I was planning to ride through the mountain roads in the center of the country, so when it was time to leave Luang Prabang, it was time to leave fast. I decided to throw my bike on a bus and go south to Vientiane. Laos was inscrutable to me and capitals are always revealing. I would bypass Vang Vieng. I’d heard so much about it as a kind of psychedelic vortex for backpackers, young and old that I had decided it wasn’t really what I was looking for.
The inside of the bus was amazingly spacious and reminded me of the ribcage of a whale. It was mostly empty except for a Japanese guy with bleached blonde hair stuffed into a Rasta net who sang mutely with his headphones on and bobbed quietly, unwrapping a baguette, a couple of Lao families bouncing their babies on their laps and a pair of Israeli girls reading books in Hebrew. The younger one wore a red headscarf and was very cute. The leather on the blue seats was flaking away and the netting on the seatbacks was torn and hung limply. Beside me, a water bottle full of urine was stuffed into a crack in the cardboard siding. We dipped down into a valley and began a climb out over the banana hillsides. Everywhere we slowed down to pick up farmers standing alongside the road with sacks of grain and other wares. The bus climbed up through the little market towns where boys hauled logs into piles on the hillside and loaded gravel into trucks. On the street, women stood under umbrellas hawking noodles and eggs.
In front of me sat a young Lao guy in a t-shirt that said “I Want My MTV.” He had an AK-47 next to him on the seat covered discreetly with a jacket and a pillow. He had a golden crucifix around his neck and his hair was slicked back off of his face. This made me uncomfortable. Once on a bus ride in Guatemala, two guys with huge black police shotguns climbed in through the back door emergency exit and sat down on other side of me, stony-faced. The day before, an entire bus had been shot to pieces in El Salvador and everyone on it killed. “I Want My MTV” was the first bearer of automatic arms that I had seen since Moscow, excluding the soldier in Len’s village. There was no one else sitting within four rows of us.
Eventually, the bus stopped in a little market town on the high crest of hillside overlooking valleys beneath a mountain range. I got off and said hi to the Israeli girls and told them about the armed fellow to make conversation. They told me to come sit near them. They were going to Vang Vieng. “Why don’t you come with us? Just for a night. It’s such an amazing place,” the cute one said. I thought it over. We stopped at a little restaurant an hour later and a man in a blue jacket and an army cap got on; he had an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder. He shook hands with MTV. I was a bit relieved. I went up to him and asked in Lao why he had the gun.
“We are police. The road is very dangerous,” he said and smiled. “There are bandits here. We will come with you to Vientiane.”
The bus climbed again and the town dispersed into chicken shacks and waving fields of wheat. Satellite dishes were tucked into the hills. The night fell. The bus pulled into a huge field under a starry sky and stopped. This was Vang Vieng. I knew there would be no such perfect country darkness over Vientiane and moreover I would arrive long past midnight. I decided to disembark with the Israeli girls. But just for a night.
I climbed back up on the bus and lowered my bicycle down to the Lao drivers, then the girls and I walked through the fields under the stars until there was a little town. There were barely any lights on and the streets were full of dust and smoke from the grills where women prepared chicken and chocolate crépes. The place felt abandoned. Some Australians lit off firecrackers and howled with joy. Children chased the stray dogs around in the streets. The girls were looking for some kind of bungalow hostel called The Blue Lagoon. We went over a rope bridge to a group of grassy islands scattered with bungalows and Christmas lights. It had been hard to talk to the girls somehow. I was feeling pensive and somewhere during the walk I knew that I had lost them. We checked into The Blue Lagoon and then the girls went off to get high. I saw the crackling glow of cigarettes through the paper thin walls of a bungalow and felt horribly alone. I’d been lured out here beneath the starry night, knowing no one at all.
I went up to the bungalow bar where a charming Brit named Richard was exchanging music with some Israelis. He was traveling with a laptop, a set of speakers, and plenty of romantic music. He basically set up court in little bungalow towns full of backpackers and charmed the girls into his bed. “I just said goodbye to a Russian this morning,” he said. “Meeting all kinds of lovely girls.” He had seen me walk the bicycle along and I’d said something about carrying iodine tablets. “Where the hell have you been traveling, mate?” he said. I think we found each other equally bizarre.
There was an American a few years older than me who worked on a cruise ship. “Six months of the year, I’m on the cruise. Six months I travel. Not a bad life, huh?” He said it with conviction that seemed strained, and later that night I found him plaintively chewing the question of true happiness with an Irish girl.
