Rue Lane Xang, Vientiane, Laos, 1966. Photo: Robert Wofford. Used by permission.
In early April 1968, Peter J. Kumpa of the Baltimore Sun was in Bangkok. In those days the city was something of a staging area for reporters covering the war in Vietnam. It was a place where journalists could find respite from the rigors of location reporting, yet still remain connected to the main flow of information. The rumor in Bangkok was that the entire Mekong Valley—including Vientiane, the capital of Laos—was under threat from an advancing column of North Vietnamese regulars. With no way to verify the rumor but to go and see for himself, Kumpa flew to Vientiane. What he found on arrival was a sleepy, provincial capital city that was unaware of any imminent threat. The passengers on his plane from Bangkok included a handful of American women and their children returning from shopping trips to the metropolis, part of the community of 1700 US officials and their dependents living there at the time.
The rumor turned out to be nothing more than exaggeration. There was fighting far to the south, but it seemed to be contained. Since he was there, however, Kumpa decided to take a look around. Besides the large number of Americans, the city also contained a delegation of Russians, representatives from both North and South Vietnam, as well as from the Pathet Lao, the native Communist faction. What made this situation particularly remarkable was that individuals from these different groups socialized at the same cocktail parties. It was reportedly not uncommon to find the chargés d’affaires for both North and South Vietnam seated next to one another at dinner, with a sprinkling of American and Russian officials around the same table. Added to this mix, Vientiane was an active hub for Air America, the CIA’s not-so-secret private airline. More curious still, the city was home to some 100 European, Australian, and American hippies—travelers who had found the most unlikely terminus to what was then called the Hippie Trail, the overland route from Istanbul to Kathmandu and beyond.
Sheldon Cholst, Ventiane, late 1960s. Photographer unknown.
Kumpa’s article was probably the first mention in the US press of the Third Eye, a “psychedelic night club” started by Sheldon Cholst, an American psychiatrist in his mid-40s who had been part of the traveling counterculture since the days of the beatniks. Cholst was famous in Vientiane as the founder of the Free USA Government-in-Exile, an alternative, imaginary government whose proposed constitution included the abolition of all laws against narcotics, birth control, abortion, and polygamy. His home, only 100 yards or so from the US embassy, was a tourist attraction for visiting Russians who would stroll by to view the black and white US flag flying over the compound. Its presence was reportedly also something of an embarrassment to the Lao government, which relied heavily on US aid.
Like other psychedelic nightclubs around the world, The Third Eye’s goal seems to have been to create a space conducive to the psychedelic experience in both its major forms: musical and chemical. The ceiling was covered with tattered parasols and scarves, with dim colored lights shining through them so as to give the room an eerie, shadow-haunted glow. Laos at the time was one of the few countries that had not yet banned marijuana, and joints were sold in the club for only a few cents each. In 1967 Terry Wofford, a British artist and designer, was working in Bangkok. In the early 60s she had performed in a folk music duo with a young Christine Perfect, later to go on to fame in Fleetwood Mac as Christine McVie, but Terry had since given up music for art. She initially traveled to Vientiane in order to renew her Thai visa, but fell in love with the country. She accepted a teaching job at the International School and soon met her future husband, Robert, at the Third Eye. Terry and Robert’s photos from this period are a priceless source of visual documentation of the era and are now part of the University of Wisconsin Digital Collection. In a letter home from the late 60s, Terry described the Third Eye:
The decor is tremendous. I think I have already described the umbrellas and lights and local bamboo and head scarf effects, simple, cheap and sophisticated. It’s not only the best and most respectable bar in town with a tremendously good folk and rock group but they cook good food in the primitive kitchen in the back. On Saturdays the place gets swamped with [straight] Americans. One young man that worked there bitterly complained that the low, long table they monopolize was their own “scene” (with a long candle in a huge glass bottle) and these . . . Americans started to actually come and sit between them and stare at their furry faces! Still, their money is needed. The drinks are quite expensive. However for people with little money they provide free iced tea, often free food and even a place to stay for those who are really broke. They are apparently not making a profit. Just about surviving in fact. They work there as they like for a dollar a day. In the back they have a small room where they print and paint. They’ve invited me to use it if I want. It’s amazing the talent among them. They are even opening an art gallery next door. [Terry tells me that she does not believe the art gallery ever opened.]
