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The River Route Through Laos

The Lao Aviation ATR72 aircraft banked sharply to the left as it descended over the brown waters of the Mekong River toward Pakse Airport. I looked down at fishermen in narrow, wooden boats.

The airplane straightened and lowered and we soared over thatched roofs, dirt roads and palm trees. A brutally hot, early morning July sun beat down on the single runway.

Girl eating corn Pakse, Laos

I had come to experience life outside Vientiane, the capital of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, and to catch a boat south to Cambodia. Few tourists come to Pakse, the capital of Champasak Province in southern Laos. Some use it as a stopover on their way to see the Angkor ruins of Wat Phu or the quiet river town of Champasak farther down the Mekong, the twelfth longest river in the world. In the minds of many a Westerner the river still stirs memories of the war in Southeast Asia. Now, though, the countries along its shores are at peace and welcome investment, business and explorers.

That evening in Pakse children flew homemade kites of newspaper high above shoddy homes along a narrow road of dark red dirt. Eager to practice their English, they shouted “Hello!” as I passed. The ones who were not so eager were encouraged by their parents to say the familiar English word. A shirtless boy no older than 12 led a cow through town with a rope. A smaller, unattached cow followed close behind as the boy’s companion brought up the rear on a small motorbike to keep the animals in line.

Old women and young children sold fried bananas, peanuts, and fresh corn on the cob at tables along many roadways. Others sold lottery tickets, pineapples, baguettes and handmade baskets.

That night my traveling companion, Cate, and I ate a simple, one-dish meal of rice and chicken at a small restaurant. We drank Beerlao, the most common beer in Laos. We stayed at Hotel Pakse, run by a Frenchman who had recently finished renovations. For $10 we had a clean room with a tile floor, wood furniture, cable television and air conditioning. From the rooftop of the seven-story hotel we watched the setting sun bathe the city in shades of orange. In the distance was the Mekong.

Mekong River Transport

The next morning at sunrise barefoot Buddhist monks in orange robes walked single-file through the streets, collecting alms as they made their way to temple. People knelt as they passed. Cate and I got an early start, too, arriving at the ferry landing before 7 to find men and women struggling to unload pigs from a truck. The animals kicked and screamed. A young man approached and, after bargaining for the price of my ride, directed me down a steep hill to a waiting boat.

It was wooden, five feet wide, sixty feet long, with a roof so low I could not stand upright underneath it. Torn pieces of rolled-up tarp, our shelter if it rained, hung from the perimeter of the roof. After an hour the boat was filled with large bags of sugar, containers of fruit, and a bicycle. Men, women and children made themselves comfortable on the hard floor for the long trip. For them it was routine. Not for me. A week earlier I had seen the Mekong for the first time when I crossed over it on the Friendship Bridge in Nong Khai as I left Thailand on the way to Laos. During my stay in Vientiane I had walked along the mighty waterway. Food vendors had lined its banks there. I had seen it from the air as it snaked its way south through muddy rice fields. But I had never been on the river.

The crew got the motor running and soon we were moving, a refreshing breeze in our faces. The driver sat at the rear where the passengers and cargo obstructed his view. Most of the crew climbed onto the roof to smoke cigarettes; one man directed the driver below with hand motions. We passed villages barely visible through thick vegetation. The modest wood houses on the riverbanks are built on stilts. Some have thatched roofs, others thin sheets of metal. The boat stopped to let off passengers, and pick up new ones, at many points. One time two men carried a full-sized refrigerator aboard. Crowds of children gathered at every stop to wave. At longer stops villagers boarded briefly to sell fried bread, fruit, and chicken to hungry passengers.

Mekong River Transport

The Mekong widens just north of Cambodia, where there are many islands. After almost eight hours, Don Khong, the biggest island in the region, was visible. It was good to be on land and dark by the time I found a guesthouse just a one-minute walk from the river. It was a welcoming place with six large rooms but very different from our stay in Pakse. Our bed was covered with a mosquito net and there was no air conditioning or television.

After securing a room, I rented a motorbike and rode past mothers and daughters working in the rice fields. Barefoot and wearing conical-shaped, straw hats, they held their straight backs perfectly parallel to the ground as they worked. When I passed they stopped, smiled and waved.

