Kids leap off the riverbank in front of us and an elephant effortlessly tosses a log onto his back as our beautifully carved longboat ploughs past, leaving a churning coil of brown water in its wake.
I’m travelling along the Mekong river aboard a 36-metre-long traditional boat with the Thai company Nagi of Mekong, which takes two days to traverse 500km from Chiang Khong in northern Thailand, to Luang Prabang in north Laos. The river acts as a sort of border between the Thai province and Laos.
Arriving in Chiang Khong a day before, I head out to explore. Marked by a long street straggling a muddy stretch of the Mekong, it is popular with the local tribes, and its roads are filled with the vibrant headgear of Hmong women on Fridays, who come to town once a week to sell their produce at the market.
After buying some snacks for my trip, I take a narrow side street leading to The Hub Bicycle Museum. Alan Bate, the English cyclist who put together this eclectic collection full of photos of sportspersons, framed iconic jerseys as well as a range of popular bikes, meets me at the entrance. As he shows me around, he tells me about his round-the-world cycling adventure, which gained him an entry in the Guinness World Records for fastest circumnavigation of the globe on a bicycle.
Early the next day, Kae, Nagi’s efficient guide, picks me up in a bus from the hotel and guides me swiftly through Thai immigration first, and then Laos immigration.
By late morning, I’m on board with 15 other passengers and gliding down the Mekong, which originates in the Tibetan Plateau. It meanders through six countries in South East Asia – China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam – before culminating into the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and merging with the South China Sea.
There are plenty of boats that ply the Chiang Khong-Luang Prabang route, including dangerous and uncomfortable speedboats that do the trip in eight hours, but the one I’m on takes a maximum of 30 passengers and goes the slow way – there’s no better way to watch everyday life go by.
Soon after a delicious lunch of spicy chicken curry served with crunchy piles of cooked vegetables, followed by sumptuous steaming heaps of sticky rice, we stop to visit a local village. Throngs of excited children run out of grass-thatched houses to show us their pet chicken and chatter non-stop in a lilting dialect. It’s humbling to see how happy they are, and interesting to witness how they live.
Back on the boat, we lounge on cushioned seats and admire the lush countryside pass by as we sail to our next destination. The sun is setting over Oudomxay province’s green mountains when we arrive at Pakbeng, a river town where we spend the night. Slow boats aren’t allowed to ply along the Mekong after dark, so we put up at the Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge, a charming, socially responsible property set amid landscaped greens on the bank of the river.
Until recently, the Mekong was Laos’ only major transport route and Pakbeng is an overnight town for various ferries. We climb the steep hillside, past a cluster of restaurants serving ping ped (grilled duck) and mok pa (Lao steamed fish) to reach the lodge. The town’s only luxury hotel boasts beautiful rosewood floors and stunning views over the river of the Mekong Elephant Camp.
Having watched scores of gentle mammoths paddle in the river at dawn the following day, I head to the sanctuary for an hour-long jungle ride astride one before boarding the boat for the second leg of our Mekong cruise.
As we bob away midstream, fishermen submerged to their waists in muddy water cast their nets out in wide, arcing flurries. Kae tells us that at one time, they would catch several pa beuk or the Mekong giant catfish, which is the world’s largest freshwater fish according to Guinness World Records. Now, however, it has been listed as a critically endangered species so fishing them is illegal.
Kae adds that the Mekong supports the world’s largest inland fishery, with around 80 per cent of the 60 million people living along the river surviving directly from it, both in terms of food and livelihood.
Sailing further into the heart of Laos, the Mekong becomes wider and the scenery turns wilder. It’s easy to see why this mighty river is set to be one of this year’s hottest destinations. Soon, it is as fast and wide as a six-lane motorway and we surge on, riding the crests of a million tiny waves. I understand why it has always been such a difficult and dangerous river to navigate.
During lunch of a traditional fish soup, followed by laap pa – spicy marinated fish and green papaya salad – the waters grow calmer. Then, we pass peanut plantations on either side of the river as we near the famous Pak Ou Caves, which arise at the meeting point of the Mekong and Ou rivers.
The limestone caves are crammed with a fascinating collection of Buddha statues and images created over the centuries by locals. After admiring the artwork, we shop for colourful scarves and loom-woven fabrics in the shops surrounding the caves, and then hop back onto the boat to head to Luang Prabang.
The late afternoon sun is gilding the golden roofs and radiant ceramics of the city’s temples when we arrive at the Unesco World Heritage Centre. Once the royal capital of Laos, it’s filled with Buddhist shrines and monasteries, the crowning glory being Wat Chom Si atop the town’s tallest hill.
The next day, I climb hundreds of steps to the top to admire panoramic views of Luang Prabang merging into jungles and embraced by the river, and later, take a silk weaving class with Backstreet Academy, a company that specialises in experiential tourism, as well as bag souvenirs at the sprawling night market. Through my nights there, I sleep fitfully in the deluxe accommodation of the old-fashioned Burasari Heritage hotel.
On my last day in Laos, I rise at dawn, and wandering about its quaint streets brings me to Sakkaline Road, where beautiful temples sit beside colonial villas and pretty cafés. Queuing to hand a bag of rice to the monks who come here seeking alms each day, I offer a silent prayer of thanks to the universe for the trip, and memories of places untouched.
Getting there: A return flight on Thai Airways from Dubai to Bangkok and back to Dubai from Vientiane starts at Dh3,356. Chiang Khong is around 11 hours away by bus from the Thai capital.
Staying there: A slow boat Mekong cruise from Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang with lunch, snacks and stay in Pakbeng starts from Dh570 per person. Visit www.nagiofmekong.com.