An adventurous cruise through South East Asia’s least-known country
Each morning our captain set out a fresh offering to the gods on the bow of Champa Pandaw – flowers, fruit and a drink of juice – to safeguard the vessel, passengers and crew. Later that day the small ship twisted back and forth on tight turns through the narrow channel filled with stretches of white-water rapids and granite rocks.
It was a world away from the sedate image of river cruising through Europe. Instead of castles and grand cities we were sailing past a backdrop of jungle-clad peaks, gorges and isolated villages where western visitors are a rarity. Indeed, once we left the ancient Laotian capital of Luang Prabang to head for the modern-day first city of Vientiane, 190 miles away as the crow flies, we never saw another hotel boat.
The 2,700-mile Mekong rises in the Tibetan Plateau and flows to the South China Sea through six countries; China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Although half of the river is in China, more of its volume surges through Laos than anywhere else. In the 19th century French colonialists planned a lucrative “river road” to China but were thwarted by the challenging fast-running waterway and abandoned it to local small boats guided by Laotians who had grown up on its banks.
In 2015 Pandaw River Expeditions, owned by Scottish historian and adventurer Paul Strachan, stepped in to provide visitors with the opportunity to experience the Upper Mekong on specially built low-draft vessels with powerful engines to navigate the currents. Our captain Chanh and first officer Souk previously spent years skippering working barges on the same stretch of river, and we felt completely safe in their capable hands.
The resulting journey on the charming 28-passenger Champa Pandaw, where gleaming teak decks and brass fittings offset the practical nature of the vessel, provided a wonderful way to travel in comfort through South East Asia’s smallest and least-known country. Away from the rapids, which provide a thrilling day’s sailing outside Vientiane, the rest of the time we sailed on calmer waters shared with battered working vessels transporting passengers and goods from town to town, fishermen crouched in wooden boats and water buffalo cooling off in the shallows.
Our downstream journey, which can also be done in reverse, began in Thailand’s so-called Golden Triangle where a scenic lookout provided views of the borders of Laos and Burma. The cruise includes two nights moored in UNESCO-listed Luang Prabang with guided excursions to the top of Mount Phousi, which is lined with Buddha statues, and the chance to pick up locally made crafts and souvenirs in the thronging night market. The next day we get up at 5am to participate in the annual alms giving to the saffron-robed monks who walk silently through the streets each day at dawn.
The laid-back compact city, with its bohemian cafés and shops, is easy to explore independently. We stop off at Ock Pop Tok, a social enterprise scheme created and run by women that preserves traditional Laotian textile traditions and sells beautiful products to take home. Later we cross the wobbly bamboo bridge that provides a fantastic view of the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan river. The bridge is washed away each year when the river swells during the rainy season and is rebuilt within a week of the waters subsiding.
As we sail on through lush landscapes towards Vientiane, each day is broken up by excursions, including rural villages where we scramble up mud steps hewn into the bank by the crew. These visits are totally unscripted, and even our guide never knows exactly what we’ll see. The one constant is the warmth of the welcome extended by villagers who belong to some of the country’s 49 ethnic tribes. We visit open-air classrooms where initially shy children show us their workbooks and giggle delightedly when we in turn display the photos we’ve taken of them. In one village we’re invited to celebrations to mark the birth of a baby, and in another invited to pay our respects at a funeral, where an ornate gilded coffin fills the main room of the mud-floored house. Both occasions are fuelled by the offer of shots of lao lao, the fiery moonshine made from distilled rice.
It is impossible not to be drawn in by the spirituality of these gentle people who build a home in every village to provide shelter to religious spirits and gird banyan trees with wide gold sashes for good luck. One night on the vessel we are entertained by dancers and musicians and take part in the baci, or calling of the soul, ritual which involves white cotton threads being tied around our wrists while the Laotians whisper blessings to bring good luck. Again, this is accompanied by more lao lao.
Our affable guide Vieng holds insightful daily briefings and talks and tackles any questions without any ‘tourist spin’. Laos, the poorest country is South East Asia, is trying to develop its GDP and lift many of its seven million population out of poverty by becoming the ‘battery’ of South East Asia and selling electricity. We pass through the huge Xayaburi hydro-electric dam which is a linchpin of this ambition but not without controversy due to its impact on the biodiversity of the river, which Vieng explains in a thought-provoking yet balanced manner.
The rest of the time is punctuated by eagerly awaited meals, with the emphasis on traditional cuisine, and the convivial cocktail of the day in the lounge bar. As the setting sun is mirrored in the Mekong, we reflect on our unforgettable voyage through timeless landscapes in a tiny country that is big on culture-rich sights and experiences.
Pandaw River Cruises
Tel: +44 (0)208 396 7320
Number of Facilities On Board: One restaurant
Number of Cabins: 14 cabins and suites, with complimentary Wi-Fi available in the lounge and sun deck.
Price Band: Medium
Insider Tip: Solo travellers pay no single supplement on selected sailings. Check the website for dates and information.
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10
Factfile: Pandaw offers the 10-night The Laos Mekong itinerary from $3,780 (prices converted to Sterling rate at time of booking). Fare all meals, tea, coffee, water and excursions.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our very own cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs courtesy of Pandaw River Cruises