The ultimate reality show
Cruising the Upper Mekong in Laos.
“Slowly, slowly, take it easy,” advises our vigilant guide, Vieng, as I scramble up the rough mud-hewn steps on the riverbank, followed by a slow-moving chain of fellow shipmates. From above, a group of doeeyed youngsters observes our progress, then follows us in Pied Piper fashion when we Þnally reach the top.
In remote Laotian villages, many without electricity and only accessible by boat, sightings of foreign visitors are as rare as the elusive golden wild cat that lies low in dense surrounding forests. The passengers from Champa Pandaw provide novel and unexpected entertainment, akin to a living soap opera.
Most Laotians live in rural areas and around 80 per cent work in agriculture, mainly growing rice, so village walks provide unforgettable snapshots of daily life. Our river ship’s stops are never scheduled in advance. One day our captain moors at a village he’s only visited once before and we’re invited to celebrate the birth of a baby.
Another day, we see a funeral and the next afternoon an 80-year-old man who has outlived his six wives plays us tunes on a bamboo instrument called a khene. Most memorably, a woman beckons us over to see her dinner cooking on an open Þre. In the frying pan is a blackened rat. A hush falls over the group as she chops it into bite-sized chunks with a cleaver and holds out the pan. Neville, a retired doctor from Queensland, steps forward to accept the “bush tucker trial”, chews thoughtfully and announces it tastes like quail. He earns total respect for the rest of the trip.
Landlocked Laos, with a population of less than seven million, is Southeast Asia’s smallest country and the least known to outsiders. This makes it a tantalising off-the-beaten-track destination for a river cruise along the sinuous and sometimes turbulent whitetipped waters of the Upper Mekong.
Pandaw River Expeditions, owned by Scottish historian and adventurer Paul Strachan, is the pioneer of boutique river cruises through often unchartered waters. In 2015, he launched the Þrst voyages on the Mekong from Thailand to the Laotian capital of Vientiane, where the fast-ßowing currents interspersed with rapids had deterred other lines.
Aside from pleasure boats operating short trips from Vientiene and the charming former Þrst city of Luang Prabang, we see no other tourist boats and share the water with battered working vessels transporting passengers and goods from town to town, Þshermen crouched in wooden boats and water buffalo cooling off in the shallows.
Our voyage of discovery begins in Thailand’s northern province of Chiang Rai where we meet our small group of multi-national fellow travellers from Australia, America, Europe and Hong Kong. The so-called Golden Triangle, where Laos, Thailand and Burma converge, was once an infamous drug trading zone and we start chatting to each other during a visit to the Hall of Opium Museum, which charts the dark past in an expansive modern exhibition.
There’s a tangible excitement as we board the 28-passenger Champa Pandaw for the Þrst time at Chiang Saen. With teak decks and gleaming brass Þttings, itÕs a lovely old-style vessel built to replicate the ships of the 19th-century Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that once plied the waterways of Burma. ThereÕs a spacious sun deck Þlled with comfy loungers, chairs and dining tables and a cosy lounge bar on the top deck. The rich wood-panelled cabins are divided between two decks.
We spend two nights moored in Luang Prabang, the compact UNESCO World Heritage site city bordered by the Mekong. The raft of colonial architecture, coffee shops and bakeries are a throwback to the time it became a French protectorate in 1893. Nowadays it has a leisurely, laid-back vibe. We sip ginger tea in L’Etranger, a bohemian cafe, bookstore and gallery where you can donate books and get money off the bill. Later we pay $1 to cross the rickety bamboo bridge over the conßuence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The bridge is washed away each year when the river ßoods in the rainy season and rebuilt when the waters subside.
There’s a 5am start the next day to participate in the solemn daily alms giving to monks who walk silently through Luang Prabang’s streets at dawn.
In the afternoon, we scale 300 steps to the Buddhist monument at the top of Mount Phousi, right in the heart of the city, pausing for breath to admire Buddha statues of all sizes lining the route.
Ensuing days tick by at a pace dictated by the 1,600-kilometre stretch of the Mekong ßowing through Laos. Each morning a low mist covers the river bordered by forests and conical jade mountains; sometimes so dense our planned departure is delayed. Conversely, there are times when rushing waters hasten our downstream journey and the captain schedules in extra village stops.
Meanwhile, scheduled excursions include the extraordinary Pak Ou Caves set in towering limestone cliffs and packed with thousands of Buddha statues of varying sizes, the colourful Kuang Si Butterßy Park and nearby Kuang Si waterfalls tumbling down 60 metres into a series of bathing pools where some people take a bracing plunge.
Back on board, the staff wait with welcome cool towels and refreshing drinks followed by a complimentary shoe cleaning service. Each night, over the eagerly awaited cocktail of the day, we swap tales and Vieng runs over the next day’s schedule. Meals, ßavoured with myriad herbs and spices, showcase delicious local cuisine, and the accommodating chef rustles up off-menu items for anyone fancying simpler dishes. We also learn how to make green papaya salad in a cookery demonstration.
Onwards towards Vientiane, and after passing through the mighty steel jaws of the
“Morning mist covers the river bordered by forests and conical jade mountains”
Xayaburi hydroelectric dam, Champa Pandaw zig-zags through the most thrilling stretch of water. Equipped with engines twice the size of other Pandaw ships to navigate the strong current, the ship is steered through a challenging channel dotted with granite rocks.
At the beginning of the voyage, cotton strings had been tied around our wrists in a traditional baci ceremony to bring good luck and to balance the 32 Laotian spirits that look after different parts of the body. We’re told to keep them on for at least three days. I leave the ship with mine intact to prolong the memory of an amazing adventure.
Champa Pandaw on the Upper Mekong River in Laos
From above: trainee monk; serving drinks on board; giant sleeping Buddha, Vientiane