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Mekong River Cruises hopes
soon to launch the longest
Mekong cruise yet, a
14-day itinerary. Visit: [@]
Laos is best reached via
Bangkok, although Pakse is
connected by Lao Aviation to
Vientiane, Bangkok or Ho Chi
Minh City. Lao tourist visas are
issued on arrival.
Laos uses a mix of three
currencies: US Dollars, Thai
Baht and the Lao Kip. Medical
facilities are rudimentary and
visitors should take precautions
Visit: [@] www.tourismlaos.org
or Lonely Planet and Footprint
guides to Laos.
here’s almost an armada of
boutique cruise ships plying
the lower reaches of the mighty
Mekong, journeying through the
lowlands of Cambodia and the Tonle Sap
lake, or winding through the labyrinthine
Delta south of Ho Chi Minh City, the
Saigon of old.
Head upstream to sleepy, landlocked
Laos and it’s a different story altogether.
For much of its length, the world’s tenth-
longest river defines the western boundary
of this often-overlooked country. To
the west lies Thailand’s Isaan region, its
people closely related to the Lao.
Long-distance navigation in the
upper reaches of the Mekong is fatally
obstructed by rapids and sandbars, a hard
reality confronted by 19th-century French
explorers and empire-builders.
Fortunately, operators such as Mekong
River Cruises (a Lao-German joint
venture) have in recent years commissioned
purpose-built cabin cruisers to negotiate
stretches of these waters. The MV Mekong
Sun and Mekong Explorer venture forth
between such exotic ports as Luang
Prabang, once capital of the Lao kingdom,
Chiang Saen in the Thai Golden Triangle
or Vientiane, the present-day Lao capital.
Some 500km downriver from Vientiane,
the sister ship MV Mekong Islands
is positioned at Pakse in Champasak
province, east-north-east of Bangkok.
Between November and April this vessel
cruises down to the World Heritage-listed
pre-Angkor site at Wat Phou and on to
the bucolic Four Thousand Islands, where
thousands of islets reappear each year as
monsoon waters recede.
I’ve spent a night in the Lao riverside
town of Pakse, then risen early to roam
through streets lined with rather tired
1930s French colonial architecture.
Shopkeepers, often Chinese or Vietnamese,
sweep red dust off the pavements. Soon
after, six silent columns of saffron-robed
Buddhist monks materialise. When a
cluster of householders has topped up the
monks’ bowls, the recipients murmur a
prayer before moving on.
With the sights of downtown Pakse
soon exhausted, it’s a pleasure to step
onto ‘Mekong Islands’, a beautiful
creation in hand-crafted golden teak,
anchored below a Buddhist seminary –
how very Lao! Once aboard, sliding doors
insulate the air-conditioned zones from
the muggy afternoon heat. We cast off
with a complement of a dozen guests and
at least as many crew.
April is the dry season, when a smoky
haze from smouldering stubble in the
rice fields masks the tropical sun, an
eerie rose-red orb. Many, many islets and
sandbars appear, some cultivated.
Late in the first afternoon we disembark
at a village landing and clamber up
cement stairs to reach a modest but
exquisitely-situated hilltop temple,
commanding views up and down the
Mekong. The monkish life is an intriguing
glimpse of ‘living simply’. Throughout
the journey, we encounter agrarian life
beside the great river: children splashing,
men fishing, women laundering. People
criss-cross the river on motorised rafts or
in simple longboats.
Wat Phu (Vat Phou) on the second day
is the undisputed highlight of the journey.
The ruined temple complex at Champasak
is considered a major example of both
early and classic Khmer architecture of
the seventh to twelfth centuries. Pre-
dating Angkor Wat, Wat Phu – according
to UNESCO – forms part of a planned
‘cultural landscape’ more than 1000 years
old which expresses the Hindu vision
of the relationship between nature and
humanity, using an axis from riverbank to
the Phou Kao mountaintop to the west.
As Hinduism waned in later centuries,
the site became a focus for Theravada
Buddhist worshippers, and remains so to
With water now at dry-season levels, we
transfer from the Mekong Explorer to a
rudimentary ‘longtail’ launch to continue
touring amidst the Four Thousand Islands
(in Lao, Siphandone). Landing below the
stark French-built gantry on the island
of Don Det, we continue by songthaew
across the one-lane bridge to Don Khone
and so to the Ly Phy Falls.
Three of us charter a motorised canoe to
venture out on the pea-green waters where
Cambodia and Laos face off. Man-made
frontiers mean nothing to the famous but
elusive Irrawaddy dolphins. Nonetheless,
the sojourn out on the water is oddly
magical, even if one’s backside aches after
perching on a sawn-off plank for an hour.
There’s nothing like simply messing about
in boats, be they grand or humble. •
Main shrine at Wat Phou.
Don Khone village, Siphandon.
Evening falls over Don
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