"Welcome to Thailand, Ulysses S. Grant!"
"Would you like to see a picture of me?"
A picture I didn't need. The surroundings were clear enough. Gulf of Thailand. Dinky island. Single-room, dirt-floor hut. Palm-thatched ceiling. Two chairs, table, bed. Through the smoky darkness, a kerosene lantern flickering shadows across the room at my companion, an aged, somewhat leathery Thai bar girl. Well, whore, if you must. But retired. And me, taking dictation.
Before I could answer, she shoved a creased plastic Polaroid into my hand. It was her all right. Only in the photo she was sitting on a chair. Naked. Not just naked. Leaning back on the chair, legs open, waiting-for-the-Miranda-Rights-spread-eagle naked.
The pose was intended to accentuate the usual feminine attributes, but time had not been a friend. A pair of mournful breasts wandered across her belly, putting one in mind of National Geographic. Or a lactating goat. Only by the fat, dark nose cones on the ends was it possible to determine where precisely the crenellated zeppelins ended. Partially concealed beneath them, several rolls of blubber spilled toward the edges of the picture. Yet none of this was enough to distract the eye from a fantastically ungroomed hedge of pubic hair. For all this, the woman in the photograph, the woman standing in front of me, wore a lottery winner's smile. As has been noted elsewhere, the Thais are the nicest people money can buy.
"See anything you like?" she inquired, somewhat daintily given the circumstances.
Fresh off a mind-numbing year teaching English to thoroughly disinterested brutes in Japan ("This is a pen. That is a pencil." Six days a week. Fifty weeks.), I searched a weary mind, desperate to divert the course of a rapidly deteriorating evening.
"Where'd you learn to speak English so well?" I asked, brimming with professional curiosity.
"In the bar. American guy. Australian guy. Swedish guy."
The contemplative Swedes, of course, speak better English than your average American teenager. I made a mental note to look into her unorthodox method of ESL acquisition. It might assist some of my more promising Japanese chipmunks.
In the meantime, the woman had retreated across the room. Crouching on the floor, ass tilted in my direction, she reached beneath the dusty frame of the bamboo bed and pulled out a platter upon which clumps of moist leaves were piled in a large mound. On top, like a garnish, tidy green kabobs were stacked in the shape of a little log cabin, all tied up nice and neat.
She set the platter in front of me. Next, like a priceless heirloom, she presented a red plastic bong.
"You smoke?" she asked, running a surprisingly soft hand across my sweaty forearm.
Steel-toed visions suddenly began kicking at the side of my head. Cops bursting into room. Two pounds of pot on table. Wrinkly whore in act of disrobing. See me there? I'm the one being handcuffed and hauled away. I'd seen the signs at customs in Malaysia: "Possession of drugs punishable by death." True, this was Thailand, but Malaysia was just across the border and there were a lot of Muslims in this part of the country. Somehow, in the midst of this nightmare, the woman had inserted herself squarely between me and the door.
I first heard about Thailand in jail. This was in Juneau, Alaska, in the mid-1980s. I grew up in Juneau and so naturally did a lot of stupid things there, including drinking a shitload of beer and doing the requisite amount of driving on icy roads. Combined, these activities are almost always fated to enrich a young man's life, and when I was nineteen (legal age in the days before insurance companies were writing federal legislation), I was slapped with a DWI. I blew .181 into the Breathalyzer, a score I'm told can kill a good-sized beaver.
Alaska has the highest alcoholism rate in the country--as my friend Anthony Barnack used to say, "There are two things to do in Juneau, drink and get drunk"--so they tend to be tough on teenage boozers. I ended up with a monstrous fine and a three-day sentence in the crossbar Hilton. Though it's the state capital and loaded with tourists in summer, Juneau's a small town. The only jail is an imposing maximum-security lockup called Lemon Creek Correctional Center. Here are housed hard cases from around the state--drug dealers, armed robbers, rapists, murderers. Tall, concrete walls. Watchtowers. Razor wire. Heavy, clanging doors. Gloomy cell blocks. You've seen the place a hundred times in the movies.
Goody-two-shoed short-timers were housed in a cell apart from the main prison population. This was for DWIs, petty thieves, and, like me, the soft-spoken and wrongfully accused. The cell had eight bunks. Problem was, for the seventy-two-hour duration of my incarceration, fourteen guys were packed inside. Only a few were short-timers. Most were authentic war daddies waiting for space to open in the main blocks so they could be rotated into their new homes.
There was a half-Tlingit guy in for his fourth stretch. He'd violated parole by stealing cash from the till at the pet store where he'd been working. When the owners called the cops, he beat up both of them--the cops, not the owners. Then he set fire to the pet shop. Guys like me did a lot of deferring to guys like him. Fourteen guys, eight bunks. I slept on the floor. Concrete. Happy to do it. You fellas chilly? Here, take my blanket. I find it a bit itchy, anyway.
Most of the time in jail I spent playing hearts, rolling cigarettes for my cellmates, laughing amiably--though nervously--at being called College Boy, and, as the only toilet was a stark squatter in the corner of the cell with no protective walls around it, trying desperately to not take any dumps. The most interesting guy inside was a short, wiry, intensely gabby Californian named Dan, who'd stabbed his girlfriend with a broken-off car antenna. Undaunted in the face of being told to shut the fuck up every two minutes by the larger animals in the cell, Dan rambled on and on about things like the unconstitutionality of the federal tax code and how secret articles of the Kellogg-Briand Pact were actually written to facilitate Hitler's rise to power. I've always had trouble disengaging from chatterboxes, a trait guys like California Dan, to borrow from Fitzgerald, have a near mystical knack for detecting and attaching themselves to.
