Cruising Mekong

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Mekong seen from Buddha cave

The Trip

When I posted on Instagram that we were going to Laos, I received lots of recommendations to go on a slow boat on the Mekong river. Ok then. If it’s a must, then we must. So I investigated.

I looked at the map and saw that it makes sense to enter Laos from the north of Thailand and then head south down the river to explore. And yeah – exploring on the boat should be fun, though probably stressful. However good my Monkeys are, both from experience and in my imagination, kids plus boat equals need for constant supervision.

Research

Checking on the net revealed a variety of slow boats and speed boats. Speed boats seemed dangerous since the Mekong waters can be unpredictably shallow and rocky, so despite Zoe’s protestations I excluded “speedboat” from the options.

Slow boats come in two grades – “regular” and “luxury”. The regular ones take up to 100 people sitting in old car seats, whilst the luxury grade like Shompoo Cruises which I chose takes up to 40 people. They also offered small stops to see hill tribe villages and caves. So a “luxury” cruise would replace both the crowded car seat boat trip and also supplementary cheap bus tours to the out of the way destinations. And with fewer people on the boat, it would also reduce my stress in supervising the girls. Did I had to think long about it ? Nope. Luxury Shompoo-style had my vote.

The Boat

And indeed the benefits started before we even saw the boat, when we were picked up from the hotel in the morning. Being used to organising everything myself, the relief from having to find our own way from hotel to harbour made for a refreshing start to the day – no need to find a bus route or haggle about the tuk-tuk price to the pier, no crazy running between the boats to ask which is ours, while the girls would have been minding the luggage. This time it was pure and simple. All of us and our bags were picked up and put on a boat – a very nice and easy start.

typical slow boat
our slow boat with open roof

Typical slow boat with car seats. In my head I had all those pictures of boats with dirty bench seats, probably smelling of fuel oil and of us sitting captive for two days. So the sight of the boat itself was a nice surprise. Teak seats with navy blue and pinkish purple upholstery and cushions, and loads of space – it was as if they were calling me “take a photo of me it will be pretty with colours and rhythm of empty seats”. And the boat was long – very long. I probably read somewhere that it was 35 meters, but I didn’t realise just how long that actually was until I saw it.

The long boat was really long

The Experience

 

When you travel with children you think how to prepare for them, if you have snacks, sun cream, insect repellants and so forth, but you don’t think much about yourself. And here was a lovely surprise the boat ride was long and instead of spending that time being chained to the need for supervision, it actually worked that I could have time for myself.

Lots of lovely lazy me-time. – mindless staring at scenery, writing my diary, reading books and even snoozing, all in fresh air with slowly passing green hills beyond the river banks. I felt blessed with this free time for myself while my Monkeys were exploring the boat, reading or playing. And when the moment came that they were totally bored, it was either time for lunch or time to stop for an excursion on land.

 

Beautiful Mekong

I wasn’t prepared either for the beauty of the river. I remembered the Mekong from our earlier trip in Vietnam as muddy dirty water ploughed by enormous noisy boats, but this upstream rural Mekong was something else. The river itself was still muddy browny color but it was lovely and quiet – besides the occasional fast boat passing by. And the scenery was stunning, I could and did spend hours just lazing on comfy seats looking at endless greenery.

 

Excursions

kids from village came to greet us

On first day we stopped in a small Khmu village. The Khmu are one of the ethnic groups in Laos. This stop was very joyful and sad the same time. The joyful part was to see the local kids running to see us and the boat. I joked that they were running to see white faces and it felt like that. they were happy, dirty and lovely children. Like the kids i remember from my childhood – running barefoot, jumping in the water, playing with sticks not with iPads. And my girls immediately bonded with them and ran barefoot to the village.

typical house in the village – no electricity, no water

The village was the sad part – it was very poor and I couldn’t see the way how you could help these people without turning them into us. Though I could see that they seemed smily and happy, and maybe even happier than the people I see in modern cities they were obviously very poor. Our guide spent half an hour or so, telling us about different Lao ethnic groups and their traditions and believes. We went back down to the boat with the kids following us, and in my head I wondered only how we could help them. Should I give them some of the girls clothes, t-shirts maybe? But then wouldn’t it look as if I am thinking that our clothes are better then theirs? I didn’t find the courage to ask our guide what would be good gifts. When we went to the boat, I rushed to our luggage and took out a few bags we got as gifts in Chiang Mai and extra pencils had for my girls. Before the boat left, I passed them to some of the children and as we were moving away, I could see them looking and them and dividing them between themselves.
That night we stopped in Pakbang. It’s an obligatory overnight break for river cruises. The village is neither pretty nor seems to have anything of interest – it’s just there mostly to serve tourists with very simple and not necessary clean accommodation. We went for a walk around but I only wanted to look away from the village and admire the surrounding Mekong scenery.

Sunset on Mekong seen from Pekbang

The Second Day

We started early since we had to travel 160 km. I didn’t mind – I was rather looking forward to this. We had time for school, and for some yoga in the cool morning air.

 

Thousand Buddhas

Almost at the end of our trip we stopped in Pak Ou – The Thousand Buddha cave. It’s quite small but lived up to its name housing so many sculptures of the Buddha. There is another cave, a bit higher but dark. You can’t see much but the steep steps are good for exercise. Again the “Luxury” benefit was that the entrance fee was already covered by the cruise cost. I don’t think these caves would have been worth making a special visit from Luang Prabang but as a break in the river trip on the way down to the town, they was ideal.

Zoe inspecting snakes in whiskey bottles

Just twenty minutes after the cave we stopped again in Lao
Lao village, known as “Whisky Village”. The stuff they sell there wouldn’t count as whisky in any decent account of that drink – it was more like rough moonshine – perhaps even rougher when containing a pickled snake or scorpion. If we were in the business of souvenir collecting I would have bought a bottle for its novelty value as a gift. Whisky with cobra can be apparently not such a good idea to try as the toxic effects might be more than just due to alcohol . . .

The rest of the village is very commercial with scarfs and other handicraft some looking like “made in China”. They all are priced at one dollar until you actually choose something which looks nice and then you are told that you have wonderful taste and actually that quality is more expensive. Anyway it was a good walk and our guide was with us, telling us stories about Laos.

The End

And after another forty minutes we were in Luang Prabang. Again the “Luxury” tag paid off. The other boats have to stop on the pier outside, but ours moored right in the heart of the old town. A slightly mixed blessing since the 20 or 30 steps at that point were very steep and I reached the top panting even with my small backpack. But I didn’t need to worry about our main luggage, since there were porters who were already paid. There was a car waiting for us and all the passengers were taken to their accommodation, all organised and paid by Shompoo.

It was perfect. And Luang Prabang was in the throes of some light festival. There were picturesque temples and we dined in a small restaurant. All was picture perfect until I was woken at 7am by a cockroach landing on my bed (in my not so cheap hotel) Then I just wanted to go back to the boat and keep going up and down the Mekong, but instead, we just changed hotel for the next night.

Oh and the girls reaction to cockroach? How sweet he is!

 

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