Luang Prabang, Laos.
In beetle-like, dark sunglasses, his pot belly rising and falling, his face eclipsed by moonlight - well, that’s a lie, it was more from the light of a buzzing street lamp – Mr Chum awoke from his slumber, yawning like a lion on his banana lounge chair by the Mekong river.
“Why you wake Mr Chum?” he says when I shake him by the shoulder.
People that refer to themselves in third person must enjoy masturbation much more than us ordinary first-person folk. Nevertheless, they always make me feel like I’ve dived into some television set into a movie (the old television sets of course, there’s not much room in those flat screen ones).
“I heard you serve up a mean cobra snake whiskey. Can I try?”
Ten litre bottles of whiskey sit stuffed to the brim with scaly, creepy, crawly, poisonous creatures. They look like those bottles you see in museums containing stiff specimens floating around in urine-coloured liquid.
Mr Chum attempts an explanation of what we’re about to throw down our gullet but I can’t understand a word he is saying as his words are muffled by a drunken slur.
What I can fathom however is this: The centipedes, lizards, assortment of snakes, scorpions and whatever else is in there have been floating around in the whiskey for about two years. They are floating in a 60 percent potent brew of rice whiskey known as Lao Lao which is officially illegal in Laos but nobody seems to be aware of this fact.
Mr Chum has noticed my grimaced expression.
“Don’t worry, it makes you strong and gives you muscles,” he says pinching at my deflated arms.
“You better pour me two then,” I say.
“I drink with you,” he says patting me one the back.
Fermenting snakes and such in moonshine is a practice not unique to Laos, but an obsession shared all over South East Asia. While it has become nothing more than entertainment for the locals now to watch stupid tourists shoot it back, it was once considered a source of virility and strength. But when I asked a local, who had hung around to spectate, if Lao people actually drank the stuff he laughed at me - “Are you crazy?!”
The size of the bottle and the manner in which he tips and pours it into the shot-glass gives an industrial feel to the stuff.
My glass is spilling over, his is half full.
Clink go the glasses.
Like when taking all shots I throw it down fast, deep throating the shot glass so the liquid misses it’s chance to meet my taste buds.
By the time I come down Mr Chum is smiling up at me; I’m coughing and spluttering. It’s harsh and burns, clawing at my oesophagus on the way down.
He pinches at my chicken arms again.
“Yeah, why not.”
This story concludes beside the Mekong, on a banana lounge chair on where two men, from different parts of the world, shared in the universal tongue of drunken dribble and for a moment may have assumed, just for a moment, a position some may define as spooning.
Travelling third class in Thailand trains: 11 hours became 32 hours and it took me a train, bus and tuk tuk to get me where I was going. For Insider travel tips for travelling third class in Thailand’s trains, visiting the old Thai capital Ayutthaya and crossing the Lao/Thai border, skip to the end of the post!
To set the scene, have a peek at the video...
And just like that, the blistering, backward Babylon of Bangkok was behind me.
They used to say that this city could swallow you whole if you weren’t careful. I was making my exit in a belch of black smoke from a dirty diesel locomotive now crawling past the tangle of wood, tin and humans of the Bangkok suburbs.
I’ll go back a smidge. It’s about 11am in Bangkok. I have slept in and just bought a ticket for a train that has already left – one of the smartly dressed Thai railway police wave to me from the last cart as I frantically, hopelessly run after it. And how fitting that in what they call “the land of smiles”, he leaves me with a smile. Cheeky bastard.
Half hour later I’m on the train, head hanging out the window and the change of scenery has me excited, goofy looking like a dog that knows it’s on its way to the park.
My idea is to make a stop at the old capital of Thailand, Ayutthaya, before enduring a 12 hour night train trip north to Nong Khai, a town on the Laos and Thai border. Upon arrival I’ll slip over the border just in time, on the day of my visa’s expiry. Well, that was the plan anyway.
Ayutthaya is Thailand’s Roman ruins - crumbling temples, sinking Buddhist Chedis, a grand palace now just a grazing field for a few grand cows; remnants of red brick walls are scattered about the place. It was once the largest city in the world and compared to Paris. Imagination is needed to see that now.
What was once the grand kingdom of Siam was reduced to rubble by a stampede of destruction by a 40,000 strong Burmese army in 1767. The irony is they only hung around for a few months before returning to their own capital that Chinese had moved into while they were trashing up somebody else’s backyard. It’s funny - war can destroy beauty created over many years with the pointless reasoning of a natural force, like a tsunami, a hurricane, a flood, in the matter of a day.
We spend the day exploring the ruins by bike. My bum aches by the end of it and I look forward to collapsing into my seat on the train. I convince myself that I could curl up anywhere and sleep at the moment. It turns out a third class seat in Thailand is exempt from the definition of anywhere.
The reluctance of the man selling me my third class ticket at Ayutthaya station makes me wonder what I’m in for. His head reels back, eyes widen, and he lets out an extended breath through “O” shaped lips as he looks at my ticket like a psychic that has just read a bad omen, before handing it over.