Sunday, 20 May 2012
Tuesday, 8 May 2012
The train ride to southern Thailand is brutal. We're crammed into third class, stacked human Jenga peices - if anyone moves, then the whole carriage threatens to fall apart. Passengers sit on hard chairs, the floor or by the side doors, smoking out into the speeding night. A brief reprieve is found in the restaurant carriage. We drink until it closes, and stagger back to the claustrophobic reality of the train carriage. Settling into discomfort, I find it impossible to concentrate. Music and books offer no consolation. My mind ebbs and flows, waves of boredom morph into stress, anger and sadness... there's a few moments blissed out contentment, before slipping back into boredom to kick off the mundane cycle once more. Shards of sleep become indistinguishable from shards of wakefulness. Is this what it feels like to go insane? After thirteen hours of this, we hit a town in southern Thailand and book a bus to Kuala Lumpur.
The bus is a palace in comparison. The seats have cushioning on them and everything. We arrive in KL late. Mr. Furious, on home turf, is more confident now - he knows the routine here. I, on the other hand, am a crumpled mess of a man. Nausea is gurgling in the depths of my stomach from from excessive travelling, tiredness and bad food. My energy is spent on babbled half-sentences, drinking coffee and sitting. Mr. Furious organises us a ride to Batuarang, where the charity he helped set up (Reboot The Roots - check them out here) is based. Augustine and Hazar, two giving gentlemen, pick us up and we begin the final half hour stretch. Half way there, the stomach grumblings surge towards my throat. I pathetically beg Augustine to pull over. I fall out of the minivan, sway toward the roadside and assume the classic vomiting position: bent over, hands on thighs, breathing heavily. There's a moment's silent tension... then my stomach and brain explode out of my mouth in a geyser of vomit, my body rejecting all the stress, all the intoxicants, all the hitchhiking, all the nightmarish joy of the last two months. Wiping the chunks of vegetable fried rice from my mouth, I climb back into the van full of cheer. I haven't thrown up like that since I was a child. Awesome. "The bizarre euphoria after an hour's puking", as Chris Morris once put it. The chaps in the van are polite in their acceptance of my ill-timed bodily functions. Thanks guys.
We pull up to Reboot The Roots HQ, where I babble thanks to Hazar and Augustine, murmur hellos to resident workers Soon and Myriam, before stumbling into bed for a hard-earned, dreamless sleep.
I wake fully rested. Soon, Myriam and Mr. Furious have been up for ages. Apparently there was an attempt to rescue me from my temporary coma, but it was in vain. It's soon evident that my stomach hasn't stopped rebelling against the sudden calm just yet, as my arse explodes several times in the toilet (my introductions to Malaysians really need work). Soon gives me some Chinese herbal remedies and some classic, liver-destroying Western remedies. In tandem, they work wonders. This is the first of many acts of kindness from Soon, a guy whose patience and diligence in working with reformed addicts using radical forum theatre is simply awe-inspiring.
Now to Magick River so Mr. Furious can spend his last few days in Malaysia with his "Malaysian Dad" Antares - the shaman who runs the informal community guesthouse, who I've heard much about and am interested in meeting. Mr. Furious says his final goodbyes to Soon and Batuarang. I know Reboot The Roots is very, very close to his heart, and his hard work has been a real driving force. Even from my outsider perspective, it's a brief but sad moment.
We take a train to Kuala Kubu Baru, and Antares and his wife are waiting at the station, delivering us to Magick River. Magick River is invigorating, peaceful and the perfect way to trickle away our last few days together. For five days, we live simply and quietly. We swim in the namesake's river, basking in the sun. We hang out with Antares - a unique, witty and consistently interesting man. We live simply and quietly in the Bamboo Palace. Our friends Laura from Bangkok and Caroline from Pai comes down. Its all being rounded off with novel-shaped clarity.
As inevitable as the dawn, the one and only Mr. Furious must depart for The Big Smoke, returning to see his Mum, and then our squatting family in London. Laura's leaving with him for India via KL. I haven't gone into much detail about all the amazing individuals we've met, mainly because it'd take bloody ages. But Laura has been vital chemical to ignite our adventure, a bottomless well of infectious energy. She will be missed greatly.
We all hug what will never be enough time. To share this mind-bending beauty with Mr. Furious has been an utter privilege. He's got the impassioned eloquence, the magical spontaneity and manic flashes behind his eyes to make it not merely a trip, not merely a journey, but a real adventure. In the warm early sun, I'm shamefully eluded for words. Tears block my throat.
"No, mate, thank you."
And that's it. Hugs reluctantly part, and Mr. Furious and Laura disappear into the distance. The Crusty Tour has ended, and I'm solo here on in. It was...
It was everything.
Monday, 23 April 2012
As we stagger like thrashed chimps into the bar area, we are immediately heartened by the dimly lit, familiar faces supping from cans of beer and the thick layer of cigarette smoke hanging from the ceiling. We meet people from our previous misadventures, as well as wonderful new folk. We crack open beverages and raise a toast to our repair. If Cheers was set in a squat, and was run and frequented by crusties, drunks, travellers, anarchists, and clean cut English language teachers, it would be like this.
