(sometime during the late-90’s)
“The smell of opium is the least stupid smell in the world.”
― Jean Cocteau
“Opium: that terrible truth serum.
Dark secrets guarded for a lifetime can be divulged with carefree folly
after a sip of the black smoke.”
― Roman Payne
“The thing about opium is that it makes pain or difficulty unimaginable. …
… That’s what opium does to suffering: makes it of hypothetical interest only.”
― Sebastian Faulks
I’ve now been sitting on a bus for six hours and am about ready to shit my pants. Whatever I ate yesterday is stirring, and this rattletrap contraption of a bus isn’t going to stop so I’ll just keep writing. It reminds me of an old school bus, hard uncomfortable seats, windows open, every bump in the dusty road threatens to destroy it, yet I sense it will not only hold up, but somehow has made this trip and will continue to do so many hundred times over. It’s very mountainous and green and the bus is slowing to a crawl straining to make it up a very steep hill. A few moments later and we’ve stopped in what looks to be the Lao version of a rest area. It is filled with wooden and tin run-down ramshackle shanties with strings of packaged goodies hanging outside. This is my savior. I must shit. I found a shack selling noodles and something very sweet and green to drink that I couldn’t quite identify. I ordered noodles and asked about the toilet; relieved to find that it was just out the back. I hop-stepped it to the waiting toilet but my heart sank when I saw that it was a hole in the floor. The real surprise was there was a pig-sty directly below the hole with pigs living underneath it. I didn’t feel too good about what I was about to do to those poor unsuspecting pigs but they seemed to know what was coming … it appeared to be actually looking up at me waiting for it in anticipation. Is this really planet earth ‘cause there’s nothing like this where I come from. I had better take good aim before I unload, I thought to myself. How do the Lao avoid overspray on their shoes in situations like these? Moreover, for fuck’s sake where’s the toilet paper … this is going to get messy. It turned out to be uneventful. The pigs were fed and I noticed a bucket of water with a little plastic bowl in it assuming that it was meant to be the splishy-splashy version of toilet paper. Recycle and no waste… the greenies would be proud. The noodles were perfect and we rolled into Vang Vieng (pronounced Wang Wieng) later that evening.
It was immediately evident that this little village was becoming the beaten path long before we arrived. Travelers from Vientiane (pronounced Wing Chan) find it an easy trip up from the capital. It’s a beautiful little village that looks set in the middle of a Chinese ink-brush landscape painting with karst limestone mountains completely engulfing the surrounding countryside. A wide slow-moving shallow river meandered through the town and I could tell that this place is ripe to be ruined by backpackers in the future. It did have an air of untamed countryside to it with a few hill-tribe people on its dusty streets and farmers just on its borders, but I’ve seen this many times before in Thailand where a little haven like this becomes a back-packer mecca over the space of just a few years. I could tell that concrete construction, internet shops, massage and travel shops were just around the corner in the near future. There were already a good number of guesthouses and we found a pleasant one with no trouble at all. We threw the bags down … rinsed off … headed out for grilled chicken, sticky rice and Lao lime-ade … and felt settled right in. Vang Vieng is a sleepy little town but the locals seem dignified and friendly and I had a good feeling about the place.
Morning was incredible. We all woke early and I had a pretty good idea what we could do today. I know from experience that limestone mountains such as these can mean only one very cool thing… caves… big ones… and I was up for a little adventure so I spoke to the girl running our guest house. She confirmed my suspicion that there were literally hundreds to explore. I asked her for directions to the biggest one in its natural state and she drew a crude map that showed the cave not far from a small swimming hole at the bend of a creek. We couldn’t miss it she said because there was a rope swing dangling from a tree and there would be naked country kids dangling from the swing guaranteed. I was sold. It was 10 kilometers away. A hike and a bit of Caving would suit me just fine. Now to convince the boys.
