A beautiful trek with friends through some ultra-remote villages of Northern Laos. Transporting Opium is only illegal if you get caught.
Hello Family and Friends,
I spent seven weeks in Laos in early 2011. For reasons I will not go into right now, even as I type this two and a half years later, Laos is still my all-time favorite country. By a huge margin.
The reason I’m telling you this story now is that I recently watched the classic movie, ‘Midnight Express‘, written by Oliver Stone in 1978. The movie shows the brutal conditions that an American tourist experienced in a Turkish prison after being caught trying to smuggle a bunch of hashish out of Turkey on an airplane. This movie helped to cement the concept of harsh treatment for drug traffickers in foreign lands into the minds of the American public for a generation. You do NOT want to get stuck in a Turkish prison. At least that’s what the movie was trying to tell us.
The actor Brad Davis as the young, drug-smuggling Billy Hayes. Strapping pounds of hash around your mid-section is against all current TSA Regulations, just FYI. And no, that is not me in the picture. I don’t wear that kind of dorky loser underwear anymore.
Did he get away with it? Almost. Except for the part where he got caught boarding the plane with more hash than brains. He spent the rest of his adult life in a nasty Turkish Prison.
And just to show that there is a funny side to all of this misery, here is Captain Oveur (played by Peter Graves) talking to the young boy Joey during the hilarious movie, ‘Airplane’. I actually caddied for Bob Hope during a golf tournament when I was in high school in Louisville. The best part of that day was chatting with Leslie Nielsen, who was in the foursome behind us. He was hilarious. But I digress…
Captain Oveur: Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?
I spent a week in some remote villages in Northwest Laos, up near the rugged borders with Burma and China. Even if you could find the border crossings in these areas, we tourists are not allowed to use them. They are not major pipelines. They are only used as conduits for some commercial vehicles, local residents and workers, and as military outposts and checkpoints.
This is a story about how lucky I am that I am typing this on my computer rather than using a shared computer in a dingy community room in a Vietnamese or Laotian or Cambodian prison. I am not sure if they even let the inmates use computers in Asian prisons, and I do not care to find out.
(In order to make sure I do not implicate any of the locals or tour guides or my fellow travelers, I will try to keep the exact details of this story rather vague and sanitized.)
You do not find yourself roaming around Northwest Laos by accident or effortlessly. It takes many long hours of buses and connections and winding roads to get there, so you really need to want to be there and make a pretty significant effort. In some of the well-connected villages, I would see an occasional tourist. Definitely not a tour bus in sight, which is the way I like it.
(click on any picture to see a bigger, bolder, richer, larger, more exaggerated beautiful version)
I rented a simple bike for a few days before our trek just to explore the area. This was a floating bungalow restaurant. May I suggest the fish… it’s fresh.
So I was with a few other western tourists in a small village, preparing to go on a 3-day, 2-night trek through the rugged mountains and jungles. Our local expert/guide and his assistant were going to lead us as we hiked, walked and climbed for about 6 hours a day. We would sleep and eat in the village with a local family. There were no roads into the two villages we would visit, so these villagers were completely isolated from the rest of society. Or at least what we call society.
My buddy Pablo from Buenos Aires halfway across a bamboo footbridge as we ventured into the jungle.
Heading further and further into the jungle…
Here are Arantxa (Spain) and Pablo on yet another jungle bridge to cross.
Along the way, there were forests of massive bamboo, pine trees, rushing rivers and opium poppy plantations. Yes, opium.
I have always said that if you don’t go looking for drugs or hookers while traveling, you will avoid at least 95% of the dangerous people and situations. No sense in inviting an extra element of danger or crazy people into the mix, right?
Even though we could see the deserted but blooming opium fields from a distance, we dared not get too close. We were warned in advance to keep our distance from the poppy fields if we saw them. In my imagination, I saw us venturing into the poppy fields to take some pictures and to get an up-close look at the natural source of morphine, codeine, and heroin. And then I imagined some hostile, defensive locals coming out of the jungle with knives and guns, screaming at us to get out of their bumper crop of valuable drugs. Or I could see some military agents in full camouflage popping up from the poppy fields with machine guns pointing at us, yelling nasty foreign words at us as they arrested us and escorted us to some remote jungle prison, where we would live in small, dirty boxes and have no access to wi-fi, coffee or beer. That would suck.
I did not want to take any chances, so we just admired the poppy fields from afar each time and minded our own business. No harm no foul.
In the host family’s home on the first night. That’s the kitchen in the back. One of the locals brought in a squirrel he had caught and proudly threw it across the room and onto the kitchen ‘floor.’ The lady of the house skinned and cleaned it and made it part of the dinner. That’s my buddy Segev from Israel in the white shirt on the left, who later met me in Mongolia for our crazy horse riding adventures.
Squirrel: The other white meat.
A view of the tiny village the next morning at sunrise.
A few of the locals fishing for our lunch. The one with the fishing net is the squirrel-catcher from the prior night.
Squirrels… Fish… Everything is on the menu when this dude’s on the prowl.
Preparing the day’s catch. Small fish to be grilled using a simple yet creative bamboo tool.
Fish, grilling on the fire.
