At the Sign of the Jolly Frog
The Thais say, “Where are you going?” instead of “Hello” or “What’s up?” when they greet someone in the street, and the most usual answer, the “Not much” reply, goes, “To eat rice [food].”
Thailand is an unquestionably touristy place—as much so, at first glance, as Disneyland or any theme park. Once you look beneath the surface, however, by a little patient observation or humble questioning, there remains in the jean-wearing, mall-shopping, apparently Western culture of Bangkok much to assert that This is Asia.
[Something about Thai tattoos will appear here at a later date; but for now know this—there is a certain tattoo, a gridwork written in Pali on the shoulder, that imparts the invulnerability; and Thais under eighteen years old are not allowed to wear it, because they often have it applied and go pick fights with the cops, because they are invulnerable.]
Take, for example, the Thai prostitute: the bargirls lining Pattaya and Khausan, the choir of, “Wel-come! Thai massage!” as the single farang male walks down those streets, the small Thais supporting the arms of a crusty European deviant, sad an image as Rodin’s Fallen Caryatid.
And yet I tell you this, Reader, with absolute confidence: The principal client of the Thai prostitute is not the salty British shipwreck, but the Thai!
Interestingly, and unknown to me until a recent elucidation by an American who studied in Bangkok, most Thais, be he university student or businessman, see regularly a woman of ill-repute, in addition to any unpaid relationships he may have. This is intentionally plural, as most Thais, in addition to wife or girlfriend, maintain a gik or two.
Gik (noun): Something like a sex-buddy, or a friend-with-benefits, though traditionally it was very platonic, and still can be in these libertine days. Well-dressed Thai boys prefer the modern definition, and Thai girls prefer foreign boys for this reason—they do not cheat around. Don’t think, though, that the Thai girlfriends are entirely monogamous. By no means exclusive to men, Thai girls can also have several gik, in addition to their declared boyfriend, though they do not necessarily take these men to bed.
In other ways the Thais demonstrate a strange conservativism: It is considered improper for a Thai lady to be seen about town with a gentleman who is not her husband, boyfriend, gik, or of some family relation. It is simply not done—unless the gentleman is leaving money on the dresser on his way out the door.
Like the Russians, most Thai girls bear children when they are very young and then send them back out to Mom and Pop on the farm to raise, while the girl works for her living in Bangkok, a custom which tends to lead Thai girls towards the same profession as the women of the cold north—that is, the first profession of the human race.
Ah, Bangkok! Debauchery is cheap here, and all things are cheapened by it. I returned to the Bamboo Guesthouse, where I had stayed during the Red Shirt strife three weeks before, and returned to my favorite food stalls, and nearly returned to my old schedule of late hours:
That night, America played England in the World Cup qualifiers. Whoever led the bracket would face the second-place team from another, and whoever got second-place would inevitably face the dreaded Germans. “Football goes like this,” quoth the Brit who explained it to me,—”You kick the ball, you shoot at the goal, you score, and then Germany wins.”
Thanks to the miracle of Time Zones, the game started at 1:30 am, so I went off to Soi Rambutri, because that’s where they play the blues, had some noodles at my old favorite place and saw the card trick the boss had been perfecting—Red Jacks, he called it. Then I went over to the blues bar and watched the second half of South Korea and Greece on the flatscreen hung over the singer and the guitarist, with a sweet harmonica in the back, and I sat with an Argentinean who was all nerves and cigarettes because of his team’s high hopes.
There were plenty of Argentineans out that night, and plenty of Brits, and only a few Yanks, which had me excited as an underdog. We all expected Big Things as we watched our two teams play. Something had to happen, someone had to win; both teams had chances and both teams scored, and in the end it was a draw, but a draw where the drunken Brits could walk down the street and mutter, “Yeah it was a tie, but it was on such a bullshit goal, ya?”