Dan knew a lot about a lot of things, but his favorite topic was Thailand. During those moments when violent arguments over trump suits and the questionable accumulation of matchsticks had subsided, Dan regaled the cell with tales of this bewitching land. Beaches with sand as white as cocaine flake, sunshine year-round, and, most important, legions of thin, hairless women, with skin as smooth as polished teak, open smiles, and nipples like Hershey's Kisses. Promised Dan, this army of honey brown nymphettes was just waiting to bestow foot rubs, blow jobs, and curry dinners on any guy with enough chutzpah to land up-country with a few twenties in his pocket.
Dan claimed he'd smoked the best bud on the highest volcano in Maui. He'd slept with an actress in L.A., whom I won't name but who was quite popular at the time. He hadn't paid taxes for eight years. Still, it was Thailand that danced in his dreams. Thailand, where he'd be heading just as soon as he got out of the slam and that bitch out on Mendenhall Boulevard coughed up the $750 she owed him. He had a lawyer somewhere working on her sorry ass.
"College Boy, a young guy like you'd be an asshole not to get his dick out to Bangkok as soon as fucking possible," he told me after our third straight dinner of hot dogs and Jell-O. "That's paradise for a guy like you."
For a recidivist girl beater, California Dan had a tender side. I'd revealed nothing that might've given him a glimpse of my idea of paradise, but I nodded in agreement, prudently not mentioning the sixty-some liberal arts credits to go before I could possibly experience this sexual Valhalla for myself. He wasn't Tim Robbins, I wasn't Morgan Freeman, and Bangkok wasn't Zihuatanejo. But California Dan's stories stayed with me.
Several years passed between the trauma of the Juneau hoosegow and my first visit to Thailand. I was a university graduate coming off an extremely lonely, difficult, but profitable year teaching English in the Japan Alps. Did you know there are Alps in Japan? Don't feel badly. No one else can find them on a map, either. Japanese included.
As a reward for the privations of the year abroad, fellow Japan sufferer Morgan Rodd and I had purchased tickets and made plans for ten days of R & R in Thailand. The day before our flight, however, Morgan came down with a terrible affliction. It figures that he'd meet Anime Dream Girl the week before we were set to leave the Land of the Rising Blood Pressure. He simply couldn't tear himself away from the wondrous Yumiko. He said, "Sorry, man." I said I understood, and decided to head for Thailand alone.
Just down the street from the famed 150-foot-long reclining Buddha, the magnificent Wat Phra Keo is Bangkok's primary tourist magnet. Wandering amid the temple's golden domes and intricate mosaics, I was approached by four plain-faced young women, all dressed modestly--pants, long sleeves, hair bonnets--despite the fact that in Bangkok just then it was 140 degrees in the shade, 180 inside the tuk tuks.
All four were English majors at a nearby university. The one who spoke the best English was Bit. Bit was the tallest of the group, the most mature. She had sharp, black eyes, thick ankles, and bad teeth. She said the group would like to offer me a free tour of Wat Phra Keo. For me, this would provide an opportunity to learn the secrets of a unique world treasure, and for them, a rare chance to converse with a native English speaker. The pitch was a little wooden, but as I'd been in country for two days, spent the first navigating Bangkok's maddening array of misnumbered buses, and hadn't spoken to anyone since hotel reception, I agreed to a tour.
There are two kinds of girls you have sex with in Thailand. Those you pay and those you marry. These young women were clearly not among the first set. Which was fine. Despite being a former convict, confidant of California Dan, and veteran of the usual collegiate debaucheries, I yet retained some sense of heartland morality, not to mention a genuine interest in regional history. Temples, not tits, filled my Thai checklist.
After the obligatory laps around Wat Phra Keo, Bit asked if I cared to join her classmates for dinner back at student housing. Throughout the day I'd sensed from these go-getters a few glassy-eyed hints at some Bible-thumping evangelism on the horizon. This worried me, as glassy-eyed Bible thumping is something I loathe. The Born Agains have hijacked Christianity and given it a terrible name, and it infuriates me to see them in action.
When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.... When thou prayest, enterthy closet, pray to thy father which is in secret; and thy father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
You can quote Matthew (6:5-6 for those needing ammunition) to proselytizing zombies from Karachi to Kentucky, but they'll still interpret the message to mean homos will burn in hell, Muslims here on earth. I'm not sure what happened to old-fashioned Christian humility. People like to bash the Catholics, but when was the last time one knocked on your door?
Evangelical motive or not, there was no denying the bond forged that afternoon between local studentia and wandering farang. As I had very little going on, I said dinner sounded swell. We took a long bus ride through the sweltering, stinking, impoverished maze of Bangkok's mean back alleys to a place I couldn't find again with a time machine and squad of bloodhounds.
"Student housing" turned out to be an appalling slum of ramshackle apartments, each accommodating about ten kids, which meant eight more than they were designed to hold. The rooms made Lemon Creek Correctional Center look like the W Hotel in midtown Manhattan. The food was lousy. The concrete stoop I sat on throughout the night was covered with a pulpy, purple stain, residue from a thousand cockroaches squashed beneath the rubber slippers of nimble-footed freshmen.
