(click here for part 1: Off the Rails in Vang Vieng: The Culinary Delights of the Depraved)
The Glory Hotel & Guesthouse – 3 Days Before Departure
“I can get you out of the country, but it’s gonna cost you. You need USD’s. Crisp 100’s. No blemishes. Even if mint they might not take them. So bring extra.” He looked down at my feet. “Keep it in your sock on the boat. Thailand will take fucking anything, not here.”
Supermao dropped a clean, though well used, bath towel and a tiny bar of pink soap into my hands, turned on his flip-flops, and walked away.
“Oh, and don’t count on any cute stamps for your passport.” He said over his shoulder.
Supermao owned a guesthouse in the Lao jungle, and for those in a pinch, he shuffled the decks on varying forms of larceny. In a country with lots of personal freedom and no personal protection, if the circumstance found you needing both, Supermao was your man. He wasn’t a professional fixer, but a low-grade concierge. A button man who was missing most buttons. He grew up in England near the New Forest and after globetrotting as a freelance journalist for fifteen years, rebranded as an entrepreneur that dabbled in back alley fencing. He was suave in a disturbing way, perhaps like Anthony Bourdain, if he stayed on heroin.
At his request I moved into his tilted and drafty guesthouse so he could more easily access my “information”. I soon realized “information” meant money. Greasing palms. Papering cracks. Supermao and Dominique managed the guesthouse. According to their Lao assistant Lucky, Mao and Dom liked me because they could tell I was lonely. Lucky said they generally never worked with foreigners. They were too much drama. Lucky was a cute, though ill-tempered, local girl and the third ring in their Barnum & Bailey shit show of a circus. Despite always being barefoot, Lucky looked to be perpetually walking in high heels. “She used to be a drug addict, a prostitute and an alcoholic.” Supermao said, when he caught me looking at her that evening. “Now she’s just an alcoholic.”
The guesthouse was on a small island in the middle of the Nam Song river. Foot bridges were on both sides of the island but the paths to them were poorly maintained. There was an upscale hotel to our south and The Smile Bar about 100 meters up the island and around the corner. The Smile Bar had a staffed counter in a high ground clearing and it’s property sloped down from the counter to the river bank where there were about twenty elevated wooden platforms that shaded two hammocks per structure. By night this was a popular sunset spot for couples to entangle, by day it was the playground of the haruspex and the drunkard. It was Supermao’s preferred location to hold court.
Supermao said I needed to cross before things got worse. So under the muggy noonday sun we traipsed over the makeshift footbridge and back into town. Upon arriving, Supermao asked me for $20 USD and went into a restaurant. I picked up a menu outside on a table and feigned interest.
The individual inside glanced over SuperMao’s shoulder at me a few times and then they both came out and wordlessly went in different directions. “It’s too hot to do any more errands.” Supermao announced. And back to the hammocks we went. Having done a single errand.
The most popular museum in Laos wasn’t dedicated to the arts, but the history of prosthetic limbs. The museum showcased the citizens who’d had body parts blown off by the snakes in the grass known as cluster bombs (commonly referred to as unexploded ordnances or UXO’s). A visit wasn’t exactly dark tourism, but it wasn’t a day at la playa either. It would take another 400 years to get rid of them all. This was according to the couple from Singapore who had joined me at the guest house that afternoon. They had just visited the museum, and with a little too much glee, shared what they’d learned about the hazardous relics from the CIA’s “secret war”. Half of Laos’ provinces are still at risk of these anti-personnel munitions shallowly buried in zombie graves, they told us. A cluster indeed.
Dominique had an interest in this ongoing humanitarian crises as well. It was the reason he was here. He may have left the war, but the war hadn’t left Dominique. With his half-buttoned shirt, hacksawed whiskers and faded forearm military tattoos, Dom did not give off the appearance of a man at peace. His face was locked in a look of perpetual surprise. Like he’d just seen Apollo peel out of his driveway. This might be due to the fact he’d spent thousands of hours digging up and detonating the submunitions that plagued the countryside. Dominique rarely talked, but when he did, his English was nearly impossible to understand. Some kind of cross between Kiwi and Kazakh.
How did you meet Dominique? I asked Supermao while we were swinging in the hammocks. Mao and Lucky were next to me and Dominique was down by himself near the water.
“Dom? He’s got PTSD you know. That’s why he never talks.” Supermao treated conversations like he was playing Frogger. He was the frog, everyone else was traffic.
Clearing out UXO’s could do that to a guy, right?
“No, his PTSD’s not from that.” He said, slightly annoyed, as if I should know better. “He’s been shot twice.” He motioned at an imaginary bullet going through his left arm. “Fought in the revolution to free East Timor.”
Supermao leveled his bright tractor beams onto me. His eyes were a robins egg blue. Without any white in them. Like shimmering pearls planted in a corpse. When the creator kicked him off the conveyor belt he must have known this character would do much evil, but just enough good, that his eyes should be brushed with a brilliant marking of color.
I didn’t know Dominique was in the military, I said. Looking back at the river to avoid eye contact.
