Anyone who has spent more than a few hours in Luang Prabang in Laos will have been offered a boat… or five. It is the familiar sound of the riverside as you stroll along the glorious Mekong to the sound of, “You want boat? You go to caves? Waterfall?”
Yes, you are never far from a man with a boat in this gorgeous UNESCO-protected ancient town. But they’re all the same… offering an average, old wooden boat that will take you to the main tourist sites of the area, but not much else.
So naturally I was somewhat excited when I heard about the ‘new boat’ in town (it’s a small town, word gets around quickly), which was said to be offering luxury river cruises in Luang Prabang. In fact, within the space of about three days I had been told about the ‘new boat’ as many times by different people. By the end of the week I had managed to make contact with the lovely Adele, the lady behind the new Bounmi boating company, and on Sunday I happily jumped on board to see what all the fuss was about.
As I clambered down the steps to the Mekong river I could immediately tell which one was the ‘new boat’ in town. Sitting all prettily painted in white, blue and red, Bounmi is a traditional Lao slow boat boat that’s been loved, scrubbed and dressed up for a ball. Her interior of polished wood oozes style while her little blue curtains with tie-backs make you feel instantly at home – and she even has little speakers subtly fitted into her wooden panels! Perhaps the best feature of all are the funky little red bean bags (perfect for all bottom sizes), which are the perfect seating for a chilled river cruise with a Beer Lao on hand.
“I searched for a long time to get these,” explained Adele as we lowered ourselves into the delightfully squidgy bean bags. It is not always easy to get ‘things’ in Luang Prabang as I know only too well after living here for over a month.
“But I wanted people to feel relaxed,” said Adele. “So they could sit as the please, move around, face the sun or even turn away from the sun!”
Adele, who originally comes from Canada, has spent more than 8 years in southeast Asia and has spent even longer than that on the water (having previously worked in yachting all around the world) but she is not the only creator behind Bounmi. She runs the boat with two of her closest Lao friends, Captain Ai who grew up on the banks of the Mekong and has been operating boats since he was 16, and his charming wife Noi who runs a fabulous restaurant in town and is the person you’ll be wanting to thank once you’ve eaten on board!
Together the three of them have spent more than a year in preparing Bounmi before her recent launch. And now the trio are determined to make their labour of love a success.
As we wiggled into our comfy bean bags, the motor started and Captain Ai expertly cut his way through the mighty Mekong. I have been lucky enough to experience the Mekong in Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma – but I have to say that Laos might just have the prettiest stretch of all. Laos is so tremendously unspoilt that any Mekong moment will be complemented by forested green mountains, lush scenery and isolated villages or temples. As we admired the stunning backdrop, Adele pointed out a couple of the temples on the other side of the river that appeared to only be reachable by boat. But she doesn’t just know the names of the temples, she knows the monk in charge of most of them, and if you’re wearing appropriate clothing she’ll only be too happy to make a stop and walk you through the temple gardens.
That’s just one of the things that makes Bounmi really very different to anything else on offer; with a captain who knows the Mekong better than most London commuters know the tube network, and a fluent-English speaker on board who has an unbridled knowledge and enthusiasm for the local area, you are able to get off the beaten track and explore the river surroundings of Luang Prabang like a local. One of Adele’s signature river cruises is the Bounmi Freestyle, where you charter the boat (with Adele and Ai on hand) and together you can stop at lesser-known villages, temples, sand banks – or really anywhere that takes your fancy.
Cucumber Island took our fancy, it turned out. This lovely little island, slumbering in the Mekong, is just a stone throw from Luang Prabang but without the tourists. In fact as we jumped off the boat, and onto the island’s sandy beach, we were the only ones there except a couple of ambling monks and a family who were looking after the cucumbers! In the dry season this little island turns into something of a cucumber farm (in the rainy season the whole island is under-water), but right now there are plants as far as your eye can see. A couple of wooden huts have just been put up for the season with some tables and benches for serving beers and tasty cucumber salads to passing boat men…! We sat and we chatted, and we ate spicy cucumber salad washed down with cold beer (Lao style with ice… it actually works, don’t ask!)
As the sun lowered we lethargically made our way back to Bounmi for the short crossing back to Luang Prabang. But there was still one more treat in store yet… as we pushed the roof back to let the sun flood the boat (nice feature, eh?) Adele pulled out an iced flask of red Lao Lao. Lao Lao is the national drink here – it is a rice whisky and I must confess the white Lao Lao (which is how it normally comes) sends shudders down my spine and would have sent me running into the Mekong. But, it turns out red Lao Lao, is quite different.
Made from the more expensive and nutrient-rich red sticky rice, red Lao Lao is nowhere near as strong and taste more like a sweet fortified wine – like a port or sherry – than a hard spirit. Adele poured us small glasses of the red, syrupy liquid and as we toasted in the late afternoon sun, I couldn’t help but wish all Sundays were this good!
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