My only previous visit to the Laotian border town of Ban Houei Xai was more than 30 years ago. It was a helicopter ride arranged by the American embassy in Vientiane to see a bonfire of opium which was intended to show the world that Laos was eliminating the opium crop of the Golden Triangle. The keen interest shown by my fellow journalists was less to do with the efficacy of this doomed drug-eradication programme, more to do with how the opium being destroyed compared with their nightly pipes at Madame Lulu’s.
Now this scruffy little place is the jumping-off point for one of the world’s most magical river journeys, 200 miles downstream to the former royal capital of Luang Prabang, Southeast Asia’s least spoilt town.
The Luang Say, our boat, was a marvel of technical and historical improvisation. Once a rice barge, it had been converted into a low, elegant wooden passenger vessel. The boat was skirted with carved railings and had three or four seating zones with chairs, cushions, viewing platforms and centrally located tables on which to rest beverages, binoculars, Scrabble sets and recently published Notting Hill novels.
The Mekong is touted as one of the world’s top ten rivers, but it is relatively unknown, and underused because of its huge fluctuations in volume and a series of rapids and waterfalls which render it impassable down towards the Cambodian border. Its source lies in an arid portion of the eastern Tibetan plateau. It gains volume and speed as it passes through China, Burma and Thailand before reaching our point of departure. Here it is relatively frisky, somewhere between 100 and 200 yards wide and the colour of a brooding muddy puddle. Within the completely untouched jungle gorges of northern Laos, it is an exquisite tableau of frenzied yet discrete activities â” whirlpools, eddies, rapids, islets with an occasional display of tree trunks, palms and assorted herbal detritus. This being the height of the rainy season (or ‘Green Season’ as travel PRs try to rename it), the central channel is pumping down hundreds of thousands of tonnes of water every few seconds, mainly via a central channel which is up to 80 feet deep.
There are only a handful of settlements along the steep banks, but they rarely consist of more than a half-dozen bamboo huts with a number of elegant pirogues for fishing. The real joy of this trip is that there is no evidence of the 20th century â” just the occasional forest clearing made by hill tribes who have taken a rather slash-and-burn approach to agriculture. But there is no appreciable change in the views since French explorers were first here in the 1860s; it is hard to convey the joy of gazing out for hours and never seeing any sign of modern man, let alone jet trails, roads or traffic noise. For the first hundred miles of the journey, the Mekong is mostly enclosed within steep, mist-shrouded mountains several hundred feet tall and usually not more than half a mile from one peak to the other. The putt-putt of the diesel engine and the swirl of the water engenders a bit of lazy reading and intermittent dozing.
On the final day, as the river widened and steeper limestone cliffs appeared, I looked ahead at a tiny sandbank with palm trees on the horizon and misty hills behind. Suddenly the body of water widened to nearly a mile as the Mekong and the Nam Ou rivers merged. This natural amphitheatre, with differing layers of blue mountains at the far end, was the most paradisical setting I have ever seen. There is the added delight of the Ban Pak Ou caves, with their thousands of Buddha images that rest only a few feet above the water.
Two hours later, still marvelling at the beauty of this final stretch, we stopped at the bottom of a wide stone staircase. We had arrived at Luang Prabang, where our mooring doubled as the stairway to Wat Xieng Thong, the grandest temple complex in town. What a place to end the journey. Nothing much had changed since my last visit to the annual boat festival in 1974 â” the palms and temples are still the highest structures, for Luang Prabang’s Unesco world heritage status has kept barbarian builders at bay. Time is running out though â” the Chinese are busy building dams on their portion of the Mekong, while superhighways are planned to end just north of Ban Houei Saip. You have been warned.