We have spent three days traveling the Mekong from Pakse downstream to Don Khone in Southern Laos. These were only 170 of the river’s total of 4300 kilometers, but it was more than enough to get us hooked on the Asian Mother of Waters!
Travelling a river is about two things. It is about what you see from the boat, the people and the animals that share their life with you for a few minutes while you drift by. But more than that, it is about slow travel. There is no better way of moving than gliding thru nature so slow that your thoughts and your feelings are always able to keep up. Any vessel will do, but the comfort of a deck chair and the luxury of your own cabin with a private shower makes the experience even more unforgettable.
We did the trip on the Vatphou, a former freighter that is now a floating hotel with 12 rooms. The first two hours of the trip we spent on a long tail riverboat, taking us from the city of Pakse to the small town of Champassak and the temples of Wat Phou that our boat is named after. Wat Phou is the lesser known cousin of the Angkor Wat, and was created by the same Khmer empire that ruled large parts of what is now Laos, Cambodia and Thailand from roughly year 800 to year 1400 AD.
For us, being on the river and on the boat was the best part of the experience. The stops were good, but not always great. We were very unlucky with our visit to the Wat Phou temples, arriving the day after a major religious festival and finding the place absolutely buried in junk. What should have been a nice stroll among the very impressive remains of the great Khmer culture became two hours of wading thru tons of plastic, cardboard, beer cans and crumbled paper. The army of cleaners were hard at work, but it would still take them a few days to restore the place to its former glory. In the meantime we were stranded in an ocean of ugliness wondering why the Lao cannot celebrate their gods at their sacred places without desecrating the site into a mountain of trash. This is not about poverty, this is about lack of education and social leadership!
Further down the river, on the second day of our cruise, a couple of other stops gave us the opportunity to take in some more of Lao history and daily life. But still, it is the sights from the deck of the houseboat that will stay. Fishermen throwing nets from their traditional narrow boats or standing in the middle of the river wearing a scuba-mask digging for clams. Water buffalos wading thru the shallows and kids splashing about on the outskirts of the riverside villages. Goats feeding from the bushes on the steep mud-banks and little ferries powered by tiny outboard motors carrying cars and motorbikes across. A guy in a boat freighting a bundle of what looked like bamboo sticks while his dog puts his paws on the railing looking back at us.
On the third and last day we disembarked for yet another long tail-ride that took us to Don Khone in the middle of what is known as 4000 Islands. This is a magnificent archipelago of islands and rocks that the river has created on what is now the border between Laos and Cambodia. The last item on our program was a detour by bus to the Khong Phapheng waterfalls. They are said to be the biggest falls in South East Asia, and they are great to watch even in the dry months of February and March when the river carries only six to eight per cent of the water that it handles in the peak periods of fall and late summer. The falls are not very high, but they are wide, intense and beautiful and very well worth a visit.
Our cruise included overland transfer from Khong Phapheng back to Pakse. The three days we had spent travelling slow equalled a two hour bus ride up North again. We did however jump ship at the island of Don Khone, to stay a few more days at a local guesthouse. For us, the days on the Mekong are far from over!
Website for the boat: vatphou.com
We booked with mekong-cruise.com