Day 124: Tripping on magic mushrooms in Vang Vieng, Bat Country
Though the bats never showed up, the cave and surrounding areas was beautiful without them. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Music: Glenn Simonelli
This is bat country.
“Watch a river of bats fly out of the cave,” says the sign out in front of Laos Valhalla.
What better way to try magic mushrooms for the first time than with a tip of the hat to literary great Thomas S Hunter, as well as my personal hero: Batman.
Nuch, the owner of the guesthouse and restaurant, hands me a small bag of dried, shrived mushrooms, that looking like black, dried ginseng root than mushrooms.
Nuch is a thin woman who has clearly had healthier days, probably before years of experimenting with drugs. Her left eyelid is swollen and hangs heavy, making it look like she has a lazy eye. I don't know for a fact that Nuch does drugs, or even use to do drugs, but her anorexic body, the quality of her skin and her over-all hippy demeanor were beacons for Pink and I in our search of mushrooms – not that we really had to work hard.
“Can we put them in a shake?”
“Okay, I think need to soak in water first because they're dried,” she says. “Or tea?”
Though tea might be the right way to go, there is something about it being a shake that seems important, so we stick to the banana shake idea.
After a bit of waffling about, with me being honest about having no idea what's going to be best or how much to use and Nuch being a bit cagey about the whole process, she puts a few mushrooms into a white teacup and shows it to me. There isn't a lot there, but it's the first time for both Pink and me.
“This should be enough for two,” she says, aware that this will be our first run in with the hallucinogenic fungi.
This banana, mushroom shake was unable to bring Bat Country to life. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Hopefully the mushroom trip will end fast enough that I'll be able to get the drone up in the air and get some essential video footage of bats flying out of the bat cave. Cave itself is a yawning black hoke about a hundred meters above the jungle and rice paddies pressing against the karst limestone base.
In less than a minute, I suck down my half of the banana shake. There is the anticipated hyperawareness immediately afterward as I wait for the effects of the drug to begin.
Out of the direct sunlight, there's the sound of bikes behind me. A happy, but injured dog, wanders back through the restaurant. The wound on his side healing. Behind us, there's the sound of cow bells, one a twinkle, the others more solid.
My eyes feel a bit off, just a bit off, nothing too intense. My face is flushed, mostly where the sun light hits it. Two young woman who rode over from town on bicycles flip through the menu. They sound American.
So we sit there. Well, Pink is laying down flipping through her phone. I'm plugged into the laptop, tapping away at the keys, hopeful that the drug will hit and depart before it's time to fly the drone.
I lay down and close my eyes. My mind feels a little slow, but maybe that's it just feeling slow.
“Want to play cards?” I ask Pink.
Cards are dealt.
It's more 500 Rummy to 1,000 points with a ton of extra Thai-style rules that I've grown to love – anything that adds complexity to a game.
A herd of soft brown cows meander up the road, a couple rattling their bells as they saunter by. The sun on the rice paddies across the road starts to transform the vibrant greens to a light gold. At this time of the day, the rice paddies always go beyond beautiful, blowing in the wind and changing colors as deftly as the sea.
It's nearly 6pm. The bats should be coming out of their cave.
Only a bit worried that the mushrooms will hit us while I have the drone up in the air, Pink and I wander back behind the guesthouse. Down a well-fertilized path scarred by hoofs, we make our out to a small clearing that is surrounded by young banana trees.
The drone goes up, but the bats never show.
“No bats, no magic mushrooms,” I say.
“I'm so sorry it doesn't work. I just don't know anything about these things,” Nuch says in English, though she'd been spouting all kinds of drug-taking advice and recalling her party days when she was talking to Pink in Thai earlier today. “I have a thyroid issue,” she says pointing to a long, jagged scar along her neck. At first, I'd thought it was a scar from a noose, but it didn't wrap all the way around her neck. “But the doctor's didn't take it all out, they messed up. So I can't do these kinds of things or drink.”
Nuch wanders off to sit down with a couple guests, perhaps Germans in their 50s.
“She's drinking beer with those guys over there,” Pink whispers to me after Nuch leaves to get our bill. “She talks so sweet with me, but I don't understand her. I think she's scarred of you. Maybe you look like undercover police.”
It does seem like something about me has thrown Nuch. When she's chatting with Pink, the two are best friends, but as soon as she starts speaking English to me it's a sustained torrent of drug-using denials, though I never call into question her statements or even implied that she was a drug user.
“Maybe try Milano. I don't know. But I heard, that you can get there. A friend told me, I've never been,” Nuch says when she returns with our bill.
