Rick and I arrived at one of the many Thai/Laos border crossings on a small barge that took us across to the sleepy north West village of Huay Xai (I still have no idea how to pronounce it.) We queued for a spell filling out small forms detailing our stay and passport information. We handed over $20 US to a cheery chap and a visa was glued into our passports, ready for us to dominate Laos as we headed immediately south to Luang Prabang.
Looking down towards the riverbank, we saw several men climbing up telling us that our boat was ready. They checked our tickets and we walked down the steep slope towards the boats. I hadn’t scene our craft before that point. It was sold as a speedboat, but being in South East Asia I wasn’t expecting James Bond style comfort, but I also wasn’t expecting a canoe with a makeshift rocket engine strapped to the back either.
From the hillside came a tall rake of a man. He lumbered down the steep slope uneasily. “Fuck me he must be about 6’7-6’8 Jimmy B, he’s fucking massive.” Rick said. His thick Mancunian accent making me smile.
The man introduced himself to us as Herman. A distinct German accent came out as he spoke. We shook hands and climbed on. The two Lao crewmen sat at the rear of the boat. A young Irish girl Tracey and Herman-the-German-giant jumped in at the front, their legs draping over our bags, whilst Rick and I sandwiched ourselves in the middle with barely enough room for our bollocks. I sat awkwardly fearing I may never be able to stand back up again. A guy from the dock threw us life vests and motorbike style crash helmets. Anytime you’re on a boat and someone gives you a crash helmet and a life vest before you’ve even set off should ring some sort of alarm bells. Hindsight however, is a wonderful thing.
Squashed in tight two planks of wood 8 to 10 inches high were placed in purpose made slots across the width of the boat, giving Rick and I perhaps 24 inches to sit in. My knees pushed up and became buried underneath my chin, and before we could protest, the boat roared to life and eased out of the dock.
Out of the seven hour journey the first five minutes were actually quite fun. The boat took up centre position in the middle of the world’s 10th longest river, The Mekong and we began to cruise through some of the most picturesque scenery I’ve been fortunate enough to see. Green rolling hill tops and mountains sped past on both sides. Up head low clouds dominated a perfect blue coloured sky. We even passed a slow boat, our two day alternative. Occupied by large a large group, they watched us fly by, with red sullen faces fanning themselves and batting flies away in the midday heat.
As I say that all happened within the first five minutes, and despite losing the feelings in my legs and having slightly squashed plums it didn’t see m too bad after all. It was around the 6th minute when the pain in my hips began. It wasn’t a pain like a headache, or a dull throb, I actually thought my pelvis was on fire. Rick and I shifted against one another, suffering from the worst cramp and body restrictions I’ve ever had. Its lucky Anne Frank opted for an attic, had she been in a canoe she’d have been properly screwed. I’d heard the stories about how many of these boats crash, because rocks that lay just below the surface invisible at highs speed until it’s too late shatter the soft under belly and send everyone to a bone breaking but beautifully picturesque death. Those stories were all of a sudden a stark realisation of what may soon become reality. I closed my eyes, trying to shut out the pain, Rick and I had our legs outstretched over one another in every effort to find comfort until we could bare it no longer and shifted again. After what felt like an eternity but in reality, a little over an hour none of us including our unfortunate German giant were content so we were relieved to pull over to a small floating dock to stretch our legs.
I felt the blood begin to circulate immediately, and for the briefest of moments, didn’t feel too bad. Our guide then ruined it. “We pick up more people.” He said. I was unsure if this was a statement or a question. “No sir. You cannot be serious, where are they going to sit?” Said Herman stretching his legs, dwarfing the Lao fishermen that gazed up at him.
“Lao people are very small, we will make them fit.”
‘No. They cannot fit!’ He said again sternly. Like a matter of fact.
“If we not take them, we lose money. You pay extra. Then they don’t come.” The crafty little bastard said again.
Behind us, several men began washing and sharpening Foot long machete type knives. Clearly they were just fisherman, but in our current predicament, I wasn’t sure when one of them would decide to become a swashbuckling pirate and chop us up if we didn’t begin coughing up cash. With everyone on the dock the count was Twelve. Four passengers, us. And eight Lao men, them. For a moment, no one budged.
“Jimmy B, I’m getting fucked off now mate, this is starting to fucking annoy me.” Rick said. “There aint no room,” he said again, distressed and pissed off. Tracey piped up for the first time, “If we pay, can you take those wooden boards out so we have more room at least?”
“Okay.” He said without hesitation. “We move the boards for $10 each. We need to move soon, you decide.” We’re evidently not still on the dock, so it’s pretty obvious we caved, and paid the $40 to continue, I just began thinking, that they had been so quick to remove the boards, whether or not they actually had any purpose or were they there only to piss us off?
