Once upon a time some intrepid travellers ventured on to the slow, low-slung, heavy cargo boats that furrow their way through the dun-coloured waters of the Mekong in northern Laos. What a voyage that must have been, chugging along to Luang Prabang, squashed on to wooden benches among sacks of rice and livestock. Inevitably, word got out about this route, and someone sniffed an opportunity. It’s now a well-worn path on the Southeast Asia backpacking trail.
Don’t let anyone convince you to join an organised tour. It’s ridiculously cheap and easy to do this trip independently. As soon as you get to the Lao border town of Huay Xai you will find yourself clicking into the well-oiled machine of the slow boat, sweeping you downstream.
There are alternatives to this trip. The first is to do the route in reverse, from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, but this is upriver, and will increase your time on the boat from seven to nine hours a day. The second option is the speed boat. This is twice the cost of the slow boat but takes half as long, only one day instead of two. But the Mekong is a treacherous river to navigate, and there have been fatalities on speed boat trips. You’ll be in an open boat, strapped into a life jacket and helmet for seven hours, bucketing along at a frantic pace. A couple of speed boats passed us on the first day of our slow boat, the occupants drenched already from their own spray and powering noisily into the driving rain. They looked utterly miserable. Meanwhile we were puttering along on a boat with a snack shop and a not-unreasonable toilet on board. You can also take a bus or, if you have no imagination at all, a plane.
The day before my boat trip began I met a lovely intrepid English couple, Laura and Scott. That night we got chatting to an Israeli guy who was getting the speed boat and who was as horrified at the thought of spending two days on the slow boat as we were by risking life and limb on his option. As we debated the options, a strange figure lurched up the corridor towards us and threw himself into a seat, unburdening himself of a stream-of-consciousness monologue about how he’d just accidentally smoked an opium cigarette, mistaking it for a spliff. “I was feeling so tired earlier but now I feel really great,” he announced, with a hint of unwarranted surprise in his voice. He was German. “Do you hate me?” he asked the Israeli guy, making us all cringe.
“No,” the Israeli man said.
“That’s okay then.” But a moment later he added, “Seriously, though, so sorry for that shit.”
Having thus apologised for the Holocaust he thankfully moved on to other topics. After a while we were joined by an older French man who was so ridiculously French he appeared to be a send-up. We talked about travel and Brexit, and it was our turn to apologise.
The next morning we were wondering what the German guy was going to be like when he wasn’t on opium. To my delight he was the same unfiltered person.
The boat left more or less on time and we began to wind our way slowly down the sweeping curves of the Mekong. The river was wide and brown, so shallow in places you could see the water bubbling over the rocks below. The land was one long hymn to the colour green. Blue-green hills swelled up in the distance, covered in forest which crowded right to the river’s edge, interspersed with the glowing green leaves of banana plantations and the ludicrous neon green of paddy fields. Yellow butterflies glittered among the trees. It was magnificent.
Every so often the boat would stop at a tiny village where bamboo huts on stilts clung to the steep banks of the river. Although most of the boat was given over to the far more lucrative business of transporting tourists, its function as a cargo boat still remained.
Whenever we stopped we would temporarily brush up against a different, timeless world. We travellers would put down our iPhones or our Kindles and watch as naked or tatterdemalion children skidded and scampered down to greet the boat, only to be pulled up short by last-minute shyness. A whole family came out to receive a motorbike. Someone came on board carrying a cardboard box which squealed in a panic-stricken, heart-rending way. Then our skipper would take his long bamboo pole and shove us back into the strong river flow.
During the evening in Huay Xai we asked our Israeli companion about his newly-completed National Service. With the help of Google Translate on his phone, he said they had a ‘parable’ for it: eating a pizza. The first few slices of pizza slip down easily. That was the first year. Then the next few slices were harder, and the next harder still, until the last slice- the last months of the three year stint- which are very difficult to swallow. “And then you never want to eat pizza again.”
Though obviously on a completely different scale, the pizza parable also applies to the slow boat. The first day slipped past effortlessly. I barely did anything apart from watching the scenery. We spent the night in Pakbeng, in a guesthouse with an extraordinary view.
The next morning passed fairly swiftly, although I found myself looking ahead more, planning what I’d do in Luang Prabang. The afternoon was slow going, the hours more difficult to digest even though the scenery grew more spectacular as we drew closer to Luang Prabang.
Then suddenly we were there. The boats all stop outside Luang Prabang, seemingly just to give the local tuk-tuk drivers the opportunity to fleece tourists. One short ride later and I was in Luang Prabang, clambering stiffly out of the back of the tuk-tuk and still feeling the motion of the boat in my legs. It had been a blissful few days.