Laidback in Laos
In a poetic tale of hedonism, guest writer Aram McLean recounts drunken days & free-loving nights in Laos and still manages time to experience the country’s raw beauty.
The way is a mix of clay, mud and manure, making a soup of epic slime. Leeches roam the path. And they jump! Yes, jump. Curling their bodies like some blood-sucking mutant of an inch-worm, they hurl themselves at our bare ankles slipping past through the muddy clay cocktail.
Blood creeping from our bitten wounds, my two companions and I falter onwards, trudging through muck sprung from the bowels of hell itself. Onwards till we curse our inability to stand, unable to stop disappearing up to our calves in pits of unknown depths. On we march, countless leeches ripped from our skin, again and again, in rushed, disgusted haste.
And yet, we bear smiles, all of us, smiles for the crap and laughter for the ludicrous. We paid for this? And so we did, at the trailhead. Then, our destination is before us. It is a cave, yet again a cave. It sometimes seems that Laos may have more caves than people.
Into the gap we plow, down the slippery rocks where a cool fresh underwater creek washes the blood and muck around our ankles away. The cavern calls ever deeper, up to my waist now, and getting darker. Up to my neck the black water continues to rise. Dare I swim on? Hesitation stares into the deepest shadow. My headlamp gives off a last gasp glow from its dying batteries. Only the tiniest circle of light points the way.
Mark, the Englishman, bumps up behind me. Francois, the Frenchman, stands with him. A young Canadian couple appears out of nowhere behind them both. Their names I never knew.
I decide to push on and they all decide to follow. I’m swimming now, swimming into the earth. My feet touch nothing; only icy water surrounds my body. Onwards, onwards, no way to know how fast I’m moving, and then, just as I’m beginning to believe the whole world is water, my feet bump against sand and land, my head-lamp breaks feebly past the edge of nothing.
The cavern is massive, marked out by fire pits and crude divisions. It looks like a former refuge, likely in days of rampant bombing from wars past.
The five of us scramble up the slick ledge. My light sweeps weakly over the motley group and I can’t help but laugh at the sight of these people I barely know, dripping and shivering in their soaking underwear. Then I slip on some human waste, left behind by some asshole in a rather thoughtless place, and nearly fall back into the flowing darkness. My light flickers in a crisis of energy.
We choose to go no further. No one else has a light and mine cannot be trusted. Lowering my body again into the underground stream, we swim again, this time towards the light, moving with the current. Pure hot sweaty sunshine leads the way.
Scrambling out into blessed open space again, we strip down to nothing to dry ourselves. A squawking gaggle of middle-aged French tourists march past in the middle of our naked display. They stare at us blankly, saying not a word, as if we were just another style of Buddha. Naked Buddha.
The Canadian couple pushes back to the ongoing trail, further on and further up, another cave lies that way. Mark, Francois and I have seen enough caves and Buddhas. We take our leave and once more clay, mud, manure and leeches safely guide us home.
Lao-Lao whisky is evil. A drink made from fermented rice, we three new friends mutually decide it’s a good idea to partake in this local custom of devious debauchery.
It is not a good idea.
Lao-Lao whisky is evil.
Come morning Mark and I leave the river village of Muang Nga. Francois the Frenchman stays behind, intent on his own journey. My heads pound and my body cries. Not for leaving the Frenchman, but rather because the whisky bottle is empty, and so am I. Mark and I are on the boat, heading downstream, to Nong Khiew where a bus waits, idling patiently. We pile in with the rest of the touristic cattle. Two rows face each other and people hang off the back. The ride begins and could be a chapter out of The Neverending Story. Mark and a local girl are content to rest their heads on each other, not saying a word, only dozing peacefully, blonde hair spliced with brown. The Lao man sitting next to me is all smiles with blackened teeth. He offers me his shoulder. Never has such an uncomfortable mound of bone and sinew looked so desirable. I manage to hold myself upright, as Luang Prabang arrives, barely.
“I’m just going to stay a couple days,” I say to Mark. “I’ve been here before.”
Six days later I’m beginning to feel like a bit of a liar, though not from a lack of trying. The only place that serves beer past midnight, in all of Luang Prabang that we could find, is a bowling alley. Mark and I become ridiculously good at ten-pin, for the first three or four frames at least.
Mark from Manchester and Aram from Vancouver, both in our early thirties. Mark arrived in Laos via China and Pakistan. I came from Thailand via Cambodia and Vietnam. We have met in the middle of nowhere and found everything in common.
Our day begins at noon. We usually stumble up the road to watch a film in a little place which offers private television sets and scores of DVD’s for rent. Then we eat dinner on the street, always with a Beerlao or three. After that it would seem to the average bystander that our sole goal is to search out the oddest, most insanely ridiculous characters we can, and spend the evening with them. To end with the usual blurry ten-pin and home to a guesthouse, where the owners may seem to love us, but also may be getting a wee bit grated by the constant four o’clock in the morning wake up knock.
During one of these nights we meet one such character, Charlie.
