I am lounging on a sofa on my river cruise when a boatload of tourists, all wearing lifejackets and looking like they’ve been cramped on their longboat for hours, casually speeds past me. I wave enthusiastically, but every single one of them seems to be giving me a death stare. Why are they so angry at me? Surely a simple wave back or a smile can’t be that difficult. I proceed to ignore the hostility and get back to my ice-cold beer and the stunning sunset ahead of me, continuing on my way from Thailand’s Golden Triangle region to Laos’ Luang Prabang, here on the Mekong River.
I don’t really blame them, as I would probably be muttering profanities if I saw myself as well. It would give the wrong impression to say I’m on a boat. It’s more like a giant floating villa with two massive bedrooms, each including a shower and air conditioning, a sun deck, a dining table, a lounge area and, of course, Wi-Fi. I have my own butler, while other staff include cooks and a housekeeper who doubles as an onboard masseuse. Throughout the day, I enjoy all-inclusive alcohol and delicious food.
This is the Gypsy, the latest deluxe boat from Mekong Kingdoms, a luxury river cruise company that operates trips along the Mekong River. Throughout history, travellers have been making trips between the six countries the river passes through: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, China, Cambodia and Myanmar. Nowadays, river transport is mostly on speedboats or crowded river cruises, so to have the space and opulence that I now enjoy is a rare experience.
‘This really is the first of its kind, as normally cruises have about 20 cabins; Gypsy has only two, which allows me to provide better service to my guests,’ says Tou, my guide for the journey’s three days. Growing up along the river, he understands the importance of the waterways: the river provides food, water and a transport route to the millions who live along it.
This is evident in the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai – reachable by car from Chiang Mai or on a short flight from Bangkok – where my river cruise began. It’s the gateway to the Golden Triangle, an area where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. In the 1920s, opium fields sprawled over much of the farmland here and accounted for 25 percent of Thailand’s GDP. Gold was used to purchase opium by the kilo, giving the area a notorious reputation – and its name. But the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej was determined to rid the opium and established the Royal Project Foundation in the 1960s, encouraging hill tribes and farmers to grow food crops, from tomatoes to mushrooms. This initiative produced an enduring organic food movement.
Before I began my journey on the river, I stayed at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, where the manager Gauderic Harang gave me the lowdown. ‘The Royal Project is very successful, and the quality of organic produce here is second to none. Chiang Rai definitely has the potential to be the next Ubud,’ he says, referring to Bali’s mountainous, yogi-friendly enclave.
The Anantara works with a non-profit group to rescue elephants from illegal logging camps, the street and elephant shows, and support mahouts and their families. Guests can now take walks with the rescued elephants and help bathe them. ‘There is this elephant who loves to bathe in the river, and once it decided to take a little detour and cross over to Myanmar,’ says Harang. ‘It was quite a mission to get it back to camp. But for travellers, you can experience three cultures in one day by transportation provided by us – it’s very convenient.’
From there, I head out onto the river. There are many villages along the waters, and you’ll be able to visit them depending on the water levels. Some villages are more used to tourists than others, with stalls selling batik textiles, clothes and Lao whisky.
But Tou gladly shows me more obscure sites. I am welcomed to the Ban Khoc Kham village one night with chanting, and many pieces of string are tied to my wrists, followed by tastes of fried freshwater frog and a drinking competition with the elders.
But the most fun I had was trying to catch my own breakfast with the local fishing nets. They make it look so easy, casting nets with one swift motion. I would need a lot more practice as a fisherman, but nevertheless it was a great way to see the local way of life and traditions.
As I continue on my way I can’t help but notice the many construction projects on the river. Bridges, dams and even casinos are being built, and as I get closer to the temple-filled, UNESCO-listed town of Luang Prabang, the scale of the construction only grows. Dam projects have forced some villagers to move away from their ancestral lands. The Lao government has created incentives for the tribes to relocate by building hospitals and schools in new areas. For better or worse, it’s a sign of Laos’ eagerness to move forwards.
‘Laos is known as the battery of Asia, as the dams here generate power for different countries in the region,’ says Andrew Jansoon, general manager of the Avani+ hotel in Luang Prabang. ‘And the bridge you saw as you approached Luang Prabang is a railroad bridge, connecting China to the Lao capital, Vientiane, and then extending to Bangkok and Singapore. The railroad, which will be completed next year, will bring so many opportunities for us. For now, we have to go through mountain roads to reach Thailand, and going from here to Vientiane takes eight hours by car, but with the railroad, it’ll cut travelling time and bring services, goods and tourists, too. The future is bright and it’s going to be fantastic.’
The Avani+, located right by the river bank, was a French officers’ quarters in the early 1900s before it became a local hotel in the 1960s. Avani+ took over last year, adding a taste of luxury to the town that’s moving from backpacker favourite into the mainstream. ‘Luang Prabang is definitely up and coming, and Laos is slowly emerging as a preferred destination in Southeast Asia, as travellers who have visited Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are looking for new experiences,’ says Jansoon.
A Buddhist nation, Laos has a mythology surrounding Naga, a water dragon residing under the Mekong River that provides the people with food, water and fortune. Every year, the country celebrates the Boun Ok Phansa festival, where people put candles on the river in the hope that they float to a nearby Buddhist cave. And it seems that fortune will arrive soon: if all goes as projected, Laos will graduate from the United Nations’ list of ‘least developed countries’ in 2024.
I asked Phaie, one of the elders in Ban Khoc Kham village during our drinking escapades, his wish for the country. ‘Of course I want Laos to prosper; it’s my home after all.’ Wish granted, it seems, by a water dragon no less.
Cruise and stay
Journeys on the Gypsy are run by Minor Hotel Group, which operates a diverse portfolio of properties, including the Anantara and Avani brands, and provides bespoke itineraries along the Mekong through Mekong Kingdoms.