Friday, September 2, 2016

The Good Times Roll by Maggie Downs

It’s just after 11 p.m. when the bartender tips my bottled beer into a plastic cup and shoves me out the door. I’m startled, and so are my new friends, some other backpackers I met a few days ago on a bus through the Laos countryside.

This is the night we learn that all businesses in Luang Prabang must close by 11:30 p.m. Doors are boarded, windows shuttered. Curfew begins at midnight, turning the dollhouse buildings of this picturesque town, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northern Laos, into more of a ghost town.

When the streets are nearly empty, that’s when the men appear. They slither back against the doorways, skulking in the shadows like Laotian Deep Throats. I walk a mile to my hostel with my friends, one American guy and a couple from New Zealand, and the men try to lure us in with whistles and whispers.

“Psst. You want bowling?” 
“Come get bowling.”


Their voices are husky, secretive. My friends and I agree, “bowling” is obviously code for something. Probably “opium den.”

We decline and stroll away in our flip-flops, making our way down a quiet dirt road. Other than the men who promise us bowling, Luang Prabang after dark is placid and serene, ruffled only by chirping insects and the shimmy of a breeze in the trees. We see the city by the glow of lanterns, illuminating colonial villas, gold-edged temples, and gentle green hills. 

A few days pass, and my friends and I are out in town again. After a particularly rousing evening of watery beer and board games, we’re having so much fun that we want the night to become elastic, to stretch even just a couple hours longer, to go as far as it can possibly go. The closer curfew creeps, the more determined we are to maintain this merriment. We can’t possibly return to the quiet hostel, not yet.

When a man pops out from behind a jasmine tree, we take him up on the offer. “Yes, we want bowling!” I reply, and he exhales with a long, low whistle to his buddy in a nearby cab.

The vehicle hardly looks road-worthy and smells musky, like mold and sweat. We clamber inside anyway, and the man ducks behind the jasmine tree once more. The driver turns up the Mariah Carey song on the radio, then steps on the gas.

The cab speeds outside the city limits, and I realize I have no idea where this steamy, summer night in Laos will take us. I’ve been backpacking for nine months at this point, solo and far from my home in California, and the dull hum of fear never leaves me. While people are vulnerable everywhere no matter where they go – that’s just the nature of being human – in this cab I’m acutely aware of it.

I keep my hand on the Buck knife in my pocket. If necessary, I can flip it open one-handed. I’ve practiced. There’s also a whistle clipped to my bag, though we’re so far outside of town, the roads are so empty, and we’re long past curfew. Who would ever hear it?

Twenty minutes later, the cab screeches to a halt in front of a dark, warehouse-like building. We pay the man, and he drives away. Our only option is to go inside.

The American, Nick, strides up to the door with an authoritative walk and pulls it open.

“Oh,” says my friend, Rose, the woman from New Zealand. She lets out a loud exhale, then laughs. “A bowling alley is the one thing I didn’t expect.”

Before us are 12 gleaming lanes, glossy balls, falling pins, the whole bit.

This, it turns out, is the epicenter of nightlife in Luang Prabang. While the government-enforced curfew keeps people off the streets past midnight, it can’t stop them from letting the good times roll.

The place resembles every bowling alley I’ve ever seen in my life. There’s the satisfying smack of the ball making contact with wood, the clatter of pins, the smell of cigarette smoke mingled with acrid socks. People are laughing, and the music is loud.

There’s only one major difference. Though the front wall is lined with garish green, white and red bowling shoes -- they’re adorably ugly in Laos too -- everyone has kicked their sandals off, and they’ve taken over the lanes with bare feet.

The drink menu is just two selections long. A bottle of beer is 20,000 kip ($2.60) or a full-sized bottle of whiskey for 30,000 kip ($3.90). Easy choice. The whiskey is called Tiger, and the label boasts that this was “Finest blended SUPER Tiger Whisky Smooth and Mellon.” While I wouldn’t say Tiger is a smooth sipping whiskey, it’s the kind of whiskey one might pour into a car as a last-ditch effort when the gasoline tank runs empty.

Pop music blares from speakers, and all the Laotians sing along. I do my best to chime in, and some guys in the next lane over poke fun at me. I smile and sing louder.



It’s all good fun -- the drinks, the music, the terrible frames peppered with gutter balls. It reminds me of when I was 17 years old, defying all the rules set by adults. My friend Karen and I slipped out of so many slumber parties, hearts pounding, running through the neighborhood in our pajamas, willfully breaking curfew not for any real reason but to stay up late, laughing.

We don’t leave the bowling alley until it’s almost morning. Our cab has returned and is waiting for us. 

The city is dense with mist, slinking through the trees and draping the hills in a kind of lace. The monks are sleepy-eyed, just heading to the road in saffron robes to begin the daily alms walk. This place is beautiful, made even more magnificent by the kind of breathless night that seems to stretch forever. 

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Maggie Downs is a writer based in Palm Springs, California. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Roads & Kingdoms, BBC.com and Smithsonian, among other publications. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert. 

Judge's Comment: Laos: a laid-back little country off the beaten track, where barefoot saffron-clad monks gather alms on the banks of the Mekong. But no, here we are drawn into something different, darker: the unknown 'underworld' of breaking curfews in Luang Prabang...ending up in...nothing more sinister than a bowling alley! Great suspense, great humour.