From its source in China's Qinghai Province, the Mekong flows 4,200 km southeast, forming the border between Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, and most of the border between Laos and Thailand. It then flows across Cambodia and southern Vietnam into a rich delta before emptying into the South China Sea.
Vanessa, an Australian friend living in Thailand, didn’t stop raving about Laos when I visited her in Bangkok. “You have to go,” she said emphatically.
Laos, she told me, emerged from 20 years of self-imposed isolation in the early 1990s when the communist government ushered in an era of “new thinking” and opened the doors to foreign investment and tourism. The government’s eagerness to promote eco-tourism is paying off. Laos is now visited by 300,000 tourists annually.
Landlocked by China and Myanmar to the north, Vietnam to the east, Thailand to the west, and Cambodia to the south, Laos’ four million inhabitants live mostly in primitive villages dotted along its dense network of rivers, which double as transport arteries, particularly in the mountainous north.
I decided to take Vanessa’s advice. After a ten-hour, overnight bus from Bangkok’s northern bus station to Chiang Rai then another two-hour bus trip to Chiang Khong, I entered Laos through its northern gateway at Huay Xai. In Huay Xai, I booked into a guesthouse for the night and bought a ticket (all the guesthouses sell tickets) for the next day’s boat trip to Luang Prabang, Laos’ most “touristy” town.
I was excited about taking an indigenous river boat on the Mekong, one of the world’s largest and most mythical rivers.
The next morning I found out that other Westerners had the same idea. I shared the hold of the creaky, wooden boat with about fifty other backpackers, all of us sprawled on the floor, our rucksacks heaped into one corner.
At first, packed together so claustrophobically, manners were tetchy, and I was thinking I had made a mistake for not taking the more comfortable but more expensive tourist boat [Editor's note: See comment below].
Some of the groups were boisterous and intrusive, but the somnolent mood of the journey soon calmed us with its sedative effect. We moved along at an unhurried pace, the engine on low-gear, the current doing much of the work propelling the boat down river.
Hemmed between rolling mountains, the banana-shaped boat slithered slowly south with the murky water. There was nothing to do but become absorbed in the surroundings. The wind was docile, the sun bright. The lolloping flight of flocking white egrets reflected in shadowy ripples across the sky. On either side, the dark green forests were alive with the shrill clamor of countless birds, animals, and insects. Sometimes the waters expanded massively, more like a lake than a river, as approaching bends and surrounding mountains obscured the way ahead.
After five hours on the water we stopped in Pakbeng for the night. This small village, perched on the Mekong, was a collection of bamboo huts. Limpid smoke from cooking hearths hung above the houses. Naked children splashed raucously in the river while their mothers washed. The passengers scattered to fill the three basic guesthouses in the village.
The second day we arrived in Luang Prabang in the early afternoon. I realized that the boat could have made the trip in a day if pressed. But why hurry? This is Laos, where slowness and patience are virtues.
Set at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, Luang Prabang has only 16,000 inhabitants, but that is a large town by Laos’ standards. It has an airport, two bus stations, and two bazaars. Its grid-plan streets make orientation easy.
Although I saw all the sights in two days, I happily spent an indolent week in town learning something of Lao history while settling in with the unhurried local lifestyle. In this town people drive their mopeds with one hand steering while the other holds an umbrella aloft as a shield against the tropical sun. In the evening, couples cruise around on their motorbikes holding conversations from bike to bike.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Luang Prabang history dates to 1353 when the conqueror Fa Ngum established here the “Kingdom of a Million Elephants” (Lan Xang). Luang Prabang remained the capital until King Phothisarat moved the seat of rule to Vientiane in 1545. Eventually, Lan Xang broke up in 1694, and an independent kingdom was set up in Luang Prabang. But given its diminutive land and population, it was a weakling that had to ingratiate itself to the regional powers of the times – the Siamese, Vietnamese, then, in the late 19th century, the country came under French control.
The French allowed the Luang Prabang monarchy a measure of symbolic rule, but political turmoil continued to reign throughout Indochina. Communist influences gradually took over in Laos, and the monarchy was abolished in 1975, after the revolutionary years following the Vietnam War.
The legacy of French colonial rule is still pervasive. The provincial Royal Palace, now open to the public, was built in a French baroque style incorporated with oriental touches. Many inhabitants live in exuberant mansions designed in a kind of restrained French baroque: wall paneling, stone lips, elaborate and steepled porticoes, louvered windows, round skylights. Cafés still serve paté, baguettes, and croissants.
In the late afternoons I would sit at one of the restaurants whose outdoor tables overlooked the banks of the Mekong with its sparse river traffic. Accompanied by Lao beer and a hearty meal of fish caught in the river, I invariably found myself drifting into reverie as the mountains across the bank morphed into shades of purplish haze at sunset.
