At least the monk boys were cool.
The reviews we heard of Vientiane were not terribly flattering. It was big and Lao and there were certainly temples and some interesting sights, but the word on the travel circuit was dire: bedbugs, expensive restaurants, entirely too few magical enchanted forests on top of giant waterfalls.
We arrived via clattering wonderbus at an enormous, cacophonous station filled with dozens of people screaming in our faces. Like most bus station in southeast Asia we were pretty far out of town, necessitating a transfer to a local bus and an efficient, speedy gouging. The sun was blistering hot, we had just ridden in a bus for seven hours, and weren’t capable of negotiating.
But we were in the capital, and damn it, we were going to enjoy it.
The untold horrors of Vangvieng
Vangvieng had a bit of a reputation. Adventurers who had forded the Mekong before and returned to Korea told of a kind of dark partyland filled with drugs and terror. In this lucid, bacchanalian hellscape people were forever blasted out of their gourds on cheap, bathroom-brew LSD and radioactive mushrooms, swirling through life in a semi-permanent haze that left them brain-damaged and covered in body paint. It was a town insomuch as people sometimes lived there, but really it was a gateway to the river of sin and villainy.
The river was a gurgling, slow-moving pleasure obstacle course surrounded everywhere in jimmied-together shacks full of bargain booze and drunk foreigners. A shop in town would rent you a large, poorly maintained tube, which you then took to ride down the river. Locals, who were really just personified manifestations of human desire and low will power, would hook your tube as you floated by, make a margarita in your mouth, load your capillaries full of hallucinogens, and shove you back out into the rapids.
We imagined a sort of outdoor opium den, clouds of dark purple smoke puffing up into the sky in the shape of psychedelic dragons over the prone bodies and lolling tongues of dozens of foreign corpses. It was widely known that the town boasted an impressive death rate, as addled backpackers leapt from rickety bridges and fraying rope swings directly on to piles of jagged rocks while screaming, one supposes, “I AM THE ARCHBISHOP OF THE TUBE KINGDOM!”
The safe was not for sale, otherwise you best believe it would have come home with me.
We arrive in Luang Prabang at dusk, a pedestrian market overtaking the downtown square. Gold-plated trinkets glint in the early evening, and everywhere are blankets. They are covered in shoes, leather notebooks, dresses, pens, tchotchkes, jewellery. The sun is hazy over a grand temple on a hill, and we slowly find our way to our accommodation. It is dark, and we are no longer on a boat, so all is well.
We have acquired new travel friends, the only people on the boat we deemed tolerable enough to spend time with. Together we explore the town, climbing the steep ridge to the central peak of the hill overlooking the countryside. People gather here each day, gaze out over the skyline, watch the sunset on a distant mountain. The sky turns red, then purple, and a husky blue before we walk back down into town.
We stop in a convenience store and purchase a bottle of Lao whiskey called “True Manhood.” A man flashes a grotesque, distended bicep across the label, his masculine prowess communicating exactly how bombed you’re going to get. It is likely flammable and probably mostly turpentine, and a tall bottle of it costs the equivalent of $1.25. Are we going to die? Probably. At the very least, we are going to go blind. We drink late into the night, until the streets are quiet and the sky is dark, watching hours and hours of Mandarin language MTV on satellite television.
We had developed a weird tendency to severely underestimate physical challenge. Our bus from Chiang Rai deposited us somewhere nondescript in the Thai border town of Chiang Khong, and we half-remembered assurances from the internet that the Lao border was eminently walkable. Tuk-tuks swarmed us the moment we disembarked our bus and scooted impatiently alongside us for the first ten minutes of our walk.
“It’s hot,” they noted, although clearly we felt it more than they. We had our backpacks, and we had just been on a bus for three hours, and also it was noon. Didn’t we want to rest our weary, shambling corpses in this trundling convenience wagon?
“No thanks!” we chirped. “We love walking!” We were idiots.
About six kilometers and several soaked t-shirts later, we arrived at the border and shakily produced our exit cards, dripping and stained with sweat as they were. We could barely lift our arms, and wondered if we could pay anyone to drag us physically down to the water. From the border we were directed down to the banks of the river, where people took our ridiculous bags onto their canoes and rowed us across to a new land. We were in Laos.
Friends, we have come once again to the borderlands, to the threshold of another strange country. New roads, new mountains, new forests. New soups. As always, I have battalions of words doing Civil War re-enactments in my brain, fighting towards the frontline of my keyboard. What do I want to tell you about first? Monk boys leaping into a quick-flowing river on a hazy summer day? A hidden forest atop a magical waterfall? The looming spectre of dozens of dead Australians, wrecked by crystal methamphetamine and poorly placed rope swings? The words fall over themselves attempting to get out, I am strangled and left silent by having just too many anecdotes. In lieu: the fine art of photosmithing. Bask.