Psychedelic art at the Third Eye, 1968. Photo: Terry Wofford. Used by permission.
Vientiane in 1968 seems an unlikely place for a group of hippies to end up. At the time, it was about as close as a civilian could safely get to the Vietnam War, which was raging not only in Vietnam, but in the southern and eastern parts of Laos as well. Though the majority of the travelers undoubtedly opposed the war, when John Riddick of the Tucson Daily Citizen visited the city in September of that year, one of the them told him that the group tended to keep its opinions about the war to itself, and, in general, to not be “antagonistic about anything.” This “under the radar” attitude may well have been the result of events earlier in the year.
On May 16, 1968, the New York Times ran a small piece sourced from the United Press reporting that Laos had ordered 22 hippies to leave the country. It stated that as part of this action, “two of their 5-cent marijuana bars” were closed. One of these was the Third Eye; what the second bar may have been is not currently known. The deportees were scheduled to be bused to the Mekong River ferry east of town and sent downriver to Thailand. This was problematic as Thailand had recently barred “hippie” travelers, but it was thought that the Thai government would allow the deportees to travel to Bangkok in order to find transportation out of the country. In another letter home, Wofford explains the reason for the expulsion:
Did you hear about the fuss made during a Lao festival? The hippies joined in a procession of Buddhists which everyone found hilarious except local officialdom who closed the Eye for one night and started to run some of them out of town.
Luckily for the traveler community, it had an ally in the prime minister’s Harvard-educated son, Prince Panya Souvanna Phouma. Panya interceded on behalf of the deportees, and the order was revoked. In order for the Third Eye to reopen, however, Panya became half owner of the club. One source says that no money was actually exchanged, so Cholst effectively had part of his business confiscated, but through Panya’s intervention a vital center for the alternative Western community was saved. As conditions for the reprieve, the travelers were ordered to practice better grooming habits, to tone down their “hippie” appearance, and to be less conspicuous in their use of drugs. Panya also introduced three new rules for the Third Eye: no politics (resulting in the removal of posters celebrating Mao and Cholst’s government-in-exile), no drugs, and that the club would begin proper bookkeeping.
Very little research into the musical culture along the Hippie Trail has been done. By the late 1960s, at the western end of the trail, Turkey and Iran had very well developed western-influenced contemporary music scenes. And though the groups in those countries showed clear evidence of the influence of American and British psychedelic bands, the result was more a distinct local hybrid than a case of East copying West. Even the juggernaut that was the Indian scene was not immune to this influence, as evidenced by the Tamla Beat band contests of the 60s and early 70s, artists such as Usha Iyer’s late 60s output, and the 1971 hippie-themed Bollywood film Hare Rama Hare Krishna.
Southeast Asia also partook of the musical changes happening in the West. Thailand, Cambodia, and South Vietnam all had vibrant music scenes whose recorded output in the late 60s and early 70s included reworkings of Western tunes and the sound of fuzz-laden guitars. Like their Turkish and Persian contemporaries, these were hybrid sounds, managing to sound distinctively Asian while adhering to a roughly Western structure. But these examples only show the influence going one way: from West to East. It is hard to imagine that among the thousands of Western hippies who trekked the Trail, that at least some of them did not engage with the local music scenes they encountered. Christopher Titmuss, a British traveler who spent time in Vientiane in the late 60s and is now a Buddhist teacher in southwest England, remembers seeing Lao musicians on the streets and hearing local music coming out of loudspeakers in the city. He does not recall any particular interest in Lao music from the international community, however. It seems that the guitar reigned supreme in the musical consciousness of the expats, and what interest there was in the music of the East was in the “sitar, drums and tabla” of India.
