Day 1 – Houay Xai to Pakbeng
The mighty Mekong is born in Tibet, China, and dies in a giant delta in Vietnam after traveling frantically for an astonishing 4500 km. It is this river, running along much of Laos’s western border with Myanmar and Thailand, that both links and separates these countries. One of the most popular and romantic ways to experience the Mekong is to board one of the many tourist cruise boats that ply the river as it wends through Laos. I was visiting Laos for the first time and I thought a cruise on the Mekong would be the best way to approach this country that is slowing gaining popularity amongst tourists from all over the world. After an extensive search, I put myself in the hands of relatively new Mekong Smile Cruise for a two-days cruise. Final destination: Luang Prabang.
The minivan picked us up at 6am from our hotel in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand, and we were soon on the way towards Thailand’s northern border. The trip lasted nearly 2 hours, along roads cutting through an endless and dry countryside. Kilometers and kilometers of land without a single house, the hills in the distance covered by a thick haze. We could make out the magic silhouettes of the mountains until we climbed towards greener hilly areas, passed through sleepy villages with derelict shops and farmers on tractors, and old teak houses scattered here and there. Finally, at 8am the sun appeared behind the mist and everything changed, the colours took life.
In Chiang Saen we met with Mekong Smile Cruise owner, Mr. Pheng, and our guide for the cruise Mr. Kae, a young and entertaining chap from Houay Xai area. After the conventional greetings, we were assisted with the formalities and Visas requirements, we paid the 35$ for a 30 days Visa to Laos, then easily passed the border on foot and reached Houay Xai, the first inhabited place on the Lao side. This is a border town home to 6000 hill tribe people as well as a Chinese population that is taking advantage of the opportunities a developing country like Laos offers: mainly the need to build infrastructure and the availability of farming land and local inexpensive labour. Houay Xai was also allegedly home to a heroin processing plant during the Secret War conducted by the CIA during the Vietnam War, though today the most trafficked items through the town are travellers.
We were taken by minivan to the pier where we boarded our home for the two day cruise: a traditional Mekong snail boat. Laos traditional long boats are made of steel and covered entirely on teak and rosewood. This boat, so clean and comfortable, can carry up to 40 passengers, but today group of travellers only counted 14 people so we had lots of space to move around at ease. Kae asked travellers about meat preference, gave a few information about what to expect from our first day on board, pointed to the toilets and to the lifejackets, and it was soon time for the captain to start the engine and get the boat moving downriver.
Our boat slowly left the banks at Houay Xai, sharing the waters with an array of speed boats, slow boats, freighters and luxury cruisers, and finally picked up speed, letting us enjoy an unusual cool morning breeze. During the first few Kilometers, the Mekong functions as a border: on one side there is Laos, on the other Thailand. On the Laos side, roads were being built along old dirt tracks and wooden shacks, with hills as a backdrop. Big boulders protruded out of the waters, catching the attention of the attentive captain.
I enjoyed a coffee from the self-service area at the back of the boat, then walked to the front and lied down in the open-air area on one of the comfy teak beds covered by spongy pillows. The sun kissed my face as I looked up, lulled by the gentle movement of the vessel, drops of water from the Mekong splashing to my face… All of a sudden I was an ancient traveler, an explorer on a make-shift boat, one of the first in the area, venturing towards the unknown, marvelling at the dense jungle, facing potential dangers like local tribes hiding in the bushes or crocodiles concealed by murky waters, all ready to jump out and attack me. I woke at 11am by the voice of Kae telling everyone to put on our shoes; the river banks in this area had long sandy beaches, and the waters spitted out pointed rocks that looked like rockets leaving for the sky. Both sides of the river featured green hills now; both sides now belonged to Laos. We were going to visit a village on the river banks.
Bane Huay Palam is home to 75 families, 300 people belonging to the ethnic group named Khamu, the largest in northern Laos. We strolled around the village, while knowledgeable Kae fed us lots of information about the place. The first thing we noted was the high number of children, the bulk of them followed us along asking for pens and pencils. Some of the tourists had brought treats and notebooks and even a ball, which the kids appreciated. Make sure you pack some items for the kids if you intend to embark on this journey!
Kae also told us that in the near past, mortality from malaria infection here was high. The Laos government has since set up programs to help communities like this by spreading the knowledge about the use of condoms and making them available, as well as sending visiting doctors to villages once a week and supplying mosquito nets to the villagers. With roads connecting these remote places to bigger centres, these villagers are now slightly better off. It is enough to say that Bane Huay Palam now has electricity and satellite TV!
We observed women collecting grass for broom making or drying rice in their dusty patios, kids in rugged clothes running in the dust along with black fat piglets and hens, and men returning from foraging in the forest. Some villagers were weaving round rice baskets in the verandah of traditional houses of bamboo walls. The kids kept following us, and I enjoyed showing them the pictures I took of them on the monitor of my camera: looking at their own images gave them a mixed feeling of awe and surprise.
Back on board, Kae and the cook were waiting us with a sumptuous buffet lunch of amazing dishes that included a veggie and tofu soup, sweet and sour fish, spring rolls and lots of fruit to clean our mouth. The food was wonderful, and Kae enlightened us about the ingredients and the way to cook local dishes. Lunch was followed by coffee and by a siesta, while the boat resumed its slow journey south. What a perfect way to spend a few days drifting down the Mekong, I thought as I enjoyed the ride, the beautiful scenery and the locals in their environment. There were kids running and playing along secluded beaches and in the waters, water-buffaloes and goats all over the place, villages made of thatched huts, fishermen checking the nets from their fishing boats. At some point we even caught sight of a wild elephant, who quickly backed up upon seeing the boat approaching.
And so the cruise went on: someone made themselves coffee from the facilities always available, others played cards, drank Lao Beer or dozed off in the gentle breeze.
I highly recommend this tour to anyone looking for stunning scenery and landscapes, relaxation and a bit of Lao culture, a very special experience that Mekong Smile Cruise, despite being a relatively new company, helped us live to the full.
It was 5pm when the boat approached the village of Pakbeng, our stop for the night…
A cruise over the Mekong is a good and more luxurious alternative to the crowded public slow boats. Mekong Smile Cruise is indeed a good choice, we had a great relaxing trip exploring and appreciating an interesting stretch of the river. I definitely recommend this option, which was one of the highlights of our tour.
Mekong Smile Cruise programs and prices can be found on www.mekongsmilecruise.com – for booking and information you can contact owner Pheng at firstname.lastname@example.org or at email@example.com
Mekong Smile Cruise Day 2 – Pakbeng to Luang Prabang