Ticket to glide

Luang Prabang, the old royal capital of Laos, is still easier to reach by water than road. On a slow boat down the gilded Mekong, Andrew Eames finds the Southeast Asia of old

There was nothing to set Boat Can Sway apart when I first glimpsed her that morning, among the river vessels jammed in herringbone formation against the bank at Huay Xai on the Lao-Thai border. She was slender, just 35 metres long, and locally crafted, like the cluster around her, with rosewood planking above water, steel hull below. Just another boat on the mighty Mekong, waiting to do business. The unique appeal would be apparent once we were on board, for our two-day voyage to Luang Prabang: we had not one but three captains, an embarrassment of comfy chairs for the passenger count (18) and the promise of a cosy halfway house: a sedate river-view hotel for the night. (Our boat was too bijou-boutique for cabins.)

We also had a chef, it became clear, as we stole back from our mooring and the smell of lunch wafted by. A fishy appetiser — tender white tilapia, steamed with dill — emerged from the galley as we nosed out into the channel. By the time I’d turned my attention to the beef curry, lightly fragranced with lime leaves, the sour taste of officialdom I’d experienced early that morning was disappearing as fast as the morning thrum of Huay Xai town. But it had sure been an inauspicious start…

Main image credits: A fisherman sets his traditional net 

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A tuk tuk speeds through the streets of Luang Prabang 

The Mekong is the Amazon of Southeast Asia, passing through six countries en route to the sea, and the stretch we were following forms part of Laos’s international border — I’d had to cross east from Thailand that morning to catch the boat. Despite its name, there had been nothing remotely amiable about the Friendship Bridge: the echoingly empty Lao immigration counters were inch-deep in a confetti of dead mayflies. Changing money at the bank, I got $100 worth of Lao kip, yet my paperwork stated I’d only changed $90. When I pointed this out, the teller just shrugged. Those $10 were his now.

Still, here I was, out on the sunlit water, blending into the forgotten world of one of Asia’s greatest rivers. The day was sultry, but the boat’s movement brought a fresh breeze rifling through the saloon. It was wonderful being here: a plate of pineapple and lychees appeared before me.

Between here and now and Luang Prabang were two days of delicious grazing as a tapestry of forest, fishing villages and limestone mountains unravelled slowly either side.

I had long dreamt of making this trip. More than once, on previous holidays in Thailand, I’d reached the banks of the Mekong. But I had never crossed it. Cruising has colonised its lower reaches, hundreds of kilometres downriver from Huay Xai, where it becomes sufficiently wide for big, all-inclusive boats. But they held little appeal for me: after years seeing Thai sophistication, I wanted the Southeast Asia I’d found so enthralling in my backpacker days. Laos, I knew, was a country still immersed in the old ways. If I could tap into its river life, perhaps I’d recapture fond memories of Southeast Asia as it used to be.

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Woman dressed in traditional costume

This upper stretch of the Mekong is still wild and unspoilt — too treacherous for big cruisers. People will tell you it is the best way to reach the former royal capital of Laos, one of Asia’s most enchanting backwaters. In fact, it is one of the very few places in the world more accessible by water than by road. There could be no more authentic way to arrive than aboard a typical river boat, the very reason it exists. On the Boat Can Sway, to be precise.

That wasn’t, I confess, the boat’s real name. A notice up by the captain’s perch in the bows warned that, because of the rapids, the ‘boat can sway’, but the first words were partially obscured. Whatever, it sounded far sassier than Pakou III, and more descriptive. 

The water levels at this early stage in the Mekong’s journey are as volatile as a teenager. In the rainy season the silt-rich floods rise to fertilise a broad hopscotch of village vegetable patches, but then the river skinnies down and rocks rear from the water like scales on a dragon’s back.

‘A tapestry of Forest, fishing villages and mountains unravelled either side’

That afternoon, standing on the front deck, we could see this was going to be an exhilarating ride. The teenage dragon bared its teeth and started to seethe and writhe. The danger was less the rocks we could see, more those concealed just below the surface. At times it was like white-water rafting, and you knew things were tricky when the captain’s brow furrowed, the boat quivered, and he asked everyone on the front deck to sit down.

We weren’t alone in riding the rapids. Every now and then a highly painted apparition, barely more than a surfboard, came screeching by, noisy as a race circuit, half a dozen passengers sitting erect before a truck engine mounted on the stern. They could get you to Luang Prabang in six hours, explained Sanh, our onboard guide. Attempt that journey by road, and it would take you 13. I settled back in Boat Can Sway, more contented than ever.

In quieter moments we saw fishermen, out on the water in slender canoes, working and nets in the backwater eddies of what is officially the largest freshwater fishery in the world. Their dream, said Sanh, was of catching a Mekong catfish, at up to 300kg the largest freshwater fish in existence, but rare. How a fisherman could expect to land something six times his bodyweight in a dugout made for one, he never explained.

