Seeking Bonsai

Most of the time, life isn’t that serious. On this little adventure out in Asia I sometimes like to think of myself as a video game character adventuring around and meeting NPCs… sometimes they offer me a quest and I can just “PRESS X TO ACCEPT QUEST FROM LAOTIAN TUK-TUK DRIVER.” 

Today was one of those experiences where I pressed X to accept quest from Laotian tuk-tuk driver.

I’m walking along the Mekong River admiring the Bonsais lined on the bank, when one of the drivers hanging about in the town square approaches. His cigarette hangs haphazardly from the side of his mouth as he gestured about the Bonsai with a wry look. He pulls out google translate and shows me a rough translation: “show where find tree.”

I press “X” and for a small fee of 100,000 kip, he whisks me off by rickety tuk-tuk into Thakhek.

I feel a small sense of concern, but nothing too alarming. Just that heightened awareness and sensitivity of being way out of your element. Tuk-tuk drivers can be shifty characters, but it’s not like this is New Delhi. It’s sleepy Thakhek on the sunny bank of the Mekong. Besides, I couldn’t imagine being held up by a Laotian. They are simply too chill for that sort of nonsense.

The tuk-tuk slows to a halt outside a small, modest shack with mud floors and thin plywood walls. Two young half-dressed girls peer out sheepishly from the dark interior of the shack.  The silver dome of an old woman’s head pokes out above a heap of watermelon. A rusty steel canister from an old American bomb is half buried in the dry caked dirt outside the home, like a trophy.

The tuk-tuk driver gestures for me to sit and wait. So I wait. I don’t really expect anything to happen. After all, its pretty much already happening.

The tuk-tuk driver lights another cigarette and offers me one from his pack. The dusty street is bathed in hot yellow sun; nobody is about.

I wait. A woman on a motorbike pulls in front of the house and purchases a watermelon, loading it into the front basket of that 4-gear semi-automatic 125cc motorbike which powers the full scope of trade and commerce in the humble agricultural nation of Laos.

I wait longer. Forty, fifty, sixty minutes standard. In Laotian time- this is fifteen minutes.

Finally, a man comes screaming in on a motorbike! He’s in full camo army gear with a bright yellow Adidas flatbrim. With barely a word he gestures for me to get on back his motorbike. 

With some sense of trepidation, I hop on the back and say farewell to my tuk-tuk driver.

We race through the sunwashed streets of Thakhek to a neighborhood I hadn’t been before. The army man’s friends are all sitting around drinking beer in the courtyard of this big Lao-style home. They cheer when we walk into the courtyard, and emphatically poured me a short glass of Beerlao. In the Vietnamese style, we raise our glasses in cheers every thirty seconds, and everyone always drinks simultaneously. This way, the person who wants to drink the most determines the beer consumption of everybody. 

The vibe is festive, they have been at it for a while! We can’t communicate, but I show them Chicago on google maps, and a few pictures of Natalie and I executing “death-defying” feats of climbing madness. They are amazed and happy to have me here. Its surprising how fast you can drink in the Vietnamese fashion! The cold Beerlao is going down easy, the sun is shining, and vibes are good. 

But I can’t get too distracted! I am on actually on a quest.

After forty minutes of drinking I tried to get everyone top focus on the task at hand- I wanted to see the Bonsai! I show them pictures of tree on my phone, and they respond by showing me the google translate screen- “wait a moment.” So we drink more and more until the Beerlao is finally empty. Ten minutes Laotian, thirty-five minutes standard.

Okay- now we go! I hop on the back of the army man’s bike and we drive WAAAY out of town, into the karstland rice paddies outside Thakhek. 

I’m a little nervous to be so far away from my bearings, but I’m in too deep to back out now. I’ve gotta see this bonsai tree. The road cuts through dry, dusty farmland where cows graze. It’s the dry season and the rice paddies are just yellow dirt flats. After a while, we turn down a dirt road and a flock of goats flee ahead of our motorbike.

The army man’s home is a rickety looking green-painted wood structure on stilts above his farm. We walk beneath the home and WALLAH! The tree.

My man is good and tuned up by now, and lots of his friends start to filter up the road, each carrying more beer. There’s an American here! So lets party!

We sit in the shade beneath his house on stilts and revel in the tree for an hour or more- the spirit very festive although I cannot understand anything! The men are sitting cross-legged on a flat bamboo piece of furniture, smoking out of a bamboo pipe, chatting quickly and laughing easily.

At some point this nonsense just goes on too long- I gotta get out of there! 

So I abruptly stand up and gesture that I am leaving. They wail and complain and pour me another beer so I stay for one last beer and then, seriously this time, I gotta go! I literally run out of the house and down the street.

I’m way out of town deep into the farmland surrounding Thakhek but my idea is that I can hitchhike into town. So I’m walking down the sunbaked dusty road, thumbing.

Truck after car after motorbike all whizz by me with nothing but sheepish smiles from the drivers. Even when Lao people don’t give you a ride, they won’t ignore you. At one point, an old truck slows down to a crawl and keeps pace with me for a few meters. I’m a little confused about why he is not stopping? Eventually the truck zooms off and I figure I could have just hopped onto the side of the truck in the Laotian style. Darn!

Eventually I get to an intersection, still way outside of the town. An old woman pulls up on a motorbike and I ask if I can get a ride towards town. She gives me a wry, toothless smile and jerks her head towards the seat behind her.

Say no more, old lady!

We race along the dusty road, the wind cooling the sweat on my brow. Nothing feels better than catching a ride while hitching. All that hot and dusty road I might have had to walk just whizzing by beneath my feet!

She drops me at an intersection closer to town and I hop off and start jogging into Thakhek. I’m half jogging, half walking, half thumbing at the inbound traffic as I slowly make my way down the road. Nobody is picking me up!

I figure I need some good karma. I spot a father and son unloading empty beer bottles from a big truck into their garage. So I stopped and helped these guys for ten minutes standard until the beers were unloaded. The old man got such a kick out of that!!

I thought maybe once the truck was empty they’d drive into town and give me a ride, but no luck. Fortunately, the mother gave me a much-needed bottle of water and an orange. That’s all I needed for the run back to Thakhek.

I give up on thumbing, tighten the velcro on my sandals, and sprint towards the Mekong!

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