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Explore the Mekong on a Four-Country River Cruise


A four-country Mekong cruise aims to reopen the river way to China. For JOE CUMMINGS, raging rapids and fiery chilies spice up a serene upstream sailing.

Published on Aug 4, 2017

 

As I stroll down a winding dirt path to a Lao government jetty four kilometers northwest of Vientiane, one vessel, with its distinctively rounded bow and stern and open double decks running the entire length, stands out from all others.

I'll be spending the next 14 days aboard this ship, the RV Champa Pandaw, as it sails from the Lao capital via the waters of Thailand, Laos and Burma to Jinghong, in China's Yunnan province, and taking in the expansive green-roofed vision below, my trepidations about being confined to one space for two weeks dissolve and I know it's going to be a good trip.

Mekong river
Some verdant parts of the sailing recall Emerald City.

Belonging to a leisure fleet owned and operated by Pandaw Cruises, the 44-meter vessel is patterned on original plans from the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, which navigated the inland waterways of British Burma from 1865 until the late 1940s and was once the finest river fleet in the world.

Our ship and its sister, the RV Laos Pandaw, that plies the same route, are engineered to tackle the fast currents and boulder-studded rapids of the upper Mekong River. Like its paddle-wheeler counterparts in colonial Burma, the craft's relatively shallow 1.2-meter draft means it can moor virtually anywhere, even along remote, uninhabited riverbanks where there is no pier, a boon for onshore exploration. Still, in the first three sailings of 2016 since Pandaw opened the route, the mighty river defeated all efforts by the company to make it to Jinghong. I'm hoping the fourth time is a charm.

After the obligatory welcome drink, I check into my stateroom on the lower deck, unpack and climb to the upper level to watch as the ship pushes off. It's not long before Vientiane's modest collection of factories, warehouses and office buildings gives way to a pastoral river valley. Long canoes moored to bamboo staves signal villages and fishing settlements along the way.

 

I FIND THE RIVER'S rippling surface endlessly fascinating, its eddies forming rich patterns around huge rock clusters jutting from the water at sharp angles. Islets, some large enough for farming during the dry season, vie with current-sculpted sandbanks silt to challenge our Lao captain, Thao Khao, a Mekong veteran.

The first cruising day goes smoothly, and the ship pulls to the riverbank as the sun sinks into the peak-studded horizon. Navigation isn't safe when the captain can't scan ahead for hazards, so, for the length of the trip, we moor at night.

Sundown also signals cocktail time, an opportunity to join fellow passengers in lounge areas on the upper deck for boozy chats about life, places we've been, places we plan to go, and the curious things we've spotted along the river that day.

Sunset cocktails
Prepping for sunset cocktails on the RV Champa Pandaw.

I soon learn that, for most of the others signed on for this trip, river travel is a passion they indulge in with regularity. I'm treated to tales of journeys down the Volga, up the Nile and across the Amazon. One Englishman with twinkly eyes and a calm, measured gait turns out to be a retired commercial ship captain who has sailed to ports all over the world. His informal observations on navigation and ship engineering are witty and informative.

Dinner is prepared by a skilled Cambodian chef, Sok Veasna, who took to the water after a career in five-star hotel kitchens. Each meal offers a different set menu with three choices for the main course, and Thai, Lao, Cambodian, Chinese and Vietnamese flavor profiles guiding the way. There's also a buffet heaving with salads, appetizers and dessert. An impressive wine list has me bouncing back and forth between France, Italy and Australia.

Every evening after dinner, purser Saroeung Em, a friendly Cambodian who has been with Pandaw since 2004, delivers a brief navigation report along with a description of the next day's itinerary. Some evenings our Lao guide, Sai, offers short lectures on culture or geography. My favorite is the night Sai waxes nostalgic about how the streams and rivers of his childhood provided food, transport, hydration, hygiene and recreation to his family, friends and neighbors.

