Would You Like to Eat Some Beetles? (Savannaket, Laos)

Punk Rock Kids in Laos – Buses and Beetles – Savannaket – Fury from Olympus

The gray buildings of Vientiane disappeared and the bus descended from the mountains of the north into the wide, green plains of southern Laos.  We followed the Mekong south past small villages and farms.  Water buffaloes bathed nearby in pools of mud, goats blocked our path, and the bus almost crashed trying to avoid a massive snake that was as thick as my arm and half the width of the road.  In the villages Lao children played volleyball with bamboo balls and waved to the passing bus from their homes.  The kids were dressed in oversized, donated clothes – old University of Michigan hats and the Green Day shirts tossed aside when suburban America grew out of its punk-rock phase.

I traveled south on a local bus loaded to the gills in the standard developing-country fashion:  after filling all the seats with passengers, the drivers then lined the aisle with boxes, stacked bags of rice atop the boxes, loaded the roof with baggage, motorcycles, and bamboo cages of chickens, and finally packed the back third of the bus with whatever else they could find.  More and more passengers jumped onboard as we traveled south to Savannaket and sat on plastic stools in the aisle.

Then we were attacked by an army of old ladies.  The bus pulled to a stop along the highway and suddenly three generations of Lao women appeared from the shadows and surrounded the bus.  They approached my open window, assaulted me with skewers of mystery meats, then boarded the bus and cornered me with bags of sticky rice, unroasted peanuts, hard-boiled eggs, water, juice, fried frogs, duck embryos, chicken drumsticks with the feet attached, and the ever-popular beetles-on-a-stick.  I bought nothing.

Meanwhile, the locals were having a grand ol’ time.  They nibbled away on mystery meats, they picked their teeth with chicken feet, and they gobbled down beetles like they were jelly beans.  They offered me some of these “Lao Jelly Beans”, but I refused, saying, Ahh, sorry I don’t eat the black ones… but my bad joke saved me from nothing.  Soon enough I was chewing on beetles and doing my best to force a smile.

By nightfall we arrived in Savannaket, a sleepy French town along the Mekong.  I spent a couple of days riding a bicycle down the wide boulevards past old French mansions.  Everything was overgrown and decayed.  Grass spilt over the sidewalk and ivy covered the old buildings like a green mask.  French homes crumbled with the years, exposing solid masonry beneath peeling mustard-colored paint.  Ramshackle noodles stalls stood on the once-ostentatious front yards of dilapidated mansions.  A grand Catholic church stood in the center of town, immaculately clean and proudly French like an undeterred guardian of a bygone era.

I stayed in Savannaket briefly.  I was traveling with a friendly Spaniard from Barcelona named Joan (excuse me, a friendly Catalan), and we decided to continue south towards the Cambodian border.  We were getting pummeled with rain in Savannaket, so I knew Zeus, driver of the storm-cloud, had found me.  Zeus had chased me south from Vientiane to Savannaket, throwing lightning bolts at my heels and blowing thick, black clouds over my head.

Zeus was angry, and I was tired from this frantic chase across Asia.   I had made plenty of ritualistic sacrifices to Zeus, Hera, and Athena, but my situation was unimproved.  How had I managed to create so much drama on Mount Olympus?  Would they ever let me be? 

Ah, it was pointless now.  I needed refuge, a nice relaxing place to rest my head and think up a plan to out-wit ol’ Zeus.  I headed straight Si Phan Don, or “Four Thousand Islands,” a scattering of tiny islands in the middle of the Mekong on the Laos-Cambodian border.  I left Savannaket and headed south to Si Phan Don, my final stop in Laos.

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