Heart of Darkness
The farang in Luang Prabang came in two broad varieties. First, the tourists, who found Laos on their itemized Lonely Planet itinerary after the tsunami forced vacationers heading to Thailand to move inland in 2000. These would stroll the colonial graveyard of the city, drink Lào-Láo in Veng Vieng, and head back into Thailand via the Friendship Bridge, with a Third World stamp to liven up their passports, and several complaints about the condition of the Laotian roads burning venomous holes in their mouths from all the retellings.
Second, the travelers, who stopped in Luang Prabang because it’s in the middle of Laos, and who are quick to leave for the country’s fringes: the Four Thousand Islands of the southern Mekong, the backwater towns like Muang Ngoi or Muang Sing or Phongsali, for a backroad motorcycle adventure, for a trek in the jungles around Luang Nam Tha, or to one of the mountainous crossings into Vietnam, at Tay Trang or Nar Maew, where the bus fords rivers and sometimes the passengers get out and pull it uphill by a rope.
The tourist says, “Why don’t you just fly?” and the traveler replies, “Where’s the fun in that?”
I was intent on heading north to one of these towns, the truly rural Muang Ngoi, but as I had to be back in Luang Prabang in four days to pick up a Chinese visa, and as my Dutch and German friends were heading south, and as someone had recommended an organic farm in the same direction—I instead followed them to Vang Vieng.
Remy, Neinke, Lars, and Karol left earlier that day on minibuses. Lars and Karol were in one full of Laotians, who constantly vomited with every twist of the road. At one pit stop Lars noticed that a pig was sticking its nose out of a potato bag in the back of the vehicle. He gave the pig some water, and then the driver noticed it as well, started shouting at the woman who had brought it onboard. Eventually they reached a compromise: the pig could come, but it would have to be tied in its bag to strut on the back of the van, and there dangle for the remaining hours.
I went to the bus station at around ten. There was some matter of no buses leaving until four hours later, I was informed by a company of Welsch I happened to know; and they had tried to arrange a minibus to take them, but the Laotians would not go lower than 950,000 kip. "You mind if I try and talk to them?" I asked. With their permission I crossed the highway to the minibus depot. Ten minutes later I came back, saying, "I got nine-hundred thousand. It's the best I could do." Sometimes I make a very good merchant, although I find the business abhorrent.
The first thing to be said about Vang Vieng is that the place was beautiful. On either side of the Nam Song river, high revetments of karst and gloomy jungle shifted in and out of misty curtains, over grand hours of time. The mist floated down the ravines and gullies like some slivered creeper. Behind this cloak, the highest battlements were transformed unto impressions of horrors, a statuary of the devils, the abandoned constructs of angels; and the mist divided, flowing in rivers below the cliffs and behind them, making sky castles of them. This was my first impression, as we approached Vang Vieng from the north.
The small town, with no small measure of tragedy, had become a backpacker town and a center of young debauchery perhaps unrivaled outside of Thailand or Cancun. The principle event was tubing, where tuk-tuk-loads of shirtless farang were bussed a ways upriver and allowed to float down on a wide truck tire tube, stopping along the way at any of the five bars, where strong-armed Laotians pull them in by a thrown rope, and there drinking whiskey and coke out of a little sand-bucket that was an icon of Southeast Asian travelers, and perhaps jumping off one of the high trapeezes or rope swings, where the signs say, "Please buy a drink before you try it," and then ending up at the Bucket Bar, a platform of drunken dancing surrounded by bungalows of trashed and tangled travelers, a throbbing beat, and buckets of booze for a dollar.
The whole enterprise was ridiculous. The Nam Song was not at all safe in that season, when monsoon rains had washed down flotsam and jetsam into the fast-running water. Not to mention the rampant cases of pinkeye from dirty water, people do die every year. One young farang died when I was there, a backflipper who hit his head and did not come back up. Many tubists also missed the last stop at the Bucket Bar, where the water flowed swiftly between the pylons of a bridge, because they were too drunk to grab at the retrieval lines. One girl floated down a few kilometers before climbing up to the bank and through the woods. She returned to Vang Vieng at five in the morning.
