Day 146: Shooting scorpion spirits in Laos


Don't drink and drive they say. And they're right... but what if if it gives you strengths [sic]. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli

JESS and I are ready to get on the road when the die throws a shot of something unusual – though the probability was less than tossing snake eyes, the results seem appropriate.

Jess wakes up with alarm this morning. It's the first time since she's arrived in Luang Prabang that she's set an alarm.

“We can snooze for a while longer,” I mumble from my bed on the other side of the small room. She hits snooze, but gets up the next time the alarm goes off.

Half-awake, while trying to be completely asleep, I'm aware of her wiggling into a pair of skinny jeans before leaving the room. She returns with coffee.

“Isaac, time to get up. I've got a coffee for you,” she says with the same intonation that I'd expect to hear from her when working with her six-year-old students in Thailand. Despite the gentle prodding, I'm not ready to wake up and start dealing with the logistics of a major travel day; I'm quite happy exactly where I am, in the state that I am.

Probably worried that I'll tip the coffee mug over as I attempt to grab it while remaining in a horizontal position, Jess finds room for it on the bed side table.

“Here,” I say, reaching up a hand, gently guiding her down onto the bed. She lays down next to me, fully dressed above the covers, while I fall back asleep below them.

Several attempts at getting me up later, she succeeds. Sitting there, I'm still really not sure why I have to be a wake.

“You said we needed to get an early start,” Jess points out.

“Yeah, but every night for the last three nights, I've said that we need to get up at 5:30 in the morning to watch the monks,” I reply. I am without a doubt one of the most ambitious people in the world after 9pm at night.

“I thought I was being nice bringing you a coffee.”

“You were. Thank you,” I say, not mentioning that I'm spoiled when it comes to such acts of kindness. When I was staying in Emma's guest bedroom in Mai Rim, I woke to a freshly brewed cup of coffee sitting next to my bed nearly every morning for a month.

With the painfully slow process of re-packing everything in such a way as to accommodate for a passenger, I throw the backpacking across the back of the bike and head out for the Mekong River dock.

A steep cement slope runs down past the Navigation Office, a large, dirty cement building with brown trim, wooden shutters and a little blue sign above the door marking it as such. At the bottom of the slope, big river boats are piled with bulk goods in plastic rice bags.

Inside the office, Mrs Lee, with a child on her hip, attends to me.

“I don't want to go. Just bag go on slow boat,” I say, trying to explain that I'll be driving to Houayxay, while the bag will go up river alone.

“Slow boat leaves at 8:30 in morning,” she says.

“Okay Can I leave bag here? Someone put on the boat in the morning?”

“Is there money?” she says, her broad face splitting with a sly smile.

“No, no. Nothing valuable,” I say, telling the truth.

“Okay, can.”

I drag the bag into the a corner of the office, not far from where some play things are setup for her one-year-old son.

I write my name down for her on a notepad in red ink – which is bad luck, if you believe in these things.

Mrs Lee then gives me her name and her phone number, so I can call her when I get to the dock in Houayxay two days from now. Behind her, across the entire back wall of the nearly empty room are whiteboards with the rates for passengers, foreign and Laos, as well as scooters and motorcycles. A small square television sits in a metal cage high up on the wall. A women's volleyball match is playing.

“How much?” Mrs Lee pauses to think about it.

“80,000 Kip.”

That's roughly the price of sending a 125cc motorcycle up river. However, when it comes to needing to trust someone to help make things work, haggling over a few dollars is a terrible idea.

“Okay. Sounds good.”

On the way back to the room, I stop to get the chain washed and lubed. Once the man, who did a thural job, is done, I tighten the bolts for the chain by 5/4 a rotation, in an attempt to take out the slack. Though the chain is fairly new, it's started stretching almost immediately and probably doesn't have that much life in it.

Down a familiar road, the one I stayed on the first night. I stop to give Greg a hug goodbye, as will as Lukas and their friend Paul, who I met briefly at the airport a couple of days ago.

