May 2, 2014

A River Cruise on the Mekong

I love river trips and our eight-day cruise on the Mekong Explorer was wonderful.  The Mekong Explorer is a beautiful teak and mahogany cruise boat that has a capacity of 34 but there were only about 20 on board making the crew to guest ratio about one-to-one. My cabin had air conditioning, a desk, an ensuite bathroom and wide sliding wooded doors perfect for viewing the countryside as we sailed along.  We boarded in Nong Khai and disembarked at Ubon Ratchathani, both of which are in Thailand.

By law there is no night travel on the river so each day we cruised a while and usually took a morning and afternoon shore trip, which were fascinating and varied. The rock formations at Phu Phrabat Historical Park (soon to be a UNESCO World Heritage site) were some of the most bizarre I have ever seen. The rocks most likely provided shelter for prehistoric people two to three thousand years ago but statues show that the area later became a place of Buddhist worship. There are great local legends associated with
the rock formations including one of a beautiful princess forced by her overprotective father to live in a rock formation that looks like on upturned shoe. Another day we visited the Buddhist Sculpture Park where a monk and his followers created concrete structures the most amazing is the one of Buddha meditating under a towering 65-foot high seven-headed Naga snake.

One morning our tour included a surreal small boat ride on a tranquil lake covered in rosy-red lotus flowers. It was easy to understand why the lotus is so admired in Asia – they are beautiful. One of my favorite days started with a long-tail boat ride up Khading River where we visited the Laotian village of Ban BagBang. The village was a mix of traditional houses made with
woven mats and new colorful cement houses. There were many satellite dishes and everyone seemed to have a cell phone.  Technology is uniting the world. I see it as a mixed blessing as remote places now have access to modern technology and conveniences but in the process they are losing their traditional ways.  

One night we tied up to a sandbar in the middle of the Mekong River. It was the dry season so there were a lot of sandbars and thankfully our captain was experienced in navigating the river. The crew prepared a bonfire and a wonderful BBQ of meat, chicken, prawns, fish and shish kabobs. The Laotian crew, after setting everything up on the beach and preparing the food, entertained us by singing some Laotian songs. 

For many the word “Mekong” conjures up visions of war but after my 8-day cruise on the Mekong Explorer I know the Mekong River between Nong Khai and Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand is serene with incredible sites to see along the way. The banks of the river are lined with vegetable gardens and rice paddies. 

The company, Cruise Mekong, which offers the cruise we enjoyed also, offers several other options including a cruise to Luang Prabang, the most popular destination in Laos.  We had already visited Luang Pragang and the surrounding area so we were happy to visit an area off the beaten track.  Some of the guests, after a night at a Tohsang Khongjiam Resort near Ubon Ratchathani, connected with the company’s cruise of Southern Laos.