The ship pushes off each morning just after sunrise unless fog or heavy mist obscures the view ahead. We're fortunate to experience this only once, on day three, when a lovely fog bank slides down from the mountains and over the Mekong. It melts away less than two hours after sunrise and we're on our way.

Open double decks
Open double decks running the length of the RV Champa Pandaw afford sweeping views of the Mekong River.

 

SHORTLY AFTER WE PASS Pak Lai, once a lively colonial French town processing timber from nearby teak forests, the ship encounters a powerful set of rapids, the first, it turns out, of many to come. The vessel sways from side to side, with enough intensity that as I walk the decks to get a better view of the roiling waters, I have to grab roof stanchions for support.

As the ship's engines struggle against the current, and the captain expertly steers through and around the shoals, two Lao crew members rush to the gunwales of the lower deck along both sides to shove long bamboo staffs into the river. They shout the river's changing depth so that the captain, at wheel and throttle in the pilothouse above them, can hear.

As Saroeung later explains to me, whenever the depth falls below two meters, there's a risk of damaging the ship's rudder or propellers. At that depth, the captain drops speed and if numbers continue to decline, he must consider halting the voyage.

The bouncing of the ship and the urgency of the crewmembers is thrilling, until a loud, grinding clunk comes from the stern, just as we clear the shoals. The ship continues upstream, but well before sundown we make an unscheduled stop near a village so that the crew can replace a damaged propeller.

Sai takes the opportunity to take us on a walk through a nearby village—which not even he has seen before. While most passengers follow him to visit a rustic local school spotted near the river, I forge ahead on my own to find the heart of the village, which, as I expect, turns out to be a market and temple.

An elephant encounter in Laos
The shallow-draft cruiser awaits a guest returning from an elephant encounter in Laos.

I spot an elderly lady in a faded Lao sarong squatting down, roasting handfuls of fresh red chilies in a wok over a wood fire. With each wok-ful, she adds a pinch of salt, and the smoky, pungent aroma is so irresistible, I stop and admire her technique.

When the chilies reach their wrinkly, slightly glistening, brick-red finest, she pounds them in a large clay-fired mortar. Hoping to add some zing to the ship's menu—the food so far has been delicious and far from bland, but I'm an extreme heat addict—I offer to buy a bag of fresh-pounded chili flakes. She fills a plastic baggie with a few ounces of the precious bounty but refuses to accept my cash. Everyone on the boat seems cheered by our serendipitous stopover, the chance to tread uncharted territory—and I'm in chili-head heaven for the next two weeks and then some.

the next two weeks and then some. Back on ship in time for a chilled G&T, I run into Saroeung, who assures me the propeller has been replaced and we've only lost a couple of hours in the schedule. He explains that our vessel carries replacement parts, and the company can have additional parts sent by road to ports along the way if necessary.

"There are more rapids ahead," he says by way of warning. "Bigger ones near the Chinese border are the ones to watch. We don't know yet whether the ship will be able to reach Jinghong."

A disclaimer emailed to passengers during the booking process advises those traveling in the low-water season from December to April that if the ship's master decides the water is too low, passengers will be transferred by speedboat to Jinghong from as close to the China border as the ship can reach. We're all praying it doesn't come to that; we want to be aboard the first cruiser ever to make it all the way.

 

MOST NIGHTS ABOARD SHIP, I HEAD TO MY stateroom to relax and end up falling asleep far earlier than I normally would at home in Bangkok. There's no distracting Wi-Fi on board (an increasing anomaly in even the most remote places), and no nightlife other than drinking in the bar lounge.

Finished in teak and brass, my stateroom measures a cozy 16 square meters, and includes an en-suite bathroom, wardrobe and writing desk. Louvered French doors can be pulled open for ever-changing river views. It's tempting to spend nearly all day lying in bed, watching the world float by.

During my first week on the RV Champa Pandaw, I finish writing three articles, change the strings on my neglected Breedlove acoustic guitar, and read Clothes, Clothes Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, Viv Albertine's sharply written chronicle of life in London's 80s music scene. I rarely get the chance to read for pleasure, and I'm soon into a novel I've wanted to read for years. Riverboat living has its benefits.