“Do you mind if we eat something before we go?” Jess wants to know when I return. Jess is constantly in one of three states: hungry, getting hungry or full from having just eaten. It's safe to say that her metabolism is more active than Disney's Speedy Gonzales.

Unfortunately, Yosua and Lina, have already headed out for Kung Si Waterfall, so I won't get to say a proper goodbye to them. However, they're amazing enough that I won't be surprised to find Morocco on the dice before this is all done and dusted.

“Sure, let's get food.”

It's well past midday by the time we're suited up and ready to hit the road – so much for an early start. Nonetheless, I have a niggling feeling that I've failed to do something in Luang Prabong. Okay, there are so many things I've failed to do, but one specifically: go to Sau's place along the Mekong.

Sau's place was what I was looking for a couple of nights ago when the die said I had to try a “crazy shot”. Unable to remember where he was located and fearful that he was closed for the night, I managed to get a free shot of scorpion whiskey from a lady at the Night Market, who was pretty upset that giving me the free shot didn't lead to a direct sale – but what am I going to do with more bottles of booze with a baby cobra or a Forest Scorpion inside them? (I already have a couple such bottles back in the US from my ex-fiance.)

Heading down river for a couple minutes, we pull up in front of Sau's place. A big white sign printed on vinyl reads:

Open for business

Welcome all travellers

You cannot come Laos

And not try this snake angco

Bravan try it at least

Once good for strengths

On a table running the length of the dramatic “fourth wall”, stand five large glass jars, like five-galleon jugs that would sit on the bottom shelf at a Cabinet of Curiosity – the strange precursors to the modern museum.

Sau, fat and shirtless, sits in a lawn chair a little deeper in the living room. He's wild hair is dyed an eccentric, light orange, his eyes are hidden behind sunglasses of which Kim Jong-Il would approve.

Would you join me for a drink? Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

The glass jugs are like enormous pickle jars, the juices, in this case 90 proof local-style whiskey, seeps between objects crammed into it. Replace one pickle with an gigantic, venomous centipede, each link of its body perfectly preserved, replace a few more pickles with a gecko that's longer than a man's hand. The gecko's mouth is stern, its eyes blank as it peers directly out of the glass jar. Replace half a dozen pickles with the long, twisted body of a King Cobra, then a pickle here and there with Forest Scorpions. Continue on like this until there are no longer pickles, and you have a jar of poisonous animals.

Four of the jars are all crammed full of pretty much the exact same sort of jungle snakes, lizards and dangerous bugs, while one of them is filled with a slightly darker liquor, sporting scorpions, of course, (What drink is a drink without a scorpion?”, and small, thick-headed snapping turtles.

I let the die decided between the two types of booze.

“Drinking makes you strong,” Sau says, joining us at the table.

The die orders a shot of thick-headed snapping turtle liquor. Jess, decides not to join me as I toss the shot back, letting it burn on the way down.

“That's awesome. Thanks.”

Back on Rocinate, we follow the Mekong out of town, then cross over the Ou River on Highway 13N, the same road I'd sailed down to join Jess for the Festival of Lights.

“It's funny how people are willing to jump on the back of the bike and just go,” I say.

“Yeah, I trust you.”

“I feel like that's always a mistake,” I joke.

“Yeah,” Jess says with a tone that indicates she couldn't quiet make out what I said.

Twisting up into the mountains, we dodge potholes and work our way through less smooth sections of road. Hands placed up on my shoulders, Jess is tense.

“So, you can put your hands anywhere you like, but not on my shoulders like that. It's weird, but when a passenger has their hands on your shoulder, they have too much control of the bike. I end up having to fight them a bit when we drive,” I explain.

I considered not telling her, as it's her first big motorcycle trip, but there's no way she'd know if I didn't. As we cruise up into the mountains, I'm trying to figure out what's triggered her insecurity on the bike. When we were tackling the crazy dirt track up to the waterfall she was a pro passenger.

