diarrhea

The Long Road to Kratie

by Chris Tharp

(The following is an excerpt from my recently-published book, The Worst Motorcycle in Laos: Rough Travels in Asia, available now via Amazon and other fine booksellers. Enjoy.)

I shouldn’t have eaten the curry. I should have just let it be. It was nasty stuff—putrid, watery, and unnaturally green—like some sort of chunky algae bloom. The chicken was undercooked, and shards of stringy bamboo floated in the swamp of a sauce. I should have taken the whole thing out back, behind the fetid shack containing the joint’s kitchen, and poured it onto the ground for the village’s free-roaming pigs to slop up. I should have just gone to bed unfed and hungry. After all, the human body can go weeks without any food at all. What was one night? I’d be fine. Despite some lean times in the past, my pampered American ass had never known real, prolonged hunger—yet ten hours without a bite and my body was in panic mood. I was ravenous and that was that, so I sucked down every last oily drop.

It was now two days later and my intestinal tract was in a state of civil war. I was nauseous and fevered and the spigot had opened wide. Hot blasts—explosive, violent, and unpredictable—rumbled forth in unstoppable volleys from deep within my bowels. I was sweaty, weak, unshaven, and filthy. I had been wearing the same pair of olive shorts and faded green Seattle Supersonics T-shirt for over a week now, ever since my backpack—containing the rest of my clothes, along with three hundred dollars cash —had disappeared from the belly of a long-distance bus. My one pair of underwear had since been abandoned in a guesthouse trash bin. I was in a state. For all of her tropical emerald splendors, Laos—Southeast Asia’s sleepiest country—had treated me roughly. It was time to get the hell out, so I boarded a white minibus that trundled across the border and into the realm of her tough little sister, Cambodia.

The road south was a moonscape of craters and potholes, punctuated by large, loose stones. The going was slow and bumpy, constantly rocking and jostling the poor bus’s chassis, not to mention its unfortunate cargo of passengers. I settled into the seat and gripped tightly, shuddering with each groan of the vehicle’s frame. Every crevasse in the road sent shockwaves through my ravaged body and agitated the liquids within. I then felt the furnace ignite: Old Faithful was ready to blow, but alas, there was no toilet, no bucket—nothing on this dwarf of a bus. I’d have to ride it out. So I locked my jaw and endured each bump in grim silence, focusing my thoughts into one mantra that echoed throughout my being over the next two hours of rutted road hell:

Keep it clenched. Keep it clenched. Keep it clenched.

The need to release came in waves, which prompted all the muscles in my body—not just those at the gate—to flex and tighten as I staved off the overwhelming pressure. The old bus shook and shuddered as it groaned down the calamity of a road, while I just concentrated on breathing and keeping the gasket sealed. It took every reserve of willpower and discipline, but I eventually managed to gain control. I only hoped—not just for my sake, but also that of my fellow passengers—that I could maintain this upper hand. The alternative would be catastrophic.

We rolled down the dusty track through desiccated rice fields. It was the middle of dry season, and the lush Cambodian countryside was now painted shades of brown. The air was grey and hazy from the farmers slash-burning their fields. Buffalo stood in the dusty paddies, some tied to posts, stupidly staring as we passed by. At one point we reached a small settlement; the bus pulled off to the side, stopped, and the driver opened the door.

Salvation.

I grabbed my small green bag containing my valuables—the only thing that hadn’t walked away during that fateful journey in Laos—and made my way off the vehicle. We had stopped in front of an open-air wooden shack selling some bottled water, canned drinks, cigarettes, bags of chips and cookies, as well as other snacks. I guessed this was what passed for a truck stop in Cambodia. We were suddenly set upon by four teenage girls carrying baskets of white boiled eggs on their heads, which they quickly brought down for our perusal.

“You buy-eee? You-buy-eee? You buy-eee?” they pleaded in a singsong chorus. I ducked away, weighed down by more immediate and pressing thoughts. I looked to the man sitting behind the drinks table. He wore shorts and sandals and puffed away on a cigarette. He stared back with bloodshot indifference.

“Toilet? Toilet?” I pleaded.

He pointed to a cardboard sign tacked on a support beam near his head. It read, WC, followed by a crudely drawn arrow pointing to the left.

“Thanks,” I nodded, and headed off.

“NO! NO! NO!” The man was on his feet as I turned back. He held out his palm and slapped it with his other hand.

Of course. There is no such thing as a free shit in Southeast Asia: pay to spray.

“Okay okay. How much?” I hissed.

