Fifty Shades of Green – Laos Mekong River Cruise

 

My wife and I have recently returned from a 10 night river cruise downstream along the upper reaches of the Mekong River, the world’s tenth longest river, between Chiang Saen in Thailand and Vientiane in Laos…

 

…onboard what was for us was a new river cruise line, Pandaw, and their purpose built boat, Champa Pandaw…

The distance along the Mekong that we were to sail, between Chiang San and Vientiane is approximately 344 Kilometres and 9 of the 10 days on the Mekong would be spent in Laos.

Whilst we have previously cruised along the Mekong river through Vietnam and Cambodia…

https://solentrichardscruiseblog.com/2015/01/05/amalotus-mekong-river-cruise/

…this was to be  a more exciting and exhilarating adventure: due to the faster, more powerful waters, with turbulent rapids to navigate and  ever changing, and  awe inspiring unspoilt vistas.

The Champa Pandaw is a relatively new ship having been built in Thailand in 2016. It offers 14 cabins, 12 on the Main Deck and 2 on the Upper Deck…

We were the first to book this particular cruise directly with Pandaw and chose Cabin 104 on the Main Deck…

All cabins, including the two on the Upper deck are the same size and offer the same facilities…

…and each has an en-suite bathroom…

Cabins are approximately 14 square meter (150 square Feet), finished in teak and brass and panoramic French sliding doors.

Quality spa-branded toiletries are provided in the cabins as well as copious quantities of bottled water. One excellent ‘plus’ in the cabins were the multi-configuration Internation plug sockets.

The cabins are reasonably designed with ample hanging and storage space: when utilising the built in under-bed drawers.

Although capable of carrying 28 passengers on this particular occasion there were only 20 onboard. This was entirely due to the fact that there were 8 solo travellers occupying double/twin cabins.

The breakdown of passengers by nationality was:-

Australia  9, United Kingdom  3, Canada  2, Germany  2, Netherlands  2, New Zealand  1 and USA  1. 

The Upper Deck, besides the two additional cabins, consists of the ‘Wheelhouse’…

the Saloon...

…which is also home for the drinks and Beverage Bar…

…where 24 hour tea, coffee and light snacks were also available.

The Saloon was also used on a number of evenings for the screening of documentaries and films on Laos and the Mekong River.

The remainder of the Upper Deck is open air and basically divided into a Dining Area…

*****

…and a ‘Chill-Out’ area…

*****

*****

…while forward of the Wheelhouse, there was an ideal smaller deck for those like myself who are keen photographers…

…or those like my good lady, who just want to catch a bit of sun…

 

During one of our extended daytime river transits a ship’s tour was offered. This behind the scenes visit proved most interesting and included the Wheelhouse…

…the Laundry...

…the Engine Room…

*****

…and the Galley…

*****

…which neatly brings me onto Dining onboard the Champa Pandaw.

Simply put, both my wife and I found the food on Champa Pandaw excellent.

Breakfasts, as always, are pretty standard affairs with, in addition to the usual ‘Help Yourself’ items, cereals, toasts and jams…

…fruit juices, cold meats and fresh fruits…

…which tended to change daily….

also on offer was  Western breakfast fare including a pretty awesome smoked salmon and scrambled egg…

…and, for those who fancied a local option, a breakfast Noodle Station…

*****

Lunch was served onboard every day with a changing daily menu…

 

There was always an interesting soup and a selection of salads as a starter/main…

….let’s take a closer look at one of those salads…

My wife chooses the Salmon Encroute…

…while I opt for the Crispy Duck…

…and there is always a lunchtime cheeseboard…

On a number of days there were other options…

…like the Noodle Station…

*****

*****

…supplemented with a number of other dishes…

Each evening most guests met on the Upper Deck for a Cocktail Hour accompanied by a selection of interesting canapés…

Prior to dinner commencing guests were given a short briefing on the following day’s programme by the Ship’s Purser, Say…

…and the dedicated Lao shore guide, Gell…

There was something generally romantic about dining onboard onboard Champa Pandaw and maybe on only two evenings, while berthed at Luang Prabang, did the scenery not change…

Dinners were, if one wished, a 4 course affair and as with the lunches onboard were both interesting in their variety and excellent in their quality.

A few examples of what was on offer…

*****

…and as they arrived at the table…

Luang Prabang Salad

Black Woodear Mushroom Spring Roll

Pork Wanton Clear Soup

Grilled River Prawns with Chilli and Coriander

Crispy Barramundi

On two occasions the format for dinner changed slightly when what was referred to as a ‘Family Set’ was served, where all three listed main course items were served at the table…

Steamed Fish with Soy and Sesame Ginger Sauce

Beef Sirloin Diane with Dauphinoise Potatoes

Morning Glory with Garlic and Oyster Sauce

…while not forgetting the desserts on offer…

Coconut Mousse and Papaya Coulis

Chocolate Raisin Mud Cake

Floating Island

Certainly no one onboard had any excuse for going hungry and there was always plenty of fresh fruits available in both the Saloon and on the open deck…

*****

Before moving on to the Itinerary it is worth mentioning one or two other services we experienced onboard.

As one can imagine with the Champa Pandaw pulling along various river banks, and this time of year being the dry season, on each occasion when we returned from such shoreside ‘expeditions’, there were staff on hand to collect passengers’ footwear. They operated a basic system of ‘numbered’ pegs that coincided with one’s cabin number and shortly after embarkation one’s cleaned footwear would be returned to one’s cabin.