“LSD at Angkor Wat, now that was an experience,” Charlie the Australian tells us over our street dinner spread. Charlie owns a landscaping business in Byron Bay and is proud to boast that he only hires beautiful women. His company lunch breaks are solely allocated to skinny-dipping in a river which flows near his shop. Two of his employees, Sara and Disa, travel with him, he’s paid their way, and they certainly are beautiful. They may also have only experienced one week of sobriety in a full year between them.
An American named Linda is tagging along with their group as well. Linda’s a ‘jazz singer’ from LA, who is quick to point out that she is bi-sexual; in fact those may have been her very first words to me. We can only agree that yes that would indeed increase your options.
Last and least is a timid English girl who seems to simply follow. Perhaps she is ‘with’ Linda, I couldn’t say. The ensemble is complete. Mad stories flow and Mark & I can only crack another Beerlao and listen.
We all go bowling as usual, we mingle, and we soon realize half the travellers in this town are insane, yet of course we end up meeting almost all of them. I suppose we are one of them.
And then we do it again the next day.
This night finds us with an Italian-Scot, Vanessa, who has so many trinkets stuck in her face it’s hard to see her through the metal bits. She is joined by her flamboyant friend, a lad named Sky. Two Canadian lads jump in the back of the tuk-tuk with us, happy to tag along to the bowling alley. Young wrestler types, the two Canucks fail miserably at defeating their fear of gay. They leave when they realize that no one else agrees with their empty conclusions.
Sky seems like a pretty nice guy and we chat for a bit. Unfortunately, it’s not long before he’s heading out the door as well, looking for a more compatible person to love. After some hopefulness on his part, he finally clues in that my passion for sharing hugs doesn’t mean that I fancy him.
So it goes.
Vanessa decides to fill in the available space, now sure of my persuasion. Her bottom half begins to appear in every direction I step. Her metal bits clink endlessly against my face. Meanwhile, Mark has spent most of his time chatting to the most beautiful nineteen-year old I’ve seen in months, Sandra. And more importantly, she seems to be sane in every way that matters. Then Sandra has to leave due to an early morning bus with her name on it.
More pins fall and Mark and I head home alone, again.
We do make it out to a nearby waterfall, mostly by accident, but it’s our only achievement. It’s nice. Water falls and stuff like that. We swim about. We leave again. On the way back down to the bus, 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 a tiger that was saved from poachers. She is large and muscled and truly magnificent. Fangs like knives made to easily tear through flesh. She looks up at us through the mesh. She rolls over and springs to her paws. Her jaws gape open, showing off their jagged teeth. We stare into that contraption of destruction and as her tawny face contorts we prepare ourselves for her mighty growl.
The tigress lets out a glorious trio of farts. She lies back down and licks herself in satisfaction.
We return to Luang Prabang.
Again we meet up with Charlie the Australian and his mighty crew of skinny dippers. After a few beers he makes us an offer. “We’re going to do LSD while tubing down the river in Vang Vieng this time. You want in?”
I’d been to Vang Vieng already. I’d made my way north from there. Bars dot the area’s river banks, each sporting a forty foot trapeze swing into the wet, volleyball courts and whisky buckets beyond counting. So many pasty and smashed, leering young English folks roam past that I had begun to think Britain 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. Drugs and alcohol flowed freely in an ambitious attempt to match the river’s enormous volume. Everyone was king of the chaos.
It had been too much for me, despite the beauty, and I’d found myself lost briefly to the madness. I had to get out. Leaving Vang Vieng, I had fled north to Luang Prabang and eventually onwards to Muang Nga. It was here that I met Mark and Francois. It was here that Mark became one of the first real friends I’d met in South East Asia. It was here that I learned that some leeches do jump.
And this was where my story began.
“Acid tripping in Vang Vieng.” I look at fifty-five year old Charlie who could pass for seventy. I shake my head. “Thanks man, but not my thing.”
I do end up sleeping with Sara that night though. I’m not a saint.
It finally becomes evident that Mark and I can’t drink all the beer in Laos, because that wouldn’t be fair, and so day six finds us moving on again. Mark to head back north and trek deeper into the jungle that is northern Laos, and me the catch the incredibly slow boat, to the Thai border, and on to Chang Mai.
The ghetto lunch lady I’ve bought a sandwich from every day is sad to hear the news of my departure. She steps out from behind her little counter to give me a humongous hug. She barely comes up to my chest but still manages to kiss both of my cheeks. She wishes me nothing but luck and tells me I am welcome back at any time.
“No, no, free for you, free for you,” She insists, wrapping my last sandwich with even a little bit more love than usual. I am sorry to leave her country.
“It’s been good.” I give Mark a hug at our crossroads.
“It’s been mad,” Mark expands. “Keep in touch.”
Laos is a beautiful country with beautiful people. This fact being all the more remarkable when you consider that since the Vietnam War, Laos is officially the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world.
The French coined a saying during their 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 people, and they feel sorry for people who ‘think too much’.
So as it turned out, Mark and I did them proud.