The only afternoon I missed sunset was the time I attended a tourist-oriented show at the local theater. The indigenous dances and operas depicting a life of rural gentility were good, but it was the folk songs that nearly transported me out of my seat – the women’s gentle voices provoking desire.
One day I toured a couple of the numerous Buddhist wats (temples). Virtually every male spends a stint of retreat in the local wat. Lao wats are notable for their wooden, gold-glazed standing Buddhas, as opposed to the Buddhas sitting in the lotus position found elsewhere.
The best known temple is Xien Thong, a complex comprising three temples, a school, and monks’ quarters. The intricate carvings of Buddha on the facade of its main temple are covered in gold leaf, and the exteriors of the remaining two temples have elaborate and fantastical reliefs created by inlaid colored mirrors, showing schemes of Buddhist parables and royal life.
Acting on a tip by the helpful proprietor of the Merry Guesthouse, where I was staying, I took a local three-hour bus to Nong Kiew, then a thirty-minute boat-trip up the Nam Ou river to Muang Ngoi.
An hour into the journey the landscape became more convoluted and gnarled and dramatic, sheer limestone cliffs with trees clinging to their faces like clumps of beard, the river winding wildly through the mountains that rose steeply in inverted cones.
Muang Ngoi, a one-street village made of a cluster of some 200 bamboo houses on stilts, had a rudimentary tourist infrastructure. The village electricity generator was put on three hours daily, 7-10pm. There were a couple of restaurants and a few guesthouses; the rooms were built of expertly woven bamboo, the beds comfortable and covered by mosquito nets.
The view from the terrace of the Vita Guesthouse, where I had booked in, swept along the river with mountains marching both ways, and the progressive ranges displaying different nuances of greenish-purple hues.
“It’s too bad they only give us a month’s visa,” fretted one of the tourists at my guesthouse. “I could stay here a whole month.”
Awakened early each morning by crowing roosters, I would get up and walk through the gardens to the nearest restaurant. Cooking breakfast or any meal took two hours on the wood-fired stone hearths.
I wanted to do a trek, and within an hour I found another three Westerners eager to join in. Finding a guide was easy: we just had to ask around. After negotiating with three men we settled for Sy Thon, a 30-year-old from Vientiane. He had moved to Muang Ngoi when he envisaged its tourism potential, and eventually built a guesthouse and restaurant – both called Ning Ning after his daughter. A no-bluff, mild-mannered guy, he wanted to impress us with good service.
The two-day trek took us into the mountainous interior, most of it covered by undisturbed rainforest. The trail cut through the thick undergrowth, forming a tunnel through the trees. On the first day we walked for seven hours to reach our destination – a village poised on the side of a mountain. Called Kiwu Khan, it is an isolated village of some fifty bamboo houses. The villagers subsist on crops, chickens and pigs, supplementing their diet with animals shot in the forest. They even build their own shotguns, which look like something out of the Medieval Ages.
Not used to white people until Thon began introducing trekkers only a few months before, the villagers regarded us with amused curiosity. The children formed a circle around us and, all evening, sat in the house of our host watching us and giggling. That night, Thon prepared a squirrel stew, a spicy vegetable dish, chilli sauce, and sticky rice, and we slept on old mattresses spread on the floor.
The next day, after having walked down river, and back into Muang Ngoi by lunchtime, Thon pampered us with grilled fish, fish soup, vegetable curry, and sticky rice, all accompanied by lâo láo, a home-made rice whiskey. The two days, including meals and overnight accommodation, cost us $13 each.
More lâo láo was on offer on my return to Luang Prabang. It was September 6, a feast day to celebrate a successful monsoon. The town organized boat races and, after watching these raucous affairs, I returned to my guesthouse for the party. A new-born had arrived in the family and the owner of my guesthouse linked the two events together to throw a free party for friends and hotel guests. Tubs of food were prepared, a live band hired, and plenty of lâo láo stocked for the occasion.
Someone appointed himself the drink dispenser, passing shot after shot of lâo láo until everyone got on the dance-floor. Even when drunk, the Lao people were discreet.
This inherent gentility reminded me of my Australian friend’s comments: “The Vietnamese grow rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow.”
>> From Cort Richer: You missed a great opportunity on the ride from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. The "slow boat" is a teak masterpiece that covers the same journey in relative lxury. At Pakbeng you stay at the beautiful lodge you saw approaching town, and the boat stops at various ethnic villages and the Pac O caves on the way. And, like all of Laos, luxury can be very inexpensive. In Laos I drank good French wine at lodges out in the bush, on a tight budget.