Pepe’ and Carl weren’t thrilled with the idea of a hike and thought it better to find a taxi or tuk-tuk to take us as far as the road would so we headed out in the right direction. I soon realized that there was no bridge over the river when we arrived at the crossing. I thought it strange that the road seemed to go straight into the river and come out the other side. It was also strange that there was a small waiting crowd on each side of the river. Perplexed, I asked a local where I could get a Tuk-Tuk. “No Tuk-Tuk, Tak-Tak better!” she replied. I hadn’t really seen a Tuk-Tuk but I thought it worth a try. But what the hell is a Tak-Tak? Is that how they say it here? “Tak-Tak, everybody go Tak-Tak!” she confirms with a big ancient toothless grin, so it appeared we had no choice. We were going to stand right here with these people waiting for this Tak-Tak whatever-that-is just like everyone else.
Then it all makes sense. Loaded high with people, chickens, pigs, snot-nosed raggedy kids and farmers in the back of a long flat wagon pulled by on old tiny tractor Tak-Tak-Tak-ing along right up to the bank of the river. Without slowing down all the people on the other side jump on and it Tak-Tak-ed right into the water, crossed the river and pulled up on the bank we were standing on before everyone grabbed their stuff, paid the driver and got on with their day. This was the local transport. Everyone on my side jumped up and settled a space for themselves and their things so we did the same but the driver had other plans. He just walked over to the coffee stand, sat down, re-fueled with some high-octane French-roast, and sweetened condensed milk Vietnamese style. I joined him. He too had very few teeth, a sun-dried pruney face and an easy laugh. He looked to be over 100 but was probably closer to 50. He and the owner carried on a lively conversation and were overjoyed to find out that I could join their banter. He didn’t charge me when we got to the other side and insisted that he drive us all the way to the cave. Lazy morning countryside passed by along with fields and farmers. The river kept us company sometimes hiding and other times jumping out of the foliage to remind us it was still with us. I almost could sense how farmers and country folk feel a spirit dwells in the rivers, plants, rocks and mountains surrounding them and that it was possible to communicate with them.
The cave was incredible. It was just a short walk right past the swimming hole with the big tree, with the rope but because we hitched a ride the whole way, we arrived too early for all the kids. I felt sure they would be there later in the afternoon heat and I made a mental note to do a little swimming after caving. We walked the footpath to the cave and my adventure was turning into an easy morning. The opening looked like the opening of an airplane hangar with a giant stone boulder right in front of it. We ran excitedly up to the boulder and found to our surprise a man in neat clothes with surveying equipment. He was from the city surveying the cave, spoke amazing English and was delighted to have us as company. He had one of the locals assisting him and the local’s son was assisting him. They showed us deep into the cave, or more of a domed cavern actually with a small pool in it. It had enough light coming through the huge opening to make it embarrassingly easy to explore. We chilled at the cave eating the lunch we brought with us and smoked a spliff. The farmer was having a beer and offered to share the beer if we’d share the spliff. I think he thought it was a cigarette at first but started laughing when he realized it was weed. It didn’t stop him though. He was perfectly happy to smoke whatever. Our surveyor friend made a polite excuse and stepped outside.
We finished the afternoon swimming at the swimming hole … with the tree … with the rope … with the naked brown little country kids, which turned out to be many. Pepe’ pushed me in the river with my clothes on then climbed the tree to escape my imminent revenge. I climbed after him and when I caught him, he thought it better to throw himself off the branch 10 meters above the water rather than let me have the pleasure of doing it. It was completely ungraceful as he hit the water ass-backwards fully dressed and with a tremendous splash. Our little cheering section must have thought this was some of the funniest shit they had ever seen grown adults do, and their little minds probably concluded that white people must simply be a little loopy. We spent a long cruse-y afternoon ambling the country road back to our guesthouse and though we were exhausted from the day, we weren’t tired at all. We chilled in in front of our guesthouse with the only two staff, the late 20’s something female owner and her teenage maid eating whatever it was they were having for dinner. I had forgotten about the real world. I felt like I was floating.
We decided to go for a stroll after dinner so we grabbed a few beers and headed down the street. It was a quiet country night. Smells of wood and coal fires wafted around accompanied by songs of the night, frogs, toads, insects, gecko calls and a few unidentified voices of the night, some human and some not. I can’t remember if we almost bumped into him or if he approached us, but out of nowhere we were face to face with this curious little man. His facial features didn’t look like the local Lao and when I said hello his Lao was heavily accented. “Good feelings Uncle”, I said using the polite term for someone older than I. He seemed shy and a bit embarrassed by my politeness.
