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A 3 Day Mekong River Cruise in Southern Laos: Islands, Waterfalls and Ruins

The Mekong River winds its way through Asia, from its source in the mountains of northern Yunnan Province in China to the very south of Vietnam, where it empties out into the South China Sea. One of the most scenic stretches of the Mekong is in southern Laos, and it was there that we decided to do a relaxing river cruise. This part of the Mekong is home to riverside ruins, tiny emerald green islands and the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia. Here’s a quick look at what to expect on the 3 day Mekong River cruise with Mekong Cruises.

The boat

Our home for the 3 day Mekong River cruise was the Vat Phou, an old teak transporting boat which has been converted into a boutique floating hotel. The 12 cabins are small yet comfortable, but the upstairs decks are where you’ll spend most of your time. Lying down on a bed / chair on the deck of a boat floating down the Mekong River is about as relaxing as travel gets. This section of the Mekong is incredibly scenic — mountains provide the backdrop for most of the way and excited children can always be relied on for enthusiastic waves as you pass by their tiny villages.

3 day Mekong River cruise boatA 3 day Mekong River cruise in southern Laos -- the deck of the Vat Phou river boatA 3 day Mekong River cruise in southern Laos -- relaxing on the deck

The food on board the Vat Phou was always something to look forward to. The combination of Thai, Lao and Vietnamese flavours provided enough variety and the buffet style meals ensured we were always satisfied.

The cruise doesn’t take place entirely on the Vat Phou. Guests are transferred to smaller boats for some sections, including the first section from Pakse to Champasak and the trip to Don Khon / Don Det. These boats are pretty comfortable and even have a bathroom on board.

Wat Phu (Vat Phou)

The first stop on our 3 day Mekong River cruise was at Wat Phu, the crumbling Khmer ruins which were once connected to Angkor Wat by an ancient road. The architecture is very similar to the temples of Angkor but the site is obviously a lot smaller. The setting is the most impressive part — the main temple is up a steep hill and provides great views over the dry plains and (if it’s clear) all the way to the Mekong River. I’m a big fan of ancient ruins and really enjoyed touring the Wat Phu site — even if you’ve already been to Angkor Wat you should still find this place interesting. We were shown around Wat Phu by Khan, the Vat Phou’s English speaking guide (there was also a French speaking guide). He grew up in a village just a few kilometers from the temples and gave us such a great insight into what life is like in this part of Laos.

A 3 day Mekong River cruise in southern Laos -- Wat Phu ruinsA 3 day Mekong River cruise in southern Laos -- Wat Phu Khmer templesA 3 day Mekong River cruise in southern Laos -- Vat Phou ruins

Uo Moung ruins (Tomo Temple)

The next morning our floating hotel parked at a massive sand bank next to a tiny rural village. After a short walk we arrived at the U0 Moung ruins, a small and very weathered set of ruins hidden in the woods. The ruins were fun to look around (mostly because of the middle of nowhere setting), although you really need to use your imagination to picture what this place would have been like in its prime.

A 3 day Mekong River cruise in southern Laos -- Tomo temple, near ChampasakA 3 day Mekong River cruise in southern Laos -- Uo Moung ruins, Champasak

Sunsets

It’s hard to beat a Mekong River sunset, and watching one from the deck of the boat, and then from the banks of the river itself, was a great experience. This region of Laos is, in my opinion, one of the best places in the world to watch sunsets. If you’re still not satisfied after the cruise head to Don Det for a few days and watch some unbelievable sunsets from the many small, locally run bars and restaurants which line the river.

A 3 day Mekong River cruise in southern Laos -- another great sunsetA 3 day Mekong River cruise in southern Laos -- sunset over the mountains

Villages

The Mekong River sustains so many people in this region. The inhabitants of the villages lining the river rely on it for food, irrigation, transport and entertainment. We walked through a couple of these small villages during the cruise. They were very quiet (most people were probably out working) but they looked like decent enough places to live. Thankfully the locals didn’t put on a show for us or nag us into buying stuff from them — it all felt very natural.

A 3 day Mekong River cruise in southern Laos -- a rural Lao villageA 3 day Mekong River cruise in southern Laos -- waving kids

Don Khon / Don Det

The French, in their bid to navigate their way up the Mekong towards China, came unstuck due to the impenetrable rapids in the 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don) region. They built a bridge between two islands (Don Det and Don Khon), dismantling vessels on one side and then reassembling them on the other in order to continue their voyage upriver. There are also a few colonial era buildings on Don Khon as well as an old train. These days the bridge is used by tourists cycling between the two islands, which have become popular destinations for backpackers and rich French tourists alike. This is one of the most striking areas of the Mekong River — I’d highly recommend staying for a few days before or after your cruise.

A 3 day Mekong River cruise in southern Laos -- Don DetA 3 day Mekong River cruise in southern Laos -- The French bridge between Don Khon and Don DetA 3 day Mekong River cruise in southern Laos -- A French colonial building

The Khone Phapheng Falls

The final stop on our 3 day Mekong River cruise was arguably the most interesting. They may not be the highest falls in Southeast Asia but they are considered the largest. This part of the Mekong frustrated the French in the late 19th century and it’s easy to see why navigating through it proved impossible. After visiting the Khone Phapheng Falls we took a bus back to Pakse — our relaxing cruise on the Mekong was over.

A 3 day Mekong River cruise in southern Laos -- The Khone Phapheng FallsA 3 day Mekong River cruise in southern Laos -- up close to the Khone Phapheng Falls

We had a great time on board the Vat Phou — if you’re in the market for a river cruise in Southeast Asia you should definitely get in touch with Mekong Cruises. This part of Laos is beautiful and it’s a region which not that many people visit — get there if you can!

Our 3 day Mekong River cruise on the Vat Phou was provided by Mekong Cruises. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

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Jon Algie

Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
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