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A Brief Introduction to Laos: “Wait, is this hotel an opium den?”

Like our backpacking forefathers we opted to travel to Laos by way of Mekong slow boat. The trip would take two nights, three day and commence in Chiang Mai, Thailand.  Greg was not convinced that this would be the best route, favoring the 18 hour overnight bus. My choice won out simply because he hadn’t looked into all of the options, sneaky sneaky me.

Day 1: travel by mini bus to Chiang Kong, border town. Stop along the way at the Cashew Factory (for the second time, the first visit happened during our visa run to Myanmar) and the White Temple. The Cashew Factory pays all types of minibus tours to stop at their crummy store and ‘restaurant,’ though clean bathrooms are a redeeming feature. The White Temple was incredible. A stunning white temple adorned with small mirror mosaic bits, it appears to be fashioned out of wax and glitters radiantly in the sunlight. At the southwest corner you will cock your head at a unique design feature: a life size replica of Preditor buried waist deep in the grass. Look up and take notice the grotesque demon heads hanging from the trees with moss growing from their severed necks and mouths. Interesting juxtaposition. While we weren’t allowed to enter the temple (the sign cited ‘inappropriate tourist behavior’), one of our fellow passengers managed to sneak in. He reported a large painting of Kung Foo Panda. Bizarre place. The group of us (two mini buses) checked into the guesthouse and quickly made friendly with the other backpackers. While the guest house restaurant promptly closed at 9:30 during the middle of our game of Sociables (I have never met a Thai person who isn’t interested in taking Baht out of foreigners’ hands), we finally located another licensed establishment and bonded in only the fashion that budget backpackers can.
Day 2: we peeled our hungover (or still-drunk) selves from our beds for 7:45 breakfast and were then transported to the river, which represents the natural land border between Thailand and Laos. I should note that the tour operator had all of our passports in his bag, so the lot of us exited Thailand by long tail boat without legal documentation. No problem. On the Laos side we were given our passports and easily passed through immigration and visa processing. Greg and I were the first through and returned to the guide following passport control. “I take passport back. Give me your passport” he says.
Me: “How come?”
Guide: “To sell on black market.”
Me: “Hahah, okay.” And I did. I gave him my passport. And then the rest of the group did.
We loaded into a truck and headed to the port to catch our slow boat. On the way the operator jumped off the truck. All of the foreigners exchanged a whelp-I-hope-he-comes-back look. And of course he did. He still had a sales pitch to make. He took us to his sister’s restaurant and proceeded to pitch us on a certain guest house in Pakbeng. Pakbeng being the half way point on our trip to Luang Prabang. He proceeded to tell us that we were taking the local boat and that the private boats would be arriving two hours before ours. Of course then there would be no available accommodation and we would be forced to pay an exorbitant amount due to the economics of supply and demand. He would kindly let us rooms at 400 baht/double, fan with shower. Not a bad rate, but the most compelling reason for us to book with his guest house was the fact that we had all become good friends the night before, and everyone knows there is fun in numbers. So it was a bit of a shock when we arrived in Pakbeng at 4:30, rather than the fabricated 7:00 arrival time. A long trip was made easier with some Fanta and whiskey and Laobeer. Upon arrival we were accosted by touts trying to pitch their guesthouses, so much for lack of supply. We had been in Laos for just 8 hours and we were about to meet the most mental of guest house hosts. Our small crowd stood captivated on the dock as ‘Marco Polo’ flashed his laminated pamphlet. On one side were glossy pictures of his hotel and then he cheekily flipped it to reveal a menu of a different sort.
‘Hahahaha, you come to my house and you get Special Shake HAHAHAHA. You get opium coffee HEHEHEH. Yah no problem at my house.’ He advertises this at a fever pitch, clearly hopped up on amphetamines and opium. The menu reads, “Special shakes, Opium, Opium Coffee.”  Well, wouldn’t you know that his guest house is one we have all pre-booked. Oh. My. God. Marco Polo also doubled as the waiter for the entire hotel and his charade continued as such throughout the evening meal. Nice guy, but definitely living in a different world than the rest of us. Welcome to Laos.

The next morning we continue down the Mekong to Luang Prabang (LP). Nothing remarkable occurred during the trip but as we neared LP a Laotian man wielding a knife began to shout loudly in Lao. Naturally this was quite off-putting for us tourists. What was he saying? I don’t know. Why was waving a knife around? I don’t know. Is someone going to get shanked? I don’t know. Oh my god, this is going to be the Lao version of the Canadian Greyhound incident. For about seven tense minutes we diverted our eyes downward in an effort to not attract unsolicited attention, which was nearly negated by the British bloke sitting across from us with his camera out. Thanks for that. Then we docked and he shouted some more before calmly exiting. Right then.


Having properly adopted a sheep mentality, our sub group made our way to a hostel. 10 beds, hot and stuffy. Why did we stay here? Oh yes, it was the free snake whiskey promoted on the pamphlet. We ate in town and then returned to the hostel with intentions of having Lao Beers, ending a quiet night. Not the case. Shortly thereafter the hostel manager sat down and began to tell us about Luang Prabang, Buddhism and Mount Pousi (which he affably referred to as Pussy Mountain), all in a Cockney accent. Kak (his name) was a former monk-tour guide-architect (??) and this conversation was proving to be the best local interaction we had had in all of our travels. Discounting our beers, calling us ‘cheeky monkeys’ and throwing around “bloody good’s” had us all in stitches. The hostel owner joined us for a short time, pulling his shirt above his belly and pronouncing in very rudimentary English, “I am so drunk, heheheh!” He also had a propensity to speak at length about the hostel security.
As other backpackers stumbled back in from town (there is a loosely observed town curfew at 12:00) our group of five grew to twenty or so and one day became another. What was a friendly game of Jenga transformed into a dangerous gamble as the consequence became a shot of snake whiskey. Snake whiskey. Equal parts 5 year old snakes and scorpions in a ten litre jar and Lao Whiskey. Lao Whiskey, the most vile alcohol that really is more of a moonshine.
Drink at your peril (this author did not indulge).
Welcome to Laos.

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