Following My Fixer into the Underground in Laos


Following My Fixer into the Underground in Laos
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

When an adventurous traveler leaves the itinerary up to his newfound local guide in Laos, he gets more than he bargained for as a betting match between gangsters goes bad.

Laos travel

Kevin was my fixer in Laos.  You don't have to look for guys like Kevin because they find you.

They are that in-your-face crowd of tuk-tuk, taxi, and private car drivers that hang outside third world airport baggage claim areas like wolves waiting to pick off straggling sheep. They are overpowering the first time you encounter them; easily dismissed as hustlers trying to make a buck, but those in the know learn not to sell them short. Over the years I have become convinced they are some sort of secret brotherhood, maybe akin to the Illuminati who operate from the shadows, worldwide, sharing secret esoteric knowledge that they impart to travelers in small doses as the money changes hands. They make things happen.

Most visitors ignore them, fearing to make eye contact en route to their liveried hotel drivers and pre-paid shuttle buses. They are full of fear, perhaps from the stories told of these strangers absconding with a visitor into the back alleys of Bangkok or Shanghai and leaving the body in a dumpster. But I seek them out as part of the great-kept travel secrets of the developing world. There is nothing they cannot provide and nowhere they will not take you for a price. They are on call around the clock to seek out dens of iniquity, drugs, booze, women, or maybe just the only hamburger available in a mud hut village. 

When you land on enough dirt runways in nowhere Africa or hell and gone Asia, you get a feel for which one is right for you but there is still a dance of protocol to be observed before any deals are struck. This takes place on the ride to the hotel where you make small talk about families, children, where you are from and what you are doing there. No matter where you are from they have a relative who lives there and even though they might be Hamas or Arab brotherhood they all profess to love America, especially California. Business trumps politics or religion in the back of a tuk-tuk or taxi.

Kevin in Laos

Then there are the names. This is where they show mercy to westerners who seem incapable of pronouncing indigenous tribal handles. When you step off the plane in Ouagadougou or Marrakesh, they introduce themselves as Ken, Chuck, or Bob. When I landed in Chang Rai I knew Kevin was my guy right away, all five feet of him with his caterpillar mustache (that for some reason made me think of a Puerto Rican gigolo) to his mirrored aviator shades. He had the right swagger and was such a cliché I had to hire him.

He immediately proved me right when he informed me that the hotel I had booked was a dump and proceeded to take me to a nicer one for half the price. Along the way he set the hook deeper by opening the cooler in his back seat to reveal ice cold Russian Standard Vodka. Now that's what I call a fixer.

Over a drink we negotiated a daily rate for his services and I let him know I was not your average tourist but there to see people and places most visitors do not know exist. After making it clear this did not include prostitutes, drugs, or young boys, I said, "Surprise me."

Gangster Wealth and Fighting Birds

I like to leave myself open to whatever happens on these journeys because that is when the best and most unexpected stories come to me, and yet, I often have reason to regret such cavalier remarks. An hour later as we turned down our second dark alley, it was quickly becoming one of those times. All the stories about shady drivers that whisk you out of the city, steal your fake Rolex, and sell you to packs of father-rapers in the hinterlands ran through my mind. That part of the city was darker than Gotham as Kevin had driven me to a steel and concrete Mordor.

As we cruised along the lightless alley at less than walking speed, I thought of jumping out and running for my life when a large steel gate on a ten-foot wall began to slide back and we pulled into a private estate with an enormous vacant lot in the rear filled with ultra-high-end cars. An industrial strength spotlight kept watch over the entire lot. Remember we were in rural Laos, a place where you do not expect to see a Ford or Chevy, let alone a Porsche, Ferrari, or Austin Martin, all of which were in abundance. I flashed on the scene from The "Godfather" when it showed the FBI checking all the fancy license plates at the wedding of Don Corleone's daughter and it was not far off the mark.

A beefy local waved Kevin to a parking place and we walked past what I thought was a large sump tank or perhaps a pig pen. It turned out to be a mini-arena for cockfights complete with bleachers, flood lights, and PA system. This thunder dome for birds had obviously seen much use. The walls were hung with large colorful posters of victorious fighting birds and the enormous amounts of money they had generated. Macho looking guys in cowboy hats stood around with beer bottles and ganja wafted pleasantly along on the evening breeze.

Cockfighting is a big money event in this part of Asia and I had never been to one. While I do not approve of blood sports that involve animals, I was pleasantly relieved when Kevin informed me that in Laos the cocks do not wear the razor sharp spurs that they do in Thailand, so other than some feather loss neither bird gets seriously injured. So I thought, "Let the games begin." But then, things got weird very quickly.

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Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails

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Tears, Fear and Adventure

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