A new two-cabin riverboat provides an intimate way to cruise between northern Thailand and Laos.
Photographs by Jason Michael Lang.
As morning activities go, starting the day in the company of elephants is a pretty good one. Indeed, it’s almost de rigueur in this sylvan corner of northern Thailand, where the Anantara Golden Triangle resort doubles as a sanctuary for more than 20 rescued pachyderms and their mahouts, or handlers, who live together with their families at the on-site elephant camp. Guests are welcome to interact with these gentle giants, learn about elephant biology and the camp’s conservation efforts from the resident veterinarian, or, as I do, join some of the animals on their morning walk down to the mist-wreathed Ruak River.
It’s a languid experience: my two-ton companions—three females aged 19 to 30—are in no hurry to reach the water, preferring instead to forage for young leaves and shoots along the track. “They can consume as much as 300 pounds of food a day,” says Fiene Stein-brecher, a young German animal behaviorist who works as the camp’s science officer. “Which is to say, they’re always eating.” We plod along together for about an hour, the mahouts coaxing their charges along on foot with stalks of sugarcane while I stroke the elephants’ sand-papery hides, hand bananas to their eager trunks, and do my best not to get trodden upon.
If I ever make it back this way, I’ll be sure to spend more time at the Anantara. It’s a gorgeous spot, with views that extend across the Ruak and Mekong rivers to the borderlands of Myanmar and Laos. The architecture is enthralling, the rooms all have balconies with built-in daybeds, and the food—if my well-spiced Thai dinner the previous night is anything to go by—is excellent. Plus, there are plenty more elephants to meet.
As it is, my overnight stay is just a prelude to the real reason I’m here: to catch a boat for a three-day cruise down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, in Laos. The vessel in question is the Gypsy. Forty-one meters long and topped with curved roofs of shaggy thatch, it’s the current flagship of Mekong Kingdoms, a small fleet of riverboats launched last year by Bangkok-based Minor Hotels, which owns the Anantara brand. The Gypsy’s unique selling point is its exclusivity—there are only just two cabins for a maximum of four people. That’s not ideal for cruise-goers who thrive on socializing, but it’s a perfect fit for small families, one or two couples, or (in my case) a river- loving travel editor and his photographer friend from Bangkok, Jason Michael Lang.
With an itinerary that promises village visits, gourmet meals, and plenty of time for lazing, I’m keen to get started. But first, there are immigration formalities. On the Thai side these are straight-forward; a short drive away at the border post on Chiang Saen’s Mekong riverfront, a lone agent briskly stamps our passports before returning to his computer to watch YouTube videos. Tou, our genial cruise manager, then escorts us down the pier to the Gypsy. We’re welcomed aboard with chilled face towels and lemongrass-scented tea before being introduced to the rest of the six-man crew, all of whom, with the exception of the boat’s Thai chef, are Laotian.
Before we can begin our journey downstream, however, we must first chug a couple of kilometers up the Mekong to the golden-domed (and considerably busier) immigration hall on the Lao side of the river. Set near the entrance of a Chinese-run gambling resort euphemistically named the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, the building serves primarily to funnel streams of Chinese punters to a gaudy casino complex whose unsavory reputation has earned it the moniker of Laos’s Sin City. While we wait, we spot a young man with swollen eyes and an IV drip being escorted out of the hall. Jason shrugs. “What happens in Vegas, man …”
By the time Tou has sorted our paperwork and walked us back to the Gypsy under the harsh midday sun, two hours have passed since we embarked from Chiang Saen. But I’m happy to finally be pointed in the right direction. It’s the beginning of the dry season, meaning the water along this stretch of the Mekong is neither too low nor too strong for comfortable navigation. Still, with the current pushing us on, we surge downstream onto an eastward loop of the river, which swiftly takes us beyond the more obvious signs of human habitation.
We settle in. Positioned amidships, the two roomy teak-decked cabins—each with a supremely comfortable king-size bed and en-suite bathroom—bookend a canopied open-air lounge that’s an ideal spot for playing backgammon or catching up on our reading. (The Gypsy has a small onboard library, but unless your interests lean toward Fascinating Insects of Southeast Asia or Trees and Fruits of Southeast Asia, you’ll want to pack your own books.) To the front, set below the wheelhouse and staff berths, there’s a dining area with a TV and an open bar. And right at the bow, under the watchful eye of Captain Camphet, a 65-year-old riverboat veteran who’s spent half his life on the Mekong, there’s a small sundeck where you can take in the approaching scenery.
And what scenery it is. Beyond the small Thai town of Chiang Khong and the Lao port of Houayxay, which stare across at each other from opposite banks of the river, the terrain grows steeper and wilder. Forests cling to the sides of granite hills in every shade of green. I spot a water buffalo lounging on a sandbank and a couple of motorized canoes skimming across the caramel-colored water, but apart from that, we seem to have the Mekong to ourselves.
At 5:25 p.m., Tou’s soft-spoken sidekick, Bonmee, informs us that we have left Thailand behind; Laos is on both sides of the river now. Not much later the sun begins to sink behind the hills, and Captain Camphet steers toward a tiny fishing village on the east bank. There, we tie up to an iron stake that one of the crew drives deep into the loamy earth. In the gathering dark, the clang-clang of his sledgehammer momentarily silences the shrill chorus of cicadas.