Another good innovative touch was the introduction of Vox Boxes…

…which certainly proved their worth around the many Buddhist Temples we visited where noise is prohibited.

Itinerary.

Having noted that we were to have a number of afternoons with ‘free time’ I felt it important to do some research on what was on offer at our various stops. The Pandaw system basically offers one daily ‘excursion’ with nothing as an option.  This was to be our first time in Laos and with two particular stops being made at places of considerable cultural and historical interest I therefore felt the urge to add to my already purchased guide…

…with an additional book specific to Laos…

 

We had booked the cruise ‘Cruise Only’ and were therefore free to make our own flight and any pre-cruise accommodation arrangements ourselves. Part of the Pandaw deal was to arrange transfers to the ship on the day of embarkation from either a passenger’s hotel in either of the two northern Thai cities of Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai, or from one of their two respective local airports. This transfer would also  include a tour of the Northern Thailand border area known as ‘The Golden Triangle’ with lunch prior to arrival at the ship.

Having already visited Chiang Mai many years ago we opted to spend 3 nights pre-cruise in Chiang Rai and booked accommodation at the Le Patta Hotel…

…chosen mainly for its central location.

We arrived early afternoon on New Years Eve and were determined to join in with local celebrations.

We kicked off discovering the night life and bars along Jetyod Road…

Little did we imagine what we were letting ourselves in for: an amazing street party set up around and along Chiang Rai’s famous Clock Tower…

*****

…complete with full live on stage music and entertainment…

…not forgetting time to take in solid food from a local hawker’s stall…

…and join in with some local revellers…

So I guess we saw the New Year 2020 in 7 hours earlier than family and friends back in the UK. That was somewhat novel, as the majority of our Christmas and New Year cruises have been in the Caribbean.

The following day we took a tuk-tuk ride to visit what is known as Wat Rong Khun, better known to us foreigners as  The White Temple…

It is actually a privately owned art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple and is owned by Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed, constructed, and opened it to visitors back in 1997…

One thing we hadn’t realised and that was that during the week Chiang Rai was hosting its annual Flower Show…

…which turned out to be a truly amazing place to visit both during the day and at night…

For dinner on the second evening we walked to the Kok River bank where the highly recommended Leelawadee Restaurant…

…lived up to its reputation with Stir Fried Prawns…

…and their famous Curried Fish…

Day 3 in Chiang Rai saw us back in a tuk-tuk…

…as we crossed the Kok River heading for our second Buddhist Temple, Wat Rong Suea Ten…

…more commonly known to foreigners as The Blue Temple…

*****

*****

We rounded off our day with another ‘TripAdvisor’ recommendation, The Naza Massage…

…with a ‘Couples’  Two hour ‘Coconut Body Scrub and Thai Massage’ all for the princely sum of 900 Thai Baht each (£23.00). Excellent value and highly recommended…

 

 

Mekong River Cruise Day 1 – The Golden Triangle

 

As already mentioned, part and parcel of the Pandaw cruise package is the transfer to the ship from passenger’s hotels and includes a tour of The Golden Triangle. Top marks to Pandaw, they had left a message the previous day informing us what time our pick-up would be at the hotel and that was the time we set off.

It was around an hour and a half drive between Chiang Rai and our arrival at Chiang Saen,  where we first stopped at the ‘look-out’ point of The Golden Triangle…

…and this is the view…

To the right is Laos, to the left is Myanmar (formally Burma) and the land in the foreground is Thailand.

On the same hill, but at a slightly higher level, is a famous old Buddhist temple, Wat Phra That Pu Khao…

….reached by a long flight of stairs…

…it is sadly a shadow of its former self…

….as can be observed by its surrounding ruins…

We continued with our tour of The Golden Triangle with a visit to the Hall of Opium…

Historically the ‘Golden Triangle’ used to be infamous as one of the largest producers of opium in the world. The ‘Hall of Opium’ was built, under Royal Thai patronage,  as part of a campaign to educate people about the dangers of the drug…

…through graphic exhibitions which trace opium’s history from its first use 5,000 years ago, through more recent illegal trade and up to current issues of drug abuse and addiction.

The visit was an absorbing experience, from  the entrance tunnel…

…to the detailed displays…

…illustrating all aspects of the global opium trade….

The museum is spread over 3 floors and we spent well over an hour engrossed in what it has on offer.

On completion of a very good lunch at a local riverside hotel we boarded our mini buses and headed for the town of Chiang Khong , some 55 Kms further down the Mekong River, where the Champa Pandaw was berthed…

Once settled onboard we were given a safety briefing before the Captain took the ship upriver for an hours evening Cocktail Hour Sunset Cruise. We then returned to our berth  for our overnight stay.

Prior to dinner on our first evening there was a display of traditional Thai dancing given by a local troop of dancers…

*****

Both my wife and I had noticed as we arrived in Chiang Khong that there were a number of interesting looking bars along the main waterfront road and having also witnessed little activity onboard after dinner, off we went to explore.

It wasn’t long before we fell into the Rin Bar…

…which we actually heard well before we saw it. There was plenty of life and we joined in with both the Karaoke and a game of pool with the local Thais…

*****

We eventually returned on board for what would become a familiar routine…

…we were the last ones out ashore (if indeed, the only ones.)

 

Mekong River Cruise Day 2 – Into Laos

I was up early and on a mission. The previous evening while returning from the Rin Bar I had spotted a particularly colourful Buddhist Temple just off the main street. So before breakfast and armed with my trusty camera I headed out to Wat Hua Wiang…

…and wasn’t disappointed with the results….