Yet the evening turned into one of those golden travel experiences, something that actually makes you believe in all that hands-across-the-sea twaddle that cross-cultural consultants, NGO do-gooders, and ESL teachers love to spew. Fifteen or twenty students showed up--boys and girls--to shake my hand, try out their earnest but feeble English, listen to bad Thai pop music, and chew on chicken necks with their friends. A light rain cooled the searing temperatures. Bangkok's ever-present aroma of open sewer magically dissolved. Communication was difficult with all but a few, but the relaxed atmosphere and easy smiles put me in such an expansive mood that I decided right then to change my travel plans.
The itinerary Morgan and I had drawn up in Japan called for several days of decompressing and beer drinking in Bangkok, followed by a train ride south to Phuket, a California Dan "got to fucking go" beach destination. Time permitting, we'd head north to the mountain city of Chiang Mai, famed headland of the Golden Triangle, poppy growers, and rustic tribesmen.
My new pals frowned. It was the rainy season on the western side of Thailand, they said. Everything along the Andaman Sea, especially Phuket, was under a storm cloud--better to head for Ko Samet in the Gulf of Thailand.
"Ko" means island in Thai. I still don't know what "Samet" means, but few foreigners were said to venture there. Just some cheap beach huts. First-rate snorkeling. No massage parlors or peeler bars. I could see California Dan rolling in his prison bunk, but this was my paradise.
Thus it was decided. The next morning, Bit and the girls from Wat Phra Keo would accompany me to Ko Samet. Taking care of bus transfers, ferry tickets, and various logistics, they would be invaluable in a part of Thailand where my English would be as useful as baht in Bakersfield. In exchange I'd pay for their bus tickets and lodging. Forty or fifty bucks total for guide service from four young women was small beer to a fat-cat ESL teacher whose wallet was bulging with 1980s Japanese yen.
Were this story being written for your favorite travel magazine, it would probably end here. It's currently about standard feature length, three thousand words, give or take. More important, it's imbued with the residual glow of the impromptu dinner at the student compound. Travel writers are always on the prowl for emblematic episodes to serve as uplifting finales for their stories. Anecdotes that suggest the writer undertook his or her contrived trek for reasons other than simply money or a byline ("For years, my deepest desire had been to swim among the native carp of Yap....") and that the magazine printing the innocuous recap did so for motives involving more than simply selling a full-page, full-rate ad to Thai Airways. For example, here's the final graph of a story about a trip to the Philippines I once wrote for Islands magazine:
As the six of us walked in the rain, no friendship ever felt as easy, no chance encounter so special. In the sky a new thunderhead was forming over the rising breakers, bringing a promise of bad weather we barely noticed.
Not wretched. But sappy. A bit manufactured. Lolling there on the page like an old dog, the words don't embarrass me enough to delete them, though I admit to feeling about them the way I might were I to clog the host's toilet at a dinner party. Sometimes you just gotta bow your head and ask for the plunger.
When the great Spalding Gray (who helped ruin Thailand forever; more on that in a minute) wrote about Thailand, he obsessed over having a Perfect Moment, his version of an emblematic finale. "I hadn't had a Perfect Moment yet, and I always like to have one before I leave an exotic place," he wrote. "They're a good way of bringing things to an end."
The trouble with Perfect Moments is that they never come at the end of the trip. They come somewhere in the middle. Or the beginning. As a travel writer, you get to cheat. Rearrange chronology. Take your Day Two dinner with the college kids and turn it into the last paragraph, your final hurrah. It's fake, of course, but so is a lot of travel writing, so what's the difference?
Actual travelers don't have this luxury. Actual travelers exist in real time and have to deal with the kinds of troubles that don't end up as body copy between splashy photos of a beach at dawn and coconut-encrusted prawns in honey-melon-okra dipping sauce at cocktail hour. Actual travelers have to deal with actual travel. Often, this leads to the kind of trouble the travel industry would just as soon pretend doesn't exist.
Ko Samet was just OK. The beach was pebbly. The water murky. Unwashed Lonely Planet backpacker riffraff in white-boy dreads and Jamaican colors were scattered around the clumps of thatch huts that dotted the shore. Nothing really wrong with the scene, but after a day on a dusty bus--the shrill depredations of Chuck Norris shrieking from a TV mounted above the driver--and a bumpy ferry ride to the island, I'd been hoping for more.
We arrived early in the evening and checked into a low-rent bungalow duplex near the beach. A pair of tiny thatch rooms that shared a porch but were otherwise separate. The four girls took one side. They'd sleep two to a bed. I had the other side to myself.
The overland trip hadn't added much polish to the new friendship. By dinner, the girls were strangely quiet. It might have been simple Chuck Norris fatigue--as all Thai bus passengers know, the man has a way of sucking the marrow from your bones. But there was an edge of dissatisfaction in their mute smiles. Whatever the reason, the girls finished dinner and abruptly announced their bedtime. Eight o'clock. They pressed their hands together in that poetic Thai way, bowed just so, and disappeared. I stayed on the beach, ordering Singha beers and chatting up various potheads until finally crawling back to the hut well past midnight with a nagging concern about how I was going to entertain four teetotaling virgins for the next two days.
