“I’ve known rivers,” wrote the poet Langston Hughes, “ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” Is there anything quite so soothing as the sight of a river? Painters, writers, travellers and mystics have been enthralled and inspired at the water’s edge. Glide down the fabled Mekong River on your own journey and you’ll get a taste of the profound transformation if offers. Article | Revised 20 August 2018

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE MEKONG RIVER to Laotian life is vast. As far-reaching, in fact, as the river itself, which is almost 3,000 miles long. Originating as a spring in the plateaus of Tibet, the Mekong snakes its way through through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam where it joins the South China Sea. Its name comes from the Thai and Lao ‘Mae Nam Khong’ meaning Mother Water. Here in Laos it is known simply as the Mother of Rivers.

It’s easy to see where the name comes from. Like a mother, this river is truly life-giving. Its waters provide fish (Lao people’s primary source of protein) while its floodplains yield rice. In a country where roads are relatively new, the river is the main artery for transport and communication. “It is the blood of the country,” explains Phonexay Keuthbounmany, operations manager at the Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao in Luang Prabang.

The secular and the spiritual are intertwined on the Mekong. Buddhist temples sit serenely on the banks while children play in the water and fishermen go about their business. Water buffalo bask in the river and brightly coloured birds flutter above them. You might even see villagers panning for gold. There is a flow to life on the Mekong, and for this reason it is completely conducive to meditation—itself a process of finding and refining one’s inner gold.


The Meditation Cruise at Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao offers an experience of real serenity. This is a private outing, so you’ll have the boat to yourselves. You’ll be guided by a former Buddhist monk, the warm and knowledgeable Ajanh Souk. You’ll able to visit remote monasteries such as Muang Kham and spend a good amount of time soaking up the atmosphere.

Ajanh Souk is an admired teacher of walking meditation. This technique is increasingly popular in the west, thanks to such teachers as the Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. By moving your attention down to your feet and the earth, the mind finds a very tangible focus and its fluctuations begin to subside. You’ll practice this technique with your guide, gently placing your feet on this most spiritual land.

The needs of the body are fully recognised here too, and you’ll enjoy a picnic lunch of freshly made rice noodle salad and sandwiches. Guests can eat on the banks of the river in sunny weather, or on the boat if there’s gentle, seasonal rain. Everything is unhurried. As such, the mind and body begin to relax. There’s time, at last, to really look at the river.

Here, you might consider that the motion of the water gives us an insight into the constant change in our lives. That its flow offers a cleansing balm to suffering, and its stillness can seem to reflect our own depths. Or maybe, just maybe, you won’t need to think anything. Delicate shades of pink and purple will play on the surface of the water, and you’ll feel that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.

As Thich Nhat Hanh himself so wisely says: “When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace and love.”

A sanctuary of serenity in the Lao mountains

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