Imagine, for a moment, the gift of discovery, of journeying into a completely new region of the world—one you’ve only read about and seen in photographs. A chance to understand the traditions and customs of a population wholly removed from your daily life and halfway around the planet. The lesser-visited Central Mekong River region is replete with opportunities to observe Laotian and Thai cultures, untrammeled by overtly modern influences and hearkening to a simpler time.
Lush, verdant landscapes, rice paddies, colorful markets, and quiet villages come into view as you cruise the legendary Mekong, and incredible—and unusual—geologic formations shelter prehistoric paintings. There are Buddhist temples so welcoming, yet rarely visited by western travelers—take advantage of this rare and wonderful experience as often as you can while there, particularly the striking temples set high on a cliffside. In Luang Prabang, morning time brings groups of serene monks to the streets during Tak Bat to collect prayer and food offerings. The open-air market is a choice spot to interact with the villagers and taste the local flavors. Farther along the Mekong, the river town of Pakse Pakse gives a glimpse into urban Laotian life and the authentic indigenous food is to die for.
Of particular note is Pha Taem National Park, a haven of sublime waterfalls and tall deciduous forests. There are cave paintings here that date back nearly 4,000 years and the expansive Laos views are among the best you’ll get anywhere.
In Champasak, a lovely jungle-enshrouded village, children swim in the river, women wash clothes, men fish by boat and collect drift wood along the banks—it’s easy to see how untouched life has been for decades, by war or strife. The economy here is largely dependent on the river, which flows steadily and lazily toward the South China Sea. Rent a tuktuk or a bicycle and head to the Wat Phou complex, a pre-Angkorian temple with impressive views.
Not to be missed—Don Khong Island, part of the 4,000 Islands, or Si Phan Don. Approximately 60,000 locals make their living fishing in the waters around these tufted islands, the same waters in which you might be lucky enough to glimpse the endangered Irawaddy dolphins who make their home below the Lii Pii Falls.
It’s a magical, mystical region, the Mekong, leaving visitors more informed and inspired to make their world bigger and brighter through travel in these timeless landscapes.