Following our first breakfast onboard we boarded a small fleet of mini-buses for the 15 minute journey to the Thai / Laos Border…

*****

Having completed our Thailand departure formalities we were then taken by bus across the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge to complete Lao Immigration formalities, completed with the handover of the US $35.00 Visa Fee.

We returned to our  mini-buses for the 10 minute drive to the Champa Pandaw, which had, in the meantime repositioned on the Lao side of the Mekong River…

All aboard and we were soon cast off and cruising along the Mekong and enjoying our first lunch onboard as we approached the point where the Thai border ends…

…and for the first time both river banks would henceforth now be in Laos…

A short distance on and  we made a stop at Pak Tha where, it was explained, the Captain needed to complete ‘the Ship’s Lao Formality’….

 

From this point it soon became apparent that this journey was going to be like no other river journey. Not just that the vistas that were constantly changing…

 …as were the inhabitants of the river banks…

…Gold Panners we were informed…

Equally so were the peculiar make up of the rock formations…

…some with descriptive names…

…and many of which gave rise  the wicked currents and occasional ‘rapids’ effects…

…that fascinated us and kept me almost glued to the sun deck up front.

Worth mentioning here that there were no charts, depth gauges or any form of radar in the wheelhouse.

It was explained to us that Champa Pandaw had two Captains: each specialised in sailing and navigating separate sections of the river from  pure memory.

Some 5 hours after setting off we noticed the ship making almost a U-turn midstream and moving towards the river bank…

It was where we were going to make our first of a number of village stops: this one,  Ban Pak Sit…

Our first taste of Rural Laos…

Amongst the features we were introduced to was that of the village blacksmith’s life…

Note the crew member above operating the hand turned blower to heat the charcoal .

Back onboard we continued downstream while daylight lasted and as the sun set we moored alongside a sandbank for the night…

 

Mekong River Cruise Day 3 – Lao Village Life

Each evening at the following day’s briefing it was often stressed that the start of our daily programme was dependent on weather conditions. By that they meant the morning mists that often frequented the lower areas of the Mekong Valley…

Worth pointing out here that it had been explained to us that Laos, though being a small country of less than 7 Million people, is very ethnically diverse. However, there are in effect three major sub-groups, each named after their traditional residential patterns with their own languages, beliefs and cultural traditions.

The Lao Lum (Lowlanders), comprise mainly of ethnic Lao and Tay-Tai speaking people, make up 70% of the population and predominantly live along the Mekong River; the Lao Theung (Uplanders), composed of Mon-Khmer people, form 20% of the population; and the Lao Song (Highlanders), comprise of a variety of hill tribe groups including the Hmong, Yao, Haw, Akha, and constitute 10% of the population, living in the mountainous areas.

This Pandaw cruise, and our Lao guide Gell, made every effort to show us examples and differences of these diverse ethnicities through a number of village visits.

Our day started with a visit to an Uplander village, Ban Huay Laow…

Interesting here that on disembarkation…

…I noticed two crew members carrying a rather large ‘soft sided bag’…

Meanwhile, we were able to witness the processing of a Mekong provided diet staple, seaweed…

Called Kaipen, the washed seaweed is then soaked with an aromatic dressing, then topped with sesame seeds, thin slices of garlic, tomato, galangal and onion and left to dry in the sun for a day. The Kaipen is then flash fried generally always served with jeow bong –  a sweet and spicy paste of roast chilli and thin pieces of buffalo skin.

While at the village the opportunity also arose for yours truly to practice his skills at one of the village’s foot operated ‘crushing’ machines…

Before we departed all was revealed as to the contents of the crew bag…

Pandaw collect items of used clothing from the larger populated urban centres and kindly redistribute amongst the poorer rural areas.

Also during our visit our guide  pointed out another local cultural point: abstract symbols, attached to many houses, and  designed to ward off evil spirits …

On return to Champa Pandaw we continued downstream for just over 4 hours, taking in with interest just what was passing, like this obviously mobile floating local market set up…

…and this rather unusual craft…

…which we discovered is called ‘Gypsy’ and is a luxurious 41 metre twin cabin charter vessel owned by an upmarket hotel chain, Mekong Kingdoms.

On arrival at our next village stop we witnessed a novel berthing routine. A crew member leapt ashore,  armed with a small shovel and a wooden pole…

Dug himself a pit and hey-presto, we have a berthing point…

Ban For village was certainly different. It was classed as an ‘Uplander’ village and passengers had the opportunity to both observe craft work and purchase local  items…

*****

Meanwhile our guide also took the opportunity to explain the processing of the ‘oil nut’…

*****

*****

There certainly was a little more about this particular village and we could not help noticing it had a more glamorous  Buddhist temple than we had seen in other villages…

…with even more interesting decorative murals…

…some of a particular gory nature…

On completion of our visit we once more cast-off and proceeded once more downstream till we slowed opposite a large ‘sand bank’…

Once secured the staff worked tirelessly setting up what promised to be a BBQ site…

We were in for something a little different, a Pandaw style Cocktail hour and Sandbank BBQ…

*****

*****

…and which culminated in a traditional ‘Fire Lantern Floating’…

*****

*****

 

Mekong River Cruise Day 4 – Pak Ou Buddha Caves

We continued downstream during breakfast until we reached a spot some 25 km to the north of Luang Prabang. Set into a huge limestone cliff are the Pak Ou caves…

We berthed opposite, as seen in the view above, and transferred to a local ‘long boat’ to be ferried across to the caves…

*****

Packed with over 4,000 Buddha icons, the caves are set in a dramatic limestone cliff at the point where the Mekong joins the Nam Ou River. There are 2 caves to visit: a lower cave called Tham Ting…

Both serve as shrines to the river spirit and Lord Buddha.