“She says she's not going to charge us for the mushroom shake because it didn't work,” Pink informs me after the speak in Thai for a couple minutes.
“Yes, I'm so sorry. I just don't know about these things. Maybe they were old. I called and asked me friend about it. I'm sorry,” Nuch says.
“It's fine, it's fine. No problem at all,” I say.
It's dark by the time we gather our belongings and head back into town.
Across the bridge, we find our way to Milan Pizza, across the street from the pizza place we ate the other night.
Well, lets see what's on the menu. Chef's special? Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Garish neon lights bath the open-air restaurant in pinks and reds, while Christmas lights outline the entrance. Outside, a cardboard sign written with a black permanent marker reads: The only wood Fried Pizza in VV. Buy Any Happy pizza Get Free Drink. Happy Shake Buy 3 Get 1 Free... Balloon 15,000 kip :)
How Nuch couldn't be certain that the place sold mushrooms is beyond disbelief. I must have really spooked her.
The sign brazenly posted outside the restaurant, which sits on one of the only main roads poking through town, is in clear contrast to Nuch's paranoia.
A western dude with a floppy mohawk greets us in a faded Hawaiian button-down shirt. From the tiny backpack he's wearing across his chest emerges a an even smaller puppy.
There are ample choices on the “Happy Menu”: mushroom shakes (100,000 kip); mushroom pizza (100,000 kip); happy soup (100,000 kip); happy garlic bread (100,000 kip); happy omelet (100,000 kip); happy pancake (100,000 kip); bag of weed (100,000 kip); joint (30,000 kip); opium joint (100,000 kip); opium tea (100,000 kip); opium cigarette (70,000 kip) and 1 gram of opium (250,000 kip).
Situated on a platform covered in pillows with a low table as a center piece, I order a Happy Pizza with sardines. They don't have sardines. However, my man says the lipids from the pepperoni help intensify the experience, so we go with that.
“What goes well with mushroom pizza?” Pink asks before ordering a drink.
“Coconut,” he says. “I'd suggest you both get one.”
“Given that there are mushrooms on the pizza, I think we'll stick to just one shake for now,” I say.
“Yeah, I guess they are both hallucinogenic. So we just put the heads on top of the pizza, different than a lot of edibles.”
For most edibles, the active drug compound is chemically bound with fats, which are then used in the baking or cooking process.
Pink doesn't seem the least bit phased that we've just doubled down with a magic shake on top of magic pizza for our first mushroom experience after such a solid strikeout earlier.
Apparently the 2012 crackdown, didn't completely kill the drug scene. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Holding the pug puppy in one hand and a notepad in the other, our server chats up the table next to us. There are about six of them. The men all have young faces and wild beards, the woman seem barely old enough to be allowed out of their home country without a guardian.
“If you want to smoke it here, you can do it in the back room. You can't walk around smoking it or smoke it in public places. Police won't go into your hotel. I mean the hotel might protect you,” the waiter says, openly talking about selling a bag of weed to them.
He returns and flops the hefty bag onto the table, as if the inside of the restaurant operated on a completely different legal system than the rest of the country, which might not be far off the case.
“We've got a scale in the back I f you want to stick it on there first,” he says.
“How long until the mushrooms wear off?” one of the guys asks.
“Could be at 24 hours.”
That's not a good sign for getting on the motorcycle and getting Pink back to Vientiane tomorrow morning. Then again, maybe this will be just as disappointing as our previous attempt at “magic”.
Two little Loas kids with pop-guns run into the open-faced restaurant and start playing with our server. He plays along until it's time to see if his puppy needs to pee.
The shake arrives first. It's an appealing chunky, gray-brown mess. However, the sweetness of the pineapple pairs surprisingly well with the earthiness of the mushrooms. Our server mumbles something about pineapple, as an explanation to why we didn't get the coconut shake.
Taking turns, Pink and I sip at the shake, playing cards as we go.
The pizza arrives. I quarter the misshapen pie, which looks like a per-historic amoeba. It's a good pizza, a really good pizza. It would be worth the money even if it wasn't layered with shrooms. There are no whole mushroom heads on the pizza, instead there is a thick, yummy, magical mushroom pesto sauce spread over the entire pie.
That's what I call a pizza. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
With my notebook out, I note that there is a slight itching in the back of my throat, before I return to the card game.
The music starts to get louder, more intense. Everything is slowing down.
The pinks and orange light bleeds through the rest of the colors, leaving everything a warm hue.
It's so hard to play cards.
“Just need to make it through this hand. Should I tell her that it's starting? Head feeling bigger, heavier,” I scribble onto the notepad.
A big breath momentarily clears my head, lightens the burden. Pink is killing it in the card game.
