James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Snake Liquor on the Mekong

Snake Liquor on the Mekong

It was my last day in Luang Prabang and I was wallowing. I had been in town for six days, I had gazed at temples and gawked at monks and stared holes into the heads of overaggressive and underdressed tourists, but I had yet to find who I had come to Laos to see: Mr. Chang. The mission up the river and into the jungle left me feeling like a Marlow without a Kurtz, and my mood had curdled badly 24 hours earlier when my last effort to find Chang ended in another dead end. I sat on the balcony of my hotel staring out at the brown movements of the Mekong, coming to terms with the afternoon flight and my impending defeat, when suddenly an email arrived from my brother Rusty:

Try to find my man and his crew. If you’re standing at the intersection on the main drag where the trendy shops end and the tuk tuk madness begin, follow that road to the Mekong – should be close under a nice tree. I believe the man and his wife don’t advertise..though they have a book with great quotes from a few travelers who were blessed enough to stumble upon the demon water drudged from a deep cavern in Hell.. rumored to have even brought Abbadon to his knees. If Gazing at the river there should not be any restaurants to your left, just a road that ends … and a trip that begins.

He is there, find him. Fuck those temples and their boy gods.. probably only there to keep balance from the wicked hell fire served up nasty just at the sight of their shrines. Look for some heads disheveled in a heap or in a state of bliss, there should be a couple old chairs and bikes and most importantly a big fat Glass Vat that contains the sorcery that old man has found through trial and error…. Jesus Christ the implications and consequences of the erroneous batches of yesteryear still hide in the shroud above the Mekong and haunt us to this day. Tell that humble alchemist Rusty sent you and that we share bloodties ..Caution: beware of getting jammed up.

Push Yourself

DrG

Ps..Dude get me 2 gray (XXL) Beer Lao shirts for my birthday.

I left my bag packed on my bed and set out for town. I pushed past the temples and their boy gods, found the river on my right and followed it until the trendy shops and restaurants disappeared, and there it was, just as my brother described: a nice tree, a mix of heads—some in a heap, some in a state of bliss—and the man himself, Mr. Chang, standing sentinel over a wobbly table heavy with vats of homemade rice liquor, each embalming a kingdom of snakes, from skinny garters to fang-flashing cobras.

Three quarters buys you a four-finger glass, and I took mine to a table under the tree, stepping over a heaving body on my way. I sipped cautiously. Alchemy would be too strong a word, but there was a crude sorcery at work in Chang’s brew: it tasted of expired medicine and broken dreams. When I ordered a second, Chang broke out his book of autographs and I tried to explain my brother Rusty—not a guy that even Chang would be likely to forget—but he was deep on his own snake-liquor bender and my words failed to penetrate his high. He did manage to explain that he caught the snakes himself in caves surrounding the Mekong, and that his homebrew was known to turn lambs into lions in the bedroom. He refilled my glass and we pushed on, the afternoon clinging to us like thick plumes of smoke.

When the hotel manager pulled up in a golf cart, I was at a table smoking cigarettes and working down my twentieth finger with Chang and a local contingent of miscreants: jammed up. The manager was sweaty and agitated—even more as he slowly took in the messy mid-afternoon scene. He informed me that I was on the verge of missing my flight back to Vietnam. Indeed, when we made it to the airport the plane was stirring on the tarmac; a security guy opened up a gate and let us drive directly to the foot of the aircraft. The stench of rice whisky and cobra venom elicited not a few stink eyes from the pink-faced passengers kept waiting by my indiscretions.

As the propellers began to spin and the plane lurched forward, I felt a sudden pang in my chest: not because I was leaving Luang Prabang, not because I had kept the plane waiting, and not even because I was riding an afternoon buzz that was about to buck me. As the plane’s wheels left the tarmac, I realized that I had forgotten to buy the 2 gray XXL Beer Lao shirts for my brother Rusty.

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