Wined, dined and poisoned on the Mekong

Like most catastrophes this one begins with the best of intentions.

On a bus from Chiang Mai to Huay Xai in Northern Thailand I start talking to an older Thai man. He has exemplary posture and his hair is tied slickly back in a neat ponytail. He is flamboyant, outgoing and openly gay so when he invites me to dinner I am suspicious but not wary enough to say no to a free meal. Tomorrow I will catch a two day slow boat to Luang Prabang in central Laos so a decent meal the night before seems a good idea.

We go to a fancy restaurant on the river where it becomes clear that this is some sort of date. This middle-aged man is trying to seduce me. He peppers me with dubious compliments like ‘You are very beautiful, you look just like a young Tom Cruise’ and plies me with alcohol. He asks the waiter to take photos of us every time he comes over which seems to merely be an excuse to put his arm around me. When we speak he squeezes my arm.

He orders plate after plate of the local fish variations, enough food for ten people. The two of us pick at it as best as we can. In the traveling spirit I try everything once.

After more drinks we leave and it is about now that my imagination gets the better of me and I start freaking out. This is what he has been planning since we met, I think to myself. The whole night has been a ruse to get me into this exact position; drunk, in his car and at his mercy. At my hotel he stops the car, pats my leg and says ‘So, here we are’. I shriek, jump out the car and run off.

I go to bed embarrassed but relieved I have escaped untarnished.
At 4am the food poisoning takes hold. It starts as a slightly tight feeling in my stomach but quickly escalates into a violent storm of puking and shitting. I lie on the bathroom floor until morning doing just that. Fragile, delicate and shell-shocked I shuffle onto the bus and then through customs and onto the slow boat.

On the boat I slowly gravitate to the floor and by the time we leave I am in the fetal position with my hands between my legs.

I am horribly ill while also trying to come to terms with the strange and slightly disturbing night I had before. I toss between sickness and terror-filled dreams of the man’s leering face and his voice repeating ‘Sooo, here we are... here we are...’ I wake up and stumble to the bathroom. The toilet is a dodgy affair next to the motor so while the room shudders along I have to precariously balance above a hole in the floor while my feet sit in a pool of urine.

The boat cruises along at a relaxing speed while the rural river scenes pass us by. People drink and chat in clusters or congregate at the back of the boat where they are playing guitars and banging on pots and pans. Everyone is shirtless and the day seems to be spiraling into some sort of tribal pandemonium. I am surrounded by unbridled hedonism and in my weakened state I start to hate everyone on the boat. While the rest of the boat parties I puke overboard or lie in a sweating heap under chairs.

It lasts like this for the entire day and then again the next day. I puke and wretch until everything is gone and my stomach squirms in agony. And then I puke some more. I shit liquid. ‘Damn you and your seafood smorgasbord!’ I curse bitterly. Physically shattered, emotionally tattered it goes on like this for two days. Two days of suffering whilst the people all around me are drinking and singing and hooking up and having the time of their lives. Ah, sweet irony.

I wanted to be friendly and chatted on the bus. I wanted to be adventurous and went to dinner with a strange man I just met. I wanted to be bold and tasted everything I was offered. I had good intentions but isn’t that what the road to hell is paved with?

Now I know my road to hell is a slow-boat to Luang Prabang.

M Sterne

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