The Overstay has no agenda in the regular sense of the word. It is a place for creative freedom, and it encourages you meld into its environment. It is, sometimes literally, what you make of it. Sasha - excellent photographer, handsome barman and all round fine gentlemen - wanted to put on an exhibition of his work on the first floor (that's first floor in the weird British sense of floor numbering. Second floor to everyone else). Mr. Furious, myself and a gaggle of other diligent delinquents set about helping him. The squat skills come in handy here. With a tight deadline of two days and hammers, nails, fabric, paint, wood and combined imaginations at our disposal, we do this not for money, not for glory, but simply because these things matter. The exhibition is a success, and I'm proud to know and work with such passionate people.
We also chip in to help set up an S&M-themed party, complete with whips, candles and a St. Andrew's cross. The whole night vibrates as boundaries were pushed and new worlds discovered. There is a huge emphasis in S&M on mutual respect, playfulness and creativity - and these are exactly the qualities The Overstay requires of you. The party marches relentlessly into the morning, battering the dawn down with a fun-filled fist.
It is a place where you can get involved as little or as much you like, but regardless, you should be prepared to let things flow naturally. Chilled evenings can erupt into near-raves. You may find yourself suddenly running the bar. The variety of people The Overstay attracts is astounding. You will have lengthy conversations with the outcast, the wonderful, the sexy, the hilarious, the vibrant, the lonely, the unnamed. Having lost so much personal control in Laos, I realise the significance of places like this. For people whose grip has slipped, a space like this is a haven.
Mr. Furious and I stay there for nearly two weeks before we realise, in the fashion of the hostel's namesake, that we shall be overstaying very soon. It is with humming brains and heavy hearts we bid goodbye to an unshakeable experience. I don't want to start mentioning names as I fear forgetting someone, but there are individuals I meet at The Overstay who, if we don't remain in touch, will certainly remain very beautiful memories.
If or when the world comes crumbling around our ankles, we'll need to honestly connect with each other. But why wait around for Armageddon when prepping for it is so much fun?
To find out more about The Overstay, go to http://www.theoverstay.com/.
Friday, 13 April 2012
It's a tough day hitching, and we arrive in another village late, not quite sure how far we are from anywhere. We half-heartedly try finding a guesthouse, give up, buy beer, then decide to sleep under a bridge. We step off the road, and ease ourselves downhill through dust, dark trees and shrubbery.
We come out by the river, the concrete bridge sheltering us. It feels weirdly cosy as we sit there, drinking, crusty trolls to the bittersweet end. Barely any traffic overhead, no one around, just the river gently rolling in front of us. We piss, crack open bottles and settle down for the night. This is peaceful. Or, at least, what I would define as peaceful at this point. I'm shattered, and pull out my sleeping bag to get some rest.
I wake five hours later to Mr. Furious' urgent whisperings: "Pidge... Pidge! We've gotta go man..."
My head slowly clears from the beer and restless sleep, and I open my eyes. The light is slowly breaking through the clouds. The remnants of a fire Mr. Furious made smoulder away. In the blue dawn, I see a fisherwoman downriver preparing her net to cast. In the foreground, a couple of feet away, two dogs are padding around us. They look like they haven't had breakfast.
I decide to move onMr. Furious' suggestion. We grab our bags, find a bit of breakfast and start hitching. After a few minutes a car pulls up. A stocky man in a shirt and jeans gets out, his eyes hidden by dark glasses, his arms folded, hands tucked under armpits. He is stern, but polite.
"Where are you going"
"Did you stay here last night?"
"Yeah, under the bridge," I laugh slightly.
"Do you live round here?" asks Mr. Furious.
"Yes, I'm in charge of the local police district."
Suddenly remembering that sleeping rough is illegal in Laos, Mr. Furious backtracks for us and fudges the facts a little. The policeman either doesn't understand or doesn't care. Either's good for us.
"Can I see your passports please?"
"May we ask why?"
He mumbles vaguely about needing to the details of know whoever's passing through. This is basically police code for: "do what I say, or I'll make your life really unpleasant". But he seems nice enough, and doesn't strike me as the sort who'll carry out a truncheon beating for a mid-morning snack.
We hand over our passports. The policeman says he's going to photocopy them. A local guy informs him that there is no photocopier nearby. Mr Furious, with a tone dripping in patronising sarcasm, asks:
"Would you like us to write the details down for you?"
The policeman thinks this is a fabulous idea, and takes us to a cafe, where he generously buys us brutally strong Laos coffee and doughnuts. It's a comforting thought that police internationally subsist entirely on caffeine and pasty goods.
Bellies full and hopped up on the coffee, we hitch a ride with a very pleasant French family, who have a very expensive and very comfortable car. It's so expensive and comfortable, that Mr. Furious - overwhelmed by the sudden injection of luxury in his life - falls into a coma. I'm close, but wake myself by chatting with their daughter about music. At one point, we turn off our trusty road 13. I ask if this is the right way. The dad assures me that the road continues through the town. So I don't wake Mr. Furious and I continue recommending music.
