I don't know what I was thinking when I asked if there was anywhere to swim along the swirling, fast-flowing, tea-coloured Mekong River, but there's no way I'm taking a dip where Tu is indicating. We've pulled up alongside a sand bank at a remote Hmong village, where at least 30 fully clothed children are splashing in the shallows. As brown-eyed kids swarm our boat laughing and chattering a mile a minute, Tu, our cruise director (and a former novice monk), tells me the villagers rarely see tourists. I'm positive they've never seen one in a bikini, and frankly I'm not about to become the first.
Tu shrugs when I tell him we'll pass on the swim and points to the village up a steep dirt track. "Let's go look," he says, and we follow him, as the hot sun sinks lower in the sky. We pass pig pens and humble stilt homes, where sticky rice is cooking over open fires and corn kernels are laid out to dry on the ground. We weave our way through homes built so close together you can easily hear your neighbour bartering a bag of rice, followed by a growing band of barefoot children.
Adults smile as we pass, some tend fires, others wash off the heat of the day fully clothed at a communal tap. On a dirt road heading for the village school, we stop and talk to tiny Hmong women returning from the rice fields, heavy bags of melons strapped to their heads. They're fascinated by my 10-year-old daughter Ella and through Tu, tell me she's beautiful. We ask if we can feel the weight of their bags, and they laugh when we struggle to lift them. We tell them how strong they are. When I ask Tu, what they are saying he pauses, reluctant to translate. "They say you're weak," he says finally. We burst out laughing, knowing it's true.
By the time we reach the primary school on a hill with cows grazing in the playground, we're trailed by about 50 children, some carrying infant siblings. They race ahead to show us their classrooms. We step inside and somehow, it's even more stifling than it is outside. The concrete floors are badly chipped and cracked, there's no glass on the barred windows and the too few chairs and tables are stacked in the corner. It's the most rudimentary classroom I've ever seen yet the children are so clearly proud of their school.
Back on board Gypsy, Mekong Kingdoms' and luxury hotel brand Anantara's sumptuous, new two-cabin river cruiser, Ella is unusually quiet. We are the only two passengers on-board the exclusive 41-metre boat with a crew of eight attending to our every whim. She doesn't need to say anything; I know what she's thinking. As I take a cold shower in our luxurious en suite, I hear her rifling through a bag of clothes and toys we'd brought with us on the off chance we'd meet people like we have today. She rushes to the bow of the boat where the kids are gathered under the waxing moon, handing out her clothing one by one to the young Hmong girls. Toys are handed out to the boys (along with practically anything else on-board not bolted down). Solemnly they put their hands together and bow saying, "Khop tchai" (thank you).
We'd embarked early that morning from Chiang Rai in the Golden Triangle, and after performing customs obligations (organised by Mekong Kingdoms), set sail on the fast-flowing river with its frighteningly powerful current, the result of a typhoon in China upstream. Gypsy, made from local hard wood and topped with thatch, is all about slow travel. Interiors are awash in tongue and groove wood panelling, woven leather seating, floor-to-ceiling viewing windows, lustrous Thai silks, and blessed air conditioning (in sleeping cabins).
She sails the mighty Mekong between Thailand's Golden Triangle and the ancient former Laos capital of Luang Prabang, offering a glimpse into old Indochina. As you step aboard, kick off your shoes and pad around barefoot, the warmth of floorboards underneath, you immediately breathe slower; watching your cares wash away almost as fast as the swirling river rushing by.
What sets Gypsy apart from other river cruisers plying the Mekong is she's designed for a maximum of two couples (or a family of five all up) – with a mostly Laotian crew, including captain, butler, house keeper, English speaking cruise director (Tu), mechanic and chef at your service. Want lunch at 1pm? Onto it. Fancy a Laos rice wine tasting? Jungle trekking? No problem.
