Early in the morning, as the big red sun begins to suck steam from the river, the cabin-boy creeps to the bow of the boat, says a silent prayer, and places a ‘monkey banana’ and a handful of sticky rice next to a prickly red-flowered shrub on a makeshift alter.
They are the daily offerings to the naga, an enormous seven-headed serpent which lurks in the turbid khaki depths of the Mekong River, waiting to lure boatmen onto the rocks and drag them down to its lair to devour.
Foreigners may scoff at such stories, but not the people of the Mekong, who practice a colourful blend of Buddhism and animism. For millennia “the mother of all waters” has been the lifeblood of this part of Asia – 60 million people depend on it for food, water and transportation – and they have learned that you anger the river spirits at your peril.
We are embarking on one of the most exotic cruises in the world – no swimming-pools, string quartets and silver-service dinner with the captain, just lazy days drifting through wild jungle-clad mountains, watching brown-skinned kids and water-buffalo splashing in the shallows, women gathering water-weed, and men setting traps for the giant cat-fish, the world’s largest freshwater fish which (even allowing for fishermen’s tall tales) can grow to the size of a shark — three metres in length and 300 kilogrammes.
The Mekong is one of the world’s great rivers (the 12th longest if you want the guide-book statistics, and, at 4200 kilometres nearly 1000 kilometres longer than Australia’s Murray-Darling system.) It plunges down from the icy wastes of the Tibetan plateau, through six countries – China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, before emptying out through its vast rice-bowl delta in Vietnam into the South China Sea.
And it is navigable for most of its length, although rapids and waterfalls – most famously the spectacular Khong falls in southern Laos – block access to the sea to all but the most intrepid white-water rafters.
More than any other country, the Mekong is the river of Laos, the little landlocked country that lies in the heart of south-east Asia. Almost half the length of the river and 14 of its tributaries either flow through Laos, or form its border with Thailand, spanned for the first time just a few years ago by the Australian-funded Freedom Bridge.
So we have chosen to start our journey at the honky-tonk Lao river-port of Huay Xai, an old French colonial customs post which is the most northerly point from which regular passenger boats depart. As we cross the river from Thailand in a wobbly sampan with a couple of centimeters’ freeboard, the journey of half a kilometre takes us back half a century in time.
The night before we have been pampered with herbal steam-baths and a sumptuous meal with French wine on a flare-lit terrace overlooking three countries, at the luxurious Anantara resort in the heart of the Golden Triangle. Traditional music played softly in the background.
In the morning we find ourselves stumbling up a sandy boat-ramp into Laos to get our passports stamped, while outside the bank – actually a concrete shed – a woman chalks the latest exchange-rate on a blackboard. The kip, the local currency, has plunged even further into hyper-inflated absurdity and is now trading at 10,300 to the $US – since notes are as small as five cents, changing a hundred dollars produces a wad the thickness of a paperback novel.
To remind you how the currency became so debauched that Laos no longer has any coinage and first prize in the national lottery is the princely sum of $25, the hammer and sickle flutters from government buildings.
Thirty years of Communism may have wrecked the country’s economy but it has made Laos a paradise for the western tourist – a big bowl of Thai-style curry and rice and a large bottle of frosty BeerLao costs about $A2.50, a decent room in a guest-house as little as $10, and a car with an English-speaking guide and a driver about $60 a day.
“It’s like Thailand 50 years ago,” said our young Thai tour-guide, studying for a degree in hospitality at the local university, as he drove us to the river. Indeed, it was only in 1989 that the secretive, tyrannical and xenophobic regime – in which some Politbureau members used to boast that they had never met a foreigner — opened itself to tourism. Still, scared by reports of continuing anti-government insurgency, fewer than a million people visit Laos every year.
Those who do come, soon discover that Communism has done a much better job of preserving this unique society, the spectacular scenery – half the country is still covered by forests — and the stunning heritage of Buddhist architecture than any Lao National Trust could have dreamed of.
And the mighty Mekong is still flowing free, though several of its major tributaries have been blocked by highly-controversial hydro-electric dams as the relentless pace of industrialisation in Thailand and Southern China threaten the region’s pristine environment.