*****

….and an upper cave called Tham Theung. A series of steps lead to the larger upper cave, about 60 meters above the river…

*****

*****

 

On completion of our visit and return to the far bank, Pandaw had arranged for a number of elephants to join us from a local elephant sanctuary…

They additionally provided copious quantities of bananas so that passengers could feed the elephants and enjoy a photo-call…

*****

The morning’s activities over we returned  to Champa Pandaw and continued over lunch and the early part of the afternoon towards Luang Prabang…

…for what was to be the undisputed ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of our time in Laos.

 

Luang Prabang is a city of amazing contrasts.  Nestled at the confluence of the sacred Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers…

*****

it is packed with cultural, historical and colonial heritage.  Until 1975 it was the seat of the Laotian monarchy and the countries capital. It is now a designated Unesco World Heritage Site….

We were to spend two nights here and the Champa Pandaw’s riverside berth could not have been more convenient for exploring this cultural and fascinating gem.

Prior to our departure Pandaw had provided a detailed itinerary of what they would cover on their guided tour. Our first afternoon and final morning were designated ‘Free time’ and we had duly researched the many sites that we additionally wanted to see.

Top of our list was Mount Phou Si…

…easily spotted on our approach to Luang Prabang, it dominates the old town peninsular between the two rivers mentioned earlier, at a height of some 150 metres (490 ft). Access can be gained from either side but we chose to tackle the 355 steps…

…found adjacent the entrance gates to the Royal Palace.

At the summit of the hill, overlooking the town and surrounding countryside, is the gilded stupa of  Wat Chom Si…

…which is also a Buddhist temple and probably the tourist highlight of Luang Prabang.

Dotted across the hill are pathways leading to several other religious sites…

… one of which is known as Buddha’s Footprint Temple…

 

A peep inside…

Make of that what you will.

Others house several golden coloured Buddha images in several mudras…

*****

Descending down the opposite side, about halfway down is a small cave temple, sometimes called Wat Tham Phousi, housing several Buddha images…

 

Heading deeper into the cave….

*****

 

Having completed our descent we now found ourselves on the banks of the Nam Khan River. A short walk and we found the second place on our list on must sees, the Bamboo Bridge…

…one of two that allow access across the river during the dry season…

As it was time for some liquid refreshment, also in the area was another venue on our ‘to do’ list…

The aptly named ‘Utopia’ is legendary: a backpacker’s dream and a guidebooks worse nightmare…

Even at 3.00 o’clock in the afternoon this place had atmosphere…

…aided and abetted by the odd ‘Beerlao…

We returned onboard in time for a wash and brush up, Cocktail hour and, while here, an entertaining folkloric show on the open deck…

There was a slightly different format to this particular show as it included, as an introduction, a Buddhist blessing ceremony.

Readers will notice on the little wicker table above many white ties. At the end of the show Buddhist tradition dictates that these are tied around the wrists of visitors who should keep them in place for at least 24 hours. As we were travelling on a river boat, it was then pointed out that to bring the journey good luck these ties could be transferred to the bow of the ship: hence readers may have noticed some of my earlier photographs…

Meanwhile, the colourful show continued for almost an hour prior to dinner being served…

*****

Following dinner we ventured out into Luang Prabang to discover the very extensive and popular Night Market…

*****

…before joining our guide, Gell, for a beer or two at a riverside bar…

 

Mekong River Cruise Day 5 – Luang Prabang

Our day started promptly immediately after breakfast as we boarded a series of Tuk-Tuks…

…for our Pandaw inspired sightseeing tour. In fact it was a mix of tux-tuk and walking as nowhere in Luang Prabang is too distant. Our tour started in the grounds of the old Royal Palace…

…which also include  the Haw Pha Bang Temple…

…which translates to ‘Royal Temple.’  It was built to house Laos’ most sacred Buddha image.

We were given a guided internal tour of the Royal Palace which is now more commonly referred to as The National Museum. Regrettably photography was not allowed inside.

The final building within the Royal Palace grounds, and of any significance,  is the Royal Ballet Theatre…

That’s King Sisavang Vong up there in front of the ballet theatre…

A short walk from the Royal palace we next visited Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham…

…often simply Wat Mai or Wat May It is the largest and most richly decorated of the temples in Luang Prabang…

Built in the 18th century, it is near the Royal Palace Museum. An emerald Buddha statue sits inside the red-gold interior…

On completion of the visit we again boarded our tuk-tuks for an exhilarating ride around town…

…eventually arriving at the far end of the peninsular and another famous temple, Wat Xieng Thong…

The ‘Sim’ is the central shrine hall of a Laotian temple. Wat Xieng Thong is one of the most important of Lao monasteries and remains a significant monument to the spirit of religion, royalty and traditional art.

On one side of the sim, there are small halls and stupas that contain Buddha images of the period…

There is also a reclining Buddha sanctuary, which contains an especially rare reclining Buddha that dates back to the construction of the temple…

I make no apologies for utilising one of the side halls for a photographic opportunity…

On completion of this visit we returned to Champa Pandaw for lunch and preparation for our afternoon of ‘Free Time’.