Observation Deck
The ship's observation deck.

Most days we stop in late afternoon for a hike. One brings us to a small tribal Kmu village, set back from the Mekong amidst lush jungle. Another day we visit a more cosmopolitan settlement of lowland Lao, Hmong and Kmu families. Often the villagers are surprised to see us, but we receive nothing short of warm welcomes.

On the fifth day we come upon Xayaburi Dam, a hydroelectric-generating facility standing 32 meters high and nearly a kilometer wide. Passengers and crew alike gather at deck rails to watch, spellbound, as the bulwarks of the ship pass just centimeters from the looming lock walls. Gargantuan steel doors close behind us, and our vessel is lifted 16 meters to meet the upstream flow.

At Luang Prabang, we anchor for two days and nights in order to take in Laos's charming former royal capital at a leisurely pace. I skip the guided tour of the UNESCO-sanctioned historic district, and instead hop a local skiff across the river to hike a web of paths linking lesser-known royal temple hermitages from Wat Chomphet and Wat Long Khun, both blessedly free of large tour groups. A highlight of my jaunt is chancing upon a lone Thai monk who has walked all the way from Phetchabun province in northern Thailand, a 500-kilometer, two-week journey, to help restore Wat Had Siaw.

Wat Rong Khun
Wat Rong Khun, an art installation in the form of a temple in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

Both evenings in Luang Prabang, I dine ashore. At L'Elephant, set in a renovated early 20th-century corner villa with wooden floors, stenciled pillars and ochre walls, I enjoy one of the restaurant's signature dishes, duck roasted with Grand Marnier and savory baelfruit. I return to the ship with an unfinished bottle of Malbec.

The second night I stop in for a drink at Icon Klub, a cozy bar tucked away off the main drag in the historic district. I ask Lisa, the engaging Hungarian owner, for dinner recommendations, and she sends me to Le Tangor, where goat cheese salad and the house ceviche—a fresh take on Lao fish larb—finish the evening nicely.

The next day, after a stop at the Buddha-filled limestone caves of Pak Ou, we're well into our upstream voyage again. The mountains flanking the waters grow in size, the banks get steeper, and the river is looking more mischievous by the kilometer.

 

TEN DAYS AND TWO MORE NOVELS upstream we come to Huay Xai, a semi-bustling port town that functioned as a center of the opium trade during the French colonial era. After the captain returns from checking in with provincial security ashore—as required whenever the ship enters a different province in Laos—we pass beneath the three-year-old Fourth Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge. The modern concrete span links Huay Xai with Chiang Khong, Thailand, bringing a steady flow of Chinese exports to Thailand via a road that zigzags from the Laos-China border.

A cultural performance
A cultural performance steals the spotlight one night.

North of Chiang Khong, rocks at Khon Pi Luang rapids jut out of the Mekong like the incisors of a great riverine beast. The name means "where the ghost lost its way," and when 19th-century French explorers had to portage around them, they concluded that the Mekong would never be navigable.

It's another thrill run, and our quavering ship makes it through with only minor damage, this time to the rudder. It doesn't slow us down for now, but purser Saroeung explains we'll need to repair it before we leave Laos and enter international waters between Laos and Burma en route to China.

The Chinese government would like to blast the rapids at Khon Pi Luang to make navigation easier, but resistance in Laos and Thailand has been quite strong. Warning of the effects of 500-tonne cargo ships on the native flora, fauna and way of life, as well as the destruction of fish breeding grounds by explosives, residents and environmentalists, with support from an IUCN assessment, have so far been able to block the proposed blasting.

Meanwhile, the scenery just keeps getting better as the Mekong folds in on itself with more hairpin curves and dramatic river crags.

