Like many Americans, when I heard the word “Mekong” I’d to see images that came from movies dealing with the Vietnam War. After my 8-day cruise on the Mekong Explorer, those images are banished forever. I now know the Mekong River between Vientiane, the capital of Lao, and Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand is serene with incredible sights to see along the way. The river banks are lined with vegetable gardens and rice paddies. And each day of my journey included peaceful sailing and captivating shore trips.
My husband, John, and I boarded the lovely teak and mahogany Mekong Explorer cruise boat in Nong Khai, Thailand, across the river from Vientiane. The boat was built in local style with a top deck with wonderful lounge chairs for relaxing and enjoying the scenery when the ship was under way. My room featured a desk, air conditioning, an ensuite bathroom and wide sliding doors perfect for viewing the countryside as we sailed along.
Rock Formations, Buddhist Sculptures
The shore trips were fascinating and varied. The rock formations at Phu Phrabat Historical Park (soon to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site) were some of the most bizarre I have ever seen. Most likely, the rocks provided shelter for prehistoric people 2-3,000 years ago. Later, people built statues and the area became a place of Buddhist worship. Great local legends are associated with the rock formations, including one about a beautiful princess forced by her overprotective father to live in a rock formation that looks like on upturned shoe.
On another day, we visited Sala Keoku, the Buddhist Sculpture Park near Nong Khai. Here a monk and his followers created huge concrete structures. One of the most amazing sculptures is Buddha meditating under a 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. Another favorite day began with a long-tail boat ride up the Khading River to the Lao village of Ban BagBang. (Long-tail boats, called known as Ruea Hang Yao in Thai language, are narrow wooden boats powered by automobile engines.)
In the village, the residents smiled broadly when I said “sa bai dee”(hello in Laotian). The small village is home to about 80 families. However, when we visited, it was quiet because many of the working-age people have jobs outside the village. When rice planting time arrives, they return to the village to help their families.
Ban BagBang was a mix of brightly painted concrete houses and a few traditional wooden houses. There was a new school provided by the Korean government for grades 1-5. After grade 5, the students go to school in a larger village where they stay with relatives. In Laos, all education, including college, is free.
That afternoon onboard the Mekong Explorer, our Lao cooks taught us how to prepare two traditional Lao dishes – Laap (spicy chopped chicken salad) and Tham Mak Hung (papaya salad). Both were easy to make and something we can share with our family and friends back home in the United States.
Food onboard the Mekong Explorer was excellent with a mix of Asian and European choices. One night we tied up to a sandbar in the middle of the Mekong to enjoy a BBQ. Since it was the dry season, there were a lot of sandbars in the river. Thankfully our pilot was experienced in navigating the river and we cruised without incident to our landing spot.
On land, 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! After setting everything up on the beach and preparing the food, the Laotian crew entertained us singing Laotian songs.
The ratio of crew-to-guests on the Mekong Explorer was nearly one-to-one so the service was excellent. The staff was always ready to lend a hand to help those who needed help climbing the steps of the embankment to the bus that waited to take us on day tours. When there were no steps, the crew quickly cut some out of the sand and used poles and rope to create a hand railing. When our group returned at the end of a day of touring, our shoes dusty, the crew cleaned them. Onboard the dress code was casual – very casual. And, like most of the other guests, I often went barefoot.
Did you know that the infamous North Vietnam leader Ho Chi Minh lived for a time on the Thai side of the Mekong? I visited his house near Nakhon PhaNom, which is now small museum surrounded by lush gardens maintained by the grandchildren of Vietnamese immigrants who offered Ho Chi Minh a safe haven between 1924 and 1931.
Nearby we visited Wat Phra That Phanom, one of the most important Buddhist sites in the region. According to legend, That PhaNom Stupa contains the breast bone of Buddha (a Stupa is a mound-like structure that contains Buddhist relics, often those of monks). 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.
At 2,705 miles, the Mekong River, called the “Mother of all Waters,” is the 12th longest river in the world. It originates in the Himalayas and flows through China, Lao, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam where it empties into the South China Sea. After my experience on the Mekong Explorer I’ve fallen in 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 in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand. However, Cruise Mekong operates similar teak boats that explore further south in the 4,000 island area near Pakse and also cruise north of Vientiane to Luang Prang. I can’t wait to explore those and bring you those experiences. — Story and photos by Sandra Scott, RFT SE Asia Correspondent
toll free in the U.S. 855 702-4986)
Check out this Lapp recipe Sandra brought back for us.