February 5, 2009
The way is legend. Clay, mud and cow manure mix together in a soup of epic slime. Leeches roam the path. And they jump!
But they can't jump your mind protests. And so I once believed but no longer. Curling their bodies like some blood-sucking mutant of an inch-worm they hurl themselves at bare ankles slipping past through the muddy shitty clay cocktail. We spin on like spastics; blood creeps from bitten wounds, onwards, through a muck sprung from the bowels of hell itself. On till we curse the inability to stand, unable to stop disappearing up to our calves in pits with unknown bases, sticks to slash and shite to stink. On with fresh leeches torn off in disgusted haste.
Yet we bear smiles, all of us, smiles at the crap and laughter for the ludicrous. We paid for this? And so we did, at the trailhead.
Then the destination, a cave, yet again a cave; it sometimes seems that Laos may have more caves than people.
Into the gap now, down the slippery rocks, a cool fresh creek washes the blood and shit away. The cavern calls ever deeper, up to my waist now in the darkness. Up to my neck, dare I swim on? Hesitation stares into the darkest shadow.
Mark arrives behind me. Francois stands with him. A young Canadian couple appears next whose names I never knew.
I push on and they follow. Swimming now, swimming deeper into the earth. My feet touch nothing; only icy water surrounds my body. Onwards, onwards, then sand and land, my head-lamp breaks only the edge of it. So massive is the cavern, a former refuge in days of bombing wars. Fire pits mark the past and crude divisions mark the homes.
The five of us scramble up the ledge. My light sweeps the group and I can't help but laugh at the sight of people I barely know dripping shivering in their soaking underwear, then I slip on some human waste planted by some asshole in a rather thoughtless place and nearly fall back into the darkness. I see my light flicker in a crisis of energy.
We go no further. Lowered again into the underground stream the nastiness on my foot thankfully decides more fun awaits down some distant buried crack. We are swimming again, this time towards the light. Sunshine leads the way. We scramble into open space and strip down to dry off. Shorts are barely on when a haggle of French tourists of middle-age description ramble past. Their looks of slight shock turn to ones of ignorance.
The Canadian couple, whose names I never knew, push back to the trail, further on and further up. A Buddha cave lies that way but Mark, Francois and I have seen enough Buddha's to last in our memories for a thousand years in Purgatory.
We take our leave and once more clay and mud, shit and leeches, show us the way home.
Lao-Lao whisky is evil. Made from fermented rice, the three stranger's now hesitant friends, decide it is a good idea to partake in this local custom of debauchery.
It is not a good idea.
Lao-Lao whisky is evil.
We leave Francois in Muang Nga come morning, Heads pound and bodies cry. Only once on the boat does Mark confess the mess he left behind.
“Evil stuff.” The rocking boat confirms it. “The ants came for my borrowed dinner and damn near ate me alive where I slept.”
I laugh feebly. “Wasn't going to admit it mate, but same thing happened to me.”
“Ha nice.” Mark grins, “Bloody Lao-Lao, I only hope Francois won't be taking too much grief for our weak stomachs.”
“No wonder you ran out so fast.”
“Aye Lao-Lao, evil.”
The boat slides into Nong Khiew and a bus idles patiently. We pile in like cattle, two rows face the other and people hang off the back. The ride seems like a chapter out of The Neverending Story. Mark and some local girl are content to rest their heads on each other. The Lao man next to me with blackened teeth looks more than willing to offer me his shoulder. I damn near take it. Somehow I manage to hold myself upright. Luang Prabang arrives, just in time.
“Just a couple days.” I say to Mark, “I'll be on my way.”
Six days later I'm feeling a bit like a liar, though not from lack of trying. The only place open late with a beer to offer in all of Luang Prabang, is a bowling alley. Mark and I get ridiculously good at ten-pin; at least the first three or four frames.
Mark from Manchester and Aram from Vancouver. The companionship rings a bell, even if that was a different Mark and a few different countries ago. Mark arrived in Laos from China and Pakistan. From the sound of Pakistan it's where I want to be next.
Our days begin at noon. We stumble to a film, then dinner, then a Beerlao. After that it seems our sole goal is to find the oddest, most insanely ridiculous people we can then spend the evening with them for amusements sake. To end with the ten-pin and home once more to a guesthouse where the owners may love us but may be getting a bit grated by the constant three a.m. wake up knock.
“LSD and Angkor Wat, now there's an experience.” Harry the Australian tells us over a street dinner and we know we have once again found our companions for the night.
Harry owns a landscaping business back in Byron Bay and is proud to boast that he only hires beautiful women and lunch breaks are solely allocated to skinny-dipping in the river.
Two of his employees, Chloe and Nicole, travel with him and an American named Linda, a 'jazz singer' from LA with the haunting look of failure in her eyes. She is quick to point out that she is bi-sexual, in fact those may have been her very first words, and we can only agree that yes that would indeed increase your options.
Last is a timid English girl who seems to simply follow along. Perhaps she is 'with' Linda, nary says much a word and not a name now springs to mind. The ensemble is complete.
