When he first got to Vang Viang, in central Laos—about six hours by plodding diesel bus from Vientiane—it had taken four pipes for Fitz to get high. Seven, and he would begin to drift into his own subconscious, as though he were the director of his own pipe dreams. He had come via Thailand from Toronto, where he had been laid off from an Internet magazine. Now, after a month in town, it took a dozen pipes to get to that blissful nodding state, and if he didn't come down to see the dragon at least once a day, he knew he would have a fitful night and a backache the next morning.
Laos' linguistic legacy to the rest of the world comprises just one word: bong. Commonly used in the West to describe a water pipe for marijuana smoking, the word means bamboo in Lao and is indicative of what the country has come to represent to many of the youthful, Western travelers who have made this Indo-Chinese nation of 5 million a haven for narco-tourists seeking the Asian high life. At any given moment in Vang Viang, a town of about 20,000, at least 50 foreigners are here mainly to partake of the opium scene, and another 100 stick around because potent, green, budded marijuana sells for $1 an ounce. (Both drugs are illegal in Laos, though the laws are loosely enforced.) Since opening up to tourism in the early '90s, this sleepy communist country—the hammer and sickle still sags from most flagpoles—has welcomed rising numbers of visitors curious about a place closed to the West since the Indochina wars.
The majority of the more than 300,000 tourists per year come to cruise the scenic Mekong, visit World Heritage Site Luang Prabang or explore the mysterious Plain of Jars. But increasingly they are drawn because they have heard, from other kids on the Asian travel circuit, that drugs in Laos are plentiful and cheap, and as long as you don't do anything too stupid, the cops leave you alone to get loaded in peace. Towns such as Vang Viang and Muang Sing, in the north, have developed expat communities of late teens and twentysomethings who come intending to stay a day or two but then find they are unable to leave. What keeps them in Vang Viang? For some, it is an idyllic landscape with jagged limestone karsts towering over the languorous Nam Xong river. But what more of these kids are finding so hard to abandon is the lifestyle of limitless freedom and cheap, plentiful drugs. "You can do anything you want here," says David Constantine, 22, an Italian from a Milanese suburb. "Go hiking in the hills, explore a cave, have a few pipes, smoke dope in your room all day. Whatever."
For Vang Viang, that has meant a leap in the number of guesthouses from three in 1999 to more than 35 today. No one tracks the exact number of tourists coming through town each season, but the village chief, Phet Hinthapatha, estimates the increase is something like 100% a year. He believes the foreigners are having a positive impact in a town that as late as 1998 was getting no tourists. "Look at all the stuff we can sell them," says the chief, sitting shirtless on a wooden bench, flicking at a wasp with a loose sarong. "Food, skirts, backpacks, toilet paper, even strange things. Foreigners like to buy strange things." He cites the example of travelers purchasing monkeys made from coconut shells. "The more guesthouses we open," he says, "the more money we make, and the more of our people learn to speak English, and that's good for the village." When it is suggested that tourists are coming here in part because they can get very stoned very easily, he shakes his head, sternly intoning: "There is no opium in this village."
Across the street from the village chief's wood-frame house, however, in a little bar where two Vietnamese men sit drinking bottled Bia Lao beer, smoking A-daeng cigarettes and spitting onto the concrete floor, there is plenty of opium. Several foreigners are already in the back-room den, crashed out on dank mattresses having puffed their way through half a dozen pipes each. Sophie, a blond English girl in her 20s, insists the black-trousered O-man, as she calls the Vietnamese boy loading pipes, give her and her friends the best possible dope. "Make sure it's Opium No. 1, okay?" she tells him, pointing at the black goop wrapped in wax paper. "I don't want No. 2. That makes me headachy." She came here after a few months in Thailand where she did the usual: raving at full-moon parties down in Ko Pha-Ngan, trekking in the hills around Chiang Mai. Along with three other travelers, she crossed from Thailand into Laos at Chiang Khong and then caught a boat down the Mekong. She had never tried opium before coming to Laos, and she had told herself back in Epsom, England, she would never, ever, try heroin. But she viewed opium, which is the base product from which other opiates like morphine and heroin are derived, as different. This drug, the dried resin of a poppy plant, seemed more organic than those bindles of powdered heroin she had seen change hands back in England. While those transactions had seemed sinister, this complex heating of the opium and then stoking of the pipe was appealingly ritualistic. "It's really wicked, the way you have to lie down to do it, the way the pipe is made of bamboo. You feel you're being initiated into a secret society," Sophie explains.
The opium poppy, indigenous to Asia Minor, was probably first introduced to Southeast Asia by Arab merchants during the Middle Ages, remaining an exotic rarity until British and French trading companies began importing it into China during the 18th century. Chinese EmigrEs then brought their habits with them, setting up opium dens in most of Asia's major capitals and introducing locals to the drug. At one point, during the 1930s, the kingdom of Siam earned 14% of its revenue from its 1,000 licensed opium dens. In French-controlled Indochina, 15% of government revenue came from taxes on opium sales.
