The five-hour ride through Laos was striking, but as the mini-van juddered and bounced along some of the worst roads he had ever ridden, Paul arrived in Vang Vien stricken!
Admittedly, there had been a rest stop on route, when Andrew had smoked eight cigarettes and Paul had emitted eight pints of something brown from his gullet. He thought he had done rather well, as he had managed to hold back the vomit for at least an hour and a half on the bus, no mean feat, considering as there was a young Korean seated behind him who had filled two ‘Seven Eleven’ carrier bags with something most oriental.
When they eventually arrived at their destination he and Andrew staggered through the staggering landscape to find their tiny hut on ‘The Other Side’ – the imaginative name given to the piece of land they were staying on across the seasonal bamboo bridge. The welcome from the manager, ‘Can’ was cool to say the least – Paul couldn’t stomach him at first sight. The place, however, was astonishing – scenery of the highest Karst.
A backdrop only Akira Kurosawa could have imagined.
An azure river meandered gently through town and all at once the boys were at peace. They felt just like the beautiful Jim Morrison, they too had broken on through to the other side.
That was until a flotilla of motorised kayak made a sharp starboard turn and came whizzing noisily past. Dozens of chattering and screaming Chinese invaded their head space like a Red Armada. Most jousting with selfie sticks to capture themselves instead of the beauty surrounding them.
Morning, and the silence, had definitely been broken.
After flinging down their rucksacks into the one corner of their ‘bungalow’ which could accommodate them, they headed down to the river bank for a beer or three.
It was then the music began!
A hideous concoction of eastern rhythm combined with screeching lollipop vocals. Suddenly the entire riverside was awash with what sounded like Kylie Minogue on Crystal meth. It was awful! And so incongruous with the bucolic setting. Paul could sense Ratty, Badger and Mole, scarpering for the hills, the wind right up their willows!
He found yet more incongruity as he gazed along the bank. Massive concrete monsters, horrible prison-like hotels loomed over the water, obliterating the view to all of those who were not their inmates.
These gargantuas could not outdo the majestic mountains entirely, but they were having a good go. As Paul looked at the craggy geographic magnificence that had been part of the place for hundreds of thousands of years, he imagined what the spirits of the mountains must be thinking. They were probably not too concerned, for just as they had been holding court for many millennia before the Chinaman came along, they would no doubt be doing the same when he eventually disappeared.
Paul knew it was a western condescension to automatically oppose progress. But to him, this was not progression. Vang Vien was being spoilt. Cash from China and Vietnam was flooding in, yet the difference between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ was as wide as the Mekong Delta. The locals were not benefitting entirely from the big leap forward. They had been shunted to the other side of the tracks.
Paul wanted to throw the little red book at the short sighted idiots who were looking to their abundant wallets and not at the wonder which abounded. Unsympathetic and greedy as they were.
He had avoided the riverine building site on his and Andrew’s last visit to Laos four years ago. He had read that the town had become a Mecca for a young and swinging party crowd who were imbibing far too many drugs and falling fatally from rope swings onto the dry river bed.
The infamous ‘death swing’ had taken on an altogether more literal meaning.
He didn’t judge, as the locals back then had made themselves a fortune supplying young ‘Aussies’ with bucket drinks, amphetamines and more. Unfortunately, the young tourists had perished by the bucket-load, until the Australian government stepped in and demanded the Laotian Authorities do something to protect their ‘youngens ’!
Paul was glad he and Andrew hadn’t made the journey that time, for he knew he wouldn’t have been able to stop himself from swinging – despite the inevitable danger. And as Andrew constantly reminded him, most irritatingly, he was very liable to be accident prone. So he had considered it a wiser decision to visit the place in the smaller hours, after the party had died down somewhat!
The Laotians had listened to the Australians and the many bars and clubs offering the twenty-four hour party people rest stops with no respite had been shut down. The hippy vibe had definitely almost been killed off. Yet now, it was the Chinese and Vietnamese who were committing murder. They were building ridiculous structures that didn’t belong in such a paradise. Banana pancakes and ‘Happy Pizzas’ could still be found, yet they were in the minority. Signs for Chinese and Korean food papered the shack walls, and coach-loads of packaged touring parties emptied by the hundreds, marching militarily into the utilitarian blocks on which the great mountains frowned.
The place, Paul considered, was what was proverbially known as a shithole!
He and his partner usually enjoyed such a location, but here the meeting of the last die-hard hippies and the first die-casting Chinese was an uneasy cocktail, pleasing to no-one.
On their fist night Paul and Andrew sat on the riverbank at chairs designed for Munchkins, and munched on a meal which could only have been concocted by Macbeth’s three witches. The rice looked to contain several eyes of several unfortunate newts. The massive cauldron of soup contained things of unspeakable horror, and the noodle dish, which mysteriously appeared, resembled an unsavoury creature from the BBC’s ‘Doctor Who’ – only still living! Paul momentarily wished for a tardis so that he and Andrew could travel back to Vang Vien’s simpler days. Yes, they may have had to deal with the odd unpalatable riparian splat, but the cheese and bacon toasties would certainly have been edible. The cuisine in Vang Vien was by far the worst they had discovered on their latest experience out east.