“Well,” he took a deep drag, Supermao was a wonderful cigarette smoker. “See, Dom began as a volunteer with the UN on peacekeeping missions, but once he saw how the East Timorese were being treated, he couldn’t handle it and started fighting for their freedom.”
“I don’t ask Dom much about that experience though, he goes into a weird place.” This generated a rare response from Lucky. A knowing grunt-nod. At this they both leaned back into their beers and back into silence.
Though Supermao told personal stories almost constantly, one got the sense no one really knew him.
It was Twain who wrote, “His hair was long and tangled and greasy, and hung down, and you could see his eyes shining through like he was behind vines.” Yeah, Supermao looked like that.
Or Huxley: “He had prominent teeth, just covered, when he was not talking, by his floridly curved lips. Old, young? thirty? fifty? it was hard to say.”
Like that too.
When Supermao reached his zenith of drunkenness that evening, he brought his laptop out to the patio where the Wi-Fi was better. He cracked his knuckles over his head like a concert pianist and began his handiwork. He used his two index fingers to scat scathing responses to reviews he disagreed with on booking websites.
“Glory Guesthouse Reply: “Dear Daniel: SORRY THERE WAS MOLD IN THE BATHROOM TILE. YOU WERE STAYING IN THE FUCKING JUNGLE!”
“Glory Guesthouse Reply: “Hi Susan, Yes I remember you. Perfectly polite the whole stay. Now ONE STAR?! WE WOULD HAVE GIVEN YOU A DIFFERENT TOWEL. DID…… YOU …….ASK?!!!!!”
“She’s mostly harmless,” Supermao said with a mischievous smile after he’d cooled down from his battle royale on backpacker message boards. He set Lucky down in a lump across from me at the patio picnic table. He was finally turning in and I was nervously emailing updates back home. As soon as Mao left Lucky shot her head up from her arms where they had been resting on the table. She looked directly into my eyes and put her coarse feet on top of mine under the table. Then she grabbed my beer and took a big drink, put it down in front of her and smiled. Daring me. She was beautiful. But her feet told a different tale. I instantly remembered Supermao’s working memoir title he was very proud, “My Life with a Wife, a Ladyboy and a Whore”.
Smile Bar – 2 Days Before Departure
We were swinging above the Nam Song river sipping 24 ounce beers when Supermao spotted the police.
The guy in the Messi jersey?
I turned my head the same direction he was looking. “They’re all plain clothes here, you know. They hide everywhere. Like Ninjas.” He took a drag from his cigarette. “That guy’s pretty high up, actually. But, don’t worry about them. They respect me now. I haven’t had trouble with the police since I got rid of the drug den that was in my place. I’m more worried about the Thai than the Lao. They don’t take kindly to what you’re up to.”
A drug den? I repeated. “Yeah.” He followed the movements of the cop now fiddling with a boat engine.
“They just kept coming back. All these fucken druggies. My place was a drug den for ten years.” He took another big drag from his marlboro red. There are no healthy cigarettes in the jungle. He turned towards me. “I put 30 people in the hospital last year.” His knifeblade mouth went up on one side. “Now the police respect me.”
While pondering how I’d missed the detail about the drug den and the savage beatings in the Booking.com reviews, four or five kayaks came down the river in a paddle-slappy group. The Chinese tourists were in front and though they thought they were paddling, it was the local guides in the back doing all the work. Supermao recognized one of the guides and started heckling him. All I could make out from their exchange was the guide hollering up, “Ah, Superman!”
“Superman?” I asked, when they had finished clucking. Is that what they call you? Cool nickname. He looked at me annoyed. “Super MAO” he corrected.” Then, after taking an un-ironic swig from his BeerLao, he clarified, “Means ‘SuperDrunk’”.
Now, I grant you, supposing one had a choice for how to get smuggled across a closed border, by all accounts, they wouldn’t choose the high chief of hostility as a handler, who came festooned with a nickname fit for a lecher. But somewhere inside Supermao’s atrophied organs I hoped there was one of those shrunken Grinch-sized hearts looking for opportunities to beat slightly bigger.
“I’ve helped a lot of people over the years…..” he lamented, as we swayed. “But the problem is because of drugs and everything ……. people forget.”
Like all great storytellers, SuperMao allowed ample space for pauses. And his expression was involved in every coma.
He had one of the most lovely ”ello guvna’ accents, and used it to tell the most awful stories.
“When I went to New Zealand last year with my Chinese ex-wife, I came back and my security guard had stolen nearly $10,000 of my stuff………… everything from my guesthouse . . . ……….everything from the restaurant ………. everything from my house, including my clothes, my wife’s clothes, my boots. Everything……… And when I found him and confronted him……. my old guard had a fishing harpoon pointed at my chest and he was just about to fire it…….. when I SMACKED him over the head with two bottles.
Now every time see him I say ‘Pah, Saibadee, motherfucker!’ ( Saibadee means “hello” in Lao.) We still catch him sneaking around the guest house sometimes.” I shifted in my hammock thinking of my belongings back there. “But he’s very scared of me now,” he added, catching my unease. “After the harpoon thing. He gives me respect.”
The cop stopped tinkering with the engine, pushed his boat into the water and pointed downstream, tailing the tourists.
