Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Bumps

As I sipped from a cup of coffee and sunk my teeth into a bacon and egg bagel sandwich, the portly American manager badgered her Lao employees then complained about them to her disinterested breakfast clients.

“You have no idea how hard it is in Laos to find someone who can get up on time and decently work a latte machine!” It was a modern-time American mass-consumer echo of the French Indochina rice-listening parable.

The manager continued waddling through the cafĂ©, occasionally asking us about our order. “Is your coffee hot? Are your eggs cooked?” Truth be told, my mug was lukewarm and my sandwich downright runny. I cravenly hid behind my precious week-old English language newspaper feeling faintly sorry for everyone involved in this scene.

We were in Luang Prabang, Laos’ foremost tourist showpiece. It was the home of the Lao monarchy, until the end of the Vietnam War when communist inspired Pathet Lao forces rounded the royal family up and locked them away in a nearby cave. For the next four years, they slowly starved to death. However, that was then and this is now. Since the fall of the Soviet bloc governments and the opening of legalized private enterprise in communist Laos, Luang Prabang has transformed itself into a premiere South East Asian tourist mecca- and all the dodgy coffee shops, pizza restaurants, and smoky sports bars that entails. Not to mention the backpackers. Loads of them.

The Luang Prabang night market sells a decent array of local tribal crafts.

Katlijn on a sunny day by the Mekong.

But I’m not here to disparage Luang Prabang. Despite the annoying preponderance of western youth backpacker culture, it is still a sunny happy place nestled between green mountains at the confluence of the Khan and Mekong Rivers. No trip to Laos is complete without a day or two spent strolling through the relaxed palm-lined streets, the dignified crumble of stately French colonial buildings, and the gleaming rooftops of an ancient Buddhist heritage.

A bird's-eye view of the KhanRiver winding through Luang Prabang and the surrounding mountains.

Wat Xieng Thong's elegant roof-top sweeping low to the ground is typical of classic Lao temple architecture.

Starting from the snowy peaks of the Tibetan plateau and making its way to the delta region of Vietnam, the Mekong is one of the world’s great rivers. There are two ways to visit the Mekong from Luang Prabang: a twelve-hour leisurely float through a serene world of fishing traps and rolling jungle scenery, or a harrowing forty minute white-knuckler as your speed-boat hurtles up-river and the Mekong valley rockets past you. The former involves a good book, plenty of time for self-reflection, and a slow numbing of the senses brought on by a full-day of continuous on-board boozing. The latter involves a crash helmet, frequent collision, and a suicidal disposition. Wisely, we opted for a delightful twelve hour drift into a quiet lao-lao induced coma.

Making its way through Tibet, China, Myanmar, and Vietnam, the Mekong's famous waters have flowed past some of the most dramatic and bloodiest events in human history.

We came to sometime after sunset at a tiny fishing village called Pakbeng. Arriving from the other direction was a larger, and much louder, boat loaded with what sounded like a cargo of backpacking frat boys. Alas, the quiet lao-lao induced coma can only be enjoyed going up-river as the down-river boat takes on all the backpackers riding in from Thailand. Not much can be said of Pakbeng itself, except for one thing: I have checked my diary carefully now and shortly after we spent a night at one of Pakbeng’s many cruddy hotels, I had my first occurrence of a mysterious re-occurring skin irritation Katlijn and I subsequently referred to as “the bumps”.

Mysterious re-occurring skin irritations are, as you might imagine, an integral part of the South East Asia low-budget travel experience. Backpackers, in general, attribute any skin irritation to a generic phenomenon they call “bed bugs”. Despite having no idea what bed bugs actually are, backpackers nevertheless always arrive at this diagnosis with certainty, though the details of the inevitably woeful prognosis vary in a unique kind of morbidly creative flourish especially reserved for this sort of ailment (“they carry diseases”, “they lay eggs… underneath your skin”, “they’re still living…in your sleeping bag !”).

Bed bugs have therefore taken on the stuff of legend. Probably because of this odious and inflated reputation, nobody seems to ever have had bed bugs though, oddly enough, they “know somebody” who did and so can rattle off a long list of potential remedies that run the entire gamut of common sense from skin ointments to setting fire to your entire backpack.

Unfortunately, there was no shameful hiding my bed bugs from the frat boys the next morning. I didn’t have a choice- I was covered in the bumps. While a few of my fellow backpackers treated me and my potentially contaminated backpack like the bubonic plague, most were genuinely understanding and the ensuing debate on the nature of bed bugs and potential solutions to the problem served as an effective ice breaker. Together with our new-found friends, we whiled away twelve hours together on the Mekong playing cards underneath a steady stream of drunken backpackers making their way to the on-board bathroom. Needless to say, we saw a lot more cards and booze than scenery on the return journey.

Not for the faint of heart, Luang Prabang's morning market stocks some curious produce.

Alarmed by my rapidly spreading bed bugs and the developing backpacker lore surrounding them, Katlijn and I made our way to the local hospital back in Luang Prabang. South East Asian former communist block medical facilities are, in a word, deplorable. Any self-respecting tour guide will tell you to take you and your mysterious re-occuring skin irritations straight to Bangkok if symptoms persist- and with good reason. The local Laotian hospital looked like a converted bomb shelter with all the clinical sterility of your local fast-food burrito outlet. I tripped over an obsolete French medical text on the way in and we made our way through an eerily vacant cement bunker towards a very bored and unimpressed receptionist. She eventually led us to an examination room filled with a collection of macabre medieval medical contraptions. We were left a long time alone with our thoughts of all the sawed off limbs and leechings that probably occured in this very room.

“Whatever you do,” Katlijn warned me, “ don’t let them stick anything in you.”

A nurse finally came in to examine me. She proceeded to poke at the red bumps on my leg and give me a blank look. Finally, she muttered a few consoling words in French and suggested I go home and take a shower.

The backpacker circuit concensus for a bad case of bed bugs seems to be tiger-balm, though in my experience, this remedy has about the medical efficacy of a particularly stinky placebo. However, I was desperately itchy and willing to heed any medical advice I could get, no matter how dubious but just short of burning my backpack. I had a long scolding hot shower and bathed my entire body in about half a bottle of tiger balm. Within moments of lying down in bed, a painful burning sensation seized control of my entire body which, in all honesty, was moderately more pleasant than my untreated bed bugs.

The next morning, I found myself reeking of Menthol hiding behind a two-week old English language newspaper listening to a corpulent American woman berate her lethargic Lao employees to a motley crew of indifferent backpackers nursing their hangover with mugs of lukewarm lattes.

As much as I loved sunny happy days on the banks of the Mekong at Luang Prabang, I desperately needed a change in scenery. It was time to move on.