“Good feelings, where are you off to” he replies in the typical Lao greeting.
“Play walking,” I say in colloquial Lao. “Uncle where are you from, your pronunciation is strange to me”.
“Oh, I am Moo Daw” he says.
Moo Daw is colloquial hill-tribe speak for Hmong. The Hmong are a tribe from southern China with half million people living in Vietnam, 250,000 in Laos and half that in Thailand. I had stayed with different hill-tribes in Thailand for months on end and could even speak a little Akha and Lisu but as much as I liked the Hmong people, I never learned their language. They truly are hospitable, perhaps the most of all the hill-tribes, and I found them second only to the Lisu in their kindness and character. They preferred to live high in the mountains at about 1,000 to 1,200 meters in elevation. They worship the spirit world, that is if they haven’t yet been converted to Buddhism or Christianity, are excellent soldiers and are masters of cultivating opium. My time with them was a pleasant time warp.
“What’s your name Uncle,” I ask?
“You can call me Uncle if you want. I like it.” he replies. He’s smiling in a shy way.
“Uncle, I know Hmong people. I’ve stayed with them many times in Thailand. Nice people but good soldiers, eh?”
He beamed. He transformed to a man 20 years younger right before my eyes… “Nyo Zoo! Ko-ha-lu Hmong pua-tau?” …asking me in his language if I spoke Hmong.
“Ku tsi Hmong to-tau” I reply telling him that I don’t understand. “May we speak Lao? I’m better at it. Did you fight for General Vang Po?” I ask, remembering the role the Hmong played in the Vietnam War. My father was Special Ops for two tours and he spoke about the CIA’s role in getting the Hmong to work for the Americans fighting and spying on the Ho Chi Minh trail where it crossed the border into Laos.
Lighting up, he replied, “Yes, I was once a soldier in the war! Are you American? Many Hmong now in America after the war but I couldn’t go. I wasn’t a big man.” … meaning rich or powerful.
“I’m American” I reply “but my friends are from Sweden”
“Oh” he says. “Do they know about Hmong people?”
“No, only about my stories of staying with them.”
“Do they know about the beautiful flower?”
This gets us both laughing really hard and I could tell where he was going with this immediately. The small talk was over. Now it was starting to get good. I knew this was coming even before I saw the tips of his fingers stained black from a lifetime of handling the sticky black resin. The Hmong cultivate opium and they’re experts at it. They refer to it as the “beautiful flower” and attribute spiritual, medical and magical powers to it. They’re also the most advanced when it comes to refining it into Heroin. Seven kilos of opium to produce one kilo of Heroin. Although the Hmong only really use it in its opium form, they supplied a large percentage of refined Heroin in the 60’s and 70’s. They are constantly at war with other tribes and law enforcement for control of the heroin trade and they’re just as deadly with a crossbow or bow and arrow as they are with an M-16 or AK-47.
I take the cue … “Can we show them, Uncle? I think they’d like to try. Money’s not a problem but I don’t want it mixed with resin and aspirin. I’ll pay you double if it’s pure”.
If ever someone had the look of the cat that just ate the canary it was my new uncle. He had that twinkle in his eye. What he would make off our buzz in profit would keep him high for a week or two, maybe more. Not to mention what he would share of ours. He took my hand and started walking me to his place. I had completely forgotten that Pepe’ and Carl couldn’t understand a word of the conversation and they were wondering what the fuck was going on. I told them.
“Fuck that” Carl says, “I’m not into it tonight”. Odd, I thought, because he did opium with me two weeks earlier and Heroin, chasing the dragon, with some English guy when we were in Chiang Mai as well.
“Opium made him puke last time, remember,” says Pepe’. “Fuck it dude, I’m up for it if you are, but are you sure about this guy?” Pepe’ was in uncharted territory but I was completely in my element and becoming somewhat fond of this gentle little Hmong guy that has seen a rough life, had needed to kill often, but from my experience with the Hmong was paradoxically one of the simplest sweet souls one could possibly ever meet … and a complete drug addict. The difference with these people is they live with their addiction, not truly understanding it as such, as a way of life rather than life’s destruction.
