It was Chinese New Year’s Day and I was in Pakse, southern Laos where the event is marked in style. I just didn’t know it until I found myself right at the very heart of the celebrations.
I’d arrived in Pakse the evening before and had joined straight in with the festivities. This obviously entailed having rather too much Lao-Lao – a rough, lethal rice whisky. How the Laotians have never sent a rocket up in to space fuelled by it I don’t know.
As a result I welcomed in the New Year feeling extremely delicate and gingerly went out in search of a late breakfast made up mainly of alcohol-soaking stodge.
There was no way I could have entered into conversation with anyone as my head was thumping and the nausea was threatening to manifest itself in a projectile fashion. I therefore staggered past the more Western establishments for fear of ending up with a European neighbour who was in the mood for chatting.
I instead chose a small noodle bar where I could see only locals inside.
The word ‘small’ does not, in fact, come anywhere close to describing quite how compact and bijoux the eating area was. Typically, Laotians are not especially tall but even me and my ungiant-like 5ft 8in stature pretty much filled all available head space in the room. It was a holiday and, like everywhere else, all the tables were occupied. We were elbow-to-elbow.
I would have to make this a brief visit before it the claustrophobia triggered a projectile incident.
It was that bad, anything at all could have set me off.
I ordered my noodles and waited.
And while I waited I became aware of a noise from outside that was getting louder and nearer. There had been excited singing and drumming throughout the night and this sounded like it was in the same vein.
I didn’t have to wait too much longer before the door burst open and, accompanied by an almighty din, in stormed the Pakse Chinese dragon. You know the one; operated by people in a line who manipulate the enormous head and long slithery body. It’s wheeled out to bring good luck and the bigger the dragon, the more luck it’s said to bring.
This was a behemoth of a dragon.
With it were lots of little dragons – local kids who were the ones making all the racket on tuneless drums. The tradition was that every single building must be visited by the dragon on New Year’s Day in order to receive the ‘blessing’ of good luck. To refuse it entry would be bad news.
And so there was nothing to do but let the bloody thing come in and dance around the tables as best it could. We were all swept up in its tail and under its costume as it tried valiantly to go from corner to corner of the tiny restaurant that already had no spare space.
It was horrific, it was actually like an actual real dragon had joined us and I was fully expecting it to breathe out flames any minute.
It certainly felt it had gone hot enough for there to be fire.
I was sweating both hot and cold. The rising nausea was now quivering in my throat, the unmistakable taste of bile beginning to collect in the saliva that was filling my mouth.
The big dragon and little dragons had somehow reached the half way point of the room and were now retreating towards the door, although the same feat lay ahead of negotiating the tiny space packed with diners.
It came level with my table and I looked it square in the eye. I could see its expression as the human inside regarded me curiously, wondering why on earth a ‘farang’ was in here, the tiniest restaurant imaginable with nothing but local Pakseans instead of being in any of the other Western options with other pasty types eating pizza.
We were, sadly, close enough for me to also smell the overwhelming perspiration of someone wearing a heavy outfit on a hot, humid day.
It was stifling.
I couldn’t bear it a minute longer. I wanted to get out.
And then the moment came where I had no choice. It was either exit immediately or give the diners a topping on their lunch they weren’t expecting.
The big dragon was still doing its dance, the little dragons were still banging their drums, but now they had competition for making it to the door.
To the bemusement of the diners and staff, I found myself physically wrestling with dragons both big and small in order to make it outside.
It was an ugly scene. I was basically fighting tooth and nail against the symbolic creatures there to do nothing more than bring good luck to anyone its path.
I succeeded in getting out before upchucking quite impressively on the pavement.
But, I fought the dragon.
And I won.