(NOT SO) SMOOTH SAILING It was the romance of it all that persuaded me to take the slow boat to Luang Prabang from Huay Xai, meandering down the Mekong through a veil of river mist like some intrepid adventurer of old ... Well, O.K., romance and fear: the fast boats have a reputation for dispatching passengers to the murky depths.

At $13, the slow boat was half the fare for the souped-up floating dragsters that rend the Mekong's serenity with their high-pitched whine—and probably 50 times safer. That it took two days to chug the 300 km downstream instead of six hours...

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