Hunter Thompson’s two weeks in VientianePosted: July 15, 2011
By Roy Hamric
Laos is as different from Vietnam as Big Sur is from Long Island––Hunter S. Thompson
The next morning, two Russian hookers waited in front of the visa gate on Friendship Bridge. They talked in agitated bursts with a small Russian man who had the body of an acrobat and a face like a famous French pantomimist. One of the ladies was very young and beautiful. The other was worn away inside and out. They were mother and daughter. The bra strap on the daughter’s right shoulder read, “Midnight Angel.” Soon I was bouncing down the road in a taxi, a 1978 Toyoto Corina with the original black crusty leather upholstery, for the 23-mile ride to Vientiane. The door panels were stripped out exposing the bracing and gears for the roll-up windows. You could see the ground below through rusted holes in the floorboards. A half dozen Buddha amulets dangled from the arm of the rearview mirror which had no mirror. A miniature bamboo fish trap dangled between the Buddhas amulets. It was a good luck charm to help catch money. “You like to fish?” asked the driver. “Good fishing. Every night. Lake here.”
We passed a shop with dozens of modern rods and reels displayed on the ground alongside the road. It made a strange impression. Then another fishing shop passed, very new. Then two or three more. In the fields between the houses and shops, grey-white cattle displayed the perfect outlines of their skeleton covered by sagging skin like a thin, frayed blanket. Old women sold bright red chillies from bamboo mats next to the roadside. A solitary, barefooted old man in his underware squatted next to the road, a long cherrot dangling from his lip. Many cinder-block buildings were new and quickly put up with the cement oozed out from between the blocks. We passed the new spic and span Australian Embassy, very white in the afternoon sun. Then the Lao-German School of Technology.
The usual Internet shops began to appear and more outdoor restaurants. Foreigners on motorbikes. Newly built guesthouses. As we entered Vientiane, scattered old French villas in faded white-beige colors stood silently with long, wooden shutters tightly closed. A sign that Laos was a country still strictly controlled could be seen in the motorbike riders, who all wore helmets. Laos wasn’t Thailand. In Thailand, the law required it but only a few safety-minded bikeriders wore helmets. You could see Thailand’s lack of discipline too in its soldiers and policemen. In their off-hours they wore their uniform pants and shoes but stripped off their tops down to a white T-shirt, and they sat casually sipping a beer or eating in a restaurant. In Laos, soldiers and police always wore a full uniform so weighed down with epaulets and finery that privates looked like generals. Emerging from 33 years of Communist rule, Vientiane, the once delicate Laotian capital numbering about 500,000 people, has the frayed look of an Eastern European city, signalled by the dominance of official governmental buildings. The highest buildings are hotels. There are no skyscraper office buildings. The center of the city’s night life has always been on Fa Nyum Road, named for Laos’ first king, now a strip of restaurants and guesthouses facing the Mekong River.
The city was overflowing with backpackers and hardy tourist types. Laotian women, with their elegant long skirts and coal-black hair, made up for the city’s controlled feel. Following the Communist Pathet Lao takeover in 1975, Laos was a closed society until 1989, when it slowly began to allow Westerners back into the country. The Communist regime officially proclaimed 1997 the “Year of the Visitor.” Years later the country still scrambles to accomodate itself to the growing number of tourists. There’s a handful of ATM machines. The local media is still heavily censored. Personal mail is routinely inspected. The sewer system has been under construction for decades. But at night, the riverside area fills up with Laotian couples and tourists, all eating, drinking and people-watching along the boulevard with its floating bamboo restaurants and food stalls, all lit up like a carnival with the Mekong flowing and Thailand on the other side of the river.
The driver let me out at the Lan Xang Hotel, once the finest in the capital, and I confirmed my reservation for Room 224. For two weeks during the 1970s, the room had been the home of the writer Hunter Thompson, who checked into the Lan Xang, which means Place of a Million Elephants, late one night after spending a few pressure-filled weeks reporting on the final days before the fall of Saigon for Rolling Stone magazine. Thompson left a curious account of his stay at the Lan Xang in an short piece called “Checking into the Lang Xang,” published in Generation of Swine, Gonzo Papers II.