I knew by the way he held my hand that he meant no harm, and that he was probably even a little exited to have some unthreatening companionship for a while. “He’s cool,” I tell Pepe’ but Pepe’ wasn’t convinced.
“Are you sure, man? What if this is a set-up? How do you know?” You could taste the excitement he was feeling.
“Pep, I’m going with him regardless. You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to but I have a feeling this is going to be OK. Why don’t we just see where he’s taking us and look in. If it looks sketchy, we just bail.” I knew Pepe’ would come if I made it clear that I was going, no matter what. He agreed to have a look.
It was surreal – the experience – the night – the crazy sense of apprehension and expectation. Time slowed a little and I started noticing little things like the geckos on the wall, my breathing, the feeling of the air on my face. A little excitement always makes me feel alive. We walked through the bushes and through a broken wooden gate to a little walkway around the back of an old building. There was no moon and I remember looking up at all the stars. “Pepe’, look at that bro. Beautiful isn’t it?” … and it was. There was a light breeze and it was just chilly enough that I was glad to have jeans on.
When we got to the door, I have to admit, it started to seem a little sketchy to me as well. Behind the back of what looked to be a concrete shop-house with nothing but weeds and brush out behind it. “Hang just outside the door and make sure no-one else is coming” Pepe’ says. “I’ll go in and see what’s up”.
“Uncle, he’s not so sure and wants to see first, if that’s OK with you. He’s not used to this.”
“Are you OK?” he asks me.
“I’m OK Uncle but we don’t like surprises. Are you expecting anyone else tonight?” I ask.
“No, just us” he says softly.
A few minutes later Pepe’ returns all excited. “Oh Dude, this is aaawweessommee!” he laughs. “Wait till you see this place! This is the real deal. I’m starting to really like this guy.” he exclaims piquing my curiosity.
I knew how Pepe’ felt the second I gave up sentry duty and stepped into what would be my new little world for the next few hours. Zen Temple … I gasped. I have been in a few, and that’s exactly what it looked like from a cursory glance. A Shinto shrine couldn’t have been more orderly. I stood there for a moment just taking in what I was seeing while uncle was busily at work laying out a second reed mat on the floor.
The room was whitewashed bare. I had just bolt locked the door and the windows were shuttered. It was about the size of a small bedroom. No electricity but Uncle had an old oil lantern going giving the room a golden-orange glow. There were two giant geckos on the wall above the lamp and I could hear the smaller species chirping away somewhere on the other side of the room. The smell was as thick as the ambiance. Opium has a musky, oily sweet smell that engulfs you with a feeling like being covered in warm laundry just out of the clothes drier. The smell is a cross between incense, the Asian spice section of a market and old molasses. The floor had two long reed mats laid side by side in the center of the room each with a bamboo pillow at the head that looked a bit like an oblong basket. A cushion sat between the mats near the wall, and in front of it, a woven bamboo tray with a little black round box like you would keep a few bits of jewelry in, a small oil lamp identical to the large oil lamp barely giving light to the room, but this one was in miniature. Next to it was a length of wire about 20 centimeters long or so and a bamboo pipe as long as your forearm, and with a strange little glass bob on it towards the end of the pipe.
Our shoes were at the door and, aside from a small wooden table that the oil lamp rested on, there wasn’t another single thing else in the room. The stark simplicity of it was startling. Every little item in the room was placed with meticulous care. The symmetry of it was staggering. I was in this man’s shrine, a temple to his lifestyle, who the man was, what it meant to be Hmong. … and it was dead silent apart from the geckos. So silent I could hear my own breathing, my own heartbeat. Pepe’ was crouched looking at the things on the tray with intense curiosity and we felt the need to whisper as if we were in some holy place. Uncle motioned us to lie down, so we did.
Flat on our backs looking up at the ceiling, hands on our chests with fingers interlaced, both of us lay in exactly the same position. “Dude, I’m in another fucking world right now. Do you feel it?”
