It’s December 23rd, the day before Christmas. I wake up around 7am in beautiful Vang Vieng, Laos, excited to go kayaking and cave exploring in about 90 minutes’ time. I get out of bed and walk into the bathroom. I’m travelling alone, but I close the door behind me - I don’t want any bathroom smells getting into the bedroom. My bathroom business done, I wash my hands and grab the door handle to go back to the room, get dressed, and get some breakfast.
Except the door won’t open. What the heck? I hadn’t even locked it! I try again and again, but it won’t budge. I try locking and unlocking (which seems to work - the button moves in and pops out) - but it makes no difference; the door won’t open.
My first reaction is amusement. OK, it would be kind of funny to get stuck in the bathroom. But surely there’s a quick way to get out that I’m missing?
No, there isn’t. My phone is in the bedroom, as is my Leatherman. Either of them would probably make for a quick solution to this problem, but neither is accessible.
Is there a window? Not really. Only some thick glass tiles and a small fan. Speaking of which… and does it feel like it’s getting hot and stuffy in here? I’m trapped! I give the door a few hard shoves, and it changes absolutely nothing. It’s a heavy, wooden door.
Panic tries to grip me, and I have just enough sense to notice it. OK, panic helps nothing. Let’s calm down. I need to let go of my plans - I am not going kayaking and cave exploring today. Getting out of the bathroom is the big adventure of the day.
I name some things I’m grateful for: my girlfriend, my family, my dog and cats, the fact that I can travel like this, the nice dinner I had yesterday… you know, I have it pretty good. I can figure this out.
I take a couple of deep breaths, smile, and assess the situation.
My Own Real-Life Escape Room
I’m going to get out of here in one of four ways, or some combination of them:
- Someone will come and open the door from the outside
- I get the lock to work, or break it
- I get the door off its hinges
- I break through the door
That’s about the order of how much destruction would be involved, too. There might be no need to break anything if someone can get me out of here. That’s probably something I can get in motion while I try to find my own way out.
So I start hollering, banging on the door, and shouting for help as loud as I can.
It seems to make no difference. The fan in the bathroom is kind of loud, but I can faintly hear people in other rooms on my floor, and occasionally someone seems to move some furniture just above me. I bang and holler as hard as I can every few minutes, but no one seems to care. I keep banging out “SOS” in morse code ( . . . - - - . . . ), thinking that surely someone will pick up on that. No one does.
Come to think of it, all of the guests on my floor seem to be Chinese - they probably can’t understand a word I’m saying! Surely the tone of my voice, the persistence of the noise, and the loud banging should convey the message that they should get staff to make sure I’m ok though, right?
Wrong. No one comes, and after a while I conclude that I need to make my own way out of here, unless I want to wait until the next night, when keeping people awake with my noise would surely get someone to inquire. I keep banging and yelling periodically, but in the meantime…
It’s a real-life escape room!
What tools do I have? I’m stark naked, so only what was already in the bathroom: my toothbrush, toothpaste, and a hotel kit containing a toothbrush, toothpaste and a comb. In the trash can I find a wooden skewer from yesterday’s dinner - nice!
Let’s take a look at that lock.
There’s a little hole on the side, and I stick the skewer in, and the doorknob slides off, revealing some internal parts. Nice! Unfortunately, the parts that aren’t working seem to be deep within the lock, and I can’t reach them. I manage to pry to lock button off, but after about fifteen minutes of more effort, I conclude that that’s as far as I’m going to get with the lock for now.
I try to pry the bolt open with the skewer and parts of the comb, but these tools aren’t enough to do anything. Meanwhile, all of my noisemaking doesn’t seem to have had any effect.
OK, let’s look at number three - the hinges.
I pry at them in all ways I can think of for maybe five minutes, but can’t even get a good grip. Hummm.
That leaves number four: break through the door. I look around the bathroom, but there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly suitable to breaking through the door, which leaves… me.
The door is actually made up of a big frame with 8 panels (see photos above). I try nudging each of the panels, and one moves sideways, just a couple of millimeters. It’s the one right next to the lock, too - this seems to be the right weak spot where to focus my energy.
I give it a strong punch, the kind that would break through drywall… and it doesn’t even leave a noticeable mark on the door. Instead, some skin comes off my knuckles. Humm. Then it occurs to me to try elbowing it - elbows deliver more power than punches! Any Muay Thai fighter could have told me that!
I give the panel a few hard elbow strikes… and they, too, don’t leave a mark.
This is getting rather not good now.
It must have been an hour since I’ve been making a lot of noise in the bathroom now, and I am frankly astounded that no one has come to rescue me yet. What’s going on?
All of my efforts have gone nowhere. I might really be stuck here until nighttime.
This is so disappointing. I am an engineer, and I should be able to figure this out. What would MacGyver do?
It’s not really a fair comparison, I think - MacGyver always seemed to have some tools with him. I am stark naked, and my Leatherman is just on the other side of this door.
What if I could MacGyver the tools? Is there anything else I can take apart here with what I have that might yield useful items?
A thorough search yields a few items I might be able to take apart with my bare hands: towel rack, hangers, toilet paper holder, and the toilet flush assembly. I start with the toilet paper holder, and it yields gold, more than I could have hoped for: a steel rod, grooved like a bolt on both sides.
I am overcome with joy and gratitude. Life is so wonderful.
With this rod, I go back to the weak spot of the door. I force it in the corner of the weak panel of the door, and manage to get the panel wiggling a bit side-to-side as well as up and down. I try using it as a lever and breaking the panel out, but instead the rod bends. Careful - that rod is my best hope!