Environmentalists are appalled that after a decade of dithering the World Bank has finally consented to funding a gigantic new dam known as Nam Theun 2 which will flood hundreds of square kilometres of forest, threatening animal species including wild elephants, and displacing thousands of people.
We have decided to see the Mekong in style, while we still can.
Our vessel is the Luangsay, a 34-metre boat built a bit like a junk, with – I am relieved to see, having read about the nagas — mahogany superstructure over a solid steel hull. It seats about 30 in comfort on covered decks – our fellow travellers are a couple of textile manufacturers from Brazil just back from an expedition to see the “long neck” folk in northern Thailand, a lawyer/TV producer couple from Canada, and two tour groups of pushy Parisians (the vessel is French-owned).
For the next two days this will be our home as we float 300 leisurely kilometres downstream to the old imperial capital of Luang Prabang, alternately drifting through sandy shallows 10 metres below the concrete pillars that mark the high point of the monsoon floods, then pitching down rapids almost close enough to touch the rocky walls of black ravines.
Twice we stop to traipse ashore, visiting villages where some of Laos’s 68 different ethnic groups follow lifestyles barely touched by the modern world – slash-and-burn agriculture supplemented by local delicacies such as badgers and flying foxes and weaving intricately-patterned silk shawls on looms under their rattan-walled cottages.
An old crone crouching over a charcoal-fired still chuckles as she offers a sip of lao-lao, the local rice-wine hooch, which feels like swallowing a torch-light procession. Boys in turmeric and cinnamon robes, novice monks, greet you with a ‘nop’, the universal Lao welcome, pressing their palms together and calling “Sabaidee.”
But mostly we drift along in a soporific state sipping BeerLao and watching the river-life – men panning for gold in the shallows, women planting peanuts in the sandbanks, children paddling puny sampans, great junks cruising down from China with cargoes of furniture, rice and sacks of cement. The Mekong is still very much a working river, a liquid superhighway in a country that has no railway and only one paved intercity road.
We overnight at the town of Pakbeng, at the Luangsay Lodge, a collection of comfortable timber pavilions overlooking a broad sweep of the river and backing into a bamboo forest where strange cries are heard at night. We are reassured there are no tigers hereabouts (hunting them for meat and medicine has just about made them extinct)-must be the nagas.
After a slap-up buffet – Lao cuisine is a bit like Thai food on steroids, with condiments including a fiery relish of pounded buffalo-hide, chili and garlic – we are treated to a display of folk-dancing by colourfully-costumed village folk with an orchestra of traditional instruments including bamboo flutes, a thing like a xylophone, and small brass cymbals.
On the second day the boat moors underneath a towering limestone cliff pierced with caves that are sacred to local Buddhists. Inside the Pak Ou caves, illuminated by torches, are more Buddhas than you have seen in your life – 4000 of them, from gold-plated monsters towering into the darkness, to Buddhas the size of thimbles made of wood or resin, bronze, horn and ceramics. People have been bringing them here for four centuries and now tourists can come and gawp too.
We meet our first naga in the flesh, or rather concrete, as we say goodbye to our new best friends and step off the boat in Luang Prabang – the banister of the flight of stairs leading up from the wharf is a 10-metre-long multi-headed monster. It’s a theme reflected throughout this ancient town – there are nagas lining the steps leading to the Wat Houa Xieng, golden nagas guarding the imperial funeral carriage at Wat Xieng Thong .. even our boutique hotel, two handsome French villas in the main street surrounded by mango and frangipani trees, is called the Three Nagas.
Just the short tuk-tuk (a rackety cross between a motor-bike and a rickshaw) ride from the wharf to the hotel shows you glimpses of the glory of this royal city, now classified as World Heritage by UNESCO, home to more than 30 grand Buddhist temples or wats, some dating back five centuries, as well as the palace of the Lao royal family.
But it’s not a place that oppresses you with its grandeur like some kind of Buddhist Vatican City. It’s a comfortable human-scale town to stroll around, almost an island between the Mekong and one of its tributaries, full of crumbling colonial mansions, Chinese traders’ go-downs and riverside bars and cafes, laneways where silversmiths ply their trade, hand-made paper with bougainvillea flowers dries on frames in the sun, and vendors haggle over gorgeous silks at the night-market.