They drop us off in a town called Savaannakhet, which is close to the Thai border and...
(What begins now is our Revelations, our Endtimes. All the serpent horses and sky fires and raining sulphur and all the other weird shit in the Bible are going to piss on the dying embers of our bonfire.)
... the dad was wrong. We're about 15k off track. Not that much, but evening is gathering and we don't really feel like sleeping under bridges tonight. Grumpily tramping around the town, Mr. Furious silently blames me for the balls up. He's understandably fucked off, and I am too. We're not even supposed to be in this place.
We find a cheap guesthouse. We book a double room to save cash. Mr. Furious and I don't care about sharing a bed, having been sharing tight spaces for a long time. Please email your obvious jokes to the usual address: email@example.com. Thanks.
We step outside for some fresh air and pondering. Sitting at a table is a middle-aged Canadian man. He's shirtless and red with sunburn. In front of him is a half empty bottle of whiskey and a half full bottle of coke. He's half cut, chainsmoking cheap cigarettes. His voice is in constant danger of exploding into a hacking cough. He tell us his name is Ferren, and with hearty cheer invites us to drink with him. It would be rude to say no.
Ferren's a gregarious chap, and freely volunteers his recent history: He's skint. He's dealing with a broken relationship from Thailand. He's come to Laos because he's "looking for love!" He's staying at the hostel and doesn't seem to have a clue what he's going to do. He's lonely, and so tries to convince any Westerner who strays into his line of vision to stay at the hostel by shouting at them. To be fair, he shouts quite nice things, but I think it's the shouting bit that moves people on. He says the staff have asked him to leave, but he just keeps chucking them more money. I think they've given up trying.
And so Ferren spends his days and evenings waiting, drinking and smoking. I feel for the guy. If I were in his position, I'd spend my days with Laos whiskey and cigarettes too.
The three of us go to a couple of bars. I can feel my eyes closing on their own accord, and so decide leave early for bed. I pass out immediately.
Hours later, my brain wakes up but my eyes refuse to open. I'm loving being curled up on a crisp, clean double bed. I'm truly snug for what seems like the first time in aeons. Lovely, lovely, lovely bed. As my brain comes into focus, I realise that Mr. Furious isn't there. The man sleeps like he's dead. He'd still be asleep if he came back last night.
Alerted, but not yet worried, I wander outside into the harsh midday sun. He could've got wrecked and be sleeping it off elsewhere. He could've got wrecked and still be up somewhere in Savaannakhet. He could've got wrecked and got with a girl... there's any number of reasons for him not to be here at this very moment. I sit outside, read, listen to music.
I wait for a couple of hours. Still no Mr. Furious. Taking on the persona of an actor auditioning for an ITV detective series, I head to the last bar we were at together. I ask a waiter if he remembers us, if anything happened last night... nothing happened, the barman says. At closing, they left.
I return to the hostel and bump into Ferren. As he cracks open the whiskey and coke and gets me a glass, he tells me they came back. Then Mr. Furious insisted on going "for a walk". Ferren stayed up for him a couple of hours, then went to bed. He has no idea what's happened to him. I silently curse Mr. Furious' somewhat spontaneous nature whilst under the influence. The darker it gets, the more I drink, the more the the concern gnaws at me. I decide that tomorrow morning is a code red situation. At the moment, it's code kinda greenish-amber. I sit and drink with Ferren, who performs an incredible double role of comforting companion ("oh man, I sure hope he's okay") and a stoker of worries ("he might be dead"). But Ferren proves to be a total rock over this time. Without him, I would lose my mind. I am grateful beyond words.
A Laotian guy is rushed past me on a stretcher, blood pouring profusely from his face. This does little to calm me down, but the lady who deals with me speaks great English and is very sympathetic. No English people have been admitted to the hospital in ages. This is a relief, as it means Mr. Furious (probably) hasn't joined the great squat in the sky just yet. Mission 2 it is then. I ask the lady how to get to the police station, and she calls over a tuk tuk driver. My mind is on other matters, so I comply, and pay an extortionate for a three minute journey. At this moment in time, though, I'm grateful for anything anyone does that's even remotely civil.
I enter the police station courtyard - a huge open space surrounded by high, plain white walls. Ten policemen are playing volleyball. One of them, looking vaguely annoyed that he might have to forgo his game of volleyball and do some police work, approaches me. I inform him of the situation. He takes me over to another police officer, who makes a couple of calls and sends a couple of texts (presumably "lol english twat" or something similar). They both seem mildly bothered I've come at all. After a few moments, the second cop looks up from his phone.
"Can you come back on Monday?" he asks blankly.
What? What? I'm not ordering a fucking DVD here...
"On Monday? What'd you mean...?"
"That's when my boss comes in."
"And you can't do anything?"
