Location: Vientiane, Laos
Vientiane is a fun little city to get lost in for a few days; most of the locals are incredibly nice and helpful with anything from directions to translations, the street food is dirt cheap, and all the Westerners are kind of just surprised and happy to see each other in this often-overlooked holiday destination. The city is dusty but the streets are cleaner than most in Bangkok or Phnom Penh. There isn’t the usual capital-city putrid gutter stench and most drivers seem to obey traffic laws. There is still trash burning on most roads, but that seems unavoidable in most Southeast Asian countries.
We’re staying at the Dream Home Hostel 2 (Dream Home Hostel 1 is right across the street). We somehow managed to snag the only private room in the whole place - a huge space with two double beds and a balcony. There’s six of us, and they let us put two twin mattresses on the floor for no extra charge. And the room is so large we could probably have fit two more.
Tourists constantly drift in and out of Dream Home Hostel 2. You see families hiding from the overbearing heat at the picnic tables under the front awning, sun-browned ex-pats in tank tops playing pool, and in the movie room, a windowless den where you can sprawl out on foam mats and prop your head up on funky triangle-shaped pillows, you can always find a couple visitors napping. The white walls throughout the building are spruced up with nostalgic, hand-painted murals; my favorite has to be the seven-foot high rendition of Dragonball Z’s Shenron in the hallway outside our room.
We found the hostel through one of its promoters: a tiny, badass Vietnamese dude that spotted us wandering through the tourist district with our backpacks, rode up to us on the sidewalk on a motorbike, and asked “what the fuck we were doing.” When we told him we needed accommodation, he handed us a laminated flier listing room prices and amenities at Dream. He’s the one that first arranged the extra mattresses in the room and, as we put down our things, even offered us his service as the best-quality, lowest-price drug dealer in Vientiane. He’s always chain smoking outside of the lobby, and his neck and arms are covered in tribal tattoos. You don’t see many tatted up locals in Laos, but he wears his body art with a no-fucks-given attitude that inspired us to nickname him Fuck Off Bro.
And every afternoon he greets us when we come downstairs with a cheery, “What the fuck you doing today?”
As soon as we had unpacked and figured out how to turn on the air conditioning and television in the room on the first day, Jack and I went on a hunt for the next most important item on every traveler’s to-do list: cheap booze. We’d tangoed with the intense burning flavor of Mekong whiskey in Cambodia ($2.50 a bottle), chugged sour-sweet Siamsato rice wine in Thailand ($1.15 a bottle), and now we were ready to embrace whatever moonshine-esque concoction we could find in Laos.
When we checked the alcohol selection in the closest mini-mart, I noticed a bottle of clear alcohol with a blue label for 19,000LAK, or $2.50.
“Check this out.” I pointed at it and the cashier was just about to ring it up when Jack stopped her.
“Wait, look at that one with the green cap.” I peered over at it; it was the only one of its kind on the shelf. It had the same kind of writing on it as the blue bottle, but had been slapped with a forest-green label. The cashier switched bottles, ringing up the new one for us. When the price appeared on the register screen, my jaw dropped.
“8,000 kip? Holy shit!” Yes, my friends, Jack and I had stumbled upon our most successful find yet: a $1 bottle of 40% liquor.
“What kind of alcohol is it?” I asked as we marched home triumphantly, glowing over our most recent boozing victory. Jack checked the bottle and chuckled.
“Uh, so, the cap just says ‘spirit.”
That night we cracked it open and became acquainted with Lao Lao, a borderline mild-tasting rice whiskey that we now know holds the title of The Cheapest Liquor In The World. And damn, it’s not half bad. [Sidenote: It even turns out the first bottle we bought was actually pretty steeply up-charged. A few days later, we found a minimart (one we now frequent) that sells the stuff for 2,000LAK a bottle, or about $0.25.] That first evening of Lao Lao, we drank it straight and passed around a Fanta-esque orange soda chaser in our room, watching whatever was on HBO, the only channel in English. And soon our night dissolved into a blur of drunken shenanigans.
Cody, Jack, Baby, and I were just finishing off a second bottle when Liam burst into the room. He grasped a flier in one sweaty palm, and in his other he clutched a large Beerlao and a lit cigarette.
“You guys, there’s two dudes down there selling their motorbikes! You gotta check ‘em out. They’re only $200 each and they come with Vietnamese plates and papers.”
Cody had been talking about buying a bike ever since Bangkok. We’d all casually chatted about possibly getting them in Vietnam and riding through the country instead of bussing it; one of our friends had highly recommended it after his own motorbike adventure through the country. But Vietnam was still a month away and two members of our current party wouldn’t even be going to Vietnam with us. If some of us bought motorbikes now, we’d have to split up into two groups over the next month. But it couldn’t hurt to just take a look, right?
Cody leapt off the bed and followed Liam downstairs.
When I wandered out onto the balcony ten minutes later, I spotted my boyfriend test driving one of the bikes in the middle of the street. He kept kickstarting then stalling it and I watched, amused, as he repeatedly jerked then suddenly stopped. The bike gurgled unhealthily every time. When he finally managed to start the thing and it jolted forward, Cody let out a yelp. I shook my head at the spectacle on the road.
After a few more attempts and a short, shaky ride down to the end of the road and back, he burst back into the room.