Because of its beauty and danger, adventure tourists also frequent the Nam Song, and this is a sight only a photograph could fully express—a troop of kayakers in adventure gear, in helmets and lifejackets with waterproof cameras tied on and safety protocols memorized, gracefully gliding downstream, and alongside them, and mixing in with their formation, a mob of shirtless drunks collapsed lazily in rough black inner tube, crazy with Lào-Láo, laughing and splashing and likely to fall off their vehicles and drown in the muddy river.
The tubing scene sprang up over only a few years, and in that time it became as extortionary as any mafia. Renting an inner tube, when I was there, did cost about $7, which was more than the price of renting a motorcycle, and also required a $7 deposit, which was returned as long as the tube made it back before five in the afternoon. But so many tubers started around noon, because of their hangovers, and all the bars gave away free shots, and at the end the Bucket Bar was lively as hell, so almost nobody returned their tubes on time. That $14 was a fortune.
The thrifty tuber may wish to buy a personal inner tube, but that was illegal. None of the stores sold them, under a mandate of the Tubing Council. Remy and Lars eventually went to the market, where a Laotian whistled at them and whispered, "Inner tube?" He brought them back into a secret den, full of stacked and deflated flotation devices, where they bought two small tubes for $3 each. They had to conceal the tubes in their trousers for the tuk-tuk ride out to the first bar, because the drivers will not take you if you have your own.
The other scene in Vang Vieng was drugs. Many restaurants had a separate menu with bags of ganja, pot brownies, mushroom pizzas, and opium tea. (It was in fact easier to buy opium in Vang Vieng than to buy an inner tube.) They also showed reruns of either Family Guy or Friends, so let's get high and watch TV! Now, drugs were very illegal in Laos, and if the police catch someone with possession, the punishment was three months in Laotian prison and a $700 fine—or offer a $300 bribe on the way to the station. Many farang who purchased drugs in Vang Vieng eventually had a local policeman knocking on their door.
When I arrived, my friends were waiting in the bus station. We split a tuk-tuk into town and arranged for rooms at Le Jardin Organique, right on the river. Karol, Lars and I stayed in a bungalow with air-conditioning and television showing some cartoon— "Oh, it is Star Wars," said Lars, with his clipped Prussian accent, "I like Star Wars." "I'm a big nerd." "I love Star Wars." "Let's watch. Maybe there will be lasers and explosions."
It monsooned at six, then we all went to dinner at a little floor-seating place, and then crossed the bridge to the island of the Bucket Bar, where it was raining and debaucherous. Drunk farang danced and groped in the rain on the color-spackled, strobe-lit stage, and at the bar farang operators served buckets of drink, and in the huts around the stage farang were passed out or making out, surrounded by drained buckets. The men all had their shirts off and wore necklaces instead. The women were all drenched and in heat.
We met Luuk and Charles there, who were having a great time. I observed the scene quietly, not drunk enough to join in, nor so straight-laced that I would turn away.
Neinke was not impressed: "This is not my kind of scene," she said. "I like to dance, but not at a place like this. Ugh. I am—what is the word?—astonished."
At midnight, a tight-shirted Brit announced that the music would move to the next bar on the Tubing Council’s list. Drunken English girls stumbled towards the his microphone like zombies towards brains. English girls can be attractive but generally lack class when you find them abroad. Any of the girls who that night slid into the mud, crashed over the fences, or nearly fell into the river were certainly Islanders.
We watched the drunks wander off—it really was like watching zombies—and then crossed back over the bridge and bought a few sandwiches on the way back to Le Jardin Organique. I told Neinke that I was also astonished by this place.
“My choices are: A— go to a farm and get up at six to milk goats, eat organic food, hang out with serious French people who smoke cigarettes, and ride my bike in to teach English to kids; or B— go tubing and get trashed on whiskey buckets and dance with drunken English girls in the rain.”