Lost in the lovely silence that comes with a quiet motorcycle on a long trip, I miss having Pink leaning into my, her breasts against my back her hands around my waste as we drive. Jess is very aware that everything is on record – though I'm not convinced that would make a difference one way or another.

“What about stopping in Boten,” I ask.

“What's there?”

Lonely Plant describes Boten for us: This frontier border outpost is a spectacular case of boom to bust and has become a ghost town since 2011 after China banned its citizens from gambling here, rendering Boten's hotels, casinos, malls and karaoke parlours redundant.

“Yeah, that would be cool.”

“Nice, I love border towns. We'll have to see if we have enough time.”

Two working elephants, dressed in heavy chains and thick ropes, are being ridden up the road. People worry about the damages of tourism on elephants, forget that domesticated elephants were beasts of burden used in the logging industry in the region for hundreds of years. They were even ridden into war. This pair of deeply intelligent creatures are worn out as the trudge along, their mahouts, equally tired.

This two beautiful animals are still doing hard labor. Photos: Isaac Stone Sionelli

After merging with Highway 2E, we enter Oudomxay, bound for Nateuy, where we'll sleep for the night. The road has been completely transformed. It's beautiful asphalt slipping among an infinite number of steep mountain slopes, the humps of a tangle of dragons. There are even yellow dividing lines, which I've not seen all month. The road is without a doubt the most beautiful one in all of Laos, far better than those seen in and around the capital.

Leaping across the roads, destined for China, are high-voltage power lines draped from the metal skeletons of enormous towers. There is little doubt in my mind that there is a connection between the power lines and the infrastructure development in this lightly populated region of Laos. A number of shiny BMWs with narrow blue license plates, Chinese, zip by us.

Though the elaborate, gangling electric towers could be marked up as eyesores to this incredibly beautiful part of the world, they are themselves beautiful, as they are part of narrative. They're telling part of the story of Laos. It's a tale of the compromises and struggles a country like Laos faces as its government searches for economic answers when a neighboring superpower sit on its border offering tangible solutions for prices that don't need to be paid up front.

The telephone lines swoop through the mountains. Photo: Isaac Stone Simnelli

The air cools as we climb in altitude, though we are now dancing along a mountain ridge, following the lovely road as it slices through small communities. The villages are dusty and brown. The homes are made up of slates of wood. Jess waves to the kids as they come out to watch us drive past.

Not far past one of these villages, on top of the ridge, is a large gravel parking lot designed for several tour buses to take harbor from the road. Set back in the parking lot is Phousaylomhmong Restaurant, which seems out of place with the three peak metal roof and open air-design. Behind the restaurant is a cement building with accommodation. On the edge of the cleared section of land that overlooks unfolding mountain landscape is a small watchtower. Ten tall steps lead up to two tables and a dozen chairs on the covered platform.

It was a feast of local food. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

The server confirms that we can sit up there if we want to. The tables are cluttered with dishes and used paper napkins, we clear a space and start pouring over the menu. We order the “fried black mush room” dish, morning glories, home-made potato chips, rice and a beautiful pork dish. It's a feast during the golden hour, the sun bathing everything with the kindness that often comes before passing away.

Nearby the regular dining area, full of plastic chairs and cheap tables, are cages. A small monkey appears to have gone bananas, bouncing around his cage. Between him and the cage of exotic birds and squirrels is a third cage, home to Racoon-Cat, at least that's what Jess is calling it.

Google later educated us about what the strange animal is. Photos: Isaac Stone Simnelli

“Seriously though, what is it?” I ask Jess.

“I have no idea.”

“It looks like a giant ferret or is it maybe a mongoose?”

The creature, the size of Lynx has a black and white painted face, the white stripe runs down it's forehead to his eye. The rest of its' fluffy body is a light brown. Some Google research reveals that the charming creature is an Asian Palm Civit.

“So they have opium tea I think,” I tell Jess after returning from the bathroom.

