Down and Out in Southeast Asia
Nine years ago, in response to many reader enquiries, I wrote up an account of my brief acquaintance with martial-arts superstar Bruce Lee in 1972 Hong Kong.
That mostly satisfied the readers, but I ended up the tale with some events immediately following, concluding with an utterly misbegotten trip to Thailand:
I was on my own in Bangkok, a city I had never been in before, where I knew absolutely no-one, and of whose language I spoke not a word, with around twenty U.S. dollars to my name. That's another story, though.
What's that other story? some readers wanted to know. A trickle of them went on enquiring thus for nine years. Last week's TakiMag column alluded to those same 1972 events, and again I was prompted about my Bangkok days.
There's not much to tell, but it's a slow news week and I'm temporarily out of outrageous opinions, so here goes with my recollections of being down and out in Southeast Asia. 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 1972, of pick-up work teaching English in Bangkok to scrape together the air fare back to Hong Kong, my base of operations, 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 really, actually hungry — a thing which, if you ever experience it, you don't soon forget. I arrived back in Hong Kong considerably leaner than I'd been in the Bruce Lee movie: "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 was 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 dug-out canoe (though it can't possibly have been that primitive), hitched a ride into 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 lodged at the Bungalows, a collection of huts a mile or so outside Vientiane, occupied mainly by foreign hippies — Australians predominant — and random ne'er-do-wells like myself.
(That haircut notwithstanding, I never considered myself a hippie, and in fact nursed, and still nurse, a quite 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 of the type.)
Laos was at this point, with the assistance of the USAF, accumulating 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 single detonation myself, but the more seasoned Bungalow-dwellers used to say that when Xieng Khouang (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 evidences of the war for a visitor to Vientiane were 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 tell you quite casually over a drink that they were "with the Agency," i.e. the CIA, probably just 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? The restaurants, by the way, were surprisingly good: Laos was an ex-French colony. The bars had, yes, some really outré floor shows.
(2) Occasional units of the Royal Lao army could be seen drilling shambolically behind chain-link fences as one walked into the city, or marching on the roads. The average age of enlisted men looked to be about thirteen, their uniforms comically ill-fitting, their stated duty being to defend Lao neutrality, which was of course perfectly fictional.
(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. Certainly 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 U.S. dollar.
My Bungalow room-mate 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."
I mention this just to illustrate the fact that, as bohemian as these adventures may sound in the telling, there were limits to how deep I was willing to venture into Bohemia. You can take the boy out of the conscientious I've-always-kept-myself-respectable English provincial working class, but you can't take the … etc. out of the boy.
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 the Patuxai Gate in Vientiane with Colin. The
structure was unsupervised and unguarded, and from the inside 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 — they were
from one of the Scandinavian countries, Denmark I think — were 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. Whether, if so, they survived more than the first ten miles through
territory infested with units of the Vietcong, Pathet Lao, and NVA, as well as minor drug barons and various Montagnard tribes not much removed from
the atlatl-and-blowpipe stage of technology, I should be very surprised to learn.
- The poverty of the place. My imagination may have colored the memories somewhat, but I think Vientiane, the nation's capital, 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 in 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
- 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, whither I had gone for some reason — to beg, probably. I sat on a pleasant veranda with a sympathetic functionary, drinking chilled vodka while he told me tales of flying upcountry — the mission had use of a small plane, and there were grass landing strips — for picnics with the locals and expeditions in search of antiquities. 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 pretty 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, by about 20 years, than my scattered and unreliable reminiscences, but I recommend its Laos section none the less for the "flavor" of that strange, poor, remote, misty country.
And I see I've said next to nothing about Bangkok, where I spent most of those miserable three months. There's always something left over. How do we keep all this stuff in our heads? Bangkok another time: at this rate, around 2021.