I woke early the next morning. With the sun rising above the waterline, a swim in the Gulf of Siam seemed like an excellent way to clear the alcoholic blur from my eyes. Spalding Gray found his Perfect Moment in the waves of the Indian Ocean, just across the peninsula, near Phuket: "My body had blended with the ocean. And there was just this round, smiling-ear-to-ear pumpkin-head perceiver on top, bobbing up and down." I didn't have an out-of-body experience off Ko Samet, but the water was warm and it jostled me around in a therapeutic way. I stayed out long enough to banish any lingering threat of a hangover.
What happened next is difficult to describe without discussing my testicles. And the way these normally cooperative pieces of my anatomy began pushing through the body cavity--the position into which they typically recede in times of stress--rising into my abdomen, picking up steam like atoms shot through a particle accelerator and, finally, rampaging like a Khmer war party into my throat. Here they lodged and began suffocating me with a sudden, goiterlike swelling. Revolting, yes, but this is mostly what I recall of my reaction upon returning to my room and discovering that my money--all of it, cash, twelve hundred dollars in Japanese yen--was missing. While I'd been out doing hydrotherapy on my hangover, a thief had gotten into my room and made off with what amounted to almost the entire liquid wealth I'd managed to amass thus far in life.
The stages of grieving flew by in a one-minute blur. Denial. "No fucking way!" Anger. "This is bullshit! This is BULLshit!" Bargaining. "Holy God, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen..." Depression. (Speech impossible.) Acceptance. "I am totally fucked."
Nothing else had been taken. Passport, camera, even the wallet. All there. For this I was thankful, like the guy who loses only one limb in the car-bomb explosion. But my cash was gone, and I was at a point in life when traveler's checks and credit cards were the mystical domain of men more canny than I.
I rushed next door and banged hard. Surely the girls had seen something. Knock knock. Heard something. KNOCK KNOCK! Where the hell were they?
Where they were, the owners of the beach huts told me, was on the morning ferry for the mainland, just now pulling away from the dock down the beach.
"They check out," the old lady told me. "There." She pointed to the sea. A lumbering, single-level ferry belching clouds of black smoke into a washed-out gray sky wobbled a hundred yards offshore.
"All of them checked out?" I demanded.
"They go back Bangkok."
One of the most harrowing travel articles I ever read was published in the late 1990s in British Esquire (for reasons to be explained later, the best travel stories usually appear in non-travel magazines). The writer was a poor sod named Stephen Leather, who, stripped of all personal dignity, laid bare his soul in recounting his own spleen-wrenching Thailand epic. Over the course of a year, Leather had been conned out of a small fortune by a Thai prostitute, with whom he'd naturally fallen pathetically in love. "Ying was going to be different...."
Leather had narrowly avoided the typical horror story. Following marriage, the little stunners customarily swindle their unsuspecting foreign hubbies out of houses, property, and life savings before divorcing them. In Leather's case, throughout their relationship and unknown to him, Ying had been turning over his gifts and money to various ne'er-do-wells. My favorite part was the photograph Leather received from a private investigator he'd hired to tail his now fiancée after growing suspicious of her increasingly secretive behavior. The picture showed Ying at home. With her Thai husband! The guy was wearing one of Leather's denim shirts, one he'd presented to Ying as a gift following a morning of postcoital bliss. What guy doesn't love a woman wearing his shirt? Esquire probably paid Leather a couple thousand bucks to reveal his story to the British public. Which, to be fair, is better than most of us get after being jilted.
My fall wasn't quite so inglorious, but it still wasn't going to play well with the crowd at home. Still in my "lovin'-life" hibiscus-print swim trunks, I sprinted the length of the beach and tore into the surf, flailing at the water like a terrified chimp.
I am not a fast swimmer. But I was playing with adrenaline and incentive, and the boat was still picking up speed in the shallow water. My panicked strokes caught the attention of the crew, who figured I must be a surprisingly determined doper who'd happened to miss his ride. They cut the engines. Passengers gathered along the gunwales. A quarter mile from shore, I heard applause as a pair of grinning Thai deckhands hauled me aboard.
The passengers were entertained, but a wild-eyed, hyperventilating lunatic isn't someone you normally want to pull over for in the Gulf of Siam. Storming the passenger deck, I found Bit and the girls near the bow. Elastic strands of drool swinging from my lips, the initial greeting went something like "GIVE ME BACK MY FUCKING MONEY!" Mel Gibson later reprised the moment with his "Give me back my son!" ejaculation in the 1996 film Ransom. The girls remained at ease.
"We changed our minds and decided to go home this morning," Bit explained. "We're sorry we didn't say good-bye."
The ship captain appeared behind me. He grabbed my arm and told me to calm down. The guy was about five foot four, with arms as thin as telephone wires, yet I've never felt a stronger grip. In his eyes I saw a man who, unlike myself, appeared comfortable with the idea of getting punched in the face once in a while. It seemed like a good time to take a step back. Over the girls' bitter denials, I explained the situation. A real show for the passengers.
The captain searched the girls' bags. Nothing. No money. He shrugged at me. His expression said, "Sorry, Whitey, but you come out here with four local chicks in tow, what do you expect to happen?" To this guy, I was about as original as a dog taking a leak on a fire hydrant.
I pleaded my case. It was impossible that the girls were innocent. After more indecipherable Thai debate--girls getting angry, passengers taking sides--the captain picked up his radio.
"Police on other side of island," he told me. "I take you and girls back. You stay beach. Wait for police."
