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