The day continued slowly, in terms of progress, our boat not so much. Albeit slightly more comfortable we drifted in and out of full contemplation for our surroundings. I let time flow past without much thought, the noise of the engine too loud to have a conversation. We stopped once again at a small village and the boat was toed onto the shore. Children and women began to approach as if we were the latest offerings and a natural history museum. The men jumped out without a word and entered one of the huts. They came out almost immediately and walked to a boat parked a little way down. The men soon began carrying three fish back towards our canoe. They were each at least 3 feet long and stunk like, hot sweaty fish. Thrown in a small gap behind my seat I retched, several times, hoping I wouldn’t vomit in my own helmet. I turned to see a huge eye staring back at me, and wondered who had it worse. As the sun began to set behind the mountains the scene became almost more beautiful. We slowed slightly and the crashes from the water were a little less evident, the driver craned his neck in the dim light trying to see a path away from the tips of rocks that peaked above the surface. The relative comfort of the easing engines and slower pace again lasted for all of 120 seconds as the driver launched the canoe full throttle. Getting to Luang Prabang before dark was imperative, otherwise the chances of hitting a rock in the dark increased to an almost dead cert. Thankfully after seven hours and around 170 miles the engines were shut down and we coasted in towards the river bank.
We booked a night’s stay in a small hostel; Tracey joined us, and was given a room adjacent to ours. With the genuine possibility of death only inches away for the majority of the time we had been in Laos, the potential of being stranded or kidnapped by some tiny men should have had us tucked up in bed thanking our lucky stars. However, Asia was all about taking it in your stride, and ours brought us outside Hive bar.
We were led towards a beer garden, filled with low red lights and candles, and sat in a small corner. We ordered food, beers and had our first proper conversations since the morning. Sharing one end of the same table we noticed four girls and a guy finishing their drinks and ready to leave. Calling across to him Rick asked if the guy knew what nightlife the sleepy town of Luang Prabang had to offer. “Ahh mate.” He said, sounding like he’d said meat. His Geordie accent synonymous with people from Newcastle in the North East of England was a nice change. “I tell ya what right; it’s so good to hear an English voice ya know. I’m here with four Swedish lasses, they can’t understand a word I’m saying, ya know what I mean like. We’re going to the nightclub then the bowling alley mate; you guys should come show these girls how we party.” Rick already loved the idea; the possibility of talking to four Swedish women was enough to tempt anyone. “Jamie.” He said shaking my hand. We climbed onto a Tuk Tuk and began exchanging hugs and kisses with new friends.
The bowling alley sat next to a small un-opposing nightclub, Local Lao teenagers were outside talking and drinking, and as I walked closer I felt like Lemuel Gulliver towering over the teens before me. It was typical of many small clubs you find the world over. It was dark, an occasional sweep of illuminated green and red light flashed from behind the DJ who was playing a mix in which I was totally unfamiliar. A bar ran the width of the room to my left. I walked over towards Rick and the others now feeling like we actually were in Lilliput. It wasn’t like a club you may go in America, Australia, or even in some European countries where it’s not immediately apparent that you’re not from those parts. But standing a good foot in some cases above every non-European, my sun dyed blonde hair and reddish skin left no doubt in the mind that I wasn’t from the next town over, our presence was met with glairing but non-threatening stares. I turned to one of the girls I’d arrived with and toasted our whiskeys as we watched the dance floor fill in front of us. “What’s your name?” I asked her. I haven’t read The Game so I had no idea, if that was negging because she’d definitely already told me. “Frida.” She said. “And you’re James, right?”
“Yeah.” I said smiling. I then began to really impress her with my knowledge of Sweden, giving her top facts on Sweden being the home of IKEA and the capital was Stockholm, I paused for a little too long to make my third impressive fact as our arms were grabbed and we were thrown onto the dance floor as the first internationally recognised song began to pulse through the speakers The DJ perhaps noticing our foray onto the floor began playing more American rubbish and soon the whole room was hip to the sounds of Apple bottom Jeans, and the Reeboks with the fur… I was being fed whiskey from every angle as Frida came back with two bucket, buckets that were shared amongst our international posse that danced into the night.
Frida woke me early. She told me she needed to get going. My head pounded. A slither of light shone through the partially opened curtains burning my eyes. My door suddenly swung open and crashed against the inside wall. We both looked up and towards the bottom of the bed to see a cheerful looking Rick walking through the hole where a door once was. “You’re a hideous man Jimmy B”. Rick threw Frida’s top at her. “You wanna get going soon, we wanna get down to do that tubing don’t we mate?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Give us a little while though.” Frida whispered in my ear and the memories of last night came flooding back to me. “What happened, Jimmy B.? What did you do? You both shit the bed or something?”
“Rick, piss off I’ll give you a text.”
‘Okay mate. Its 8am now. Say 9ish and we’ll get going yeah mate?’ Rick slammed the door on his way out, and the silence was bliss, momentarily.
