An exciting Pandaw river cruise through South East Asia’s least-known destination
As the heat filled the oiled rice paper we waited
for the optimum moment until our guide Vieng told us to let go and make a wish.
One after the other the bamboo-framed lanterns rose up into the inky night sky
from the sand bar, creating a mirror image on the Mekong below.
It was a truly magical moment and the traditional khom
loy, or sky lantern, ceremony was a world away from the plethora of parties and
events in the UK that have hijacked these oriental lights to provide a novelty
factor, whereas in Laos the lanterns represent Buddha’s power to dispel
We were less than halfway through our cruise along
the Upper Mekong and it was another totally authentic experience in a trip
where we’d already had impromptu invitations to celebrate life’s dichotomy,
from the birth of a baby to a funeral. In between, each day brought temple
visits, spiritual rituals, rural walks and other memories all combined with a
real river adventure.
The smallest country in South East Asia, landlocked
Laos is surrounded by the household names of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma
and the vastness of China. Many people - including the bank representative I
called to make sure there’d be no problems with my credit card - are hard
pressed to even know where it is. This makes it irresistibly remote and unknown
for anyone with a wanderlust, and Pandaw is the only river cruise company
operating along the Mekong from Thailand to the Laotian capital of Vientiane
were fast-flowing stretches of the water are interspersed with rapids.
Our journey began in Thailand’s northern province of
Chiang Rai, home to the once notorious drug trading zone of the Golden Triangle
where Thailand, Laos and Burma meet. Today this dark past is showcased in the
modern Hall of Opium Museum, which provides a captivating yet sobering insight
into the origin of opium, subsequent wars and the ongoing battle against opium
and poppy growing.
In the afternoon we boarded our ship, the
28-passenger Champa Pandaw, a pleasingly old-style colonial vessel where the
gleaming teak decks and brass fittings belie the fact it was only built in
2016. It is part of the fleet of small river ships created by historian and
trailblazer Paul Strachan to replicate the ships of the 19th century
Scottish-owned Irrawaddy Flotilla Company that once dominated the waterways of
his beloved Burma. Originally built in his Scottish homeland, and transported
and reassembled overseas, the fleet was scuppered in the Second World War to
prevent the invading Japanese from commandeering the vessels.
This pioneering spirit set the scene for our cruise
where mornings began with ethereal misty sunrises set against the backdrop of
tapering mountains and lush jade jungles. Even though the scenery changed
little on some days, there was always something to see; the tips of golden
temples and Buddha statues peeking above the trees, water buffalo cooling off
in the shallows, temporary waterside gardens built on the fertile soil left by
the receding river in the dry season, fishermen crossing our path in shallow
wooden boats and the silence only occasionally broken by passing motorboat.
Most days there were walks around riverside
villages, where we clambered up mud steps hewn into the bank assisted by
vigilant crew members. Our ungainly progress was observed by doe-eyed children who
gathered to watch the unexpected live entertainment. With the itinerary
dictated by Mother Nature and the Mekong, our fast downstream journey was
punctuated by extra village stops which in a few instances the ship had only
visited on one or two occasions, sometimes never before. Our guide
explains about the differences between the lowland and upland tribes that make
up the country’s distinctive ethnic groups, 49 in total.
In one community an 80-year-old man who has outlived
his six wives came out to play us tunes on a bamboo woodwind instrument called
a khene, while in the background a young woman carried an incredible 37kg sack
of tree resin on her back ready to take to the market. Elsewhere we visited
schools, where the initially shy children showed us their books and giggled
delightedly when we in turn let them see our photos.
These cameos of day-to-day life are intermingled with
excursions to spectacular sights such as the Pak Ou Buddha caves, set in sheer
limestone cliffs and housing thousands of Buddha statues. The spectacle of the Kuang
Si waterfalls, cascading 250ft into a series of hillside pools, is also the location
of the heart-warming Free the Bears sanctuary providing a new life for bears
rescued by the charity from the living hell of Asian bile farms.
The cruise is book-ended by the cities of Luang
Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the compact capital of Vientiane
where we took a spluttering tuk-tuk ride to the night market from our mooring
spot on the outskirts. Luang Prabang, the former capital, is the prettier with
its colonial architecture, coffee shops and bakeries that are little changed
since Laos became a French protectorate in 1893, achieving independence in
1954. A guided tour around the former royal palace revealed rather austere
private quarters that were in stark contrast to opulent public rooms decorated
with glittering glass murals of Laotian life. Lining the visitor route are
pictures depicting one of the country’s many mythological tales, often
convoluted and featuring fabulous beasts including white elephants. During the
evening cocktail hour back on the ship Vieng related more tales, and on some
nights delightful musicians and dancers come aboard to entertain us.
Menus featured a mix of western cuisine and Laotian
specialities, the latter often eye-wateringly spicy and eagerly awaited by the
lovers of hot food. By day two other passengers learned the chef could turn
down the heat levels if requested. We discovered more culinary secrets when the
galley team hosted a cookery lesson and demonstrated how to prepare green
Another day Vieng organised a language lesson, and
in the afternoon we practiced our rookie 'sabaidee', or hello, with varying
degrees of success on unsuspecting villagers.
All too soon it was time to wave goodbye to Champa
Pandaw and the ever-cheerful crew members. But if my wish at the lantern
ceremony comes true it won’t be long before I return to this enigmatic and
little-known destination and its friendly, gentle people.
Wendy Wu Tours offers a 12-night Laos
Mekong itinerary from Chiang Saen to Vientiane, or in reverse, from £3,240pp.
The fare includes one-night hotel stays at each end of the 10-night cruise,
including all meals, soft drinks, domestic beers and spirits, flights with Thai
Airways and transfers.
additional information visit www.pandaw.com.
Travel Advisor recommends Wendy Wu Tours.