The crowning architectural glory of Luang Prabang is the Wat Xieng Thong, a collection of 16th century buildings with swooping eaves and gilt columns containing various stupas and Buddha images (including a rare reclining one depicting the Buddha at the moment of death), the royal funeral carriage along with urns containing ashes of the royal family, scenes from the epic Ramayana and an enormous mosaic depicting the Tree of Life.
When you have had enough of wats, the royal palace is well worth an afternoon. It’s an extraordinary mixture of French Colonial and Lao Traditional styles, mirrors, throne-rooms with dazzling inlaid ceramic tiles, royal elephant saddles – and, in a niche, the Pha Bang, the most sacred relic in Laos, supposedly cast in solid gold in Sri Lanka in the second century AD, but actually (locals whisper) a gold-painted wooden copy, the original having been sent to Moscow.
During our visit we were lucky enough to catch a performance of the Lao Royal Ballet (which fortunately survived the royals themselves, who were starved to death in a hut by the Communists 30 years ago). An audience of mainly foreign tourists and NGO’s watched a dazzling display of masked dance drama from the Ramayana, traditional Lao ballet and ethnic folk dancing.
If you tire of sight-seeing you could go for an elephant-ride – Laos is called the Kingdom of a Million Elephants, but during our first week here we have seen not one. Too expensive to feed, says our guide – a male tusker apparently consumes $500-worth of bamboo, bananas and coconuts a month.
To find our elephant, we are driven half an hour over lumpy roads and paddled in a sampan across a creek to reach a camp where a solitary female named Nam is waiting. It is quite an experience sitting in the saddle of a creature the size and weight of a small truck as she lurches through a teak plantation, along a winding tributary of the Mekong, and through a village where children shout a welcome, and distract our mount by throwing palm-leaves on the track for her to eat.
Or you could climb Phousy Hill for a twilight view of the Mekong from a stupa supposedly built over a footprint of the Buddha. On the way we bought two green-headed sparrows in a bamboo cage from a street vendor, and – helped by a monk – released them from the top of the hill.
“In a future incarnation,” said the monk, in excellent English “You will come back as the bird in a cage, and the sparrow will release you.”
A tour-guide overhears him and laughs.”They are like homing pigeons,” he said “They will fly back to the vendor and she will sell them again to someone else.”
One morning at 6.30 the bedside phone rings.”McKenzie here,” says an unmistakeably Australian voice “Get out of bed you lazy bastards, it’s time to feed the monks.” I still have no idea who McKenzie was, but “feeding the monks” is popular with Luang Prabang’s early-risers so we stumbled out of bed.
There are supposed to be 1000 monks and novices in the town – most Lao men are expected to do a stint in a wat — and just after dawn on a showery morning they parade down the main street in a series of conga lines carrying metal begging-bowls, pausing to collect parcels of sticky rice and pieces of warm pork wrapped in banana leaves which tourists can buy from street vendors.
It’s not hard to drift into a sort of trance in Luang Prabang, but after four days it’s time to move on.
When we land at Vientiane, the capital of Laos, it’s to find a different kind of town – and a different Mekong. The river here is a kilometre wide, and there’s a huge sand-bank exposed by the falling water – as night falls people set up tables and chairs (with candles stuck in sawn-off PET bottles and rolls of lurid pink toilet paper for napkins) and street vendors grill stunningly sweet and succulent giant river prawns over charcoal braziers.
Vientiane doesn’t have the sleepy charm and the glorious architecture of Luang Prabang, though it does contain Pha Tat Luang, the grandest temple in Laos which has been compared with a gold-plated missile-farm. And you mustn’t miss the Patuxai monument, Asia’s answer to the Arc de Triomphe, which has a plaque bearing this self-deprecating description :”. from a closer distance it (the monument) seems even less impressive, like a monster of concrete.”
