It’s technically a restaurant, but unless you consider lines of ketamine a form of sustenance, its best known dish was a serving of entrapment.
One can never tell from the travel blogs what is actually happening on the ground at a given time when traveling in the developing world. Places change incredibly quick. From year to year a town or island can go from undiscovered panacea to being overrun with touts, taxis and tour packages. Vang Vieng was a place like this. In flux. When I was there it was rounding a corner on its third iteration of the last 20 years. It initially became famous for: a) unmatched natural beauty, b) playing Friends reruns in all its establishments, and c) being a party town without rival in SE Asia.
The death tolls and the trash heaps the ‘the wild west of the far east’ started having deposited on its doorstep eventually showed up in the Lonely Planets’ and culminated in finger-wagging articles from the international press that forced the city off the grid for a while. During the interim, it became a deserted stop-over destination for travelers on the way to either the historic Luang Prabang or the airport in Vientiane. As of this writing it had cleaned up and was rebranding as an outdoorsy destination emphasizing its proximity to great hiking, hidden falls and aquamarine swimming holes. The once popular and formerly deadly inter-tubing rides down the Nam Song river had transformed into leisurely spills that were no longer cluttered with thumping limbo competitions, 50 foot swan dives and uproarious beer pong.
China was funding much of the change and Korea was providing much of the commerce. A popular Korean variety show had recently filmed on location at one of the well-known swimming oasis’ and motivated thousands of Koreans to collect in Vang Vieng in the way only Koreans can collect. Half the restaurants had marquees now written in Hangul and along the thoroughfares one could spy the unmistakable groupings of cutesy Korean girls snapping selfies and giggly college boys hauling buckets of soju to their upscale guest house swimming pools.
By nosing around I’d gathered there were still a few historical remnants of the high octane party past when most every bar in town had a second “special menu” consisting of narcotics. But they were no longer easily located. I had to sail deep into the dark canals of the comment section of many failed writers to figure out where the cadavers of extreme illicit opulence still writhed about.
My research was about to pay off, as, with a bit of trepidation, I walked into the empty (Not Your) Friends Bar & Grille* as the late morning sun baked down already damn-near 105 degrees.
Appreciating the absence of Ross and Rachel story-lines I leaned up against the bar and, as casually as possible, ordered the national drink, beer Lao, along with a *cough cough* “happy menu”. The young fresh-faced bartender gave me a skeptical up and down and then looked towards the entrance. I took the opportunity to raise my hand up to my face allowing my disguise to partially block the CCTV. The barkeep, after apparently seeing whatever it was he needed to see completely changed his demeanor and flashed 1000 watt smile, and just as I was about to hightail it out of there and zig zag back to the hotel like Jaguar Paw running from Mayan sacrificial spears, he pulled a small laminated card from his pocket that looked to have predated the french occupation and unfolded it. He placed it atop the normal menu which was only in marginally better shape.
There’s a well traipsed ruse in certain parts of the world where bars have agreements with police to “openly” sell some of the sweet treats. There are all kinds of variables and addendum’s on these agreements and it pays to be aware of them. Some bars are legit while others are rumored to have a relationship but don’t actually have a formal agreement and so it is very much a buyer-beware situation. Some haven’t paid their dues so operate at a deficit that’s back-filled by forcible direct foreign-investment. Some have almost an inverse understanding with the authorities, their agreement is to sell and then immediately bust the dolts when they leave, sharing the spoils of the synergy. These agreements can vary further depending on the time of day and mood of both police and proprietor. Needless to say, these transactions are recommended by exactly no travel writer on the planet. If one ignores these ninnies, and proceeds with a purchase, it is highly advisable for all happy menu items to be consumed on-site. This might seem backwards to the uninitiated, but it is indeed actually safer to imbibe on the premises rather than risk a ‘stop and frisk’. Naturally, if one has decided on hallucinogens as the drug du jour, this can make for an afternoon plastered to the wall with paranoia. It’s the price you pay to avoid being slung like pork loin in the local clinker awaiting a money-wire from papa.
I studied the menu offerings:
“Bummer, no talk-chalk, eh?” I joked, putting one finger up to my nostril. “We have yaba!” He corrected me. “Same same….” “……but quite different.” I finished. “That bath tub speed will have you grinding your teeth like Roger Stone in a tampering deposition.” He didn’t laugh. Impressed with their list and not wanting to loiter or misfire on more jokes I made a followup inquiry. The bartender responded by barking over to a woman I hadn’t seen before who was sitting under a painting of Colonel Sanders. Next to her laid an old man watching muy-thai on a grainy Panasonic television.
She nodded back at the youngster as if her neck were afraid of the weight of her head. The bartender spoke to her in staccato sing-song Lao which I immediately translated as “this drunk foreigner wants to bribe a cop”.
