Cruising The Mekong River To Luang Prabang In Little-Known Laos

It’s common for holidaymakers and digital nomads to go to Thailand. They hit the beaches, Bangkok, Chiang Mai etc. On my recent Southeast Asia trip, I took things a bit further. I joined a biker gang in Thailand and invaded Myanmar. Along with my fellow libertarian gang members, I crossed illegally — through a hole in a fence — into Myanmar, aka Burma. This act of defiance and exploration was enough to satisfy the thirst for adventure of my fellow bikers. But not so for me.

In Thailand, as well as in Myanmar, we were traveling in the Golden Triangle region. This is where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers. I had only seen two of the three sides of the triangle. So, in northern Thailand I parted ways with my fellow libertarian bikers and pressed on to the third and final country.

The little tuk-tuk that could

The tuk-tuk

No longer in possession of a motorcycle, I needed a new means of transportation to traverse the 60 kilometers of tough terrain standing between me and the Lao border. What kind of vehicle could get me there? Well, of course a tuk-tuk, aka a rickshaw. Or could it?

The muddy mountain road

The tuk-tuk journey to the Lao border was only two or three hours. But the terrain was mountainous and very muddy. I hired a a tuk-tuk ride for just $25 — actually good money for the driver. He had to fight his way up the muddy mountain road, but eventually the tuk-tuk got me to the border town of Chiang Khong, a rural stopping point where I spent the night.

The Mekong cruise

The real journey began after I crossed the “Friendship Bridge” into Laos the following morning. Now in Laos, I was in the town of Huay Xai, where I boarded a boat on the Mekong River. This wasn’t expected to be like sailing in the Greek islands, so do you think would I stick things out and refrain from rebelling against the captain?

Calling the boat trip a cruise might be a bit of a euphemism. Sure we were cruising along the river, but we were cruising in the so-called “slow boat.” The slow boat is a long, wooden boat that transports people and cargo from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, an old royal capital of Laos and my primary destination in the country.

Boarding the slow boat in Huay Xai

Apparently there is a night bus that can take you from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, which is probably relatively new given that the area is known for having very poor roads or not having roads at all. But I went with the classic option, the slow boat, and I was pleased with the choice. No mutiny this time. 😉

Along the way, the slow boat drops off locals at various villages and makes an overnight stop in the town of Pakbeng. When I got off the boat in Pakbeng, it hit me that Laos was probably the least developed country I had ever step foot in — maybe even more so than Myanmar, which admittedly, I invaded only briefly.

But Pakbeng, this tiny town on the Mekong, oozed with charm. The locals were very warm and welcoming, and they seemed very happy with their old-fashioned lifestyle. I enjoyed the local food and beer.

Pakbeng

Back on the river, the slow boat wasn’t actually that slow. The trip took four hours less than expected, though it lasted the better part of two days, when including the night spent in Pakbeng.

The time on this bland wooden boat passed quickly for me. Even though I was on the river in a poor, “socialist” country, I was doing business, or at least developing leads. There were some other Germans (not from my motorcycle gang) on the boat with me. One of them was the son of a mid-sized business owner. Later on, after the son told the father about what I do, the father booked a consultation with me and became my client.

Mekong scenery

I made friends with the Germans on the boat, and we played cards and gazed at elephants while cruising the Mekong. The scenery along the river includes palm trees and lots of other greenery, in addition to old-fashioned houses. Simply put, the landscape along the Mekong River in Laos is very lovely.

Closing in on Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, the Lao gem

Within Laos, Luang Prabang is a gem. This old royal capital sits at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. But is also where cultures intersect. Luang Prabang is very much a mixture of Lao and French cultures. We will see this in the food…

Yet when you arrive in Luang Prabang, a place like Bhutan might come to mind. Why is that? The Lao city is certainly not as orderly, or OCD, as the kingdom of the thunder dragon. However, Luang Prabang literally means “Royal Buddha Image.” There is plenty of Buddhist imagery in this city and its many surrounding villages.

Front and center in Luang Prabang, atop a steep hill called Phou Si, stands a Buddhist temple — another good old golden stupa (Remember those meditation temples from Nepal?). The stupa on top of Mount Phou Si is called Wat Chom Si. Another Buddhist temple, Wat Tham Phou Si, lies below it, halfway up the hill.

There are numerous other Buddhist temples and monasteries in and around the city. Wat Xieng Thong, which sits on the northern tip of the Luang Prabang peninsula, is one of the most important Lao monasteries.

Mixed in with all of the temples are waterfalls, caves and other beautiful scenery. On a tour of the Luang Prabang region, I visited the Pak Ou Caves, which on the inside, contain lots of little wooden Buddhist figures. Basically, the natural scenery in the region does not disappoint.

But my stay in Luang Prabang focused more on good food, good drinks and good company. As I mentioned, the mixture of Lao and French cultures appears in the food… and drinks, I should add.

Good food, good drinks, good company

History break

To get a better grasp of both the food and the region, a little history helps. Laos once consisted of a kingdom that split into three separate kingdoms, one of which was Luang Prabang. Hence you can find the royal palace in Luang Prabang. But wait… the royal palace was actually built during the French colonial era, when Luang Prabang retained its monarchy but Laos was part of French Indochina.

Laos became a French protectorate in 1893, and that status lasted until about 1950. The communists took over in 1975, following a civil war, and they threw the royals into re-education camps. Now Laos is a one-party socialist republic — at least in name, as its ruled by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. But the country’s economy is growing at pretty rapid rate, so Laos is slowly developing and opening up. Ok, enough about that.

Back to food and drinks

Luang Prabang is full of wine bars. Thanks to the French influence, I could finally drink some decent wine in Asia.

Wine at a Luang Prabang wine bar

And the French-Lao fusion cuisine is quite tasty. French influence particularly appears in the bread. Whether it’s baguettes for sale on the street or a variety of bread options in an upscale restaurant, that is one way you can notice French taste creeping into Lao cuisine. On one occasion, I indulged in a buffalo burger on a black bamboo bread bun. If you couldn’t guess… the buffalo meat is the Lao part of the meal. Delicious. 😉

The buffalo burger on the black bamboo bread bun

Regarding the company, in Luang Prabang, I met up with my friend Richard, as well as his daughter. I had lots of great conversations with Richard, and on one day, his Chinese business partners showed up, adding some more Asian flavor to the mix. Together, we mapped out some exciting projects.

Having his little daughter play waitress and serve us beers on the final night capped off the Luang Prabang stay. That’s something little girls in Laos like to do. 😊

What else can I say?

Luang Prabang is calm, picturesque and multicultural in a good way. Being able to reach places like this — and enjoy them with friends new and old from around the world — is part of why I travel perpetually. Whether I’m in the fast lane or stuck in the slow lane, or on the speed boat or stuck on the slow boat, there is always a new client… I mean beautiful sight… at the end of the journey. And hopefully a buffalo burger and a beer to wash it down.