As we crossed the border from Thailand into Laos at Huay Xai we had a decision to make. The fast or the slow boat down the Mekong river? The speedboat cuts the travel time in half, but they have a very dubious safety record (apparently they have a tendency to shatter upon impact when they meet floating debris at high speed). The captain of these ‘fast boats’ always seems to wear a crash helmet, but his wide-eyed passengers lack one. This made it an easy decision… the slow boat it was, and along with it a mind-set to live in the moment and enjoy the ride. An ‘are we nearly there yet?’ attitude could seriously drive you mental on a two day slow boat ride.
It was fun. The long boat gradually filled up with all kinds of life. First there were the tourists – fighting for one of the more comfy car-style seats above the hard wooden benches (bring your own cushion). Later came various stops to pick up colourfully dressed villagers and their giant bags of rice, cages of live chickens and ducks and one large dead bamboo rat (I’m guessing he was dinner). Later a couple of tangerine-robed monks climbed on board, carrying armfuls of colourful silk flowers, candles and (bizarrely) an IP phone. Rahel and I lucked-out and got two of the comfy seats, squeezed amongst a really fun bunch of people from Germany, the US and Australia. One of the German guys (Sascha) was once a chef and had brought along bags of interesting tropical fruits, which he skilfully prepared with his swiss army knife and handed round for everyone to try. The locals joined in and passed round sweetened sticky rice, served out of a hollow piece of bamboo and the Aussies had strips of dried buffalo meat and Laos coffee.
The beautiful scenery rolled by and time passed by lazily. Before too long the sun was dipping in the sky and it was time to clamber up the banks at Pak Beng for an overnight stop in a local guesthouse.
The next morning we all took our seats again for another day on the river. The same cosy crowd assembled and there was more food and scenery to be enjoyed. I lent my ipod to a little ten year old boy (Paul) who was on a long-term trip around Asia with his mother and he and a little Lao boy around the same age silently played video games together. All was peaceful until the local customs police arrived with large machine guns (apparently looking for smuggled drugs!). Luckily they didn’t create too much of a fuss and we arrived in Luang Prabang by sunset, happy to stretch our legs on dry land but glad we’d had the slow boat experience.