She grunted and walked over with the cheer of a farmer who just chipped their axe into an unexploded ordnance. She read my order and disapproved. “You wan cris met? Veddddy poplar. Wheel stong……..” I understood her Lao better than her English so asked her to please repeat. She dropped a cleavered forearm onto the scribbles at the bottom of the happy menu. “Ah! Crystal meth! Hmmmmm.” I rubbed my chin in feigned interest. Apparently crystal meth was a BRAND new addition that didn’t make the last menu printing. I inquired about the price so as to maintain decorum. She moved a finger across the menu. How could I have missed it?! The most expensive by a metric mile.”Sounds great!” I said. “Buuuuut I think I’m okay.” “Okay? You want?” She was suddenly filled with the energy of a sea gypsy at dawn. She whirled around and before I could correct her began an elaborate process below the view of the bar. “Uhm, no, I’m okay, I’m good.” I said, now up on my tiptoes and rigid as a board.“Yes, veddy good.” She repeated and started wrapping and unwrapping and then had a lighter out and was burning something.
I immediately cursed my choice of words. How one speaks English to a non-native speaker is an underappreciated art. It’s one of the best ways to figure out if someone’s traveled. How quickly they can assess the level of their current conversant and then adapt, while taking local understanding into account with their pronunciation, syntax, and choice of words. Here I’d failed, using “okay” and “great” to signify a negative. I was now sweating profusely. I wiped my forehead with my disguise as she continued crinkling paper and mixing substances.
It would only take one group of foreigners coming in and my goose would be cooked. You can’t trust anyone in towns like this. And Isy always travels solo. Nobody watching my “6”. My disguise, a plus-size american flag draped over my shoulders and covering part of my face, was only making me warmer.
Eventually I was able to pantomime to the young bartender that I did not actually want any meth. “Save that for Trump” I said. With some more terribly timed humor about the ongoing rumor of Trumps stimulant usage. “Ah yeah, Trump good! Fuck the chineeze!“ The bartender replied and pointed to a picture on the wall behind the pool table of Trump stuck next to pictures of the Pope, Ho Chi Minh, Obama, and Stalin. I smiled back, impressed by their obvious appreciation of diversity in governance. (The Lao were growing wary of the outsized Chinese influence in the region and so appreciated some of Trumps posturing.)
In need of some air, or perhaps a defibrillator, I decided to take a stroll through the place. Beyond the unique menu offerings it did have a nice vibe. And view to match. The establishment sat near the northernmost commercial tip of the downtown area with a private entrance pulled back from the street. It was perched right above a creek with a lovely view of the Nam Song river. As I looked further I could see tubers now concluding their afternoon floats some 200 meters out from us. After moving past the front bar there were about ten different seating areas identifiable by the cluster of pillows that surrounded knee high tables where shoes were prohibited and lounging encouraged. This style of seating was not designed just to be conducive to happy menu options, but was a rather common scenario in Laos where no one rushed. Everything inside was bamboo and lined with christmas lights that flickered at dusk. It felt a bit like being on the deck of Bob Marley’s pirate ship. The back of the bar had no exterior wall and opened up to the vast expanse of neon green rice paddies and jutting limestone karsts arcing up and down as far as the eye could see. As I continued toward the rear of the bar it felt like I had opened a favorite fairytale book and was slowly stepping into it. This magical view was enhanced even more at sunset when multiple hot air balloons filled the top of the skyline with their hovering rainbow bounce. I’d read it was the cheapest place in the world to go up.
But I was here for a different kind of ride.
And despite the success I had found during my research into the culinary delights of the depraved, I was not in fact here for drugs. I was on a mission. To meet a British guesthouse owner who had a proposition for me.
“You don’t want?” The old bartender finally asked, her hard-boiled eyes turning pillowy as she saw her biggest sale of the day slip through her now chemically enhanced fingers. “No. no. No chris, met. Sorry, I’m sure it’s wonderful. If it’s anything like the yaba it has to be great for the nerve endings.” She didn’t say another word, put a package in her bra and walked back to the TV.
There was a crack behind me as a cue ball dropped in a yellow seven.
“A lucky number”, I blurted out, spotting this and hoping to distract whoever struck it from becoming interested in the remaining vapors my american flag was wafting from the owner’s cook.
“One way to describe my life.”
I recognized the voice immediately. It was Supermao. In the flesh.
Target acquired. **
Where: Vang Vieng, Laos.
What to order: Big beer Lao, with ice. As for the extra curriculars, most popular are the “Happy” options. Shakes tends to be safest, advisable not to mix. Pizza’s are rumored to pack quite the punch.
When to go: Sunset. Great place to watch the balloons. Note, since it’s a “restaurant” it closes earlier than many establishments in the area.
* Names were changed to protect the innocent.
** Part 1 of 2.