“Doesn’t sound like a hard decision,” she said sullenly.
“No. It didn’t take me long to decide.”
The following morning, during a break in the rains, I rented a bicycle and rode out three kilometers to the organic farm in Phandindaeng. I asked for Hom Singh, the keeper of the goats, and arranged to work there for a week.
The Laotian farmhand was my same age, and although he was already married and had a daughter who was six and a son who was a little younger, he acted younger than I, and always had a smile on his face and a merry joke for whatever Korean girls happened to be staying there. He usually wore a hat and a T-shirt and shorts and wore rubber boots when it rained and flip-flops when it did not.
There was the main hall of the Phandindaeng farm, above a lawn on the river, where the restaurant served its food and the family and the workers lived. A muddy path led away from the river to a long wooden dormitory, with a few rooms for private guests, then crossed a covered bridge into new forest, passing the goat barn, with the house of Hom Singh in the back, and the shed where Hom Singh made goat cheese, and then a few quaint mud houses.
The main product of this farm was mulberry leaves, which grew on a wide field below the barn and the houses. The mulberries were sold, the leaves given to the goats as feed. The farm also grew mangoes, bananas, jackfruit, and a few vegetables, struggling for subsistence.
No barrier separated this tranquil idyll and the chaos of Vang Vieng. As soon as I arrived I heard the thump and throb of distant music, of "I gotta feeling, that tonight's gonna be a good night," carried up the Nom Song from the first of the tubing bars, a tall mass of lashed wooden towers, rope swings, and screaming, like a recent shipwreck. Just upstream from the farm was the jetty where the tuk-tuks dropped off their truckloads of tubists and tubes to enter the river. A string of them floated past anxiously. Above and across that rushing water rose the grand escarpment, cloaked in rain and garlanded in mist.
There was one Frenchman staying in the dorm, a chef named Pierre, who had seen other volunteers come and go. “I don't understand," he said with Gallic tragedy,—“they can do this anywhere. Why they must do it in the most beautiful part of Laos?"
I asked if you get used to the noxious music—“. . . that tonight's gonna be a good night, that tonight's gonna be a good good night,”—and Pierre replied, "After a day or two. But you always hear it. It's always there, from ten in the morning until seven at night." The rope swing bar had been constructed only two years ago, and since then the Phandindaeng farm has known peace only in the early mornings and the cool evenings.
That day Lars and Remy went tubing. "Please ignore anything I do today," said the German, and Remy had a look on his face like this was Christmas. They had hamburgers for breakfast and had a beer on the way out.
"You guys are going to have to get those stupid tank tops," I said. "Into the tubing, Vang Vieng."
"No I will not wear this. I might as well wear a shirt that says, I am an idiot, on it."
But today was an exception, like a Black Mass or a Bacchanalia. They moved slowly because of the rain, wore only their swimming trunks and took only a few thousand kip for drinks. At they market they bought their contraband inner tubes, and they set to floating at the rope swing bar.
It rained all day. Sometimes it came down in cataracts, sometimes it merely drizzled, but it was always wet and nothing would ever dry. The river was in spate. It rose by a yard that night, covering up the islands and shoals, carrying down tree trunks and other debris from the hillsides.
The German and the Dutchman floated down the Nam Song, step by step, the bars like the Cataracts of the Nile. They soaked up buckets and shots of whiskey until they were half mad. Karol, Luuk, and Neinke met them at the Bucket Bar, and they all went crazy.
There is a procedure to milking goats—lock the head in some way, wipe down the udder with a rag rinsed in warm water, then form the thumb and forefinger into a ring around the base of the goat's nipple, which is about the size of a thumb; squeeze the ring firmly to capture all the milk in the nipple, then squeeze the whole fist, and the warm milk will spray out into the jug rather than soak back up into the udder's reservoir.
Doing this quickly requires timing and concentration, and milking both nipples on the goat requires even more. Performed properly, that reservoir can be lactated rather quickly. Then add the contents of the jug to the milk bucket and move on to the next one.
