A Piranha in Laos
I will never forget the screams of those floating Germans.
There I was, belly up on a scorching tube, drifting down the guts of the Mekong River, when a tiny fish decided to take the toe of a Deutschland-hailing backpacker.
And by take, I mean bite the fuck off.
As I attempted, in vain, to keep any stray limb or rogue butt cheek from entering the water, I couldn’t help but contemplate the end to my short and, let’s be honest, rather uneventful life.
At the prospect of my final hour coming by tooth of a Laotian piranha, I was pretty bloody disappointed. Not only would I fail to fulfill my destiny as Louis Theroux’s second wife, but I was also meant to be heading India-way in two days time and I really wanted to see the Taj. Like, heaps.
So you can see how this impromptu fish attack was screwing with my travel plans.
What with the splashing and the schizers and the general stench of fear pervading the river water (probably just attracting more aggressive fish, like sharks to blood), it was hard to believe that only hours earlier I had woken up next to a lovely bearded Australian and spent a morning trying to look effortlessly sexy in a hammock. (It’s harder than you think.)
To paint a picture, the aforementioned bearded Australian and I had been enjoying a few weeks of sweet fuck all on Laos’ Don Det, one of the 4000 islands that make up the Mekong archipelago of Si Phan Don.
Nestled in the southernmost point of Lao Lao and snuggled into a corner of Cam Cam, Don Det is a barefoot island known for its languid tubing and beachside bonfire.
Seasoned, frequently dreadlocked and quite often hippie travellers come to the island to sample its (fairly potent) grass, feast on laarb gai and escape the drunken bravado of gap-year bandits.
We’d come to Don Det to do all of the above. With an emphasis on the ganja.
You see, Don Det has struck a sweet deal with the local boat mafia slash police wherein villagers are allowed to grow and deal in as much herb as they want, with no repercussions. I’ve no idea why the powers-that-be would choose to turn a blind eye, but hey – no one’s complaining.
Perhaps that’s why the mini-Jaws situation came as such a rude surprise. After existing in a paradisiacal world of sun-kissed skin, happy pizzas and booze before midday, finding yourself swimming with a predatory fish can actually be quite confronting.
So confronting was it that all I could do was shout, “Fuck!” really loudly and laugh. Because I am an appropriate person.
While I did my best fish-out-of-water impression, the bearded Australian was slightly more level-headed about things. Clutching his wang (for protective purposes) and gripping his tube, he preceded to hero paddle over to the flotilla of crying Germans. It was really kind of hot.
There were three of them. Two dudes on tyres and one super panicked chick on a deflating lilo. They were holding hands. They looked like a very sad, waterlogged prayer group.
“Please you must help us. We are under attack,” said German number one.
“It’s eaten my toe,” said German number two.
“I am sinking,” said German number three.
“Fuck,” I said in reply.
“Well, you should stop floating around here and just get out of the water mate,” said the ever-practical bearded Australian.
After a few minutes of back and forth, and much waving of bloodied limbs, we soon came to realise that this shell-shocked trio had zero understanding of water currents. They were in the middle of the Mekong, attempting to paddle upstream using one hand and very minimal foot submersion. They were getting nowhere fast.
So, grabbing the leg of the person in front we formed a chain, with Beard leading the way and me taking up the rear. We looked like a sopping Sound of Music cast, minus the cheery fraulein. It was also an inappropriate time to sing, considering the gaping bite wound on the man up ahead.
Never before had I been in such a dire emergency. I’m not a paramedic or a firefighter or a heart surgeon. I’m a writer. The only emergencies I deal with are cases of errant apostrophes and mistaken uses of passive voice.
But back on dry land, and after a liberal dousing of antiseptic, I realised that my brush with a piranha was in fact a life lesson. A travel life lesson. A goddamn piranha life lesson. And here’s what I learned:
- Preparedness with a first aid kit should never be laughed at. Never. Those Germans would be sporting a much more severe flesh wound if it wasn’t for my impressive travel kit. Bandages, bandaids, syringes – I had the works. The medication shit was sorted. I was basically their savior. You also need to be good with blood. None of that fainting business. Dealing with piranhas means dealing with the red stuff.
- You do think of your family at the end. At the prospect of what would assumedly be a gruesome death, I couldn’t help but think of my family. Would my mum receive some door-knocking, somber-faced policeman bearing news that I had died from a bite to the nether regions? Or would the authorities opt for a cold text – “Ur eldest daughter has suffered a fatal accident involving her left boob and a predatory fish. Soz. Pick up only.”
- Not everyone wishes they’d worked less. I sure as hell didn’t. Mainly because it would have been impossible for me to have worked less and not been classified unemployed. Actually, I wished I had worked more. That way I could have actually purchased travel insurance.
- Sometimes, you just gotta laugh. Like, come on, you just saw a German dude cry because he was scared of a fish. That’s hilarious.
The next day, I decided to ask a local woman about the attack. Through a series of onomatopoeia and just a little bit of mime, I managed to communicate the story of the biting fish. She looked at me, laughed and said, “Oh yes, yes. That Pao Pao – the Pao Pao of Lao Lao.”
She appeared unfazed and proceeded to bathe her child in the river.