Julian Lockhardt, the bombastic, heavy-drinking expat manager of the Samarang Hotel – the most prestigious hotel in Vientiane, Laos, and a gathering place for diplomats and spies – is short on self-awareness, long on self-pity. Society, so he believes, has failed him. He is easily seduced by Asia's many charms, deeply resistant to any broader understanding of its underlying values and confident – smugly so – of the supremacy of Western 'enlightenment' thinking.
Julian's least favourite guest, a recent arrival called Nancy Bacon, seems to take hawkish delight in pointing out his many shortcomings. But when he discovers that Nancy is facing an ordeal he himself can scarcely contemplate, the two of them take a journey into the hills of northern Laos – a land he has never bothered to explore or understand. Awakened to the importance of symbolism and the power of myth, Julian returns to the capital with new insight into the ways of the world and his place in it.
Perhaps society has not failed him. It might just be that he has failed society. Does Julian have time to put a few things right?