The ul­ti­mate re­al­ity show

Cruis­ing the Up­per Mekong in Laos.

Cruise Passenger - - PUBLISHER’S LETTER -

“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

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