Cruising down the Mekong River, the sun shines brightly in my eyes and the wind whispers in my ears. The river is wide, rocks jut out of its depths, and jungle hills blanket its edges. Small villages with bamboo houses and thatch roofs remind us that although it feels like we are far from humanity, we are not. Every turn in the river brings a new vista to feast our eyes on. Fishing boats, freighter houseboats, and riverboats full of locals and tourists alike make this part of the Mekong a slow going water highway. We spot many cows lounging on the white sand at the rivers edge as well as the occasional water buffalo and goats. Dirt paths curving up into the jungle are sometimes the only indication that hill tribes inhabit the jungle.
Our last two days have been spent enjoying a slow cruise down the Mekong River.
Eight years ago Mike and I took a local boat on the two-day trek from Luang Prabang Laos up to Northern Thailand. The trip was awful and we swore we would never do anything like it again. The seats were wooden benches that were not quite big enough to accommodate our western butts, the boat made no stops for food (luckily we had brought some), we could not stand up because the roof was too low, and the hole-in-the-floor-board bathroom was a test in balance and agility as to reach it we had to walk across a narrow plank that spanned over the open engine.
So when it came time to figure out where we were going to go once our Thai visas ran out we didn’t even think of taking another slow boat into Laos. We searched for airfare out of the country and had just decided to fly to Malaysia when for some unexplained reason I decided to Google ‘cruised down the Mekong’. That is when I saw the Luang Say Cruises website, a company that runs two-day luxury cruises into Laos.
Our journey began at the Thai border town of Chiang Khong where representatives of Luang Say Cruises met us and helped us through the exit process. We then boarded a long tail boat and were transferred across the river to the Laos border town of Huey Xai. Our bags were picked up by porters and taken straight to our awaiting boat. Instead of heading for the Laos immigration office we enjoyed coffee, tea, water, and fresh fruit in the comfort of the Luang Say office as we filled out our Visa paperwork. The staff even brought our paperwork to the border control office for us and all we had to do was head over ten minutes later to pay our $42 US fee for our Laos Visa!
With visas in hand we were driven in a songteow to the boat that we would be cruising on for the next few days. It was the largest passenger boat we saw at the pier, both wider and taller than the other boats. Comfortable chairs, tables, and enough room to walk around ensured a comfortable ride. There were two bathrooms with flush toilets and sinks, cushioned sitting areas at both the front and back of the boat, and a bar area where you could purchase alcoholic drinks or pop (coffee, tea, and water were included in the price.) A Lao style lunch was served buffet style on both days and there was always fresh fruit for our children with Hobbit appetites to snack on. There were two guides on board, one who spoke English and one who spoke English and French. They answered all of our questions and made our cruise a learning experience for our whole family.
There were two stops in local villages, one on each day. Although it was interesting and we did get a peek into the village lifestyle, I do have to say that I was not a huge fan of the stops. Having just come from our Lanjia Lodge experience it was hard to not compare these visits with what felt like a less intrusive learning experience.
In the first village the locals seemed quite jaded, and I don’t blame them. Many of the tourists were unforgiving in their quest for the perfect picture. I know I would not like it if people flocked around me to take my picture outside my home. Mike asked a few villagers for their permission to take their pictures and each time he was met with a “no”. There was one small girl who he tried to sneak a shot of and when she noticed she made the motion for Mike to give her money.
The second village visit was wall-to-wall handicrafts and every person we walked by greeted us with “Sa Ba Di. You buy something?” Most of the goods on sale were scarves, some of which were made in the local village but our guide told us that many of the scarves were also imports from China. If the scarf had a sewn edge then we could tell that it was made in a Chinese factory.
The saving grace of these two visits for us was the fact that we did come away with more knowledge of the culture, traditions, lifestyle, problems, and religion of each village because of our knowledgeable guide.
We overnighted in the same town that every tourist boat stops at but let me tell you we were NOT on the same tourist trail. Luang Say Lodge is a twenty-minute walk down a dirt road from the backpacker scene, which made it feel like a world apart. Beautiful teak bungalows that blended into the jungle landscape were all situated with the best possible view of the Mekong. A wooden boardwalk that wound its way past beautiful flowers and trees connected the bungalows. Our boys decided the boardwalks were just like an Ewok village and they ran back and forth with sticks shouting “Watoo, Watoo!”
The open air bungalows were complete luxury for our family, an extra bed and mosquito net was brought in to accommodate us, the furnishings were earthy and lovely, and the bathroom was of first world standards.
Dinner was served in the common area after an entertaining evening of traditional dance. We loved the sounds and rhythms from instruments we had not heard before and the dancing children took a particular interest in our two boys.
We awoke on the second day of our journey to a thick fog that shrouded the Mekong and we realized just how cold early morning is in Northern Laos. After a hearty western style breakfast (the best we have had since leaving home) we made our way down to the boat to find that each chair had a blanket on it! Our morning was spent bundled up as we watched the sun slowly burning off the morning chill.
Our second stop of day two was at Pak Ou Caves, about one hour away from Luang Prabang. An important religious site for the local Buddists, these caves actually served as a monastery in the 16th century. Filled with thousands of Buddha statues the caves are still used for worship more than five centuries later.
We reached Luang Prabang at 4:30 and said goodbye to the staff and friends we had made on our Luang Say Mekong Cruise.
At the start of our cruise Mike and I were worried about our children being cooped up on a boat for two days. We are happy to report though that our children did marvelously on the cruise. There was enough space for them to walk around, enough scenery to keep them busy, enough food to keep them happy, and we had enough distractions in the form of Lego, felts and paper, and playing cards to keep them entertained.
While certainly not a cheap option for a Mekong cruise, Luang Say Cruises is a luxurious one. We were pampered the entire two days and it was an incredibly comfortable ride. We would like to thank Luang Say Cruises for generously hosting our family on this two-day cruise.
If you would like to book your own cruise please visit the Luang Say website.