Friday, September 24, 2010

The Slow Boat Experience

There are many ways to get to the city of Luang Prabang and almost all of them involve much time and patience. You can travel by VIP bus which takes - and estimates vary depending on the travel agent you speak to - 12-15 hours. Unpleasant. There’s also the speedboat which whizzes you to LP in half the time but at least 100 times the likelihood of ending your travelling days in a high speed collision on the Mekong. Equally unpleasant. Lastly there’s the slow boat route which takes two and a half days as the boat gently meanders down the Mekong and it’s this latter option that works best for me.
Generally slow boats hold on average between 60-70 passengers but as its low season ours has about 30 paying passengers and is an easy mix of travellers weighed down by their packs and locals equally weighed down by their produce. We watch a few speedboats whizz by as we float down river and, admittedly, it looks like fun - strapped in, crash helmet on (though surely for effect only), bouncing along on the water’s surface. As we float there are countless traditional Laos settlements along the river bank - it has to be difficult eking out a living here. At the end of day one we overnight in the village of Pak Beng, a sleepy hamlet where the locals rush to meet those emerging from the slow boat with offers of good food, cheap accommodation, weed and, in my case at least, a beautiful view of the moon on the Mekong - “The moon is coming tonight” I was reliably informed and was immediately sold on it. A room costs 30,000 kip (€3) and is about as basic as you can get but equally has almost everything that you need.
The boat itself is pretty standard - about 10 metres in length with pew-like seats - and reasonably comfortable. No need for fans as there’s a wonderfully cooling breeze blowing down the Mekong. There’s a lady at the back selling cheep Lao beer and she’ll rustle you up a chicken sandwich if you’re caught short for food. The one downside to the trip is the presence of an American guy who holds forth on every conceivable topic you can imagine, very loudly indeed for the entirety of the first day. I’ve gleamed that much information about him by the end of the day - I wasn’t eavesdropping, I had no fucking choice - that I feel as if I should become his official biographer.
On day two we sail from 9.30am, arriving in Luang Prabang just before 5pm. Along the way we’ve stopped numerous times along the banks of the river to collect or deposit some of the Laos villagers who inhabit the bamboo huts littered by the shores of the Mekong. There’s even a sighting of an elephant washing himself down as our boat drifts past. Like Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang comes with a reputation of rare beauty so here’s hoping it isn’t at all like the Chiang Mai I experienced then.

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