River cruising in southern Laos: Vat Phou temple and the 4,000 islands

The Vat Phou boat

While the tourist paths of northern Laos are becoming increasingly well trodden, the number of visitors to the south of the country are still relatively small. Those who do make the trip to the areas close to the Cambodian border, dominated by the Mekong and the life that is centred around it, are well rewarded for their efforts. This fertile area supports a surprising diversity of landscapes, ancient temples and spectacular waterfalls, all of which can be explored easily and in relative solitude.

Without doubt the most comfortable way to explore this fascinating region is by joining a luxury cruise, allowing visitors to float gently along the Mekong river and exploring its many treasures en route. Most of the attractions of this region are located on or close to the river, which makes a river trip a perfect way to visit the sites of interest while enjoying the comforts of great accommodation and sumptuous food.

Processional walkway to Vat Phou

The gateway for visiting southern Laos is the city of Pakse, and this is also the starting point for the Vat Phou river cruise, operated by Mekong Cruises. The cruise takes three days, although only full day is spent actually making progress on the river in the Vat Phou cruise boat, while the first and last days are mainly spent exploring various sites along the Mekong. The boat is also moored at night, as the river is not considered safe to navigate in darkness.

The boat itself is homely and a very comfortable place from which to sit and watch the life on the river. And there is much to see, as barely a mile goes by without seeing local fishermen at work, children paddling their way across the mile wide river, or villages built precariously along the Mekong’s high banks. The 12 cabins are compact but allow for a good night’s sleep, with a very effective AC system (so effective that on our trip the passengers held a vote and decided to have it switched off at night; Europeans 1 Americans 0).Each cabin has a good sized shower, sink and WC, along with plenty of storage space.

The main standing structure of Vat Phou

The food on board was excellent: as with most tourist focussed cuisine in Laos it was served devoid of chilli heat but with chillies as a side for those of us who wanted to add some spice. We did note immediately that far too much was served and although it was delicious we could barely make a dent in the servings, and we were concerned at the amount of potential wastage. We learned that the crew ate what we left, and what was still left over was then donated to the local villages that we visited along the way.

So what is there to see along the way? We made several stops during the three days, and there were three clear highlights:

1. Vat Phou. This ancient Khmer temple complex, older than Angkor Wat itself, is set in a truly stunning location. Set back from the Mekong and on the slopes of the surrounding hills, it enjoys wonderful views over the river and surrounding countryside. Our group had the site pretty much to ourselves, and for over two hours we explored the temples with our guide and alone, admiring the sacrificial stones, ornate carvings and cleansing pools that make up Vat Phou. It is remarkably intact, and although there are teams at work on restoring and preserving the site much of it is exactly as it has lain for over a thousand years.

Vat Phou site

A recent article in The Times suggested Vat Phou as an alternative to visiting Angkor Wat. While I would not agree with this (the vast spread of the Angkor Wat site is incomparable) a visit to Vat Phou will certainly impress. We were there until just before sunset, and the light in the late afternoon made for an unforgettable sight.

2. Four thousand islands (Si Phan Don). This southernmost tip of Laos was our final stop, and to explore this part of the Mekong we transferred to long tail boats (the river cruiser is unable to navigate the rocky and often narrow channels here). The landscapes are dramatic, with crystal blue waters revealing many tiny green islands and a thriving river life. Boats are the main mode of transport here, and it is common to see families using long-tail boats to go about their everyday business. There is even an old railway line, built by the French to link the upper Mekong in Laos with the lower stretch on the Cambodian side of the rapids found here. A old locomotive sits forlorn in Don Det, evidence of the rapid demise of the railway project.

Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands)

3. Local villages. As with many of the river boat trips we took in SE Asia, the cruise company has an arrangement with local villages, where they allow visitors to see a view of local life and the company provide them with a much needed cash boost. Having seen a number of these villages, it is clear that villages take different approaches to welcome their visitors. On this trip our main village stop was memorable for the number of children who came running out to greet us. Everywhere we walked they would tag along, waving, posing and chatting away, all the time laughing and pointing at the funny foreigners. While they were clearly used to having falang (literally meaning long nose, but referring to all Europeans) strolling through the village, their effusive chatter and ubiquitous smiles reflected positively on our whole group.

Children posing for pictures in the villages

We even had the chance to take a dip in the river. I had a short swim, and was alarmed at the strength of the current. Not being the strongest of swimmers, I battled the current for a couple of minutes and quickly retreated to the shallow waters near the boat, but I can proudly say that I swam in the Mekong and survived.

The Vat Phou boat is very different from the other boat operated by Mekong Cruises, the Luangsay. On the Luangsay boat, described in a previous 501 Places post, the journey is one that everyone takes by boat; the choice is whether to do it in luxury or not. Here the Vat Phou cruise is not a way to get from A to B; after all, you are returned to Pakse at the end of the trip by minibus. This is a cruise for the sake of cruising, and most of the passengers were experienced cruisers. The cost of the 3 day trip is over $500 a head (varying according to season), and the high levels of service and comfort that this price tag demands are met by a crew that are clearly used to working with western customers.

Life on the Mekong

We drifted on our trip between luxury tourism and backpacking, and I have to say that after three days of having everything done for me without being able to raise a finger I was happy to throw on the rucksack and return to the world of uncertainty at the Cambodian border. But if you are looking for a comfortable, well organised way to explore a little-visited corner of SE Asia, this is a trip that comes highly recommended. And with direct flights from Pakse to several other SE Asian cities it can be easily combined with a wider itinerary in Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam.

(Disclosure: My 2 day trip on the Vat Phou boat was taken at a discounted rate in exchange for featuring the experience on 501 Places and elsewhere)

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3 Responses to “River cruising in southern Laos: Vat Phou temple and the 4,000 islands”

  1. Sally Hawkins #

    Your article gave a lovely honest picture of the trip. You have convinced me to think about booking.

    March 4, 2010 at 8:12 pm
  2. Thank you Sally for your kind comments. Do let me know if I can share any more of my experiences in Laos to help your booking plans.

    March 5, 2010 at 2:05 pm
  3. Wow this place is so beautiful,such a wonderful place to travel.I wish someday I could come and visit. ^_^

    March 11, 2010 at 9:52 am