After exploring the best that Nan Province, Thailand had to offer, our group drove north across the Huai Kon – Muang Ngeun border to the village of Pakbeng, along the mighty Mekong River in northern Laos. From here, we were continuing our travels to the UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang by taking an eight-hour day cruise down the river with The Luang Say Lodge & Cruises of Mekong Cruises. Pakbeng is the stopover, halfway along the route, for tourists traveling by boat between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang, and where they usually spend the night before continuing on their two-day journey. But travelers interested only in taking a day cruise – like our group who drove over from Nan – may also start the trips from here. I always look forward to getting to a destination by water, especially through a river or lake. One of my favorite memories from Cambodia was traveling to Angkor from Battambang by boat across Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Southeast Asia. Boat cruises are a relaxing way to travel, especially after hours cooped up in a car, bus or van.
Before embarking on the cruise, we first spent the night at The Luang Say Lodge, an idyllic riverside resort with 20 stilted bungalows in Laotian architectural style constructed out of bamboo and Burmese rosewood. We each had our own rooms, which were linked by wooden boardwalks across lush gardens. My bungalow had a large bed with a mosquito net canopy and large windows that opened up to wonderful views over the river. I could see our long cruise boat moored along the muddy bank. The common dining area and bar had a veranda, which was an excellent place to savor delicious Lao cuisine and enjoy a drink while relishing the tranquil rural atmosphere.
I woke up very early at 5:00 AM the following day to take a stroll around Pakbeng village with Hong and Maciek, Thai and Polish participants in our media tour. The village center was a 20-minute walk from the lodge. We watched the quaint settlement wake up: men lounging by their boats on the riverbank, villagers buying fruits and vegetables at the market, and a small group of saffron-robed monks wandering the village to collect alms. We made it back in time to the resort to pack our bags, eat breakfast and board the cruise boat at 8:30 AM.
Our cruise boat was a long, flat-bottomed vessel that didn’t create much waves as it slid through the water. I am told that the boats were designed this way to minimize the waves created by its wake, in consideration of smaller boats used by locals to fish and travel down the river. The boat has rows of tables with cushioned seating. But my favorite place to hang out during our journey were the front and back portions of the boat where I had broader views of the passing scenery.
Hemmed in green mountains, the narrow section of the Mekong River between Pakbeng and Luang Prabang offers more dramatic scenery compared to southern Laos where there are cruises as well to the Vat Phou temple complex in Champasak (Mekong Cruises also offers southern Mekong trips). Throughout the trip the river was peaceful with the occasional passing canoe ferrying people between villages and children playing near the water’s edge and leaping from the rocks. After two hours of traveling downriver, we disembarked at a village inhabited by Khmu and Lao people. We were greeted by a group of Hmong children from another village selling handmade bracelets. The small settlement we visited is known for traditional hand-woven textiles. As we wandered the village, we saw women working on their looms and children selling the finished products of colorful checkered scarves and sarongs. While others perused the textiles, I enjoyed photographing the friendly villagers, as many of them were very photogenic!
Bidding farewell to the village children, we returned to the boat and soon enough lunch was served. The buffet offered onboard was modest and simple but did not scrimp on flavor. It reminded me a lot of Filipino food. There was chicken curry, fried pork, veggie stir-fry and, of course, heaps of steamy white rice. A full stomach, bucolic views and the purring sound of the boat engine were a recipe for a satisfying afternoon siesta, as our boat continued its journey to Luang Prabang…
Finally, our boat approached our second stop at Pak Ou Caves – a popular tourist attraction 25 km outside the historic town center of Luang Prabang. The imposing sight of karst mountains shook me awake in awe and excitement. Located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers, Pak Ou is a cave monastery dating back to the 16th century, comprising of two natural caverns gouged out from a limestone face that house thousands of Buddha images left behind by devotees. The lower cave can be found above the water’s edge, where steps lead up to the upper cave with great views of the river and the nearby limestone mountains. Like an explorer finally coming across a treasure trove, it was a memorable finale to our journey, before cruising an hour more to our final destination: the sleepy heritage town of Luang Prabang.
This blog post was made possible through the Nan-Luang Prabang Media Familiarization Tour from May 22 to 26, 2016, organized by Mekong Tourism. Special thanks to AirAsia Thailand for our Bangkok-Nan and Luang Prabang-Bangkok flights.