I apply the rod in a sawing motion to the corner of the panel, and a few minutes later manage to jam it through to the other side. After I pull the rod back out, a hiss of cool, fresh air comes in from the air-conditioned bedroom. Such sweet, oxygenated air - I can smell freedom already!
I start sawing furiously with the rod along the panel’s vertical edge, hoping that if I can cut through that whole side, a bit of violence might let me break the panel off. Progress is slow. Very, very slow. If you’d like to know how slow, try sawing through a foot and a half of 5mm thick wood with a bolt.
I try a different method: scraping along the edge of panel. Rather than sawing clean through one part of the wood, I now scrape a thin layer of wood from the entire part I want to cut. It’s like breadth-first sawing - get it?
I work at this for a long, long time. I take breaks, make a lot of noise, occasionally try breaking the now weakened panel, and occasionally think about other approaches I might try.
It seems like this is a good bet for now. If I can break this panel, I could reach the doorknob on the other side, and that might work to open the door. Alternatively, I could rip the towel rack off the wall, and use its pole to reach my bag and pull it beneath the door. From there maybe, just maybe, I could reach into the bag and retrieve my Leatherman. And finally, I could stick my head through the hole and holler for help - perhaps people could hear me better if I wasn’t behind the bathroom door. Either way, getting through this panel is the best bet for now.
And so I keep working at this… and then, one time when I give the panel a hard elbow, a strip from the side of the panel breaks off and falls to the floor! This is an amazing feeling. I now have a 5mm slot on the side of the panel. Cool air streams through it, and freedom looks another step closer.
I push on the panel as hard as I can, and while I can hear some creaking, nothing seems to break. I give it a few more hard elbows, and then a few more, and some more after that… but nothing else breaks. I thought I would be able to get through now, but this wood is tougher than I expected.
I am disappointed, but I am also convinced that with perseverance, I can get through this panel. What’s next?
I decide to saw through the other vertical edge of the panel. If I can do that, I might be able to break the whole panel off. And if not… well, I’ll just saw through the other sides, too. I get going, applying my breadth-first sawing approach again.
The going is slow. I start to get frustrated but catch myself, take some breaks, and channel my thoughts in a positive direction. I am going get through this door!
After a long time, the first hole through to the other side opens in the groove. I keep going for a while longer, and then put the rod down.
I take deep breath, and give the panel a hard elbow. Nothing yields.
I do this a few more times until finally, with a loud and immensely satisfying bang, the panel flies off into the room beyond!
Full of excitement, I reach through the hole and for the door knob on the far side, give it a twist… and nothing happens. It has precisely the same effect as the door knob on my side - that is, no effect.
That is a bummer. Nevertheless, the sight of the room beyond fills me with hope. Surely the end is near.
I stick my head through the hole and survey the room. Yes, with the towel rack pole I might be able to reach my bag.
I holler for help some more with my head out in the bedroom, but still no one seems to hear. No matter. I’ll get myself out.
I rip the towel rack off the wall, stick my head and one arm with the towel rack pole through the opening in the door, and wrap the pole around a handle on my bag, and pull the bag to just beneath the opening. I put my trusty towel rack pole back in the bathroom, and reach down to the bag, eager to have my Leatherman in hand. I can just about reach the pocket when…
“Sir, is everything OK?” says a voice from beyond the closed door.
I am shocked that someone finally took notice. *”No! Please help! I’m trapped in the bathroom!”
“OK, OK,” the voice says, and I hear footsteps running down the hall.
A minute later he is back, unlocks the door, and walks into the room with a smile on his face. I’m sure I have a smile on my face too - I feel euphoric. The end is near, and it feels so good.
He goes right for the door and tries the doorknob, which does nothing. Obviously,” I think. ”I wouldn’t be standing here like this if that worked.”
“Could you hand me that pair of shorts?” I ask, having realized that I am still naked.
A minute later, another guy runs in with a flat-head screwdriver. With that, he is able to pry the lock open and open the door.
Relief and joy overwhelm me. I am euphoric. I thank the guys profusely. Other staff walk in to take a look, and laugh when told of my conundrum. I don’t blame them; I’m just happy, smiling and laughing with them.
They didn’t seem that surprised… and eventually told me that it had also happened to another guest at the hotel, in another room. “You should get better f-ing locks!”, I think, but say nothing. That person had someone else in the bedroom, so their escape wasn’t nearly as dramatic or long as mine.
Safe at Last
It turns out that some people had heard my hollering and banging… but they had assumed that it was some construction going on on the far side of the building (which is a poor excuse - there is no construction there!). As I had feared, all of my neighbors were Chinese, and didn’t understand a word I was yelling. I am not sure why they didn’t alert staff, though - maybe they thought white people have weird habits and are best left alone.
One guy said that he heard it all morning, and so decided… to go for lunch. When he heard me still going at it when he got back from lunch, he finally decided to tell staff about it.
Speaking of lunch… I got out around 1pm - some four hours after I went in the bathroom.
To be honest, a part of me was disappointed about the timing of the rescue. My Leatherman was so close to my reach, and with it I feel like I would have been able to open the lock. The staff member only used a flat-head screwdriver to pry it open, and my Leatherman has such a screwdriver, too. But you know what? That’s just a teeny tiny part of me.
I am overwhelmingly grateful - for all of the things I named above, for being rescued, for that amazing steel rod (keeping that as a souvenir!), and for so many other things. Gratitude is great. Life is great.
Happy holidays, everyone.
NOTE: just to be clear, all photos were taken after the escape (obviously - I didn’t have my phone with me during it). Some of the photos (such as the ones with an intact door) were taken in another room in the same hotel - the room where I moved after this escapade.