Like many Americans, when I hear the word “Mekong” I get an image that comes from movies dealing with the Vietnam War, but now those images are banished forever. After my eight-day cruise on the Mekong Explorer, I now know the Mekong River between Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand is serene with incredible sights to see along the way. The banks are lined with vegetable gardens and rice paddies. Each day of my journey included shore trips and sailing.
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 en-suite bathroom and wide sliding doors through which we could view 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 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, but statues show that the area later became a place of Buddhist worship. One legend associated with the rock formations is of a beautiful princess forced by her overprotective father to live in a rock formation that looks like an 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 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 one to five. After grade five 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). 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 and our pilot was fortunately experienced in navigating the river. The crew prepared a bonfire and produced a barbecue of meat, chicken, prawns, fish and kebabs. After setting everything up on the beach and preparing the food, the Laotian crew entertained us by singing some Laotian songs.
The ratio of crew to guests was nearly one-to-one, so the service was excellent and there was a ready hand for anyone who needed help getting up the stairs to the bus for that day’s tour. Where there were no steps the crew quickly cut some out of the sand and then used poles and rope to create 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 very casual.
Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh lived for a time on the Thai side of the Mekong. 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. According to legend, the That PhaNom Stupa contains the breastbone of Buddha and was originally constructed in the 16th century by a Laotian king. Of all the Buddhist sites we visited, 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 multilingual cruise director, presented informational programs on the history and culture of Laos.
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 and flows through China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam before it empties into the South China Sea. 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 farther south in the 4,000-island area near Pakse and also cruise north of Vientiane to Luang Prang.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information, visit www.cruisemekong.com or call toll-free 855-702-4986.