He jerked his finger back toward the sign. I had missed the fine print, scrawled tiny underneath: 1,000 RIEL.

I took out my wallet and peered inside. I had a small wad of Lao kip and some US dollars, but no Cambodian riel. I had neglected to convert any cash at the border.

His eyes bulged from his sockets as he growled again for money.

“Lao kip? Lao kip okay?” I asked.

“No no no no.” He waved the bills away.

“Uh… dollars? American dollars?”

“Dollars yes!” His hand became possessed with renewed vigor.

I fingered through my greenbacks, looking for a dollar bill. Twenty, twenty, ten—no! Shit! Twenty… please—okay—one dollar!

I handed him the wrinkled note and he made change, returning a crumpled fistful of nearly worthless riel.

I fled without a “thanks” and headed toward the toilet, feeling a steamy gurgling inside. It was on. Another sign directed me around the side of the building, where things got very muddy. I slogged toward the rickety out structure on which a WC sign had been nailed, taking care not to step in the most treacherous bits. Scrawny chickens clucked, scratched, and pecked at the edge of the muck, while their terrorized offspring scurried and screeched at the sight of me. A fat black pig grunted just feet away. Clumps of its dark shit punctuated the even darker mud.

When I finally reached the haven of the lone toilet stall, I grabbed the crude wooden handle and gave the door a yank. It moved a half inch then stopped. It was latched from inside.

“For fuck’s sake.” I mumbled, squeezing my ass cheeks together with the strength of an Olympic wrestler.

I shuffled my weight and looked to the smoky sky. “Please please please please please.”

My eyes went back to the door in a search for movement. Nothing. Okay, okay. No problem. I figured that another one of the bus’s passengers must be inside, so it couldn’t take too long. I drummed on my thighs and rocked in place as I waited for him to emerge.

“Come on come on come on come on come on.”

No one emerged.

My patience exhausted, I knocked on the door. “Hello? Hello?”

I could hear some shuffling inside, followed by an audible but unintelligible response.

“Hello?”

Movement.

“Please. It’s an emergency!”

More movement.

I knocked again. This was met with a garbled yell, causing me to step away.

I stood in agony for three more minutes. I sighed and grabbed at my hair. I growled deep in my throat. I moaned and spit. I looked to the static door and imagined laser beams shooting forth from my eyes, turning the thing to ash in a matter of seconds.

“Jesus cunting Christ.”

I approached once more and slammed with an open palm.

“HEY! HEY!”

Again, I was met with human voice, but again, I couldn’t make out what it was saying. Was it even language? It sounded like some sort of groaning. Whoever was in there was my only hope.

I banged again, harder.

“OPEN THE FUCK UP!!!”

Nothing.

I waited for another minute, or two. The situation was now untenable: it simply could not go on any longer. I looked down at my feet, at the wet earth. Surely I could just squat, right there, and release the boiling contents of my bowels onto this already filthy mud. It must have been done many times before.

Fuck it.

I thumbed the loop of my belt and began to yank it out of the buckle, only to be startled by a prolonged, loud—

HONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNK!

It was the minibus. I looked over to the road. The little white bus had begun to pull out. The driver—along with most all of the passengers—was looking my way.

HONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNK!

He angrily waved for me to come back on board. I was holding them all up.

“NO NO NO NO NO NO!”

HONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNK!                               

I slunk back onto the bus, defeated, demoralized, and ready to murder. I had yet to unleash the volcano simmering in the tubes of my ass, and it was another two hours’ rugged ride to our destination. I gingerly sat back down in my seat and cursed our animal state. Why is so much of life dictated by base physical needs? Eating, breathing, fucking, itching, hurting, pissing, and shitting? All of these things form a kind of tyranny that none of us can escape, and I was now locked away in its harshest gulag.

As the bus began to pull onto the road, I threw my gaze one last time toward the rickety outhouse. The door suddenly burst open and out staggered a man—a wretched, ugly man—steeping in obscene amounts of booze, or worse. He was heinously dirty and clothed in greasy, stained rags. His hair was long, matted, and wild, and a wispy beard sprung haphazardly from his chin. His eyes were empty black holes, and he swayed from side to side in a half-assed attempt to stay upright. The guy probably didn’t even know what country he was in, let alone village or toilet, and he had the appearance of someone in the wicked throes of a six-day gas-huffing binge. Who knows? Maybe that’s what he was doing in outhouse. Whatever the case, I was shit out of luck.

