There are two ways to get from to Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, the road or the river.
Having traveled the route in the reverse direction on the overnight bus – fourteen hours of bone-rattling sleep deprived discomfort – we weren’t exactly overcome by a burning desire to repeat the experience. This left the river to provide our means of travel.
There are a couple of different choices for those opting for the water. You can go for white-knuckle pandemonium on a speedboat. Eight punters don helmet and life jacket, wedge themselves into the cramped wooden benches of a tiny fishing skiff with a Ferrari engine on the back. They spend the next six hours enjoying the piercing scream of engine and the smell of two-stroke while they dodge rocks, submerged logs and whirlpools. Having both traveled at full throttle from one fish-free fishing hole to another in dodgy tinnies we decided the speedboat wasn’t for us. This left us the slow boats option: two days onboard with an overnight stay at Pak Beng.
There is the deluxe package. By day you travel on a well fitted, sparsely occupied barge with reclining lodge chairs, open bar and a pleasant smelling bathroom. By night you sit on the riverside balcony of your luxury lodge, drink cognac, smoke cigars and play backgammon while sharing polo and falconry anecdotes and lamenting the erosion of the empire and patriarchy. At US$600 a head (and the fact that both Amy and my polo and falconry anecdotes have been done to death) meant that we had to look for a more economical alternative.
US$30 each got us on barge with a similar build but lacking in comfort in the fit out. The trip itself had both bad and good points.
There are the narrow wooden benches that leave your arse numb in a heartbeat, the dark, dingy stinkroom, and the fact that Huay Xai is boring as bat shit while Pak Beng is an ugly single street shit hole, a frontier town full of hustlers, charlatans and dodgy buffalo stir-fries (which made the second day of the boat journey very uncomfortable for this little black duck).
But if you can get past all of that, the travel experience itself is quite stunning and thoroughly enjoyable. The barge winds its way slowly through the rocky outcrops, whirlpools and rapids. White sandy beaches, villages, farms and green peaks wrap their way along both banks. The hours drift by reading or you can simply enjoy sitting with the sun on your back and the breeze in your ears. You also have time for a good old chat, so convinced was I that we were sitting next to Tim Rogers I had to ask his girlfriend if she was the arse-kicking lady from the northwest (she wasn’t nor was he our Tim, just a dead ringer). All in all, I thought the slow boat to be a capital way to travel.