OK, it wasn’t *exactly* a brothel

For the past week I’ve been holed up in the delightful Thoulasith guest house, situated in downtown (so to speak) Luang Nam Tha, Laos. LNT is a wonderful base for trekking to the surrounding hill-tribe villages, some of which lie in the nearby Nam Tha National Protected Area. At least that’s what I’m told.

I and 12 other tourists arrived by private minivan last Thursday. On the bus I met Raquel, an inquisitive and serene young Peruvian psychologist. She was in the middle of a multi-month, rather humanistic backpacking trip during which she was indulging her every curiosity. A few months ago she participated in an international entrepreneur’s seminar in Delhi, India, where she met Thon, a Laotian tourism professional from LNT. She was eager to reconnect with him, and I was eager to tag along – hoping for an insider’s itinerary instead of a pre-packaged tour.

“We will go have some drinks with my boss,” he commanded, after exchanging just enough great-to-see-you’s and nice-to-meet-you’s to be polite. Yes, we were puzzled that he offered us drinks at 2 pm, and before he had even *tried* to sell us any tours, but we shrugged it off as lack of experience. Still, we insisted on talking tours before drinking booze. After an hour of his vague and disinterested responses, we gave up being tourists and decided to be travelers instead. Thon seemed bent on showing off his western “friends” to his boss, even at the expense of a sale. “Sure, let’s go meet your boss,” I said, hopping into his company pickup.

He drove us 10 kilometers out of town to the “shop” where his boss would meet us. It turned out to be the Laotian version of a honky-tonk bar. Three other pickups were parked haphazardly in the weed-choked gravel lot out front. The saccharine screech of SE Asian pop music blared from the speakers. Inside, at a rowdy corner table, sat the all-male glitterari of the Luang Nam Tha tourism scene: directors, assistant directors, managers, founders. All were exceedingly drunk on Beer Lao, and on each middle-aged lap perched a 20-something girl, whose job it was to keep the ice bucket and glasses full and to remain within easy squeezing distance. Some squirmed more than others.

Raquel and I were introduced all around, and in great detail: we were given the vitae of every man at the table, and struggled to act suitably impressed. After much drunken chair-swapping we were finally allowed to sit down…each in front of an ice-filled glass of Beer Lao. It seems Lao custom dictates that if you’re late to a party, your penalty is to drink two glasses immediately. If you’ve come from a different province, you must drink four glasses. And if you’ve come from a different country, you must drink eight glasses. I suspect this last rule was made up on the spot, but we did our best to comply.

Suddenly the much-revered boss, a diminutive fellow whose name I can’t recall, staggered over to our end of the table to be sociable. He was by far the most drunk. His “girlfriend” was by far the most uncomfortable about his attentions. In short, he was the most seamy of them all. Then he started shouting in my ear.

I can’t remember what he was shouting about – trying to explain something to me, or to ask me something – but my pleas for him to step back and stop shouting fell on deaf ears. Leaning away from him and looking annoyed didn’t work either. In the end I had one hand on his chest, holding him at bay as he leaned in to try to shout directly into my eardrum, as the other hand wiped his spittle from my face. You’re not allowed to lose your temper in SE Asia – it causes your host to lose face and always ends badly – so I stood up, smiling, and said I needed some air.

As I paced in the dark outside the bar Thon came out and sort of half-apologized for the boss. There was a clear hierarchy at play at the table – Thon had to ask permission to do anything – so this admission of inappropriate behavior was surprising. I finally agreed to go back inside, if only to spare Raquel. But the whole scene was just gross. The men got drunker, the younger men waxed poetic to us about the obvious importance of the older men, and the women grabbed and cuddled or were grabbed and cuddled by whoever happened to be sitting next to them. We needed to escape.

At long length we got Thon to convince the boss to let us leave – Raquel actually had to invent an illness and overdue medication.

Our escape vehicle, driven by the sober Thon, was the boss’s luxury pickup. One member of LNT’s tourism A-list jumped in beside me to catch a ride back to town. “He’s too drunk to stay out,” Thon explained. I just hoped he wouldn’t puke in my lap.

“Why do you go to a bar so far from town?” I asked my neighbor, whose crooked grin and droopy eyes swam in his beer-soaked face. “So we don’t see our families,” he replied, his eyes briefly sharpened with surprise at his inadvertent honesty.

The next day, Raquel and I just rented bikes and rode through some area villages, exploring on our own. I’m sure the treks, kayaking, rafting, and other tours on offer from the dozen or so operators around town are just great. But somehow I’ve soured on official Luang Nam Tha tourism.

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