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Ian Belcher Goes With The Flow

It looks easy. It sounds easy. There must be a catch. Mr Boun Than, a retired Communist official with a Vietcong helmet, wise eyes and an inscrutable expression, is demonstrating the basics of Laos net fishing; draping it over his shoulder before flicking half in a semi-circular motion so it spreads across the water like a tablecloth. Pull in, remove the catch and repeat until, like Mr Than, you have enough fish for a family of 12. It has a simple, rhythmic, almost choreographed beauty.

As a pasty Englishman I’m handicapped by 93C heat, dizzying humidity and gloopy mud. But if a small pensioner can do it, so can I. Surely. My first cast travels nine inches; my second almost takes my eye out. It requires 26 attempts, tangles, tantrums and obscenities, before I finally lay a circular tablecloth – and promptly slip forward, face down in the goulash coloured water. I’m less agile hunter-gatherer than devout pilgrim, supplicating at a deity’s feet.

How apt. In one way that’s exactly what I’m doing. After two days travelling along the Mekong from Northern Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos, I’m in awe of the muscular, river – the twelfth longest on earth –linking the two countries with China, Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia. Around 60 million people rely on it for fishing, bathing and trade. Perhaps my dunking is a sub conscious act of homage to ‘the mother of rivers.’

My journey begins 200 miles upstream. It’s here, where Thailand, Burma and Laos collide in the Golden Triangle’s fecund riot of mountain jungle, that the Mekong binds surrounding economies in a uniquely complex knot. From my hotel balcony on the Thai shore, I can see two casinos; one on a Burmese river island that Thai ‘low rollers’ visit on day visas; the other in Laos, a vulgar incongruous splash of Vegas owned by the Chinese. Thai baht are the currency of choice, and its locals regularly cross to Burma for golf or bootlegged DVDs – eight for £2.

If it sounds slightly surreal, it’s nothing compared to the Thailand’s Hall of Opium near Chiang Saen. Part of a royal campaign to promote coffee rather than poppy cultivation, it offers a near hallucinogenic spin around the history and dire consequences of the drug trade. There are drawings of Victorian English women injecting opium to ease menstrual pain, extraordinary photographs of 19th century Chinese drug dens and addicts’ century-old paraphernalia - trimmers, dampers and droons – straight out of Wallace and Gromit. 

One minute I’m in a sparse, ultra-modern room watching 1960s footage of covert CIA operations in South East Asia, the next I’m staring at galleries of criminals and then a bubbling pot over a fake river, illustrating how mountain drug plants boil away poppy seed impurities to create opium – causing stoned birds to plummet from the sky. It is, no pun intended, an utterly addictive museum. 

It deserves more time, but I have a boat to catch. The cross Mekong ferry takes me to Houayxai, the Laos custom office and launch port for my cruise. It’s instantly more exotic, with stallholders dozing next to alarming bottles of whisky in which snakes and scorpions marinate in the heat. They liquor is said to be an antidote to ‘rheumatism, lumbago and sweating of limbs’ – something you’re unlikely to hear from Famous Grouse.

Tempting, but no. Instead I cross the gangplank onto my Luang Say cruiser, a luxurious alternative to the Mekong’s traditional slow boats overflowing with locals, merchandise, chickens and backpackers. In that order. Our’s has excellent food, space and, the pièce de résistance, a rooftop sundeck.

Perfect. This is a trip that deserves horizontal appreciation. The clutter of humanity rapidly vanishes into lush, tendril-strewn jungle. After 20km, the river languorously passes an unmarked Thai border and Laos owns both banks. The wilderness explodes into forested slopes in a hundred emerald hues. We’ve entered the Big Green.

To call it serene is an understatement. The warm breeze, puttering backbeat of the motor and intense colour therapy induce deep slumber. Occasionally I awake to spot a fisherman or grazing buffalo before snoozing off. The Mekong is switching me onto the snail pace of Lao PDR – the People’s Democratic Republic, otherwise known as Please Don’t Rush. At our first village stop, I have to rediscover use of my legs.

