The Wall Street Journal - Going With the Flow on the Mekong River
July 3, 2015

Taking barges, buses and boats from Laos to the South China Sea, a journey down the Mekong is a step back in time.

Kneeling down on the pavement in Luang Prabang, I rest my swing-basket of sticky rice, warm and damp, on my lap. At this early hour, the light is still colorless and the shadows long. In the distance, a procession of monks in glorious robes trails down from one of the city’s many gilded Buddhist temples.

As they approach, I hear the clatter of metal lids loosening from the bowls hanging about their necks, preparing for tak bat, the dawn ritual of receiving alms. They pad past barefoot—a swish of cloth—and I let a handful of rice fall into each bowl. Out of modesty, eye contact is forbidden and the monks do not acknowledge donations. It is I who should be grateful for the opportunity to give, I am told.

Twenty years after my first trip to Laos, the rhythm of this country and its pace of life seem to have hardly changed—which is astonishing given the breakneck economic growth and cultural transitions in neighboring nations like China, Thailand and Vietnam. I met other travelers who said Laos had indeed managed to retain its go-slow magic; others told me that development was already distorting the gentle Buddhist culture.

Back in the mid-1990s, I walked across the then-new concrete Friendship Bridge from Thailand into Vientiane, Laos’s sleepy capital. The following day I bought a dugout canoe from a fisherman for $100 and began a journey down the Mekong.

The 4,350-kilometer-long waterway is not only one of Southeast Asia’s great tributaries, it also has spiritual significance. The monks of Luang Prabang say the miracle of the Mekong is that it is everywhere at the same time: up on the high plateau of Tibet, winding between the rice fields of Laos, bisecting Cambodia and drifting down to the delta of Vietnam.

On the first day of that first trip I was pinning up my mosquito net under a stilted palm-leaf shelter as the light began to fade. As the sky changed color—the pinks and blues reflected in the flooded rice fields—I noticed the farmers were also looking at the sun as it slipped below the horizon. It was a magical moment of peace and stillness. On this return visit, two decades later, I want to see if the farmers of the Mekong still stop working to watch the sunset.

With limited time, I have to give up any hope of canoeing down the river on this trip. Instead I set about using a mix of barges, buses, ferries and boats to retrace my journey. After some lazy days in Luang Prabang, I board a public bus and leave the city by route of the N13, one of the great road trips of southeast Asia.

The air chills as we climb into the mountains. On hairpin bends, the driver blasts his horn, scattering chickens in a flurry of feathers. I see locals shower under roadside waterfalls. After dark, families gather around outdoor television sets like they might a campfire. An incomplete moon hangs above the silhouetted peaks.

After a week—passing some nights in my bus seat and others holed up in basic hostels along the route—I make one last stop in Laos at the pre-Angkor ruins of Wat Phou, a Khmer temple complex built at the foot of a mountain sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists. There has been a temple complex here since the 5th century.

I walk up a graceful avenue of stonework, passing intricate carvings of elephants and nagas, the cobra-headed creatures said to inhabit the Mekong. From the temple’s upper reaches, I look down at the mystical river, pearl-gray on this overcast day.

I decide to hire a boatman to take me by long-tail boat through Si Phan Don, the Four Thousand Islands region, where the Mekong shatters the land into an archipelago on the border with Cambodia. Porpoising out of the water are endangered Irrawaddy dolphins. They snort up for air beside the boat as I trail my hand in the silty water.

I disembark before reaching the border with Cambodia. After the thud of an exit stamp from Lao border guards, I walk through a strip of no-man’s-land, between armed military posts, into the country. The uniformed officials are friendly and one offers me a lift to a town I am not going to.

Through Cambodia, the land flattens out. Rice fields and duck farms are joined by groves of palm trees and banana plantations. Fishermen fling out nets to catch the river’s whiskered catfish; farmers guide water buffaloes to plow their land. In the irrigation channels, startling pink lotus flowers are blossoming in the mud.

From Phnom Penh, I take a fast ferry down the Mekong to the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, a sprawling network of canals, mangroves and shrimp farms, where the soil is rich and the population dense. Sampans jostle with rice barges, the bows of the boats painted with glaring crossed-eyes to ward off river monsters.

At the floating markets, wholesale traders in narrow dugouts bump up to one another; to be noticed, they hoist a piece of fruit or a vegetable up a pole to flag their wares. The flat gray sky is punctured by muddy turnips, bright pink dragon fruit and sprays of spring onions.

The French used to say of their old colony of Indochina: “In Vietnam, they plant the rice; in Cambodia, they watch it grow; and in Laos, they listen to it grow.” The Vietnamese do seem the busiest, but there are still places to pause here on islands in the mouth of the Mekong, where locals grow sweet longan fruit, get about by paddle boat and laze in hammocks by the water’s edge.

And though I end my trip without seeing any farmers stop work to watch the sunset, I console myself that I am visiting during the rainy season, when the sun is often obscured by cloud. I still like to believe that on a clear evening they might lay down their tools and look west.

The lowdown: Luang Prabang

Getting There: Many airlines fly to Luang Prabang (often connecting through Bangkok) including Lao Airlines, Bangkok Airways, Thai Airways, Vietnam Airlines, Qatar Airways, Etihad, JAL and Air France.

Staying There: Amantaka is a clever conversion of the old provincial hospital with 24 suites around a shaded courtyard garden and pool. Room 18 has views of sacred Mount Phousi. In the heart of town, 3 Nagas brings together traditional timber-framed Lao vernacular, French colonial and contemporary Asian designs. Gardens roll down to the Nam Khan river and there are two excellent restaurants—one serving Lao cuisine, the other serving French.

Eating There: There are good inexpensive fish restaurants on the river banks and plenty of cafes lining the main street. It’s worth traveling a couple kilometers out of town to Phou Savanh, the fine-dining restaurant at the Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao serving French-Lao fusion food.

Other Things to Do: Visit the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre, a museum and boutique showcasing fine handicrafts by artisans from the country’s ethnic groups, and a pioneer in community-focused tourism.