There were three venues remaining on our list of ‘must try to see’ places and I’m pleased to say we made all of them. Firstly the second Bamboo Bridge…

*****

*****

Close by was the second venue, the UNESCO World Heritage House, La Maison du Patrimoine…

Dating from around 1932, this renovated imposing structure was once the Customs House for the ruling French Colonial Government…

…and from here duties were levied on all Lao exports: the most lucrative of which was opium.

And finally on our list we made it to the ‘Old French Bridge’…

…which we had observed yesterday from Mount Phou Si. An interesting bit of kit…

…and I certainly took my life in my hands attempting to get a photograph intermingling with Lao motor cyclists…

Mission accomplished though and we very happily, if a little wearily, returned to our ship.

This evening we enjoyed a wonderful sunset while at the evening cocktail hour…

Our post dinner excursion in search of nightlife took us to another popular spot that we had researched, the SaSa Bar and Restaurant…

…on which we had made a recce visit earlier in the afternoon…

The atmosphere definitely improved after dark…

We were however pushing our luck as at the evening briefing for the following day we had been informed of an early start in the morning. Read on…

 

Mekong River Cruise Day 6 – Luang Prabang call to alms

Early rise was timed at 05.15 with tea, coffee and croissants served on the upper deck and at 5.30 we set off into a darkened town.

Every morning, hundred monks and ‘novices’ from the various monasteries in Luang Prabang walk barefoot through the town. They collect donations of food and rice in their alms bowls from locals, and tourists like ourselves, who line the streets.

Pandaw had this well planned,  and a section of street had been prepared for our group…

We were soon to discover this early morning ritual…

*****

On completion of the ‘alms’ offerings we were escorted to the  bustling and colourful ‘Morning Market’,  which generally specialised in food…

****

*****

*****

…and one of our personal favourites, Jackfruit…

*****

There was some final ‘Free time’ following breakfast and we sailed from Luang Prabang just before lunch. Some 2 hours further downstream we once again berthed alongside the riverbank and boarded a number of mini buses that took us first on a visit to the Kuang Si Butterfly Park…

…where we spent a pleasant hour wandering and spotting the many species on offer…

*****

Our next stop was a visit to Kuang Si Waterfall…

The Kuang Si Falls  is a three levelled waterfall  and is a favourite sightseeing trip for tourists in Luang Prabang. The main fall has a 60 metres (200 ft) drop…

*****

The falls begin in shallow pools atop a steep hillside…

…a challenge one just couldn’t resist…

*****

*****

The water cascades and flows through a number of turquoise blue pools before continuing downstream…

A number of the pools are open to swimming (although at least one is closed as being a sacred site).

Also within the confines of the waterfall is a dedicated and well maintained bear sanctuary…

Asiatic black bears, or moon bears, are an endangered species: their bile is used in Chinese medicine This sanctuary rescues them and houses up to 23 bears that are now allowed to roam and enjoy life outside a cage.

 

Mekong River Cruise Day 7  – Xayaburi Dam

Our day started much as any other, enjoying an ‘Al Fresco’ breakfast as we meandered along the Mekong river. This morning though we were beginning to see one or two river bank indicators…

…that our guide explained  were markers to indicate the maximum water levels that could be expected from the Xayaburi Dam that we would be passing through later in the day.

We hadn’t been sailing too long before we arrived at Ban Na San Village…

You can tell it was still early, note the mist above.

We were expecting something a little different as this was a Highlander minority Hmong group village…

Not that I personally would have noticed if I was honest: which of course I am.

However, these guys grind their own corn and I just couldn’t resist lending a hand…

…at the grinding wheel…

We did also manage to get a peep into the village school…

(And our schools back home think they are hard done by?)

But onwards we sailed and  noticeably a feature that we were passing more frequently were numerous ‘Chinese Banana Plantations’…

…and a little bit of zoom…

Chinese banana plantations first started cropping in Laos some six years ago though nowadays they cover more than 11,000 hectares and  provide US$100 million in annual exports.

And of course, we weren’t the only passengers on the river, Good Morning ‘Mekong Sun’…

With impeccable timing, after a hearty lunch, we had our first glimpse of Xayaburi  Dam…

The Xayaburi Dam is a ‘run-of-river’ the main purpose of which  is to feed 95% of its hydroelectric power to Thailand…

The Dam is 820 metres (2,690 ft) long and 32.6 metres (107 ft) high with ‘double-drop’ navigation locks, here entering the first (High level lock)…

…and here about to enter the second (lower level) lock…

...and out and on our way…

The transfer took just around 1 hour and 30 minutes, however it could have been expedited had we not had to wait for a second vessel coming through with us.

Scenic cruising was the order for the rest of the afternoon, once again passing many local fishermens’ net arrangements…

and some fishermen as well…

Suddenly the river bank had become more rugged and there were many indicators of how high the water levels can rise to…

…by both the colours of the rocks and the debris deposited thereon.

 

Mekong River Cruise Day 8  – Scenic Cruising and Pak Lai

 

At dawn we cast off from our overnight river bank mooring and headed downstream enjoying the river vistas while taking breakfast on the Upper Deck.

By late morning we were once again tied up against the river bank…

….for the scheduled morning visit to to the Lao Lowland Village of Ban Pakyun…

I’d passed on this visit, I was getting to be a little villaged out, but my good lady was keen for her daily exercise and happily took one of my cameras.

I believe the highlight of the visit  was observing one very old fashioned village ‘petrol station’…

…and a French sponsored school…

On completion of the visit we set off for our next destination, the former French administrative town of Pak Lai.

