Backpacking in Laos & THAT Guy on the Bus

Meet Murray Robson….

This guy is a cracker, a loose cannon, a judgemental narcissist and the funniest, most blatantly honest guy I’ve ever met. I met him on my overnight bus from Bangkok to Pakse, Laos and I liked him immediately. His smiley eyes and toothless grin revealed his good intentions and natural roughness. His opinions are closed-minded and aggressive but expressed with such raw humour I couldn’t help but look past the giant chip on his shoulder and fall into his stories––and he’s got many, many stories. He won’t tell them though unless you buy his book.

When I asked his name after a minute of idle chit chat he looked at me like I’d offended him and I felt the size and significance of a small, dying cockroach under his quick and dismissive gaze. His brown eyes peered at me from between layers of sagging skin, weathered from years of chain smoking and other bad-news behaviour. “It’s Murray”, he said after he decided I could be privy to such information.

I introduced myself, and that was evidently an invitation to begin a soapbox rant about his opinion on screens and technology and what he calls the “David Beckham World”. You know, the one that tattoos toughness instead of owning it and throws million-dollar parties to celebrate charity fundraising events. The ones who would cry like a baby if thrown into Lao village life and expected to do any good. He scoffed at the Kindle I held in my hands and remarked how all us “kids” were addicted to screens (perhaps my true lack of vanity whilst travelling has unintended benefits?). I was quick to point out that reading was an age-old, wholesome, self-educative activity, enjoyed by the hippies of his generation, and that in fact, my Kindle gave me access to hundreds of books without the weight of them. He responded by pointing out that “those Woodstock hippies” kicked off the wave of self-importance that has swept subsequent generations and given birth to today’s unfairly privileged and entitled “sea of idiots”. And so went our conversations. Like I said, he had strong opinions.

I was oddly tolerant of him. Even more, I liked him and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s what I chose to focus on. I didn’t want to piss him off, but at the same time I didn’t want to agree with everything he said either just to avoid confrontation. So I didn’t. I challenged his opinions lightly and with good humour. I could see that he enjoyed talking about his glory years so I asked him questions about his past travels and his life on Don Det, a tiny island in Si Phan Don, Laos. He responded well.

Murray’s life on Don Det is simple, to say the most. He lives with a local family that runs a homestay business renting out bungalows to backpackers. He helps out with what he can and spends each dawn fishing in the river and selling 3-in-1 Nescafe to travellers jonesin’ for coffee. He figures he has the market cornered on that. He dissed the Beckham backpackers that crawl in packs to Don Det searching for wifi and Italian espresso. (Much to their dismay, both are fairly uncommon at the moment, though locals are quickly starting to respond to travellers’ complaints). You can imagine what Murray thinks of this. He knows how desperate those young folks are to get their caffeine fix, particularly after a night of drinking, so he makes a quick and easy coffee readily available for 10,000 Kip or just over one US dollar. I imagine he makes a pretty good buck. He remarked, “you know that shit is only 10 percent coffee and 30 percent sugar? The rest is creamer… can you believe it? Those twats are addicted to creamer thinking it’s coffee.”

When he’s not selling caffeine-laced creamer to the backpacker community he is touting his book. I have to admit that Murray inspired me here. Never would I have thought such a person would inspire me, but inspiration comes in all shapes and sizes. (I might have shamelessly admitted my snobbishness a bit there). His book is ever so brilliantly titled, SouthEast Asia: In Yer Face. Now take my visual description of him, slack-faced and toothless, saying with a tobacco-cracked voice, the title to his book. Exactly. Gruff pretty much describes it.

He wrote his book after being caught in the flash flood in Sumatra in the early 2000s. It started with his personal account of that tragedy and then morphed into a series of short stories about his travels through the continent of lawlessness, banana pancakes, backpackers, and magic mushrooms. Every chapter is a personal story about some incident or experience he had whilst travelling nearly 15 years ago. Each story is hilarious, whose titles range from Flexy the Flexible Muslim, about an Indonesian man who drank and rented out his sister and gave travellers tours in his fancy Cadillac, to Movie Star, about his luck working as an extra on a movie set that gave him just enough cash for that evening’s beer and shag.

Even his simplest story makes you laugh out loud, in spite of yourself, for its twisted morals and raw, unforgiving accounts of his oftentimes hedonistic behaviour. But underneath that stuff is a softness, a tenderness revealed with a bit of apprehension. It’s like he tries to balance his natural, I-can’t-help-it sweetness with a bit of macho man. (Digression: He’s like the 20-years-later version of a recent mistake, which makes me truly understand what blessing in disguise means).

When he first wrote his book he sent it into all the big publishers in England, all of whom rejected it. So in true Murray style, he said, “them fuckers don’t know a good book when it hits them in the face, who needs ‘em?” So, he typed out a few copies, slapped on a coil spine, and began selling them to anyone he could on the beaches of the places he travelled. In the past 10 years he has sold over 7000 copies to people from all over the world. He’s quite proud of the nationalities represented in his audience. At $10 a copy he has done quite decently I would say.

Since then he has become quite selective to whom he sells his book though, saying that only a certain type of person should have access to his stories and not just those willing to buy it. I guess I had some of that magic quality he seeks because he happily sold me a copy. He doesn’t care about copyright, and he also doesn’t wish to ever write another book. When I asked him about a sequel or even mere updates he remarked that “perfection does not require either.” Do I detect a hint of arrogance here? All I could do was laugh at such a comment, he said it with such fervour. He’s quite bothered by the people who are so interested in his travel stories but refuse to buy his book. He says, “they keep asking me questions about this place and that place and my experience there and I say, buy the fucking book, but they won’t! I ain’t telling them anything. If they want to know they can buy the fucking book!” Like he has he market cornered on travel stories or something.

So I spent my first day in Laos with him, eating cheap food and sitting out on the terrace at sunset overlooking the Mekong River watching monks in bright orange robes collect on the banks to salute the sinking sun. We shared some green and I shared a few of my own travel stories with him, some of which he listened to. But I didn’t care. I am really happy to have met Murray. It takes all kinds to make the world go round doesn’t it? And he was the perfect start to my solo trip in Laos. An indication that this month is going to be a very interesting one, far from boring.

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