“Yeah man, let’s not talk. I just want to lay here for a while” I replied. My universe slowed down and I found myself wishing that the moment could last. I felt one of the absolute oddest moments of tranquility I had ever felt, seeming even stranger because I was stone cold sober. However, that would end … and a deeper tranquility was soon to begin. “Him first, Uncle” I pointed to Pepe’. I could see he was feeling exactly what I was now. I lay there flat on my back immobilized but turned my head to watch Pepe’.
Uncle is now sitting directly between us just above our heads with his tray of goodies between our shoulders. His movements are precise, trim and purposeful. They move on their own accord but he’s there with the movement almost simply as an observer. His hands know how to do this without him directing them. He’s now rolling a small ball of opium, it’s sticky and slightly drippy, gooey working to get it stuck to the end of the wire. He holds it briefly over the tiny flame of the little oil lamp and this seems to dry the outside surface. His practiced fingers squeeze and re-shape the ball until it’s a perfect round little pea on the end of the wire. … another quick pass over the flame and over a little hole in the pipe. He pushes the wire through the hole but the opium stays stuck on the pipe over the hole. He then twists the wire back and forth between his fingers. The fingers of his other hand hold the little bolt of opium in place as he pulls the wire out leaving a tiny hole right through the center of it into the pipe. The rest of the opium is stuck outside the pipe. We’re transfixed. We’re facing each other, Pep and I, but haven’t made eye contact yet.
“Tell him to inhale until I tell him to stop” … Uncle commands. Pepe’ looks at me and I tell him what Uncle said. He nods. One end of the pipe floats slowly over to Pepe’s mouth, the other end positioned just so the tip of the tiny flame licks the little hole in the opium. “Now” says Uncle, but I didn’t need to translate. Pepe’ inhaled slowly – evenly – steady. The flame stretched to hole like a little orange-ish red string, finding and entering the hole as if it had a mind of its own. The opium starts to bubble and melt, the tiny hole through it enlarging until the whole bolt of opium has melted away into the vapors inhaled into Pepe’s lungs in one long hit. … and the smell! … incredible … sweet and heavy. “Tell him to hold it as long as he can,” I’m ordered. Pepe’ has the seasoned lungs of a stoner surfer so I don’t even bother. He knew what to do.
Then he exhaled and this cloud forms over his head. “Holy shit” he says, drifting. I let him lay undisturbed as Uncle made one for himself. Uncle smoked his sitting up. “Man that feels nice dude, but did I get any smoke? It didn’t feel like anything.”
“Open your eyes, man” I tell him and he sees the thick heavy cloud clinging to the ceiling of the room. I wonder to myself if the Gecko’s on the ceiling are getting high. Then Pepe’ starts laughing quietly to himself, re-closes his eyes and begins to drift away.
Then it was my turn. The second my bolt of opium had been inhaled and melted into me, I turned my head to the ceiling and closed my eyes holding it as long as I could. I felt deeply relaxed but it wasn’t until I exhaled that I felt a wonderful warm tingling relaxation and my consciousness slid backward and deep into the concrete floor for a moment. I couldn’t have been more comfortable on a goose-down mattress.
By our third pipe, we were in another world. … completely. Uncle smoked one between each of ours so by now he was up to 6 himself. He later told us that most people never smoke more than 5 bowls.
“This is going to be a long night,” mumbles Pep, eyes shut. “And I’m getting the feeling were in for a big ride.” Pepe’ and I finished off 11 each that night.
For hours on end, our minds drifted in and out of reality. Half-dreaming and half-awake not knowing whether the body sensations were part of the dream or reality. Every so often, and quite gently, Uncle would touch us quietly on the shoulder to bring us out of our drifting reverie for another bowl. We both came out of the fog together after what must have been hours later and Uncle had already vanished. It seemed strange him not being there; as if he was a phantom of our collective memory. The sun hadn’t come up yet, though I sensed that it was morning, and we were exhausted. We made it to our room like zombies without saying a word to each other and fell asleep without even undressing.
We’ve never made it a habit. For us it was an experience, a rite of passage between friends at a magic time and in a magic place. I often wonder what happened to that curious little Hmong guy. I’ve smoked opium several times after my experience with he and Pepe’, but I was never able to recapture the transcendent feeling of that night. I’ll always fondly remember the experience of our incredible night with Uncle … in his little shrine to the beautiful flower.