“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 café, 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.
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.
“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.