Fear and Loathing in Laos

Fear and Loathing in Laos

One of the first things I did after arriving in Bangkok was purchase a pack of Marlboros from 7-Eleven, which in Southeast Asia sells microwavable curry and instant noodles instead of slushies and hot dogs. I had made a small effort at quitting during the winter, but after the 30-hour journey I felt like I deserved a cigarette. I planned on smoking only one and giving the rest away, but unsurprisingly ended up finishing the entire pack. Then one pack became two packs, and so on and so on. Two months later, I’m too embarrassed to keep count.

Hiding from the sun in the shadow of a Buddhist temple, my nicotine rush faded and gave way to disappointment. At least I wasn’t the only one lacking self-control, though. Backpacking through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, you find no shortage of people who are temporarily turning a blind eye to their vices. Potheads gravitate towards the neon-lit dispensaries of Bangkok’s Khaosan Road. Vegetarians adjust their diets to try out fried crickets, skewered frogs, and other delicacies. Horny adolescents risk going on Tinder dates in Laos, a country where – just Google this if you don’t believe me – having sex with a non-national could land you in jail. Day drinking and chain smoking are the norm, not the exception. 

Photo by Tim Brinkhof

Part of me had hoped Southeast Asia’s spiritual aura would help me master my addiction, but this was not the case. The closest I got to interacting with a monk was when I handed one a bowl of white rice on the streets as they made their daily rounds begging for food. I saw them everywhere – not only inside temples, but also at convenience stores, train stations, and airport lobbies. 

Their bald heads and bright orange robes became a familiar sight at national parks, caves, and other monuments, where – iPhones in hand – they snapped pictures of each other just like any of the other tourists. In hindsight, it’s silly (and perhaps a little bit racist) to have expected all monks to look and act the way they do in western films – ascetic, emaciated, meditating underneath a Bodhi tree, but while they engaged in all sorts of activities that aren’t generally considered monk-like, almost all of them always looked happy and content. 

I’ve become very interested in eastern thought in recent years, and although I have yet to take the time to study the wisdom of Lao Tzu, Bodhidharma, or the Upanishads, I have listened to copious amounts of Alan Watts. The bearded British philosopher had been showing up in my YouTube feed for quite some time, and while my initial impression was that he was no different from all those delusional self-help gurus currently dominating the internet, his talks really did leave me positively spellbound. 

The way I see it, the thing about Buddhism and other ancient religions concerned with living a good life – Christianity included – is that the seemingly complicated ideas they’re getting at are actually quite simple and obvious, so simple and obvious that we don’t give them the attention they deserve, much like how we don’t actively think about eating, breathing, or brushing our teeth. 

Watts had a special talent for making his audience pause and reflect. He does this, for instance, when he explains the foolishness of people who turn to Buddhism for self-help reasons. Wanting to follow in the Buddha’s footsteps, and extinguish the source of suffering that is desire, they fail to acknowledge the elephant seated on their yoga mat: that wanting to stop desiring is, in itself, a form of desire. 

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Photo by Tim Brinkhof

Watts also said that a true Zen master won’t want to teach you, because there is nothing to teach, and that a person cannot pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, because the part of you that is pushing for self-improvement is indistinguishable from the part that needs to be improved. These observations followed me as I smoked my way through Southeast Asia, providing me with a reason not to be too angry with myself and, at the same time, a belief that change was still somehow possible.

My nightly listens to Watts and other experts on eastern thought – occasionally shared with other backpackers staying at my hostel dormitories – also taught me to recognize the lies that my nicotine addiction were passing off as truth, ranging from the nonsensical – i.e. that cigarettes somehow won’t affect my health if I smoke them in places I don’t consider home – to the downright diabolical, like that there is no point in even caring about my health because war and climate change and AI will destroy life on Earth long before I’ll be old enough to die from cancer. (Knock on wood).

Mindfulness cultivated through meditation and reflection eases the anxiety that makes us reach for cigarettes, alcohol, and other coping mechanisms. One of the main reasons I enjoy listening to Watts is that he is one of the few people who in moments of stress can truly make me understand that there is no point in feeling fearful or depressed – the kind of feelings I would otherwise treat with nicotine. 

Others treat it with alcohol or drugs or – indeed – with traveling. I actually met a couple of long-term backpackers who, after hitting slow or low points on their trips, spoke candidly about their struggles with mental health. Nursing a mango smoothie in the mountains of Vietnam, an American in his mid-30s told me that, after spending several years on the road, he no longer knew if he was if he was traveling because he genuinely wanted to explore the world, or because he feared he’d harm himself if he remained in one place and allowed his demons to catch up to him. 

His was an extreme case, but the truth is that the vast majority of backpackers have come to the other end of the world because they are going through some kind of personal reckoning. More than half of the people that I met in hostels say they quit their job and that the main purpose of their trip, aside from, of course, sightseeing and all that, is learning why they weren’t happy doing what they did at home, and what they might do instead when they come back. 

A final quote from Watts that stuck with me was “To travel is to be alive, but to get somewhere is to be dead.” I certainly felt a little dead inside after boarding my plane last week, and not just because I spent 10 hours sleeping on the cold floor of Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport on a midnight layover, or because the weather in my native Netherlands is – as always – as cheerful as a Lexapro commercial. 

Rather, I felt dead because backpacking trips themselves are like mini versions of a human life, and coming home feels like leaving that life behind. The airplane – a dark liminal space suspended in the sky – is like being inside a mother’s womb, while leaving the airport is like being born. Naked and afraid, you enter a completely alien environment whose rules and history are yet unknown but pieced together as you move from hostel to hostel, city to city, country to country. 

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Photo by Tim Brinkhof

By the time you board your return flight, you are no longer a baby but a wise old geezer who can navigate without Google Maps, ride on the back of a motorbike without feeling like you have to wrap your arms around the driver as though your lives depend on it, and say “hello” and “thank you” in the local language with pronunciation that doesn’t make native speakers frown or snort. 

You board another plane, this one not a womb but coffin en route to the underworld, and as it takes off you browse your photos and look back on a life well lived, from its struggles – like that nicotine addiction you still haven’t been able to beat – to its joys, including the people you smoked with, and the places you smoked at. 

Though I didn’t manage to quit while I was abroad, quitting at home is going pretty well. Maybe it’s the change of scenery. But really, I think it’s the sense of finality that comes with ending a long trip. Smoking, I now tell myself, is something I did in a previous life, and that life is over.  

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