What a spectacle!

To me, "bullfighting" means one thing: matador versus beast. Man versus wild. That classic duel so romanticised by Ernest Hemingway and so reviled by the rest of us outside the Latin world.

On paper, it can almost seem like a fair contest: able-bodied human armed with swords and the intelligence to plan tactics against a couple of tonnes of naked aggression with two large horns. Smarts and agility versus size and strength. But we all know the bull rarely wins. Noble? Hardly.

The fight I saw in Pamplona, Spain, was exciting for the first few minutes and then took on an increasingly sad inevitability as the wounded bull gamely fought on. Finding yourself secretly barracking for the doomed animal to gore the matador is a strange feeling. I'm not really sure what Hemingway saw in it.

I've avoided bullfights since. I'm not going to preach and tell other cultures how to live - but I'm not going to attend, either.

That's why the thought of checking out the Laotian version didn't really appeal. "There's a bullfight this afternoon, you have to see it," our driver, Son, had said as we'd jumped off his bus in the dusty streets of Phonsavan, in the country's east. "Just ask people, they will tell you where."

Bullfighting? In Laos? I dunno. Sometimes, however, curiosity just gets the better of good intentions. So off my friends and I went for a friendly outing to the bullfight, following the long line of Laotians making their way out of town. "You know, you're probably not going to like what we're about to see," my mate Russ said to the girls in our group. "Actually, I don't think I'm going to like what we're about to see."

Still, on we trudged until we got to a dusty clearing in the hills, a flat space that must have functioned as a football pitch the rest of the year. There, people had lined the banks of the surrounding hills, perched in place, waiting for the action to begin.

Finding a spot on the hill, we settled in behind a guy wearing a "Pmua" branded jacket and another wearing a motorbike helmet. Weird. We could see bulls being held in pens to the side of the clearing; one, worryingly, was tethered to a post just behind us. OH&S isn't a big deal in Laos.

Finally, there was a collective intake of breath as a bull was led into the middle of the clearing. Fight time. Still no sign of a matador - but then another bull was led in.

Just then, the penny dropped: in Laos, the bulls don't fight humans, they fight each other. Thus, the potential for disturbing gore had either just rapidly decreased, or perhaps increased, depending on how angry the bulls were.

The answer: not very.

The handlers, armed with long bamboo sticks, carefully positioned the bulls in front of each other, then made a mad dash for the safety of a nearby embankment. The crowd hushed on the edge of their patch of dirt as - nothing happened. The bulls eyed each other with frank uninterest for a few seconds, then began wandering off in opposite directions. What a spectacle!

The handlers sprang to action, goading the bulls back into fighting position with their bamboo poles. Still nothing. This called for drastic measures, which for bull handlers means using your bamboo stick to jab the animals in the testicles in the hope they'll get angry enough to at least butt heads.

The animals looked mildly confused by this poking to begin with, then eventually worked up the necessary aggression to ram into each other a few times, before one of them turned and ran off wildly into the distance. Everyone cheered. Fight over.

This process of position, goad and wait was repeated throughout the afternoon, with mixed success. The guy wearing the motorbike helmet was vindicated when one of the losing bulls fled from his fight straight up the embankment, charging into the crowd. It was the best entertainment of the day as locals and alarmed backpackers dived for cover.

Eventually the bull was caught, calmed and retethered. Crisis averted. No blood was spilt the entire day, in fact. Probably the only casualties were a couple of bruised testicles and the wounded pride of the spectators forced to flee up the embankment. As bullfighting goes, it was as family friendly an outing as you could hope for.

I'm always amazed at the unpredictability of travel. One minute you think you're going to check out war museums and have a quiet meal, the next thing you're sitting in some dusty field watching bulls being whacked in the balls while helmet-wearing Hmongs cheer.

Hemingway would probably have thought the whole thing a bit unseemly but I'll take the Hmong version of bullfighting any day.