He arrived in late April 1975 around 2 a.m. during a drenching monsoon rain. He told the desk clerk he wanted a king-sized bed, quick access to the swimming pool and a view of the Mekong River that flowed past only a few hundred feet in front of the hotel. The hotel is a long, two-story building with a massive lobby, cavernous dinning room, a special English-style Billiards Room, and an exotic disco with soft-eyed hostesses. The hotel is still noted for its Massage and Sauna Center beside the pool, and the masseuses who provid expert room service. Room 224 was almost exactly as Thompson described it, but with no view of the Mekong River: “A rambling suite of rooms half hidden under the top flight of a wide white-tiled stair ramp that rose out of the middle of the Lan Xang lobby. When I first went into 224, it took me about two minutes to find the bed; it was around the corner and down a fifteen-foot hallway from the refrigerator and the black-leather topped bar and the ten-foot catfish-skin couch and five matching easy chairs and the hardwood writing desk and the sliding glass doors on the pool-facing balcony outside the living room. At the other end of the hallway, half hidden by the foundation of the central stairway, was another big room with a king-size bed, another screened balcony, another telephone and another air-conditioner, along with a pink-tiled bathroom with two sinks, a toilet and a bidet and deep pink bathtub about nine-feet long.” The Lan Xang was perfect for Thompson. Built by the Russians, it still had Soviet air conditioners and signs in Cyrillic here and there. The disco then and now offers a classic Asian band with rotating singers and lovely hostesses in spiky high heels who lay a hand on your leg very quickly and rest their head on your shoulder. There’s no written account of how Thompson filled his two weeks in Vientiane. The best guess is that it
involved burst of manic writing, wiring dispatches to California, lots of Laotian marijuana, long stretches of sitting at an outdoor restaurant next to the Mekong River, probably some of the local rice whisky, probably some opium, probably long stretches of meditation on the star-filled sky over the river. I’m certain some nights were spent in the dark recesses of The White Rose, checking out the night life in one of the most legendary bars in Asia renowned for its spunky floor shows and hostesses. Down the road was Lulu’s where nightly pipes of opium could be found. At any rate, Thompson had successfully decamped from the manic desperation of crumbling Saigon to seemingly tranquil Vientiane. But with his acute sense of the possible and probable, he knew Laos’ days were numbered. Shortly after arriving, he scheduled a meeting with The New York Times correspondent, David Alderman, and they spent some time traveling around Vientiane together. “He looked me up as soon as he pitched up in Laos. I had been filing quite relentlessly from there for some weeks). I had, of course, heard of him, though I was not aware that he’d been in Vietnam before he arrived in Laos. As I recall, he said that he was finishing up a major Vietnam piece and then intended to turn his attention to Laos. But I’m not sure how intense that attention was. Most of the time, as I recall, he spent trying to score the ‘finest weed ever produced on the planet.’ And he seemed to be quite successful. “At the time, Vientiane was very much an open city. The bar girls still plied their trade nightly at the White Rose which Peter Kann and I closed up some weeks later, with the girls going across the river to Thailand the next morning, really marking the end of the Royalist regime in Laos and the arrival in power of the Pathet Lao. For a price, and Hunter did seem quite flush at the time, there was very little that was not obtainable. “Hunter vanished as suddenly and mysteriously as he arrived. I don’t remember seeing any piece that materialized out of his visit to Vientiane. I was aware of his gonzo reputation, so his search for the perfect weed more amused than surprised me. He seemed so intense about it––more so than any other goal in fact––even though he was soaking in all sorts of details, scenario, dialogue, that could have produced a vivid piece if he ever got to the point of writing it, which seemed only a part of his ‘mission’ to Laos. I also recall that at times his circuits seemed pretty fried.” In May, 1975, a few weeks after Thompson’s visit, the Vientiane government fell to the Pathet Lao. The Communist isolated the country from the West and sent tens of thousands of Laotians and ethnic group members to prisons and reeducation camps. Indeed, Thompson had a long strange trip through life. His writing captured his times and the imagination of millions of readers. Thirty years later, on Feb. 20, 2005, Thompson, like Hemingway, shot himself in the head at his “fortified compound,” Owl Farm, in Aspen, Colorado. What reads like a short, personal note written to himself a few days before his death, titled “Football Season is Over,” is now called the “suicide note”: “No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax—This won’t hurt.” Of all American writers, Thompson, in his prime, somehow seemed to be at home in Vietnam and Laos with their benighted strangeness and beauty. The country seemed to have found him. The country’s deep strangeness could swallow up most writers, and no doubt gave even him pause. He glimpsed the final days of Vientaine before the weird storybook kingdom was smothered in a long, totalitarian vengence. At the moment of its descent into Communism, the country had so little, yet it lost the open days of its future. Thompson innately understood, despised and raged against repressive forces wherever he found them but in Laos he sensed something walking the land far different than the politics of America and the resurgence of Richard Nixon. Laos had defied generations of writers who tried to decode the internecine feuding between its former kings and princes. All were swept away conclusively by the Communists. A lock was snapped shut on the future. Things quickly turned very dark in Laos, there were lost decades, but slowly the country began to emerge and it still is and you saw that some things never went away or were coming back. The next morning as I ventured out of the Lan Xang, I learned that drugs were everywhere in Vientiane, in spite of the Communist government or probably because of it.
The taxi driver turned, grinning. “You want gangha?”“No ganja,” I said. “Too dizzy.” He nodded, appearing to understand. “Opium?” he asked. There was something about him. His body was too sure of itself. He was not a taxi driver. The body had a military bearing, the authority of a policeman. Yes, this was Laos and it was as different as Big Sur is from Long Island, in a world where all is strange if we can only see.
Part III to follow