Like many Americans, when I hear the word “Mekong” I get an image that comes from movies dealing with the Vietnam War. For me those images are banished forever. After my 8-day cruise on the Mekong Explorer I now know the Mekong River between Vientiane, the capital of Lao, and Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand is serene with incredible sites to see along the way. The banks of the river are lined with vegetable gardens and rice paddies. Each day of my journey included shore trips and sailing. (Night sailing on the Mekong is not permitted.)
I boarded the lovely teak and mahogany Mekong Explorer cruise boat in Nong Khai, Thailand, across the river from Vientiane. I loved the boat, which was built in local style. The top deck had wonderful lounge chairs for relaxing and enjoying the scenery when the ship was under way. My room had air conditioning, a desk, an ensuite bathroom and wide sliding doors perfect for viewing the countryside as we sailed along.
The shore trips were fascinating and varied. The rock formations at Phu Phrabat Historical Park (soon to be a UNESCO World Heritage site) were some of the most bizarre I have ever seen. The rocks most likely provided shelter for prehistoric people two to three thousand years ago, but statues show that the area later became a place of Buddhist worship. There are great local legends associated with the rock formations, including one of a beautiful princess forced by her overprotective father to live in a rock formation that looks like on upturned shoe. Another day we visited the Buddhist Sculpture Park, where a monk and his followers created concrete structures; the most amazing is the one of Buddha meditating under the towering 65-foot high seven-headed Naga snake.
One morning our tour included a surreal boat ride on a tranquil lake covered in rosy-red lotus flowers. One of my favorite days started with a long-tail boat ride up the Khading River to the Lao village of Ban BagBang. Everyone smiled broadly when I said “sa bai dee”( hello in Laotian). The village is home to about 80 families but it was quiet because many of the working-age people have jobs in Thailand. When the rice planting time arrives they will return to help their families. The village had a mix of brightly painted concrete houses that are replacing the traditional wooden houses. There was a new school provided by the Korean government for grades 1 to 5. After grade 5 the students go to school in a larger village where they stay with relatives. All education including college is free. That afternoon our onboard Lao cooks taught us how to prepare two traditional Lao dishes: Laap (spicy chopped chicken salad) and Tham Mak Hung (papaya salad). Both will be easy to make in the United States for our family and friends to enjoy. Food onboard was excellent with a mix of Asian and European choices.
One night we tied up to a sandbar in the middle of the Mekong. It was the dry season so there were a lot of sandbars; thankfully our pilot was experienced in navigating the river. The crew prepared a bonfire and a wonderful BBQ of meat, chicken, prawns, fish and shish kabobs. I never envisioned having a BBQ in the middle of the Mekong.
The Laotian crew, after setting everything up on the beach and preparing the food, entertained us by singing some Laotian songs. The ratio of crew to guests was nearly one-to-one so the service was excellent and crew members were always ready to lend a hand, to help those who needed it to climb the steps of the embankment where a nice shiny bus was waiting to take us on our day tours. Where there were no steps, the crew quickly cut some out of the sand and then using poles and rope, created a hand railing. When our group returned from a tour with dusty shoes the crew cleaned them. Like most of the other guests, I went barefoot onboard. The dress code was casual – very casual. I liked that.
Did you know that Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh lived for a time on the Thai side of the Mekong? I didn’t. Near Nakhon PhaNom I visited his house, which is now a small museum surrounded by lush gardens that are maintained by the grandchildren of the Vietnamese immigrants who offered Ho Chi Minh a safe haven between 1924 and 1931.
Nearby we visited one of the most important Buddhist sites in the region: the That PhaNom Stupa, which according to legend, contains the breast bone of Buddha and was originally constructed in the 16th century by a Laotian king. It was just one of several Buddhist sites we visited. Each was unique. Vat Tha Bo was the oldest; from Wat Pa Tak Sua there is an expansive view of the Mekong River area and Si Phu Thok Monastery is perched atop a massive rock outcropping. Several evenings Ben, our knowledgeable and multi-lingual cruise director, presented informational programs on the history and culture of Lao.
The Mekong River, the “Mother of all Waters,” is the 12th longest river in the world at 2,705 miles. It originates in the Himalayas flowing through China, Lao, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, where it empties into the South China Sea. I love river trips and now I want to explore more of the Mekong.
Because the water is so low in the dry season, the Mekong Explorer could not travel beyond where the cruise ended, but the company has similar teak boats that explore further south in the 4,000 island area near Pakse and also cruise north of Vientiane to Luang Prang. For more information check Cruisemekong.com or call toll free in the US 855 702-4986.