Two days from our China crossing, the ship makes an afternoon mooring at the last Lao immigration office along the upper Mekong. The office stands alongside the Kings Roman Casino, a Hong Kong–operated private concession where gambling is legal. It's the fanciest river landing we've seen so far. Gratuitously wide cement stairs lead from the pier to an octagonal building signed GOLDEN TRIANGLE INTERNATIONAL check point and topped by a huge golden dome. While we present our passports for Lao exit stamps, our luggage is taken from the ship for a perfunctory X-ray check by Lao customs.

A stop in Sagaing, Burma.
A stop in Sagaing, Burma.

Strolling across the parking lot on the way back to the ship, I stop for a closer glimpse of the sprawling casino complex, which has green and gold domes and a massive European-style royal crown. I'd have liked to try a round of blackjack, but we're soon back on ship and crossing the river to Chiang Saen, where we quickly pass Thai immigration and moor for the night.

By the time we leave Thai waters the next morning, the rudder has been repaired. We're in a kind of immigration limbo, sailing steadily up the Mekong with Laos on our right and Burma on our left, holding visas for neither country.

 

JINGHONG IS ROUGHLY 300 kilometers away, which means another two days sailing, assuming the ship conquers the remaining two rapids. By this point in the voyage, even small villages are few and far between, and boat traffic scarce. Taking in the emerald-green slopes on either bank, I'm startled to think how large hunks of Burma and Laos along the Mekong remain completely undeveloped.

Stone Forest of Yunnan
Limestone karsts comprise the Stone Forest of Yunnan, China.

The next day we successfully pass through Da Fan Shui Shoal, under the keen eye of a veteran Chinese river captain who boarded in Chiang Saen and who will take us on into China. As the ship enters Chinese waters, I adjust my watch to Chinese time, an hour ahead of Laos, Burma and Thailand.

A few hours later, the passengers and all available crew gather at the ship's bow on either side of the fo'c'sle to watch as the ship enters Guan Lei Shoals, the largest and most challenging of the upper Mekong rapids. Trepidation and excitement are evident among both crew and passengers as we scan the river ahead and whisper among ourselves.

The ship sways and shudders as the captain negotiates deep whirlpools and rocky islets, pushing the twin engines to their limit in the fast-flowing water. Waves wash over the bulwarks and down the lower deck from bow to stern, bouncing off our stateroom doors.

Watching the world float by from a perch in southern China
Watching the world float by from a perch in southern China.

After a half hour or so, calm waters return and everyone on deck cheers knowing our ship will be the first in the fleet to make Jinghong.

 

JUST BEFORE SUNDOWN, WE ARRIVE AT Guan Lei, the largest and busiest port anywhere on the Mekong, and take a mooring alongside dozens of 300-tonne triple-decked Chinese cargo boats. It's six in the evening, but Pandaw has arranged for the Chinese immigration and customs office to stay open past normal office hours so that we can clear all paperwork.

After a handful of Chinese soldiers board the ship and briefly check every stateroom and every passport to make sure everyone on the ship manifest is accounted for, we disembark and walk to the immigration and customs offices, where officials quietly stamp our passports in the eerily empty hall.

Ship stands out in China
The ship stands out from local vessels in China.

Formalities complete, the captain finds a quiet mooring away from the main harbor, where my fellow passengers and I uncork bottle after bottle to celebrate our triumphant arrival in China. A Scottish couple who are dedicated river travelers declare this to be the best river trip they've ever done.

The final day on the RV Champa Pandaw is something of an anti-climax as there are no more rapids to run, no more borders to cross. Mountains have given way to plains and China's ever-expanding urban sprawl. But the novelty of entering China by waterway sustains the travel high, and by the time we dock in Jinghong I'm ready to hit the pavement running.

 


Pandaw Cruises: pandaw.com; +84 8 2216 0819; "The Mekong: From Laos to China" (Vientiane to Jinghong or vice versa), 14-night cruise from US$6,300 per person based on twin cabin, inclusive of guide, site entrance fees, on-board food, local beers and spirits, and soft drinks.

 

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