However, with the end of the colonial era and then the cold war years of colonialism by proxy, successive generations have increasingly seen the drug as a vestigial tradition, as antiquated as foot binding or entrail reading. The Cultural Revolution obliterated mainland China's opium scene. Hong Kong's last opium den shut down in the '70s, and even famously dissolute Bangkok is reportedly bereft of a working opium den, the pipes consigned to antique stalls at the Saturday flea markets. The fast-lane kids of Asia's supercities prefer to get their kicks smoking speed or swallowing Es. Opium is grandpa's drug.
But for young Western travelers seeking a bit of chemical adventure, the word opium still conjures images of ornate dens strewn with divans, elaborately carved ivory and jade pipes and the sophisticated decadence of concession-era Shanghai. From articles in Vanity Fair and Arena to documentaries on Japanese television, opium smoking has become chic. It is the drug of choice for a few famous Paris fashion designers and restaurateurs. And collecting opium pipes and paraphernalia is popular among modish New Yorkers. The trendiness is fueled in part by scarcity: it takes 100 g of opium to refine 10 g of heroin. Of the 5,000 tons of opium harvested annually, 99% of it is synthesized into more lucrative and easily transported heroin by drug refiners closer to the source. Very little of the drug in its pure, natural state makes it to the West.
That's why when girls like Sophie or guys like Fitz hear that the drug is widely available in Laos, they can't resist the temptation to try out what has become almost legendary in the West: pure opium. The drug is grown mainly by the hill tribes who came south from Yunnan, China, in the last century and brought a taste for the black, inebriating tar with them. Tribes like the Aka and Hmong cultivate the crop in the otherwise arid highland climate, and bring it down to sell to Vietnamese dealers in the main towns. Ton pays about $20 for a wax-paper sheet of opium, 6 mm thick and as wide as his hand. Broken down into the individual pipe loads he prepares for foreigners, that nets him a profit of about $300—minus the 10 pipes a day he needs to feed his own habit. "Opium, opium," he calls out to foreigners who walk past his sugarcane juice stand. Anyone who tries to actually buy any juice is shunted away. The battered old cane press hasn't worked in years.
Of the 50 boys and girls sitting around sipping lao-lao cocktails in Hope's Oasis, most probably won't try opium during their stay in Vang Viang, and a few will sample the drug once for the experience and not feel compelled to pick it up again. Clarky, the Canadian proprietor of Hope's, admits that some of his customers are in town for the dope, but insists most of them are here "because Laos is a full-on, rad place that's totally blowing up. Everybody's coming to Laos and not just for the dope but because of the people and stuff." Bucktoothed, broad-smiling, with curly hair spilling from under a Beaver Lumber hat, Clarky is full of exuberance about his bar, his new business, his new country.
Hope's Oasis is among the first establishments of its kind in Vang Viang—a casually vibed hangout where foreigners can smoke ganja, drink beer and listen to early '90s house music. It's the sort of place you might expect to find on Khao San Road in Bangkok or in Ko Samui—and its appearance along with a few Internet cafés means Vang Viang is in the initial throes of a tourism boom. Indeed, the first video bar has opened down the street. Martin Dillon hasn't even named his joint yet. But as the twentysomething Englishman sits on a brown sofa, smoking a gigantic spliff while a pirated VCD of 3,000 Miles to Graceland blares in the background, he talks about how Laos is at an inflection point. "It could become this really cool place, or it could just turn to s___," he says, exhaling pot smoke. Dillon concedes that a strip of bars and restaurants blaring videos would ruin the backwater ambiance. "But you've got to give the people what they want."
For the thousands of tourists who come to Laos and indulge in a bit of Oriental opium, there is little risk. But opium is a brutally addictive substance, and withdrawal from the drug is chemically identical to heroin withdrawal. The process has been described by at least one addict as "bone-crushingly painful." Harmless as a few pipe loads in exotic Laos may seem, too many visits to the O-man, coupled with a genetic disposition to substance abuse, can leave travelers with a nascent addiction that can cause problems once they return to Toronto or Tokyo—where opium is scarce but its more addictive chemical cousin heroin is readily available. Local Lao addicts seldom try to stop—and when they are occasionally picked up by the Vang Viang police, they are usually released from the corrugated-steel jail after a few hours because the cops can't stand listening to their cries. Guidebooks stress that narco-tourists are directly supporting local addicts and contributing to social and cultural problems. But that won't discourage a curious American or Canadian or Japanese.
Fitz, who is fresh from going to see the dragon, sits in the back of Dillon's restaurant, rolling a joint. There's a full-moon party in 10 days down in Ko Pha-Ngan, Thailand, three days by bus, train and boat from here. He swears he's going to be there. He needs a fresh visa for Laos anyway. What about the opium? Can he go that long without seeing the dragon?
Fitz explains that he's trying to taper off. And he plans to smuggle into Thailand a few opium pellets that he can boil in a pot of tea and drink. He'll be getting out, he swears. He's not going to stay in some Lao backwater, the Asian equivalent of Appalachia, just because the dope is cheap and plentiful. You want to believe him, you really do, but you just know he's not going anywhere.