had me wondering how we would ever make our departure time. Miraculously, after a few minutes of jostling and jockeying, passports belonging to those of us traveling with Mekong Cruises were the first to be passed back through the thick glass windows, duly stamped and authorized. A short tuk tuk ride later I stepped aboard the white yacht that would be my home for the next two days.
Crew members threw off our lines and we motored into the swift current of the mighty Mekong. The powerful barritone engine thrummed through the soles of my shoes as I stuck my nose in every nook and cranny, investigating my choice of seating. Aft, thick upholstered benches formed a semi-circle around a large built-in table while the recessed main cabin offered individual upholstered captain’s chairs, but I opted for the roof. As minor rapids set the boat swaying gently to and fro, I languidly stretched and settled back onto one of the thick cushions strewn across the upper deck with camera in hand.
My fellow passengers settled in as well. Some pulled out novels or flipped through magazines. One man broke out a miniature chess board and challenged his son to a match. Within minutes, several passengers were snoozing. “They’re missing it! How can they possibly sleep?” I wondered, as I snapped photos every few seconds, excited that my first ever cruise should be on the storied Mekong.
A short while later the river bowed eastward and Thailand slipped away for good, along with the developed world. No telephone poles, no roads, no airplanes; just dense jungle vegetation marching down to mica-flecked white sand beaches that glittered in the midday sun, backed by waves of hazy green humpback mountains. Gradually, signs of life emerged. Palm and thatch huts peeked out from forests and naked children posed on cliffs, waving delightedly as we passed. Fishermen in flat bottom boats dipped nets tied to long pieces of bamboo into the muddy waters, crossing the bamboo branches like enormous chopsticks on the down stroke and uncrossing as they scooped upward. In the searing heat, our captain maneuvered the boat toward shore for a visit to a Hmong village, perched high atop a ridge overlooking the river.
Children from the village ran headlong down the hot sands to meet our boat, competing for a chance to sell trinkets: bracelets woven of colored yarn, felt purses, and Lao silk scarves interwoven with gold and silver thread. The young girls turned their big eyes on me, imploring, and before I could protest a pink and purple bracelet had been tied around my wrist. Whether or not their sad faces were cultivated for effect, I couldn’t refuse; I dug in my pocket and handed one of the girls a U.S. dollar, accepted throughout Laos as are Thai Bhat.
Sweat pouring down my face, I hotfooted it over burning sands back to the boat and could have kissed the crew members who greeted us with chilled towels and ice cold glasses of water. Back underway, our captain’s skills were put to the test. Water levels in the Mekong are at their lowest in the spring, just prior to the arrival of summer rains, however levels have been getting lower each year as China builds dams upriver. Not only did jagged rocks line the shore at this point, they began poking up into the main channel. I sat on the bow, holding my breath each time we passed within inches of a razor-edged peak thrusting up from the depths and admiring the captain’s ability to hold the boat in the dead center of whitewater rapids that signaled deeper water. Despite the dramatic scenery and hair-raising route, the gentle seesaw motion from the rapids finally lulled me to sleep, my camera dangling uselessly around my neck.
I woke just in time to see the first road and telephone pole come into view, but my disappointment at being back in civilization was assuaged when we rounded a long bend and the Luang Say Lodge came into sight. Not surprisingly, traffic on the river comes to a halt at night; it is simply too dangerous to navigate after dark and our boat was no exception. We pulled up to the shore and made the long climb up a steep sand embankment and stairs to the open air reception area, where we were rewarded with fresh lemongrass coolers.
Exhausted from my hard day of sailing, I decided against the 15 minute hike into the nearby town of Pakbeng and instead opted to enjoy the spectacular views from the Lodge’s clifftop aerie high above the Mekong River. As the sun dipped behind the mountains I followed elevated walkways to my private cabin and stepped across the threshold into a scene out of an Ernest Hemingway novel. I threw open the shutters and sat in one of the easy chairs, drinking in the river valley far below. In the center of the room a gauzy white mosquito net hung knotted over a giant four-poster teak bed and a mahogany desk stood to one side, begging me to set up my laptop and write. But having spent much of the last month in hostel dorms, the lure of the luxury bathroom, with its thick terry towels and lemongrass soap won me over. I showered and primped and dove into bed, sinking into the thick, ultra soft mattress with a sigh of pure contentment. My last thought as I drifted off to sleep was that I would do this trip all over again in an instant but I’d change one thing. The Luang Say Lodge was so incredible that it bordered on criminal to stay just one night; next time, I’d stay longer and catch another boat for the second half of the trip.
Stay tuned for part two of this enchanting Mekong River Cruise…
Mekong Cruises kindly hosted the author on the Luang Say Cruise and at the Luang Say Lodge. However, the receipt and acceptance of complimentary items/services received will never influence the content, topics, or posts in this blog. I write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth and in this case, Mekong Cruises is one of the best tour operators I have ever had the pleasure to work with. Their administrative staff was well organized, their boat crew was highly trained to meet every need of the passengers, and I simply cannot say enough about the skills of the captain, who knew every inch of the treacherous river by heart.