Vang Vieng, Laos, 2012
The open air bar bangs out a discordant mash of popular songs that meld with the humidity. Snoop and Dr. Dre are shoved uncomfortably next to Rage Against The Machine, who, in a lurching seugeway, suddenly turns aimlessly generic dubstep and drum n’ bass… bundled together into a compilation CD aimed at the mythical average party goer. The DJ seems less concerned with playing good dancing music, and more with soundtracking a cultural apocalypse.
This particular cultural apocalypse is alight with gaudy neon and dazzling superficiality. Faces melt from beer bottles to kissing lips, to campfire fire trance like a montage of a trailer for an advert. Bundles of meaningless banknotes are bundled into invisible hands, passed from tourist to bar to police for protection. This is a carefully designed experience, where fun comes from the top down and any notion of grassroots has been dug up and left on the compost heap.
It’s a whirl of booze and hormones, of blonde girls and ripped guys grinding in a hammered MTV parody. This is UK high street drinking with added mushrooms and opium on the bar menu to lend an aura of decadence.
To be fair, though, the drugs are pretty fucking good.
I sit with my friend Mr. Furious, greedily sipping whiskey and coke through straws like the needy, infantile, irresponsible goons Vang Vieng needs us to be, debating what drugs to take, where the next free drink is coming from, lip-synching to whatever the hell is being thrown at us by the DJ.
This is pretty much business as usual in Vang Vieng.
Then, through the clouds of cigarette smoke, dust, polished skin and unattainable dreams, she appears. It’s 9pm, and she’s seriously drunk. It’s the kind of unpredictable drunk where elation and depression are in constant battle with each other, and a thread hangs between tottering calm and spitting rage.
She stands and sits repeatedly, swaying like a rag doll in a gale. Her carefully applied make up has been swept up in a torrent of sweat and tears. She lifts up her dress and displays the crudely drawn spurting cock on her back to all who will look. This could be funny, except it’s all acted out with such lingering, trashed security. Like I said, she’s seriously drunk. It’s difficult to not feel deeply uncomfortable. Mr. Furious and I can only avoid her glazed eyes, ashamed on her behalf, lost at what to do.
She attempts to talk to us, but her chat is a gabba set on loop, a mash up of repeated slices of anecdotes and cut ups of opinions and accusations. She tries to explain, reason or justify her arrival to us, at this bar, alone, and drunk. But, because of the latter, it comes out as a hopeless ramble.
Suddenly, she clings on to a piece of driftwood from our conversation. I’ve no idea what it is – a word, a phrase, we’ll never know – but it triggers something inside her, and her first words of clarity are as direct as they are saddening.
“No woman has any self-respect.”
Mr. Furious and I almost hit the deck at the sudden bluntness of her words. She nods to herself as if her point is finally made, and drifts back into incoherence. Again, we can only sit, helplessly at a loss.
No woman has any self-respect.
The six words reverberate in my brain for hours, days, weeks after, and make my heart shudder whenever I repeat them to myself.
I witness this annihilation of self-respect too often back home. A majority of the populace have been convinced that the only way to handle life is by debasing themselves because, after all, as British people, we come from a social structure that tells you daily:
BE GRATEFUL THAT YOU LIVE UNDER A DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT.
… while at the same time attempting to force complete obedience through a labyrinth of complex institutions and archaic traditions. Growing up in the UK, we’re told that obedience is the key to climbing the mythical ladder of life. We’re told to “play the game”. And obedience doesn’t work if the individual is allowed self-defined notions of self-respect, because any self-respecting individual will tell anyone who orders them around to go fuck themselves.
And we come back to those five words – No Woman Has Self-Respect, and have flashes of her past, present and future.
I see the teachers training her through detentions and suspensions. I can see the politicians on television, all smiles and shark teeth, telling her everything will be just fine if she buckles down. I see newspapers scaring her into work to let someone else profit from her anxiety. I see bosses, red-faced, barking orders at her. I see boyfriends convincing her to have sex when she really doesn’t want to, a subtle threat of violence snaking through his words. I see advert up on advert holding up a postcard to a life that’s as alluring as it is illusory. All these conspire to do one thing – to convince this woman that she isn’t special.
But she is special. And I hope one day someone shows her that she is in charge and doesn’t have to take all this shit. I don’t want her to fall into the spiral of Vang Vieng, into the abyss that deceives people into settling for nothing, into the whirlpool that drains all natural energy and creativity…
I want to tell her all of this, but instead I look away. As I try to figure out what kind of a hellish world could make someone utter those six words, I immediately begin to drink away the memories.