Days start with an early morning espresso for me, and a pot of tea for Ella delivered by our butler Sam as the Mekong comes to life, spotting wild pigs on the riverbanks and farmers tending to banana and tea crops high on the lush, steep-sided valley; Thailand to our right, Laos to our left. We see families ferrying rice to the markets, rowing teams' training for an upcoming race, and watch long tail shuttle boats to Luang Prabang whiz by in a blur (passengers and boat driver wearing helmets) – the world's 10th longest river, like a liquid freeway. As for us, we're definitely travelling in the slow lane. As we cross the border from Thailand to Laos, there are fewer houses, people and boats and more jungle-shrouded hills tumbling down to the river, where submerged rocks and large tree branches and wild pig carcasses can upend unsuspecting sailors.
Our cruise (three days in total) is punctuated by sightseeing, chess, yoga, sundowners on bamboo daybeds and meals featuring local produce cooked with a Thai, Lao and French influence. Think beef soup with crispy noodles and a generous kick of chili, followed by mango and black sticky rice with sesame ice-cream. We visit a village famous for weaving and explore the Pak Ou Caves where a cheeky cat rudely knocks over Buddha statues and eats the offerings. Late afternoon, as the crew prepare to anchor for the night, is my favourite time. The sun's intensity is gone, replaced by a mellow heat, and the sinking suns bathes the river in a buttery, languid light. Villagers tie up boats on shore, the curl of smoke rises from villages.
We stop at a Laos village on our final night. Again, we visit a village school; this one still simple but in better shape than its Hmong counterpart downstream. Unbeknown to us, the villagers have been awaiting our arrival. Children are still dressed in school uniform despite the late hour, faces scrubbed, hair brushed. Ella hands out exercise books, pens and pencils. Tiny children with solemn faces accept our small gift gratefully. The remainder of Ella's clothes are distributed in a year 2 classroom, the inside of which feels like a Bikram yoga studio.
Afterwards we're ushered into a communal room and instructed to take off our shoes and sit on grass mats on the floor. It's hot, my body feels like it's melting, as we encircle a large silver bowl decorated with rice, orange flowers, candles and hundreds of pieces of white string tied to wooden sticks. Long scarves are tied around us as we await the villagers to arrive, which they do, laughing, and chatting to each other in a language foreign to our ears.
Once the village leader is seated, the Baci blessing, an important Laos ceremony, begins. Villagers crowd around us, prayers are said, sacred blessings whispered in our ear, asking for safe passage, as pieces of thin white string is tied around are wrists. Outside, at least 15 young girls are running around wearing Ella's clothes, which makes me happy. I close my eyes; swept up in this mystical moment in this tiny village, a long way from home; a long way from anywhere.
From $US5450 for a three-night, four-day upstream cruise from Luang Prabang, Laos, to Thailand's Golden Triangle, and $US6950 for a two-night, three-day downstream cruise. Rates include all on-board meals; welcome reception; soft beverages, beer, selected wines, coffee and tea; Wi-Fi; shore excursions, English speaking guide, entrance fees and transfers; on-board activities; return airport or hotel transfers; and gratuities for up to four guests. Children aged four years and under travel free. See mekongkingdoms.com/gypsy-detail
Thai Airways offers the quickest flight time from Sydney and Melbourne to Chiang Rai via Bangkok with connections with Thai Smiles. Qantas flies the same route with connections to Chiang Rai with Bangkok Airways. Singapore Airlines flies to Luang Prabang from Sydney and Canberra via Singapore with connections with Silkair. See thaiairways.com; qantas.com; singaporeair.com
Stay pre or post cruise at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp, renowned for its work with rescued elephants, from $946 per night. The Avani+Luang Prabang offers stylish rooms at the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage town from $313 per night. An "Unveil the Mekong" package, including three nights at both properties (all-inclusive at the Anantara Golden Triangle; breakfast and transfers at Avani+Luang Prabang) and three nights all-inclusive on board Gypsy from $13,235 for two people. See anantara.com; avanihotels.com/en/luang-prabang; anantara.com/en/golden-triangle-chiang-rai/offers/unveil-the-mekong
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Mekong Kingdoms, mekongkingdoms.com