Sorry for the Tina Turner reference, just had to. Anyway, our two-day cruise up the Mekong river was one of the aspects of our trip I was most looking forward too, especially since we weren’t able to cruise from Mandalay to Bagan in Myanmar along the Irawaddy River.
We set off on a misty morning in Luang Prabang, carefully treading down slippery steep steps to the riverbank to embark on our Shompoo Cruise boat, made of teakwood, decidedly rustic and delightfully picturesque.
The boat was prepared for a max of 40 passengers, and since it was rainy season, we were only 10, which was perfect–we could spread out, relax and have plenty of personal space. My favorite area of the boat was the loungers placed at the front and back, where you could stretch out and read, nap or just enjoy the river view scenery. The middle of the boat featured booths, with wooden benches and tables so you could eat or work.
I took my spot lounging in the front of the boat and didn’t move for about 10 hours! The scenery was breathtaking and very much uninhabited, albeit a few villages here and there and a lone fisherman looking for his catch of the day.
For the most part, the area along the Mekong is a jungle forest, thriving with huge trees and plants jutting out at all angles. There really isn’t even a “riverbank” along most of the river, especially in rainy season, it’s just water, and then trees and then mountains. In fact, we were told that the river had risen over 20 meters in about a week’s time, as the rainy season had just hit and the rain was really pouring down hard.
The dewy mist covering the mountains was just stunning. I felt like I was in Jurassic Park or something (well, minus the dinosaurs and Jeff Goldblum). We passed by the occasional village, clumps of broken-down wooden huts, muddy roads and boats as their main form of transportation.
There was a lot of debris in the river at times, but not garbage. There is just so much foliage that the trees, leaves and plants break off into the river. There are also landslides then end up pushing a lot of branches and logs into the river. Our captain had to be very carefully to not tread over any of the big logs. At one point we actually had to stop so they could clean out some of the wood from the engine.
The first day, we stopped at the Pak Ou caves, which consist of two caves, the lower and upper. The upper cave we couldn’t access due to a flooded staircase, but we headed into the lower cave (it wasn’t really a “cave” more of just an overcut). The caves are famous thanks to their thousands of small, spider-covered, dusty Buddha figures set up throughout the space. The Buddhas have been left in the cave from worshippers, and some are hundreds of years old. Locals still boat up the river to pray and burn incense to the many Buddhas.
After the stop, we cruised until about 5 p.m. having enjoyed the lovely, yet at times monotonous scenery. We docked in Pakbeng, and dropped our bags at the Mekong River Lodge before heading out to walk around the village. The village was nondescript and probably only there for locals and backpackers to stop mid-river for the night. We ate a nice Indian food dinner overlooking the Mekong and headed to sleep.
After an evening in our rustic river lodge, complete with mosquito net and plenty of insects, we awoke to a sunrise over the river. Although it was cloudy, it was still gorgeous, and we enjoyed some morning peacefulness on our balcony before heading down to the boat once again.
Our second day along the Mekong was just as lovely as the first. Relaxing on my lounger and enjoying the scenery plus the occasional nap was paradise! Later that morning, we stopped at a Khmu village along the river. Jorge enjoyed the visit, but it left me rather sad. The village has about 300 inhabitants, and no running water, cars or electricity. The Khmu tribes live in remote areas in Northern Laos and came over from Cambodia in the 4th century.
The villagers live in teak wood huts on stilts, with their animals, pigs, ducks, dogs, chickens and even cows lounging underneath the areas where they sleep and cook. The animals also run amok through the town and around the water pump, the only water supply currently available to villagers. Whereas it was very interesting to see, the villages looked sad, dirty and poor. There was one small schoolhouse, where all the kids go together. Small kids go with one teacher and slightly older kids with another teacher. They are typically married off as teenagers, except for ones that escape the village to work in the “city”–meaning Pakbeng or Pat Tha, the two nearest cities (to me these are both small villages, but it must seem like paradise after living in such a small, remote area like the Khmu’s do).
While they are taught Lao at school, they speak the Khmu language and they aren’t Buddhists like most of the Lao people. Instead they worship a variety of gods such as a dragon and mother earth. As they don’t have access to medical care (the nearest option for them is two hours by boat to Pak Beng, and I am not even sure if there is a hospital there, but there is a doctor), they turn to the town Shaman to cure them from any mental or physical ailments they may be experiencing. They get pretty much everything they need by working the land (food such as rice, vegetables, fruit and meat, building materials like wood) and for clothes and other supplies they may take the occasional boat trip down the river.
As I mentioned, it rather depressed me to see people living in such dirty conditions. I have witnessed this kind of living before, in the slums of India or Bangkok or remote jungle areas of Cambodia, but the people seem to be smiling and content, especially the children. In fact, in Cambodia, I actually envied the children, running around collecting coconuts naked, without a care in the world.
In the Khmu village, people seemed tired and worn. Despite seeing their apparent sadness I am glad we visited. The discomfort I felt clearly wasn’t a nice feeling, but it’s important to be exposed to the way people live. If we don’t understand the conditions in which people live around the world, how can we grow and change? I wonder if there are ways to respect and continue their traditions while taking them into a more modern, comfortable world? Maybe not, but how can I ever appreciate all the comforts I have in my life: running water, electricity, internet, soft mattresses, electronics and access to medical care and education at my fingertips without realizing it’s not a right or given ? It’s essential to understand that not everything has access to these types of comforts and to never take for granted that we can switch on a light, have a dry shelter from rain and clean drinking water whenever we want. It’s clear, especially after seeing this village close-up that not everyone is born with or given such an “opportunity” (or is it a right? Another conversation for another day).
After re-boarding my luxury boat (and feeling mildly guilty), I took my spot on the lounger and watched as the scenery changed a bit, banana plantations, rice fields, and more villages. We got to the point where the left bank of the river was Thailand and the right, Laos.
Around 4 pm on the second day, we docked in Laos, the right side of the river. Then we had to take a tuk-tuk about 10 km to go through Laos immigration, take a bus over the friendship bridge to the other side of the river into Thailand and then go through Thai customs. It was slightly tedious but no major issues and when we exited Thai customs, our driver was ready and waiting to take us the two hours to Chiang Rai.
I would also like to point out that we took the two-day slowboat cruise to the border. There are speedboats they make the trip in one day, and they are terrifying. They are small motorboats that fly over the river and it’s extremely dangerous, many people have died. In fact, the passengers all wear motorcycle helmets. No thank you! We saw a few and it looked well, not enjoyable in the least.
I really loved our cruise and would recommend it to anyone who wants to see the rural landscape of Laos along the Mekong. Especially if you want to some un-interrupted relaxing time without internet!
Next stop, coming soon….Chiang Rai, Thailand!