What about joining me for a sip of this? Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

On the wooden desk, that functions as the cashier counter is a large plastic bottle full of an amber, tea-colored liquid. In the jar a number of poppy pods have become saturated and sunk to the bottom, while others still float at the top, leaving only section of the bottle clear of debris. Across the surface of the pods are the score marks used to harvest the sap, which is what is sued to create opium. The marks look like the damage that might have been done by a superhero who was odd mix of Wolverine and Ant-Man.

I am in Laos to do drugs, at least that was the the dies original order. I'd thought I'd gotten it out of the system with the weed and mushrooms in Vang Vieng. However, the lingering desire to try opium – when else will I ever have an excuse – was, well, lingering.

Not wanting to end up high on the road. I ask the man to give us a couple shots to go. It's 20,000 Kip for a small water bottle full; far more than we need.

It's hard not to feel a little vulnerable traveling with a bottle of opium tea on board, but I don't see any other options.

Dusk fades to night as the smell of wood smoke drifts across the road each time we cross through a small village. The air is cold, but bearable, as we forge forward. So much for getting to Boten,

We are somewhere. We're not sure exactly where it is, but it's at least a sizable town, even if it's short of our goal for the day.

“Look at that: it's a Dance Clup.” Jess points to a glowing sign with the misspelling. It turns out the whole town is full of dance clups. Whoever did the original translation seems to have done the signs for everyone in town.

“Okay, just roll for which hotel,” I suggest from the front of the bike.

“I don't know how it works,” Jess protests.

People seem to think that there is some hard-line system behind how the dice dictating works. When in reality there is only one rule: once the die decides we obey – the rest of it is up to us. How many options, even the weighting of those options, is negotiable pre-roll.

There are plenty of options for hotels and guesthouses, though none is more or less appealing than the others. All of them are five- to six-floor cement buildings with neon signs and no obvious character. We certainly are closing in on the Chinese boarder.

Wedged into a Y-junction is the Surinphone. It's a five story cement building. Nothing particularly special. Inside the lobby, dusty moose head hangs up on the wall, above a handful of untouched English-language magazines from 2004.

Jess pays for the room. She'd offered to pay for all accommodation during our trip together, which I wasn't about to turn down. At this point, she's also floating me until we get back to Thailand and I can withdraw more cash.

The woman behind the desk greats us in Chinese, then stumbles to find the couple English words necessary to book us a room. Rocinante is parked directly in front of the lobby, where she'll be safe.

Upstairs, there's one big bed with hard pillows and a dusty coat rack. It's not luxury, but it'll do the trick.

“I can't get the shower working,” Jess says, stepping out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel. Had she stayed naked in the bathroom it could have been a pick up line. I've once had to come into the shower to help a woman I'd recently met figure out which bottle was conditioner and which bottle was shampoo.

Water bursts out as the shower head pops off, soaking me.

Jess let's out a joyful laugh as I retreat to somewhere dry. Turning off the water, I'm able to reattach the shower head. Nothing's broken.

Walking down the mostly empty main road, we find our way into a noodle shop, treating ourselves to big bowels of Pho under a garden of herbs, as well as a couple Beer Laos.

Back in the room, I open the bottle of opium tea, take a sip.

It's not tea.

The harsh moonshine fills my mouth with fire before trickling down my throat.

“Come on, have a sip,” I say passing the bottle to Jess.

She flatly denies.

Not wanting to drink alone, I push her to join after I take a second swig.

“I'm sorry if I'm no fun, but it's always shots. I hate shots,” she defensively says.

“It's fine.”

I wait for the effects of the opium to set in, sending me into a spacey world of total relaxation.

There's nothing.

Not sure how potent the beverage is, I have a few more sips and then give up. At this rate I'll end up drunk before I'm even close to high.

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The Proposition

THE premise is simple: Allow die roles to determine the majority of decisions faced while motorbiking throughout the world with a limited budget for an entire year.      It’s 365 days of tempting fate, enticing serendipity and letting go of free will – if such things exist at all.

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