And it does have a rather livelier night-life scene – in Luang Prabang everything shuts at 10 pm, and the electricity is turned off. In Vientiane, young couples in designer gear bop to the latest Thai pop idols in clubs around Fountain Circle, and Lao girls chat up foreigners at the bar of Khop Chai Deu, a converted colonial villa, oblivious to both the law against fraternising with foreigners, and the fact that the bar was bombed by terrorists five years ago, injuring a dozen people.
For a more laid-back Lao experience, hop in a tuk-tuk and head for the Wat Sok Pa Luang on the outskirts of the city – you can indulge in a spot of Vipassana meditation at the temple itself, or, for a mere $4, enjoy a herbal steam-bath in a village stilt-house nearby, followed by an hour’s bone-cracking massage.
Or you could just sit on the bank of the mighty Mekong, nursing a BeerLao and watching out for nagas.
Thai International has twice-daily flights from Sydney with connections to northern Thailand and Laos. Our itinerary was Sydney-Bangkok-Chiang Rai and Luang Prabang-Vientiane-Bangkok-Sydney. The economy-class price for this trip in May was quoted at $1438, but discount fares may be available from travel agents.
Information about the Luangsay can be found at www.mekongcruises.com. The boat leaves Huay Xai three times a week and in May and July-October costs about $282 per person including transfers, meals and one night’s accommodation.
For those on a budget, there are two alternatives – the “slow boat,” which takes two days to get to Luang Prabang and which costs $17 (you have to organise your own meals and overnight accommodation) and the “fast boat,” 50 kph speedboats called longtails where you are strapped in with crash helmets and life jackets and do the trip in 7-8 hours for $28. Tickets for both are sold from stalls near the customs post in Huay Xai.
You will need a taxi or hire-car from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong, the border-crossing port on the Thai side of the Mekong. We broke the journey with an overnight stay at the luxurious Anantara resort at Chiang Saen (www.anantara.com) where suites cost about $190 per night.
The Three Nagas (www.3nagas.com) is a quality boutique hotel and costs about $116 a night for a large, comfortable, well-appointed room. Villa Santi is the best hotel in Luang Prabang (www.villasantihotel.com), and there are scores of comfortable guest-houses such as the Sokxai (email email@example.com) with rooms around $30 a night.
Settha Palace (www.setthapalace.com) in Vientiane is one of the grand hotels of south-east Asia, a colonial mansion in the centre of town, with a pool and a French haute cuisine dining-room – rooms are about $166 a night. There are plenty of clean, comfortable, cheaper hotels such as the Vansana where rooms cost $30/$35 a night.
It is a complicated itinerary involving organising transfers with local travel companies and to save time and hassles we used a local travel company which specialises in south-east asian tours, Travel Indochina (www.travelindochina.com.au) to make the bookings for us.
Take cash – US dollars preferably. Outside Vientiane you will find no automatic tellers and nowhere to exchange travellers’ cheques, though most tourist-oriented places (shops, restaurants) in larger centres like Luang Prabang will take credit cards.
Stick to bottled water (better hotels give you a free supply) and be careful with things like raw fruit and salads. Have a hepatitis A shot before you leave, take anti-malaria tablets for a month and use mosquito-spray and nets.
We went in March, the “burning season” when temperatures get well into the 30s and peasants clear land for opium and other crops — the air is often foggy with smoke and stings the eyes. May-November is the rainy season (a lot of tourists love being in Laos for Pi Mai Lao, the Buddhist New Year, when there are colourful processions and everyone throws water about). December-February is the dry season, generally reckoned to be the most comfortable time.
If you have an extra week, Laos has two other world-class tourist attractions which are a little off the beaten track.
In the north-east, where barren hillsides bear silent testimony to the effectiveness of the Agent Orange dropped during America’s “secret war”, paths cleared through minefields lead you to what has been described as Asia’s Stonehenge – the huge and mysterious millennia-old stone reliquaries of the Plain of Jars.
In the south, Mekong Cruises operates another cruise-boat which takes you through an archipelago of 4000 islands to the Khong Pha Peng waterfall (“the Niagara of the East”) and the spectacular ruins of Wat Phou, which are older than the more famous Ankhor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia.
Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: October 15/16 2005
Photography: by Ben Hills