On the Nam Song River, I had refused the shots of Lao-Lao, the backyard rice whiskey served free in the water, and taken only a solitary sip of beer. I didn’t want to be seen not drinking though, so I held onto the bottle longer than usual. That we were waist deep in water was part of the problem; shirtless, there was no escape from intense scrutiny. Eventually, as we drifted downstream and people got sloppier, I just gave up the charade. I was now standing on a rickety wooden tower, clinging to a dirty rope, egged on to swing over the waters below and let go. I recalled the reasons I had refused to drink earlier. Behind me, a woozy Irishman was growing impatient, bellowing, ‘Aren’t all you Australians the strong swimmers? What are you waiting for?’
In a particularly feverish stretch of Spalding Gray’s autobiographical monologue, Swimming to Cambodia, the actor recounts his experiences working on the film The Killing Fields. Though set in Cambodia, The Killing Fields was actually shot in Thailand, and during his downtime Gray traveled to Phuket with the film’s crew to go to the beach. On one of these down days he went out swimming with a South African cameramen. Gray began to panic when the cameraman swam out into rough Thai waters and went suddenly out of sight. Gray called to the others, fearful of going into the water himself, and then the cameraman reappeared. Seeing Gray’s fear, he offered: ‘I’m really sorry, man. Listen, don’t worry about me, I won’t drown. I’m from South Africa.’
This ridiculous bravado – aquatic immunity based on nationality – is hilarious in Gray’s frantic telling, but it’s an attitude I’ve seen again and again overseas. In a cheap reality show like Bondi Rescue, where Sydney lifesavers play heroes and pound their chests with waves, we only ever see young tourists swept away in the surf. Is this why the sodden Irishman was pushing me closer to the edge? There was no chance as an Australian that anything could go wrong. The drop was telling me something different.
In early 2012, three young Australian men all died within a month of each other in Laos. Two died on the Nam Song River, while the third died in mysterious circumstances in the northern city of Luang Prabang. The circumstances of their deaths were strikingly similar: the young white men were in their late-teens to mid-20s, all from comparable backgrounds, and all in Laos for the backpacker experience – the same holiday thousands of Australians take each year. Death certainly rendered them ‘ordinary Australians’.
Photographs accompanying the reports of their deaths showed the men relaxed back at home, leaning back on lawn furniture or attending weddings. They all looked like high-school friends I no longer spoke to.
Laos is landlocked and, for a young backpacker without the funds to fly, you need to travel through intense terrain to get there. The mountain roads turn stomachs. The bus driver hands out brightly coloured plastic bags to old women, who crouch in their seats and vomit between their knees.
It is early 2007 and I’m travelling in Laos with Carly. We met in Bangkok, and she wanted us to stop in Vang Vieng after hearing about the infamous river tubing. Vang Vieng is a small town in Laos, settled on the Nam Song River, about four hours by bus north of the capital, Vientiane. I didn’t know about river tubing and wasn’t interested – I wanted to go to Luang Prabang, the former capital, a beautiful city set around verdant green hills and filled with monks in Fanta-orange gowns accepting sticky rice from fawning tourists. But Carly got her way. I was, after all, desperately attracted to her.
Laos seemed to be mostly untouched by the tourism industry – the Mekong sitting in defiant silence. Vang Vieng, however, seemed to signal a transformation into a dead-brained Thai-style tourist destination. Here there were backpackers lounging in beanbags, eating and drinking while the televisions played Friends and other outdated American sitcoms on endless cycles. This was taken straight out of a book borrowed from the Thai party islands, most notoriously Koh Phangan, known for its full-moon parties (and half-moon-parties and quarter-moon-parties and any- excuse-for-a-moon-party parties). I watched all this in a kind of mock horror, then went to watch TV for a few hours.