kratie_colonial_french_building

The town of Kratie—appropriately pronounced “Crotchy”—is a rotting and neglected burg built up on the muddy banks of the Mekong River. After several hours of enduring a slow grind over one of Asia’s worst-maintained roads, we had made it—or, more importantly—I had made it. The village was saved! The dike managed to hold back the sea! A catastrophe was indeed averted, and as soon as the bus pulled into that sad little station, I jumped out and broke into a near-sprint (as much as could be allowed), looking for any sign reading “Hotel.” I frantically stumbled along the town’s crumbling sidewalks, scanning the streetscape for any hint of shelter, and lucky for me it, didn’t take long before my wish came to fruition. There it was, like a golden palace in the clouds, above which sang a host of harmonizing angels:

KRATIE HOTEL

I shot through the front door and slapped my passport on the counter.

“How much for your best room?”

“Fifteen dollars, sir.”

“Done.”

I grabbed the key and limped up the stairs to my fourth-floor room—this hotel’s version of a presidential suite. Upon opening the door I was greeted with a cavernous cell—high ceilings, two beds, and a couple of paintings depicting glacial mountain scenes—so Khmer! The artwork in Southeast Asian hotels is always a random mish-mash: shots of Norwegian fjords, sultry African women, and glossy photographs of soccer players or Italian sports cars. It’s actually rare to see a painting that actually reflects the local scenery, say, of a boat floating down a palm-tree lined river, elephants frolicking in a jungle pool, or renditions of tuk-tuks making their way down steamy, crowded side streets.

I tossed my small green bag onto one of the beds and made straight for the bathroom. My shorts were off before I even got to the door and I was on the toilet like the finalist of a high-stakes game of musical chairs. As soon as I felt the first trace of the cool seat on my cheeks, I let loose, blasting the white ceramic bowl with the strength and velocity of a fire hose. This was a pure, concentrated cascade that reverberated around the room with sonic intensity. It sounded like TV static followed by bursts from a large-caliber machine gun. I was astounded: never had I heard fluids leaving the body with such total ferocity. When nature wants to expel, she does it something fierce. I was a human pressure washer, and was glad that I shelled out those extra bucks for the extra-strength, triple-engineered toilet. This was the first in what would be many unholy volleys that night, so I was putting it to the test.

The relief I felt after that session went straight to the center of my soul. I was still weak and pukey, but for the first time all day I could relax my muscles, which ached from spending hours in a constant state of tension. I took the opportunity to take a quick meander around central Kratie, which was a crowded town. I felt eyes upon me as I strolled through the streets looking for a pharmacy. Tuk-tuks and motorbikes slowed down to take me in. Across from the hotel was the town’s central market; the ancient black roof looked like it would cave in at any minute. An army of small motorbikes was parked outside in uneven lines and jagged clusters. Rain-stained streaks wept down the sides of buildings and huge patches of black mildew bloomed like cancer. The whole place reeked of provincial decay.

After buying some much-needed water, I found a small pharmacy that consisted of one counter underneath a flickering fluorescent light. A short, chubby woman sat on a stool and addressed me in Khmer. I looked at her, pointed to my asshole, rubbed my stomach, shook my head and said, “No. No.”

She knew the gig right off, got up, and handed me a packet of six stupidly huge white pills.

Sorted.

Five Things I’m Telling Myself to Feel Better about not Going to Thailand this Winter

It’s that time of year again, when expats in Korea either head to Thailand to lounge in hammocks and drink rum, or stay behind to freeze our asses off and read the facebook updates of the assholes our friends who did go. I love Thailand, but this winter I’m not going, so it’s more important to remind myself of all the things that suck about it. In no particular order, these are the 5 things I’m telling myself to feel better about not going to Thailand this winter.

The runs

If you stay in Thailand for any length of time, you’ve got coin-flip odds of getting diarrhea. Thai food is great, and often it’s even prepared under sanitary conditions, but it’s probably very different from WC helpwhatever you’re eating most of the time. Along with anxiety, allergies, and an odd microbe or two, this may cause you to suffer from common traveler’s diarrhea, so-called because you could have avoided it by staying the fuck home.

If you’re unlucky and ingest some E. coli or campylobacter, you get what might be better termed sick person’s diarrhea, which is caused by contaminated food and water in some of the shadier establishments dotting the Thai culinary landscape. In most cases, antibiotics will clear it up, but in the meantime you will crap yourself silly for days or weeks.  The thought that my friends are right now squatting over a toilet for the 10th time today is something I hate to consider – not because my friends might be suffering, but because thinking about people shitting is gross.