Mad stories flow and Mark and I can only crack another Beerlao and listen. This being because the telling seems their pleasure, not the actual asking of a question.
“You just mix what you can together.” Chloe explains to me, “Cocaine, Ketamine, Angel Dust, maybe some heroine, and you snort the lot. Now that is a trip! Like a Christmas cocktail.”
“Sure.” I say, “Sounds like good clean family fun alright.”
I shrug at my English friend and he takes another sip from his beer. “No wonder they all look about ten years older than they actually are.” Mark says to me after.
We bowl, we mingle, and we realize half the travellers in this town are insane, yet of course we meet almost all of them.
And then we do it again the next day - all to the crashing of pins and the spinning of heavy balls.
Another night finds us with an Italian-Scot, Sophia, who has so many trinkets stuck in her face it's hard to see her through the metal bits. She is joined by her gay friend Charlie. Then two Canadian lads join us. Young wrestler types, the two Canucks fail miserably at hiding their homophobia. They leave when they realize no one actually wants to speak with them.
I find Charlie quite a nice dude so chat with him for a bit. Unfortunately it's not long before he's heading out the door as well, somewhat distraught. After much hopefulness on his part he clues in that just because I don't mind giving him a hug doesn't mean I'm bringing him home.
Sophia decides to fill in for him. Her ass seems to appear everywhere I step and her metal bits clink endlessly against me. A nice girl she is, but with the heart of a nutter. She determines that smoking some marijuana in the bowling alley is obviously a good idea. Like they're just going to confiscate it from you and pass it around at the annual RCMP ball like they do in Canada. The Italian-Scot also becomes dismayed to discover I'm only being friendly, but not at all ready to find myself in jail over a joint.
Meanwhile, Mark spends his time chatting to the most beautiful wee nineteen-year old, Rebecca, and laughs at my chain of events.
Then Rebecca has to leave due to an early morning bus calling her name.
Ha, ha, bastard.
More pins fall and once again we head home alone.
We do make it out to a waterfall, mostly by accident, but it is our only achievement. It's nice. Water falls and stuff like that. We swim. We leave again.
On the way down we pass some cages where moon-bears play in recovery. They roll around happily like gigantic teddy bears that can rip your head off.
Onwards we pass the tiger saved from poachers. She is large, striped and truly magnificent. Fangs like knives easily tear through flesh. She looks up at us through the mesh, rolls over and springs to her paws. Her jaws gape large and staring into that contraption of destruction we prepare in awe for her mighty growl.
The tiger lets out a glorious trio of farts like nothing I've ever known.
Then she lies back down and licks herself in satisfaction.
We return to Luang Prabang.
Again we meet up with Harry and his crew and after a few beers he makes an offer.
“We're going to do LSD while tubing down the river in Vang Vieng. You want in?”
I look at him with my head cocked slightly to the left like.
I've been to Vang Vieng before, made my way north from there. In fact the trip in Laos actually began at the southernmost point, the land of 4000 islands just touching into Cambodia. The rapidly diminishing fresh water dolphins live there.
On the island of Don Det I bumped into the English girl I'd met in Vietnam, Lorna, and together we rode bikes through the rain, crossed old French bridges and marvelled at a waterfalling rapid along the Mekong River that no man may kayak and live.
It reminded me of a rapid I'd once seen while cruising the Source of the Nile many years ago. Our guide chose to portage and fair enough. That particular meshing of water had been called The Dead Dutchman. This was because, well, I'm thinking you can figure that one out on your own.
The one now staring at us from the Mekong surging passed Don Det was equally impressive. I stood and gazed at it in wonder what a rush to test its pounding power. But then again, The Mangled Canadian for a name doesn't sound so romantic.
We headed north to Pakse, the city where nothing happens, and from there straight to Vientiane. The capital of Laos was arrived at for early morning, weary and grumpy. Lorna and I rented some bikes to check out the sites. All of four hours was needed to see it fully. Two of those were for a beer.
A brief interlude of laughs was had at the main temple, Pha That Luang, featured so prominently on the Lonely Planet guidebook for Laos; that same guidebook that every traveller and his handicapped dog travels with. We made sure to take a photo waving the Lonely Planet hysterically to show that indeed we were truly incorrigible travellers of unmeasured cunning and original thought.
Or maybe we were just taking the piss.
The next local bus found us crammed into its confines with ancient fans spinning from the roof and away to Vang Vieng.
On the journey Lorna made an observation. “Interesting isn't it, how in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, you seldom see overweight people, it's kind of frowned upon. But here...”
I looked at the gigantic gut protruding into the seat in front of me.
“Ya, here they don't seem to give a shit.”
On to Vang Vieng, Vang Vieng of tubing fame, Vang Vieng where anything goes. The scenery was magnificent and found Lorna and I cycling again through rutted roads, mountains crashed into the sky and caves, ever more caves, dotted the cliffs where climbers plied their trade. We leapt from trees, kayaked the flowing river, spooned a reclining Buddha and forever ensured our place in Buddhism hell.
