We had to be up at a reasonable time to get the boat down the Mekong - from the Huay Xai (near the Thai border) to Luang Prabang. We were being picked up at 9:00 so it was an 8:00 am breakfast. We left the hotel for the port promptly and arrived to go through passport and ticket checks. Then it was a walk down to the boat. The boat was a long, thin, iron hulled affair with about 20 rows of wooden benches each holding 4 people, plus some seats that looked like they had come out of a very old bus.
We got on the boat and managed to find some cushions (of sorts) to put on the seats. There were some people on the boat already but it was less than half full. We sat there for the next 2 hours whilst other people drifted onto the boat, the engine got started and quickly stopped and we chatted to various people on the boat.At about 11:45 (we were supposed to depart between 10:30 & 11:00), another 60 people came down to the boat. These were the people on organised trips who had stayed last night on the Thai side of the border. It quickly became apparent that it was going to be a squeeze and the new comers where not happy - especially as they had paid the most for the trip. After a lot of dissent, and a couple of people walking away, everybody squeezed on and the boat got under way.
The ride was quite serene to start with but we quickly left civilization behind and started to go through some turbulent water and strong currents - not quite white water rafting but enough to get the people on the side of the boat wet as the boat lent over. The scenery became more interesting - dense forest and lots of rocks in and on the side of the river. It is the cold season so the river level is quite low - we could see the high water marks about 10ft above the current level. We just hoped the captain knew what he was doing.
It took us about 6 hours to get to our overnight stop - the small town of Pak Beng - arriving just as darkness fell. The boat docked - well beached really - on the river bank. To get up to the town you had to climb a steep bank of soft sand - Fran needed a little assistance. Getting our bags off was chaos - it was dark and they were in the hold and young Lao boys were trying to earn money by carrying them up the bank - except that nobody could tell where their bag was. Anyway we found our bags and followed the rep for the guesthouse. The town itself was one street that consisted mostly of guest houses and restaurants. It was not on mains electricity - there were generators everywhere that stopped at 10:00, so we had to be quick to sort out our room and get something to eat.
After a good nights sleep, we had to be back on the boat for 8:30, so it was an early breakfast and down to the sand bank to get on the boat (via a nice little bakery that sold double chocolate muffins!!). Getting down to the boat was easier than coming up. Needless to say, the boat didn't leave on time - it left about 45 mins late - which we were quite pleased with, not the long wait we had yesterday. Today's trip was longer - about 8 hours and the scenery even better - the mountains higher each side with lots of rocks and rapids. We had one stop at a little hamlet that obviously was the centre of the poultry trade. The boat at this point took on hundreds of trays of eggs (all of which went on the roof), 6 baskets each with 5 live chickens in and a couple of turkeys - all trussed up but still alive.
We arrived at Luang Prabang just after 5:00 - almost on time. The climb up from the river was easier as it was paved. After a walk via the market we managed to find the accommodation we had booked and then spent the rest of the evening looking for somewhere else to stay as the place was not as advertised and had certainly seen better days. The town itself is delightful, French colonial in style with lots of shops that caught Fran's eye and a night market full of local handicrafts.