Exploring Laos all along the Mekong River
The Mekong River is a one of the great rivers of the world, weaving together the countries of China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam into a web of interdependent ecosystems and indigenous cultures. The Mekong’s meandering journey through Laos is one of the most pristine, diverse and accessible routes along the entire river. I began my own Mekong adventure at the border town of Chiang Kong in northern Thailand. The border crossing between Chiang Kong and Huay Xai, Laos is the easiest and most popular location to enter Laos via the river.
I crossed the border early in the morning and learned that border officials in the region seem to universally love coffee but never have any coffee money. They’ve developed an ingenious solution to this dilemma by adding an unofficial US$1 fee to any given step of the quarantine, customs and immigration processes, on either side of any border. Travelers who don’t wish to donate to the coffee fund should insist on a receipt for their compulsory donation. This request tends to quench their thirst more than coffee.
After receiving my visa and briefly crossing the Mekong aboard a long-tail boat, I hopped in a songthaew (shared pickup-truck taxi) which delivered me to another much larger boat with a recommended capacity of 100 passengers, and a maximum capacity limited only by the ambition of the ticket sellers.
Historic river journey
The boat trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang is a historic river journey once ventured by French explorers and missionaries and is now one of the last remaining stretches of the Mekong with an active passenger boat system. I took the two-day slow boat, with an overnight in Pakbeng, but a three-day luxury boat with onboard accommodations is also available. The voyage passes through rainforest-clad mountains and Hmong villages of bamboo stilt-houses perched above countless white sandy beaches.
Around dinner time on the second day I arrived at The UNESCO World Heritage Town of Luang Prabang: the loveliest city on the Mekong. No longer one of Southeast Asia’s best kept secrets, the old town flaunts a myriad of trendy craft shops, boutique hotels, spas, restaurants and cafes overlooking the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers. Luang Prabang is a prime city for walking and bicycling the quiet avenues to see the main attractions — Wat Xieng Thong and numerous other ancient Buddhist temples.
From Luang Prabang I took a nine-hour bus ride south to Vientiane to enjoy the immense karst scenery as the bus wound through dense jungles interspersed with Tai, Hmong and Kamu villages. The capital city of Vientiane is both the political and economic center of the country.
Near the border with Thailand, its local culture, economy and tourism base is strongly influenced by its larger neighbor. It has also just been given a boost of publicity in December by hosting the 2009 SEA Games.
Vientiane has a modest selection of tourist attractions, but the old Buddhist temples of Wat Si Saket and Ho Phra Keo were well worth a visit, as well as the national monuments of Patuxai and That Luang.
Good vibrations in Pakse and beyond
I took an eleven-hour overnight sleeper bus from Vientiane to the transportation hub of Pakse. I might have learned to appreciate my bunk’s built-in “vibration feature” if it hadn’t jostled the four other people sharing the same berth with me as well.
A songthaew ride from Pakse and a barge across the Mekong brought me to the remote town of Champasak. The town has some atmospheric accommodations and uninterrupted views of the river, but Champasak’s claim to fame is the nearby Wat Phu; Laos’ other World Heritage Site. Wat Phu is a Khmer temple built by King Suryavarman II (founder of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat) in the early 12th century. Sitting on the foot of Phu Kao Mountain, this Hindu (and later Buddhist) temple incorporates a potable, sacred spring where I happily accepted an invitation to refill my water bottle after the long climb to the temple plateau.
The Cambodian border is less than three hours south of Champasak by minivan. Further down the Mekong await Muslim Cham villages, Irrawaddy dolphins, more Angkorean temple ruins and the capital city of Phnom Penh, famous for the national museum, royal palace and memorials to genocide — but all of this is another adventure on one of the world’s greatest rivers.