Moonshine With a Monkey on the Mekong in Laos
By James Michael Dorsey

Going to the source of where "snake whiskey" is made and bottled in the jungle, a traveler gets pulled into a drinking contest with a primate.


I was falling off the map in central Laos, heading upriver against the currents of the Mekong through country that made me feel like Joseph Conrad sailing into his heart of darkness.

My destination was a moonshiner I had heard of who worked deep in the jungles north of Luang Prabang. After several beers I shook hands with a river man who was willing to buck the river currents to take me there.

Bridge and dock

For two hours there was nothing but searing heat and jungle as our questionable craft coughed, wheezed and stalled several times along the way drifting us backwards with each pause. The lush towering jungle of teak and bamboo rose straight up out of the water line for two hundred feet. Trembling tree branches betrayed invisible monkeys and occasionally launched an egret skyward. It was the kind of country where you might expect to see Tarzan swing by. Once a line of water buffalo spooked at our approach while drinking, but mostly there was just impenetrable green. Near shore several dragon flies came to give us a look, floating on the breeze that skated over the river where ladies in wide brimmed sampan hats stood on boulders and dipped umbrella nets over and over to scoop up countless minnows.

My attention was fixed on those boulders that broke the waterline every few yards causing numerous jetties that easily became boat swallowing whirlpools. It was extreme country and yet countless people lived in there, invisible to most of the world. I was looking for one.

My boatman put me ashore in the middle of nowhere on a rotting bamboo walkway on stilts that disappeared into a decaying old village. He said he would return for me that evening, which is as good as a traveler can get for an agreed upon time in the jungle. I walked as though treading on butterflies expecting at any moment for the thing to collapse under my weight and deposit me in the feces-colored Mekong. When I stepped ashore I knew it was the right place.

Mekong still

Making Magic From Rice, Metal Junk, and Animals

It was a full-scale moonshine operation, from a rice processor to a homemade still and bottles, run by a gentleman who called himself Kamdee, or maybe it was Bambee. It was hard to tell as drink had already slowed his speech. He bid me sit down and immediately handed me a shot glass full of his homemade nectar; a glass that I doubt had ever known soap. Now, had I walked in on such an operation in the American Ozarks or Appalachia I might have been met by a shotgun, but being the one and only customer of the moment, in the middle of a beastly wild jungle, I was more than welcome.

His clear liquid slid down my throat like lava to the sea and I am sure my esophagus is scarred forever, but there was an impeccably great aftertaste. It was the right mixture of sour and sweet with enough fire to fuel a jet engine. As moonshine goes, his was superior. I began to sweat and took in my surroundings to buy time for my voice to start working.

Under a shed that leaned dangerously downhill there were numerous terra cotta pots of all sizes filled with fermenting rice. An old 50-gallon oil drum standing on end over a wood fire acted as the still, with various scrap parts of garden hoses connecting everything. Several makeshift shelves held aging glass bottles filled with yellow liquid with what I assumed was formaldehyde that preserved a ghoulish array of deceased snakes and rodents. Against another wall were turtle shells, animal skulls, horns, hooves and teeth. “Museum,” was Mr. Kamdee’s one-word explanation. The place more closely resembled that of a witch doctor than a moonshiner. Mr. Kamdee handed me a second shot of his lethal drink and began a running discourse in Lao that I assumed was an explanation of his process. For those of us who are alcohol-distilling challenged, he had hung a crude drawing that explained the process nearby. 

Distilling chart Lao Lao whisky

The finished whiskey flowed slowly out of the oil drum, down a used curtain rod, into a filthy rag that acted as a filter on its way into a jar, a most simple operation. The entire place was constructed of the detritus that most people would call junk but in the jungle becomes most useful. Most of it probably came from the river. In a nearby tree a young parrot eyed me with curiosity while a monkey of unidentifiable species offered its hind end to me in greeting. I thought it was going to urinate on me but Mr. Kamdee informed me that it was how Mr. Tojo asks for a drink and with that he poured several small drops of whiskey into the monkey’s water bowl.

He lapped it up like a true boozer and pulled back his lips to reveal enormous teeth. I could not tell if he was smiling or gritting his teeth until the burn subsided. I went there fully prepared to drink with the man in order to get his story, but was not prepared for a monkey to make it a threesome. Monkeys are unpredictable at best let alone drunken ones in the jungle. And what if the monkey could outdrink me? I would never live that down. I was pondering this potential challenge to my ego when Mr. Kamdee brought out the snake box.

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Read this article online at: Moonshine With a Monkey on the Mekong in Laos

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2017. All rights reserved.

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Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails

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Tears, Fear and Adventure

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