We were somewhere around western Vientiane on the edge of the Mekong when the chili began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should go sightseeing by yourself…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around me and the street was full of what looked like a tour group of retirees, all swooping and screeching and diving around the bus, which was parked in front of our hotel and not going anywhere. And a voice was whispering: “Sacre bleu! What are these animals?”
Then it was quiet again. “What the hell are you yelling about,” Monsieur M muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s your turn to head out.” No point mentioning those retirees, I thought. The poor buzzard will see them soon enough.
Shortly earlier, the table of our restaurant had looked like a cooking class. The larb had two massive orange chillies, 75 pellets of chopped long bean, five coarsely shredded springs of mint, a shotglass half-full of fish sauce, and a whole galaxy of unidentifiable herbage… and also a liter bottle of Beerlao Dark, a mug of Beerlao Original, a lethal bowl of green papaya salad dressed with fermented crab, two tip khao full of sticky rice and a wine glass of orange juice, with a straw. All this had been rounded up after we finally reached the hotel, crossing the street in a frenzy of hunger — from appetizers to mains, we picked up everything we could get our hands on. Not that we needed all that for lunch, but once you get locked into a serious Laotian meal, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.
The only thing that really worried me was the orange juice. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man who drinks orange juice in the land of Beerlao…