A Southeast Asian river cruise on the Lower Mekong from northern Thailand through Laos is a revelatory experience, discovers Linda Aitchison

Sa-bai-dee, sa-bai-dee,” children shout as we disembark at their village overlooking the Mekong. It’s Lao for “hello” and, as we say it back to them, our new friends dissolve into fits of laughter. Their giggling is infectious. A joyous throng of young voices surrounds us and we’re soon laughing, too, even as we gingerly climb a mud track with crew from Laos Pandaw to guide us.

We’ve arrived in Bhan Nasan to learn more about the lives and culture of the Hmong people, who have lived here for centuries. And, at several points during our journey so far, our valiant crew have leapt into the Mekong until they are chest-deep in its waters to attach a jetty to this unspoiled shore.

The riverside is mainly lush jungle, with little signs of human life. It’s untouched and appears a challenging landscape. The Mekong too has its tests – swirling currents and fearsome rock formations dot our landscape. It’s often deserted, except for a lone fishing boat and more children shouting and waving from the shore on our 900km upstream journey over 11 days.

I’ve never seen or experienced anything like it before and it genuinely feels like a privilege to meet these exuberant kids and witness their uncomplicated way of life.

The Hmong and other tribes are the beating heart of the history of Laos. It’s remarkable to me that they continue to flourish in their sparse village surroundings. With just less than five million people living in an area half the size of France, Laos is one of the least populated countries in Southeast Asia. There are around 80 ethnic groups, classified as four tribes or families. Each one has its own proud traditions with unique dialects, customs and faiths.

Our unflappable cruise director, known to us as Mr Bee (real name Latthasakk Manalatsamie) briefs us about the tribes’ way of life. We listen daily in an elegant teak furnished lounge on board, taking in incredible stories of survival and enthralling local folklore. On other stops, we visit people known as Lao Loum (lowland tribe) who make up three-quarters of the people of Laos. Today, as we enter Bhan Pasan, my fellow passengers muse about how free the youngsters seem, unshackled from the constraints of Western childhood pressures.

“Aren’t they lucky,” they suggest as boys race ahead to climb trees and kick a ball about. The girls are watching us now, stood still, a little bemused by us as we smile and nod our ‘sa-bai-dee’ with our hands together. Yes, these kids are free in a sense, but the lack of modern infrastructure in their naturally formed playground is a culture shock.

The youngsters look at our tablets and our cameras, wanting their photos taken. They laugh again when we say ‘khop chai’ (thank you) and show them the resulting images. We’re all pleased with our attempts at basic Lao and again we have Mr Bee to thank after a quick and hilarious introduction to some must-know phrases.

This is day seven of our journey. It’s an adventure like no other I have experienced. Laos Pandaw is a new 10-cabin ship, built from teak wood in the distinguished style of the historic and renowned Burmese Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. Once a cargo ship carrying cement, its captain Houm Phan was convinced to sell the ship to Pandaw and it was converted in a race against time to get its maiden river crew voyage under way. It’s an innovative and plush ship. With a maximum number of passengers set at 20, the service on board is personal and efficient.

Cabins are spacious, understated and stylish. There’s a comfortable and elegant lounge bar where you can help yourself to soft drinks and local beer or choose to pay for a more sophisticated tipple. The food is a mix of Southeast Asian cuisine with some Western influences. Breakfast is an adequate fresh buffet and lunch is also relaxed, with a great choice of soups, breads, salads and hot dishes. Dinner is à la carte, with delicious spicy meals with lots of sticky rice, which the Laos people pride themselves on, and dainty desserts.

In Luang Prabang I’m treated to a beautiful meal at the 3 Nagas restaurant with two wonderful Australian couples. On board, my companions are a small group, also a mix of American, Austrian and British adventurers. We bond over activities including cookery demonstrations and a chance to take part in an onboard ceremony called ‘baci’ – here string is tied around our wrists as part of an ancient ritual to protect us.

We also sample the Lao-Lao rice wine, down in one. On our first evening we watch a spellbinding display of Lao dancing. There’s a magical night spent moored on a sandbar with a sky lantern ceremony; one of those moments when you truly count your blessings as you witness how special it is.

