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LAOS

King of the Mekong Jeannine Williamson sails through lesser-known Laos with Pandaw – perfect to pair up with pre and post options in this fascinating southeast Asian country “Slowly, slowly, take it easy” instructs our watchful guide Vieng as I clamber up the rough mud-hewn steps on the riverbank in the wake of a slow-moving chain of fellow passengers. Above us, sitting on the grassy brow, a group of doeeyed youngsters observe our progress and follow us in Pied Piper fashion when we finally reach the top. In remote Laotian villages, many without electricity and only accessible by boat, sightings of western visitors are almost as rare as the elusive golden wild cat that lies low in dense surrounding forests. We provide novel and unforeseen entertainment for the giggling children and watching us is akin to a living soap opera. With an itinerary subject to the whims of Mother Nature, our rapid downstream journey on the Upper Mekong had 24

been dotted with extra stops, including rural communities only visited by Champa Pandaw on a couple of occasions; sometimes never before. This means our journey is full of totally authentic and unscripted experiences, the majority of them a world away from structured sailings in the European heartland of river cruising. One morning we are invited to celebrate the birth of a baby and the next welcomed to a funeral and encouraged to down eye-wateringly fiery shots of home-made lao-lao, a spirit brewed from rice. One afternoon a sprightly 80-yearold who’d outlived six wives plays us tunes on a bamboo woodwind instrument called a khene while he jigs in the dusty street. Most memorably, a woman beckons us over to see her supper cooking on an

open fire – closer inspection reveals a charred but perfectly formed rat in the frying pan. She gives a gap-toothed beam as our local guides and one brave passenger rise to the bush tucker style trial and accept her offer to try some, while the rest of us politely decline. For the record, he says it tastes like quail and lives to tell the tale which is the toast of dinner back on our 28-passenger ship. With a population of less than seven million, landlocked Laos is Southeast Asia’s smallest and least-known country, particularly compared with its neighbours Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma) and China. This makes it an enticingly offthe-beaten track choice for a voyage along the twisting Upper Mekong book-ended by the charming Unesco-listed CRUISE-ADVISER.COM

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