hunter thompson in LaosPosted: May 16, 2010
This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in The Magazine in The Bangkok Post.
hunter thompson in Laos
By Roy Hamric
“Laos is as different from Vietnam as Big Sur is from Long Island”––Hunter S. Thompson
I had a reservation to see if I could locate traces of the ghost of writer Hunter Thompson in Vientiane. It had been about 10 years since I had visited the Laotian capital, a time when most of the downtown streets were still dirt.
The Laos visa process at Friendship Bridge took about five minutes. Emerging from 33 years of Communist rule, Vientiane, the once delicate Laotian capital with about 500,000 people, had the frayed look of an Eastern European city, signaled by the dominance of the imposing government buildings on the city’s main boulevard, Tannon Phon Kheng. The best display of nightlife is still Fa Nyum Road, named for Laos’ first king, now a burgeoning strip of restaurants and guesthouses fronting the Mekong River. The city overflowed with backpackers and hardy tourist types.
Following the Communist Pathet Lao takeover in 1975, Laos was a closed society until 1989, when it slowly began accepting Westerners back into the country. The Communist regime proclaimed 1997 the “Year of the Visitor.” The country is still scrambling to accommodate the growing number of tourists, and there’s still only a half dozen or so functioning ATMs. The local media is still heavily censored. Personal mail is still routinely opened and inspected. The sewer system has been under construction for decades.
But at nightfall, the riverside fills up with tourists and Laotian couples holding hands––everyone eating, drinking and people-watching along the boulevard with its floating bamboo restaurants and food vendors, all lit up like a Christmas tree. Laotian women, decked out in their elegant long skirts and smooth, coal-black hair, make up for the city’s tapped down, controlled feel.
I checked into the Land Xang Hotel, which means Land of a Million Elephants, once the finest in the capital, where I had a reservation for Room 224, where Thompson said he had stayed for two weeks. He arrived in late April 1975 after spending a few pressure-filled weeks reporting on the final days before the fall of Saigon for Rolling Stone magazine. He left a curious account of his stay at the Lane Xang in an odd, short piece called “Checking into the Lang Xang,” published in Songs of the Doomed, Gonzo Paper III.
When he arrived in Vientiane, Thompson was dejected and angry. The relationship between him and his longtime editor, Jann Wenner, had fallen apart at the worst possible moment. A few weeks earlier, Wenner had pulled out of a book deal with Thompson to cover the 1976 presidential campaign. Then Wenner unexpectedly asked Thompson to cover the fall of Saigon. As he was working on the story, Thompson learned that his group medical insurance provided by Rolling Stone had been withdrawn along with expense money to cover the assignment. His support had evaporated. His relationship with Rolling Stone was never the same following Saigon. Ten years later, his story on the collapse of Saigon finally appeared in Rolling Stone. Classic Thompson, it showed his uncanny ability to put his finger on the heart of a story, even as Saigon was in a frenzied free-fall.
When he finally left Saigon in the final days, he could have sought out Hong Kong, Bangkok or the Philippines, but he chose Vientiane as a place to unwind, to go over his notes and consider his alternatives. He arrived around 2 a.m. during a drenching monsoon rain. He told the Land Xang 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 long, two-story hotel. The hotel has a massive lobby, a cavernous dinning room, a beautiful English-style Billiards Room and an exotic disco with soft-eyed hostesses. The hotel’s Massage and Sauna Center located beside the swimming pool is still noted for the masseuses who provide room service.
After checking myself into the Land Xang there was some confusion about the exact room Thompson stayed in. After inspecting several nearby rooms, I decided that Thompson had gotten his room number wrong, or the room he stayed in had been renumbered. Whatever happened, the room he describes in his story is Room 222, which was still almost exactly as described: “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 Land Xang lobby. When I first went into 224 [sic], 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.”
At any rate, I quickly settled into Thompson’s strange “half hidden” suite of rooms and that evening I couldn’t stop my mind from imagining Gonzo-like goings on. Of course, the clerks at the Land Xang know nothing of Hunter Thompson or his fame. Many people may think it odd to make anything out of a certain room where someone stayed 33 years ago. My answer is simply that each of us finds personal connections to things that have indefinable meanings, much like Thompson, as a young writer, made a pilgrimage to Ketchum, Idaho, in 1964, to see the place where one of his heroes, Ernest Hemingway, spent his final days before he committed suicide in 1961. When we travel, it’s easy to get lost in the newness of the present and to overlook what happened in places before we arrived.
The Land Xang was perfect for Thompson. It’s disco still offers a traditional Asian band with rotating singers and lovely hostesses in spiky, high heels who quickly place their hands on your leg 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 Western Union 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 snake moonshine, a few pipes of opium, probably long stretches of pondering the star-filled sky over the flowing Mekong. I’m certain some nights were spent in the dark recesses of The White Rose club, checking out the night life at the one of the most notorious bars in Asia, renowned for its beautiful women and hard-to-distinguish transvestites. Dire tales abounded in the 60s and 70s of soldiers on R&R and visiting government officials who took beautiful ladies out of The White Rose only to discover when sober that the beauties weren’t ladies.
At any rate, Shortly after arriving, Thompson looked up the New York Times correspondent David Andelman, and they spent some time together going around Vientiane.
“I had been filing quite relentlessly from there for some weeks,” Andelman told me, recalling those days. “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 [a Wall Street Journal reporter] and I closed up some weeks later, 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. As I recall, 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 other details, scenarios, and dialogue that could have produce 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.”
Thompson had successfully decamped from the manic days of a crumbling Saigon to deceptively tranquil Vientiane. With his acute sense of the possible and probable, he knew the government had only a few days left. In May, 1975, a few weeks after Thompson departed, the government fell to the Pathet Lao and the White Rose closed. The Communists quickly isolated the country from the West and sent tens of thousands of Laotians and ethnic group members to prisons and reeducation camps.
Thompson, in his prime, somehow seems at home in Laos’ benighted strangeness and beauty. He glimpsed the final days of Vientaine, before it was smothered by a repressive Communist regime. Thompson despised and raged against dark forces wherever he found them. At the brink of its fall, Laos had so little and lost so much.
Indeed, in some ways, Thompson’s long strange trip through life was just beginning. 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 in his home, the “fortified compound” he called 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.”
It’s nice to believe that Room 222 in the Land Xang Hotel in a bygone, sleepy old Vientiane made a positive change in Thompson’s life when he needed it. With the arrival of Pathet Lao cadre, everything changed overnight. But a few things stayed the same. As I ventured out of the Land Xang the next morning, I learned that drugs, as always, were everywhere, in spite of the Communist government or maybe because of it.
The taxi driver turned around, grinning.
“You want ganja?”
“No ganja,” I said. “Too dizzy.”
He nodded, appearing to understand.
“Opium?” he asked.