This Week: Doing drugs in Laos
Well, that's a menu you don't get at a local pizza place back home. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
MORE than a month ago, the die was given two options: Go to Laos, do drugs; Go to Cambodia, drone Angkor Wat.
The die dictated drugs. Though drugs aren't my thing, I've been known to hit and pass a joint, as well as drink caffeine and alcohol. Thirty one years and that's the extent of my drug use.
What are you think die? What are you thinking?
This Week – surely not this week – the die, acting as an agent to push me outside of my comfort zone, begins to bounce me up the pot-holed, cattle-dominated “highway” between the Laos capital, Vientiane, and the hedonistic party town of Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng started to earn its reputation as part of the Banana Pancake Trail – the path beaten by budget travelers across Southeast Asia – due to its awe inspiring karst topography, caves and naturally blue lagoons.
It was Vang Vieng's beauty, not drugs, that first drew backpackers to the little town. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Music: Andy Cohen
Though it was the die's decision to “go to Laos and do drugs”, it's being stubborn about actually getting Pink – a Thai friend whose joined me for a week of dice life – and me started with the “do drugs” part.
Before heading to bed last night, the die was given a non-drug related set of options: Wake up 7am go to cave, wake up 7am go to waterfall, wake up 7am go for a motorcycle drive or wake up at 7am and go to the Blue Lagoon. Pink was pretty set on us waking up at 7am.
The die chose the cave.
At the turn off to Nang Oua Kham Cave there is a small booth where a man charges us several thousand kip as an entrance fee. Farther down the dirt road, we park the bike in an open field.
Once inside the cave, having been given torches and forewarned that there would be some deep water, I strip off my t-shirt, bundling it up with Pink's shorts and shirt. In the light of my headlamp, we look like we're willing characters in a horror film. Pink's breasts and wide hips are wrapped up in an American flag bathing suit; I'm standing their in my blue board shorts.
There is the shock of cold water as I wade in first, and a second shock as the frigid liquid ghoulishly licks my genitals. I think no matter how old you get it's impossible to get use to the feeling of dipping your crouch in cold water.
After an hour of pushing deep into the cave, trying to determine if my only light source was fading or not, we turn around, emerging from the cave muddy, but alive.
And the rural landscape was worth the visit. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Tired of the die's refusal to buy us drugs, we return to one of the rasta bars in Vang Vieng with an executive order in hand: do drugs.
The woman at the hands us two menus. One is a food and drink menu. The other is a drug menu. A big sign out front advertises Laughing Balloons for 10,000 kip – a dollar – a piece.
We browse the extensive drug menu.
“Hey, how are you?” asks a gaunt Scandinavian coming down from a opium high. He's the only other client in the bar.
“You should get the weed. It's really good,” says Ricky, the Scandinavian. “Mind if I join?”
“No, not at all. The more the merrier,” I say to be polite, though I'm entirely happy just playing cards with Pink on the pillowed platform.
Ricky starts talking. He's talking a lot, seemingly unaware of the fact that Pink and I are having to divide our attention between him and our card game. I leave Pink with him to go order two Happy Balloons.
When I return, he's still talking.
Ricky crashed his scooter three times on the way up from Vientiane, which was at least part of the motivation for self-medicating with opium.
Our painted speckled balloons, full of nitrous oxide, arrive. I hand one to Pink, who is confused on what to do.
The effects of the Laughing Gas balloons quickly faded. Photo: Pink
“You huff it,” I say to Pink, showing her what I mean by putting the top of the balloon in my mouth and sucking it down and then inflating it again several times.
My voice deepens and gets slushy in my ears. With my notepad out, I start to document the feeling, but Ricky doesn't stop talking at me. I just want him to shut up so I can enjoy the immediate onset of the high.
My lips tingle and my head goes foggy. Pink looks comatose, but she just looks that way sometimes.
She and Ricky are yelling about something. I pop the balloon back in my mouth though there is no nitrous oxide left, it dangles from my lips like a flaccid piece of bacon.
The rush quickly fades.
As a follow up, Pink and I decided to go with one of the edibles: a weed pancake. Admittedly, edibles aren't the most exciting drug, but having had a couple drinks, it seems like jumping straight in and doing shrooms or opium is a bad idea.
We dig into into the fluffy, golden pancake immediately after it arrives. A little butter and some maple syrup would be perfect, but even as a naked, dry flap jack, it's pretty good eating.
“I don't think it's working,” Pink says.
I concur. I settle our tab at the bar. On the way back to the room the weed hits us – hits us hard (full story here).
About 15 years ago, tubing in Vang Vieng, and with it ramshackle bamboo and wooden bars on the river banks. Though the epic nature of the place was before my time, the rumors of the party scene could be heard in Phuket when I arrived in 2011. According to The Guardian, the bars were, back in the day, “enticing passing tubing customers with throbbing party music and free shots of the local Lao-Lao whisky. Rope swings, giant water slides and zip lines sprang up beside the bars, inviting sozzled gap-year kids to take their chances with the rocky riverbed in unsupervised acts of derring-do.”
Half naked girls and alcohol is enough to cause most boys to throw off any cloak of reason that they might have managed to keep with them thus far in their Asia trip. Add in a number of illicit drugs, specifically hallucinogenics, and it's a recipe for the most epic, and dangerous, type of partying.
The deaths of young, vibrant backpackers seeking a little wild freedom before possibly falling into some monotonous, soul-destroying mainstream lifestyle were the trigger for important changes. In 2012, seven bars along the waterway were shut down, more closures were to follow as rope swings, zip lines and slides were removed.
Though the party river that I'm splashing across, it's cold water tickling my bottom, is nothing like it use to be, it's not so tame that you can guarantee that you won't have the word “cunt” scrawled across your forehead with a permanent marker.
Pink and I were feeling our age in the sea of drunk backpackers. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A group of kids crowd around a giant Jinga set that has dares written on each block. One guy and one girl have both managed to get the word “cunt” written on their foreheads. Another is being beer boarded on the floor.
Pink and I have a few beers and join a game of Slap Cup. We easily survive the tubing experience, though failed to to be immersed in it – perhaps some dice games should have been put into action. It's moments like these that I feel an extra Dice Person pushing me to roll would go a long way.
After yesterday's must-try tubing experience, Pink and I are down to our last day in Vang Vieng, which means it's time to try magic mushrooms.
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, I think. The place we've settled on for having our mushroom shakes is below a limestone cliff face. Up there on that face is the gaping mouth of a cave from which thousands of bats pour out at sunset. Or at least are supposed to.
Welcome to the bat cave. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli / Music: Glenn Simonelli
Nuch, the owner of the guesthouse and restaurant, 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.
Nuch mixes up a mushroom shake for us after she spent a great deal of time denying, in English, that she knew anything about drugs, despite bragging about her party days to Pink in Thai. We are both fairly sure that Nuch believes that I'm an undercover cop.
Either way, whatever she made us fails to trigger even the slightest response from our minds and bodies. The bats also fail to show up. So, we head to head to the tried-and-true Milan Pizza on Vang Vieng's main drag.
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 :)
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.
Pink orders us a Happy Shake to go with the Happy Pizza, not seeming the least least bit phased that we've just doubled down on the hallucinogenics.
It could take up to 24 hours for the effects of the mushrooms to wear off, I over hear the server tell another table. 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”.
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.
Now that's a food coma... Maybe not a food coma actually. 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.
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 (full story here).
Here's contrast, I think as a pile of chunky green vomit spills out of mouth, painting a corner of the restaurant floor and splashing on the road. Somewhere out front, there is the chanting of novice monks collecting alms in the early morning (full story here).