Slowly, along on the Mekong

By Vipasai Niyamabha
Special to The Nation

A rainbow appears above the mighty Mekong river as I leave Si Phan Don in southern Laos.

Dark clouds are steadily building up and as dusk approaches, rain becomes visible in the distance. Our small boat is heading upstream as the sky changes colour and the rainbow disappears as the sun sets right in front of me.

As we reach Ban Xongpuay, an isolated village in southern Laos, I spot the Vat Phou boat moored by the riverbank. A few local kids are playing on the muddy bank watching strangers with curious eyes and hesitate for a while before breaking into wide grins.

Stepping on board, I’m asked to remove my shoes and enjoy the sensation of my feet touching the clean and glossy wooden floor of this renovated ferry. A smiling staff member keeps my shoes and shows me the way to the upper deck. The warm lighting makes the boat look classy in the darkness. The upper deck is also covered with shiny teakwood and features two specious verandas at each end, furnished with rattan armchairs, sofas, coffee tables and loungers.

Most of the twin sharing cabins and the dining room are downstairs but in a separate section. I access the guest cabin area through a swing door and easily find my cabin on one side of the central corridor. Each comes with attached shower room/ toilet and a small window for the view of the river.

The ferry’s departure at night comes with a pleasant breeze and then a light shower. The speed is gentle and unhurried. Soon after, drinks start to be served from the bar at the centre of the upper deck prior to dinner. Having two verandas is great as passengers are not crammed in one space but have enough freedom to wander around as they wish. The boat finally finds her berth for the night and everyone can rest on the quiet Mekong river.

Daytime is even more delightful. Settling on a lounger in the front veranda, I enjoy the gracious movement of the boat while admiring the horizon as it’s slowly unveiled in front of my eyes. The water is of a similar honey-like shade as the soil and sand on the riverbanks. Lush jungle grows on both sides while the rain trees add a splash of colour with their bright orange flowers.

Thatched huts dot the banks and groups of children splashing in the water wave untiringly, all part of a Laotian landscape that so far has remained unspoiled. Fishing and farming are their mainstays, as we witness firsthand when we stop Ban Deua Tia. Bunliab Konchan, our sharp Laotian guide who speaks fluent French, English and Thai, walks everyone around the village, greeting men weaving fishing nets, playing kids and women stirring pots, and stopping to say good morning to a resident who recently celebrated his 101st birthday. This simplicity of the Laotian village lifestyle seems to have facilitated an extraordinarily long life.

Life is a journey, not a destination… the same can be surely said about travelling and it is so perfectly fitting of this Mekong journey. I don’t feel an urge to reach anywhere, but just enjoy the moment of being here.

Our next stop is at the pre-Angkor forest temple of Wat Oum Muong and requires a short walk through the small village of Ban Ta Mo. There’s a pond at the back of the temple that was used for washing rituals and a few uprooted trees too, no doubt victims of the recent heavy storms. Many finely carved stone lintels are scattered on the ground.

After the cruise stops in Champasak, we are taken to explore the World Heritage site of Vat Phou. The ruins of this ancient temple of the pre-Angkor Wat period are under restoration and architecture is magnificent, with many reliefs and carvings a blend of Hindu gods and Buddhist images. Each detail has its own story, from the icon carved on each lintel to a sacrifice story behind the ancient carving stone on the hilltop.

Champasak is the end of the trip and we all have our own ways to go. The cruise will start her next schedule soon, and all the passengers leave in the afternoon for Pakse , a big city in southern Laos.

Of course, you don’t have to spend three days and two nights on a renovated ferry to see all these sights – a three-hour whistle-stop tour will take care of Vat Phou, Oum Muong and more besides.

But then you’d miss out on the serene scenery and extraordinary simplicity of Laotian living. And in this fast-paced world, that would be a real shame.

IF YOU GO

All information about the cruise can be found at www.VatPhou.com.

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