On a trip to Laos, recently, my parents found the perfect birthday present for Michelle: matching bottles of snake and scorpion booze. Recognizing the fact that my mom doesn’t drink, this strange gift oozes with awesomeness.
“Don’t drink it all at once,” my dad said. Unlike my mom, he’s a fantastic tippler.
The Ayi now claims she’s too frightened to clean the bathroom, but she’d been too frightened to clean it for years. And what’s more Chinese than liquor infused with weird crap? (Remember my experiences with snake penis booze?)
There’s another reason I’m loathe to entirely believe her. The liquid levels of the scorpion bottle appear to be falling. Laolao liquor used to touch the top of the reeds. Then the top of the pincher. Now it’s barely over the scorpion’s antennae. I’m convinced Ayi is taking sips.
Laolao — the Laotian white lightning — is notorious for viagra-like effects. So I worry about her drinking it on the job. Seems dangerous if you ask me.
When I was living in Kathmadu 20 years ago (yow!) this summer, I found this awesomely makeshift ferris wheel in a nearby theme park. A teenager would stand in the middle, and walk from one bar to the next, giving passengers a slow, staggered ride.
Much more recently in southern Laos, down on the island Don Khon, I stumbled across a close cousin: the makeshift merry-go-round or carousel. I think there was a generator giving it a little power, but the operator had to push it around for it to keep any momentum. For context, this is an island where rooms cost one dollar a night, there’s electricity for only a few hours a day, and the closest email terminal was an hour away.
We got lucky in Don Khon — the island’s annual celebrations were well underway the weekend we were there.
Here in southern Laos, evidently “big celebrations” means “get mad drunk and hit the temples,” cos that’s what everyone did. The Wat laid out a huge spread, with hand-cranked carousels, dart gambling, cover bands, and tons of beer.
The long, slow, dusty bus-ride cost 20 cents and took lord knows how long. But eventually it delivered us to the incredible Buddha Park.
You see, 40 or so years ago, some loony Lao was hiking along a remote mountain trace, accidentally tripped, and fell into a hole. A deep hole. It was a lot like Alice in Wonderland. But instead of meeting his quick, bloody end, he… fell into the padded lap of a meditating guru. Nice!
The faller and the padded became quick buddies, and traveled Laos and Thailand together, spreading their unique mystic word.
I’m sorry I can’t be more specific than this, but a large part of their divine message was that the world didn’t have enough outsider art. Hindu-Buddhist outsider art. AWESOME Hindu-Buddhist outsider art. It didn’t matter that neither of them had much artistic experience… they had divine tutelage! All of a sudden, out of nowhere, their inexperienced acolytes started creating hundreds of these bizarre masterworks.
Later, an eavesdropping Lao leaned in to our conversation about the temple, and interjected: “Hey, I was a monk, once. Twelve years! Twelve years no sex, no drugs! You know what I mean? I MEAN NO BOOM BOOM!”
Imagine the most pristine, untouched, slow-moving river. A place that seems from a dream. It carefully wraps around banks of green, where water buffalo and cows nap in the shade, and wake to sip from small pools. Four novice monks hold umbrellas for shade as they cross a rickety old bridge. A fisherman slaps his bamboo rod in the water to punt himself a few feet upstream. Up above, two volcanic mounts bring Mordor to mind. Beauty. Absolute pure remote beauty. You float through this serenity on an inner tube, and smile.
Now hold that prior image. Jam twenty bars that resemble frat parties into this river, each jutting out, perched over the water, each with their own pounding '90s techno or hiphop soundtrack. At one bar, thirty muscled drunk jarheads dance in a sweaty circle to "boys who like girls who like boys" as four girls in bikinis pretend to be bored. A screaming couple fly over our heads, suspended on a zipline, and bellyflop into the river behind us.