Frida looked at me, “I need to go to the toilet.”
“No, I don’t want to go in there.”
“Its fine, I got a plunger yesterday, it’s sorted”
“What? What is that?”
“Err, nothing. Why don’t you want to go in there?”
“Do you remember what happened last night?” She said.
“Yeah. Blame Rick, they’re his shit Australian Johnny’s”
“I need to go and eat a pill or something.”
I smiled “Okay. Have a shower, go to the toilet and I’ll come with you to get it. I’ll go and get us some water.”
“Really, you’ll come with me?”
“Yeah, sure.” Frida showered and probably did a cheeky poo whilst I tidied the room. I spoke to Rick and told him I would be a while, telling him what we were doing.
“The pill, who for?” He said.
“Me.”… “Frida you dick. Anyway I’ll give you a shout as soon as we get it, and we can make a move.”
Chemists and pharmacies were nothing more than shells in a wall. The language barrier proved the biggest issue. Asking for the morning after pill and mentioning sex only seemed to excite each person as they offered us, condoms, lubrication and anal beads. One lady called her daughter who spoke a little more English. She who told us that they didn’t sell the pills on the high-street, and the hospital was the only place that could offer us what we needed. The woman had already waved down a Tuk Tuk, who was behind us waiting.
We arrived outside the hospital that was shaped like a horseshoe. A two story building sat in the centre of the curve as it spread backwards arcing away from us. The building like many temples and wat’s found in Asia. Large red slopping roofs gave the place a character not found in medical buildings in the west. We walked through the main entrance door into a large atrium. Two corridors ran off left and right, each curving away from us. The rear of the hospital seemed to hold no other walls. Open to the elements as it curved giving off the most spectacular and amazing views to valleys and mountains in the near distance. We turned left and saw immediately that hygiene wasn’t a main priority. Dirt from outside was embedded into the floor tiles. Orange and yellow crust stains lined sinks and basins. We found a doctor who led us into a room with a warm smile.
We spoke to her slowly explaining what we needed. She nodded, continuing to smile, and said she would be right back. True to her word, holding a stethoscope and heart monitor she walked into the room she motioned for Frida to sit on the bed. Frida turned to look at the blood and sweat stained sheet that lined the world’s most corroded hospital bed. It looked as if someone had just given birth to a rusty baby. “I don’t need to sit down.” Frida said, as one of the women motioned to the foot straps. “No. I don’t need it. I need a pill.” The woman left again, and after a minute brought another young woman in to the room. ‘Do you speak English?’ I asked her.
‘Yes, I speak English.’ She spoke, slowly, making sure she chose her words carefully. She spoke better English than Rick, so I was happier than I had been. “How can, I help you?”
“We need the morning after pill?”
She looked puzzled and creased her forehead. “I am sorry; I know not what that is please?”
Frida took over. “We need a pill so there is no baby.”
“Oh.” The lady began to laugh. She picked up a pen and paper from her scrubs and wrote shapes and lines, underlining it with the word SEX and handed it to Frida. “Go see the doctor in ward C they will help you.” We skipped to the other end of the building with a spring in our step. I checked to see 4 missed calls from Rick, but chose to ignore them until we had everything sorted. A large line of people waiting, including men and children eyed us suspiciously, so we walked briskly with our heads down. We sat for 15 minutes and continued chatting. It had gone 12 in the afternoon and I took the opportunity to tell Rick that we would be back soon, and we could finally be on our way. At the end of the corridor was a door that was half open. My ears pricked up as I heard a sound that every man wishes to hear, although sadly it’s never often enough. It was the sound of a woman having what I was sure was an orgasm. Short bursts, low and subtle. Aaah. Aaah. Oouugh.
“Frida do you hear that?” She said nothing. Sitting quietly lost in her thoughts. I rose from my chair and walked towards the door.
“What are you doing?”
“There’s a woman in there having an orgasm” I whispered. “Listen…” I walked to the door and looked in, staring dead ahead.
“What is it?”
“What is it…?”
“Err.” I said, with real trepidation in my voice.
I turned my head, and looked at Frida. Blood had vanished from my face, I honestly felt like I was going to faint. “It’s err…There’s a woman giving birth.” I began walking away, genuinely shaking. “I saw everything, she was on her own. No equipment, no nothing, just on her back. I think I saw brain, or head or something.” Just then a woman came through a door. “I’m sorry, but doctor has gone home for lunch, he not back today.”
“What do you want to do James?” Frida asked me.
“I want to go home.”
I had ultimately failed in my attempts at getting Frida the morning after pill, but maybe, just maybe I had managed a brief 9 month glimpse into the future. Frida finally managed to find what she needed, and we said goodbye. Rick and I caught a bus south, towards the infamous Vang Vieng. Where, there were injuries, proposals and thankfully no children.