From tour guide to genuine friend

Jonny reached across the tuk-tuk to pat my leg, smiling as per usual. "Ben," he said, raising his voice to be heard above the engine, "remember, I am not the tour guide any more, I'm Jonny. So we just normal friends now, OK?"

I smiled. That was fine with me - I'd never been just normal friends with a Laotian before. I settled back in the tuk-tuk as the lights of Luang Prabang rushed past, welcoming the breeze that comes with dodgy open-air transport.

It was nice to have a friend, because I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Half an hour ago, Jonny was just my normal tour guide, showing me around his home town. We'd done the usual touristy stuff: temples, tuk-tuks and a shot of snake whiskey.

As it came time to part ways, however, Jonny had an idea.

"Ben, do you know how to play badminton?" he'd asked.

"Sure," I said, despite the fact I have no idea how to play badminton. I've seen it played during the Olympic TV coverage when Australians aren't winning medals in anything and they have to fill the air time - that would be enough to bluff my way through, right?

Wrong. "OK," Jonny said, "then maybe you can come with me to my badminton game tonight. We need one more person to play doubles."

This was clearly the point where I should have 'fessed up to my complete lack of experience when it comes to badminton.

Fudging your way through a conversation about badminton is one thing - actually swinging a racquet is another.

But something held me back. See, you might meet hundreds of people on your travels but it's rare that you get to have an experience with locals as an equal. As just normal friends. (Or, in the case of the sport we were about to play, as a vastly inferior guest.)

So I told Jonny I was in; we hailed a tuk-tuk and whizzed through the night towards what my new friend was referring to as the "stadium", which, again, was concerning.

I spent most of the ride trying to remember how a game of badminton works. I was pretty sure it was like tennis, except with a shuttlecock instead of a ball; a high net instead of a low one; and players who are Asian instead of teenagers from Russia.

Eventually we arrived at Sirivong Badminton Stadium, which is an austere title for what is in essence a large shed with huge banks of fluorescent lights to brighten the four courts inside.

Jonny slipped out of his tour-guiding gear and into his sports outfit and I realised this was, once again, one of those moments when I should have admitted my uselessness. There I was in hiking boots, knee-length cargo shorts and an old T-shirt. There were Jonny and his two friends equipped with indoor sports shoes, tennis shorts and what I assumed were proper badminton shirts.

Jonny's friends didn't speak much English but they smiled and greeted me with a "sabaidee" before launching into a conversation with Jonny that involved plenty of mentions of the word "falang" (which means foreigner) and what I can only assume are the Lao words for "hiking boots".

"So you can play well?" asked Sith, the unfortunate volunteer to be my playing partner for the night.

"Um, you might have to coach me a little bit," I replied.

All around us matches were going on - very high-quality matches. It looked just like those games from the Olympics. People were leaping in the air and smashing shuttlecocks at each other, diving into corners and whipping returns back with deft flicks of the wrist. This was going to be a disaster.

Our turn finally came when a court was free and we trotted on for a warm-up. By this point the big falang in the silly shoes had attracted a crowd so I had some extra pressure to deal with, aside from working out how to get the shuttlecock over the net and how to run in hiking boots.

How did I go with that? Badly. Not disastrously but definitely badly. Sith and I were beaten in straight sets despite him being by far the best player on the court.

He'd slap perfectly placed shots across the net, then I'd completely miss the return and lose us the point. Still, Jonny didn't seem to mind. He patted me on the back after the game, gave me another of those dazzling Lao smiles and offered to take me to a bar for a Beerlao. Now that, I'm good at.

So the two of us set off into the night, Laotian and Australian, tour guide and tourist, people from two different worlds.

But now, hopefully, we were just normal friends.

Have you ever become 'normal friends' with a tour guide or other local you met while travelling?