“Pink seems slow too. Not sure if slowness is my perception or her being slow. Tribal beats,” I write, before returning my attention to the card game. Pink seems unaware of my sloth-speed transition from painstakingly getting each letter onto the notepad and then returning my attention to the card game that won't end.
I need the card game to end.
Pink's voice feels far away as she calls out her score and I record it. I add up my points and jot the score down.
My big hand falls onto Pink's small one as she reaches for the cards to start another hand.
“Can't. I can't do it,” I say, my voice sounding crisper than the thoughts inside my head.
The waiter returns to check on us. I tell him its our first time.
“Yeah, it's mostly visual stuff. If you do it a lot, like two days in a row, some of that goes away though. Like your brain readjusts for the adjustments the mushrooms make,” he says.
The psilocybin and psilocin compounds within the mushrooms are in charge now, boosting brain connectivity despite the mind-melting feeling.
The music, so loud, is inside me, filling my body with a tingling awareness as I slump into the cushions, unable to sit up without a great deal of effort.
Want to let time go as my peripheral vision darkens.
“Tongue. Know it,” I write.
Slowly I turn to Pink, who is blindly staring at me. She leans forward with a huge, silly smile.
“Your eyes look... um... sweet,” she says, falling into laughter.
With my eyes closed, there is a sinking, falling feeling as I spiral into darkness. With slight difficulty, I open my eyes, pulling myself out of it.
A large wooden fish hanging up on the wall looks down on me. I want it to swim, but scarred that it would freak me out if it started to do so.
My hands, I know they are my hands, even if they aren't connected to me, hold my pen and notebook, which rests on a red pant leg of my shorts. It's a first person perspective that I'm not entirely in control of, as if I've stepped into someone's body: I can see through their eyes, but I don't know where all the controls are to move them around. Not that I want to move them. They're happy where they are.
I watch the great amount of effort it takes the hand to scrawl a chicken scratch note on the lined paper.
“Crazy out of body disembodiment of my knees and these hands and pen and paper,” the hand writes, my mind knowing that there is something wrong with writing “out of body disembodiment”, but too fatigued to fight for what's correct..
Sitting there, eyes glazed, I find my lips helping to form a stupid kissing face. The kids who ordered happy pizzas next to us, the ones I thought about warning that it was our first time, those kids are gone now.
“So much effort to write,” the hand scribbles , before giving up on the task at hand.
Pink's face is close to mine.
“Mi chop, mi chop, mi chop,” she says holding her hands over her ears, her face shaking back and forth as she says she doesn't like it.
The music is hurting her. It's penetrating deep into her ears and hurting her, she can't get away from it and her heart is pounding.
“Mi chop, mi chop, mi chop,” she says, squirming closer to me, holding her cold hands out for me.
“Okay, come here,” I say, trying not to laugh. I hope her bad trip doesn't mess with my emotional mood and send me down the rabbit hole as well.
“Mi ao, mi ao, mi ao, mi ao,” she says. I'm not sure how long it's been since she started freaking out. It's not pure panic, but she's so unhappy and can't escape it.
“Okay, can you walk, can we leave?” I ask dimly aware that we've not paid yet and I am completely incapable of walking – it is only with an extraordinary amount of effort that I'm able to sit up and drink more water.
She doesn't respond.
Turning toward a garishly dressed ladyboy with layers of thick makeup on and a possible meth habit, Pink asks for help. The ladyboy and couple people who work there say something in Thai – or maybe it's Laos. I don't know if I can make them turn the music down, it doesn't seem right, but the place is empty except for us and the servers, including the ladyboy, who works there.
Relieved that they are talking a foreign language, I fall back on my pillows. The staff lead Pink to the toilette to throw up.
She repairs munching in a small banana
“They say banana, coconut juice, throw up,” she says, trying to force a banana on me.
I fall back into my stupor.
There is a little fuss about closing time, but it's all happening on the peripheral of my reality, which barely exists beyond these pillows and this body.
“You can stay here tonight, no problem,” someone says. They try to figure out who will stay and watch us, ensuring we pay our bill and are okay.
I open my eyes. There are three of them. The ladyboy hands me the bill. In my pocket is money, I know it. It takes forever to pull the wad of cash out, by the time I do, they seem to have lost interest.
It's 220,000 kip for everything, but I can't see the money clearly. It's too hard to manage.
I drift off, sitting up, cash in hand.
I wake laying down, head still heavy, cash fallen somewhere around me.
The table has been moved to give us more room to spread out on the mats.
Why are we the only customers here? There is the loud sound of the shutters being pulled down for the night as the close shop.