During this period there were once again many scenic and interesting vistas including one that, judging by the attention paid by our Lao guide Gell, had a significant interest…

The Captain slowed the boat and steered closer to the massive limestone cliff on our port side in order that we had a good view of a certain cliff carving…

…while Gell explained the Lao legend concerning ancient tribal leader elections that involved  the the carving,  which depicted a ‘birdcage’…

…and a certain animal that intervened in the resulting leader choice…

On our approach to Pak lai we could clearly see more ‘river seaweed’ harvesters that had featured earlier in this review…

*****

There was also a surprise in store for us on arrival at Pak Lai, we were going to join another Pandaw vessel, the Laos Pandaw…

By way of an explanation, we had received notification from Pandaw some two weeks prior to this cruise…

“Water levels along the Mekong are at record low levels and the stretch of river through Laos and upper Thailand are particularly hard hit by the low rains and dam construction upriver. These water levels have led to a number of cases of ships running aground and even our ‘low draft’ Pandaw vessels have been struggling to pass previously safe sections of the river.

Therefore, to ensure the safety and comfort of both our passengers but also our ships, we have been forced to implement low water itineraries for all of our Laos expeditions, including ‘The Laos Mekong’ and ‘The Mekong: From Laos to China.’

Whilst every effort has been made to keep guests aboard our ships and on the river, this is now no longer possible along certain stretches of the Mekong and alternative transport will be arranged which is outlined in the new itineraries. We are sure you will still enjoy every part of your upcoming expedition and hope you appreciate the unpredictable nature of river cruising in Asia.”

So the plan was that we would ‘overnight’ in Pak Lai and the following morning, Day 9, transfer to a slowboat for the 8 hour trip to Vientiane. More on that later.

Late afternoon we disembarked for our guided walking tour of the old French administrative town of Pak Lai.

We were somewhat disappointed at the lack of French colonial architecture and once again the main place of interest turned ou to be yet another Buddhist temple, Wat Sisatsoumphone…

As a matter of fact it was one of the more practical temples we had visited where, apart from watching ‘novice’ Buddhist monks at work, we both engaged in  a number of more practical activities…

*****

Our walk included  a visit to a local market where Gell had the opportunity to explain to us the usefulness of these ‘Casava’ stakes…

A further benefit was that in a local store I discovered that other illusive Lao beer, Namkhong…

*****

After dinner this evening we headed ashore and our minor disappointment at what Pak Lai had to offer during the day was totally reversed as we discovered a number of entertainment spots, one directly overlooking the ship’s berth…

*****

On our arrival at Pak Lai I had noticed a number of venues on the river bank…

*****

And so it was, attracted by the music and lights, that we ended up on the latter of the above and once again joined a lively Lao Karaoke session…

…except of course we couldn’t read the tele prompt, which was in Lao…

Needless to say we were made very welcome…

…and where our karaoke skills weren’t appreciated, yours truly’s John Travolta’s were…

And a great night was had by all. Incidentally, during the evening we discovered that the table nearest to us was made up of crew members from our sister ship, Laos Pandaw.

Mekong River Cruise Day   9 – Slow Boat to Vientiane

Breakfast today was slightly earlier as we were due to depart Pak Lai at 8.00 am. Our Slow Boat arrived alongside  in good time…

…and the staff worked tirelessly transferring not just our luggage but beers, wines and soft drinks plus a number of chefs and victuals for a full lunch service onboard.

Space on the Slow Boat is quite surprising and comfortable…

We were given a good send-off by the remaining crew…

We passed through further changing scenery like this massive mahogany factory…

…and dramatic landscapes reflected across the water…

Some two and a half hours after our departure from Pak Lai we passed another landmark, Phra Yai Phu Khok Ngio…

…and once again, we had the Thailand border on our starboard side…

Suddenly there was yet another change in scenery…

…as massive dredging operations appeared on our starboard side…

Thai security…

…more substantial Thai townships…

…and even a riverside resort…

Mainly unnoticed, the speed of the river flow had increased, and shortly after passing the dredging operations we had a bit of drama on our hands.

As with the Champa Pandaw, our slow boat carried no navigation aids and manoeuvring through the currents and rapids is very much a memory exercise.

We had indeed had some form of mishap and one (?) of our propellers had come into contact with some underwater obstacle. One can only presume this was a frequent occurrence. We pulled into a riverbank and soon the crew were busy on a ‘shallow water’ prop change. The new one awaiting fitting…

…and the somewhat bent blade on the old one…

…the whole procedure taking around 30 minutes.

As our journey continued, so did the flow of water increase and we had some exciting moments. I took this short video from the bow of our slow boat…

There was still plenty to see and the vistas were ever changing…

…the indicators of water levels were still prominent…

…while on occasions it was necessary to resort to some pretty old fashioned navigation practices…

After some 8 hours onboard we passed Wat Hin Mak Peng…

…and were now just minutes from Vientiane. In due course we berthed along side  a spot some  8 kilometres from the centre of Vientiane…

…from where we were transferred by coach to our central hotel, the rather chic boutique Ansara…

*****

The check-in organisation on arrival left a lot to be desired though this was no poor reflection on Pandaw. Once settled into our rooms we headed for the terraced bar where a complimentary cocktail hour preceded an excellent dinner…

…typically reflecting in the French colonial heritage style….

Magret du Canard…

…the Almond and Raspberry Pie…

…all accompanied by unlimited wine.

Once again my wife and I were anxious to get a feel of Vientiane by night and once the dinner party began to break we headed out.

