We should have realised. It must be some kind of affront to the laid-back divinity that controls human affairs in Laos to travel by speedboat. Quite apart from the fact that it is dangerous and uncomfortable and not recommended by the guide books.
Nevertheless, the prospect of spending just 90 minutes on the Meekong and finding ourselves in Pak Beng (from which it is just one more day to Luang Prabang) is just too enticing. And so we sign up.
There is no room at all in the boat, which looks more like it was made to break water-speed records that to carry passengers. A cushion under bum, and a wooden partition that marks the space for the next seat far too close. Bags get attached under netting (but with no rain protection) up front. The driver perches at the back, rudder in hand beside the incredibly noisy engine (which looks for all the world like a Toyota car engine – can’t think why they don’t have a decent muffler). Lifevests? Check. Helmets? Check but decide against. If we crash things will be unpleasant, helmet or not.
Once we are going all conversation becomes impossible. Even shouting would not avail you. I have toilet paper in my ears and they still ring for the day afterwards.
Three of us are tall (I understand that Dutch people are the tallest on average in the world, not that I am Dutch, but the other two are), but the seats are apparently made for people who have lost their legs below the knee. So passengers who sit in front of me have to sit between my feet.
Which present no problem at all to the first passenger, who gets in and out without incident. If you want to get on just stand on the shores of the river and wave something visible. If you want to get off just wave your hand towards the shore and the driver will deposit you whereever your heart may desire.
But then the second passenger gets in. And I have one foot out of the boat in the cool water when she does. So then she sits down and there is no way I can easily put my foot back in the boat. No problem, I think. I can hold it on the outside of the boat, resting on a little rail for the rest of the journey. And the noise is unpleasant, but bearable. And the wind likewise, with sunglasses on to make it possible to look around. And the occasional jets of water that leap out to make me wet. In fact, the whole thing is more like an amusement ride than a means of transport.
All goes swimmingly (I shouldn’t use that word in these circumstances) until my foot falls off the side of the boat. I pull it back in instinctively, but not before it has fallen in the water and drenched me, the woman in front of me, the person beside me, and the driver as well. I find another spot for it, a little more secure and wonder why my foot is still attached. If it had hit the ground at 80kmph out of a car I should think I would be rather the worse for wear.
But that is all okay-ish too, until it starts to rain. At this speed (they say it is up to 80kmph) rain is like hail. So my hat comes in handy to protect my face, and every passenger in the boat is huddled down trying to avoid as much of the stinging water as possible, and starting to wonder whether 90 minutes in this rather damp and cold version of hell is better than a few leisurely hours watching the river go by from the gently rocking deck of a slow boat.
Eventually we arrive. Before it really starts to rain. The monsoon is not done with yet apparently. Exhilarating? For sure. The fastest way between A and B? No doubt. But a slow boat tomorrow all the same. By unanimous decision.