Down and Out in Laos

July 05, 2012

Multiple Pages
Down and Out in Laos

It’s a slow news week and I’m temporarily out of outrageous opinions, so here are my recollections of being down and out in Southeast Asia in 1972. Apologies to George Orwell, with whom I am not attempting to compete. I would not dare.

It took me three months—late June to late September—of pick-up work teaching English in Bangkok to scrape together the airfare back to my base of operations in Hong Kong, where I had friends and where, as a British citizen, I could stay as long as I pleased without permits or visas.

It was a rough three months. At a couple of points in those Bangkok days I was hungry—a thing which, if you ever experience it, you don’t soon forget. I arrived back in Hong Kong looking like “a bag of bones,” according to one sympathetic friend.

It didn’t help that I couldn’t afford the bribe fee (10,000 baht, i.e., $250) for a proper Thai residence permit. All I could afford were one-month visas. At the end of each month I took a ten-hour bus ride up to the border with Laos, got ferried across the Mekong in what I remember as a dugout canoe (though it can’t possibly have been that primitive), hitched a ride into the nation’s capital Vientiane, and went to the Thai embassy to apply for a new one-month Thai visa.

The visa took three or four days to process, during which I’d lodge at the bungalows, a collection of huts a mile or so outside Vientiane occupied mainly by foreign hippies—predominantly Australians—and random ne’er-do-wells such as myself.

“As bohemian as these adventures may sound in the telling, there were limits to how deep I was willing to venture into Bohemia.”

(That haircut notwithstanding, I never considered myself a hippie. I nursed, and still nurse, a strong dislike of hippies and hippiedom. Hippies of the middle, upper-middle, and rich classes were big children unacquainted with any kind of work or responsibility. Low-class hippies were generally rogues, if not psychopaths. Such, at any rate, was my experience.)

With the USAF’s assistance, Laos was earning its title as the most-bombed nation ever. Vientiane itself was not on the target lists. The bombing was going on further east and south to interdict traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail. I never heard a detonation myself, but the more seasoned bungalow-dwellers used to say that when Xiangkhouang (the next-door province to Vientiane and home to the famous Plain of Jars) was being hammered earlier in the war, you could hear the distant thud of the bombs in still weather.

The main evidence of the war for a visitor to Vientiane was as follows.

(1) The city’s small number of bars and restaurants had a mostly American clientele. These were burly guys in slacks and short-sleeved shirts who would casually tell you over a drink that they were “with the Agency,” i.e., the CIA, probably assuming that any other clean-shaven adult male round-eye was similarly employed. What else would any non-crazy non-hippie be doing in Laos? Laos was an ex-French colony and the restaurants were surprisingly good. The bars had some outré floor shows.

(2) Occasional units of the Royal Lao Army could be seen drilling shambolically behind chain-link fences or marching on the roads as one walked into the city. The average age of enlisted men looked to be about thirteen, their uniforms comically ill fitting, their stated duty being to defend Laos’s perfectly fictional neutrality.

(3) The bungalows, as well as the aforementioned bars and anywhere else catering to foreigners, were much frequented by young refugee girls.

The hippies, or at least that minority of them who deigned to take an interest in worldly affairs, would tell you that Laos was run by a clique of Chinese drug lords in cahoots with the CIA. This seems entirely possible. I have never been in a place where drugs were so easily available. You could buy a big plastic bag full of good-quality weed in the Vientiane open-air market for a few hundred kip; and the kip was trading at 830 per US dollar.

My bungalow roommate on one of the Vientiane trips, a Welshman named Colin, tried to get me to join him on an expedition to an opium den he’d heard about in the Vientiane suburbs. I balked, but Colin went to chase the dragon anyway. He reported back the following day, describing the experience as “indescribable.”

As bohemian as these adventures may sound in the telling, there were limits to how deep I was willing to venture into Bohemia.

Other recollections of 1972 Laos:

• Seeing gold openly on sale in stores all over—thick heavy rings and chains, and actual bars of the stuff. It would have been smart to buy some if I’d had any money. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

• Climbing up inside Vientiane’s Patuxai Gate with Colin. The structure was unsupervised and unguarded, and from the inside it seemed new, though Wikipedia says it was “built between 1957 and 1968.” We just went in and climbed up to the top.

• The hippies again. Most were happy to sit around at the bungalows all day, smoking weed with the refugee girls (the price of whose intimate favors was a meal and a place to sleep, with a spliff as gratuity), but there was an adventurous element. One group, from Denmark I think, was building a raft on which they planned to float all the way down the Mekong, Huckleberry Finn style, to Saigon. Whether they ever got waterborne, I don’t know. If they did and were able to survive more than the first ten miles through territory infested with units of the Viet Cong, Pathet Lao, and NVA, as well as minor drug barons and various Montagnard tribes still in the atlatl-and-blowpipe stage of technology, I should be very surprised to learn.

• The poverty. My imagination may have colored the memories somewhat, but I think Vientiane had no more than four or five paved roads. Certainly the quite-busy road in from the bungalows was nothing but mud on my second tour, when the rains were beginning. Outside the city, people were poor to a degree I have rarely seen. The nearest native residences to us were a row of huts built out over a muddy lake. The inhabitants would come out in the morning, lower big fish nets into the lake, then sit on their verandas, sometimes for hours, until intuition told them something had found its way into a net. Up came the net, with one or two scrawny six-inch fishes in it. That was the morning’s income.

• Lovely ancient stupas in out-of-the-way places, thick with lichen and moss. Even in the city, you’d turn a corner and find yourself face-to-face with one.

• A louche afternoon at the British Embassy in Vientiane. I sat on a pleasant veranda with a sympathetic functionary, drinking chilled vodka while he told me tales of flying upcountry for picnics with the locals and expeditions in search of antiquities. (The mission had use of a small plane, and there were grass landing strips.) I don’t suppose a posting to Vientiane counts for much in the way of advancing one’s diplomatic career, but this guy made it sound agreeable, even in the middle of a war.

I guess I didn’t engage with Laos as much as a curious and conscientious traveler should. In my defense, I was living close to the survival line, concentrating on the next dollar, the next drink, the next meal, the next damn visa. I can’t recall a single word of the Lao language. Probably I didn’t learn any. Rudimentary Thai and French will get you around Vientiane pretty well, while the bungalows and the bars were Anglophone.

Some years later I read Norman Lewis’s travel classic A Dragon Apparent and wished I’d done more exploring, but by then it was too late. Lewis’s book is even more out of date than my scattered and unreliable reminiscences, but I recommend its Laos section for the “flavor” of that strange, poor, remote, and misty country.

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