“Cass, we should buy a bike. It’ll only be $100 each and we can double on it! Then we don’t have to take buses anymore-“
“Man, that’s cool but I’m too drunk right now to make a financial decision like that.” I was drunk, but apparently not quite so inhibition-free as Cody, who wore a look like a kid in the electronics aisle at Walmart who had just been told he can pick out whatever video game he wants.
“But they’re leaving in the morning! We gotta buy it tonight.” He whined.
“Naw, let’s wait until the morning. I’m not buying a bike right now.” He looked disheartened by my answer, and refused to give up his plea.
I waved him off. Looking back on it, I probably should have followed him when he went back outside to talk to the guys with the bikes. Not long after, he arrived back in the room wearing a grin and holding registration papers and announced some less-than-surprising-but-still-quite-appalling news. He’d bought one of the bikes, an old school all-black Honda Win with a big red star sticker on each side. And, he generously offered, if I did decide in the morning I was interested, I could chip in $100 and become half-owner of this sex machine.
Half an hour later, Baby and Jack bought the other bike. I suppose it had to be expected; we’d gone through a couple bottles of Lao Lao and the guys had spent most of the night discussing the spirit of adventure. Many other tourists at our hostel had their own motorbikes parked out front and while we stood on street corners, sweating under the sun, hailing tuk tuks, they rode by with the wind in their hair, looking cool as fuck. But none of my friends had ever ridden a manual motorbike before or knew anything about motorcycle maintenance, not that that came into consideration during their drunken impulse buy.
It was already three in the morning and I thought the night couldn’t get more interesting. But after I passed out, I was woken up at nearly 5AM by Cody throwing his sweat-drenched body over mine on the bed.
“Oh my god I just had the worst night.”
“Whh-what happened?” I struggled to wake up. Before I’d fallen asleep, Cody had been about to search for some late night food. He had a serious case of the drunchies (read: drunk munchies). But it had been over an hour since then.
“I just almost got raped by a pack of hookers! They were so strong, so strong. They chased me on motorbikes and then there were dogs in an alley and I hope they didn’t follow me home.” His chest heaved and he spoke between strained breaths, his story not completely coherent.
“I think they were ladyboys. They were in a gang and they were going to rob me! And they pulled down my pants and I had to drag one behind me down the street after she got ahold of my shorts. I think one of them might have touched my junk. They were so strong. And I didn’t even find any food. It was so, so scary. God, I hope they didn’t follow me back.”
I rolled him off of me, hugged him. He ran his hands through his hair and shook his head. I remembered reading online about the one unbreakable law in Laos: it’s illegal for tourists to have sex with locals.
“It was so scary. I was so scared. And there wasn’t anywhere open for food!”
“Don’t worry, you’re safe now.” I tried to reassure him, handed him a pack of half-eaten cookies that I hadn’t finished on the train ride to Vientiane. He spent the next half hour retelling a graphic tale of broad-shouldered transvestites/hookers who cornered him against a wall and who he was afraid to hit because he thought they’d call the police on him. And because they might, just might, be women. After lots of shoulder massaging and finally, laughter about the incident, I turned my attention to the still half-empty room. It was nearly sunrise.
“Where are Liam and Baby?” I asked.
“They’re taking turns riding the motorbike.” Cody said, shrugging.
“WHAT?” I leapt out of bed. The last time I’d seen Baby that night, he’d just finished puking off our balcony and onto the striped awning below. He was barely able to walk, let alone drive a motorized vehicle, and especially one he had no experience with. When I stumbled out onto the balcony, I saw Baby was leaned so far over his bike it kept almost tipping over. He was chatting with a pair of spandex clad ladyboys. He pointed up at our room.
“He’s up there! Room 7!”
“Baby shut the fuck up!” I shouted down, forgetting the time of night/morning. But Baby was too busy starting and stalling his bike to hear me. I ran downstairs, taking them two at a time.
“What’re you idiots doing?” I asked. Liam wore a bemused grin on his face as he watched Baby nearly knock his bike over again as he missed the kickstand with his foot. Oil was beginning to pool beneath the bike. One of the taillights was smashed and the right mirror dangled from its metal fixture. They’d obviously already crashed the thing.
“Man, we’re just practicing!” A sleepy local man had come outside, was watching with a mix of concern and disgust as Baby failed again to start his bike. He came over and made a motion of gripping and twisting the clutch slowly.
“You’re way too drunk and too loud, man. C’mon.” I said. One of the ladyboys hopped off her scooter and pointed at the gas tank.
“Low, low.” She said. But Baby revved the engine again and this time the bike jumped forward. He wasn’t expecting it, though, and when he took off, he slammed down on the back break, the front of his bike flew into the air, and he popped a wheelie. He zoomed forward, landing with a bang, and the helpful ladyboy barely leapt out of his way as he swerved to miss the car parked on the side of the road. He took off into the night, hooting.
“This is fucking freedom, man! I’m like a bird!” He cried out.
When I finally managed to get them both to come back inside, Cody was still awake, and he retold his horror story again, this time acting out the part where he had to drag hookers by his pants. The sun was high in the sky before any of us slept.
- Motorbike: $200
- Laos Laos: $1
- Beerlao: $1 per 40oz
- I’m not sure if this counts as a travel tip or a life tip, but as a general rule, don’t drunkenly impulse buy a motorbike. Or any vehicle for that matter. Or any big purchase?
- Be careful with cheap, potent local liquor. I recently found out that there’s concern about the amount of pheramaldahyde in Siamsato. Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about the copious amounts I’ve consumed. But you can! Google before you drink any new spirit.