The captain dumped us on the beach and took off for the mainland. The cops arrived on tiny motor scooters. They were inspiringly officious. Not the way I usually like my cops, but given the circumstances, my mood brightened.
The police commandeered a beach hut. The interrogation dragged through the morning and into the blazing heat of afternoon. They interviewed the girls individually. Then together. They tore apart their bags. After several hours a husky woman arrived to conduct body searches.
The cops knew the girls took the money. I knew it. Everyone knew it. Didn't they? There seemed to be some debate. But all of it in Thai. For all I knew the girls had by now paid off everyone and were simply completing the ruse by playing out an elaborate string. Twelve hundred bucks buys a lot of graft in Southeast Asia.
I sat in the sand, helpless, angry, ignorant to the alien babble. Sometime after noon Bit emerged from the interrogation hut.
"We were kind to you," she said. "We could never do what you accuse us of. You are a bad man to treat us like criminals."
Then she added, "You drank a lot of beer last night. Maybe it makes you crazy." The worst kind of Christian rebuke is the kind you can't quite put a finger on.
I told her she had to agree it looked suspicious. She told me the girls had simply reconsidered the wisdom of traveling with a strange man and decided for appearance's sake to go home. She was sorry they hadn't said good-bye, but I'd been out swimming, and they were anxious to catch the morning ferry. As we'd exchanged addresses the day before, she said she had intended to send me a letter from Bangkok.
"Now I don't write you letter," she sneered. Little daggers flew out of her eyes.
I stared into her face, but it was like popping the hood and gaping at a dead engine on the side of the highway. I'd seen all the parts before, but I couldn't figure out what any of them meant. Was her explanation plausible? Maybe this was how people behaved in Thailand. I told Bit that I still believed she had my money, but that if she didn't, then I was genuinely sorry about what had happened here. It was a strange sort of apology. I couldn't imagine the girls weren't guilty, but a thread of doubt had established itself in my mind.
Finally, one of the cops pulled me aside.
"We have nothing," he said in that happens-all-the-time way they must teach on the first day in cop schools worldwide. "We have no choice but to allow these girls to leave Ko Samet on the three o'clock boat."
So, the girls left. But not me. I had no money. And the boat captain, returning on the afternoon run, had a strict rule. No one gets to the mainland without a ticket. Especially dipshit farangs who roll through his territory with four local girls on the payroll.
I'd been broke before. The summer I was seventeen, I bought a 1973 Ford Torino for four hundred dollars with the idea of driving it across country and back. I made it halfway across, then only as far back as Salt Lake City, where my money ran out, and I crashed at the apartment of some friends who were even worse off than I. For three weeks we hung out in the mall around Pizza Hut, swooping in on leftover slices and crust bones before the wait staff came to clear the greasy trays left behind by paying customers. Or we talked the McDonald's and Wendy's clerks into giving us handfuls of promotional game cards, which yielded not the promised speedboats or Caribbean getaways, but life-sustaining consolation prizes, such as medium Cokes and small fries.
Dead broke and starving later that year in Honolulu--well, Ewa Beach, but only locals will know the shameful difference--I got involved in a poorly planned scheme to buy a small amount of pot, cut it with parsley and catnip, and resell it for huge profits to the marines coming into port from long deployments on aircraft carriers. The trouble was, a fourteen-year-old kid named Kimo we met behind a donut shop stiffed us for a hundred-dollar bag of shake. We couldn't decide who we were more afraid of--pissed-off jarheads or Kimo's four-hundred-pound Samoan bodyguards. Thus began and ended my career as white drug lord. We got our money back the next day by cutting out pictures of Jerry Lewis from TV Guide, pasting them to a dressed-up can of Foster's lager, and going door-to-door as volunteer collectors for Jerry's Kids, the annual Labor Day telethon that weekend fortuitously in full swing. We took in seventy-five dollars and used the cash to buy steaks and more Foster's.
Being broke on a remote island in Thailand was different. The isolation was oppressive. The lack of options stunning. There were no telethons to poach, no marines to swindle. There weren't even any phones. Travel was a lot more adventurous before cell phones. How Columbus made it across the Atlantic without checking in with the missus every forty-five minutes remains a mystery for the ages.
After my money was stolen, Thailand changed for me completely. The whole sweltering sump pit got about ten degrees hotter. The temples a few shades dingier. The mosquitoes--fat with malaria each one--more aggressive. The smiles, now that the money was gone, a whole lot tighter.
The old couple who owned the hut where I'd been robbed declared their profound Buddhist sorrow for my misfortune, and they did cook me lunch on the house. Still, though they deeply regretted the incident, they simply couldn't accommodate my groveling by comping me an extra night in their grimy hut. Which was like being told your résumé looked great and the interview went well, but they still feel you're not quite right for the job at Applebee's.
The first day on Ko Samet passed in a white haze. I staggered around the beach, dragging my belongings with me, trying to drum up sympathy from the hippies, but they were almost as broke as I was and weed was all they could offer as a means out of my torment. At some point I simply curled up in the sand beneath a palm tree, thinking I'd ride out the night in communion with nature. But even the tropics get cold after sundown. By 3:00 AM, I was shivering on the damp ground with arms tucked inside my T-shirt.