Bars dot the river banks with forty foot trapezes and volleyball courts and whisky buckets beyond counting. Endless pasty, smashed, leering young English folks roam passed that you begin to think England must truly be enjoying some peace and quiet. Nice boys and girls, sweet hearts of gold I imagine, but away from home for the first time, their excitement cannot be contained and the alcohol flows in an ambitious attempt to match the rivers volume itself.
It was carnage. Everyone was king of the world.
Back in town only Friends re-runs competed with Family Guy in every restaurant and stoned laughter ripped freely through the air.
It was too much for me, despite the beauty, I found myself lost briefly to the madness. I had to get out. Leaving Vang Vieng and Lorna to her tubing I fled to Luang Prabang.
The road to Luang Prabang careened through magnificence. A horizon like none I've often seen is viewed through the pleasure of sphincter tightening curves. A jeep hurtled past us at a speed not recommended. The bus driver, obviously a veteran of this precarious route, dodged him with brilliance. Through the rear window I watch the jeep attempt to slightly dent the hill-face by destroying the front end of his vehicle. He found himself abruptly at a much safer velocity.
Seven hours spent above the clouds and two flat tires later I arrived in Luang Prabang.
“Acid tripping in Vang Vieng.” I look up at fifty-five year old Harry who could pass for seventy and shake my head. “Thanks mate, but I can't make it.”
After that only time in Vang Vieng was my first time in Luang Prabang. I met Zelda and Pat there, friends from Cambodia, and a week of surprisingly good health commenced. We rode mountain bikes (though if you can call something with no brakes and only two and half gears a mountain bike is debatable) up and over the most evil hill in Luang Prabang. From there we crossed a river and arrived at what was supposed to be a beautiful waterfall. It's true that waterfalls may rival caves for number in Laos. This one wasn't beautiful - mainly because it wasn't there. The rain hadn't filled it yet.
“Oh they have Beerlao, so not a complete loss.”
Then it was back over the treacherous hill with nay neither the proper gear nor a brake pad to be found on the down side.
Grand company and good days spent before the inevitable tearful goodbyes, mostly on my part. Not long after their departure and finding no inspiration I knew I had to get out of Luang Prabang, for the first time. So I caught a bus by random and ended up in a place called Nong Khiew. From there a boat takes you upstream where no roads go and dumps you off in Muang Nga. It was here I met Mark and Francois.
And this is where our story began...
Mark's and my last night finds us with an Australian named Karen. She keeps asking permission and apologizing for being with us. By the seventh time we begin to wish she wasn't.
To the bowling alley toilet I go where a local man stands happily peeing in the direction of the urinal. Unfortunately said urinal is over four feet away and he is missing dismally. Tiles spray splatter.
“What...?” I begin.
“I'm drunk.” he slurs in self righteous explanation.
Avoiding his stream I ready my own business. Surely this weirdness will be the extent of one toilet break.
Another Lao walks in as the first finishes up with satisfaction. The second slips through the firsts mess and makes ready next to me. He leans back precariously and bends around the partition to stare at me, and not into my deep blue eyes you understand.
“What the f...?”
He only flicks his eyes up to mine and smiles unashamedly.
I slip myself out of the washroom feeling more than a little defiled.
“Time to go.” I say to Mark. He is more than ready to agree.
It is evident that Mark and I can't drink all the beer in Laos, because that wouldn't be fair, so day six finds us moving on. Mark to go north and me for the slow boat, the incredibly slow boat, two days to the Thai border and on to Chang Mai.
The ghetto lunch lady rounds the counter to hug me. She barely comes up to my chest but somehow manages to kiss my cheeks and wish me good luck and please come back again. “No, no, free for you, free for you.” She wraps my last sandwich with love. I have bought one from her every day after all.
“It's been good.” I give Mark a hug at our crossroad.
“It's been crazy!” Mark expands. “Keep in touch.”
“You know we'll meet again.”
Mark finds his bus and I find my boat. A night is spent upriver in the small village of Pak Beng. It looks remarkably like the armpit of the earth, and that's me being polite, not something I usually am, as you may have concluded by now.
From there it's on to Huai Xai and across the Mekong into Chang Khong, Thailand.
Laos is a beautiful country with beautiful people. This fact being even more remarkable when you realize that since the conclusion of the Vietnam War Laos is officially the most heavily bombed country in the world.
Furthermore, the noodle soup is magnificent.
The French coined a saying when they formed the Indochina Protectorate:
“The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow.”
“Too much work is bad for the brain.” say the Lao, and they feel sorry for people who 'think too much'.
So as it turned out, Mark and I did them proud.
Opinions expressed on Readers' Submissions pages do not necessarily reflect those of talesofasia.com, its publisher, or anyone else that could be remotely affiliated with the talesofasia name.
Unless otherwise credited, the copyright on all text and photographs appearing on a Readers' Submissions page belong to the credited author and are not the property of talesofasia.com. Inquirires regarding this material should be made to the author. Unless stated otherwise, all other text and photographs on talesofasia.com are © 1998 - 2009 talesofasia.com. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.