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Home Laos Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang ⇒ The Mekong River

Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang

2The Mekong River

The next morning at the Huay Xai departure point for Luang Prabang we were shocked when we saw our boat. We had been expecting one of the large, two-story wooden trading vessels we had already seen on the Mekong only to discover we would be spending the next seven hours crammed into a small launch with thirty or so backpackers. To make things worse, our seats were hard wooden benches with almost no leg room and definitely no cushions!

Approaching Pak Ou
Approaching Pak Ou.

Once we were moving though, the river made us forget our complaining bottoms, at least for a while. After an hour the Mekong is no longer the border between Thailand and Laos and it must look today much as it has done for hundreds, maybe thousands of years.

Twisting through high, steep, tree-covered hills, the country looks forbidding and uninhabited. The thick, green creeper-covered jungle comes right down to the water’s edge for mile after mile, only occasionally giving way to small cultivated patches of maize and dry rice showing that a village is nearby. Other than this there is little sign that people live here at all. The jungle looks impenetrable, there are no power lines or roads or industry whatsoever. Even the flotsam on the river is natural.

Vine Covered Trees shroud the land.
Vine Covered Trees shroud the land

The banks are lined with wild banana and stands of teak. Other trees are covered thickly with creepers and lianas, stands of bamboo are interspersed with trees covered in brilliant red flowers, while enormous stag head ferns grace the trunks of many trees. Dozens of colourful butterflies flit among the foliage and over the water. Swallows fly around the boat, skimming the surface and brilliantly coloured kingfishers can often be seen as blue flashes darting out of the jungle in front of us.

Piloting on the river is no joke especially in the floods. The river is very twisty. At times it’s nearly a mile broad and at others it’s rushing down a narrow gorge with high sides and jagged rocks all around. The boatman’s skill is all that keeps us alive. Going downstream they keet to the center as much as possible but there are many series of rapids and shallows. Rocks are just inches below the surface and it’s only the pilot’s experience and skill and knowledge of the river that allow him to navigate successfully. There were still many breath-holding moments when we crossed heavy turbulence or were nearly rammed by a half submerged log.

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