River Cruise Testimonial for STEVE BOUSFIELD, UK, THE LAOS MEKONG, NOV 2017 | Pandaw.com
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THE LAOS MEKONG REVIEW

STEVE BOUSFIELD, UK, THE LAOS MEKONG, NOV 2017

Having previously experienced the wonderful world of Pandaw on their Red River and Halong Bay and Classic Mekong Expeditions, we were looking forward with eager anticipation to joining their Laos Mekong Expedition on the Upper Mekong.

With embarkation scheduled for Tuesday in Chiang Saen Northern Thailand, we decided to start three days early in Chiang Rai, a close by city with an airport. This was to acclimatize and explore a little.

We arrived at our hotel on Saturday morning and after a lazy day we headed into Chiang Rai town and its Saturday night Walking Street – essentially a long street market, Night Market and restaurants where we took dinner. On Sunday morning and a short Tuk-Tuk ride we enjoyed the serene calm and beauty of the Mae Fah Luang Art and Culture Park. On a short walk after lunch we stumbled across the Naval Pillar. This is the spiritual centre of Chiang Rai and we were able to witness an elaborate ceremony by a local business giving thanks for its success. Another trip down town for dinner rounded off the day.

The rest of our group was due to join us on Monday but before they did we took another short Tuk-Tuk ride to the spectacular Blue Temple with its intense Cobalt Blue and Gold decoration. When the rest of the group arrived, we went off to see the White Temple and Wat Huay Pla Kang with its huge Buddha image and modern pagoda that was so clearly visible from our hotel room.

Tuesday morning and we set off for Chiang Saen. On the way we visit the Hall of Opium Museum. Built under the patronage of the Thai Royal Family it gives a moving insight into the history and politics of the opium trade and its devastating effects on peoples’ lives, as well as the success of the Thai Royal Family in stopping the growing of opium poppies in favour of other, more beneficial crops.

On to Chiang Saen and a stop at the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos and Burma sit side by side, lunch and finally on to Chiang Saen Port for embarkation. The crew of RV Champa Pandaw was on the quayside to greet us and ensure the rapid transfer of our baggage to our cabins. A short time later our purser, Waew, welcomed us to the ship, gave us a safety briefing and introduced our guide, Vieng, who was to accompany us throughout the trip.

A short sunset cruise round the Golden Triangle was followed by cocktails and a programme of Thai Traditional Dancing.

There then followed the first of many sumptuous meals beautifully prepared and presented and expertly served by our crew.

A buffet style continental breakfast with the option of freshly prepared hot dishes was the perfect start to the day although coffee and pastries were available from 6am. During breakfast we were asked to make our selection of main course for both lunch and dinner. With three options for both meals, broadly Asian, Western and Vegetarian, there was always something for everyone. Lunch had salad, soup and dessert served buffet style so you could have a lighter meal if you wished. Dinner also had starter, soup, main course and dessert but waiter served.

We looked forward to the friendly banter with the crew during mealtimes and they were quite happy for us to change our main course order if any of us had changed their mind.

Steve Bousfield aboard the RV Champa Pandaw river cruise ship

Our first night was spent moored at Chiang Saen as it was necessary to complete Thai emigration and Laos immigration next morning before proceeding on our journey.

With the lush mountain scenery of Laos to our port side and Thailand to starboard we headed to our first stop – the village of Ban Dan.

The Upper Mekong is surprisingly rocky with rapids and sand bars in profusion but our skilled captain deftly threaded his way through these obstacles safely and securely.

We cast off early next morning and after a quick stop at Pak Tha to complete formalities for using the river were on our way to the Khmu village of Ban Pak Sit. We were welcomed by the villagers and after observing the local way of life we headed for the village school which gets some support from Pandaw and its guests.

During the afternoon cruise, our guide, Vieng attempted to teach us some of the basic words of the Lao language. In the later afternoon we moored at a riverside beach and headed to the village of Ban Huay Ka. With school finished for the day the children thought it great fun to accompany us on our walk around their village.

Returning to the ship we found a beach barbecue had been set up with the crew busily preparing tasty snacks and drinks. Then as night fell we were joined by some of the villagers in sending up fire lanterns into the night sky.

Another early start, then after breakfast, a visit to the Pak Ou caves with their hundreds of Buddha images.

Across the river now and a village with an elephant camp for some close encounters, including bathing with the elephants in the river.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the highlights of our Expedition, Luang Prabang, is the next stop on our itinerary. We stay here for two nights so that we can appreciate the beauty of the city.

Casting off around lunchtime we continue our journey to the Butterfly Garden and dramatic Kuang Si Waterfall.

Steve Bousfield on Pandaw's Laos Mekong river cruise

On our way again, we arrive at Ban Nasarn village for our overnight stop. Breakfast time sees people arriving for work and the kids off to school. The school run takes on a different form with the older kids taking themselves off in their boats.

The village is home to the Hmong – a Laos Highland Minority Group. One young lady came on board to show off her traditional form of dress before accompanying us on a walk around the village, including its school for the younger children.

Heading back to our ship we were about to start the final stage of our expedition, but not before passing through the lock of the Xayaburi Dam.

Another early start and we are in the Laos Lowland village of Pan Pak Leab. Along with the different scenery there is clearly greater prosperity in the lowland region.

Penultimate stop before reaching Vientiane is the village of Houayla which has a tradition of building boats. It also has a lot of kids who gave us an enthusiastic welcome.

Last stop before Vientiane is the Laos – Thai border town of Xanakham and a short after breakfast walk prior to a full day’s sailing.

Finally we arrive in Vientiane and after dinner take a Tuk-Tuk trip to its bustling night market.

Last full day on board and we’re off to tour Vientiane. The Presidential Palace – former seat of the French Governor; Wat Phra Keo – formerly a temple and now a museum, the beautiful Wat Si Saket with its cloistered courtyard; the huge Phrathat Luang Stupa and the Patouxai Monument.

Our expedition has come to an end. Pandaw has again impressed us, fully meeting and often exceeding our expecations. A beautiful ship with comfortable accommodation. A surfeit of delicious food. Stunning scenery interspersed with interesting and varied shore excursions. All this delivered in a professional yet relaxed and informal atmosphere by friendly crew who work together seamlessly to give their guests an outstandingly good experience.

Special mention is deserved for those crew members who accompany the shore excursions for their intuitive ability to know when a guest needs a little more assistance and to unobtrusively take the appropriate action.

A Pandaw Expedition is about new experiences, quality of service, making new friends and making memories that last a lifetime.

Steve Bousfield

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