The beverages, however, proved to be an altogether more interesting affair.
On Christmas Eve, Paul and Andrew hit the high-street, in order to get in just that condition. T’was the season to make folly after all, and they had been recommended a scruffy pizza joint in which to to buy one. Perhaps a couple of magical mushrooms to top things off.
They were not disappointed.
As they knocked back two horrible fungus flavoured shakes they knew that this Yuletide they would probably be rocking around more than just the Christmas Tree. In fact, on route home to ‘The Other Side’, Paul turned to Andrew and said,
‘Hark’, heralding the moment at which he thought he could hear the angels singing,
‘Fuck off’, Andrew replied festively, ‘let’s just get back!’
Paul heeded his partner’s advice, and when back at their own stable environment, he was very glad he had done so. For five minutes later Andrew was well away in his manger. Not only was he seeing the star of Bethlehem but their were others shooting all around.
For a moment he became very angry and accusatory towards his husband. Paul was concerned that Andrew would not be such a fun guy on the fungi. So he moved himself to the empty hut ten yards adjacent to theirs, a journey which felt to him, as long as that undertaken by The Three Kings. He sat, eventually, on the wooden steps and gazed at the wizardry nature had thrown up in front of him.
An ancient world full of Christmas spirits and hobgoblins. He made the acquaintance of two very sexy trees who introduced themselves as Daphne and Phylis.
They were the most attractive plant life he’d ever met.
A bush named Esme took great care of him as he listened to Andrew chucking up in the hut next door. A young German backpacker travelling alone was screaming Teutonic seasons greetings into her iPad. Paul bid her the same over Andrew’s all too audible retching, but was unseasonably greeted with a fearful, filthy look. T’is the season to be bloody jolly love, Paul thought. Fuck you! He then turned back to Esme, who advised him to let his anger go, after all, the shrewd shrub advised, these millennial saplings don’t always travel well. Don’t let her soil your experience she intoned.
So he didn’t.
He took photo after photo as the psilocybin did it’s work. Everyone a masterpiece to his eye. Unsurprisingly, the next day, when checking his psychotic shoot, he discovered most of them to be as unfocused as he had been. Except, strangely, for Daphne and Phyllis, who had proven themselves to be models of the highest order.
If he’d learnt anything on his Tolkienesque trip, it was that he should take a leaf out of their book when having his next photo session.
Andrew, having now found his composure, and, of course, the meaning of the universe, later joined Paul, and they spent a wonderful night together listening to the nine songs they had on their Spotify playlist. Eighteen times!
Christmas Day morning, Paul was less than present. A dizziness of astounding alacrity arose in him and he realised the hippie shake had left him quite shaken. As Andrew continued to converse with the ancient Gods in the landscape beyond, Paul began a conversation with the toilet bowl.
It lasted for a full five hours!
Unnervingly, the cistern answered him back. And alarmingly with much more wit.
As Paul’s sickness mushroomed, Andrew made his escape and headed down to the river. Not before several litres of beigeness had exorcised itself from his insides did he feel ready to join him. Still wobbly and seeing stuff he’d rather not, he found his partner on the noisy riverbank, and they made their way towards the Christmas Dinner they had unwisely booked at the local Irish Bar.
They sat, amid the cool and hip, clad in Christmas headwear which Andrew had insisted they both adopt. After a short while Andrew removed his, citing sweat as the cause. Now, amongst the hundred or so travellers, Paul was the sole arsehole sporting a ‘Lola’s’ hot pink Santa hat. No-one seemed to be amused. Paul kept it on during the meal, for fear of looking embarrassed if he removed it. In for a sixpence he thought. And he was struggling so hard to get through the rock hard roasties and the stringy stuffing, so for a while, just like the old-fashioned ‘Playtex’ bra, he forgot he had it on. He was soon horribly reminded though as he hit the washroom, glanced in the mirror and caught an unsightly glimpse of a geriatric, drug-addled ‘Noddy’ gormelessly gazing back at him.
He removed his chapeau immediately and fluffed his flat hair before returning to the party.
But he and Andrew were both far too shaken to party on. The mushroom nonsense had been one thing but the stuffing quite another. Paul thought he was coming up again, this time on sage and onion. It was time to leave.
Boxing Day came and Paul felt as if he’d just stepped out of the boxing ring! He was still punch drunk and hadn’t gone near any punch! He went down to the river and informed the manager, ‘Can’, that he and Andrew would like to stay another night. ‘Can’ really was a miserable affair who couldn’t run a tap let alone a hostel. On one occasion he had attempted to charge Andrew for ice with which to cool the boiling soda water he had sold them. Andrew had chastised him in effervescent fashion and ‘Can’ had backed down.
Paul has considered giving him a bad review on ‘Trip Advisor’ – but then remembered, when it came to tripping, he was hardly the best person to give advice. Even though ‘Can’ certainly couldn’t, there was no need to have him canned.
Besides which, whether Can could or couldn’t was meaningless to Paul, as he was quite certain he would never ever return to ‘The Other Side’.
One trip in Vang Vien was quite enough!