The islands were so quiet that it felt like a campground in the wilderness. Around a big fire, a Scot named Rob stoked the logs with a bamboo pole. He was in his late thirties but looked older. “Tonight,” he said. “I have been here forty days and forty nights.” He hadn’t paid in two weeks and was waiting on a wire from home. “Don’t do much here,” he said. “Haven’t been tubing in ages. Mainly I just tend to this fire at night.” The Lao proprietors sat with us. Rob called them “mama” and “papa” and they called him a name which meant monkey in Lao. Every once in a while someone threw a piece of bamboo into the fire and it sizzled for a bit and then popped like a bomb and the mother shrieked and then giggled with delight. Sparks shot from the fire. Richard was playing deep, oozy techno from his little laptop plugged into the speakers of the thatched roof bar. The techno thudded softly over the empty dirt yard between the bungalows. The other side of the river was dark except for the glow of fireflies. I walked back over the rope bridge and into the town.
The town was still dark except for the gleaming windows of the bars where inside, backpackers reclined on couches smoked joints. Television bars. Each place had a few television sets playing episodes of Friends. The couches were arranged in rows. It was too depraved to remind me of a hospital, but the inertia under the bright lights intimated sickness. The backpackers hardly noticed each other. They moved like frogs, yawning, gulping, and blinking slowly. The televisions gabbled and they smoked and stared and Lao waiters rushed back and forth bussing fruit and drinks. Television bars. It was the modern day opium den, but more sinister; there was none of the comfort and slowness of the shadows. The light was so sharp that I had to rub my eyes coming in from the nighttime street. Some bleary-eyed youth turned their heads and coughed smoke, noticing me, then they turned back to the television sets. The whole street was full of them. I stayed for a moment and the characters of Friends chattered and flirted as the laugh track cued. I realized something about that show; they were all charming and modestly interesting individuals. One was a paleontologist. The title, however, did not just mean that they were all friends. They were your friends, loyal viewer, with a capital “F”! It was too much. I went out back into the street.
I did a few turns around the town. Lao boys wobbled in the street and hiccupped with drink. A group of backpackers walked by with “Happy Pizzas” full of mushrooms and marijuana. The town was virtually empty and skinny, beaten down dogs slinked along in the shadows. The whole thing was just a few rows of ramshackle houses, muddy ditches and sagging tangles of wiring slung over telephone poles. Around were wide green fields and mountains. It didn’t occur to me to go out walking under the deep country skies. I went back to my bungalow and decided to read and go to sleep.
Back on the island, Rob was still stoking the fire. He had a big pile of lumber that he bought in town just for this. “Got to have a good fire,” he muttered, staring wildly into the flames.
I sat for a while and then there was hollering and shouting and storm of people tramped across the dirt yard and gathered around us. There were about thirty of them, all young and in jeans or bathing suits, holding cigarettes, beer, and joints. They all spoke at once, in a frenzy. Now, I saw, the night had started. All the faces were illuminated by the firelight and everyone moved close to get warm. I was sure that I was witnessing a total masterpiece of cultural entanglement:
CUTE LITTLE SWEDISH GIRL
“Australia is like a little Sweden, don’t you know?”
“This is so sad that we all have to leave each other tomorrow! We’ve been together for so long.”
“Get into a trade man. Carpentry, somethin’ like that y’know. Where I come from, just full o’ chancers; showin’ up with nothin.’ Trying t’ make it for ’emselves. Ye’r out in th’ city, thinkin’ y’ve got everythin.’ Sixteen dollars per’hour. When all that time y’could be makin’ twenty two dollars per’hour. At the end of the year y’know ye’ve learned somethin’. They don’t start you out with shit y’don’t un’erstan’.”
“Bamboo rockets everywhere. Fertility festival. They were exploding on the crowd.”
“You know honestly, this has been the best time of my life. I was down for two months in Phuket and the other islands. Beaches in the day and just partying hard all night. Two months of that. When else do you get to do this in your life?”
FIRST BELGIAN STONER
“Is anyone hearing this flute like I am?”
SECOND BELGIAN STONER
“You’ve been lost in that flute for hours, man.”
“M’name’s Az, man. You know why? Like Az a good time. Always good man. Just go mmrumph and all the troubles go away.”