This feeling of being above it all, while simultaneously partaking, defined my travels. It was also encouraged by advertisements for local tours, who went about endorsing what they suggested were ‘Non-Touristical’ tours. ‘Off the beaten track!’, ‘Not usual rout!’, ‘Different!’, ‘Not For Tourists’. These slogans capitalised on the neurotic distinction between Tourist, Traveller and Backpacker. There was a definite hierarchy to this nomenclature: everyone wanted to be a Traveller not a Tourist, but would settle for Backpacker if the others were already taken. Tubing on the Nam Song River, the chief attraction and Carly’s reason for bringing us here, was the most ‘touristical’ thing you could choose to do.
This was the basic rundown: A small tour company gives you a large black rubber tube and drops you off at one end of a river and picks you up at the other. In the time between, you can stop at a floating bar and drink, or you can use one of the many swings and flying foxes – or zip lines as the Americans said – to dive into the water. It was like an adult swim park. The height and trajectory of the swings and the large amount of alcohol consumed were no smart combination, but this was all at your own risk, everyone laughing it off as good times. No one asked who was responsible for safety.
The stupidity of these activities returned to me when the news came through of the deaths of the young Australian men. The 26-year-old died in early January last year after jumping from the flying fox into the water, striking his head on something submerged. The 19-year-old, after an afternoon of drinking, went missing on 23 January and was found dead in the water three days later. I wonder if the 19-year-old man knew about the earlier death, whether he saw the photographs on any website.
Back in Australia, the Sunday night commercial news programs, 60 Minutes and Sunday Night, took the predictable moralising tone when reporting on these deaths. Segments ‘Death in Paradise’ and ‘Wild and Deadly in Laos’ both run around the 10-minute mark and shame the tourists for their wrongdoings. (Sunday Night also awkwardly interviews Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet, fumbling for a question that sees Wheeler almost repentant for opening Laos to tourism). In September 2012 the Laos government convened to act on the deaths. The bars were dismantled. A subsequent report for SBS’s Dateline titled ‘The Party is Over’ featured footage of the rickety swings, slides and zip lines being demolished by Laos locals with sledgehammers.
I spent half of my holiday travelling around with Carly in the rough corners of Southeast Asia. The other half I spent in the mega malls of Bangkok – MBK, Siam Centre and Siam Paragon – frequenting the two or three bookstores with English-language titles, food courts, internet cafes and cinemas. I bought story collections by Donald Barthelme and Jonathan Lethem, and the books were wrapped in soft plastic covers by the store staff. This probably saved my life.
In Swimming to Cambodia, Spalding Gray calls it the Perfect Moment. In the film, early on, smoking marijuana on a beach in Thailand, he puts it this way:
I hadn’t had the Perfect Moment yet. And it’s very important for me to have Perfect Moments in exotic countries like that. You know, I always like to have them because it gives you a good sense of closure. Kind of lets you know when it’s time to go home… and you never know when you’re going to have one.
In Cambodia, Carly and I were stupidly seeking the Perfect Moment. Carly paid for us to go on a tour to the Killing Fields and we climbed onto the back of an open truck. There was, as part of the tour, a small stop where we were taken to a gun club to shoot at targets printed on thin sheets of paper hanging on pegs. The shooting rage was a rural affair, like something out of a Depression-era dustbowl movie set. Chickens scratched around the ground and a cow chewed cud by the fence. There was the strange smell of animal shit and gunpowder as we were shown the weapons.
Carly laughed when we learned we could use an AK-47 – but it was too intense for us. I just wanted to get the feel of a handgun. Eventually, Carly chose an American gun, and I chose a Chinese model.
The owner of the range took us to the target, which was at the back of a black dusty room. The kickback was stronger than I had anticipated, as was the yellow lightning flash and the thunder crack that followed a nanosecond later. It had more power than I expected. I had seen shootouts and gunshots in movies from an early age, but I did not understand how people weren’t deafened during these scenes. Movies, not documentaries, I had to remind myself: fiction with very few facts.