Laos seems to have existed under the musical shadow of its neighbors during this period. There is very little mention of a Laotian recording industry in any of the expected sources. The references that do exist are usually either to Lao artists recording in Thailand, or to the molam genre of music performed by the closely linguistically and ethnically related population of northeast Thailand. Laos did have its own scene, though, however small. Recording artist Chanthara Outhensackda was head of the studio for Lao National Radio from 1968 to 1975 and recorded a number of 45s. In 2010, he confirmed to the Radiodiffusion Internasionaal Annexe blog that these records were recorded in Laos, not Thailand. It is curious when compared to Cambodia—whose recording industry is relatively well documented despite the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror that resulted in the massacre of most of the country’s recording artists—that so little information exists on the Laotian industry. This could be due to the very small size of its actual output or to the fact that the records when found are often mistakenly thought to be Thai. Also, there are very few researchers doing any active work in this area, and among them even fewer have the linguistic skills to make the slightest sense out of the records they find.
The Third Eye seems to have been one of the very few venues on the Hippie Trail that regularly booked Western musicians for a primarily Western audience. At the other end of the Trail, Istanbul’s Pudding Shop is known to have played contemporary western rock music in the background as customers dined, and its back garden was the occasional site of impromptu jam sessions, but there is no evidence that it was a venue in the formal sense. Even the Third Eye was not a venue in the sense of bringing in talent from afar, but relied on the musicians who drifted into town on their own steam. So far, the only Third Eye musicians who have been identified are two members of a combo the Associated Press referred to as The Voyagers: Mark Rankin, a 23-year-old “conscientious objector” from Berkeley, and Tom Hinkle, 25, an ex-soldier from Lexington, North Carolina, who had received his discharge in Europe and simply continued traveling east. An Associated Press photo of this duo exists showing them playing their guitars while riding a water buffalo. It was taken by Eddie Adams, the photographer responsible for the famous image of South Vietnamese National Police chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner. Peter Kumpa also reported seeing fliers for a show at the Third Eye featuring a “new Australian guitarist” in April 1968. Another source from a few months later refers to the house band as “Australian-American.” Besides the scene at the Third Eye, Terry Wofford also remembers that there was a Thai FM station that broadcast Western music in the evenings, and on weekends Filipino bands played Western pop music at the Hotel Lang Xang and Seltha Palace, with their “postage stamp dance floors.”
Western musicians on stage at the Third Eye, 1968. Note the reel-to-reel tape player at right, often used as makeshift amplifiers in the 1960s. Photo: Terry Wofford. Used by permission.
Despite the paucity of information on the local native music scene and its associated recording industry, a good amount is known about the Western scene in Vientiane during this period, especially when compared to other gathering points along the Hippie Trail. This is in great part due to the presence of the Third Eye and the unlikelihood of a hippie community existing there. The situation was enough of a curiosity at the time to attract US newspaper coverage. These accounts provide documentary information as well as colorful narratives of life in the city at the time. Of course, this information is invariably from the Western point of view. The full story of the Hippie Trail is not only that of a group of international travelers, but also of every community it moved through and every individual it encountered, directly or indirectly. If the Hippie Trail is ever to be “mapped” with any depth, it is important that the voices of the local communities affected by this great migration are brought into the conversation.
Had Graham Greene been looking towards Indochina for inspiration in the 1960s as he had in the 1950s, the motley community of spies, secret operatives, diplomats, dependents, communists, opportunists, artists, outcasts, musicians, and international hippies living in Vientiane would have made a perfect setting for one of his novels. Terry Wofford is currently working on a memoir of her time in the country, but in the meantime the story of Vientiane in the late 1960s is only documented in fragments, on blogs and in old newspaper articles. The Lao voice is still largely silent in these sources, however. With the recent interest in the Southeast Asian recording scene of the 60s and 70s, especially that of Cambodia, researchers have begun piecing together the history of popular music in the region. Laos is still a shadowy landscape in this narrative, but in time, piece by piece, the full story will hopefully emerge. It appears, though, that if it does, it may well be a story of Western and Lao musicians existing in the same city at the same time, each group being largely unaware of the other’s activity.
Special thanks to Terry Wofford and Christopher Titmuss for taking the time to share their memories with me for this article, and also to Terry for permission to use her priceless photographs.
Terry & Robert Wofford Laotian Image Collection
AP Photo of Rankin, Hinkle, & Water Buffalo
AP Photo of Hinkle with Ann Burge