Friday, 13 April 2012

Punks vs. Laos - Part 4: Apocalypse Laos

We hitch out of the strange Red Light Village early. Thumbs, rides, endless road. Repeating our mantra: Pakse Pakse Pakse until it's somehow less a place and more word to pin our hopeless aspiration to.

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"

"Pakse."

"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."

Brilliant. "Okay..."

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: fuckoff@witlesstwat.co.uk. 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.

I decide on two missions: 1) check hospital and if Mr. Furious isn't lying there alive/dead/dying, then 2) check at the police station. Given the reputation of Laos' finest, this is something I really want to avoid if I can.

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."

Jesus Christ.

"And you can't do anything?"

"No."

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."

"What?"

"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...

Every time we thought we could tame the place, it slipped away, and became a wild land once more. It truly is a land for the intense and the insane, and awe and respect is due to anywhere that pushes your boundaries.

Enough twaddle. It's done.

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.

--------------------------------------

Apocalypse Laos - Mr. Furious Edition

Pidge's retelling of my Laotian misadventure is succinct, but I feel I must pass comment myself. The evening of our arrival in Savannaket - a vertiable My Lai of a holiday destination - I had indeed snoozed in the Frenchmobile and failed to keep tabs on illustrious road 13, but I felt I had concealed my simmering rage competently and doused the fires in enough booze, downers and fags to keep things civil.

However, such a diet of substances does do tremendous amounts to inflame my wanderlust, and after Pidge pootled off to bed, I decided on a whim to rage out into Savannaket in search of adventure.

"I'm off exploring!" I merrily waved to the gravelly-voiced whiskeyblimp Ferren as I rocked into the darkness, little knowing it would be two days before I would return.

Immediately I was lost. I did however have a bottle of BeerLao with me so I was not concerned. i could hear bass thudding from somewhere, and followed my ears down to the banks of the Mekong. The sound of a discoteque wafted across from the opposite side - whereas Savannaket was deathly quiet.

With a notion that piracy is something akin to scrumping, I untied a lovely two metre wooden canoe from the shore and set off on my merry journey to Thailand, punting across with a bit of wood I had salvaged. However, it soon became apparent that the Mekong is much wider than at first may appear on a dark moonlit night, and, pretty knackered, I parked the canoe midstream and sat singing jaunty sea tunes, chugging BeerLao under the moon and stars.

After a time, I decided to sack Thailand off and return to Laos. Unfortunately, the canoe became wedged on a sandbank, and my improvised oar had floated away, so i crashed out of the boat and waded ashore.

My camo trousers were soaked to the midthigh, so in a fit of fashionista fury I tore them off, leaving me in a rather fetching camo miniskirt.

It was dressed such that a man on a motorbike pulled up, and very politely asked me to go with him. Being no fool, I requested to see his ID, which duly revealed him to be a Laos policeman.

So, still bemused, I jumped on the bike and off we went to a police station, where I was cheerily processed by some equally bemused Laos police, before being cuffed and lead through a series of walls and doors to my new home.

Now, I'm sure you're like me, and after an evening of whiskey and diazepam fuelled piratic adventuring, are pretty likely to find the prospect of bedding down in a large single room with forty Laos prisoners as appealing as a week caravanning in Totnes.

I was greeted by a Laotian who introduced himself as Bob, and he kicked some floorsnoozers aside to make space for me.

I awoke, many hours later, and the place was largely deserted. It was a large room, with raised platform around the periphery, and a single shared toilet and bathroom.

I padded around in my miniskirt and vest top, rather concerned about becoming the prison slopbucket.

Luckily, Bob was an absolute legend, giving me food and cigarettes and explaining that because of my piratic nature, i had been adopted by one of the inhosue gangs, who would make sure i didn't get in any shit. I was allowed to sit in certain places, eat at certain times, and sleep in certain areas. i shouldn't sit on the floor with the 'monkeys', or talk to the meth heads who were withdrawing under the platform, and only sit with certain people.

I smiled and clowned my way through this particularly awkward phase of the holiday. I think having extensive tattooing on my chest and shoulder helped a great deal. Or perhaps the story of what I had tried to do was simply so perplexing to them that they thoguht best to play it safe.

I had no way of contacting Pidge. I didn't even know the name of my hotel.

Apparently, the boss man had come to see me that morning and I had been so sleepy that I had waved him off, and now I must wait until Monday to see him. Would Pidge stay in town, would he be able to track me down?

Eventually, after an afternoon's sojourn in the yard, watching people weave fishing nets and ask questions about my tattoos, the officers came and took me to interview, where I gave them the truth about my boat 'borrowing'. The best question they asked was 'how many kilometres have you been down river?' to which I answered 'About 0.1 or 100 metres.' They seemed to like this.

All in all, the police and the prisoners were welcoming and hospitable, even offering to lend me money to buy things in the jail. I declined, preferring to mooch off the kindness of strangers. Luckily, I had left my passport in the hotel, so to ascertain my identity, they offered to drive me to get it. I couldn;t remember the name, but gave the location as 'by the river, next to a hotel and across from a kareoke bar'. For anyone who has never been to Asia, this describes pretty much the entirety of the continent.

They then offer to drive me around until we find it, to which I most convincingly agree that I definitely can. What else could I say? "No, I'll just wait till Monday. Saturday night is games night in my cell."

So off we go for our Saturday drive, and indeed we do find it. After some initial confusion, the hotel staff go to get not Pidge, but Ferren, who greets me with the enthusiasm of any heartbroken alcoholic on a breakfast of gutrot whiskey when encountering a friend they thought was dead. He is not the man I wish to see, and there is some moments before a letetr Pidge has left me is discovered on the counter, and some minutes more before he returns to discover little old me, back from my travels.

The rest of the trip he has covered pretty well, except for the moment of my return to the cells, and my eventual release, when I received a heartfelt and warm cheer and much handshaking from my cell mates. Dear Bob who looked after me had been in there six months, and my heart goes out out to him and all his brothers in chains. All prisoners are indeed political.

Indeed we did flee Laos which much relief after my release, and i must apologise to dear Pidge for causing him such stress. But after all, if you're gonna travel with a salty dog, to better be ready to shed some bitter tears ...

Mr Furious

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