On the write track

Roy Ham­ric stays at the ho­tel in Vi­en­tiane where Hunter S. Thomp­son holed up af­ter the fall of Saigon

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

AM bound for Vi­en­tiane to see if I can lo­cate traces of the ghost of writer Hunter S. Thomp­son. It has been about 10 years since my pre­vi­ous visit to the Lao­tian cap­i­tal; at that time, most of the down­town streets were still dirt. The Laos visa process at Friend­ship Bridge takes about five min­utes. Emerg­ing from 33 years of com­mu­nist rule, Vi­en­tiane still has the frayed look of an east­ern Euro­pean city, sig­nalled by the dom­i­nance of the im­pos­ing gov­ern­ment build­ings on the main boule­vard, Tan­non Phon Kheng. The best dis­play of nightlife is still Fa Nyum Road, named for Laos’s first king, now a bur­geon­ing strip of restau­rants and guest­houses fronting the Mekong River. The city over­flows 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 are so far only a half dozen or so func­tion­ing ATMs. The lo­cal me­dia is still heav­ily cen­sored. Per­sonal mail is rou­tinely opened and in­spected. The sewer sys­tem has been un­der construction for decades.

But at night­fall, the river­side fills with tourists and Lao­tian cou­ples hold­ing hands. Every­one is eat­ing, drink­ing and peo­ple-watch­ing along the boule­vard with its float­ing bam­boo restau­rants and food ven­dors, all lit up like a Christ­mas tree.

I check into the Lane Xang Ho­tel, which means Land of a Mil­lion Ele­phants, once the finest in the cap­i­tal, where I have a reser­va­tion for room 224, where Thomp­son stayed in 1975 for two weeks. The mav­er­ick writer ar­rived here in late April 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, ‘‘ Check­ing into the Lane Xang’’, pub­lished in Gen­er­a­tion of Swine, Gonzo Pa­pers II .

When he ar­rived in Vi­en­tiane, Thomp­son was de­jected and an­gry. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween him and his long­time ed­i­tor, Jann Wen­ner, had fallen apart; 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 cov­ered by Rolling Stone had been with­drawn, along with ex­penses to cover the as­sign­ment. His re­la­tion­ship with Rolling Stone would never be the same; 10 years later, his story on the col­lapse of Saigon fi­nally ap­peared in the mag­a­zine. In clas­sic Thomp­son style, it showed his un­canny abil­ity to put his fin­ger on the heart of a story, even as Saigon was in 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 to un­wind, to go over his notes and con­sider his op­tions. He ar­rived at about 2am dur­ing drench­ing mon­soon rain. He told the Lane Xang desk clerk he wanted a king-sized bed, quick ac­cess to the swim­ming pool and a view of the Mekong River that flowed in front of the long, two-storey ho­tel.

The ho­tel still has a mas­sive lobby, a cav­ernous din­ing room, a beau­ti­ful English-style bil­liards room and an ex­otic disco with soft-eyed hostesses. But as I am check­ing in, there is con­fu­sion about Thomp­son’s ex­act room. Af­ter in­spect­ing sev­eral, I de­cide he got the num­ber wrong, or the room has been renum­bered. What­ever hap­pened, the room he de­scribes in his story is room 222, which is 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 Lane Xang lobby . . .

‘‘ It took me about two min­utes to find the bed; it was around the cor­ner and down a 15ft (4.6m) hall­way from the re­frig­er­a­tor and the black-leather topped bar and the 10ft 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 Laos is as dif­fer­ent from Viet­nam as Big Sur is from Long Is­land.

I— Hunter S. Thomp­son the foun­da­tion of the cen­tral stair­way, was an­other big room with a king-size bed, an­other screened bal­cony, an­other tele­phone and an­other air­con­di­tioner, along with a pink-tiled bath­room with two sinks, a toi­let and a bidet and deep pink bath­tub about 9ft long.’’

I quickly set­tle into Thomp­son’s strange, half-hid­den suite of rooms and can’t stop my mind from imag­in­ing gonzo-like goings-on. Of course, the clerks to­day at the Lane Xang know noth­ing of this Mr Thomp­son. 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 re­porter, made a pil­grim­age to Ketchum, Idaho, to see the place where one of his he­roes, Ernest Hem­ing­way, spent his fi­nal days. When we travel, it’s easy to get lost in the new­ness of the present and to over­look what hap­pened well be­fore our ar­rival.

The Lane Xang to­day would still be per­fect for Thomp­son. Its disco of­fers a tra­di­tional Asian band with var­i­ous singers and lovely hostesses in spiky high heels.

There’s no writ­ten ac­count of how Thomp­son filled his two weeks in Vi­en­tiane. The best guess is that it in­volved a burst of manic writ­ing and wiring West­ern Union dis­patches to Cal­i­for­nia. And 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.

I imag­ine some nights were spent in the dark re­cesses of the White Rose, check­ing out the nightlife at one of the most no­to­ri­ous bars in Asia, renowned for its beau­ti­ful women and hard-to-dis­tin­guish trans­ves­tites. Cau­tion­ary tales abounded in the ’ 60s and ’ 70s of sol­diers on R& R or vis­it­ing gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials who took beau­ti­ful women out of the White Rose only to dis­cover, when sober, that the beau­ties weren’t women.

With his acute sense of the pos­si­ble and prob­a­ble, he would have known Laos’s days were num­bered. In May, 1975, only a few weeks af­ter Thomp­son’s visit, the Vi­en­tiane gov­ern­ment fell to the Pa­thet Lao and the White Rose was shut down.

The com­mu­nists quickly iso­lated the coun­try from the West and sent tens of thou­sands of Lao­tians and eth­nic group mem­bers to pris­ons and re-ed­u­ca­tion camps. Of all the Amer­i­can writ­ers of his gen­er­a­tion, Thomp­son, in his prime, some­how seems most at home in Laos, with its be­nighted strange­ness and beauty. At the brink of its fall, the coun­try had so lit­tle and it lost so much. Thomp­son de­spised and raged against dark, re­pres­sive forces wher­ever he found them. In­deed, Thomp­son had a long, strange trip through life, his writ­ing al­ways cap­tur­ing the times.

Thirty years later, on Fe­bru­ary 20, 2005, Thomp­son shot him­self in the head at Owl Farm, his ‘‘ for­ti­fied com­pound’’ in Aspen, Colorado. What reads like a short, per­sonal note to him­self, writ­ten a few days be­fore his death and ti­tled Foot­ball Sea­son is Over, is now known as 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 Lane Xang Ho­tel in a by­gone, sleepy old Vi­en­tiane helped make a pos­i­tive change in Thomp­son’s life when he needed it.

With the ar­rival of Pa­thet Lao troops, al­most ev­ery­thing changed overnight. But a few things stayed the same. As I ven­ture out of the Lane Xang the next morn­ing, I learn that drugs, as al­ways, are ev­ery­where, de­spite of the com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment, or per­haps be­cause of it. My taxi driver turns around to me, grin­ning. ‘‘ You want ganja?’’ ‘‘ No ganja,’’ I re­ply in Thai. ‘‘ Too dizzy.’’ He nods, ap­pear­ing to un­der­stand. ‘‘ Opium?’’ he asks. Roy Ham­ric is a writer based in Chi­ang Mai, Thai­land. He is work­ing on a book of South­east Asian es­says.

www.tourism­laos.gov.la Su­san Kuro­sawa’s De­par­ture Lounge col­umn re­turns on Novem­ber 8.

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Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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