The goats each occupied a stall of the goat barn, which was made of old rotted timbers and sheared branches nailed together. These stalls were about five feet off the ground, so refuse would drop through cracks to a pile of fertilizer below, and to keep the building above the intransigent water and the creeping jungle vermin.
On this particular morning I had got through all the rest of the goats before the allied French—two bourgeois girls and a family with two young sons—had emptied one udder. I called myself a master of milking goats, which was not all that enjoyable, and decided the next day to offer to help Hom Singh with repairs to the barn. There were hammers and nails lying out, and one of the stalls had already been dismantled.
It was my third day on the Phandindaeng farm. There was always work to do, but the rain had ceased and the sky seemed brighter than in a long time. So I cleaned the red ants off my rented bicycle and rode into town.
The first friend I met on the sunny broadway was Karol, fresh out of the pharmacy with bandages for his cut up leg. The injury had kept him from tubing, but he told me all the news of the "crazy night" a night before, which I will not repeat here!
I went to Le Jardin Organique and waded through the water that had filled in the yard under the guesthouse. Neinke was on the porch checking her laundry and gave me a warm Dutch Hallo Jon!
“I can’t believe it, but I really enjoyed it that night. I danced, I loved it.”
“Wow, so you’re a real buckethead now. I mean, you like the lifestyle?”
“Maybe one night a year.”
“Yeah, maybe one night every five years.”
They all asked me how the farm is, and I said, "Oh it's nice, quiet," a little sheepish for having missed this amazing night. After I mentioned the organic food, we decided to go to Phandindaeng for breakfast.
This food is something I should have mentioned: it was really delicious. Fresh baguettes cracked apart with the slightest pressure and steamed up a delicious smell. Delicious omelets cooked with fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, shakes made from new mulberries, and strong-flavored goat cheese fried with herbs in the Greek style. The curries were delicious and filling, the tofu perfect and crispy-edged, the satay coated with spicy-sweet peanut sauce, and for desert there was sticky rice marinated in coconut milk (the Laotian version of rice pudding) and served with sliced mango. They were not complicated ingredients, but the freshness of the ingredients and some Western sense of cooking, imparted by whatever farang owned the place, made it the best food I had in Southeast Asia.
Lars, Remy, and Neinke stared in mouth-watered wonder when the plates were served and the bread broken. When it was eaten, we walked downstream to the rope swing bar, the First Cataract of the Nam Song.
The river had risen up to touch the toes of the platforms, and the two Laotians who threw out the rope to passing tubists had to haul hard to bring them in. One was a mute, but he would constantly make this terrible noise to ward off those in danger of floating in too close to the platform and crashing into the pylons.
We sat around a table with a few beers and watched the farang jump off the trapeze. They started on a platform high in a tree and swung down over the river, releasing with varying degrees of skill and courage. There was a sign on the ladder up that said, "Please buy a drink before you swing!" What a safe regulation! Above us on the platform there was a line of people waiting to jump, a trembling line of legs.
Remy said, “Look at that girl. She has a nice ass. Man.” Remy left, and when he came back he added, “Her face is not so good.”
“You went to check?” asked Lars.
“She really likes the swing,” I said. “Here she goes again.”
We all looked up at the platform where she was standing, and Remy commented hazily, “Yeah, it’s only her ass I like.”
The tubists jumped and waved in the air, kicked their legs in a farce of running, or just fell screaming on the downswing. Some acrobats did flips or hung onto the trapeze by their legs before going face first into the brown water. Sometimes they passed right over the heads of some tubists, who waved their arms and cried, "Don't fall!"
“Why all the tricks?" Remy wondered. "They always hit the water sideways and don’t get very high. All you have to do is this,” and he started thrusting his hips forward and back. “It’s the most natural thing in the world. Just do this and you move much faster. What’s so hard about it?”
When Remy went, he did get very high. Lars and I also went off the swing, and I found it terrifying. We sat on the edge of the platform where the bar was, turning our heads back and forth with the path of the trapeze.
