It was drizzling when we arrived in Luang Prabang, a town on the banks of the Mekong River in central Laos. As we stepped off the plane, we were greeted by airport staff handing each passenger an umbrella—a pleasant welcome to this friendly city! The rain stopped just as we arrived at our hotel, a restored 1904 French-Portuguese mansion with balconies overlooking the river.
Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, is an historic
town on a peninsula between the Mekong and Khan rivers, and is small
enough to easily walk or bike just about everywhere. On its main street
we found restaurants offering every type of food, delightful crafts shops
and outdoor markets. As the sun sets, the street is blocked off and transformed
into an evening market, where local artisans display their colorful wares.
The town was previously the royal capital of the country and has an abundance
of ancient and not-so-ancient wats, or Buddhist temples, including the
richly decorated Wat Xieng Thong. Built in 1560, the wat is located in
a beautiful garden where the two rivers converge and was the place where
the former kings of Laos were crowned. We climbed the 328 steps up Mount
Phousi, right in the middle of Luang Prabang, to gold-spired Wat That
Chom Sii, where we were treated to a sweeping view of the town, its rivers
and the countryside beyond. From there, a short walk took us to the Royal
Palace. Built in 1904 for King Sisavang Vong, the site was chosen so
that official visitors could disembark from the river to a landing directly
below the majestic palace. In 1975, the monarchy was overthrown by the
communists and the palace was converted into a museum.
The next day we walked down to the riverbank and boarded the Mekong
Sun, a German-Laotian owned riverboat with fourteen cabins, a sundeck,
library and lounge. Our cabin was beautifully appointed in mahogany and
teak, with a floor-to-ceiling window, a bathroom with separate shower,
and lots of amenities, including a welcome package with local souvenirs
and postcards of the ship.
The lines were cast off and we began our cruise. As the jungle scenery
rolled by, we sat in comfortable lounge chairs on the upper deck, enjoying
the sun and sipping daiquiris made with local tropical fruit. Soon we
pulled to the shore, and the crew set out the gangplank. We disembarked
and hiked up to the Laotian village of Ban Xang Hai, famous for its lau-lau,
or rice whiskey. Using water carried from the Mekong, the rice is soaked
in large jars, where it ferments. It is then distilled into a strong,
flavorful liquor that we came to enjoy quite a lot on this trip! After
a visit with the local weavers, we hiked through the woods to the Pak-Ou
Caves, two caves filled with thousands of small Buddhas that have been
left over hundreds of years by faithful Laotian Buddhists.
Traveling on the Mekong Sun, which was designed for navigating
in shallow water and can tie up anywhere, gave us the opportunity to
visit remote villages and become acquainted with the local people. We
enjoyed many shore excursions, including visits to a working elephant
camp, where we watched elephants haul enormous logs from the jungle to
waiting cargo boats, and the Kuang Si Waterfalls, which tumble into turquoise
Each evening the ship pulled up to a sand bank, crew members drove stakes
into the beach and we tied up for the night. There were always activities
on the beach followed by wonderful dinners, where we had our choice of
European or Asian cuisine expertly prepared by the chefs on board. There
were also lectures in the lounge regarding local culture, history and
ecology, as well as cooking and craft classes.
The Mekong is the main artery of life throughout the region, where fishermen
troll the river’s waters, river merchants peddle their wares and
workmen in small boats commute to and from their daily employment. Cruising
through an awe inspiring landscape—hills covered with tropical
vegetation and amazing rock formations—and watching life on the
river, we came to appreciate this unique corner of the world.
On our last night, we celebrated with a wonderful farewell dinner, then
headed to our cabin for the night. Lulled to sleep by the hypnotic rhythms
of the river, it is easy to see why the locals call the Mekong the “mother
of all waters.”