They're emphatic in their decision. Frustrated and confused, I leave and return to to the warmth of Ferren and even warmer whiskey. As the sky darkens and the worry foments, one of the hostel staff tells me there's another hospital, and, in my tipsiness, I go there. I-Pod in, I begin the hour long walk. There's lots of twists and turns through provincial Savaanakhet streets. The Night Dogs begin to come out, snapping at my heels, their eyes glinting in the streetlights. Fortunately, along the way, I meet many friendly people who seem quite up for giving me directions. A group of guys even offer me to sit down and drink with them, but I politely decline. Booze has got in the way of enough, and I'm on a mission here.
I pass a two women and a guy sitting outside a shop. I ask them if this is the way to the hospital.
"Yes," says one of the women. "Five minutes that way." She points down the road. I thank her, and she casually adds: "It's an eye hospital."
"The eye hospital."
For fuck's sake. I've been walking for over an hour, and unless Mr. Furious has spent two nights getting his fucking glasses fixed, I don't think he's going to be there. Still, I've come all this way, I'm desperate, and the guy is offering me a lift on his bike. I take him up on it. We pull up. It's shut. The guy bangs on doors and windows. Nothing. For some very sweet reason, he apologises, and gives me a ride back to the shop. Annoyed but endlessly grateful to him and his friends, I begin the long walk back.
More aimless drinking, more thinking, accompanied by restless sleep.
Day two. I wake with a new resolve. My worries have been taken over by a zealous need to make sure my friend is okay. The plan: photocopy Mr. Furious' passport, and take the copies to the hospital and the police station. Coming from a middle class background, I am conditioned to believe that excessive administration is the solution to any problem.
I get the photocopies, and decide to stop off at the hostel to drop off some money I got out...
... and Mr. Furious is standing there, handcuffed, surrounded by six policemen. Ferren is talking to them. Mr. Furious is making it clear that this is not the friend he was looking for. All I can manage is:
"What the hell happened?"
One of the policemen tries to explain. I can't concentrate. I hear something about drinking and a boat. I turn to Mr. Furious.
He states, simply: "I tried to take a canoe over to Thailand whilst drunk".
I can only respond by standing with my mouth hanging open. Uploading all this new information is scrambles my brain. One of Mr. Furious' new chums in blue writes down a number and tells me to call it. They takes Mr. Furious' passport and drive off, leaving me with Ferren and some amused/bemused hostel staff.
Ferren pours the drinks and I sit down. He kindly lets me use his phone. I ring. The police say Mr. Furious will be back in an hour. I wait an hour and twenty, then call again. The police say Mr. Furious will be back in thirty minutes. I wait forty, then call again. The police say Mr. Furious will be there in fifteen minutes. I wait twenty, and a car pulls up. Mr. Furious steps out, thankfully with no handcuffs. We're advised that Mr. Furious needs to be back at 9am tomorrow to pick up his passport.
"Make sure your friend doesn't drink too much," one says to me before driving off.
We immediately start drinking too much. It turns out that he was waiting for the police boss to come back on Monday too.
The next morning, we go to the police station I had originally visited. Turns out the holding cells are on the other side of town. (Thanks for all the information boys, and your volleyball skills are ace.) The police do some brief admin, and then casually inform us that if Mr. Furious had succeeded in his pirating, and got to Thai shoes, then Thai immigration would've shot him. Lovely stuff. He gets away with a light ticking off.
We're done with Laos. Or rather, Laos is done with us. The concrete and dust have been warning us for days: Satan as nipple tweaking Jean, under bridge sleeping, hungry stray dogs, coffee-buying policeman, the wrong turnings, the arrest, the worry, the tiredness...
That day, we gather our bags, pay up, and get the first available bus back to Bangkok, back to The Overstay, where open arms await us both.
Friday, 6 April 2012
We wake and begin hitching again, blindly stumbling through this country that neither of us really have a clue about. We're heading for Pakse, probably because we half-heard it was nice. But, secretly, I think it's because we desperately need to feel like we're not adrift. Trusty road 13 - the road we've been following throughout most of Laos - has become the foundation to build a narrative around, and Pakse has become the final chapter, the denouement to our epic traveling adventure. Everyone needs stories, even if they're being improvised in the fog of intoxicant abuse.
What follows is familiar, different only because of the tiredness and heat really getting to us now. Mr. Furious has to lie in the shade to gather himself, and I'm not far off the same. Fortunately, a truck pulls up, kicking off our ride to somewhere or other. It's on road 13, and heading toward Pakse, we know that much. Everything else is a mystery written in dust on a slip road.
It's here things start to noticeably crumble.
We hitch a ride with two lorry drivers- one deep into his forties, the other a fresh-faced early thirties. We go through the usual rigmarole: them asking for money, us saying we don't have any, and both parties trying to explain themselves without sharing a language. The guys eventually agree to let us in for nothing, and we squeeze into the front.
After an hour or two, the truck stops in a village. The older guy gets out, and goes to a house across the street, and is greeted by another man on the driveway. They head inside. We wait for a while, unable to ask the younger guy what's going on.
And we wait. And wait.
We see the older guy come out the house, go to a shop, buy two beers, and disappear back in again. We get out of the lorry and wait.
The younger guy gets out of the lorry, and disappears into the house. Throughout all this, there has been no attempt to explain to us what is going on. Mr. Furious and I wait around for a little longer, attempt to find a suitable place to urinate, and then decide to not bother with these guys anymore. Frustrated, we grab our bags, slam the lorry door shut and march down the road.
