The Mekong Cruise from Pakse to South Laos

Trip Start Jul 06, 2003
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Wednesday, September 10, 2003

We left the Champassak Palace on 6th September to start our cruise down the Mekong River. After having the Palace to ourselves, we were very surprised in the morning to find that a VIP group had arrived, turning the hotel upside down in the process. It seemed as if the entire police force of the province had been roped in, the army were lurking behind bushes in the garden with rifles, and we, as the only customers were not even able to get a tuk tuk from the hotel to take us to the meeting point for our cruise. The VIP group were a motley crew, one enormous woman resembling"Miss Marples" in a big hat, a few other European men in tropical garb and the entire "suited" local community. I suspect the Governor was with them.

We had to drag our luggage through the garden and down to the main street as no vehicles were allowed to enter the hotel. The police unfortunately had stopped all traffic within half a mile, so we had to drag our bags down the road in the sweltering heat to the junction where traffic had been diverted. I made a mental note not to go back to the "Palace"when we got back to Pakse.

It took a one hour motorboat ride (not the knees under the chin variety) to bring us to the Vat Phou (pronounced What PO). A fantastic 12 cabined, luxury double decked, rosewood cruising liner which could take 24 passengers. We were 4, a french doctor couple and ourselves. The upper deck divided by a bar and the pilot, with beautifully polished rosewood timber floors and balustrades. Wicker and cane sofas, bamboo daybeds and dining area. Just the four of us, we were hardly falling over each other. The cabins below were equally luxurious with rosewood walls, floors and en suite shower room. So much space, we spread into all the unused cabins eventually, for showers etc.

Cruising down the Mekong was simply fantastic. The boat is supposed to run two tours per week, but often it runs with 2 passengers, recently it went with just one (what a shame for that person who probably thought he was going to meet a few like-minded people)sometimes it doesn't run at all. It must be the most luxurious boat to run this stretch of the Mekong. All the villagers on the banks race to the banks to wave and call out. Everyone is so friendly here, they haven't yet been spoilt by tourism and appear to seriously like foreigners!! As we cruised along relaxing after a superb lunch I felt we were reliving something between the "Marie Celeste" and Kathrine Hepburn in "African Queen" - in luxury of course. Kerry thought more on the lines of "Apocalyse Now"... how romantic is that?? The only resemblance was the mist over the Mekong and the tropical flora and sounds.

We went to visit the temple Vat Phou (the ship is named after the temple) This temple was built about 200 year before Ankor Wat in Cambodia during the Khmer empire. This area of the Mekong being very close to the Cambodian border. It has now become a World Heritage site also. Again just the 4 of us visiting. Fantastic to do these places out of season.

The food on the boat was excellent, and we did little else but eat, sleep, read and watch the world go by. Although we did have one or two sorties from the boat to visit various places of interest. One being the lesser temple to Vat Phou lost in the jungle. The second day it poured with rain and we got absolutely drenched sloshing through muddy villages in our "echo" town shoes to visit the jungle sites. The villagers laughed at the very thought "mad dogs and Englishman" and french in this case. Our French friends were better equipped with serious walking shoes, tie on leggings and full cover ponchos. Kerry and I looked like the poor relations with trouser legs stuffed into socks to deter the leeches! yuch! Our guide covered our shoes in a mixture of tobacco and water. Leech prevention apparently, so bear that in mind when you are next in a leech infested jungle.

Our last day we went further down the Mekong to see the 4000 island. Probably a thousand islands short at the moment because they are under water due to the river rising by up to 13 meters during rainy season. The highlight of this day was to visit Don Kon and Don De'th, two beautiful islands that young backpackers have already discovered. The main tourist attraction according to the guides is to visit the bridge built by the French during their colonial times which joined these two islands; and the rusting engine left from the only railway built during this period which was about 5 kms long and took timber and essential goods from one island to another. Abandoned in 1937 when the french built a road. The engine is a dead ringer for "Thomas the tank Engine" picture to follow with Kerry playing on it!!!!! Considering you can live for a few dollars a day, little wonder that all these young people have come to enjoy the islands. Guest houses on stilts have sprung up all along the water line. We passed several where people were lying in hammocks, reading; others had rented bikes and were cycling through the picturesque villages.

After visiting some well talked about waterfalls in the south, which we didn't find that interesting, we made our way back to Pakse - centre of the universe.

We decided to go back to our original Guest House and on arrival were greeted by the maids who had shown us to our room the first day. There appeared to be some problem which we couldn't get to the bottom of. We first thought that they had been in trouble because we left after staying only one night. The boss had something to do with it. We were not sure if we could stay or not at this stage!! Eventually, one of the girls brought a tuk tuk driver from the street who could speak a smattering of English and he explained that "the boss" would be back that night and we were not to say that we had stayed there the first night because the money we had paid them had "got lost"!!!!!! Both the girls seemed to be terrified of the boss, but clearly they had pocketed the money themselves while the boss was away for the weekend, assuming they would never see us again! We saw the bosses wife this morning, and I just smiled at the girls who are still worried with ashen faces, that we will tell the boss about their little scam when the family goes out of town. They would lose their jobs immediately.

Our last day in Pakse.. we had to get out of town and so went up to the Bolavens Plateau which is the famous coffee growing region of Loas. Coffee introduced by the French from Vietnam. The area is also famous for it's waterfalls There are many and we visited quite a few. The landscape is very pretty here, and the mountains cool after the heat and humidity. We also visited a few villages of the minority groups who were displaced during the Vietnam war due to the bombing on the Ho Chi Minh trail. These people are not true Laos and bear a resemblance to Malay people as do some of their festivals and customs. This area was terribly poor. So if tourism does come to this area it will not be a bad thing.

Soon we leave for Cambodia, incidentally, we were only 5 kms from the border after our boat trip and if we had had visas we could have just walked over. We leave for the airport shortly, so probably no news from Cambodia as we will have a full programme visiting Ankor Wat and environs, plus Phnom Pen......more news when we reach Vietnam.
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