“USA . USA!” he was chanting in my ear, again, as I bowled yet another gutter ball. So I punched him playfully (or was it) in the guts for his hubris. I am mediocre at this game at the best of times, but couple that with being three sheets to the wind and nursing a healing broken arm and you would be witnessing some of the most appalling bowling ever attempted! To add to the humiliation of it all I was oddly peppering my pathetic gutter balls with the occasional spare, which must have been confusing to my drunken opponents but was entirely frustrating to me. How could I go from crap to near stellar in one fell swoop? I tried feebly complaining in the ears of anyone who’d half listen that the reason for my comprehensively dismal bowling was because I had broken my arm not long ago, but I’m pretty sure no one really cared! But let me back track aways…
There we were. Enjoying another quiet night in the all too picture-perfect monastic town of Luang Prabang. One thing led to another and we found ourselves strolling along the waterfront to a bar (we did not know where) when finally (where are the tuk tuk drivers when you need them most?) out of the darkness we got a lift down the road to a drinking establishment. Pity we didn’t realise when we climbed into the tuk tuk that a destination was a mere 300 m away! The bar had loads of character and enough foreign patrons to add atmosphere and make as want to stay for a few more.
Damien was off for a while getting cash from an ATM so I had time to chat to one of the staff. Clearly we hit it off and we exchanged details so we could hang out while we were in town. Once Hien had moved on to serve other patrons and Damien had returned, I noticed a large contingent of British nearby and was considering ingratiating ourselves when suddenly it was all over. It was curfew time. All bars in Luang Prabang must stick rigidly to the 11.30 pm curfew or be fined. So all too soon our night was over. Not satisfied with this we asked the tuk tuk driver if there was anywhere else we could possibly go and he replied that there was! So we were whisked away at speed and watched as the charming streets of this UNESCO world heritage town flew by and were replaced with the less pleasing to the eye outskirts. We certainly were a long way from the town centre at this stage and I was beginning to wonder exactly where we were headed when next minute we were there.
We arrived at a large shed in what felt like the middle of nowhere with an equally large collection of tuk tuks and their drivers assembled outside. So we sauntered up to the shed in the quiet and sultry night air and as we flung open the doors we were assaulted with a cacophony of bowling bowls connecting with ten pins and it was quite the soundtrack to our entrance to the scene in front of me. There they were, lines and lines of teams of drunken falangs all intently engaged in games of ten pin… downing long necks of BeerLao. Well, this was not quite the thing I had in mind when we had hopefully enquired about another possible drinking venue. But hey, when in Rome! I mean, Lao!
As things often go on nights like these, the British guys we’d seen at the bar were also at the bowling alley along with two Americans and we soon found ourselves playing with them. Damien was good at the game in equal proportion to how woeful I was, which was lucky, cause someone had to fly the flag for the Aussies, especially, when we had “Mr USA” loudly chanting away every time he bowled a strike or I bowled at gutter ball! He was also keen to tell me that Australians were American wannabes which did not endear him greatly to me. Nonetheless, his mate was an engaging conversationalist and we got involved in lengthy discussions about everything and anything and I didn’t seem to mind at all when he told me that he had met lots of really nice Aussies, but there are a lot of “assholes” too.
What an odd night indeed. I did wonder how the bowling alley got away with serving alcohol when clearly everywhere else could not. I asked Hien (the worker from the bar) this when we spent some time with him later during the week. He said that it was because the bowling alley was outside of the UNESCO area. But as Vientiane (the capital) also has a curfew, I am not entirely sure if that is the whole story. Another strangely unexpected aspect of that night was that twice during the evening Damien was offered, unsolicited, drugs by tuk tuk drivers. Once was when he was going to the ATM and the other on the way home. When he was going to the ATM the tuk tuk driver asked him to sit up front with him and then pulled back a cover on his dashboard to reveal bags of pot and opium. This came as a bit of a shock to both of us, as this more seedy underside did not match our idealised view of it as a pristine monastic town.
This wasn’t the first time this happened to Damien though… maybe he has the “look”! When we were kayaking in Vang Vieng we stopped off for a beer at a riverside bar in the infamous tubing zone. We had met a couple of Swedes the day before, Theresa and Peter. Theresa and I had spied each other and she yelled out wanting to know if we would stop off for a while and join them. We had intended on cruising straight through but we are always keen for a yarn with new people and we had met them the day before and I had felt an instant affinity with Theresa and was happy to chat some more. As I was later to discover, Theresa was particularly keen for some company other than Peter!
As I sat chatting to Theresa and Peter, Damien returned with our beers and told me that he had been asked whether he would like a complimentary spliff with the beers! My first reaction was surprise but then that wasn’t for long as this town has unfortunately become notorious for the groups of tourists who come here to drink, take drugs and go tubing down the river. It is a shame that it has this reputation as I am sure it probably deters some people from visiting the town. But if you want to avoid this scene it’s really not hard to do, at least it wasn’t when we were there. Vang Vieng is truly breathtakingly beautiful and every time I raised my eyes and was confronted with the view of those sheer karst cliffs rising above the Nam Song (River Song) I was jolted again by its grandeur…. there were more than a few “How’s the serenity?” moments!
Yes, I was having “How’s the serenity” moments and poor old Theresa was having “Peter’s ruining the serenity” moments. There was clearly some tension between the two. We met for dinner and drinks later in the evening and when the boys went to play pool Theresa told me exactly why she was unthrilled about having to travel with Peter. Peter was a guy she worked with and they had travelled together for this short trip and things had not gone well very early in the piece. When they were in Vientiane Peter had bought some pot and proceeded to smoke it while they were down by the Mekong. Theresa was not interested in getting involved. The next minute Peter and Theresa were surrounded by the police, all with AK47’s and they were demanding they pay 7 million Kip (approx. A$900). So poor Theresa was left with the cops and the AK47’s while Peter went off to try and withdraw the cash from the ATM. He eventually returned but with less than the amount they demanded as he had reached his withdrawal limit. Peter said that Theresa would have to get the remainder out of her account. She was understandably angry about this as it had nothing to do with her in the first instance but luckily for Theresa, they accepted the cash Peter had produced and let them off the hook. So no surprises really that Theresa was not feeling too amorous towards Peter for involving her in this shitfight when she had herself done nothing illegal. To compound matters Peter had again taken it upon himself to smoke more weed in public after this scary episode. I felt really sorry for Theresa and glad that at least by meeting Damien and I she had some fun and a bit of a break from the not so cold war waging between Peter and herself.
It is easy to forget that all is not as it seems in Lao and that even is this apparently laid back and amiable society, you can still find yourself in hot water if you flaunt the rules. I was reminded of this again when we had dinner one night with Ivor, a Victorian fisheries worker who was involved in a fishing ladders project being funded by the Australian Government in Paksan. He relayed a story of one evening in Vientiane when he had been drinking at his mate’s bar down on the Mekong. It was past the curfew and the music was still pumping and no one looked close to calling it a night. They were suddenly surrounded by militia (Ivor said they were clearly not the police) with AK47’s and everyone at the bar very promptly called it a night.
These stories seem so completely incongruent with the way I feel about this country and the impression it has left on me. I was only saying tonight to Damien as we walked down the road in the dark to a restaurant that I feel so completely safe in this country. I have never once feared that someone would harm me or steal from me. I have found Lao people to be gentle, friendly, and considerate people and that will be my enduring recollection of them as a people when I leave.