Bad decisions and balloon wielding Buddhists in Vientiane, Laos

“We should find a bar and become regulars.” Declared my companion, the aptly named Deliliah, as we hopped off our wheezing Fanta orange motor-bike just as a dust storm started gathering across the Mekong. Despite the exposed nature of the riverfront bar, which allowed the dust pellets swirling in from Thailand to start bruising our orbital bones, this was the first good idea she’d had all day.

Deliliah, an Austrian medical student doing a rotation in Vientiane, had decided earlier in the day she would rent the worst 100cc motorbike in town. A bike she informed me she could not ride. She told me this as I was wolfing down the best meal I’d had in months at the local village chiefs compound. Could I, like, maybe, leave lunch early and drive her to the Nam Ngum lake 70 kilometers away to meet her friend? Bad ideas abide. I informed her it was the final day of the Lao new year celebration. “You realize what this means: we will spend the entire trip as target practice.”

Pi Mai, the Lao new year, is a four-day drunken wet t-shirt contest. The citizenry visit temples by morning and by afternoon don Hawaiin shirts, drink til they can’t feel their face, and drench every human they encounter with a battery of weaponized water devices. I spent much of the week holed up like Edward Snowden in Moscow as I peered out my drapes at the Mad Max scene playing out below. One can immediately see how maneuvering motor bikes into this onslaught was a bad mix to order. Main thoroughfares are especially popular targets for the makeshift parties that organize every ten meters along the roadside. Inflatable pools, trash cans, buckets, baking pots – anything handy really — suffices as a device to hurl water on passing vehicles or humans. Being in public during Pi Mai was like having lunch with Harvey Weinstein, the assumption was you were asking for it. I once spent ten minutes huddled under a shrub outside a bank as eager revelers fastballed dozens of water balloons at me making a mockery of my futile atm attempts. Meanwhile, the resistance force to the Sidewalkers came in the way of roaming mobs armed to the teeth with super soaker backpack cannons. They were often flanked by open truck beds filled with teens. The trucks carried their own munitions in heavy duty trash cans nearly toppled with water.

But again, the girls name was Deliliah for Christ sake. I hailed the first tuk-tuk back into town.

Soaking wet I coasted the sputtering steed that had broken down twice to the curb of our new bar that evening. After parking, I rang out my socks and checked my body for wounds or infections. Foreigners were especially fun targets for Sidewalkers, or so we had discovered. We’d been hit countless times by walls of water, which when traveling at a good clip, feels similar to being slapped with wet bats. The government had been trying to clamp down to limit festival injuries in recent years, especially those caused by frozen water balloons and balloons with chemicals mixed into them that were popular with a certain segment of the population I hoped to not meet. You never knew what you were getting hit with. Best case scenario it was just local untreated water that annually sent untold numbers to the hospital with infections. Having now arrived at the Laodi bar, the dust blast arriving from Nong Khai was a welcome reprieve.

“Ryu i my name!” Talk-roared the owner. “Like street fighter! Ryu!” He hadoukened a flaming ball at my chest. The Japanese owner had obviously taken to Lao customs. He was lit up like a Christmas tree.

In the coming weeks, I took Delilah’s advice and became something of a regular. Which was good. Because this little gem just down the road from Vientiane center was full of surprises. It took me four visits to realize it was a converted container ship. (“We have these everywhere.” bragged a nearby Warsaw native). Five visits to discover an upstairs existed with superior views (assuming you could navigate the slender-man spiral staircase). Six visits to realize it was a rum bar. “You’re ordering beer at a rum bar!” Yelled a brit who I unfortunately met previously. And finally discovered the bathroom my last night in town. It was down the street in a padlocked closet. The locals never used it, they just walked across the street and pee’d off the sidewalk onto the river bank.

The Laodi Bar housed the best supply of rum in the country, much of which they distill themselves. The main container flap of the ship opened up to the river, under which four big barrels sat that served as table seating for an equal mix of local and foreign patrons. The design appropriated the view well, low-key lights slung above the seats and wrapped the colonnades. The roof was covered, but there was no refuge from the dust pellets that were now mixing with the tears of Poseidon to form a crunchy addition to the mint flakes in my mojito. I weighed whether I should risk ten years in prison and spark up the joint one of the village chiefs handed me at lunch when the real rain hit. It came in sideways. At this point what did it matter. We were far beyond saturated. Staff battened the hatches as the brit finally found his way to us. He’d been leering at Delilah since we arrived. He motioned at staff who were actively leering at him that this round was on him. “It isn’t hard to meet people. This is all you do!” He said, slapping glasses of rum down in front of us. He had a point.

Over the next hour it was never clear if the Mekong monsoon or the company were worse additions to our day. The Brit had played with Jimmy Page and David Bowie, and also happened to be an expert in the small town my Austrian friend was from. His game was obvious, the well-traveled name-dropping expert who’d seen it all. If he really wanted to bag-and-tag this girl, he probably should have left the part out about the crack habit he couldn’t kick.

It should be mentioned, Laodi Bar serves complimentary roasted peanuts. This is a nice alternative to the common Lao bar fare of nothing. I offered him some. “I’m only honest about four things,” he stammered, ignoring my peanuts. “Food, women, music, and the purity of drugs.”

Officially nearing hypothermic and having conjured a workable back-story for the many pre-existing conditions that plagued our bike the rental agency would attempt to pin on us, I rose to leave.

“Why don’t you two come play pool at Samlo?” Samlo was the most depraved bar in town filled mostly with lady boys, working girls, sexpats, and people like the Brit. Whatever he was. “You have the beard for pool.” He informed me. He waived his hand for another round of shots as Ryu missed the order while hadouking a hefty fireball at my chest. “I’d offer you to come to my place, but you’re not quite hot enough…..” He said to Delilah. “……and you’re weird.” He said, finishing his sentence slur in my direction. Delilah was rightfully offended. I shrugged. “So Samlo it is.”

I guess he was right about the limits of his honesty.

Thankfully the Austrian gal realized she’d already made enough bad decisions for the day and we all headed to our final destination of the evening alone.

What: Laodi Bar; Vientiane, just south of downtown on the river.
When to go: Early evening for the sunset and the breeze.
What to order: Beer, just to confuse everyone. Then bucket of rum. It comes with four straws, tell them your friends are on their way.
Why: How often can sit in a bar in one country and watch another one? Feels very Gatsby. Except the green flicker across the water is a red-light district.

  1 comment for “Bad decisions and balloon wielding Buddhists in Vientiane, Laos

  1. Sue
    July 22, 2019 at 1:47 pm

    Hi Izzy
    Loved the pictures with the story. Who can believe water balloons!!!! But there’s the evidence. Well written 👏🏼

    Like

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