Mekong River Delta – 1 Day Before Departure
Smuggling across a border isn’t as uncommon as one might think. Spend long enough downwind any major river in the developing world, and you’ll see the shady tent-pole operations. Some look like para-military outfits. Some look like a soccer team potluck. It isn’t easy to figure out what’s going on. And that’s by design. The government turns a blind eye — they’ve had their cheddar sliced. But it’s important to realize these crews aren’t exactly bouncing sarin nerve gas back and forth either. It’s mostly mangos and knick knacks for the night market. Occasionally the more exotic product looked something like me.
SuperMao took me to meet the smugglers late afternoon the night before the action. We pulled into an undeveloped property in a village about 20 kilometers from the guesthouse. There were four or five guys sitting under a camouflaged canopy with a folding table set up. It looked like they had been there awhile. They got up immediately upon us pulling off the dusty road and onto the premise. “Stay here.” Said Supermao, upon pulling up the emergency break. Not a problem, I thought. I stayed in the car pretending to look both unscared and uninterested. A disposition I imagined perfecting were I to spend time in prison. Supermao approached them. From my peripheral vision, I couldn’t tell if the conversation was going well or poorly. I wanted to take a pull from the beer in my lap, Supermao never drove anywhere without road beers.
“Come on mate, follow me.” Supermao leaned in, and grabbed something from under his seat. “Bring your beer.” He added. I got out of the truck with my beer hanging by its neck in one hand and approached the group, whose eyes I could feel but didn’t dare see. I walked with Mao past them in the way I would an aggressive dog. Not wanting there to be any odor of fear nor wanting eye contact to insinuate a challenge. Mao led me past them and towards the water. Two of the smugglers followed.
Once we made our way down the steep path that had been crudely machete’d to the water, I noticed other paths going in different directions all along the bank. There was a variety of enormous flat rocks that formed a kind of beach at the edge of the Mekong. The water was murky and the sun was a dusky hue as it began its wane.
Drop your trousers, said Supermao, loud enough for the smugglers to hear.
I looked back to see if he was serious.
“It’s beer o-clock!” he announced eagerly to the uneasy bar staff when we arrived. He then proceeded, as he always did, to walk behind the bar and help himself to beers from their fridge. He kneeled down behind the counter and started feeling for the coldest. He looked at me, “Isy, beer?” It was 10 o clock in the morning. “Uhmmm…. yep. Sure.” I said. Judging by the pleased looks on the faces of the rest of the circus, this was the right answer.
The night before we had swam in the Mekong under the watchful eye of the smugglers. One of the smugglers pretended to be brushing his teeth the entire twenty minutes we swam. The other, didn’t seem capable of pretending at things. Mao wanted me to see where it was I would be crossing into Thailand.
On the final morning, it was agreed we would have a last swing in the hammocks. Knowing it was goodbye, I scanned the sandwich board of the Smile Bar for some parting thoughts. Despite much of the sign being in english it was illegible.
As they did everyday, the school children came down to the river single file in their white shirts and navy blue shorts to swim during lunch. It was over the din of their laughter that Dominique, for the first time, spoke:
“Death does not seem to like me.” He said, in english that wobbled forward like a kid learning to ride a bike.
Since Supermao only engaged in conversation as a preamble to tell stories, he didn’t offer feedback. Despite his friend’s rare attempt at vulnerability, he said nothing for a long while.
“Doesn’t like me either.” He said eventually.
“Everyone’s dying. My mom, my wife.” Dominique continued.
Supermao pondered this before finally responding. “I was almost killed 7 times last year.”
He appeared to be doing math.
“And six this year.”
“Well, I dont like it.” Finished Dominique.
“I love it………. Makes you feel alive.”
Two months later I was in Bangkok walking down the street in a popular backpacker district when I saw none other than Silent Dom sitting outside a restaurant across the street from a foreigner bar. It was 2:30 pm and he was hiding behind big black sunglasses and clutching a bigger beer. After it registered who it was, I went up to him and asked what he was doing so far from the guesthouse. “I have some credit card issues. That’s why I’m here.” He said, in his confusing accent. He went behind the counter and helped himself to a beer in the fridge and sat back down across from me. He wiped the sweat from his brow. “I was talking to a guy today in town who said he’d had Malaria. Said the hospitals were filled up with cases. They might close the border again.” I had not heard this.
“There was a scorpion in my room this morning. A little one, they are much worse, you know.”
I changed the subject before this new version of ‘Doom Dom’ proceeded to a worse agenda item. I asked about the nice couple from Singapore. They had arrived the same day I did and were planning to stay for a month while looking for investment opportunities.
“Oh, their visit turned bad.” Dominique laughed as he recalled. “One night, the Singaporean guy grabbed a knife and then Supermao grabbed a knife and I had to break it up or who knows. But the Singapore guy got hurt pretty bad.” Dominique chuckled again.
I updated the math. The number was now 31 who’d been hospitalized. And seven who wanted him dead? Supermao’s ability to court struggle was unmatched. The patron saint of discord, with a war on every front.
He must have been feeling more alive than ever.