The Chinese Hordes

Move over Ugly American and nouveau riche Korean – for a few years now, there’s been a new tourist asshole on the scene. As China’s economy has gained steam in the past decade or so, phalanxes of camera-toting Chinese tourists have descended on places like Phuket, Koh Samui, and Pattaya, and woe to you if you stand between them and their itinerary objectives. Thanks to this phenomenon, I now know what it sounds like when one hundred people smash crabs open with wooden mallets at an otherwise mellow beach resort; I’ve learned that a beach bag, hat, and towel left on a poolside chair does not signal “occupied” in some cultures, and I more fully understand that the capacity for tourist ugliness is universal.

chinese1

Chinese swimming pool. No, really.

Part of me sincerely cheers the hardscrabble rise of the Chinese middle class and recognizes it as one of the great economic success stories of the last decade. But it gets hard to maintain that enthusiasm when they swarm like sunscreen-slathered locusts on the beaches of Southeast Asia, turning once-spacious strands into the crushing mass of humanity I went there to get away from in the first place. I’m genuinely happy that tens of millions of Chinese George Jeffersons are finally getting their day in the sun; I would just rather not witness it from a deck chair.

Isn’t there, like, a coup d’etat or something brewing?

redshirt2010

Who you calling a bumpkin, motherfucker?

Politically, Thailand is fucked up. In case your travel agent neglected to mention it, the story in a nutshell is that a coalition of urban elites and middle class (called the People’s Democratic Reform Committee) are trying like hell to oust the current prime minister and to suspend democracy in favor of appointed councils of smart, rich people, because they argue that the elections are too easily bought in the countryside, where the people are ignorant and unsophisticated. This of course doesn’t go over too well in the countryside among the “Red Shirts”, the aforementioned bumpkins who are in the odd position of upholding democracy by electing members of the same oligarch family every few years in exchange for pork-barrel projects and basic social services (which doesn’t sound terribly unlike the normal functioning of many Western democracies to me, but I digress).

During the last election on February 2nd, PDRC members obstructed voting in some places, and the results of this compromised election are still not finalized as of this writing one week later. There are still whispers of a coup, and if the democratically-elected government is overthrown, the Red Shirts have promised to raise holy hell as they did in 2010, when they rioted for several days and burned down buildings before being brutally squelched by the army.

What does this mean for travelers? Not much – for now – though it’s probably wise to avoid large gatherings and flammable buildings, which is to say, Bangkok. And if some major shit goes down in the capital, you may be a witness to history in the form of stray bullets, disrupted air travel, and the mall you are shopping in being burned to a husk.

Half-naked Europeans

speedos-001

Ja, diese are mein arsche und balls, ja.

I admire the liberal European attitude toward exposed flesh. They’re much more comfortable in their own skins than us puritanical Americans, and they love to let it show. But there’s a price: for every chiseled Adonis or 22—year-old Swedish bird sunning her rack there are twenty porcine German men in Speedos with their junk framed in such detail that you could pick their willies out of a police lineup with embarrassing certainty.

The women are no better. There are lots of breasts in this world that I don’t need to see; and some, like the flaccid, sun-freckled udders flapping on the ample bellies of 70-year-old French schoolmarms, that I would pay money to un-see. The scars run deep.

Mosquitoes and friends

In Thailand, every season is mosquito season, though some places are worse than others. Many otherwise fine evenings outdoors are marred by the little bloodsucking beasts, especially if you’re caught outside without repellent. If you’re really unlucky, you might be one of the tens of thousands of people who get dengue fever in Thailand every year.

And dengue transmission rates are getting worse.   In 2012, 70,000 people contracted dengue fever in Thailand. In 2013, the number was more than double that and was the highest figure for dengue fever in twenty years. The good news is that you probably won’t be one of the scores of victims who will die mosquito2howling in agony as acute dengue causes your gastrointestinal tract to hemorrhage, plasma to leach from your blood vessels, and your vital organs to shut down. I mean, what are the chances?

You can also take some comfort in knowing that it’s relatively difficult to get malaria or Japanese encephalitis, both of which affect thousands of poor saps every year in the Land of Smiles. Those diseases are mostly limited to the border areas near Cambodia and Myanmar, though, considering that much of Thailand lies on a narrow isthmus it shares with Myanmar, that’s effectively a third of the country.

Still, it would be a shame to let that stop you from having a fantastic time in Thailand this winter. The best thing to do is cover up with DEET, sleep under a net, and pray for bedbugs.