It takes ten minutes for another ride to come along. A sleek, clean, black car, steadily purring wealth through the dust and dried grass. The window silently drops. The driver - suit, slick back hair, sunglasses - turns to us. Familiar language block. We point frantically, gesticulating wildly. (Our miming abilities are beyond compare. A future in silent film awaits us both.) The front door opens, and we get in. Furious in the back, me in the front.
We introduce ourselves. His name, we think he says, is Jean (the french pronunciation). He puts his foot on the accelerator, and it takes around ten seconds to realise that he's drunk. Really drunk. A couple of weeks previously in Laos, we got a ride with a soldier who was ridiculously hammered and a bit mad. It turns out Jean beats this guy for drunk insanity hands down. Furious informs me later that he could see the reflection of Jean's eyes in his sunglasses. "They were all over the place".
After some attempt at conversation, we reach the conclusion that, even if he spoke English, he would still be an incoherent babbling wreck. He drives erratically. He spends too long not looking at the road. He gets very close behind motorcyclists before sharply turning to avoid them. Although I can't drive, I have had the privelidge of witnessing people drive before, and it wasn't like this.
Jean grabs my arm, slightly too roughly in that 'jovial' way drunk people do. I'm beginning to have flashbacks to our Thai driver who was also a bit liberal with what we used to rest his hand on, and the thought makes me shrink away against the passenger door. Just to make everything a little more mental, he reaches into his glovebox and brings out a medium sized pink paper bag. He presses it against my nose. It smells like potpourri. He then throws it on my lap. Being a polite potential murder victim, I hand him back the bag, smiling and saying thank but no thanks. He cackles in that way that only the truly mad can muster and, quick as a predator acting on the barest instincts, he reaches over and tweaks my nipple. He then lets rip another cackle. Yes, you read that correctly. He. Tweaked. My. Nipple. And it didn't seem sexually motivated, which just made it even weirder.
Mr. Furious doesn't notice this. I'm on the frontline with this lunatic. A car has never felt smaller.
Jean taps me on the shoulder. Reluctantly, I face him. With a thin, jabbering smile he makes his hand into a two-fingered gun shape. He leans his arm right across me, and points it out of the window. He then pretends to shoot things out of the window, making a little pow noise with each fictional bullet. He cackles that cackle which will reverberate in my nightmares for decades to come, and puts his hand on the steering wheel to hastily avoid slaughtering another motorcyclist.
At this point, I break.
"Can you stop now? Here is fine..."
He seems to ignore us. Both of us are getting a bit more urgent.
"Jean, this is fine, thank -"
He abruptly brakes. Somehow, he understood! Furious is immediately out with the bags. I go to open the front door. It doesn't open. My hand wrenches at the handle a couple more times. Locked. My brain races -
ohfuckohfuckohfuckohfuck he's going to kidnap me and strap me to this seat and make me smell his weird stuff in the bag and give me endless amounts of meth and tweak my nipples until one of us dies
- and Jean presses a button and I almost fall out of the car, slamming the door behind me. We stand and stare at Jean. As a parting gift, he makes his finger gun once more, and, taking aim, shoots me first, then Mr Furious - pow pow. He don't react. We just stare, gormless and dumbfounded. He cackles and speeds off down the road, disappearing into the stretch of concrete and dirt. I'd like to point out that all this happens in ten minutes. Ten minutes of chaos wrapped up in a tiny, scorching metal box, racing through a wasteland. Was that Hell? Did we just meet Lucifer himself?
Furious turns to me: "Did he tweak your nipple?"
Yes. Satan's incarnate tweaked my nipple. How many people can say that?
We half-joke of Jean coming back and gunning us both like the salty, dusty dogs we are. Thankfully, he doesn't. Although if he did, it would've made a great story. We hitch a ride into the next village, which seems to be a rural red light district. We find a guesthouse, and the guy who owns it generously offers to take us up the road to a bar which he drops his son off at his evening classes. This level of domesticity is very, very welcome.
We find a bar. Tinny karaoke irritating our ears, we sit, our brains vainly attempting to rearrange the last few hours. We get drunk. Two sex workers come and join us, chatting to us, drinking some of our beer and refilling our glasses/coercing us to buy more beer. This all annoys me slightly, as I just want to be left alone. The woman attempting to talk to me realises she's on to a lost cause, and is handed a wireless mic and starts singing in Laos. I think at this point I'm losing my mind, since when she hands me the mic I get up and begin to shout my poem The War On Romance over the music. This seems like the best course of action right now. The mic is wrestled from me after about four lines. A few minutes later, she decides to entrust me with the mic once more. Foolish! I do the same thing again, probably out of some base instinct to try and have control over one aspect of my life today. Again, the mic is deftly taken from me. At this point, I suggest we leave, and, wisely, we do.
As we stagger out, we bump into the older guy from the lorry earlier that day. One hand around a pretty young woman, another round a beer, he smiles a drunken, half-remembering smile at us. We half-smile back, and get the hell out of there.