Gon Dturn’s 950 inhabitants survive on weaving and farming with chillies, onions and papayas drying next to a flag festooned shrine and several tak taks – long handled tractors resembling a poor man’s Harley Davidson. It’s a traditional existence but change hangs in the air. Many houses have eschewed thatch for coloured tin roofs; all sprout satellite dishes. They account for the talent show on a flat screen TV in the village store – the X Communist Factor, perhaps – that sells everything from spanners to handbags and plastic toys. ‘It’s run by the Chinese,’ explains our first mate, Toua. ‘They’re opening them all over Laos.’

We meander on. The greenery thickens, serenity intensifies. The busiest people are gold panners, sifting through muddy sentiment where streams enter the main flow. The French-owned mountain mine has closed, but a good month’s panning earns £62 – far better than farming or labouring. A couple of sizeable gold nuggets will no doubt ignite a Chinese gold rush.

At dusk the river valley narrows into steep walls of vegetation garlanded with creamy cloud - a cosy cocoon for Luang Say’s riverbank chalets. After a walk into Pakbeng village, where some house sit on stilts forged out of American bomb casings from the Secret War, I suffer a night of lurid tropical dreams, fuelled by a divine supper of seared beef with lemongrass, chilli, ginger and garlic, and the rustling, groaning and squawking forest. Relief only arrives when ethereal dawn light floods through my open shutters. 

As we push deeper into Laos sights become more bizarre. We pass a giant wooden swan bobbing on the current – two days before it carried hundreds of burning candles for a religious celebration – followed by blonde beaches worthy of the Indian Ocean, and several bamboo shoots moving like submarine telescopes, that turn out to be homemade snorkels powered by children under the water.  

We have one more village to visit. Lathan boasts a temple with orange-robed monks and disturbing wall paintings. Beneath a depiction of a man being sawed in half, a tightly bound victim is being pecked to death by crows. The artworks either reflect ancient animist beliefs, or Buddhism as re-interpreted by Quentin Tarantino. It doesn’t encourage gentle lingering. 

And so, a couple of hours later, we make a low key dusk entrance to Luang Prabang. So low key in fact that we don’t realise we’ve arrived. Its streets, swaddled by verdant foliage, are near invisible from the water. Perhaps it’s what you’d expect from a city, which, despite recent development, still has the mellow mood that inspired its Edwardian mantle as ‘refuge of the last dreamers.’

If its 32 UNESCO listed temples and French colonial architecture are heaven-sent for cycling, its Hmong night market is heaven-sent for browsing. Just hours later, lines of saffron robed monks appear to float on the dawn mist as they file through photogenic streets collecting alms – one of South East Asia’s iconic sights.

I, however, am pulled back to the river. It’s famed for its vast marine life and a giant catfish would make a hell of a holiday snap. If I have to settle for a 3m Siamese giant carp, so be it.

It doesn’t start well. As we paddle out near the junction of the Ou River, our guide Khamla points to banks planted with kale and peanuts. ‘We use hooks to pull out the earth worms. Fish love them.’

‘Great,’ I reply. ‘Do you have the hooks?’

‘No’

Five minutes later he announces ‘Fish love rice husks. We throw them in and they immediately start feeding.’

‘Great. Have you bough rice husks?’

‘No. There aren’t many fish here, anyway. My village is much better.’

I’m more hopeful of Mr Than, particularly when he tells me about a 30kg catfish he caught ‘shaped like a shark.’ Two hours later, having netted one unidentified tiddler, I remember Mr Than was a propaganda officer for the communists. If he can’t spin a fishing yarn, nobody can.

It doesn’t improve. Mr Than turns out to be a man of few words, and fewer fish. But it doesn’t matter. As an epic sunset bleed across the sky, I sip an iced Lao beer and once more, feel utter calm wash over me. The mighty Mekong has worked its magic for a final time. 

Need to Know 

At Destinations you can meet a huge number of tour operators that travel across Asia, explore the Golden Triangle, the white beaches of Thailand's islands, the waterfalls of Laos and cruise along the Mekong River. Tour operators specialising in travel to the region include Audley Travel, TransIndus, Mountain Kingdoms, Dragoman and more. You can also meet the tourist board themselves with Thailand Tourism on hand to offer you all the advice you could need. See the full exhibitor list here.