A river cruise on the Mekong through Laos has nothing in common with the colossal ocean extravaganzas – this trip teaches humility, respect for the unknown and a love of deceleration.
Anke Knaber, 56, is a little surprised. “I expected it to be warmer in Laos,” she says. Dressed in functional clothing, she’s standing at the railing of a small cruise ship, gazing into the cool mistiness of a Laotian morning. The shore flows past Anke or vice versa. Despite the hot mug of coffee in her hand, she’s still feeling chilly. Anke is on vacation with her husband, Stefan, who’s sitting a little way off at a table and eager to talk about his favorite travel destinations. “Africa,” he says loudly, “I like Africa best.”
The sun isn’t yet casting its rays into the river wildly cutting its course through this country. Laos, a country that is so very different from all the others in Southeast Asia. This country which has no seacoast and therefore attracts far fewer tourists than its neighbors; for which visitors need a visa, and in which communism – or what people here consider to be communism – is still taken seriously. The neighboring economic miracle countries, Vietnam, Thailand and China, have only very little influence on it. Laos is still slumbering.
Anke, Stefan and I are wide awake. It’s seven in the morning, somewhere between Luang Prabang and the capital, Vientiane. Traveling in Laos is not an easy undertaking. There is no railroad network, the buses drive perilously fast, and 24-hour journeys are not uncommon. Most of the people visiting Laos are backpackers, here to party on the “4000 Islands” in the southern Mekong, in a stretch of the river that’s so wide there’s space for thousands of islands. Later, when they go back home again, they will say that Laos is still untouched. What they mean is that it has no tourism infrastructure. I have often been in Laos and I once spent three weeks riding across the country on a motorcycle, dozing in buses and drifting drunk downriver on tractor tires near Vang Vienf. But I have never been on the Mekong before.
The river is so wide that in many parts travelers might imagine they were by the ocean. On the coffee plantations in the south, near the city of Pakse, it is so cold in the early morning that your breath comes out in big clouds. And then, of course, there’s the mighty north, with its mountains and jungles and small towns in between, foremost among them Luang Prabang, a small post-colonial town, now discovered by tourists but still not overrun – yet.
Time came to a halt in Laos some time at the end of the 1970s. And maybe that is the greatest attraction this country has to offer. Slowness is not something you discover in Laos, you live it. To grasp this tempo, it’s a good idea to take the main transportation route in this country, the Mekong. The river that supplies Asia with food, with life. People grow up and rice paddies spread out along its banks.
It is a wild river, an impetuous one, especially the stretch that traverses Laos – barely straightened, the sharp rocks capable of slitting open a boat’s belly still lying in the middle of the riverbed. It’s an adventure, but it is navigable. Normally, only day trips are offered on the Mekong on which travelers make their way from town to town, from the south to the north of the country. But there’s also the Mekong Sun, a ship that connects the country’s capital with Luang Prabang in six days. The ship is operated by a German line, Lernidee Reisen, which also runs unusual trips through Russia and Asia, of which a Laos river cruise on this wooden ship is one.
Why I am making the journey is soon explained: I want to learn something, to know something without learning it off by heart. I have been measuring the world not with an atlas but in flight miles. I have been able to remember countries, forests and the names of rivers because I visited them, not because I read about them. If I travel with people of my own age or even younger, I generally don’t learn much because then I drink alcohol with them and forget most of what I experienced. I prefer to travel with older people, two generations older than me at best. They are rarely stingy, they can talk about a life I don’t yet know, and they have experience. This way, I get to know foreign countries, strangers and my possible future.
The Mekong Sun, just under 40 meters long and with a total of 14 cabins in three categories on two decks. It doesn’t look like a cruise ship, but recalls the pleasure steamers of European capitals. When I saw it for the first time, in Vientiane, on the unfortified shore of the Mekong, I was moved. A wooden house on the water, teak and mahogany, not a soulless steel monster. On board, the atmosphere is positively homely with the smell of wax and the slippers everyone has to wear to preserve the floor from premature scratches. It feels like I’m on an outing into the old Indochina of the 1920s, like George Orwell in Burma, but without the gin and the malaria.
Our group of voyagers consists of three families from India and France, the couple I mentioned earlier from Germany, a group of friends from England and me; 20 passengers in all. I naturally have my reservations about this kind of travel. I’ve been backpacking around the world for 20 years and still do. It has the advantage of independence, of being able to decide every minute of every day what I do, with whom I speak, what I experience. A river cruise is the polar opposite of this: It presents me with experiences and gives me little choice of conversation partners. So this trip is also a premiere, an experiment.
My generation always wants to experience the maximum, it wants adventure, not a seating plan. And yet I find myself adapting to the situation with astonishing ease. On the first evening, we are told where we will sit; no discussions. Two large tables, the French and the Indians at one table, the Germans and English at the other. There’s a lot of broken English at our table. “Um God’s Will,” Stefan exclaims when the English relate their travel adventures and hilarious misadventures. Anke and Stefan talk about their tours of Namibia and South Africa, Ethiopia and Ruanda. Experiences are compared in grand style. Because such a small ship feels like a home, the conversations soon become more intimate. Everyone joins in over our meal of laab gai, Laotian chicken salad.
Every night, the ship has to anchor at a sandbank. Traveling by night would be too dangerous – the Mekong Sun could capsize and no one would notice.
The chili peppers redden our lips, the sun sinks into the jungle, the diesel engines of the ship fall silent. The air turns cool and we all unpack and pull on our functional jackets. Every night, the ship has to anchor at a sandbank. It would be too wild and dangerous for the Mekong Sun to sail at night. We could capsize in the dark and no one would notice.
Anke and Stefan talk about life in the old days in East Germany, about optimism and new beginnings after the fall of the wall. In Stefan’s excited face I recognize the determined dream, the great dream of being free to travel which the engineer and the teacher are now fulfilling. You meet these kinds of people on ships like the Mekong Sun, not at hotel bars or in hostels. It takes the enforced intimacy of an evening meal shared to get to know people like these better, people from a different generation.
Every day, there’s an excursion, and every day, we travel roughly 100 kilometers. In the small town of Xanam-khan, I experience the power of the group. We visit a temple; with his iPad, the French grandfather belonging to our travel group awkwardly photographs the colorful murals, while the English smoke although it’s not permitted, and Anke and Stefan look annoyed. Many people, different needs, the tour guide tries to keep everyone happy. Tom Kobold, 21, came to Laos as a backpacker – and wanted to stay. Now he takes passengers across the country on board the Mekong Sun. With great self-assurance, he gives us lectures on the history of the country, explains the food and the customs, and calms down tourists in temples. “We still have time to go to a market,” he says, leading us all onward. At the market, a new impatience immediately arises and it soon becomes clear that we weary wanderers want to get back to the ship. Its wooden cabins with their little showers, their European-standard sockets and floor-length windows that make you feel you are sleeping in the jungle have a great appeal. A cozy nest for tourists drifting along the Mekong.
This trip is one on which no one is counting the days backwards. We simply lose touch with the world. The Internet is poor in Laos, so no contact with the outside world. A cruise with so few fellow travelers has something of a family outing about it. Unspoken agreements, friendly nods of the head, amiable understanding. On other, big cruises, passengers are encouraged to spend money. On the Mekong Sun, they are supposed to take things easy. They lie, they sleep and they see the sights. Nothing happens; that is probably the greatest promise of this trip. I am amazed. I never wanted to be inactive; as a child, I used to shove my dozing parents out of their beach chair: “Do something with me!” Now here I am, sitting perfectly calmly on a ship’s deck with not a want in the world.
On the last day, just before we reach Luang Prabang, we pass through a gigantic lock. All of the passengers are on deck, busily taking photos. Concrete columns as tall as skyscrapers rammed into the river, steel gates holding back the water and lowering the level of this mighty river. Then it’s back to taking it easy again. We pass the final kilometers to Luang Prabang sitting on deck, drinking coffee. We are all agreed that not much happened. And that is exactly what most of us wanted. And so we have grasped the essence of this country without guessing or planning it. Time passes more slowly here. Anyone wishing to travel Laos must learn to appreciate the slow pace of life.