The Mekong

Spine of life

What a magical and evocative river name. Flowing down from China’s Tibetan Plateau down to Vietnam’s extreme south at its Delta, the Mekong actually crosses Laos over 1,800 km. That is to say 40% of its entire length is solely in Laos. To this respect, Laos can be labelled as “the country of the Mekong”. It is no wonder the Mekong River Commission is headquartered in Vientiane.

Out of its 1,800 km in length, the Mekong is not navigable in its entirety. The rocky river bed, combined with some sandy immersed or emerged islands prevent heavy and/or non-flat bottom boats to navigate, not only for recreational use but also for commercial matters.

Only a few quality operators do organize multi day cruises in the upper and lower parts of the Mekong.

Most likely, we can think of 2 main areas:

The upper Mekong, between Luang Prabang and Houey Say, the Lao border town opposite Thailand’s Chiang Rai’s province of Chiang Khong.

The lower Mekong, between Pakse and the “4,000 Islands” area, very close to the Cambodian border.

These 2 zones can be cruised year round, no matter the water level fluctuations during the dry and wet seasons.

What is understood by “cruise” anyway? Cruising refers to boating on-board a long and rather narrow bodied wooden barge with a steel hull. Depending on the requested size of the traveling party, it can range from 3 to 5 m wide by 28 to 35 m long. These are often referred as of “slow boats”, in comparison with the “speed boats”. Slow boats because they leisurely cruise at a speed that does not make it possible to make the entire purpose of travel transportation-only. To differ, speed boats are speedy embarkations carrying about 5 or 6 passengers maximum. More outboard kind of motorized boats, where people need to wear a life jacket and helmet, as the journey is noisy, pretty uncomfortable and well can be risky as the speed reached can be up to 60-70 km/h. Slow boats can carry from 2 to 50 passengers in comfort. With average cruising speeds of approximately 25 km/h. Enough to enjoy the breeze in your hair and watching sceneries go by without a fear of heart attack! Lunches are served on-board and there is always a toilet facility, kitchen, tables and comfortable chairs/seats, sometimes even reclining chairs, bar and sun deck. And most of the time a retractable roof.

In northern Laos, a multi-day cruise will take you upstream or downstream over 2 or 3 days. The slow boats are not designed to overnight on-board. Instead, guests overnight at hillside lodges or hotels at Pakbeng, located somewhat half way between the Lao spiritual capital and the Golden Triangle. One can also add an extra night at the riverside Kamu Lodge, this tented camp of 20 units only. It is located upstream of Luang Prabang. It is an ideal product for those visitors willing to have a feel for ‘adventure” while staying in style and comfort. The safari-like tent camp is built next to a village of the Kamu ethnic group and supports the community by providing jobs for the local residents. Various traditional activities in demonstrations or participations punctuate the time spent there. Like gold panning, net fishing techniques, labouring a rice field with buffalo and pricking out of rice, bow shooting, cooking sticky rice, etc.

In all cases, a mere 2 hour cruise upstream of Luang Prabang are the Pak Ou Caves. This is a sacred site nestled in a karst cliff overlooking the Mekong and the mouth of the Ou River. Pak Ou Caves can also be visited on a day trip from Luang Prabang.

Several stops along the way can be done to explore villages, some of them with specialties of weaving or rice liquor distillation. It is also highly possible to consider some charitable donation for least developed ones.

In southern Laos, there are 2 kinds of cruising experiences.

One is a proper cruise in the sense that it is a 3 days and 2 nights experience. On-board a converted rice barge accommodating 12 cabins only. So, contrary to its northern peers, this time, guests overnight on-board. The journey takes the guests hopping around the islands of the “4,000 islands” area. Visiting the major sites, including the rapids forming Khone Phapheng and Lippi waterfalls. This is a pretty stylish experience to live. Not just by the high level of standard of service, but by the fact that it is fairly exclusive, with such a small capacity.

The second experience is actually more of a day excursion nature. On-board narrow bodied and roofed long tailed pirogues. They dock not far from riverfront hotels in the region of the “4,000 Islands” and take guests around the archipelago of islets. Guests hop on and off to explore the countryside of these sandy small islands. The time of transportation from one place to another is hardly more than 2 hours in a row. This is a completely different feeling to a converted rice barge, as there is the distinctive sound of a boatman snaking his motorized pirogue around the arroyo-like sceneries, virtually seated at water level.

A 2 or 3 day cruise is always a nice idea. Either to start gently a tour of Laos after a long haul journey. Or to finish a more itinerant and tiring road trip.

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