Exploring Laos all along the Mekong River
The Mekong River is a one of the great rivers of the world, weaving together the countries of China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam into a web of interdependent ecosystems and indigenous cultures. The Mekong’s meandering journey through Laos is one of the most pristine, diverse and accessible routes along the entire river. I began my own Mekong adventure at the border town of Chiang Kong in northern Thailand. The border crossing between Chiang Kong and Huay Xai, Laos is the easiest and most popular location to enter Laos via the river.
I crossed the border early in the morning and learned that border officials in the region seem to universally love coffee but never have any coffee money. They’ve developed an ingenious solution to this dilemma by adding an unofficial US$1 fee to any given step of the quarantine, customs and immigration processes, on either side of any border. Travelers who don’t wish to donate to the coffee fund should insist on a receipt for their compulsory donation. This request tends to quench their thirst more than coffee.
After receiving my visa and briefly crossing the Mekong aboard a long-tail boat, I hopped in a songthaew (shared pickup-truck taxi) which delivered me to another much larger boat with a recommended capacity of 100 passengers, and a maximum capacity limited only by the ambition of the ticket sellers.
Historic river journey
The boat trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang is a historic river journey once ventured by French explorers and missionaries and is now one of the last remaining stretches of the Mekong with an active passenger boat system. I took the two-day slow boat, with an overnight in Pakbeng, but a three-day luxury boat with onboard accommodations is also available. The voyage passes through rainforest-clad mountains and Hmong villages of bamboo stilt-houses perched above countless white sandy beaches.
Around dinner time on the second day I arrived at The UNESCO World Heritage Town of Luang Prabang: the loveliest city on the Mekong. No longer one of Southeast Asia’s best kept secrets, the old town flaunts a myriad of trendy craft shops, boutique hotels, spas, restaurants and cafes overlooking the confluence of the Mekong and Khan rivers. Luang Prabang is a prime city for walking and bicycling the quiet avenues to see the main attractions -- Wat Xieng Thong and numerous other ancient Buddhist temples.
South to Vientiane
From Luang Prabang I took a nine-hour bus ride south to Vientiane to enjoy the immense karst scenery as the bus wound through dense jungles interspersed with Tai, Hmong and Kamu villages. The capital city of Vientiane is both the political and economic center of the country.
Near the border with Thailand, its local culture, economy and tourism base is strongly influenced by its larger neighbor. It has also just been given a boost of publicity in December by hosting the 2009 SEA Games.
Vientiane has a modest selection of tourist attractions, but the old Buddhist temples of Wat Si Saket and Ho Phra Keo were well worth a visit, as well as the national monuments of Patuxai and That Luang.
Good vibrations in Pakse and beyond
I took an eleven-hour overnight sleeper bus from Vientiane to the transportation hub of Pakse. I might have learned to appreciate my bunk’s built-in “vibration feature” if it hadn’t jostled the four other people sharing the same berth with me as well.
A songthaew ride from Pakse and a barge across the Mekong brought me to the remote town of Champasak. The town has some atmospheric accommodations and uninterrupted views of the river, but Champasak’s claim to fame is the nearby Wat Phu; Laos’ other World Heritage Site. Wat Phu is a Khmer temple built by King Suryavarman II (founder of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat) in the early 12th century. Sitting on the foot of Phu Kao Mountain, this Hindu (and later Buddhist) temple incorporates a potable, sacred spring where I happily accepted an invitation to refill my water bottle after the long climb to the temple plateau.
The Cambodian border is less than three hours south of Champasak by minivan. Further down the Mekong await Muslim Cham villages, Irrawaddy dolphins, more Angkorean temple ruins and the capital city of Phnom Penh, famous for the national museum, royal palace and memorials to genocide -- but all of this is another adventure on one of the world’s greatest rivers.
Don't just read about it, do it
Thirty-day Laos visas on arrival are available at the border crossing of Chiang Kong, Thailand and Huay Xai, Laos, but not on the Laos border with Cambodia. Most visa prices vary between US$30 and US$40, depending upon nationality.
Pakbeng Lodge, Pakbeng, tel: + 856 (0)81 212 304
Starting around US$47
The Lodge is the most upscale accommodation in Pakbeng, and the first thing visitors see when they approach the town from the Mekong.
The Chang Heritage Hotel, 93 Unit 03, Phoneheuang Village, Luang Prabang, tel: + 856 (0)71 255 031
Starting around US$90
This exquisitely furnished hotel is perfectly located in the old town near Wat Xieng Thong and overlooking the Khan River.
Hotel Novotel Vientiane, Unit 9 Ban Khountathong, Samsenthai Road, Vientiane, tel: + 856 (0)21 213 570
Starting around US$80
The Novotel brings familiar four-star comforts to downtown Vientiane.
Inthira Champa Nakone Hotel, Ban Vat Amard, Champasak, tel: + 856 (0)31 214 059
Starting around US$60
This eye-catching colonial-style hotel has the town’s best accommodation, restaurants and Internet access.
Huay Xai to Luang Prabang
Most travelers book visa, boat, taxi and accommodations from Huay Xai to Luang Pranang as a package through their hotel, but there are no great savings of time, effort or cost this way. Touts will greet travelers at every step of the journey offering cheaper deals.
Single-day slow boat tickets can be purchased most cheaply at the Huay Xai and Pakbeng boat piers, or from guesthouses in Huay Xai and Chiang Kong with increasingly inflated prices. The total price for both days can range from US$25-$45.
The three-day luxury slow boat costs between US$370-$530 per person. Contact: Luang Say Mekong Cruises, 50/4 Sakkarine Road, Ban Vat Sene, Luang Prabang, tel: + 856 (0)71 252 553, www.luangsay.com.
A six-hour adrenaline-rush speedboat ride is also available from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, but photo opportunities are at a minimum due to the fast, bumpy ride. Prices start at US$35, and like the slow boat can be booked at piers or any guesthouse.
Luang Prabang to Vientiane
The nine-hour VIP bus ride from Luang Prabang to Vientiane (US$16) departs at 8am and includes free lunch. Buses depart from the Naluang (southern) Bus Terminal. Vang Vieng is a popular spot for backpackers to break the trip; famous for its scenic location and outdoor activities.
Vientiane to Pakse
The VIP overnight sleeper bus from Vientiane to Pakse departs from the southern bus terminal at 8pm, takes about eleven hours and costs US$22. While I took an overnight sleeper bus to Pakse myself, I do not recommend this for pregnant women, the elderly, claustrophobic, or anyone with back or joint problems. Instead, I suggest a direct flight. Contact: Lao Airlines Head Office, 02 Pangkham Road, Vientiane, tel: +856 (0)21 212 050-054, www.laoairlines.com.
To and from Champasak
Transportation in and out of Champasak is rather informal. From Pakse, minivans and songthaew departing from bus depots are US$3-$5. Minivans to the Four Thousand Islands area (the country’s other backpacker haven with a reputation not unlike Vang Vieng) or the Cambodian border are US$7.