Took the slow from Huay Xai to Lunag Prabang in Oct 2009. Quite an experience but not to be missed. Here my report.
Numbum Cruise Huay Xai to Luang Prabang
"Does anybody know when this boat is supposed to leave," says Marcus.
Marcus is a wild Irishman from Derry:r ed hair, red skin, red face from Thai whiskey, that he is adding to a can of Coke and consuming at an amazing rate. The vessel in question is the slow boat from Huay Xai - on the Thai/Laos border - to Luang Prabang, the former capital of French Provincial Laos.. It's 11.30AM, 35C, 95% humidity. Some of our fellow travellers have been on board since 8.30AM. Our party, including Marcus, since 10.30AM. Party seems to be the operative word on this vessel. With seats an anorexic super model would cover with her bum and overlap some, a luxury cruise it isn't. If licensed by the MSB, it would carry 50 passengers. I stop counting at 100 and start singing 'Abide With Me', on account of a distinct lack of life jackets – read none.
We finally get underway at 11.50AM. The scenery on the Mekong is spectacular, the company convivial, and as long as we don't all move to one side of the boat at the same time - cue a small Lao boy who runs up and down the aisle pushing passengers left and right in a vain effort to keep the vessel stable - the day passes in a rosy, if numbum - think numb bum from the seats- bliss. We arrive at our overnight stop in Pakbeng on dust, to a chaotic scene of hotel hawkers, juvenile luggage luggers, no lights. But hey, we survived the day, what's a little hard bargaining in the dark with Basil Fawlty, while fighting off Fagin's apprentices.
Pakbeng is like Blackpool without the illuminations. If it had a soul it went to Hell years ago. Power is diesel generated, so lights out at 10.30PM, no hot water or a/c. Rooms are rated by the number of rats you hear scurrying about. We have a 10 rat room, but at $7.00 dollars who's complaining. We find an Indian restaurant and spend the meal discussing cricket with a young man from Chennai – he was on his way to Mumbai but took a wrong turn.
Day two, we wake, take a cold shower, feed the rats, and sally forth, fortified by a great breakfast at a bakery overlooking the river .Different boat this time with life jackets. Luxury. We leave at what we now understand is Lao time; in this instance 9.30AM. Yesterday's revellers are decidedly quiet. But soon, the first Lao beer is raised to the sun and another blissful day passes. A group of English girls leads a game that's a variation of truth and dare. Basically you are challenged to tell the truth about your sexual exploits. If you lie you scull a beer. For some so young, these girls have led lives that would put infamous Hollywood sex mistress Heidi Fleiss to shame.
Finally Luang Prabang hoves into view and the cruise is at an all too abrupt end. We part company with fond memories, and a regret that some enterprising local entrepreneur isn't selling T shirts at the quay inscribed, 'I survived the Numbum Slow Boat'.