The two Laotians threw out a rope with a small lifeguard's ring on the end to haul in those who had jumped. Sometimes they missed and the poor fallen had to float downstream. Once a girl tumbled in, and when she came back up the Laotians got the ring around her neck. We all cackled like maniacs. We cried, "They lassoed her!"
After a while we walked down to the Second Cataract, where some Americans were playing beer pong, then we headed back to the farm. There was a black and gray wall of cloud sweeping down the valley from the south that we had to outrun, and we made it just in time, just as the downpour started again.
We had more curries, satays, and mulberry shakes for dinner, and talked about our plans. I would go back north to Luang Prabang to retrieve my Chinese visa, then head to the mysterious country of Cathay. Remy and Neinke would head south to the Four-Thousand Islands of the Mekong, and Lars and Karol would join them. The four left the next morning, and we arranged to meet that night for a last beer.
I showered and washed some clothes, then road into town with the last of the twilight, because it had stopped raining momentarily and because I did not trust the Laotian drivers. I had a coffee and arrived at Le Jardin so much on time that Lars remarked on my German punctuality.
Well at Sunset Village I toasted them all, and I said farewell, with handshakes for the men and a hug for Neinke, then rode off into the night.
Of Vang Vieng there remains one story to be told: that of an accident! I began working the very next morning to help Hom Singh in the goat barn. I much preferred swinging a hammer to milking an udder.
On the second day of this, I helped to pry out the old rotted boards of the ramp that led up to the barn. It would not last the rainy season and had to be rebuilt. Hom Singh was up inside and I was down below, working with hammer and crowbar. Some of the boards were still usable, and I took out the nails and piled them in a shed, and the rest we hauled to a pile near the pig pen to be burned.
One of the Belgian girls, Tatiana, came out and wondered what I was doing, and one of the farmhands started hitting on her in the desperate, say-something approach of the Oriental, as I helped Hom Singh crowbar out the last two planks of the top of the ramp: both five feet in length and stuck together tightly. One was so spiked with rusty nails that it resembled a medieval weapon. We heaved and tugged at them until they both fell loose, separated, and the medieval mace fell squarely onto my sandaled foot. It fell aside in short order, leaving two punctures and a dull ache.
I stood there staring at the freeflow of blood with a grim acceptance.
"I think you should clean it," said the Belgian girl.
"I think I should get a tetanus shot," I replied.
Well Hom Singh had leaped out of the barn and was running around, and his wife appeared with a bottle of iodine to dump on my foot, and a whole crowd of Laotian farmhands had appeared out of nowhere. In the midst of this troop I hobbled over to the hose to rinse the blood off. Hom Singh packed the wound with leaves and said it would be okay, pointing at similarly earned scars on his own foot.
"Hom Singh, no, I need to go to the hospital."
Hom Singh drove me on his motorbike. The nurses cleaned out the twin wounds and insisted on stitching up the holes, a procedure for which they charged $10 per stitch, and which not only did nothing to help the wound from healing, but probably lengthened its infection by trapping in the dirt and grime, for which I was taking antibiotics. They wrapped it up so my leg resembled a golf putter, gave me a tetanus shot and sent me on my way.
At night, after dinner, Hom Singh came over and we talked in a mixture of loud pidgin English and charades difficult to describe, but the substance of the exchange was this:
"I don't like these hospitals," the Laotian related,—“they charge foreigners too much. When I stepped on a nail, I put the juice of a green papaya in the wound and everything came out. It was very painful. Then I closed it with a very hot rock. That was also painful."
"It's a good idea, Hom Singh, but I really don't want to get an infection."
"Don't worry, I'm sure they won't cut your foot off. That is ridiculous. But here is some money to cover the expense of the hospital bill, which was too much."
"Hom Singh, I couldn't accept. It was an accident. And besides, I have insurance."
"No, please, I dropped the board. Please take it. And don't say anything."
"Alright," I said, wondering in a sigh how to deal with this Asian dignity and honor,—“Thanks."