The Cambodian tour guide brought the targets out at the end to show us how we did. I gave the tour guide my camera and he took a photograph of Carly and I holding the guns across our chests. We took turns standing in front of the row of machine guns and photographing each other, AK-47s hanging above our heads like deadly halos. I regretted the existence of the photographs almost immediately, remembering the Australians who had been caught up in the Wheat Board kickbacks scandal on the front of the newspapers, holding handguns.
If I felt bad about the guns, what came next made me feel downright miserable. The tour guide delivered us to the Killing Fields. I got off the bus and stretched my legs and could see the centrepiece of the grounds in front of me: a glass tower of skulls. They were stacked in the hundreds. There were eucalypts around the edge of the fields. The floor at our feet was dust and the holes in the ground, where bodies were dumped, made it look like a BMX track that had been in the bush behind my house when I was growing up. That had been an eerie place too, but no one had ever been killed there.
I looked over to the tower of skulls, sorry that I wasn’t moved more. I only felt guilt about the guns from before. Tired, I bought a bottle of water and poured it over my head, my wet hair flattening around the shape of my skull.
In Vang Vieng as we made it down to the river, we fell in with the kind of self-obsessed travellers who do nothing to play down their ignorance. They go shirtless, when the local customs ask for something more conservative. They drink in front of the kids on the street, make out in front of the elderly. They play it up and present it as a cute characteristic. They are all after the perpetual Perfect Moment. The group was diverse when it came to age, sex and class, but certainly not race – Anglos only. Carly was infatuated with a dreadlocked British stoner, who boasted constantly about sleeping with a Laotian woman, despite the laws against non-Laotians sleeping with Laotian women. Each story he told, in fact, was prefaced by the law he’d alleged to have broken.
Carly was also taken with Margo, a New Zealander who had been away from home for more than a year. Carly was impressed by Margo’s story of quitting a retail job to travel the world in her forties, but it was clear she was doing nothing more interesting on these travels than getting very drunk very early in the morning and staying drunk throughout the day. All tourists are conmen, trying to sell one another stories. Identity is lost and has no currency. This is part of the fun: you’re not tied to your home and your everyday identity.
One night we went out drinking at a club with dance floors built from the same rickety bamboo used for the swings on the river. Carly and Margo danced between shirtless men. I looked away. They ordered a couple of buckets of booze: hot pink and lime-green buckets filled with industrial-grade cleaner. Whose idea of fun? The resulting hangover is also free of charge. I walked home alone.
Carly came back to the hostel before sunrise and was ready to go out tubing for a second day. Margo was going back out and they would do it properly together – more drink this time. I waved her away, delirious from the sudden onset of a cold I had picked up from being on the water for so long.
I ventured out and ate a bowl of plain spaghetti and watched a bad movie on the restaurant’s TV. I went back to our hostel room and fell asleep, having a fever dream about pirates. I was stirred awake by Carly coming back in from Day Two on the Nam Song. She slipped out of her T-shirt sheepishly. Down her side was a bruise in the shape of a small island. You could stand on it. She had slipped from the rickety tower and landed badly, the water hitting her at the worst point with the force of a fist. We decided to part ways the next day and wouldn’t see each other again.
The list of Australian deaths in Southeast Asia grows even as I write. A young man is shot in Koh Phangan. A 21-year-old dies falling off a balcony in Phuket. A teenager drops dead from a toxic drink in Lombok. A woman is found floating in a swimming pool in mysterious circumstances, and with no clear answers the media becomes increasingly obsessed. A non-fatal stabbing in a Bali nightclub is duly noted. A 40-year-old dies in Laos from a suspected drug overdose. His friend dies three days later in Vientiane from the same causes. The weight of this essay cannot bear the reality of events that occur during its composition. Visiting upon these deaths like this is perhaps its own form of crass tourism, but for the living they lead one to question the worth of risk as rite of passage.