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Travel and World Culture   
 Photo: Petr Jerabek
 Photo: Petr Jerabek

Laos: The Slow Boat Down The Mekong River 
By Kate McCarthy

I was destined for Luang Prabang in Laos, whose natural beauty and vestiges of its French colonial past have secured its place on the backpacker’s route through Southeast Asia.  For the budget-minded traveler arriving from Thailand, the remote town is accessible only by the two-day Slow Boat or one-day Speed Boat down the Mekong River. 

I chose the Slow Boat, based purely on the notion that it would provide a greater chance of arriving in Luang Prabang in one piece.  I have heard particularly odious things about the Speed Boat.  If I were lucky, I’d be given a helmet, earplugs and a life jacket for eight hours of speeds so fast that I couldn’t appreciate the scenery, space so cramped that I couldn’t move around, and noise so loud that I couldn’t hear anything above the roar of the engine. 

My well-read and well-worn guidebook to Southeast Asia has cautioned, “Accidents, sometimes fatal, occur about once a month on the Speed Boats.”  I have already come to recognize that the authors tended to air on the side of over caution at times. I got the sense that what they were really trying to say most of the time was, “Look, we’ve got to be responsible and tell you that such and such may not be completely safe; but you’ll probably be fine; we just had to warn you.” I do not get that sense from this passage.

I have also heard,  “The Speed Boat was particularly dangerous in the dry season because the river is too low” and “It’s particularly dangerous in the wet season because the river is too high.”  I don’t know if one assertion holds more validity than the other; but frankly, I don’t want to find out. 

On the other hand, from what I had heard about the Slow Boat, I am not expecting a Carnival pleasure cruises, either.  Eight-hour days that feel like twenty.  Hard wooden benches that feel like marble after a few restless minutes.  I choose discomfort over suicide.

Most of the travelers who crossed the border into Laos this morning opt for the slow boat as well.  About thirty of us line up.  We don our tightrope walker personas and cross the narrow, eight-foot long plank with 20-30 lb. packs on our backs. 

Comparisons to San Francisco Cable Cars leap to mind as I view the impressive varnished wooden ceiling. Though flaking and faded, the red, turquoise, and white paint of the exterior stands in stark contrast to the still, brown water in which it sits. 

Inside, a narrow aisle dissects 30 rows of wooden benches.  Each bench is wide enough for two average-sized people to sit with a little space between them.  But they have cushions!   Light breezes sweep through the large open spaces between roof posts. 

I settle into an open bench in front of a British couple I met on the bus from Chiang Mai the day before.  In an unimaginable stroke of luck, the rest of my bench remains empty, and I have the whole seat to myself.  The sidewalls rise to a perfect height for resting my elbow when seated, but the ledge presses uncomfortably into my mid-back when I lean against it.  Throughout the day, I contort my long legs and tall body into countless postures and positions – leaning against the back of the bench, leaning against the wall, legs crossed, legs extended across the bench, legs tucked beneath the bench.  The possibilities seem endless.

Restlessness inspires others to find still more body positioning options.  Some sit in the aisle.  Small groups congregate in the open space near the back, sitting on a pile of backpacks, and form a card-playing circle.  Couples share benches cuddled.  Some used the benches as footstools and the top of the sidewall as a seat. 

We read; we journal; we listened to music.  We go through the traveler’s conversation routine.  “Where are you from? How long are you traveling? Where have you been? Where are you going?”  We rifle through our bags for stashes of exotic tropical fruits and tubes of Pringles and pass them around.  And we look out the window.  I had heard that the scenery was nice—but I am not prepared for how nice. 

Quietly nestled in a valley, the river is flanked by rolling hills and distinctive peaks.  Patches of chestnut-colored soil and rock accentuate the large verdant swaths of trees.  Rusty, rocky cliffs plunge into the water beside us.  The steep banks are alternately lined with splotchy patches of grass, fine sand beaches and jagged stone faces. The wide, winding riverbed is flowing quietly with water the color of coffee with cream.   Several times each hour we pass small clusters of bamboo huts—tiny riverside villages perched on the steep banks.  Meandering dirt paths connect the river to the meager homes.


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