The next afternoon I was still sitting in the sand wondering if it was on Ko Samet that my journey through this world would come to its unlikely close, when a smiling Thai woman approached from down the beach. She walked with the kind of sway that suggests invisible sacks of potatoes tied to each hip. She wore faded yellow shorts, a loose tank top, and had the kind of long, dry hair you get when you spend a lot of time outdoors without conditioner. She looked about forty.
"I heard about your troubles," she said.
I mumbled something, and she confirmed that Ko Samet was a small island and word got around pretty quick among the locals.
"Are you hungry?" she asked.
As I hadn't eaten in twenty-four hours, I would have swallowed old cat droppings had any been available. She plopped down in the sand beside me.
"Let's make a deal," she said. "I'll buy you dinner, and you can stay at my house until you find a way to leave Ko Samet."
My good upbringing normally would have obligated me to make a show of grateful but apologetic rejection--"Oh, gosh, no, couldn't put you out," etc.--but circumstances were extraordinary. I listened.
"In return, all you have to do is write a letter for me," she continued.
The woman explained that she had a boyfriend in Australia. Though she could speak English, she was unable to read or write it. What she wanted me to do was copy exactly what she told me, then write his name and address on an envelope so that she might mail the letter to her one true love.
Rarely in life are we presented with opportunities that shine the spotlight so precisely on our own particular talents. I felt like the doctor on a plane when a woman is going into labor. As an undernourished man of letters, I told my new friend that I was not only eager but uniquely qualified for the assignment.
After inhaling copious amounts of curry at a little beach restaurant, the two of us walked a narrow jungle trail to her place. This turned out to be a slightly glorified version of the beach hut where I'd recently been robbed and evicted. I noted with apprehension the existence of just a single bed, but otherwise the situation seemed solid. The woman liked me, she wasn't bad company, she wasn't going to let me starve. After seating me at a table and striking a match to a pair of old hurricane lanterns--if Herman Melville had rolled out of the cupboard I wouldn't have been surprised--she produced a tablet, pen, and envelope with canceled Australian stamps and a carefully folded letter inside. The letter was from a guy named Derek who drove a taxi in Melbourne.
Thailand superexpats Richard Ehrlich and Dave Walker have many distinguished lines on their résumés, though none quite so noteworthy as Hello My Big Big Honey!, their anthology of love letters written to Bangkok bar girls by men of all nationalities, who, once back in the lands of dowdy, nagging women, strip malls, and other nine-to-five drudgery, can't seem to get the exotic vacation trollops of Thailand out of their minds. Derek's letter pretty much followed the sweet, surprisingly restrained, yet still creepy formula chronicled by Ehrlich and Walker.
My Dearest Poon: My body is in Australia, but my heart is in Thailand. Every day I look at your picture and remember our last night together. I'll never forget making love to you on the beach under a full moon. Was it put there just for us? I am making plans to get back to you and Thailand as soon as possible. In the meantime, I am sending $300 to your account at Bangkok Bank so that you can continue your schooling....
I finished Derek's letter, hoisted pen and paper, and told his girlfriend to fire away. She began conventionally enough. ("Hello my big, big Honey!") I faithfully scribbled down her thoughts regarding her reciprocal affection for Derek, pursuant chastity, strong distaste for black-hearted Thai men, resounding strides as a nursing student, and general pleasantries concerning life on the island. ("It's very hot here!" To which I barely resisted adding, "No shit!")
As the darkness outside became complete and the flickering lanterns gasped for more kerosene, she dragged her chair next to mine, practically resting her chin on my shoulder as she looked over my arm at the words magically appearing on the page as she spoke them. For Derek's benefit, she returned to the scene of their climactic moonlit tumble on the beach. I learned more about Derek. What powerful arms he had. What a good kisser he was. The way his wavy blond hair felt so soft in her fingers. After a bit more of this, she dropped the veil of decorum altogether.
"Derek, I want to suck your big, fat cock and have you come in my mouth," she breathed into my ear.
My pen quivered. I coughed. A gentle, social cough. A lamb choking on a blade of grass in a foggy meadow. She slid an arm across my back. In addition to everything else, crossing the Rubicon here would now include a betrayal of Derek, whom I'd sort of grown to like. Worse, I imagined a thousand unsuspecting Dereks lured into this den exactly as I'd been.
"My wet pussy wants to be fucked so hard," she moaned again into my ear, emphasizing "pussy" and "hard" with exaggerated breaths.
She knew I had no money, so what we had here was an experienced sexual athlete with a genuine appetite for intercourse. It's these single-guy-fantasy situations that find me at my smoothest with women. My response went something like, "Ah, hmm, yes, heh-heh, you don't say?"
She replied by producing the naked Polaroid picture of herself, then crawling to the bed and returning with an enormous platter of Thai stick. I'd already decided against screwing a Thai prostitute, but even if I'd been tempted, I owed it to myself to make sure she was better looking than my eighth-grade math teacher, Mrs. Steinbrenner.
It'd been a grand evening, I assured her, but it was late and I really needed to be getting back to my patch of dirt on the other end of the island. There was some back-and-forth of the "Oh, you can stay for one more cappuccino" variety, but in the end I fled into the night, still broke, but with a belly full of curry and my honor more or less intact. As I hurried down the moonlit trail, I heard a succession of wails behind me, but whether these were curses or cries of masturbatory release I'm pleased to say I'll never know.
