River dance

Ever since we crossed the Mekong River in Phnom Penh back in 2019 I’ve wanted to find a multi day cruise on the Mekong in a traditional boat. It’s not that easy. There are posh all-inclusive cruises that ply the river delta area south of Ho Chi Minh City for thousands of dollars, or there’s the 2-day public slowboat that chugs downstream from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang in Laos, a basic vessel crammed with 100 people on old car seats that aren’t bolted to the deck, where you take your own food and drink and find your own lodging for the overnight ashore in Pak Beng. These are the options.

As the travel ferret that I am, I refused to believe there isn’t a middle way, and eventually I uncovered an alternative to the public slowboat. Let’s call it a VIP slowboat. The boat is just like to the public one, but fitted out with comfy booths and limited to a dozen or so passengers, with food and drink onboard included, a deluxe hotel in Pak Beng for the overnight, and guidance through Laos Immigration before boarding, all for less than $200 each. Sign me up.

We met our fellow passengers over morning coffee in the hotel at the Thai border. They are mostly seniors like us, from Scotland, Germany, South Africa. This is going to be great, we thought, just like our old sailing community. Then the minivans pulled up and Jack and I were culled from the group, separated from people we’d just spent an hour getting to know. It turns out there are two boats going and we are on the other one. We wondered if we could request a change, but decided to wait and see what happens.

We were guided across the border — get out of the van, queue up for exit stamp from Thailand, get back in the van, drive across the bridge to Laos, queue up for visa-on-arrival with our prepared paperwork, queue up to pay in US dollars which we’d had to buy in Chiang Mai since we don’t have any US currency — an exercise that’s doable on your own but easier with the boat company handling the luggage and pointing us to the correct windows for passport control, paperwork and payment.

During this process we met most of our new fellow passengers. We are, we discovered, at least a generation older than everyone else onboard, a fact that initially disappointed us, but as we got to know everyone, we came to appreciate.

Finally we boarded our boat and we found it to be even better than the photos we’d seen. We staked out a booth and settled in while we began our 12 knot voyage down the shallow but fast-moving Mekong River. I haven’t been this excited about a river journey since we inched our way up the Kumai in Borneo to see the orangutans.

Our first day onboard took us about 150 km downriver past an unending landscape of gently rolling green hills with very little evidence of human habitation.

Halfway through the day we had a planned visit to a Hmong village which involved a steep and slippery climb while the village children scampered up beside us hawking friendship bracelets.

The village was quiet but for the children. I asked our guide where all the parents were. Working in the fields, he said, and as it was around lunchtime the children were home from school until they return in the afternoon.

For once I thought ahead and brought some copybooks and pencils to give the kids. I would have preferred to give them to the teacher to distribute but the guide advised me to just give them directly to the kids. They were quite grabby and it took some effort to make sure the less aggressive got a share of the goods. I tried to favor the girls but in the end I was lucky to get away unscathed.

We find village visits fraught. We’re happy to contribute to the wellbeing of a community when we can but there are times when a village becomes something it’s not just for the entertainment of tourists. We’ve declined village visits in some places for what we think are ethical reasons, but are we really being ethical when we don’t share our tourist dollars because a village is performing in an inauthentic way? It’s a conundrum.

In the case of this village, the children were aggressive in selling their bracelets, but the money was immediately snatched by an adult. And when I was handing out the school supplies, each kid grabbed for everything, rather than sharing. I snagged things back when I saw that a kid had two or three copybooks and made sure a different kid got something. The experience was a little disturbing.

On our way back to the boat I was heartened to see a couple of the girls holding their copybooks. I hope they do well in school.

Back at the boat we had lunch then spent the rest of the afternoon watching the world go by. The terrain grew more mountainous and scenic.

About five o’clock we arrived at Pak Beng, our overnight stay. We opted for the top-of-the-line hotel as a late anniversary splurge. We could see the bungalows overlooking the river as we arrived.

The hotel was gorgeous and our room was beyond deluxe with a balcony overlooking the river. We made it just in time for sunset.

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