A stones throw from the Ansara hotel was Vientiane’s massive, and I mean massive, night market. We wandered through almost the length of it and found ourselves within a short walking distance of one of the sites we hoped to visit the next day, Chao Anouvong Statue…

 

…the last Monarch of the Kingdom of Vientiane…

Taking our bearings from here we managed to take in two other popular tourist places, The Presidential Palace…

…and the Nam Pho Fountain…

The fountain is a legacy of the French colonial presence in Laos. For many years it humbly rested in the centre of its quaint square, surrounded by European restaurants in an ambiance of old world charm.

Nam Phu literally translates into ‘water mountain’, and is the Lao equivalent of fountain. While Nam Phu in Vientiane is not the largest, or most spectacular,  fountain in the city, it’s known by no other name and acts as the central landmark for downtown Vientiane.

As we returned closer to the hotel we found the  delightful Chokdee Belgian Beer Bar…

…for our night cap.

Mekong River Cruise Day  10 – Vientiane

Vientiane is a chilled out city, Asia’s smallest capital  nestled on a curve of the Mekong River.  Once a sleepy backwater it’s certainly now a bit of a travellers dream: where hassling tourists appears basically to be considered a hate crime.

Following a good and leisurely breakfast we set off by coach for our morning tour under the guidance of our Lao guide, Gell.  Our first stop, unscheduled, was for my wife and I a return to the  Chao Anouvong Statue…

The King  is highly regarded amongst Laotians.During his era, he struggled to fight against the Siamese invasion of Vientiane. In the end, he was unsuccessful and was captured and the Kingdom of Vientiane was forced to surrender to Siamese rule and ceased to exist.

Our next stop was another of our previous evenings venues and again, daylight photography was appreciated. The Presidential Palace…

A short walk from the Palace and we entered the grounds of Wat Si Saket Temple…

The oldest temple still standing in Vientiane and certainly one of the most popular among tourists.

One particular feature of Wat Si Saket  are its  cloister walls with more than 2,000 ceramic and silver Buddha images…

Situated across the road from Wat Si Saket is the Haw Phra Kaew…

A former 16th Century temple, it was converted from a place of worship to a museum during the 1970s and further restored in 1993. 

The interior now houses a museum of religious art where some of the best examples of Laos religious art is displayed. A number of Buddhas are placed on the terrace, including stone Buddhas dating from the 6th to 9th century and bronze standing and seated Buddha of later periods.

We again boarded our coach for the 15 minute drive to the next site on our itinerary, Pha That Luang or Golden Stupa…

According to the Lao folk lore, the Stupa was originally built as a Hindua temple in the 1st century. The architecture of the building certainly includes many references to Lao culture and identity, and so it has become a symbol of Lao nationalism.

*****

As with Wat Si Saket the Stupa’s cloisters are home to a myriad of religious artefacts…

…and the utilisation of areas for celebratory events were very apparent…

Certainly an attractive couple…

The final stop on our guided tour was at Patuxai Park…

 

Patuxai is home to one of Vientiane’s most noticeable landmarks, the Patuxai Monument…

Patuxai, which translates to “Victory Gate” is a massive concrete monument with a wide avenue leading to it similar in style to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The Patuxai was built in the 1960’s as a memorial for those who gave their lives serving their country in several wars.

Visitors can climb a stairway to the top passing 7 floors with souvenir shops and vendors selling drinks and snacks. A spiral stairway in the central tower… 

…leads to the observation deck on top of the monument which offers great views of the town of Vientiane…

*****

…and an amazing view over the ‘Office of the Prime Minister’…

Prior to returning to our hotel we were taken to the Kualao Restaurant, Vientiane’s most popular, internationally recognised, up- scale and authentic Lao food restaurant…

… where we were  treated to an excellent traditional Lao lunch.

Our final afternoon in Vientiane was designated ‘free’ time.  There were now just three sites left on our bucket list. One was definitely not within easy walking distance  and, having observed local transport,  it was an easy decision to make on how we would meet our goals: travel like a local…

We first headed out on a 20 minute tuk-tuk ride to visit the Kaysone Phomvihane Museum

The museum was established to commemorate and serve as a tribute to Indochina’s most pragmatic communist leader and former President, Kaysone Phomvihane.

The exterior of the building is designed in Lao traditional style while the interior design is similar to the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi…

There are two floors: the upper floor contains exhibitions including  photographic  records covering his life and some fascinating exhibits depicting  Lao revolutionary history. Regrettably, apart from the entrance foyer, above, interior photography was not allowed. We were however pretty impressed with the two exterior revolutionary tableau…

*****

*****

Equally high on our list, as we now headed back towards central Vientiane,  was the COPE Visitor Centre…

The initials C.O.P. and E  stand for Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise  and the organisation is a charitable, non-profit making  main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos for those who cannot afford them.

To understand the problem one needs to realise that between 1964 and 1973 over 2 million tons of ordnance were dropped on Laos.

It is estimated that some 30% of those bombs didn’t explode and to this day Laos  is still suffering the effects of those horrific bombings. Inside are many illustrations such as this one of a ‘cluster’ bomb…

*****

*****

…with many pictorial case histories of individuals who have benefitted from the excellent work, including the story of Santar…

 *****

COPE is no longer restricted to  helping bomb victims. It provides around 1300 mobility devices every year, including prosthetics for children with congenital malformations too…

 

It was both a fascinating place to visit and a pleasure to be able to assist financially, albeit in a small way.

