An American Hippie Visits Opium Dens in Vientiane, Laos, At The End Of The Vietnam War.
Above Photo: A Laotian settling in to take opium in 1969 (© Terry Wofford, uwdc.library.wisc.edu)
The below are recollections of Ken Liss, a native San Franciscan and former third world budget traveler who spent a month living in Vientiane, Laos, from February to March 1975, less than two months before Vientiane fell to the North Vietnamese Army-backed Pathet Lao.
Laos, Vientiane and drugs are all relevant to the plot of my novel BACK, although in a twenty-first century, backpacking context.
“I ended up in Vientiane because I’d been on the road traveling around S.E. Asia and Indonesia for six months. I met a couple that I really hit it off with, and we traveled up to Vientiane together with a stop in Bangkok along the way.
We stayed overnight in the then-nondescript border town of Nong Khai and took a ferry in the morning across the Mekong from Thailand to Vientiane. We found a pretty cool place to stay, the Saylom Villa which was about 60 cents, US, a day for a private room, downstairs, and along with that price they’d wash and fold your clothes.
Upstairs was a dormitory type room with a bunch of beds and a couple of balconies with chaise lounges. It was in a very peaceful neighborhood not far from the US Embassy.
I was looking forward to finding some opium dens in Vientiane as I’d heard being close to the Golden Triangle, the opium was cheaper there than it was at the dens I’d frequented in Telok Bahang, in Penang, Malaysia. In Penang we were getting 3 pipes for a dollar. I was to find out you got 20 pipes for a dollar in Vientiane.
Back then I was into opiates and drugs in general. I grew up in San Francisco and was fully involved in the music scene and accompanying drug scene of the 60’s.
I’d smoked every day in Penang, so when I got to Vientiane I was ready for more of the same.
I’d smoke first thing in the morning, again in the mid afternoon, and again around 8PM in the evening. You have a clock in your body that tells you “it’s time” and that’s mainly when the effect of the opium begins to wear off. The beginning of becoming addicted for sure.
One smoked in a den, rather than at home, because preparing opium for the pipe is a difficult task. Opium is a sticky substance and the novice would struggle with almost guaranteed negative results.
The opium dens I frequented generally had a man lying across from you with the lamp that lit the pipe in the middle, between the two of you.
You usually lay on a rice mat with your head on a porcelain head stool that made it comfortable for you. The top of the head stool was at an angle instead of just flat.
My favorite place in Vientiane was just off a main street a half block away from Saylom Villa in a corrugated metal refugee village. The door was wide open and when you walked in the room with the head stools and lamp was the first room as you walked in. The guy would wave you in and you would lie down.
There was no security. It was like a three room shanty, and there was no admission fee, you just paid per pipe that you smoked.
While you lay there you’d watch the guy preparing the pipe. He’d take a thin metal stick and dip it in liquid opium and then hold it in the fire and the opium would start bubbling.
Then he’d start rolling the bubbling opium on the top of the bowl on the pipe you smoke it in, and when that was done he’d hand you the end of the pipe and hold the bowl over the lamp and you’d take a long draw on the pipe.
He’d always ask you if you want another pipe and if you did he’d go through the same ritual again and again. If he spoke English, which many didn’t, he’d probably ask you all kinds of questions while preparing your next pipe.
I don’t think it was illegal to smoke in Vientiane back then, as the opium dens would always be a dead giveaway with the smoke and its distinct odor or fragrance depending on how you view it, to any passersby.
If it was frowned upon I didn’t hear about it.
One thing that is typical of the dens I always smoked in is once you’re done smoking you must leave. The depiction in the movies where you lie around on pillows after smoking probably exists for people with more money, but, not at the bare bones opium dens I had experience with.
In the mornings, after smoking, we’d walk back to the Villa but there was a woman in a small house next door to the villa that sold cold sweet yoghurt. We’d always buy one from her and go upstairs to the top floor and lie down on the chaise lounges with our cup of yoghurt, which was made from condensed milk. Very sweet and wonderful.
We’d lie there, having a couple spoonfuls and try to talk about something and then we’d fall into a dream until brought out of it by someone outside making some kind of noise. We’d eat a little more yoghurt some more small talk and drift off again. We weren’t sleeping, but, just having vivid dreams.
After a couple of hours in the chaise lounges we’d always get a tri shaw and take a ride around town, go to the markets, maybe a restaurant for a meal. I had a favorite barber shop I would go to every afternoon for a scalp massage. It was 10 cents for a half hour massage and for another nickel they’d another person would massage your feet.
That was one of the best parts of the day. Another great part of each afternoon was when I’d hang out with a lady I met there who stayed with me for a couple of weeks. She was a traveler from Berkeley, California. She was always out and about in the mornings, but, in the afternoons she’d be waiting for me at the villa and we’d cuddle for a few hours on my bed.
No sex, as the opium makes you incapable of doing anything. Even as a virile young man I valued the opium high more than a roll in the hay.
In the evening she and I almost always went for dinner at a French restaurant called Le Paix where you could get 5 course dinners for less than a dollar.
While I was in Vientiane I also found out there were cemeteries there for travelers. People came from all over the world and there was so much heroin, usually the high quality China White, and dirt cheap. It was so cheap people got hooked fast, often used too much and died. Pretty sad.
I had a great little cassette deck with me and had a cassette with only the song , “Can’t Find my Way Home” by Blind Faith, I played it constantly, both sides.
At that time in Vientiane there were lots of hippies and Laotian soldiers, both. Mostly the Westerners were people who liked to get high. They had everything they could possibly want in Vientiane.
Even though Vientiane was only two months away from falling to the Communist Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese Army, I don’t remember much about it as I was pretty numbed the whole time.
I do however remember seeing both government soldiers and Pathet Lao soldiers in the streets simultaneously. Once I ran out of matches and I went up to a Pathet Lao soldier despite my friend telling me I should avoid him, and asked for a light for my joint.
He gladly lit it for me.”
© Peter Alan Lloyd & Kenneth Liss
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see:
Peter Alan Lloyd
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