The luxury bespoke voyage through the Golden Triangle from Luang Prabang in Laos is as high-end as they come
Going with the flow on a private cruise down the mighty Mekong River
Going with the flow takes on new meaning when your mode of transport for a trip along South East Asia’s mighty Mekong River is a private, 41-metre, two-cabin cruiser – and it’s monsoon season.
I’m about to embark on a three-night, four-day cruise on a 400-kilometre section of the 4,350km-long waterway – the seventh-longest river in Asia – and one that has for thousands of years connected the six countries it flows through, from China in the north, through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, to Vietnam in the south.
I’m boarding Mekong Kingdoms’ new Gypsy luxury cruiser in Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos. Designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1995, the sleepy river town of about 55,000 people is surrounded by mountains and sits 700 metres above sea level, at the point where the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers meet.
Given that slow travel in an increasingly fast-paced world has become more appealing to global travellers in recent years, with some travel companies claiming that interest in boating and walking holidays has risen as much as 40 per cent in the past 12 months, as I make my way to the banks of the Nam Khan to board the luxury four-person cruiser, I’m looking forward to slowing things down, going off the grid when it’s not possible to get Wi-Fi – it’s intermittent depending on where you are on the route – and taking in the mountainous jungle landscape the area is known for, with enough time to appreciate it. I’m also hoping it will allow me some time for reflective solitude.
The itinerary includes onshore stops at villages and other regional attractions, but I have been told it’s entirely up to me how much or little I do – the beauty of the programme is that it’s tailored to the passenger’s wants and needs.
There are two cruising options – Laos to the Golden Triangle, the trip I’m doing upstream, or the two-night, three-day journey in the opposite direction.
As I approach the jetty, which is a few minutes’ walk from the centre of Luang Prabang, Gypsy’s thatched roof comes into view. Having only seen photos of the craft up to this point, which haven’t really given me any concept of scale, actually seeing it has me more than ready to set sail.
There’s quite a crowd looking on as the busied crew of seven accompanying me to Chiang Saen ready the cruiser for our imminent departure.
As I familiarise myself with my private floating confines, it becomes obvious that Bangkok-based interior-design consultant Jiraparnn Tokeeree has worked hard to combine the modern and traditional here. She has used polished timber flooring, carved wooden furniture, bamboo day beds, Thai silks and deep-hued leathers for a South East Asian feel, while the use of teak is a nod to the region. The plush, contemporary furnishings in burnt oranges and lime greens, along with the rich yet dimmed lighting choices, elevate the boat’s status from the everyday to high-end luxe appeal.
There’s plenty of room to move around and various places to while away the five or six hours we will be waterborne each day. The sleeping cabins, which are bigger than I expected, are offered in king or twin-bed configuration, and each is air-conditioned, has its own en suite, plenty of cupboard space and, just as you would find in any quality hotel, there’s also robes and slippers.
The mid-cabin sitting area boasts a huge comfy daybed, two-seater lounge, and sizeable coffee table, and I’m pleased that, given it’s the rainy season, I’ll be sheltered from the elements by the wind-down shutters and canvas roof.
Having done the rounds of the cruiser, I have earmarked the panoramic al fresco lounge at the bow as the ideal spot for taking in the Mekong’s legendary sunsets, and I decide to sit in the private dining area-cum-forward lounge to take my meals.
As we cruise to the mouth of the river, with the captain guiding us from his elevated post, we pootle along at a leisurely speed. As I settle in to the pace of it, I ponder what it may have been like to cruise these waters hundreds of years ago when river trading was at its peak.
I spy the supplies that are delivered to us by boat from nearby riverside properties and the fresh papaya plucked from trees by the resourceful crew at a couple of our stops, noting the self-sufficient existence we’re managing during the journey.
Gypsy has welcomed only about 20 guests since the Minor Hotel Group launched the bespoke service in March, so this season (November to March) will be the litmus test for the attractiveness of such a tailor-made cruise experience. I find the service not as on point as it should be for the price – for instance, tea and coffee are not offered to me until I ask, while the yoga on the deck and afternoon teas mentioned on the press pack do not materialise. Communication could also do with some attention, given there are times that I expect to be making a stop, only to be left without an update that it’s not possible because of conditions or changes to the schedule.
As we make our way through a landscape framed by steep jungle inclines, hilly banana plantations and rice paddies, and cloud-covered peaks, boats long and short cruise past us at speed. It’s an otherwise smooth journey to our first stop, about two hours upstream. But it is monsoon season, so not really the ideal time to be on the river – the Mekong is high and there’s a chance we may have to alter navigation if the waters get too wild. They are already swirling, even though it’s not too obvious at this point. The best time to take a trip down the Mekong is between now and March.
Pak Ou Caves, one of the most respected holy sites in Laos, are thousands of years old and set in a dramatic cliff where the Mekong joins the Nam Ou River. It’s a shrine to the river spirit and Buddha, and so it follows that it’s a popular site for local Buddhist pilgrims.
Entrance is a five-minute boat ride from where we dock and requires a donation. Once inside, it’s a treasure trove filled with limestone and thousands of small Buddha statues. There are two spaces to peruse – the lower cave (Tham Ting) and upper cave (Tham Theung).
I wander around with other tourists for a few minutes before being guided back to the boat, where I am presented with a delicious three-course lunch and an afternoon of nothing but leisurely cruising before we dock for the evening in a spot that has us surrounded by burnt-orange skies followed by a smattering of stars as day turns to night.
On-board life begins about 6am each day with the rumbling alarm clock that is the boat’s engine kicking into gear and readying for another day of cruising at 20kph. Shore excursions act as the cultural stimulants in what is otherwise a sedate river experience.
Two of the stops are Ban Baw village, a traditional weaving community where about 45 families live – the men working mostly in the rice fields, while the women spend their days on the looms – and Ban Pak Beng, a Hmong village that’s a training ground for novice monks and has a market where you can buy everything from live toads and lizards to fruit and vegetables.
It’s a delight to have children run to the shores to wave to us we cruise past, as others somersault into the river to cool off, and their parents, many of them in motorised vessels, make their way through the choppy waters with fish traps in tow and guns in hand, the birds overhead destined for the dinner table.
Perhaps the most enlightening part of this trip, apart from the evergreen landscape and Lao-French fusion food I’m served, is the experience I have on my final day when I join some of the crew on a short pre-dawn tuk-tuk ride to Port Phon Sabang village, where the local Thai Buddhist community is celebrating the new moon.
I’m invited to pull up a seat on a mat offered by some local women alongside the many people who have gathered in the grounds of the Wat Phon Savang temple. I have a small pot of sticky rice in front of me, and like everyone else here, will give an offering to the resident monks as they make their way past us following the morning prayers. It’s an intriguing morning, and I’m grateful for the front-row seat I have been given to what is perhaps the most important aspect of the culture in this part of the world.
Beyond that, after four days getting to know the members of the Gypsy’s almost entirely Laotian crew, being welcomed into the riverside communities I have been lucky enough to visit and discovering a people and a country that is perhaps not as well known as its neighbours, I’m humbled by my guide’s want to share his beloved Laos with others.
“Not many people know about our country, so I am happy to share with them,” he says as we part ways at the dock at Chiang Saen.