Laos – fastboat
When I saw the boat, I knew. At the bottom of the muddy riverbank was a wispy shell of a boat with a scimitar bow, but what caught the attention was the engine, a four-cylinder, oily monster with a propeller at the end of a long shaft. Luang Phabang to Huay Xai is about 300 kilometres via the Mekong, yet we would be there in less than five hours, upstream against a strong current, thanks to this engine. The driver, a slender youth of about 18 with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth, hit a switch and the engine exploded into action. The noise was spectacular. Like a string of firecrackers erupting close to your ear. Five hours. We pushed off, the beast thundered and we nosed into the current.
The Mekong above Luang Phabang is shallow in parts, and surprisingly narrow for a river that has already travelled more than 2,000 kilometres from its source. Several times we shot rapids, whizzing past jagged limestone spears. The scenery was lovely. Tiny villages of bamboo and thatch perched on the bank, water buffalo waded in the margins of the river and villagers fished or panned for gold, against a backdrop of sharp hills that faded in a blue wash toward China.
It was almost enough to take your mind off the seats, which were narrow, hard and cramped. If you happen to be a medium-to-large foreigner, the only way to fit is by clutching your knees up under your chin.
The sight of Ban Huai Xai brought with it an enormous sense of relief. I was met at the wharf by a guide who would take me to my hotel. He was saying something to me, shouting, but by this time I was almost totally deaf. I couldn’t make out a word. He was grinning and pointing to his mouth. “Drink,” he was saying. “You need a drink!” And so I ended the day on a platform of split cane beneath the verandah of a village house, drinking rice wine through a bamboo straw while snorting buffalo made their way home for the night.
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