Shangri-La, China (dpa) – As described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton, the fictional Shangri-La is a mystical and earthly paradise where its population are permanently happy.
The modern Shangri-La is located in the Chinese province of Yunnan where the Mekong river, the largest in South-East Asia, flows down from the Tibetan highlands before meandering its way through southwestern China.
Named Zhongdian until 2001, Shangri-La is just one of many cities built along the Mekong river and was obscure until its renaming, which was aimed at attracting foreign tourists.
Despite its cynical rebranding, Shangri-La is worth a visit, not least to see the Sungtseling monastery where around 400 Buddhist monks live high above the city.
The Mekong is navigable from Jinghong downstream, but only since the Chinese authorities blew up rocks blocking the river bed and built weirs to slow the flow.
The river forms a 200-kilometre-long natural border between Laos and Myanmar.
At the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet, you can visit the Hall of Opium to see how opium poppies are grown and illegal drugs were manufactured.
Funded by the Thai royal household, the museum is the information section of a project aimed at ending the local population’s dependency on the drugs trade by supporting economic alternatives.
After the Golden Triangle, the Mekong broadens and it is from here that tourists can join river-cruise boats towards Vietnam, enjoying the region’s stunning landscape along the way.
“The Mekong is not easy to navigate,” explains captain Khampet, who decorates his boat with flowers and rice as part of an age-old ritual to fend off evil river spirits.
The greatest problem is the huge variation in river level by up to 12 metres depending on how much water the Mekong is carrying.
During the dry season, only a narrow channel is navigable. Rapids have to be avoided in the rainy season.
Not surprisingly, the captain refuses to travel at night and the ship is anchored near a sandbank when darkness falls, allowing the passengers to enjoy an evening meal of spicy chicken soup cooked in ginger and served with rice and vegetables.
The ship lifts anchor in the early morning and, although the thick jungle reaches to the river’s edge, at times it is still possible to see the small villages where local farmers live. Occasionally a working elephant springs into view as it drags a teak trunk towards the river.
The boat anchors again near Pak Tha to allow the passengers to visit a village that seems stuck in the Middle Ages. The children run around half naked and look on in wonder as the group take countless photographs of their surroundings.
A few kilometres further down river the visitors receive a warm welcome under a bamboo roof from village elders at Thanoon before the journey begins again.
“Pak Ou!” shouts the captain as he draws his passengers’ attention to a rocky outcrop ahead.
“You have to see this,” the captain says as he steers the boat directly at the imposing cliffs. Steep steps guide the group to the top towards a limestone cave that houses thousands of Buddha statues and is considered one of the country’s most important pilgrimage sites.
“They guard the river, its spirits and its magical powers,” the captain explains.
Luang Pragang, the former royal city of Laos, lies 30 kilometres further downstream and by mid-morning hundreds of monks are already out and about with their begging bowls.
Women come out of their houses and fill the bows with rice and other food as the procession slowly winds its way through the city.
With its golden temples, royal palace and over 600 protected buildings, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Pragang is one of the highlights of any trip to the Mekong.
In the Lao capital Vientiane, the end point for most cruises after the nine-day journey, an afternoon is enough to take in the That Luang, a Buddhist stupa, and the city’s triumphal arch.
Vat Phou in the south of the country is also worth a visit to see a 1,500-year-old Khmer temple. The unusually wide waterfall at Khone Liphi/Khone Pha Phaeng is the final tourist attraction before entering Cambodia.
Once over the border, Siem Reap is a must-see destination before the river winds into southern Vietnam.
The farmers in this area enjoy rich harvests, thanks to the sediments deposited across the Mekong delta by the river before it empties into the South China Sea.