LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE PLATINUM BLONDE DJ ON HER WAY TO LAOS
BY DIANA HUBBELL
Everything about you was loud—loud colors, loud laugh, loud voice with a rough-around-the-edges accent you had carried from a small town in England to the common room of that Bangkok hostel. All of the guests except for the two of us were wearing faded T-shirts purchased for 200 baht. I was in what my 23-year-old self thought was an office getup: a rumpled button-up and a polyblend pencil skirt that was an inch or two shy of respectable. You were a platinum blonde bombshell with gold hoop earrings that I could have fit my fist through. We would never have been friends in our respective lives back home, but there we were in a cement-floored bar where neither of us belonged.
A part of me wanted to dislike you, but I couldn’t, really. I saw myself as different—a serious professional even though I had never held a serious job. I had moved to Thailand two weeks earlier on a whim and the consequences of my impulsive decision were already crashing down. I had no home, no friends, a few hundred dollars dwindling in the bank. Each night I fell asleep in a 10-person dorm clutching my purse like a stuffed toy, then woke up and set about the laborious business of pretending my shit was together.
You held no such compunctions. We must have talked for hours, though the fine lines of our vodka-fueled conversation have bled together like watercolors in my memory. You had plans, this much I know. You wanted to be a DJ. You had been working here and there at clubs in London. You had never been anywhere before and had touched down in Asia just a few hours earlier. You were supposed to travel far and wide, wandering the well-etched grooves in the so-called banana pancake trail that snaked through the map of Southeast Asia, but instead you went to Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng, a town of roughly 50,000 in central Laos, is surrounded on all sides by beauty, by jungle-draped limestone mountains riddled with caves and the serpentine curves of the Nam Song River. In the rainy season from May to September, a potent, heady mist settles over the landscape, blurring the edges into an Impressionist painting wrought in shades of green and lilac.
But this was not why travelers went there. Around 1999, one local started renting inflatable tubes to coast down the river and as more people came, a vast, illicit ecosystem sprang up to accommodate. A network of ramshackle wooden bars selling cheap marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms along the river banks drew tens of thousands each year, so that on any given day during peak season, backpackers outnumbered locals by a factor of three to one.
We must have spoken about Vang Vieng, because I never forgot my own visit. By the time I arrived with four friends in 2011, six months before buying a one-way ticket to Thailand, it was a lawless town anchored around a dusty strip of shops selling neon singlets and waterproof phone cases. Come evening, stragglers covered in bodypaint would drift back from the river, while others spent whole days slack-jawed and stoned watching Friends and Family Guy on loop at one of more than a dozen restaurants. There were no children on the streets, because their parents would not let them play outside.
My friends and I did what everyone else did. We started smoking hastily rolled joints and downing shots of throat-scalding Lao-Lao whiskey well before noon. We danced on wooden platforms and around bonfires. We wrote phone numbers and names and phrases on our arms and legs that later made little sense. We took pictures with my camera, then promptly lost it. We made and lost friends and talked of nothing.
And the farther downstream we drifted, the more often the five of us separated, and the more time we spent looking for one member of our group who kept wandering off. When we found her for the last time, she was sitting off to the side of the mayhem, red-eyed and ghost-faced. She had swung on a makeshift rope swing and lost consciousness the moment she hit the water. Someone had found her floating facedown, slowly drifting in the current. She wouldn’t stop crying. She told us she was fine.
Before the French gave the town its current name, Vang Vieng was called Mouang Song, in honor of a drowned king whose body had been pulled from the river. When I visited in 2011, people died in the Nam Song almost every month. Sometimes one or two at a time, sometimes more. They spent days drinking Red Bull and moonshine out of plastic buckets, then snapped their spines on the shallow river bed or shattered their skulls on the rocks. The poorly equipped local hospital was admitting an average of 10 or more a day. Twenty-seven never returned home that year.
That was the same year you went to Vang Vieng. We never spoke again, but we stayed connected through the thin tether of social media. Facebook is always intrusive, but the way I watched your life unfold felt more voyeuristic than usual. Sometimes nothing would come for months, then there you were on my laptop screen, knee-deep in murky water. You were never alone. You found a band of lost boys and girls who slipped into the cracks and lived in an anarchic state segregated from the Lao world. You went feral—lost the earrings, the slick of foundation, the eyeliner, most of your clothes. One day, I saw that you had tattooed “VV” on your upper thigh. There was a photo of you in your short-shorts and tank top, your face twisted into a grimace as the needle carved its mark on your tanned skin.
