It is almost dawn on the Mekong Pearl. The new day’s light is beginning to peak through my balcony curtain. I hear the slight creaking of soft footsteps passing my cabin door and I suspect it is a crew member about to prepare coffee for the early risers. I rise and tiptoe to my balcony, not wanting to make a sound that might disturb my neighbours beside and below me. Outside, I see two crew members scamper up the sandy incline, making their way to the ropes, one forward and one aft of the ship, that is tied around a tree or massive rock, holding our beautiful home secure overnight. Untying the heavy ropes, the crew onboard pulls them onto the ship and soon our little vessel moves away from the shoreline and our adventure on the Mekong continues. A rooster crows in the distance.
I don some clothes and quietly make my way to the dining room, just a few steps away. The coffee is ready, the scent inviting. Pouring myself a hot mug, I stroll to the deck and find several of my fellow travellers enjoying the quiet of this warm, tranquil morning. The sun is beginning to peak from behind the mountains in the distance. We watch in silence, taking in the beauty, serenity, and quiet. Slowly, more of our group arrives on deck, coffee or tea in hand, not wanting to miss the start of another incredible day. Soon, the bright orange sun rises from behind a mountain in the distance and a new day is underway. Our cheerful crew soon appears and begins preparations for a delicious breakfast buffet. The scent of tantalizing bacon on the grill drew us to the dining room, where our chef readied the egg station. Fresh fruit, juices, yogurts, cheeses, cold cuts, and various breads and rolls soon appeared, along with a local dish that was different each day.
Every day began in the same peaceful way onboard, but each day was a new adventure. As we pulled away from each overnight riverbank stay, Mekong Pearl sailed further southward toward Vientiane. Passing a varied landscape of mountains, hillsides with strolling cows, sunny beaches, and most striking of all, the massive rock formations jutting out of the Mekong, often within mere feet of the ship. We passed many areas where the fields had been burned, a farming method that involves the cutting and burning of plants in a forest or woodland. The method begins by cutting down the trees and woody plants in an area. The downed vegetation is left to dry, then burned, resulting in a nutrient-rich layer of ash which makes the soil fertile for future planting. There is controversy over this practice because the fertile soil lasts only a few years, then the land is abandoned with no further planting, as farmers move to a new area to burn.
In the hill tribe villages, residents greeted us quietly; young mothers carrying babes at their hips; children curiously sizing up these strangers in their village; dogs running freely and chickens pecking at the dirt; men weaving straw baskets that would store rice, and young fellows tying dried grasses and reeds together to make a new roof. A mom placed her naked toddler in a large pail of water, cooling him off from the hot sun. In some villages, the entrepreneurial women were ready for us. Rickety wooden tables were covered in hand-embroidered pieces of fabric and hand-loomed scarves were ready for sale, often displayed on a piece of fabric on the ground. A lady demonstrated her simple loom, set in the sand in front of her primitive home. A woman hung her laundry on a rope tied to two trees, all the while smoking a long, slim pipe, a popular pastime. Several of the ship’s crew members were from these villages and sometimes joined us to say hello to family. The children were excited to see them and it was an exciting time for those crew members too.
Laos is one of Southeast Asia’s most ethnically diverse countries, which is a bit surprising because its population is only about seven million people. The various ethnic groups are known according to the geographic areas they occupy… the lowland, midland, and highland groups. One way we saw this diversity was in our visit to a small school. And it was one of many highlights. Throughout our journey, we had the pleasure of visiting three primary schools and interacting with the children. Before departing Canada, our group purchased toys and school supplies for one of the schools. We didn’t know that we would have an opportunity to visit two more schools later on. At the first school of four to six-year-olds, there were children from various tribes and each one wore the traditional dress of their tribe. Each tribe was very distinct in the clothing they wore. When we arrived, the children lined up outside. Our school supplies were set aside, but the balls we had brought were soon thrown, kicked, and tossed around to everyone’s delight, kids and visitors alike. The new books, paper, pens, and markers were still in the bags when we left, but I’m sure the balls bounced free long after our departure.