I spent another hellish night outside, but made it off Ko Samet the following day thanks to a mop-topped young Kiwi en route to a year in China who'd heard my sad story and loaned me a hundred dollars, to be repaid upon my return to Japan. I've ever since kept a soft place in my heart for New Zealand, despite the fact that going there from the States is like traveling sixty-five hundred miles to see a junior-varsity version of the Pacific Northwest. Only with lousy food. Nevertheless, as I later did with a large donation to Jerry Lewis's telethon, I repaid the loan as soon as I was able, and to this day count meeting that Good Samaritan as one of the luckiest breaks of my life. No matter how compromising the situation, a guy can't hold out against Thai stick and wet pussy forever.
I spent my last days in Thailand hoarding my meager financial reserves amid the cheap restaurants and flop-houses along Bangkok's Khao Sanh Road that catered to "backpackers," that charming euphemism for the transient community of burnouts and slackers that, then as now, polluted Thailand (though the trendsetters have since moved on to Laos and Cambodia). To this squalid quarter were drawn the unwashed canaille from all corners of Europe and North America, low-rent pseudohippies who gathered to buy Bob Marley T-shirts, consult their Lonely Planet guidebooks, and watch free videos at outdoor cafés. The videos were actually a good deal for those of us short on cash. For two dollars, I nursed three beers through Good Morning, Vietnam and actually enjoyed the movie, though when I saw it years later, I realized it was terrible. It must have been either the beer or the being lonely and defeated among the castoffs of my generation that made me so sentimental at the time.
I stayed in a room the size of a phone booth for ten dollars a night and began compiling notes for a scathing commentary on this crowd of phony nonconformists who seemed to be doing little more than smoking pot, leaving trash, and not spending any money across Thailand. Having been penniless myself a few times, and stinging from the misadventure on Ko Samet, my notes were on the angry side. Groups like this believe they're rubbing shoulders with the "real" version of whatever country they're blighting. They assume that by being poor--or at least appearing to be poor--they forge an immediate brotherhood with the locals, earning a kind of authentic "experience" the privileged scum in the five-star, air-conned hotels up on the hill can never understand. The locals, of course, are too polite to point out to the temporary bohemians that their idea of travel as pax orbis is as bogus as the guy at the Raffles Hotel bar ordering his third Singapore Sling, now shamelessly pumped from a premix.
What these travelers don't get is that what the Third World loves most about America, about Europe for that matter, is its staggering wealth. Its big cars, fine clothes, dependable ostentation. Seeing a young American down on his heels does nothing for a down-on-his-heels Thai or Costa Rican or Indian, who wants to go to America only to get rich. And if America must come to him, he'd prefer that it do so loaded to the gills with ready cash.
Tirades like this laced my notebook, which I eventually turned into a book manuscript that, justifiably, no publisher was ever convinced to buy. Several years later, young Alex Garland became a sensation for writing The Beach, a fictitious examination of Thailand's deranged expat culture. Though it was miles better than my version of the scene, The Beach wasn't very good, and for a while it pissed me off that someone else had gotten famous on my idea. Only later when I saw the film starring Leonardo DiCaprio was I satisfied not to have had anything to do with it.
As my experiences on Ko Samet had led me to the brink of Thai vice, I decided to spend my last night in Bangkok checking out the real thing. After the Vietnam War, Thailand's thriving though not yet world-infamous prostitute community was relocated along narrow Patpong Road. Patpong soon became synonymous with the kind of good times that could be known only in a world where widespread fear of AIDS and the Global Commission on Women's Health did not yet exist.
The golden age of Patpong ran roughly from the years 1975 to 1987, the former being the fall of Saigon, the latter date marking the film release of Spalding Gray's Swimming to Cambodia. Gray introduced the masses to such rituals as the Thai body-body massage, in which a heavily lathered professional girl "hops on top of you and goes swiggle-swiggle-swiggle, body-body-body, and you slide together like two very wet bars of soap." Gray laid it on thick, which bummed out all the old-timers, who knew the good days would be over once the masses got their fingers in the pie.
Basically, Gray's was a slightly more erudite version of the stories told by California Dan. Guys hear this stuff and they come running--not guys in tie-dye with no money either--and that's exactly what they've been doing ever since. If you go to Patpong today, the whores and johns--from slick-haired Western financiers to every pudgy fifth cousin of Arab royalty--are still there, but so is McDonald's, as well as thousands of yammering Japanese and Chinese tourists safely quarantined from the diseased action behind tour-bus windows.
I made it to Patpong just in time to see the legendary boulevard of reprobate corruption before it morphed into a mere street of crass commercialism. The bars there had names like Super Pussy and Pussy Alive and Snatch Happy and so on. The most famous one was King's Castle, and I'll never forget walking through its doors for the first time.
Like all guys my age, I'd spent a fair amount of time standing in the hallways, kitchens, and corners of otherwise dull parties, staring through the smoky air at the prettiest girl in the room, wondering how I might possibly weasel my way into her life, if only for a night. At King's Castle, they were all the prettiest girl in the room, but they were all staring at me, wondering how they might possibly weasel their way into my life, if only for a night. True, the economics were different, but that's not what you think about when a topless bint guides you through a darkened room to a table surrounded by go-go dancers gyrating to Metallica being played through a jet turbine.
After the hostess settled me in, a caramel-skinned nymph in a neon green bikini materialized to take my order. She rested a breast on my shoulder--that thing did look heavy--while I lingered over the decision. Singha or Tiger? Singha or Tiger? The music blasted. Women came by like pieces of sushi on a conveyor belt, each better looking than the last.
