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Adventures cruising on the Mekong in Laos

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Trish Griffin

03 June 2024, 12:00 AM

Adventures cruising on the Mekong in Laos

Some years ago now my friends and I had quite an adventure in Laos. We survived our first misadventure in Luang Prabang, and decided to stay put for a while and just soak in the atmosphere. However, our plans changed when we noticed the cruise boats drifting up and down the river. They appeared to have dining decks where tourists were attended to by waiters. Eager for some comfort and luxury, we decided to give it a try.



The following morning, John went to the ticket 'offices' on the shoreline and managed to purchase some tickets despite the language barrier. I was surprised at how cheap they were, but it wouldn’t be long before I found out why. We arrived at a longtail boat, about 10 metres long with a tiny cabin, assuming it would take us to a larger cruise boat. Instead, they advised us to get some lunch and enough water for the day. This was confusing, as the entire purpose was to dine in splendour. Four other travellers shared our assumption and were equally shocked when they realised that this small boat was our cruise.



Six passengers and two crew had this small boat loaded with the water up to the gunnels. The seating consisted of the boat’s ribs, not even a plank of wood to form the actual seat. I felt a sinking feeling as we set off upstream. When we encountered grade three to four rapids, the driver would full-throttle the ancient engine to propel us across the rough sections, everyone sighing with relief as we made it into calmer waters.



On one occasion, the engine failed, and we floundered onto a nearby beach. While the crew worked on the engine, I found a clump of bushes to relieve myself and, more importantly, grabbed a three-foot piece of giant bamboo to use as a makeshift life buoy if needed.


Once we had passed the rapids and felt relaxed enough to look around, the sights were stunning: steep cliffs with caves enclosing ancient Buddha statues, dwellings on stilts over the river, villages with wooden buildings, and hordes of naked kids running and splashing.



Our destination was a very primitive village in the upper reaches of the tributary. Exhausted, stiff, and sore, we didn't complain about the dilapidated overnight accommodations, but I lost my appetite when I saw the kebabs: rats, bats, giant spiders on sticks. We settled for the ubiquitous noodles.


The next morning, we were told to board the boat for the return trip. I flatly refused and opted for the 'bus,' an antiquated utility vehicle with a canvas cover on the back. It was to be a three-hour journey with local women going to market. Among the usual array of wares and animals, I noticed under my legs a large section of bamboo with breath holes, from which emerged the longest, hairiest black legs I had ever seen - a giant bird-eating spider. Stifling a scream, I climbed out the back and spent the rest of the journey standing on the rear bumper bar. So much for our luxury cruise!



Rest assured; this was in 2005. The destination has since changed dramatically - the five-star hotels have arrived. However, I loved Laos in its raw, innocent, and authentic state. I left in awe of the resilience of their ancient culture, religion, and traditions that remain indestructible despite occupying forces that failed to make a dent. Their spirit runs strong and eternal, like the river Mekong.