There's been enough reality today, so we head back to the guesthouse to see if our dreams can offer anything better.
Monday, 26 March 2012
We get to a hostel called SpicyLaos and hung out with some pretty awesome people there. There was a chap from Arkansaw called Jeremy, who let me rip loads of music off him. A pleasure to have The Boss back in my ears. He also downloaded The Inbetweeners movie, which was comforting, predictable and incredibly funny. I still think the series is probably the most authoritative observation on suburban British teenagers. Pretty much everything you see there is exactly how they are. And, if you've never been a teenage boy brought up in suburbia, it's scarier than you could possibly imagine.
After our slightly mental journeying, it was good to stay put somewhere for a few days... although it is a bit of a mission finding things to do in Luang Prabang. There's a couple of decent bars filled with irritatingly perfect looking people and rubbish music. A plus side is the great night market where I bought some beautiful hand-stitched juggling balls and honed my haggling skills. My Mum would love the place.
Speaking of juggling, Mr. Furious, myself and a couple of other folk from the hostel went to a bar to see a circus trio, who were shamblingly fun. They had clearly completely blagged the gig on the hoof, and were basically rehearsing onstage. This all added to their charm though. What was particularly odd was the way the bar area occasionally blasted out bits of music at random. Whether they were either hinting at them to get off stage, or quite clearly telling them to fuck off, I couldn't quite gather. But, like with most things on this trip, I just accepted it as another level of weirdness being shoved into my brain.
Also, I'm reliably informed I talked in my sleep in the dormitory. Anyone who's shared space with me will attest to my nonsensical nocturnal ramblings, but this one apparently went overboard. The girl sleeping in the bed nearby mine said:
"It was like you were at a football match, shouting 'GO GO GO!'"
So yeah, turns out I don't even shut up in my sleep. There is no escape.
And that was pretty much it from Luang Prabang. Revved up to go again, Mr. Furious and I head south to Vang Vieng: the trouncing, booze-and-drugs-powered juggernaut of Laos partying. We waited for ten minutes, and a guy parks up in his pick up. He is heading to Vang Vieng. He says he will do it for 10 000 all in. We break the unspoken hitchhiker code, agree and jump in the back. Still, we get to Vang Vieng by late afternoon, and have the smug pleasure of overtaking a couple of tourist buses. Sorry guys but, honestly - pull your thumbs out and start hitching.
I believe I've covered my views on Vang Vieng in a short story I wrote a couple of weeks ago, which you can find here. However, it's worth going into a bit more detail. After a now-regulation meal and beer to celebrate not being killed and left to rot on a South East Asian rural roadside, we find another SpicyLaos guesthouse, drop our stuff, and go marching off into the unknown. And when I say "the unknown", what I really mean is "in search of various intoxicants".
Stumbling through the dark, going off road, we hear the familiar party rumble - the thundering, distant, deep bass that cuts through the pitch black. The primal calling to wreckheads world over. We come to a river which is blocking our path to the beats. And instead of trying to find a bridge, we wade through the dark water, scrambling up the muddy bank to the other side, fully formed songs forming in the darkness as we get closer and closer.
We stagger into the glitz of Smile Bar, with its raging campires and dizzying lights. We head straight for the bar, flip the menu over, and there are the previously mentioned/consumed "happyshakes" of Kho Phang Yan. A decision is made with a single look to each other and a grin. We order two, and delve into our minds for six hours. It is, frankly, fucking fantastic. We dance like chimps, babble mindless crap at people, avoid the irritatingly beautiful people playing beer pong and posing about like twats and, through doing so, meet some people who're on the level, which seems to work out just fine. After quite a while of all this, we stagger off to bed.
During the day in Vang Vieng, there is little to do apart from go tubing. I didn't bother, partly out of being contrary for the sake of it, and partly because it sounded fucking nightmarish. Basically, you go down the river in a little rubber ring thing, and stop at various bars. At these various bars, you get hammered. And that's it. There seems to be a strange delusion which grips some folk abroad, which is when there's plenty of cheap alcohol available, somehow the individual's alcohol tolerance rises. I'll let you into a secret: it doesn't. Unsurprisingly, Vang Vieng is host to many accidents and some deaths every year, and not just of dignity.
What amazes me most about this get-fucked-as-much-as-possible culture is that the individuals within it are frequently surprised when you don't want to join in. One guy comes up to me whilst I was lying in a hammock. He's a touch worse for wear at 6pm.
"What'd you do all day?" he asked.
"Err... well, I'm currently reading and lying in a hammock and enjoying the sun."
"You just seem to get hammered at night and do nothing during the day."
"Okay, I'm fine with that."
The implied question lurking beneath "what'd you do all day?" is "why aren't you getting drunk?" By all means, drink as much as you like, but why criticise me for not drinking? I felt kinda bad for him, as he was clearly bemused by how anyone could be enjoying themselves just hanging out on their own.
I found this psychology quite endemic in Vang Vieng, and as such Mr. Furious and I made it our mission to scurry off in search of small bands of really cool people have fun our way. Which, to be fair, seemed fairly similar to the way everyone was having fun, but with added scummy crustiness, swearing, over-expenditure, less posing and more chimping around.