Lunchtime. Fresh fish and chicken. And rice. And for dessert…….
And for dessert… our fearless squirrel/fish man quickly carved a shot glass from a bamboo shoot. We washed down the feast with some local hooch.
A few hours later we made it to our next village home-stay. As we entered the village, we saw a traditional structure to scare off the evil spirits. Every village has a structure like this at every main point of entry or exit.
A local woman was bouncing up and down for hours on a very interesting contraption. As she bounced, the children would insert cane stalks between the smashing gears, producing a sugary liquid.
Two local girls helping the crushing lady make cane juice. It’s a bad, bad day when you get your fingers caught in between those bouncing beams.
Three young boys watching us watching them and the cane crushing machine.
The local school from a distance…
And a quick view inside the school to see the students…
Our home for the second night. The house is raised to avoid potential flooding and to provide space for storage and animals. E-I-E-I-O. The ladder to the left was the entrance to our house.
Some of the village kids at sunset. Segev, Pablo and I were playing soccer (football) with a bunch of kids down near the river before dinner.
The village at sunset.
A few days later we were riding back to our original village in a jeep. We had covered a lot of ground and had seen some amazing natural scenery and how the villagers survived in the wild. And we were looking forward to getting back to the creature comforts of a hot shower, a soft bed, a hot meal and a cold beer. We had already paid the tour ‘facilitator’ in advance for the trek. I reminded the other tourists in the jeep that we should tip the two guides for their faithful leadership, hospitality, and insights. I gratefully handed each of the guides a wad of bills, equalling about 15% of my trekking fees as my tip.
A few minutes later, one of the guides quietly handed me something and smiled. I looked at it quickly. It was a small rock, about the size of a marble. It was pretty. Kind of yellow-brownish. I looked at it for a few seconds, smiled at him, thanked him for the gift, and then slid it into my pocket.
Sometimes while I am traveling, friends will give me a small memento or keepsake as we part ways. Along the way, I have been given smooth stones, rocks, bells, small pins, and other travel-friendly gifts. I figured he had just given me another pretty stone for my collection. Thanks, man.
Later that night I transferred the rock from my pocket into my shaving kit. The ‘rock’ remained in my shaving kit for the next month or so while I was enjoying Laos. It accompanied me as I crossed back over the border at a quiet checkpoint into Vietnam. The rock was enjoying the comfy confines of my backpack in the airplane’s luggage as I took a flight from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to the lovely Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc. And again in my backpack on the hydrofoil boat back to mainland Vietnam. Later that day the rock and I negotiated a busy border crossing from Vietnam into Cambodia.
I spent a few days in Phnom Penh and then moved along to Siem Reap. Siem Reap is basically ‘base camp’ for the world class ruins of Angkor Wat and the surrounding astounding historical features. This was my third time in Siem Reap, and despite the crazy Spring heat and humidity, I managed to enjoy myself once again.
As I was preparing to leave Cambodia and make the long and (usually) unpleasant overland journey into Thailand at the border at Poipet, I decided to clean out my backpack and simplify my belongings. As I was looking at my shaving kit, I noticed that there was a bunch of small pebbles and yellow-brown dust sprinkled all over my stuff. I was not sure how this crap got into my shaving kit, so I had a closer look. I picked up a small ‘pebble’ and squeezed it. It was soft and squishy. It wasn’t a pebble. I picked up a few more pieces. Not pebbles. Pebbles are not squishy and soft. And funny smelling.
I then realized that this was the remnants of the rock that my friend in Laos had given me. I had carried this for a month in Laos, over the border into Vietnam, on a commercial airplane and a ferry boat, and across the border into Cambodia. This was not a rock… it was a form of opium.
I am not an expert on opium, and I never will be. Based on my research since that day, the best I can figure out was that I was carrying small, crude rock of heroin. My guess is that the local opium poppy growing people would convert some of the opium into the crude rock form of heroin as part of their daily business activities. My guide had acquired some and was being nice to me when he gave me a small rock as a gift.
I will never know for sure, as I emptied the questionable dust and ‘pebbles’ from my shaving kit into my hotel toilet in Cambodia. Of all the southeast Asian countries, Thailand probably has the worst reputation for catching and prosecuting drug traffickers. You do NOT want to be pulling a ‘Midnight Express’ and get caught smuggling drugs into Thailand. I am not sure if the Thai border agents would have found the heroin on me, but I don’t care. I’m just glad I found it before they did.
To think that I carried heroin across Laos, into Vietnam, on countless buses and on a plane, and into Cambodia, without getting caught, well, it makes me feel lucky. Extremely lucky.
So please, if you want to give me something to thank me for my friendship, humor, good looks, and stellar humility, please, just buy me a beer, or give me cash, or a DVD copy of ‘Midnight Express’, or bumper sticker, or a bookmark or small stone, or something easy and light to stick in my backpack. Just don’t give me a rock of heroin. I ain’t falling for that one again!
PS – Please don’t tell my dad about this.
Peace & Love from a non-prison computer.
Best-Selling Author (book not yet published)
Not To Scale
Protector of the Little Hill People
Drinker of Local Concoctions
Available for Parties
Based on a True Story