I Was Sexually Assaulted in Laos
I am a privileged millennial. I live in an age where it’s possible, and reasonably safe, for young people to travel. I’m so grateful that at 22, I can travel solo even as a woman. I’ve quite literally screamed from mountaintops, “I am woman, hear me roar!”
But some days serve as haunting reminders that sexism still prevails, and that I’m not as invincible as I think I am. Recently on a trip through Laos, cold hard reality reared its ugly head to me: five hours in Pakse was enough to get me into trouble.
With my backpack stowed at the bus station, I’d set off for an afternoon of reading and watching the Mekong River flow by. I was perched on the riverside when a friendly Lao man rode up on his jetski, waving and grinning as though we were long-lost friends and he’d been waiting a lifetime for our reunion.
“Where you from? How long you stay?”
I explained that I’m from Australia and that I was only in Pakse for the day; I’d be leaving on a night bus.
“Oh. You want play with jetski?”
I pointed to my daypack: like any responsible young traveller, I kept all my valuables on me at all times. “But what about my stuff?”
“You keep in my car.” He pointed to a four-wheel-drive parked at the water’s edge on a concrete ramp. He nodded and smiled jubilantly.
Unlike any responsible young traveller, I gave him the benefit of the doubt.
I stashed my bag in his car, strapped on my lifejacket and hopped on the back of the jetski.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
We got moving – and fast. He told me to hold onto him. For safety, I assumed. No big deal. So I did.
The jetski carved fiercely through the water, pulling donuts that showed panoramic views of the mountains behind us and the endless stretch of river ahead. We watched the colours of the sky bleed into one another as the sun prepared to set.
We pulled up to a collection of little bamboo huts floating on the river, and Hai explained that it was a water-park for locals that doubled as a bar.
“Do you rink? You rink beer?”
Indeed I do rink beer, Hai. I come from Australia.
He escorted me off the jetski and onto one of the huts. He handed a wad of cash to a young boy in return for some drinks. Why is he buying so much beer? I wondered. Hai then turned back with a sly grin, and my question was answered with the commencement of his “flirting”.
“You are beautiful today, I like you now.” Sweet pick up line. I smiled and laughed dismissively. He poured us each a warm beer with ice (not the same as cold beer, I tell you) and the banter-throwing began.
We had some good laughs. With each beer poured, he’d ask how to say “cheers” in Australian. “Uh… cheers mate?”
“No, that’s English, what is it in Australian?” he contested. I explained that we speak English in Australia, that English is widely spoken outside of England. He laughed heartily at his mistake, and I laughed with him. This guy was harmless after all – so I thought.
Before long, he was calling me his girlfriend. I took it on the chin, but insisted the prospect was laughable. 11 years my senior, and with the flirting skills of a six-year-old, Hai was certainly not my type.
He began joking about coming to live with me in Australia, slowly edging closer to me on the little bamboo platform. I steered the conversation – and my body – towards the sun setting in the distance. “It’s so beautiful,” I thought aloud.
“Your face, yes, very beautiful,” Hai cackled and brought a hand to my knee.
Alright, Hai, you’ve crossed the line. What’ll it be? Do I have a boyfriend, or am I gay?
“I don’t think my girlfriend would like that,” I said sternly. Nailed it.
No response. He lifted his hand, but it was as though he hadn’t even heard me. Clearly he wasn’t bothered by commitment, or lesbianism. With each beer, things were heating closer to sexual harassment with no way to stop it.
“You go to my house, then you can go to bus station,” he chuckled. Now I was mad. How dare he disrespect my fake girlfriend like that? She’d be worried sick if she knew about this. I demanded he take me back to shore. I had a bus to catch.
The ride back started off nicely: zipping across the river, waving goodnight to the mountaintops. I was practically giggling with glee. But soon enough of course, he was leaning back every 10 seconds saying “kiss me”. He pulled my hands towards his thighs, and periodically slapped mine.
At one point, Hai stopped the jetski. I looked up to see his face – eyes closed and lips pursed – edging towards mine.
“NO! I’M IN A FUCKING RELATIONSHIP!” I pushed him away. He just giggled – his standard response to my protests – and drove me back to shore, trying to kiss me all the while.
It was a pretty fucking unpleasant situation; one that no woman should ever have to find herself in, one that a man never would. By no means do I think what happened was okay. But I am okay, and I never felt truly threatened.
It was my decision to trust Hai, and I can’t take it back. So I think of the good:
I went jetskiing over the Mekong River. I watched the sunset over the mountains from a floating bamboo hut. I drank free Beerlao at a scenic local joint. I spent my limited time in Pakse in a genuinely interesting way.
I fight to hold those beautiful memories, to separate them from Hai’s predatory intentions.
By the time the bus had pulled away from the station, I felt alright. Curled up comfortably in my bus-bed, I thought not of leg-grabbing and smug laughter, but of the wind whipping through my hair, the spectacular panorama that engulfed us all the while.
Disclaimer: This was my reaction to minor sexual assault, considering that I was physically and emotionally unharmed. I am in no way demeaning the suffering of any assault victims, or suggesting that it is ‘no big deal’. I urge any woman who feels uncomfortable with an interaction to speak up – it’s your right.
Cover by Victor Larracuente