And so to our final stop, hardly attractive but something of a legend in Vientiane, That Dam…

That Dam , meaning Black Stupa is a large stupa situated on a roundabout and believed to house the mythological  seven headed ‘Naga’ serpent who tried to protect them from an invasion by the Siamese army in 1827.

Once plastered and covered in gold it is, as seen above, now covered in wild vegetation – but the mythology lives on.

At least in Vientiane we did manage to get a look at some typical French colonial architecture, albeit if in need of some TLC…

We returned to our hotel in time to join our fellow passengers for the now routine complimentary Cocktail Hour’ on the terrace…

…followed by a farewell dinner…

…and buckets of wine…

The highlight of the evening was, however,  that for the first time we even managed to persuade another couple…

…to join us after dinner socially in a local bar: that was a first: well done Mani and Christa. Not bad on the drums either Christa…

On our final day transfers to the airport were efficiently executed by the ship’s staff under the direction of our wonderful Lao guide, Gell.

Summary

Yet another amazing experience under our belts and for anyone who has sailed the more popular  Mekong sector between Saigon and Siem Reap, this is the natural extension.

It offers such a completely different aspect: wilder and more rugged and quite unique.  A swirling, fast-flowing, tea-coloured river, winding through a land that time has almost forgotten. And all the while the experienced captains guide your ship through awe-inspiring gorges, past labyrinths of pristine sandbanks, and confidently navigate turbulent rapids.

Indeed, it becomes as much an adventure as a river cruise and is as exciting, and nearly as unpredictable today as it was in 1866, when the first western explorers stumbled upon the region.

For obvious reasons there are not so many operators on this particular stretch of the Mekong River and Pandaw certainly come up trumps with their operation and there was nothing we experienced that could withstand any serious criticism when one considers the country and environment that we were sailing through.

The daily programme was meticulously followed  and it was a delight to have so much time actually cruising along the river. The organisation onboard was pretty efficient, while all  staff  were friendly and most obliging. And –  this is a first from me on a river cruise – the food was awesome. Well done the team of Thai chefs.

The enforced boat transfer between Pak Lai and Vientiane was exhilarating and well organised:  especially the food and beverage. Indeed, with hindsight we reckoned that the low water level and subsequent hotel accommodation in Vientiane was a blessing in disguise as this city is itself quite a gem to visit.

We had booked this directly online with Pandaw and made our own flights and pre-cruise stay arrangements. Etihad flew us between London and Bangkok and Thai Smile Airways took care of the Bangkok to Chiang Rai and Vientiane to Bangkok journeys. We found Etihad not as good as their reputation dictates but were very pleased with everything about Thai Smile.

Of course it may appear that there are many villages and Buddhist temples to visit but they are all different and there is certainly so much more to stimulate the interest.

My wife and I have no hesitation in recommending either the itinerary or the Pandaw. We had a great time.

 

If you have enjoyed this review of Champa Pandaw’s journey along the Upper mekong River  and would like to be amongst the first to hear of new reviews, including two new experiences for my wife and I, an Emerald Waterways Luxury Yacht Cruise along the Dalmatian Coast, an  MSC’s Preziosa Yacht Club experience in the Caribbean, and P&O’s latest offering, Iona, plus Solent Richard’s next port guide review of Salerno   in his ‘One way to do…’ series, why not join over 500 followers by clicking on the ‘Follow’ link on the front page.

You will be alerted by email immediately a new post appears.

 

©2019 – 20 * Solent Richard’s Cruise Blog * All Rights Reserved

Duplication in part or whole without prior written consent is prohibited by international laws.

 

Disclosure to potential conflict of interest:

It is common throughout the travel industry for travel journalists and many cruise bloggers to be provided with complimentary cruises for the purpose of their reviews.

Solent Richard has no ‘conflict of interest’ as he is not an accredited journalist, he pays for his cruises, and is happy to confirm that all his reviews are his own given without fear or favour.

15 responses to “Fifty Shades of Green – Laos Mekong River Cruise

  1. Really enjoyed reading this Richard, on a chilly grey Southampton morning, thank you.

    Can you explain the “Vox Boxes” please?

    Thank you!

    • Good afternoon Sally. Yes, they are small wireless audio devices that enable the tour guide to communicate with his group without having to shout and distract other tourists. Most have a great range and I find them most useful as I can hear the guides explanation while wandering away to get my best photographic shots.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your account of this amazing trip. Thank you for taking time to share this.

  3. Thank you for taking me along on your incredible journey. Richard, bravo!! So well done. Hugs to you and Barbara.

  4. Richard. Many thanks for another interesting and detailed review. That’s a Mekong itinerary I was not aware of and certainly well away from the more traditional Seam Reap to Ho Chi Minh City itinerary.

    I now have Pandaw and your itinerary on our wish list. As we tick off our cruise itinerary bucket list, we sometimes wonder “where next”. And up pops another Solent Richard blog.

    Many thanks and keep the reviews rolling. Much appreciated.

    Rod – Australia.

  5. Pingback: Cruises.co.uk | Solent Richard's Cruise Blog·

  6. Pingback: Cruising Mates | Solent Richard's Cruise Blog·

  7. Many thanks Richard for this fascinating review.
    We did this trip in reverse, Vientiane to Chiang Khong, in February 2016. It was wonderful (as have been all the Pandaw expeditions we’ve been on) and this blog post brough back many happy memories. There’s a short video of our trip (about 6.5 minutes) that you might enjoy here:

Leave a Reply to Rick Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.