Daniel Asa Rose

Travel by DAR

Thailand: Prom Queens in the Mist

The Golden Triangle, you have decided, is the Bermuda Triangle of Southeast Asia. Things get disappeared-- not by extraterrestrials but by murky forces very much of this planet: opium warlords with visions of ransom dancing in their heads, belligerent Laotian neighbors who didn't appreciate being secretly Nixon-bombed and who mix politics with piracy. Shadowy things are expected to take place here. Spectral interactions are de rigeur. Thus the question: is it the willies that makes you see a prom queen in the mist?

Geopolitically, the GT is the mountainous Thai jungle where Thailand, Burma, and Laos converge. Hectare for hectare, it is the eeriest spot on earth, not so much because of its fluid-seeming borders as because of the spooks who populate the place. Least weird are the Hill Tribes, six groups of semi Stone Age people who are the last nomads of Asia, each with their own pre-literate languages and delicate jewelry adorning handsome, health-radiating faces. Also said to be in residence are aged remnants of Chang Kai Shek's Kuomintang who went into hiding here after getting creamed by Mao fifty years ago, and are such sore losers they still stage sporadic raggedy guerilla raids. But baddest of all are the opium warlords who joust with each other's private armies for control of the world's greatest cash crop, poppies, and who hijack innocent visitors often enough for the U.S. Consulate to flash periodic travel warnings. To wit: Stay the hell away.

Four days trekking here with your lunatic fringe travel troupe has been, therefore, a blast. Members of the club: three hearty British army nurses with legs like cedar fence posts, one Norwegian marine biologist, one Austrian airport security guard, and James, your genius Hill Tribe guide who until eight months ago had never been out of the woods yet has since picked up five languages (he keeps them separate in his head, he says, the way a pie keeps its pieces separate). Together, the seven of you have waded waist-deep through poppy fields, skinny-dipped in waterfalls while listening to tapes of shy music composed by the king of Thailand, and wakened at daybreak to tribal roosters pecking at your head like a dry hangover. Sort of an Outward Bound on elephant back, with frequent stops for curry-tastings.

You have also defecated in front of pigs (impossible not to: people-tracking pigs are the earth's original organic waste disposal system), and stood at an official border where three nations meet in queasy truce. Alright, a few inches over the border, to be perfectly technical. Which the Burmese guard was, coming over and performing the Elizabethan-like (Falstaff to Pistol) insult of tweeking your mustache. And all of this took place under a jungle canopy so thick you can't imagine how any half-assed American general ever checked it out before committing troops in nearby nations Vietbaby, x miles to the east. Fight here? Folly, encapsulated.

You emerged last night atop an Akha Tribe mountain where in the opalescent golden mist you were the featured player in a mock wedding ceremony with one of the pipe-smoking native girls. Her father, you were told while being plyed with various uncooked organ meats, was big in the local agribusiness. "Oh?" you asked, ever alert to your main chance, "which aspect of the biz?" Came the translation: "slash and burn." Bad policy for land with an erosion problem. Great name for a rock band.

To celebrate your nuptials, you reclined with your brown-toothed mother-in-law in a genuine non-electrified opium den and took part in an ancient religious ceremony which culminated in the tree tops resembling grinning lions. After which you had one of the most moving experiences of your life. Asked by your hosts to share a little something from the outside world, your international group went into a huddle and came up with a rendition of "Silent Night." Rising to the stars with the smoke from dinner, the notes worked sweet harmony on the leathered faces of people who have no concept of germs or time or who America is, people who kill their twin babies because there is no way of determining which is the good spirit, which the bad. But who dug this music. Stone-agers and space-agers alike got goosebumps.

This morning, though, is the climax. You are floating away from the GT on the Meekong River, downstream in a dreamscape of fog. On the one hand, the fog is fun. It reminds you of high school, when you were a freshman and you contracted a mad crush on the senior prom queen who was strictly out of reach, off limits, a cause fatale. You could go for her once, maybe, make a dash to avow your love, but that would be it, the senior boys would thereafter make your life a technicolored hell. That's how fog-enshrouded Laos appears, the prom queen: forbidden, alluring, ominously beautiful beyond your ability to comprehend her, the quintessence of mystery.

On the other hand, you are lost. Got to admit it. Receding somewhere off to your right, the safety and civilization of Thailand, an American trading partner and pal; looming ever nearer on your left, the real-life repressive regime of Laos that some claim may be still holding MIAs in tiger cages. Trouble is, the fog and current have conspired to prevent you from getting to the good guy side. Specifically, there is a steaming mud flat in the middle of the river which you are the wrong side of. Minute by helpless minute you float in languid terror closer to alien territory. The situation has deteriorated to the point where the 12 year old Thai boy who is commander of this canoe is no longer making a pretense of being brave. In fact, he is blubbering. In the distance, muffled firecrackers are going off. No, wait; they're not firecrackers. They're AK-47s. This is it, you think. Slyvester Stallone's whole life flashes before your eyes.

Here's where the slow-mo of nightmare kicks in. Like a horror flick doing special effects, your eyes zoom through the fog to the ghostly black silhouette of Laotian village life on the shore a stone's throw away. You see the profile of an enemy bicycle pumping slowly towards you. You see the cone-shaped peasant hat bobbing slowly up and down. You see the pajama-like clothes flapping slowly in the wind. And then you see this thing happening, this thing that looks like a sharp-shooting rifle being pointed directly at you -- but which turns out to be a long skinny arm lifting through the veils of fog in a stately, miraculous, family-like wave.

A wave. One after the other, you kiss your British nurses on the lips ... better than three prom queens, lined up in a row.

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