A flat tire cut my ride short. After 20 minutes of pushing the motorbike I entered a small village where curious residents surrounded me and figured out I needed help. One man used his fingers to explain there was a place to fix my tire 12 kilometers down the road. I stood there, not entertaining the idea of walking the bike that far in the 95-degree heat. We looked at each other for a minute and then the group snapped into action. Half an hour later, the tire was fixed and I was drinking local whisky with new friends.

Don Khong’s morning market, which is the island’s social event of the day, is a great place to wonder. Fish flop in and out of small plastic water tanks. Severed pigs’ heads are displayed on tables next to piles of raw pork meat and guts. Women sit on the ground selling corn, rice and peppers. Teenage girls sell live chickens.

But after two days Cate and I were on the river again, this time on a smaller boat traveling a shorter distance to Don Det, a much smaller island best explored by bicycle. There are narrow dirt paths between rice fields and more in the villages. Water buffalo dot the landscape. A woman relaxed on a hammock with a baby when we rode by. Near her a young man surrounded by puffs of white smoke inhaled marijuana from a large wooden bong. Farther down the trail a shirtless old man waved from his porch and motioned for us to come closer. He explained he used to be in the American military and that his 100-year-old mother lives in San Francisco. He returned to Laos eight years earlier, he said.

Monks collect alms in Pakse

Certainly I was not the only foreigner on Don Det, which is popular with backpackers. I paid Mr. Tho 10,000 Lao kip, less than $1 per night, to sleep in one of his riverside bungalows. Our room was very small and, since there is no electricity on the island, dark. Mr. Tho, a thin, white-haired man, does good business. When our tiny boat, filled with backpackers, pulled away from the east shore early one Sunday morning Mr. Tho stood waist-deep in muddy Mekong water smiling at us and waving goodbye. In 15 minutes we arrived at the mainland and almost instantly found a truck that took us to Route 13 and Lao customs  a gate that blocked the road. The driver got out and lifted the gate and so we cleared customs.

Turning right took us onto a dirt track to a small, wooden shed raised five feet off the ground on stilts. A young man in plain clothes rose from his breakfast table on the porch of a nearby wood house. He was the Lao immigration checkpoint in Tha Boei. After having our passports stamped and paying a $3 overtime fee we proceeded down another dirt trail toward the river. At the bottom of the hill we saw my destination. The Cambodian border was on the opposite bank of the Mekong. From there it would be on to Stung Treng, 50 kilometers south of Laos. But crossing that water was not easy. A Dutch couple who had been waiting since the day before waited still. We all sat under a metal roof at what seemed to be an abandoned restaurant while the boat negotiators bargained. As the bargaining went on I went into town, which had a dirt road and a few shops, mostly without stocked merchandise. There I found soggy peanuts and strawberry cookies, bought them and returned to the place of the negotiating.  The boat people were happier with the outcome than I was, but their boat was the only one headed south.

The chief negotiator, who spoke English, led us down a dirt trail to his waiting boat, 20 feet long and wide enough to sit two people side by side. There were four rows of hard seats. Behind the last row sat the driver, slightly elevated. In the first row, behind the baggage, was his assistant. The wooden boat was painted red with traces of yellow. In it we traversed the short distance to the Cambodian side and walked up a hill to the immigration checkpoint. After paying a $5 fee to two uniformed, polite and serious officers, we had our visas checked, passports stamped and were on our way.

Rice Paddies, Don Khong

Back in the boat there was only a few inches of wood between us and the river, which reminded me of a sheet of glass. The ride was smooth for much of the trip, but when we hit rough water the boat shook violently and I clutched the sides. We ripped down the river very fast, dodging whatever came in our path. Tiny branches brushed against my face and cool water splashed me when we hit small rapids or wakes from other fast boats moving in the opposite direction. Trees and other vegetation, on submerged islands, sprouted from the water, as is common during the rainy season, a good time to travel by boat because the risk of hitting rocks and sand bars is reduced. Our driver was a Mekong veteran but my knuckles were still white.

The towns we’d visited and people we’d met were unforgettable, but getting from place to place was the real adventure in Laos. The Mekong is 2,600 miles long and while I experienced a fraction of that distance, I felt like an explorer. As we got farther away from the Cambodian passport control station and into the heart of a new country I knew other adventures along the Mekong awaited us. The city of Stung Treng would be visible in less than an hour.

Mike Buscher is a photojournalist who is currently working on two major projects. The first involves documenting life in Castro’s Cuba in the 21st Century and the second is about life in the communities on the Trans-Siberian Railrway route in Russia.  Some of this work can be viewed on his web site:

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