Vang Vieng has the potential to suck you in and refuse to let you go. We stayed there five days and considered it too too long. We meet a girl who'd been there two weeks, drinking every day. She looks dazed, like she couldn't possiblyenvision a world outside of the Vang Vieng bubble. The environment of irresponsibility seems to not stop at the abuse of the individual's liver, but extends to treating other people like toys in a game. We hear about one guy who slept with a girl in our hostel, and told her that he could only have sex with the same girl three times, because it was an agreement he had with his friends (I use the term 'friends' very loosely here), otherwise he would have to down a pint of piss or something equally twattish. She didn't really take him seriously, and when it turned out he was serious, she was very hurt.
It's this kind of heartlessness that an inherently heartless environment will engender, and that's kind of sad.
That said, Vang Vieng at least has the gumption to wear its heart on its sleeve. It is what it is. Unlike Pai, with all its sinister hidden codes and hierarchies, Vang Vieng is as loud and as crass as a pair of massive brass balls banging against a pair of equally massive brass tits. Which is kind of fun to experience for a day or two, but after a while, it becomes a repetitive blur of lights and superficial noise, and we realise that there just isn't any substance to the place. Nothing to sink your teeth into, nothing to properly engage you.
Rinsed of all other possibilities, Mr. Furious and I get ready to hit the hell out of the road for Laos' capital, Vientiane...
Saturday, 24 March 2012
Monday, 19 March 2012
And so, being men of extremes, Mr. Furious and myself decided to hitchhike to Laos.
Oh yeah, I also only had two days left on my visa, which meant getting over half of Thailand to border town Chang Khong by that night. In a country neither of us had hitchiked in before. Yes, it was a dramatic race against time. Like '24' if it mainly consisted of two increasingly desperate-looking punks standing on dusty roadsides with their thumbs out.
Hitching is surprisingly easy in Thailand. Some people wanted money for the rides, but when we said we couldn't afford public transport most of those who stopped took pity on us. And it definitely broke us out of the claustrophobic box of the tourist trail, opening our eyes to a damned beautiful country and some extremely nice people.
There is a slightly unnerving ride with one guy. He stops, and I jump in front, and Mr. Furious in the back. The driver is slightly, how should I put this... over-friendly, what with his drunken (yes, drunken - drink driving seems something of a sport in South East Asia) strokes of my leg. He speaks okay English, and suggests that we go to his place and stay "for free". His manner suggests that he had a very liberal interpretation of the word "free". I turn to Mr. Furious - who is happily ignorant of the whole situation - and say: "I don't think this ride is going to be free". He doesn't have a clue what I mean, seeing as he can't see the occasional light petting. Mind you, I'm pretty sure he would encouraged me to take one for the team in order to get a free ride anyway.
The driver is clearly a nice guy - he isn't really that creepy (the whole picking-up-younger- men-on-roadsides-and-trying-to-bang-them-whilst-drink-driving-thing notwithstanding), and dropped us off where we needed to be dropped off. I am, however, a little shaken by the experience. If that had happened in a club, I obviously could've just gone "sorry man, not interested" and wandered off. But being in the car, with someone else in control, not able to get out... that is genuinely a bit frightening. I don't think the driver quite realised how intimidating a situation like that is to a girl like me.
Anyway, after that, some kindly gent drops us off outside a police station. Now, given my very brief history with Thai police and their reputation of being pretty corrupt, this doesn't exactly make me feel safe. However, it seems that the cops out in sticks are a bit nicer than Bangkok's finest, and help us flag down a ride with their torches. This does take some time though, and I'm amazed at the number of people who simply ignore cops trying to flag them down. And fair play to them for wanting to avoid getting involved with Thai police. I wouldn't if I had the choice. After an hour or so, a car stops, with a lovely English-speaking couple who had a lovely car which smelt lovely and had lovely seats. And then two men - who, at the best of times, probably don't wash their clothes enough - clamber in and ruin the atmosphere. Still, they are very tolerant of us, and drop us off in Chang Khong.
And so, eight rides and around nine hours later, we've made it. Boom! We then meander around trying to find a hostel, and wander into one owned by a guy called Danny. We ask him if he knows anywhere cheap to stay. The exchange goes something like this:
Me: Do you have anywhere cheap to stay?
Danny: How low can you go?
Mr. Furious: Free?
Danny: If you buy food and a few drinks here, you can sleep in the massage palour next door.
Us: Yes, that sounds great, thank you.
"If you beg for free shit, sometimes you get it" - The Bible, Chapter 674
And so we do as he says. We watch an amazingly terrible horror movie dubbed in Thai, drink, eat, barble nonsense at each other, before being shown to the massage palour.
Now, given that it's a Thai massage palour, and it's free, I presume there are be some kind of strings attached... so we wander in with some trepidation and find...
... two made up beds.
So we snuggle down for a decent night's rest in the most comfortable beds we've had so far. Danny, if you're reading this: You're our hero, and thank you.
