In Trouble in Laos
for my own dangerous stupidity
In Vientiane I demonstrated my previously untapped potential for complete and utter stupidity.
After taking an over night sleeper train to the Thai-Laos border, we stood in line at immigration. The young man in front of me had a problem-- He was trying to pay for his Laos visa in Thai baht instead of the much-preferred US dollar, and the penalty was that he was being charged almost double. He didn't have enough cash with him, and it was a long train ride back to civilization.
He turned around, "Um, does anyone have some baht that I can borrow?"
I looked at Nicole, thinking that if I were in his shoes I'd hope someone were feeling generous. "Should I help him out?"
Nicole shrugged at me, and I handed the guy a 1000 baht note.
"Thank you! I'll pay you back as soon as we get to Vientiane."
From immigration we settled into buses and got to know him as we headed to the capital city. His name was August, and he was an ethnically Vietnamese/Chinese/Laotian from Canada. He was living in Beijing working as a restaurant owner and chef, but on a visa run as his paperwork was getting reissued for his work license.
As soon as we hit the city he found an ATM and paid me back, and from there we grabbed breakfast at a bakery, found a hostel, and decided to go explore the city together.
August rented a motorbike and we drove around a bit, but quickly discovered that there weren't very many exciting things to see in Vientiane, so we pulled off to a side road and August gave Nicole and I lessons on how to drive a semi-automatic bike. Not quite up to a proper motorcycle, but getting there!
A lazy afternoon in a coffee shop lead us up to dinner time, and then we grabbed a Tuk Tuk to the night market. We loaded up on assorted street foods-- eggs hard boiled with herbs and coconut milk, grilled chicken, bamboo shoots, cricket curry, fried potatoes, papaya and dragon fruit, and a bag of sticky rice to mop it all up-- then grabbed a bottle of cheap whiskey and headed to the riverside.
We spread our feast out in the grass and laid there nibbling on our meal, passing around the whiskey and swapping stories. It was a good evening.
After awhile Nicole decided that she'd had enough to drink and headed back to our nearby hostel. The river had quieted down by this stage. Although when we had arrived there had been lots of people sitting at the edge of the water, most had slowly dissipated into the night. My head was swimming. August went over to a Tuk Tuk driver and came back with a joint in hand.
I was telling him my story about my first night in Beijing and he lit his joint. He took a hit-- inhale, exhale. He coughed and laughed at part of my story.
He took a second hit-- inhale, and a man was suddenly running up to us. "Hey, where you from?" he shouted.
Exhale, "Uh, Canada."
And then there were a dozen men in brown uniforms; commotion and confusion, they were all shouting and scrambling through the grass.
They were searching for August's joint. He squished it under his foot as he pointed to the bushes. "Are you looking for my cigarette? It's over there. I threw it. Just tobacco!"
"No, no! Cannabis! I smell!" the man who seemed to be in charge of the others shouted at August, and he grabbed August's wrists and slapped handcuffs on him. "You make big mistake!"
I put my hands out to show they were empty, held my breath as August kept talking. "How can I take care of this problem? Let's fix this problem."
"Big mistake! Fine 10,000,000 kip! Take you in!"
The men still couldn't find the joint. "Yes, I made big mistake. How about I give you money and problem goes away?"
"You big mistake!"
"I know. I want to fix my mistake. Give you money!"
The man was quiet a minute, then shouted at the men searching the grass and they stopped. "Ok. Give me money. Come with me."
"Yes, we go with you. Give you money, no more problem."
"No! You come. She stay."
My heart stopped.
"No, no, I go with you. I don't stay here." My breath stuck in my throat. There were at least a dozen men, several shouldering guns, and we were down by the water and bushes with little to no light.
The man turned to me, "No! She no stay then no deal."
"I go to police station, wait there?"
August tried to explain, "My friend, she didn't do anything. She was just sitting here. This is my mistake. Let her go, she has no problem."
The man was getting riled up again, shouting in Laotian. The soldiers were grabbing August by the shoulders and pushing him towards the street. "Ok, ok," August tried again, "let her go to the road, in the light. She does not feel safe here. Wait there, she feels safe."
Heart pounding, I made my case, "Not here. Too dark here. By the street, near people, wait there, ok?"
The man considered, then nodded. We walked towards the road, then he stopped at the edge of the darkness. "She wait here."
"No, too dark. In the light. The street."