My decision to bring Jason along on this trip quickly pays dividends. Apart from being an accomplished photographer and a pal, the burly Californian also co-owns Jua, a hip izakaya-style restaurant in Bangkok’s Talat Noi area where he is responsible for the soundtrack and keeping the bar well stocked. Unlike me, he’s come aboard with an iMac full of music, which he puts to good use after connecting to the Gypsy’s sound system. Yacht rock is the obvious choice for our first afternoon on the river, but when the sun sets and canapés—sashimi with miso paste on rice crackers; falafel balls; spring rolls stuffed with chicken larb—appear from the kitchen, Jason switches to his “Aww Yeah” playlist of classics from the likes of the Doobie Brothers and the Rolling Stones. He then inspects the bar and pulls out a few bottles, announcing, “Chris, I think it’s tiki time.” Five minutes later, we’re sipping potent piña coladas and humming along to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” as an almost-full moon rises above the inky water.
Our second day unfolds at the same leisurely pace. After a prodigious breakfast complete with cheeses, cold cuts, smoked salmon, and croissants, we stop at a Khmu hill-tribe village where women weave colorful textiles on old wooden looms. Around noon, while lounging on the sun deck, I watch as Ping the housekeeper (who also gives a mean shoulder massage) squats in prayer before tossing a banana and a wad of sticky rice into the eddying current. From his perch on the wheelhouse steps, Bonmee explains that the large outcrop we’re passing is sacred, known by legend to have once been a naga, or Buddhist serpent deity. He calls it Pha Ya Tao, or “Grandmother Mountain,” and woe betide the vessel that fails to give offerings for a safe passage.
We glide deeper into the interior of northern Laos. Gazing at the walls of jungle on either side of us has a hypnotic effect. So, too, does the thrum of water against our steel hull, which is all that remains of the old rice barge that Mekong Kingdoms used as the template for the Gypsy. Low-slung water taxis occasionally putter past us, their occupants gawking at our thatchy conveyance. (Launched less than a year ago, the boat is still something of a novelty on this part of the river.) Beyond the small town of Pak Beng, where our onboard Wi-Fi sputters to life for a few minutes, I spot a gaggle of kids shrieking with glee as they tumble down a sandbank into the water. Mostly, though, I see no one at all.
The spell is broken briefly as we approach a massive bridge construction site—part of a Chinese-funded railway project that will one day connect Vientiane with Kunming, 400 kilometers to the north. By contrast, our anchorage for the night, Ban Kok Kham, is a modest cluster of houses perched on a low bluff above the water. We’ve been invited to join the village elders for a baci, or well-wishing ceremony, which involves lots of bowing and chanting and having dozens of cotton strings tied around our wrists. We then retire to the headman’s concrete stoop for countless rounds of home-brewed lao-lao, the country’s beloved rice whiskey. The moonshine is raw but the conversation—translated by Tou and Bonmee—is convivial, ranging from village gossip and local politics to the virtues of polygamy. (I take the latter as a joke, though one of our hosts insists he has a dozen wives.)
Back on the boat for dinner, we agree that chef Waran, who spent his formative years cooking aboard Disney cruise ships in the Caribbean, has outdone himself. The spread includes chicken larb on rice crackers, beef khao soi (egg noodles in a rich coconut curry), and scallops flavored with an aromatic tom saeb stock. “I’m a khao soi aficionado, and this is a good ’un,” Jason confirms. We dine to a mellow play-list dubbed “Lang’s Lament”—Neil Young, John Prine, Brad Mehldau—then enjoy a round of nightcaps to an Afrobeat soundtrack. I can’t say for sure that this is the first time anyone’s heard Fela Kuti in these parts, but it’s a good bet.
As we approach Luang Prabang, the Mekong widens and the landscape flattens. There’s more traffic on the water now too, from cargo vessels and ferries to the water taxis that disgorge tourists and pilgrims at the base of a sheer, grotto-pocked limestone cliff at the Mekong’s confluence with the River Ou. This is the famous Pak Ou Caves, where steep steps lead up to caverns filled with hundreds of Buddha statues and relics.
Two hours later, we say goodbye to the crew at Luang Prabang. A waiting car—the first I’ve seen in awhile—deposits us at the Avani+, a lovely 53-room property designed by the same architect who outfitted the Gypsy. After a late lunch at the hotel’s roadside bistro, Jason, a frequent visitor to Luang Prabang, leads me on a walk around the former Laotian royal capital. We saunter past gilded temples and French-colonial villas, quaint traditional homes and low-key cafés, eventually climbing the 300 steps to the top of Mount Phousi, the town’s centerpiece hill. From here, the views extend in all directions. But it’s the Mekong that commands attention as it flows languidly past Luang Prabang and on through the Laotian hinterland. The Gypsy is down there somewhere, no doubt prepping for its return trip to Chiang Saen. With a twinge of envy, I wonder who the next lucky passengers will be.
Three-day cruises on the Gypsy from Chiang Saen to Luang Prabang start from US$7,920 per trip, including meals, select drinks, and shore excursions. In the opposite (upstream) direction, the journey takes four days but costs less, from US$5,280 per trip. Mekong Kingdoms also offers packages that include stays at sister hotels Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort and Avani+ Luang Prabang at either end of the cruise.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Drifting Down The Mekong”).