"So many choices you're bound to make the wrong one," some sunken-eyed Brit leaned over and coughed at me, California Dan-style.
In retrospect, it might have been divine intervention that my money had been filched on Ko Samet and I was in this place only by the grace of limited Kiwi largesse. AIDS may not yet have been on everyone's lips, but it was surely running through the bloodstream. And I'm not made of iron.
My money troubles, alas, made me a gawker who couldn't even afford the ladies drinks--ten dollars a Coke and she'll sit on your lap and pump her hips while she pretends to drink it. The working girls ID'd me as a dry well pretty quick, and once I stopped being the most popular guy at the party, it wasn't quite as fun.
I walked down the street, passing the cheerless shops featuring rows of girls in the windows with numbers pinned to their dresses. Somewhere along the way, I allowed a rather aggressive tout to steer me up a narrow flight of stairs for a show he promised I wouldn't soon forget. I was escorted to a booth by an extremely attractive young woman, who made herself comfortable on my lap as soon as I sat down. She began stroking me through my flimsy cotton shorts. A second girl with blunt-cut pixie hair and snake-charmer eyes approached with a clipboard.
"Write down you name!" As everywhere in Bangkok, the music was offensively loud, but I got the impression this girl would have yelled anyway.
"Write down my what?"
"You name! Write down you name!" She pushed the clipboard into my face.
The odds were thin against my ever running for public office, but the place was quite obviously full of Republican eyes. I refused to provide my name.
"Write down you name!"
Slightly put off, the girl on my lap wandered away, but clipboard pixie remained committed to her work. We went back and forth a few times--"Write down you name!" "No, really, prefer not to, thanks, anyway"--until I realized that neither lap girl nor any of her friends were going to return until I appeased this pintsized witch. I smiled, took the clipboard and pen, and, with a defiant flourish, wrote "Ulysses S. Grant." She took the clipboard, nodded, and walked away.
Once again my lack of ready capital was red flagged, so the bar girls more or less left me alone to enjoy the show. The details of these programs have been written about before; nevertheless they do make an impression on the novice. After a pointless introduction by an oily emcee, various girls trotted onto a small round stage to perform a highly specialized array of tricks for the enjoyment of a hundred pie-eyed men seated around the miniature coliseum. The first performer sat on the floor, reared onto her back, cupped her thighs in her palms, and from a straw that protruded from her vagina shot darts at balloons hanging from the ceiling. I didn't get the stat sheet, but she was at least as accurate as the average NBA point guard at the free-throw line. The next girl shoved fluorescent markers into her cooch, then hovered over the naked bodies of other girls to create not amateurish body paintings. My favorite used her female musculature to mount a flute and whistle out a few bars of "The Star Spangled Banner." Most imaginative was the girl who "drank" a bottle of Coke into her vaginal vault, held it there while she danced a quick number, then discharged the fluid back into the original bottle, whereupon a second girl arrived to put the bottle to her lips and drink the entire contents in the more conventional manner. Between these sensational displays, the clientele was kept entertained by an ongoing though somewhat uninspired string of faux lesbian action on the side.
I more than felt I'd gotten my money's worth and was ready to call it a night. Settling my meager tab, I made a move for the door but was soon stopped. Screaming pixie was back in my face.
"Fifty dollah!" she shrieked. "You owe fifty dollah!"
"No, no," I yelled back. "I had two beers. No touch girl. Nothing."
"Fifty dollah!" Her nipples were shooting out of her bikini top like lit firecrackers.
She wasn't taking no for an answer. Neither were the two thugs behind her. Before I could mount an argument, she unfurled a piece of green poster paper. On the sheet, which she thrust in front of me with both hands like a royal decree, written in large, black cursive letters, was the inscription, "Welcome to Thailand, Ulysses S. Grant!"
"Genuine pussy writing!" the pixie screamed. "You order this one! Fifty dollah for genuine pussy writing!"
I recognized the handwriting. Or pussy writing, as it were. It was the girl from the show who'd jammed Sharpies into her moneybox and drawn pictures. You can end a lot of showdowns in Asia with laughter. So I laughed. Pixie laughed with me.
"OK, for you, nice guy, twenty-five dollah!" she said, though no less insistently.
The goons behind her wore complicated smiles, somewhere on a scale between celebrating international fellowship and we fist fuck guys like you for kicks. I was being bamboozled. Just like with Bit and the girls and the cops on Ko Samet. They knew it and I knew it and they knew I knew it. But so what, it was Thailand, and I was stuck in a joint where I probably shouldn't have been in the first place. And, after a year of slogging on an ESL galley in Japan, I really did appreciate the proper punctuation on the poster.
"How about fifteen dollars?" I offered.
The pussy-writing poster turned out to be the most expensive souvenir I brought back from Thailand. It sat in my closet for several weeks before I finally figured out what to do with it. Morgan called the day he got it in the mail.
"Welcome to Thailand, Ulysses S. Grant?" he said over the phone. "Did I miss something good?"
Smile When You're Lying Copyright © 2007 by Chuck ThompsonThe very first editor in chief of Travelocity magazine, Chuck Thompson's work has appeared in Maxim, The Atlantic, Esquire, National Geographic Adventure, and Escape, among many others. He has played in a variety of bands, and worked as an ESL instructor, DJ, and assistant sergeant of arms in the Alaska House of Representatives.