"You listen to me! You wait HERE!"
"I give you money only if she waits in the street, in the light!" August demanded.
"Fine, there," he pointed a few feet further, just where the light began. We begged him for several more minutes to go closer to the street, but he became more and more upset and started pushing at August and shouting, "Not here then no deal!"
"Ok, ok, I go with you. Give you money, she go free." And August went with the man to his bike and drove off.
A feeling of rising panic fluttered in my chest as I looked at the men surrounding me. There was a circle of eight, with more standing further back. Two men had their guns pointed at my stomach. A man to my left indicated for me to sit down, so I did, wrapping my arms tight around my knees.
Make friends with them, make friends with them.
It was the only coherent thought I could manage.
I turned to the man on my right. "Hello, what's your name?" My voice was too high, shaky, but it was the best I could muster.
He stared at me, silent. I tried again, slower, "Your name?"
"Hi, Noi, my name is Tessa. Tessa."
I smiled at him. "Yes, good!"
I looked at the next man in the circle, the one who seemed to be issuing the most orders to this group. "What's your name?"
A long pause. I held my smile, and then, "Vin."
"Hello, Vin!" I went around the circle until I'd said hello to all the men around me, then focused on Noi and Vin, who were the youngest and most responsive.
Make them see you as a person.
"I'm a teacher in Taiwan. Teach English to little children. Lots of little children."
Vin nodded at me.
"You are police, or army?"
"I police." He pointed at Noi, "He army."
"Those are very good jobs!" he looked pleased with the praise.
Several of the men in the circle started taking off their jackets, exposing regular t-shirts underneath. I felt like I had worms in my stomach. I looked to Vin again, "Vin, I safe, yes?"
Long pause, then a head nod.
Deep breath. "I'm in Laos one week, just come today."
"You like Laos?" Noi asked me.
"Oh, yes. Laos is very beautiful and the people very nice."
As this was translated several men nodded in approval. They liked the compliments, but to my discomfort they were all closer to me than they had been at the start of the conversation.
"Yes," I lied through my teeth. "I have husband. I have very good husband. He is waiting for me." The circle shifted backwards by a few inches, giving me a bit more space. Keep breathing.
"We wait how long?" I looked to Vin.
"Nn. Twenty minute. Maybe."
I didn't know what else to say. My teeth were clattering; I clenched my jaw. My hands were shaking; I tightened my fists.
"Afraid?" the man opposite of me leered.
"Yes," I admitted. The man smirked and nudged his friend as he translated. The friend huffed and leaned closer to me.
"No worry. Laos men kind," Noi smiled.
I latched on to this shred of friendliness. "Oh, yes, Laos men very, very kind."
"And handsome!" Noi laughed.
"Yes. And so kind. Very nice."
Silence again. But the longer I was quiet the more the men edged closer. The men with guns occasionally swung their gun barrels in my direction. My stomach knotted each time they passed over me. I scrambled for something to say. "Noi, you how old?"
"So young, but very good English!"
He smiled. "Vin want more English. You teacher. You teach him."
I looked to Vin, "Learn English?"
He nodded. "How you say this?" He pointed to my sandals.
"How you say this?" He put his hand on my watch.
"Yes, good." But he didn't take his hand off my arm.
The panic rose up again. Change tactics. I moved my arm to point to the water, "River."
He nodded but stayed silent, watching me.
"I can use phone?"
"I have friend in hostel. She's waiting. She will worry. She will wonder where I am."
This was translated and several of the men grumbled to each other, shifting uncomfortably.
"Friend know you here?"
"Yes, she knows!"
Nicole looked up from her book as she heard a commotion upstairs. Someone was pounding on a door, and she heard snippets of what was being shouted.
"Police!... Trouble!... Need help!... Money!..." It sounded like August's voice.
She lurched to her feet and ran downstairs to find me. Realizing I wasn't there, she hurried up to the third floor to find August. He was there talking breathlessly with another traveler who had been in Laos for several months.
"They want 10,000,000 kip."
"That's way more than normal. You're sure this is the police?"
"They said they were police, but I don't know."
"Dude I told you not to smoke down by the river!"
"You never told me that!"
"Yes, I did! People get nailed there all the time."
"What's going on??" Nicole demanded.
The two men looked at her. "I've got a problem but it's ok, I'm handling it."
"Where is Tessa??"
"I got caught with a joint by some police, but I don't think they're really cops."