The captain is an integral part of this experience. He has been navigating the Mekong for 30 years and keeps up to date with how the waters change – from wide berth river basin areas with a low depth to rapid passages. Here, fast currents dig out a trough in the waterbed. Captain Houm Phan expertly controls two heavy duty diesel engines around serrated rock clusters.

He says he has a ‘spiritual relationship’ with the Mekong. When we pass areas where he believes there are spirits he makes offerings of sticky rice and Lao-Lao, and when we moor on a sandbank, he makes another offering to the spirits, seeking permission to stay. Our encounters with spirituality don’t end there. In Laos, alongside a modern Communist regime, Buddhism continues to prosper. Traditionally, all men are expected to spend a period as a monk or novice.

We visit temples and meet monks at several stops along the way. The former royal capital of Laos, Luang Prabang – now a UNESCO World Heritage site where we spend two days – has long been a busy hub of Buddhist activity and is home to numerous temples and monasteries. We also visit the impressive Wat Xieng Thong (Golden City) temple where we are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a wedding.

But while Buddhist peace and serenity inspire a warm feeling of discovery and learning, there’s another emotion ready to grip Luang Prabang’s visitors – anger. I take a tuk tuk with a small group of my fellow passengers, away from the guided tours, to visit a museum devoted to the history of Laos’ legacy of unexploded bombs.

From 1964 to 1973, American forces dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos. Up to a third of the bombs targeted didn’t explode. More than 20,000 people, many of them children, have been killed or injured by UXO in Laos since the bombing stopped. The films shown make harrowing viewing. But the museum also reports on how much good work has been done to minimise damage, with bomb disposal teams bringing a brighter future. Luang Prabang is a city of contrasts, with its faded Buddhist temples now being transformed thanks to international funding, set in surroundings still bearing the architectural hallmarks of its French colonial past.

But then our whole trip is one of stunning differences and variations in this enigmatic country. One minute our guides are explaining how things have changed for the royal family since Communist rule began in 1975, the next we stroll the banks of the Mekong, where crowds pack a street market and young fitness fanatics join in a public aerobics display.

The natural beauty of Laos takes my breath away. Steep limestone mountains line our route and I marvel at Pak Ou Caves – caverns in a limestone cliff filled with Buddhist images and statues of varying age. It’s a holy place in a stunning setting.

From the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Kuang Si Waterfalls and butterfly park to the chaos of an early morning market at Luang Prabang, my time is filled with unforgettable assaults on the senses. This is my first visit to a Southeast Asian market and I’m left reeling by sights, sounds and smells of the produce available – frogs, snakes and locusts are for sale amid textiles, fresh food and souvenirs.

The Mekong itself also throws up great variations. After spending so much of our time relaxing among so little other river traffic, the imposing Xayaburi Dam is a sight to behold. Its feat of engineering makes us gasp – more so as our captain expertly manoeuvres into a very narrow lock and we can touch its walls.

We also visit Vientiane, the capital of Laos. It’s a breathtaking arrival as we sail among a variety of pleasure boats all headed for the city while the sun sets. The next day, there’s a whirlwind tour taking in Wat Si Saket temple, the president’s hall, Wat Prakeo temple and the Patuxai monument – built as a symbol of victory and remembrance after independence from France in 1953. I feel my own sense of victory as I climb hundreds of steps to see five decorative towers up close.

Either side of our voyage, we stay in five-star luxury in Thailand, first at the Legend Chiang Rai Boutique River Resort and, on our way home, the Amari Watergate Bangkok. I imagined I would be ready for the outstanding comfort having spent time on board, but as I settle in my hotel bed, I’m already missing my Laos Pandaw cabin – its charm and the adventure that waited outside.

This was an unforgettable time. But in this land of contradictions, rest assured your journey will be completely different – with so many unique experiences, sights and sounds to encounter, you’ll return with your own treasured memories. As they say in Lao, ‘yin dee samur’ – you’re welcome.

GETTING THERE: Jules Verne offers a 13-night cruise on Laos Pandaw, sailing from Chiang Rai in northern Thailand’s Golden Triangle, through Laos and along the Mekong River to Vientiane. Departures are on 29 September, 21 October, 12 November and 26 December 2017. Prices from £3,595pp based on two sharing and includes air travel and taxes, all port charges, transfers, a 10-night cruise full board and most drinks, two nights’ hotel accommodation with breakfast and a sightseeing programme. For more information, call 020 3553 3722, or visit vjv.com.

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