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Sailing up the Mekong from Vientiane to the Thai Border 2016

Guest Blog submitted by Donalda Reid for our Pandaw Blog Competition 2023


In former generations people of the Downtown Abbey class travelled in exotic lands attended hand / foot and glove by attentive, hovering persons who made their every desire a reality. I think we've arrived in that Never Never Land. Our group of eighteen passengers are on the brand new river boat, the RV Laos Pandaw, built on a barge formerly owned by our captain, Houm Phan, who has plied the river for twenty years. He steers with a truck style wheel; a pair of levers on each side control the powerful engines. His hands are always in motion, his eyes trained on the river in front to steer it through the narrowest, twisting channels.

There are as many crew/staff as passengers. Some help the Captain, checking the water depth as the Captain or his mate, Baun, carefully threads our way between ridges of rocks up the shallow Mekong River; others polish and dust the rails or clean our shoes after we've trudged along the dusty sand paths ashore.

The executive chef oversees four others cooking us the most delicious multi course meals every lunch and dinner. Two tour directors take us strolling through rural, very primitive, villages explaining their local economies; slash and burn, plant and eat. We greet the villagers, 'Sabai dee', as they continue to weave cock cages or pound reeds to make brooms, then walk on.

Graciousness is in every contact with the staff. We sit watching the shore as the boat beats its way upstream, marvelling at the water buffalo in milling groups on the sandy shore or the fishermen with scoop nets on the sharp edge of a rocky outcrop trying to catch a fish for dinner.

"Would you like another drink, madam?”

Our beds are turned down and my carefully folded pajamas laid neatly beside the pillow. Everything is done for us. We are so privileged.

To keep us grounded, we get off the boat a couple of times a day to go into the small villages we sometimes glimpse in the heavy green foliage along the shore. Because it's the dry season and the water is low, we have to climb from the boat up the sandy banks where, if we're lucky, the crew has chopped steps for us, or if that's not possible, they take our arm to 'assist' us. The sand gives way to narrow dirt paths where here and there a small neatly fenced garden brings order to the thick growth. The villages aren't big; maybe five hundred people, the majority of them young adults or children. The first kids show up when the boat pushes into shore. They watch.

The adults continue working as we stroll down the street past their homes listening to our Lao guide tell us about the traditional house styles build shoulder high above ground, the many types of plants used in cooking or medicine. No one accosts us or draws attention to themselves. They watch. When we say 'Sabai dee', they respond. A wave and smile works as well.

We 'talk' to a woman who fine pans for gold, a man who weaves baskets for the first rough separation of gravel in panning, a woman roasting tamarind seeds, an albino teen going to high school, women and children gathering tamarind pods from a newly felled tree. Everywhere the cocks crow, pigs snuffle, chicks dart around their mothers, and the dogs follow silently. A haze of wood smoke is everywhere. We are the curiosity, welcomed, an amusement, a diversion.

The village where we moor for the night is fascinating. Thatched roofs with solar panels, the ground a seething mass of cocks, hens, chicks of every size, weaner pigs, dogs, puppies, and kids, kids, kids. Sticky rice steams over smoky fires and ancient women fine chop bamboo shoots with machetes. We all try our Lao phrases. I wonder at the bewilderment on one man's face as I attempt to tell him his child is pretty, but say 'money' instead.

We meet a very pregnant woman with three girls hanging very close. We expect from her apparent age that this might be her fourth child. Not. She has ten, two already married. By sixteen most girls are married and pregnant. There are primary schools in each village we visit but only a district secondary school. And very few older girls attend there I expect.

Meanwhile, back at the boat the crew is busily setting out all the trappings for a beach cocktail hour on the high sand bank. As the sun sets, their dinner of sticky rice and bamboo shoots finished, the children trickle out of the forest. Oblivious to us watching from our wicker chairs with cocktails in hand, they begin to play. One boy’s toy is a well rusted wheel rim and spokes while his friend has the rubber tire. One of the chefs barbecues kebabs with a lethal chunk of jalapeno tucked innocently in the middle. The guide exchanges his fishing rod for a guitar, strumming an unknown melody that the chef puts equally unknown words to, singing a song of Laos.

Four young girls in traditional costumes appear out of the dark. By the light of the bonfire, coached by village women, they shyly dance.

'Dee!' we say. 'Dee lai lai duu!'. Good. Very, very good.' This time the words are right.


Donalda Reid



River Cruise itinerary for The Laos Mekong

The Laos Mekong

Vientiane - Chiang Khong

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10 nights

from US$4,316.40

River Cruise itinerary for The Laos Mekong
River Cruise itinerary for Halong Bay, Red River & Laos Mekong

Save up to 10% and No Single Supplement on selected dates

21 nights

from US$7,970.40

River Cruise itinerary for Halong Bay, Red River & Laos Mekong


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Jane Craig posted in May 2023

This was an incredibly well written, very descriptive piece that should encourage other travellers to give this trip & your company a serious look for adventure travel.


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