The alms-giving ceremony, or Tak Bat in Lao, is a centuries-old, meaningful tradition in the Buddhist culture of the Lao people. In Luang Prabang, alms-giving takes place daily from 5:30 in the morning, starting from temples in this ancient town to the main roads and back streets. We were honoured for the opportunity to take part in this tradition. Plastic chairs were lined up for us on the sidewalk. A carpet was placed in front of the chairs and we were instructed to remove our shoes. We were given a Laos traditional scarf to wear, which we placed across one shoulder. Soon, the first group of barefoot, monks in orange-clad robes walked along the street towards us, holding out their baskets. Earlier, we had each been given a small container of rice. As each young monk passed, head bowed and solemn, we placed small amounts of rice in each of their baskets. The monks walk the streets collecting rice and other donated food items as a form of meditation. This food is their meal for the day.
Disembarking Mekong Pearl one morning, tuk-tuks were waiting to take us a short fifteen-minute ride to the pristine, cascading Kuang Si Falls, a World Heritage site. Because the location is somewhat remote, tourism is limited and the terrain remains rugged, natural, and stunningly beautiful. Wooden walkways keep visitors safe and there are wonderful areas to swim in the clean, turquoise water, amid the spectacular waterfalls. Also at the falls is the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre. The bears have been rescued from various illegal trades and lived in small cages. A group of wonderful staff known as the “Free the Bears” team, provides a safe environment for the bears to live the rest of their lives in safety, with space to roam and be cared for.
Returning from touring one day, we found that the crew had set up a party place on the sandy beach, built a massive bonfire, hung a string of lights, and attached palm leaves to poles in the sand. That evening, there was a wonderful BBQ and before long, the crew brought out a guitar and drums and sang to entertain us. They sang fun Lao songs till late into the night and when they broke into John Denver’s “Country Roads” we all joined in. We danced in the sand, and enjoyed wine, Lao beer, and the local moonshine. The night was capped off with paper lanterns which were lit and sent into the night sky over the mighty Mekong. Special memories are made of this! Very early next morning, just after sunrise, we met again out on that same beach, this time enjoying our morning coffee in our robes and chatting about the wonderful previous night and how fortunate we were to experience such an incredible adventure.
The Mekong Pearl is described as a “boutique river vessel.” Everything about it, from its size, construction, operation, staff, onboard experience, ports, and the adventure and unique experiences make it undoubtedly one of life’s unique, dream journeys. She has just fifteen outside cabins and carries twenty-nine passengers and eighteen crew. Each very comfortable cabin is equipped with air conditioning and private bathroom and all the comforts of home. The upper deck has an indoor dining room, a bar, and areas to relax on a lounge in the sun. The sun deck offers more places to relax and lounge. At USD$25 for a 60-minute massage, the tireless masseuse was kept busy every day! The ship is constructed of beautiful, shiny teak…on the floors, walls, and ceiling, in every cabin and all rooms throughout the ship. Guests are asked to wear hotel-type slippers which are provided or to simply go barefoot. It was wonderful!
This adventure had so many interesting experiences, even before it was time to embark on the lovely Mekong Pearl. Beginning with three nights at a lovely hotel in Bangkok, a longboat cruise on the Chao Praya River took us through the narrow canals to view firsthand what life on the river is like, the wooden and bamboo homes, some ready to fall into the river, the lush vegetation surrounding them and the locals living a slow-paced life. There was an informative and fun Thai cooking class where we ate what we cooked; we visited just the right number of temples and palaces. We flew north to Chiang Rai for a two-night stay at another beautiful hotel. While here, there were lush tea plantations, village visits, and a lively night bazaar. We travelled to the Golden Triangle region for a city tour and a very interesting visit to the Hall of Opium Museum. Soon, it was time to board our little ship, the Mekong Pearl. And here, our voyage on the mighty Mekong began!