"But where is Tessa?"
"She's at the river."
"With these men? You LEFT her there??"
"I've got it under control. I'm fixing it." August ran to his room.
Nicole turned to the other guy, "How much experience do you have with this? What do you know?"
"It happens sometimes to foreigners, they get caught and pay off the cops or gang members with a bribe. But they never demand this much. I don't think they'll kill your friend though if they get their money."
August ran back down the stairs, "Ok, got my money, let's go."
"Let me grab my money," Nicole ran to her room, grabbed her wallet and met August on the stairs. "Ready."
"Let me talk to them. And I have a friend with connections to the police. I texted her, we have to stall till she replies."
"STALL? Tessa's stuck with these men! We can't stall! Just call your friend!"
"No, I've got this. Play along." He ran downstairs and out front to where the men were waiting, then he took out his phone and held it to his ear. "Tessa, Tessa, calm down! I've got the money! We're coming!" He looked to Nicole, "She's screaming! I can't understand her, she won't stop screaming! Tessa, stop screaming!"
"Let me talk to her!" Nicole grabbed the phone from him. "Tessa, are you ok??"
There was no sound from the phone. "Tessa? Are you there?? She's not there, they took the phone from her!"
August grabbed the phone back and hissed under his breath at Nicole, "I'm not really talking to her!" Then he shouted into the phone, "It's ok, Tessa. We're coming!" He put the phone back in his pocket.
Nicole charged up to the main thug and waved her cash at him, "Here, lots of American money. You give me my friend I give you the money."
"Ok, we go now."
"No. You bring her here, I give you."
"No, no, you come with us."
"No, you bring her here."
The man shook his head. August jumped on the bike, and the man began to drive off.
"Ok, wait, I'm coming!"
"Vin, you say twenty minutes. Now thirty minutes. Wait for how long?"
He just looked at me, silent.
I was out of small talk, but it was the only thing that kept the men from coming slowly closer. They were nudging each other and snickering under their breath. As long as I kept up the talk, they would stop and the few with English would translate for the rest.
"So, Noi, what do you like to do for fun?"
"I like army. I study for army."
"You must be very smart." He smiled. "Well, I like to watch movies. You like movies?" He nodded.
Silence again. There was nothing left to say. I shuddered. And then there was the sound of an engine and I flipped my head around to see Nicole, August, and the other men pull up. I let out a gasp of relief at their arrival.
"You so happy now!" Noi laughed.
"Yes, my friends here!" I jumped up and my money spilled out of my front pocket. Vin grabbed it.
August handed the main man his money, "This is everything, don't have any more!"
Vin took it from the man, combined it with what he'd just taken from me and counted it, then said something in Laotian.
The main man growled, "Not enough." He snapped handcuffs back on August.
"But that's all I have! No more!"
I looked at Vin, "Vin, I go now?"
He shook his head.
Nicole added her money to the pile. "This is everything. No more!"
"What's your name?" Nicole demanded.
"No, your Laotian name."
"What's your badge number?"
"At police station. We go now."
But no one moved. Lo and Vin muttered to each other in Lao for several minutes, and then Vin nodded.
"Ok. You free." Lo took the cuffs off August and flicked his hand at us.
"No more problem?"
"No problem. Go."
With huge sighs of relief we hurried back to the hostel. August turned to us, "You shouldn't have given them so much money! I wanted them to think we gave them all we had!"
"I didn't give a shit, August! They can take every thing, I just want to get away from them! That was the scariest thirty minutes of my life!"
He turned to Nicole, "I told you to play along!"
Her eyes flashed in anger, "Play along?? What does that even mean?? You told me she was on the phone screaming! Why would you do that? Of course I gave them my money!"
"August we don't know you! We don't know your damn code or what you're thinking or planning!"
"I wanted them to think we were freaking out and getting all the money we could! They were going to get as much money from us as possible!"
"Whatever." Nicole stormed off back to the room.
August turned to me, "Well, this is NOT how I'd hoped this night would go. Sorry for all of this."
"Yeah. Well, we were being really stupid. Goodnight."
He knocked on the door later and apologized several times, then handed us money to reimburse us for what we'd given the men, so at least financially this horrible misadventure hadn't cost us anything.
I barely slept that night. I had nightmares that the men came knocking on our hostel door, demanding more money.
Early the next morning we boarded a bus to Vang Vieng and put Vientiane behind us.