An American Hippie Visits Opium Dens in Vientiane, Laos, At The End Of The Vietnam War.

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)

Laos, Vientiane and drugs are all relevant to the plot of my novel BACK, although in a twenty-first century, backpacking context.

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.

Ken Liss in Penang, 1975, post-pipe.

Ken Liss in Penang, 1975, post-pipe. (© Ken Liss)

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.

Saylom Villa today, the guest house Ken stayed in in Vientiane. (© Wayne Rumble)

Saylom Villa today, the guest house Ken stayed at in Vientiane. (© Wayne Rumble)

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.

The former US Embassy in Vientiane (© Joel Halpern. uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

The former US Embassy in Vientiane (© Joel Halpern. uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

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.

Vientiane Market 1969 (© Terry Wofford, uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

Vientiane Market 1969 (© Terry Wofford, uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

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.

Ken in San Francisco in 1974, before the start of his South-East Asian trip.

Ken in San Francisco in 1974, before the start of his South-East Asian trip. (© Ken Liss)

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.

Laotian prepares his opium (© Terry Wofford, uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

Laotian prepares his opium (© Terry Wofford, uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

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.

Laotian hilltribesman weighs out opium (© Joel Halpern. uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

Laotian hilltribesman weighs out opium (© Joel Halpern. uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

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.

 An opium den in Manila, Philippines.

An opium den in Manila, Philippines.

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.

Laotian lays back after his pipe. (© Terry Wofford, uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

Laotian lays back after his pipe. (© Terry Wofford, uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

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.

Ken Liss on the streets of Vientiane smoking a joint bought in the market in 1975 (© Ken Liss)

Ken Liss on the streets of Vientiane smoking a joint bought in the market in 1975 (© Ken Liss)

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.

Stylised early Hollywood depiction of women in an opium den.

Stylised early Hollywood depiction of women in an opium den.

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.

Painting of a French opium den in Indochina (Wikipedia)

Painting of a French opium den in Indochina (Wikipedia)

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.

Tricycles in Vientiane (© Terry Wofford, uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

Tricycles in Vientiane (© Terry Wofford, uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

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.

A more conventional smoke in Vientiane at that time (© Joel Halpern. uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

A more conventional smoke in Vientiane at that time (© Joel Halpern. uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

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.

The poppies are in the fields...

The poppies are in the field… (© unknown)

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.

Blind Faith - Can't Find My Way Home cover

Blind Faith – Can’t Find My Way Home cover (Alchetron)

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.

Lao soldiers on parade in Vientiane (© Joel Halpern. uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

Lao soldiers on parade in Vientiane (© Joel Halpern. uwdc.library.wisc.edu)

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.

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:

See also: http://peteralanlloyd.com/general-news/life-in-vientiane-laos-during-the-vietnam-war-russian-spies-and-a-hippie-government/

And: http://peteralanlloyd.com/the-vietnam-war/hippie-culture-in-laos-during-the-vietnam-war/

Location of Vientiane, Laos in red circle.

Location of Vientiane, Laos in red circle. (click to enlarge)

Peter Alan Lloyd

Reviews: Amazon.co.uk: Customer Reviews 

UK: Amazon.co.uk: BACK Parts 1 and 2 

US: Amazon: Back Parts 1 and 2

Smashwords: Back Parts 1 and 2

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/peter.lloyd.94064?fref=ts

Website: www.peteralanlloyd.com

Twitter: @PeterAlanLloyd

Front cover of BACK Part 1.

Front cover of BACK Part 1.

Front cover of BACK Part 2.

Front cover of BACK Part 2.

 

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13 Comments

  1. Henry W. Johnson

    Would really love to hear more of Kens’ stories. Really enjoyed it! Thanks.

    Reply
  2. Neil

    Great article! Really gives some perspective to what was going on back then!

    Reply
    • ken Liss

      it certainly was what was going on with me. I’ve been living in Cambodia most of the time in the last 13 months. What a paradise it is here.

      Reply
      • Tom

        Ken, I am in Vientiane right now. I am living in Chiang Mai and intend to move long term to Phnom Penh in a couple months. I would love to meet you. I want to interview and write about you. I want to learn more about your adventures. Incredible stuff. That shuttered guest house is one of the first structures I saw here that really stuck out. And then I stumbled onto this blog. Pretty amazing. Thanks for sharing.

        Here’s the first byline story I’ve published since moving to Asia a few weeks ago:
        https://blogs.spjnetwork.org/ijc/2017/09/30/shuttered-cambodia-daily-editor-jodie-dejong-on-leaders-promise-to-smash-teeth/

        Reply
        • Tommy Stamatelos

          I lived in Udorn, Thailand and am really thinking of moving back to the area. I speak okaym Thai and Lao. Would you give me some pointers or ask questions. I’d love to Skype with you.

          Reply
      • Tom

        Why haven’t you written a book? Or have you? I can’t find anything on you other than this blog post.

        Reply
        • ken liss

          Tom, I did some writing about various travel adventures back in 2012.

          http://kenliss.livejournal.com/?skip=10#post-kenliss-519

          On this site there are 10 separate entries I wrote and for some reason they aren’t in chronological order from top to bottom. They are the other way around. The first one I wrote was ‘travel in ’74’. Upon finishing that one, the next one i wrote is just above that and so on til you get to the top of the page. If you aren’t bored silly and finish all 10 go to the bottom of the page on the lower right in red it says ‘next 10’ Those are the final 10 that i wrote. I should probably begin writing more since I have nothing but free time.
          Let me know what you think.

          Reply
  3. Barbara

    My boyfriend and I travelled around the world from ’74 to ’76 (New York to California) and found ourselves in Laos at exactly the same time as you, because we heard it was “interesting”. We flew into Laos from Chiang Mai on a DC3, which was an experience in itself and somehow got ourselves to Luang Prabang (going through several Pathet Lao checkpoints) where we visited an opium den and swam in beautiful water caves with flashlights in our mouths. Other than the oppressive heat in Vientiane, I don’t remember much else and don’t have photos so it was nice to see yours. Thanks for your memories!

    Reply
    • ken liss

      Barbara, I’m so happy you enjoyed the photos. I wish I had more. Those were great travel days for sure. I’m living in Cambodia now and loving it.
      Come visit some time and we can trade travel stories from the 70’s.
      Cheers,
      Ken

      Reply
      • Barbara

        Ken, that’s an enticing idea and who knows, I might find myself there at some point. Sounds like a beautiful place. I’m living in the SF Bay Area. Take good care!

        Reply
        • ken liss

          I’m from the bay area. Born at Mt. Zion hospital, went to Westmoor high school in Daly City, U.C. Berkeley, class of ’70. Lived my last 16 years in Napa up til 2015 when I left to live in Hoi An, Vietnam. The winters were too cold there. It would get down to the 60’s and that was not living up to my fantasy of why I left California. I wanted to live where I only had to wear shorts and flip flops every day of the year. So, I met a Vietnamese lady and we moved to Sihanoukville, Cambodia living on Otres beach since April last year.

          Reply
  4. Barbara

    Having grown up in NYC with snow and sleet, Fairfax in Marin is pretty temperate, even if it’s not exotic. Sounds like you have a good life – there’s something to be said for year-round flip flops and some distance from the crazy political climate here.

    Reply

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