By the time I returned to Vang Vieng two years later, everything had fallen apart. In 2012, the government decided that enough was enough. After several Australian casualties landed on the front page of a string of Western papers, authorities swept in. They smashed a couple dozen bars, confiscated kilos of marijuana, and announced that the party was over. I went back for my first ever reporting assignment to assess what remained and how locals were making ends meet now that their main livelihood had vanished. The narrative was supposed to be upbeat—boutique hotels were creeping in, family-friendly eco-tourism was replacing debauchery, and so on. And while there was some truth to that, the reality was far less suited to the pages of a glossy travel mag.
With its vacant streets and bars still showing Friends, Vang Vieng reminded me of the seedier ghost towns lining Route 66 after the Interstate had abandoned them. It still exuded a Wild West vibe, with a cast of characters who had sought a place where no one knew them. There was Richard, who held court over bottles of red wine every night in Le Cafe de Paris, a bistro in a garage that served shockingly good boeuf bourguignon. There was Chris, a crusty, aging Brit who had opened up a youth hostel.
“I wanted somewhere where the living was cheap and the women were friendly,” Chris drawled. He told stories of backpackers pissing on the streets and destroying signs, of messy, yelping bar brawls across his common room floor. Good riddance, was his attitude. “In my day, we were different. We weren’t backpackers. We were travelers.”
It’s a distinction I’ve heard countless times on the road. Other people are tourists tainting the supposed authenticity of a place, while we ourselves are intrepid adventurers. Most of the foreigners I met in Vang Vieng felt as if they might wither away if they left the confines of this no-man’s land. They spoke with nostalgia about their home countries, but knew all too well that they had lived away from the societies that had birthed them for a little too long. Expats vary from place to place, but in many ways, they are the same. They—we are a tribe that belongs nowhere.
You must have been there when I visited Vang Vieng the second time, but I didn’t look for you. I don’t know if you would have remembered me if I had. But I wondered what happened to you, if you had simply grown too wild to go back to where you came from.
As the years passed and I stayed away from home longer and longer, “home” became a progressively more abstract concept. I was getting restless and killing time talking about going somewhere without a clear concept of where or when that might be. The waterlogged streets and canals of Bangkok felt as though they were drifting out of orbit with the rest of the world. Things were starting to unravel there too, though always somehow at the periphery.
Every morning, I elbowed my way through a crowd of a couple thousand gathered outside my office building. Some were there protesting the corrupt prime minister; some were taking selfies; others simply saw an opportunity and were selling street food or paraphernalia in the colors of the Thai flag. A sense of shiftless frustration hung in the air, already thick and sticky with the breath and sweat of so many bodies crushed together. I kept my head down and I pushed through and went on writing about Bangkok’s trendy restaurants and bars as though nothing out of the ordinary were happening.
Before Thailand’s 19th coup d’etat, before the military took indefinite control of the government, before arrests of civilians started ramping up, I sat with a group of writers drinking cheap whiskey in a teak-wood bar named, of course, Hemingway’s, while we read reports on our phones of bombs going off and low-level skirmishes in the distance. And we carried on and talked about something else, both to quell the rising unease and because none of it seemed real.
It’s been seven years almost to the day since we met in that hostel. I’m back in my own country now, but there are times when it doesn’t quite fit. Maybe I came back stranger; maybe I grew to like the feeling of standing on the outside peering in. When it’s late and I can’t sleep and it feels like my lungs are slowly filling with fluid, I scan plane ticket prices and apartment ads in far away places. Maybe you’re out there doing the same.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Diana Hubbell has lived in six countries on three continents. She currently resides in New York City, but feels equally at home in Berlin and Bangkok, where she worked as an editor for Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, VICE, Travel + Leisure, The Independent, Eater, Playboy, and Condé Nast Traveller India, among other publications. She has an MA from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. instagram: @diana.hubbell and twitter @DianaHubbell
Header image by Anna Faustino.