For us passengers, that first day passed in a blur of eating, snoozing, waving at the fishermen and village children, and getting to know each other. It was a sort

of river-borne house party and I found myself swapping stories with an English couple, Simon and Angela, who’d come all the way to Laos overland. It was an adventure that had included a train trip through Russia, where Angela had slipped on ice and broken her arm. Together, we chatted with a posh British banker, on board with his Thai wife and their striking children. She lived in Bangkok, while he remained in London, which sounded intriguing, although I didn’t ask further. Fleeting insights into other people’s lives are most fascinating when you accept you’ll never know the full story.

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Coconut pancakes on street stall

In turn, we passengers stirred interest among the people of the riverbanks. In its more indolent sections the flow wound past sandy embankments and bays, where swimming children stopped to stare and wave. Mooring at a beach, we spent an hour with a boy desperate to show us how he trapped crickets for the family’s dinner using a long bamboo pole. I don’t think we’d have met him if we’d been on a five-star luxury river cruise, or a bus.

He even led us up the sandy embankment to his hill-tribe village, where every house was perched on stilts above spare timbers stacked underneath for when the family needed to up sticks and relocate to better land. Hydropower dams are under construction along the Mekong, and one is planned downriver of that boy’s village, at a settlement called Pak Beng, where we broke our journey at the end of that first day. The Luang Say lodge was a mahogany-rich construction with a fabulous view down over rushes whirring with cicadas to the Mekong sliding by. It was elegant, open to the evening airs and the sounds of gibbons calling. Simple in design, it was also vulnerable, as we discovered after dark, when a thunderstorm menacing the hills decided to pounce, driving billowing clouds of rain through the restaurant.

Next day dawned bright and clear, the overnight storm having cleared the haze created by the slash-and-burn practice that dominates agriculture here. Some 70% of the Lao landscape is forest and mountains, and in the sharp light the burnt hillsides bristled like an elephant’s hide, their receding shoulders purpled as if they’d been in a fight, some bruises still livid with flame.

After a breakfast of fried eggs and mango sticky rice, the baritone of Boat Can Sway’s engine summoned us back to the water’s edge. This time the river seemed more gentle, its teenage convulsions less frequent, and the captain relaxed sufficiently to allow the Thai/English couple’s children to take turns with the wheel. Much later that day, as the sun was burnishing the river bronze, we finally sighted Luang Prabang, raised high on a finger-like peninsula between the Mekong and its tributary the Nam Khan. I stood transfixed by the curved roofs of its many temples peeking above the riverside acacias. Boat Can Sway performed a final pirouette, fond farewells were said, and we dispersed into the next stage of our lives.

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After tranquil time on a boat it felt strange to be back among thronging humankind; strange, too, to be decanted into a place that felt so much like a spiritual remnant of old Southeast Asia, suspended in time. But I couldn’t have been happier. It reminded me of Thailand’s popular northern city, Chiang Mai, when I first arrived there some 40 years ago. Then, it was a place of novice monks and young travellers wide-eyed with wonder.

Laid out by French planners in the late 19th century, when Laos was part of French Indochina, Luang Prabang displayed a fusion of styles. I wandered thoroughfares lined with Chinese-style shophouses and colonial villas, their courtyards fragranced with frangipani. Shutters were the kind you’d see in a Provençal village, married with filigree ironwork eaves created by artisans from Vietnam. Some of these heritage buildings have been adapted to create exquisite little hotels, some are coffee shops, some art galleries or massage parlours. The presence of the Mekong, and sometimes the Nam Khan, at the end of every street added a sense of calm wellbeing, with cars pretty much absent. Boats, rickshaws and bicycles proved the best way of getting around.

Renting two wheels I was in a blur of nostalgic bliss, visiting sights. The 16th-century Wat Xieng Thong, built for Lao royalty on the tip of the peninsula, was

a stunner, containing a riot of depictions, in gold leaf, of the Ramayana stories — the Indian epic later adapted by the Lao people — and a tree of life mosaic embedded with emeralds and lapis lazuli on the back wall.

‘Some of the heritage buildings have been adapted to exquisite little hotels’

Each morning, just before dawn, came the city’s cultural highlight, as orange-robed temple monks emerged in silent single file onto the street, to receive alms from local women. The age-old ritual was over by the time the sun had risen and breakfast beckoned. I passed French-influenced bakeries and courtyard restaurants, while eating avocado baguettes and yellow-duck noodle soup, mesmerised by the slow waltz of boats out on the water.

Late in the day I’d joined the crowds heading up the 328 steps to sit under the pagoda on the top of Phu Si hill and watch the departing sun run its fingers lovingly across the gold-painted gable ends of the temples, before saying farewell from behind the misty rills of forested hills. After that came the night market, arrayed with fishermen’s trousers, lanterns, and jewellery fashioned from the scrap metal of war — a sombre reminder that the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the hotly contested Vietcong supply line in the Vietnam War, mostly ran through Laos.

Finally, each evening, came the difficult decision of where, and what, to eat. It was all very enchanting, and I could almost think, as I sat at a little bistro sipping a drink while waiting for my order of shrimp bisque, that it was untouched by modern life — but modern life always has the last laugh. My time ran out, and I had to leave — this time via Luang Prabang’s front door, on a jet plane.

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Credit: Andrew Eames/ The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing