Way to flow: A lazy river trip in Laos

Lucy Gillmore takes a slow boat down one of the world's great rivers, and discovers that life along its banks drifts along at the same gentle pace as the languid water

If I could only sweat around my toenails I'd hotfoot it down to the river as fast as my sturdy thighs could take me, too. And if four hours sleep a night, most of that standing up, was all I could snatch, I guarantee I'd be far tetchier about it as well. Crouched beneath a searing sun on top of the elephant's neck, knees bent and feet dangling behind her leathery ears, we lumbered down the sandy track. It had been a long, hot, dusty day and it was time for her afternoon bath.

"Hang on, enjoy the ride, but if you fall off, swim like hell," we were told. Or you might end up as the bar of slippery soap to three tons of wallowing water baby.

We'd been up at 6am to fetch the elephants from the forest, tramping through the head-high, rustling grass. Tethered with long chains throughout the woods - if they're too close together the elephants play all night and keep the hotel guests awake - their bulky frames emerged in the misty half-light through the trees.

The mahouts, small and wiry, their heads hidden in the folds of woolly Balaclavas to ward off the pre-dawn chill, untied their charges, sprang up on to the elephants' backs and, with a series of soft commands, directed them down to the water for the first dip of the day. Balancing on the broad, wrinkled backs, the mahouts washed the dust of the forest from their animals' flanks, as the elephants plunged head-first into the muddy waters, rolling from side to side.

This early morning ritual was part of the mahout-training programme at the Anantara Resort in north-east Thailand at the point where the Nam Ruak river flows into the Mekong. When the pan-Asian hotel group bought the property three years ago, an elephant camp was created - with a difference. Rather than simply offering elephant trekking, with tourists perched on wooden seats strapped to the elephants' backs, the company wanted the camp to have a conservation ethos. The day it was decided to look into a suitable project, John Roberts e-mailed from Nepal where he'd been working for the past five years in the Royal Chitwan National Park. He proposed an elephant-rescue programme in conjunction with the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre. There are under 2,000 elephants left in the wild in Thailand and their habitat is shrinking. The elephants working with mahouts, however, are in an even more precarious position. The elephant and mahout team traditionally worked in the logging industry. But, after the deforestation of massive tracts of land, commercial logging was banned.

Some mahouts sought work in illegal logging camps where the elephants were force-fed amphetamines so that they could work round the clock, which led to addiction and death. With no way of earning a living others were forced on to the tuk-tuk-clogged city streets. The mahouts buy bananas to sell to the tourists to feed the elephants. The mahout scrapes a living and the elephant is fed. However, the elephants suffer from stress and are frequently hit by cars. There's no point buying the elephants, Roberts explained, because the mahout would simply purchase another animal and the whole cycle would start again. It's a matter of education: for mahouts, and now, hotel guests.

The mahout-training programme is John Roberts' brainchild. Thinking back to his pony-clubbing childhood - when mucking out and grooming the ponies was as important as learning to trot - he came up with the idea of teaching tourists how to look after the elephants as well as how to ride them, providing the mahouts with employment at Anantara.

After their morning bath we had headed back to the elephant camp to learn the basic commands and practise mounting, dismounting and riding. Now, before taking them back to the forest, we were cooling off in the Nam Ruak. Slithering down the bank to the river, our broad bucking broncos rolled and splashed around in the water as we screeched with laughter and clung on until our knuckles ached: part rollercoaster ride, part Kate Humble moment.

Only 20 years ago this far-flung corner of Thailand was still off-limits to tourists, ruled by warring drug lords who controlled the rampant opium production. This lawless region, the point where the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos meet, was nicknamed the Golden Triangle. Today, the Thai government has largely managed to eradicate opium production and the hill tribes who relied on poppy growing have been persuaded to farm alternative crops. Opium production is still prevalent over the borders in Laos and Burma, however.

Next door to the Anantara Resort is the impressive Hall of Opium museum. With fascinating black-and-white film footage, as well as an outline of the history of opium and its trade, it is more of an interactive exhibition. You should allow a good couple of hours to take it all in. The East India Company and CIA don't come out of it too well; if you're British or American you'll slope out of there pretending to be French.

We had travelled up here in order to cross into neighbouring Laos by land. Or rather, river. In this remote region the Mekong forms a natural border, as well as being a source of food and water and an ancient trade route. We were to take a long-tail boat from Chiang Khong on the Thai side to Huai Say. The latter was once an important trading post. However, now, although some barges still occasionally sail down the Mekong from China, it has become a sleepy backwater chiefly noted for its giant catfish. At three metres long they're said to be the largest freshwater fish in the world. When the river is at its lowest in April, fishermen from Thailand and Laos compete to see who can catch the most of these bottom-dwelling creatures.

Although you can now fly from Bangkok to the ancient Laos capital, Luang Prabang, making the journey by riverboat had seemed far more romantic. The Huai Say border crossing is popular with travellers who choose to travel down river to the city. Until recently you could either take the slow boat, a serene two-day journey - or the daredevil (or rather death wish) jet boat: a six-hour bone jangling, crash-helmeted, adrenalin-rush. However, there have been so many fatalities with the high-speed boats jack-knifing, that they were banned the week we arrived. Luckily we had booked the soft option, the LuangSay Cruise.

Cruising Lao-style meant an old 34-metre wooden barge equipped with bar, toilet and padded wooden benches and wicker chairs and just 29 passengers - a mix of French, Canadian, Dutch, Australian and British travellers, drifting down one of the longest rivers in the world.

The 4,180km Mekong rises in Tibet and flows south and east through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea. For land-locked Laos it is a lifeline. This relatively small nation (at 236,800 square kilometres around the same size as Britain) is one of the world's poorest countries and one of the last official communist states.

After the French colonists departed, a constitutional monarchy was established - but a revolution in 1975 * *transformed the country into the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Forgotten for years by the West, it opened up to travellers again only after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today it offers a gentle, scenic South East Asian interlude. Predominantly Buddhist, its people are welcoming, the scenery is breathtaking, and travelling slowly through the country by boat catapults you back in time.

The first leg of our journey, meandering past water buffalo, fishermen on bamboo rafts, buoys marking fishing nets, was to cover a mere 145km and take seven hours, winding up at the little market town of Pakbeng. January is the middle of the dry season, which runs from November to May, and so the river was low. Tiered sandbanks on either side revealed how high the water can reach (there's an eight-metre difference between the highest and lowest points).

Jagged rocks cutting through the surface formed a slalom course for the captain through the rapids, but years of practice navigating this stretch - and a reinforced steel hull - mean that accidents are rare.

Lazing on the prow we drifted down river, through this sleepy rural backwater, watching the shifting scenery, sandy banks giving way to vertiginous creeper-clad cliffs. When we stopped off at little villages, children clamoured around us, selling bracelets. We watched villagers panning for gold, tending the green shoots of their peanut crops on the sandy shore, and elephants hauling logs, in a soporific tableau.

We stopped overnight at the LuangSay Lodge, perched into the hillside just outside Pakbeng. The scramble up a steep white-sand bank led to a string of rustic wooden bungalows on stilts connected by wooden walkways. Throwing open the simple wooden shutters, we gazed at the river far below snaking into the distance as the sun set.

Waking the next day to a misty dawn, our first few hours chugging downstream were spent huddled together under blankets, clasping steaming hot tea. The second leg was another seven-hour stretch stopping off at Lathan, a village that specialises in distilling rice whisky (like a smooth, if fiery, grappa) and the Pak Ou caves, a Buddhist shrine. Set into a vertical cliff face, the cave temples burrow into the rock and contain thousands of dusty and broken Buddhas, made of wood or resin and covered in peeling gold leaf. Originally dedicated to the spirits of the river, they were converted into Buddhist temples in the 15th century.

As the afternoon sloped towards dusk we arrived at our journey's end, Luang Prabang, once a tiny mountain kingdom. Today the sleepy little town on a peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers has an easy, laid-back charm. Although Vientiane is now the capital of Laos, Luang Prabang - with more than 30 red-roofed wats, or temples - is still regarded as the spiritual capital and was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995.

Recently a plethora of stylish guesthouses and boutique hotels including the 3 Nagas and the Aspara (featured in Herbet Ypma's Hip Hotels Orient) has started to spring up, giving the well-known colonial bolthole - the Villa Santi - a run for its money. We were staying in Maison Souvannaphoum, the old royal residence, now all modern Asian chic with shiny parquet floors, white shutters and billowing curtains.

The only traditional five-star hotel is La Residence Phou Vau, part of the Orient-Express chain, a little way out of town. It boasts views of the gold-domed temple on top of Mount Phousi, a popular sunset spot, from its infinity pool.

The ramshackle main street is tree-lined and now crammed with travel agents, bakeries and cafés and boutiques. Monks in tangerine-toned robes wander down the street under the shade of umbrellas; the only vehicles are mopeds, bicycles and tuk-tuks.

It's an easy place to while away a few days - or weeks. The colonial heritage is evident in the peeling French shop-fronts and the restaurants - L'Elephant is the most celebrated of the bistros. Although with a chef for a boyfriend, eager to try anything unrecognisable, weird or wonderful, we headed straight to the markets. In an alley off the bustling night market, tiny dimly lit stalls offered grilled fish on sticks, legs of skewered chicken, spicy spring rolls, bowls of noodles - and mixed bags of intestines and chicken heads which you could eat at rickety tables.

Rising at 5.30am on our second morning, we joined the people sitting cross-legged on the pavements waiting to give the monks alms. In their saffron-coloured robes the monks parade silently through the streets at dawn, collecting offerings of sticky rice from those who want to receive "merits". After the monks had passed we wandered sleepily round the morning market. Laid out on square cloths on the ground were piles of neatly stacked chillies, tiny birds, squirrels in a row, a dead snake, bats strung together, huge mounds of rice - a young girl continuously piling it high and smoothing it - as well as every kind of vegetable. There were stalls of raw red meat dripping blood, a big block of congealed black blood. Dragon fruit - purple and spiky - added a splash of colour. Another table was stacked high with freshly baked baguettes. For breakfast we devoured deep-fried bananas and bowls of watery noodles.

After our two-day journey to Luang Prabang, river travel had cast its spell. The LuangSay's sister-boat, the Wat Phou rice barge, plies the Mekong in the southern part of the country. Wanting to explore further, we booked the three-day cruise. After the 90-minute flight down to Pakse a further one-hour voyage by long-tail boat took us through the rapids to join the barge at Champasak.

This time we would be sleeping on board, as the gracious old riverboat has been converted into a floating hotel with a dozen simple wooden two-berth cabins, two on the top deck and 10 on the lower deck. The open upper deck is all polished wood and scattered with wicker chairs, day beds for lounging and a bar.

Sailing leisurely downstream, our destination was the picturesque archipelago known as 4,000 islands. The trip took in excursions to two temples: the majestic Khmer ruin of Wat Phou, a recently declared Unesco World Heritage Site; and the ruins of Oun Moung, now a mound of stones hidden by the jungle for centuries.

Life on and around the water passed as before in a sleepy tableau. Down in the lowlands the days were hotter, the nights sultry. We were thankful for the cover on the upper deck. We whiled away the hours with siestas, reclining on the padded cushions on deck, or chatting over a cold beer as we drifted past water buffalo, women washing in the river, fishermen in long-tail boats casting their nets.

Children in the villages we visited seemed less used to tourists, running up to us, grabbing our hands, wanting to play in the river or sing us the French songs they had learnt in school. The villages were poor but the people welcoming, always smiling.

In the far south, close to the border with Cambodia, Si Phan Don - the 4,000 islands - is a 14km-wide archipelago of sandbanks, islets and rocky outcrops created by the Mekong. This watery haven is home to rare flora and fauna including the freshwater dolphin. Isolated by the labyrinthine network of islands, these little fishing communities have remained largely unchanged for centuries.

Our final stop was Don Khon, all rustling palm trees, the locals clad in sarongs, the main street golden sand, the banks lined with rustic tourist cabanas on stilts. The pace of life seemed almost at a standstill. The water here was a milky emerald, the vegetation a lush vivid green. I wanted to dig my heels in and stay; to slumber for a while cradled by the Mekong's tendrils. If ever a place could be said to induce a lotus-eater-like state I was sure it was this dreamy idyll.

But it was time to cross the border back into Thailand. We had an internal flight to catch to the choking frenzy of Bangkok. Arriving late that night at the Peninsula Hotel, I gazed down at Chao Phraya river from our room on the 28th floor. Disorientated by the shift from simple riverboat cabin to luxury hotel, I got my bearings from the river far below and the twinkling lights and illuminated choreography of the boats plying backwards and forwards. The hotel's traditional Thai restaurant, Thiptara, is a jumble of country-style teak pavilions surrounded by tropical foliage, on the edge of the river. From our table we watched the floorshow: huge unlit cargo vessels pulled by jaunty little tugs, disco cruise boats flashing by and a wooden barge - a Viking-style elephant's head at its prow. More motorway than rural byway, it was still river life and soothing in its way.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Audley Travel (01869 276 222; www.audleytravel.com) offers a similar 12-day tailor-made trip from £2,245 per person based on two sharing, including flights and B&B accommodation; full board on the LuangSay and Wat Phou cruises.

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Thai Airways ( www.thaiairways.co.uk; 0870 606 0911), Eva Air (020-7380 8300; www.evaair.com) and Qantas (00845 774 7767; www.qantas.com) fly non-stop to Bangkok.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk).

STAYING THERE

Anantara Resort (00 66 53 78 4084; www.anantara.com)

Maison Souvannaphoum, (00 856 7125 4609; www.coloursofangsana.com)

La Residence Phou Vau, (00 856 71 212194; www.orient-express.com)

The Peninsula (00 66 2 861 2888; www.bangkok.peninsula.com)

FURTHER INFORMATION

Thailand Tourism: 020-7925 2511; www.tourismthailand.co.uk. Laos Tourism: www.tourismlaos.gov.la

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