10/22/2012 08:02 am ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

A Mekong Meditation

I woke up before dawn and hustled to the top deck of the boat. It was the first morning of my four-day, three-night river cruise on the Mekong River in Southern Laos, one of the most laid back places I have ever visited. As the rays of the rising sun filtered through wisps of clouds, I watched a solitary fisherman in a dugout canoe toss his nets and an occasional fish leap in the air. Egrets flew in a wave down the river. Roosters crowed in the distance in an avian version of call and chant. A small outboard motor softly putt-putted across the river. That was all.

I had nothing else to do that morning except chill. I wasn't sure what the plan was for the day, but I didn't much care. I could have sat there for days in Mekong meditation, letting the sights, sounds and fragrances of the river wash the internal chatter from my mind. Or just sit on the deck and read my book, look at the scenery and feel the fresh air ripple past my ears. Later, in the heat of the afternoon, I would snooze and drink ice-cold cans of Laotian beer.

It is difficult to separate the magic of the Mekong from the magic of Laos, the country through which it flows for much of its meandering route through Southeast Asia. Laos is beautiful, uncrowded and populated by some of the most gracious and gentle people I have ever met. Or maybe it's the river itself, surprisingly peaceful for one so large and significant. Except for the occasional house on stilts and cultivated plots on the shore, there are few signs of development. A ridge of hills as high as 1,500 feet line one side of the river, flat fields line the other. At one point a large golden Buddha on a hill looks down the river valley.

As we glided effortlessly and silently down the wide river, we passed by fishermen in open canoes and hundreds of small islands, mostly clumps of grass, brush, and low trees. Children played in the river along the banks and washed the family water buffalo.

Our boat, which was operated by Lernidee Trains and Cruises, the company that hosted my trip, is small, simple, traditional and elegant. There were only eleven guest staterooms, most on the first deck, a dining room and bar on the middle deck, and an open deck on the top for sunbathing, reading, napping, socializing and looking at the scenery. And of course a bar, well stocked with soft drinks, wine and beer. The boat was constructed mostly of richly colored teak, redolent with the fragrances of Southeast Asia. I walked barefoot on the boat for the entire trip, my liberated feet luxuriating in the sensual feel of the polished planks.

Every day there were activities to pull me away from my mindless reverie. One day we walked up a long flight of uneven stairs to a Buddhist temple on a bluff overlooking the river. The temple complex was serene and looked untouched by the modern world... except for the satellite dishes. I watched a woman shave the head of a young novice monk.

Another day we visited Wat Phou, Khmer ruins that predate Angkor Wat by several hundred years. The crumbling structures, which were spread over a flat river plain and up the side of a mountain, evoked a very distant time and culture. Just a scattering of tourists was dispersed throughout the site, not enough to break the mood.

On our second afternoon, we pulled up to a beach, went for a swim, then had a BBQ dinner on the sand. While we ate and drank, our international group of 15 talked about world affairs, pausing just long enough to listen to the crew sing Laotian folk songs.

The last full day took us to the 4,000 Islands area of southern Laos and the Khone Falls on the border with Cambodia. Less dramatic than Niagara, Angel or Victoria, the falls are more like Grade 5 rapids spread across the entire 2-3 mile width of the river. Their significance is more historical than visual. In the 19th century they essentially blocked the French from navigating up the river to get to Southern China and colonize the region. It's interesting to speculate how the world might be different today if they could have penetrated further upstream. Probably better Chinese food in Paris.

At the end of the day we rode small, fast boats powered by automobile engines through the 4,000 islands back to our boat. I took advantage of this last chance for the Mekong to work its magic on me as I sprawled across my seat and dozed in the breeze stirred up by the moving boat. I occasionally opened my eyes to look at the scenery, the children playing in the water and the fisherman in their slim boats tossing their nets into the river, before slipping into my meditative state once again, wordlessly absorbing the sensual bounty of this mighty river.

(For more information and photos, see Don's blog at