So we wake up, buy breakfast, give our heartfelt thanks to Danny, and go to the border. We pay 40 baht to cross the Mekong River into Huay Xai, Laos by boat (when, later, we see people crossing it on foot - and that's the kind of petty revenge Thailand takes on you when it senses you've got something for free), pay $35 to be let into the country, bimble around the border town for a bit, get bored, and decide to continue our hitchike into Laos, with little to cling on to other than second-hand advice about the country and our own ever-decreasing grip on reality.
And that, my friends, is how you get to Laos, UK-crusty style.
Vang Vieng, Laos, 2012
The open air bar bangs out a discordant mash of popular songs that meld with the humidity. Snoop and Dr. Dre are shoved uncomfortably next to Rage Against The Machine, who, in a lurching seugeway, suddenly turns aimlessly generic dubstep and drum n’ bass… bundled together into a compilation CD aimed at the mythical average party goer. The DJ seems less concerned with playing good dancing music, and more with soundtracking a cultural apocalypse.
This particular cultural apocalypse is alight with gaudy neon and dazzling superficiality. Faces melt from beer bottles to kissing lips, to campfire fire trance like a montage of a trailer for an advert. Bundles of meaningless banknotes are bundled into invisible hands, passed from tourist to bar to police for protection. This is a carefully designed experience, where fun comes from the top down and any notion of grassroots has been dug up and left on the compost heap.
It’s a whirl of booze and hormones, of blonde girls and ripped guys grinding in a hammered MTV parody. This is UK high street drinking with added mushrooms and opium on the bar menu to lend an aura of decadence.
To be fair, though, the drugs are pretty fucking good.
I sit with my friend Mr. Furious, greedily sipping whiskey and coke through straws like the needy, infantile, irresponsible goons Vang Vieng needs us to be, debating what drugs to take, where the next free drink is coming from, lip-synching to whatever the hell is being thrown at us by the DJ.
This is pretty much business as usual in Vang Vieng.
Then, through the clouds of cigarette smoke, dust, polished skin and unattainable dreams, she appears. It’s 9pm, and she’s seriously drunk. It’s the kind of unpredictable drunk where elation and depression are in constant battle with each other, and a thread hangs between tottering calm and spitting rage.
She stands and sits repeatedly, swaying like a rag doll in a gale. Her carefully applied make up has been swept up in a torrent of sweat and tears. She lifts up her dress and displays the crudely drawn spurting cock on her back to all who will look. This could be funny, except it’s all acted out with such lingering, trashed security. Like I said, she’s seriously drunk. It’s difficult to not feel deeply uncomfortable. Mr. Furious and I can only avoid her glazed eyes, ashamed on her behalf, lost at what to do.
She attempts to talk to us, but her chat is a gabba set on loop, a mash up of repeated slices of anecdotes and cut ups of opinions and accusations. She tries to explain, reason or justify her arrival to us, at this bar, alone, and drunk. But, because of the latter, it comes out as a hopeless ramble.
Suddenly, she clings on to a piece of driftwood from our conversation. I’ve no idea what it is – a word, a phrase, we’ll never know – but it triggers something inside her, and her first words of clarity are as direct as they are saddening.
“No woman has any self-respect.”
Mr. Furious and I almost hit the deck at the sudden bluntness of her words. She nods to herself as if her point is finally made, and drifts back into incoherence. Again, we can only sit, helplessly at a loss.
No woman has any self-respect.
The six words reverberate in my brain for hours, days, weeks after, and make my heart shudder whenever I repeat them to myself.
I witness this annihilation of self-respect too often back home. A majority of the populace have been convinced that the only way to handle life is by debasing themselves because, after all, as British people, we come from a social structure that tells you daily:
BE GRATEFUL THAT YOU LIVE UNDER A DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT.
… while at the same time attempting to force complete obedience through a labyrinth of complex institutions and archaic traditions. Growing up in the UK, we’re told that obedience is the key to climbing the mythical ladder of life. We’re told to “play the game”. And obedience doesn’t work if the individual is allowed self-defined notions of self-respect, because any self-respecting individual will tell anyone who orders them around to go fuck themselves.
And we come back to those five words – No Woman Has Self-Respect, and have flashes of her past, present and future.
I see the teachers training her through detentions and suspensions. I can see the politicians on television, all smiles and shark teeth, telling her everything will be just fine if she buckles down. I see newspapers scaring her into work to let someone else profit from her anxiety. I see bosses, red-faced, barking orders at her. I see boyfriends convincing her to have sex when she really doesn’t want to, a subtle threat of violence snaking through his words. I see advert up on advert holding up a postcard to a life that’s as alluring as it is illusory. All these conspire to do one thing – to convince this woman that she isn’t special.
But she is special. And I hope one day someone shows her that she is in charge and doesn’t have to take all this shit. I don’t want her to fall into the spiral of Vang Vieng, into the abyss that deceives people into settling for nothing, into the whirlpool that drains all natural energy and creativity…
I want to tell her all of this, but instead I look away. As I try to figure out what kind of a hellish world could make someone utter those six words, I immediately begin to drink away the memories.