This is the second part in a series. To read part one of this journey, go to That Time We stayed in a Thai Border Town Prison, Part 1.
It was with a sigh of relief that I noticed the owner was not an amputee as I’d initially thought, but was hopping on one leg because the other was painfully swollen.
He plopped down on the couch on the open-air porch with a grunt.
“Are you open?” We asked.
“Sure, sure. But you gotta serve yourself,” he said, motioning toward his ankle.
We dipped into the cooler and grabbed two Chang beers. Later, he informed us that Chang is the Russian roulette of beer, as the alcohol content isn’t regulated. That means you could get one with a high alcohol content, or low…it’s all up to the fates. Which explains a lot.
Over the course of the next hour or so, we got to know the owner and a couple of his friends. The swollen ankle had happened the previous night after a wild evening at the bar, in an accident he couldn’t recall. We explained how we had just arrived with the tour group for the slow boat down the Mekong.
“Ah, so you’re staying at the prison, then.” One of the men responded. He warned us that our “all inclusive” dinner that night was an egg and rice.
We laughed, and explained that we were hoping to find another place to stay. But Chang followed Chang, and who knows how much alcohol is in those things? We ordered burgers from some off-site restaurant, which magically appeared and disappeared, tasting wonderful.
We chatted with some fellow travelers who straggled in, a couple from California who were especially fun and likely the only other Americans on the trip. They had successfully secured a better place to stay. Before we knew it, dark descended and a massive crowd of backpackers from the tour group arrived, swamping the bar.
Apparently they wanted to escape prison, as well.
The owner’s wife appeared, a Thai woman who spoke little English. He couldn’t work the bar, and she couldn’t possibly do it all herself. In a moment of Chang-infused bravado, the Mister and I volunteered.
And so began a work shift behind the bar, pouring drink after drink, popping open Changs, collecting cash and counting change. One backpacker had highjacked the sound system and was playing some thumping club music. Another came up to the bar and said, “We heard the Americans were bartending! I had to come check it out.” The owner’s wife kept bringing out trays of shots and handing them out, and the Mister and I partook, along with the other backpackers.
And then, it was clear it was time for us to end our shift. We’d lost track of time. We’d lost track of shots. We’d lost track of Changs. Standing behind the bar was no longer an option. And the only option we’d secured for sleep was the prison.
But first, we had to pay our tab. We were stunned. It came to nearly 2,000 baht, an almost impossible expense to achieve. It was only then that Backpack Mister realized he’d been buying rounds of shots for all the backpackers. Luckily, we had the cash on us.
We said our goodbyes, and the owner’s wife thanked us with a cocktail she’d made which was so strong I couldn’t drink it, even in my numbed state. I passed it off to another backpacker, and the Mister and I stumbled our way back to our cell, somehow, miraculously, finding it at the end of a strange border town in a strange country.
We collapsed onto our rock hard mattresses, and I awoke in the middle of the night, shivering. The glass panes on the window did little to keep out the cold, and the threadbare quilt did next to nothing to help. I crawled in next to the Mister in his single bed. His head was covered by the blanket. The stench of mothballs was nauseating, not to mention the vaporous remnants of our alcohol-soaked evening.
We shivered and slept fitfully until we began to hear the rustlings of other travelers, rising for the day. Suddenly, Mister bolted upright.
“&(!@#$,” he said, “I left my wallet, iPod and passport at the bar!”
“What?” The panic was palpable. He had taken his belongings out of his pocket while bartending and placed them on top of the fridge. We were leaving the country in a couple of hours. If we couldn’t get into the bar to get his stuff and back again, we were totally screwed.
He got up from bed and began digging in his suitcase. Frantic moments later, he held the items in his hands. Another miracle – somehow in the midst of our Chang fog, he’d remembered to grab his things.
I desperately needed coffee and had to throw something solid on my acidic stomach, but the Mister opted to stay in bed for a few precious minutes longer. So down to breakfast I went, where coffee came in packet form and I was unceremoniously served a slice of white bread with scrambled eggs by a man with a hunchback and a weak leg dragging behind him.
I don’t say this to be mean, but to give you a realistic picture of this experience. You can’t make this stuff up.
I choked down what I could, sitting across from the backpacker we’d met from California. I shared some mangosteens I’d bought at the market in Chiang Mai. He said his wife had wound up in a drunken muy thai boxing match with one of the owner’s friends at 3 a.m., and they hadn’t made it to bed until after 4. Apparently we had missed a long night of celebration, or avoidance of cell time, depending on how you look at it.
He and I were both suffering, and our significant others couldn’t even bear to make it to the table.
I trudged back to the room. The Mister was taking a shower. I brushed my teeth and waited, then suddenly felt sick. Needless to say, what little eggs I’d been able swallow did not make the rest of the journey with me.
On a humbling side note, the reverberation of sound off cinder block walls is, indeed, impressive.
The whole time we were mindful of the schedule: “6 a.m. Get Up! 7 a.m. Breakfast! 8 a.m. Leave!” With sour stomachs, we packed our bags. Lunch was delivered to the front desk in tiny styrofoam containers by a woman on a scooter. We each grabbed one packet of lukewarm noodles, but the fish sauce smell was overwhelming, further churning the cauldron within. We piled into another white van, which took us to the border crossing. Then a bus.
The wait at the border was long, and every backpacker who at been at The Hub the previous night appeared to be suffering as much as we were. I opened my lunch packet and the fish sauce smell overwhelmed me. I couldn’t bear it, and tossed it out. It was far better to go hungry.
After clearing the border and paying a 5 baht piece for crossing on a Saturday (?) we piled into another vehicle where we were, again, separated from our luggage.
We shrugged. There was nothing to be done about it. Again, we’d have to trust.
We continued to the launch at Huay Xai. There we gathered at a store where we were able to stock up on supplies for our day on the boat. While there is a small snack bar on the boat, supplies are cheaper on land and you will have a wider selection.
A representative of BO Sapphire stood before us, and explained that he would need our passports to clear our crossing into Laos. He said that it was perfectly safe. That we could trust him. He spent a long time explaining why we should trust him with our passports, justifying us handing them over. He spent so much time explaining it, I got the distinctive impression it was not at all safe to hand them over. But we did.
Next, our slickster guide encouraged those of us who had not yet booked a room for the night, to do so now. He explained the hardship of booking a room in an unfamiliar town. He proudly displayed a tagboard with photos of a beautiful hotel overlooking the river, with fairy lights and a gorgeous restaurant and big, bold letters proclaiming: FREE Wifi! The guide promised transportation from the boat landing to the hotel. The Mister and I met eyes. The slickster cultivated fear that there might not be enough rooms available, and wouldn’t it be better to be certain. Hands flew up. “I’ll take one!” Screamed a traveler, then another. They rushed to the front.
We knew exactly what was up. “Do you trust him? After last night? ” I asked Mister.
“No. Do you?”
“No.” But we we were up against a wall. The slow boat pulled into Pak Beng near nightfall. We’d be scrambling for a room in an unfamiliar town after a long day of travel while nursing a hangover. It seemed far better to know we had a bed.
So we paid the man. As we pocketed our booking ticket, I shrugged and said to the Mister, “At least it can’t be any worse than last night.”
Charish Badzinski is an explorer, food-lover and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to individuals and organizations.
Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb.
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at rollerbaggoddess.wordpress.com.