SHIRTLESS AUSTRALIAN, BLONDE DREADLOCKS
“You know why I wear no shirt, man? ‘Cause I can feel everything. I can feel this fire like none of you can feel it. I can feel the wind too man. Fuccckkkking moothheerrfuuckkkerrr!”
He shrieked and dug at an air guitar.
“No man, it’s not like that.”
SHIRTLESS AUSTRALIAN, BLONDE DREADLOCKS
“Of course it’s like that man. I wrote that song man. I know all about the lyrics.”
The Australians stumbled around against the girls sitting on their logs, drunk enough to be forgiven. Bamboo exploded in the fire pit and everyone screamed. Two French men lit up more joints and passed them around.
“Man, Pete spent four days in jail cause he didn’t have $1200 for the police. They caught him with the marijuana. He tried to hide his stash under the porch. They took him down to their little station and you know what? They had fucking photographs, taken right there. Cameras in their sunglasses, man. Guys got pounced on tubing the other day. Bet you a plain clothes walks through this bonfire tonight. I don’t want no trouble man. Not here. Not like at home.”
NEW ZEALAND DREAMER
“You ever think about World War I? Look how dark it is tonight. Imagine the trenches!”
“Whenever people talk about religion there are problems man. I hate it. Guys talking about it for like five hours.”
IRISHMAN, CHASING GIRL
“Can I have a kiss now, my love?”
“Why ask what ‘everyone’ talks about? Everyone is different.”
Wooly Bully comes on the radio. The Irishman did a jig, pumping his arms, and twisting his hips.
“I was on the train coming through Vietnam. Nighttime, dark as pitch. Then we went over a hilltop and there was a valley of lights. Just lights in the darkness. Hundreds of them. Fishermen out all night in their boats. They lure the fishes up with that light. This is how my world is, friend. When I see a can of tuna, I think of all of them fishing, I think of the cannery, I think of the hands and hands, I think of the ships taking the cans around the world. Look how much there really is behind every little can.
“I sat in the same restaurant for a week in Savannahkhet. Watched it working like a clock. You see everyone’s chores, they do them everyday. Everyone has chores. The chores are all the same.”
“Look at that barmaid. A pretty smile!”
“In my time, I had a few of those, you know!”
SOUTH AFRICAN BACKPACKER
“You know the only thing I hate about traveling? Sometimes you feel like you’re just in a zoo. Watching people make food. Watching people in their houses. Watching them work in the fields. Would you stand around watching the hot dog men in New York?”
ROB, THE SCOT
“Forty days and forty nights. Forty days and forty nights!”
The Aussies made their last attempts on the little Swede. An American boy and a Canadian girl were getting deep, looking into each others’ eyes, not quite touching yet, talking about leaving their own small towns. I watched the Australian girls with thick blonde hair in sea-blown strands. I ran off with a girl into the reeds on the riverbank and we lay in each others’ arms. “No kissing,” she said. We watched the sky and I guided her hand, pointing to the constellations. Then I lay back under the stars and fell asleep right there.
The next day I went tubing down the river and wound up drunk by noon. There were bars set up every hundred yards, with high rope swings that flung tattooed youth out over the water. You parked your black inner tube on the river banks and climbed ashore. The price of unlimited swing access was usually one giant Beer Lao, which was enough to do one in immediately. All along the Nam Song River, music blared and foreigners flew out into the sky off the swings. They played volleyball on the beaches and the river was full of limp white bodies floating aimlessly along on the tubes with their heads thrown back in drunkenness, lassitude or sleep. It was a river of human flotsam and the current was weak. It reminded me of the images you see of an oil spill where all the fish and birds float stagnantly on the water. People gathered on the beaches around bonfires sharing plastic buckets full of vodka and juice. What was strange above all, was that it had nothing to do with Laos. It could have been, and actually reminded me of what little I knew about Daytona Beach. The music was Bob Marley or American pop; everybody strutted around in bathing suits showing off their tanned bodies. The Lao were serving drinks and manning the rope swings and they were always smiling amusedly and seemed to enjoy the spectacle as much as the lucre. When I finally climbed out of the river for good, I had made a dozen new friends and we had another night around the bonfires on the islands. The next day everyone headed out for another day of tubing and I decided it was time to move on.
Jonathan Ward spent five years in Russia, China, Latin America, and the Middle East after graduating from Columbia in 2006. He speaks Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, among other languages. He is currently at Oxford, starting a doctorate in Oriental Studies.