The reason I was in Bangkok was that I wanted a suit—a good tailor-made suit, that I could wear with pride back home, as some sort of trophy of my travels. So I went to the commercial district of Bangkok, to a clothier called Rajawangse, a well-known label under two master tailors, father and son, Jesse and Victor—Punjabi Sikhs who had been handling needle and thread since adolescence.
Their business was a narrow cubby, the walls lined with bolts of European cloth, with a table running down the middle on which they would work. Victor was on a computer there, and Jesse was in the back, gray-bearded with the gentle stoutness of happy prosperity, checking the fit on a jacket that was all whit seams, chalk-lines, and pinned on sleeves, telling the farang wearing it that he looked good. The shop was crowded and busy on that late afternoon.
I told this figure of twilit skill, “I heard about this place through a friend, Sam from Seattle,” and received no pleas or bargains, as would be common in most Thai tailors, only an offer to glance around the shop. I picked, by gut feeling, a dark gray pinstriped cloth and had the Thai apprentices pull it out so I could check it over. And the price? Twelve-thousand baht, nearly $400. I asked for a deal, throw in a few shirts maybe, but Jesse intimated, with professional courtesy and justifiable curtness, that it was not that sort of place.
Well, I was about to politely leave when I noticed the Secret Service ash tray on the desk. “You treat your customers well,” I remarked,—”Even the Secret Service comes here?” Jesse said yes and waved at some photos and clippings on the wall—and what’s this? He had made suits for both President Bush and President Bush, for spies and diplomats from the embassy around the corner, for CEOs and generals. There were autographed pictures of Barack Obama and Nancy Reagan. In the dressing room, their prestigious cards were pinned to the glass, and running around the ceiling of the store there were badges for governments, agencies, and departments of the law.
This man was a royal tailor. I knew I needed to have a suit of my own.
And so I passed a week in that city, waiting for the Sikhs to craft my suit, and reading and writing and eating and watching football in between fittings at Rajawongse, where I was royally treated.
Victor would ask me pleasant questions in a business-like way, and Jesse would offer me a beer and who am I to refuse? Yet with my arms pinned at my side, as the clothier marks runes on my jacket with his chalk, how can I drink it? And my business is concluded, and there is that cold beer on the table, still more than half-full! Do I wait and finish it, do I take it with me—do I leave it there? A wasted beer! Luckily, a real aristocrat, or maybe a bureaucrat, is standing by, who haughtily leaves his beer barely sipped, so I know what to do. I abandon my unfinished beer with a tragic sorrow, go back onto the humid street, and walk a mile to the bus stop where I can get a lift back to my humble little neighborhood.
I saw a few movies at the Bangkok theaters, stood up with the rest when they played the anthem of the king before the show began. I celebrated my birthday, though I was too modest to tell any of my few acquaintances there. I listened to the blues in the street cafes on Soi Rambutri, where the waiter had more card tricks, and I watched the games and talked to strangers.
I picked up my finished suit on Saturday, and I stayed in Bangkok on Sunday, to Make a Plan. I had an old China Lonely Planet from my guesthouse, and a few bits of paper on which other travelers had written recommendations for the region, and using these I marked in broad strokes a route across the geographies of a map totally unfamiliar to me—up through Laos to Yunnan Province in China, and thence through Guilin to Canton, north to Shanghai and Shandong, to Beijing, and then by boat from Tianjin to Incheon in South Korea or Kobe in Japan.
Too many wonders here: I have to be exclusive! Only the future chapters will tell how closely I stick to the rough guide I recorded in a little notebook (my netbook being at this point destroyed). It’s always better to show some adaptability.
A crowded day followed this planning: I mailed my suit and some other things and took a number of buses to the edges of Bangkok, and then a final bus out west.
Before heading north I detoured to a town called Kanchanaburi, sprawled amidst hills of limestone and jungle, around a Bridge over the River Kwai.
I walked from the bus station, along the main road and past the new bridge, then swerved off around the cemetery, where the prisoners of war await judgment, past their museum, and on to the traveler’s ghetto—a street with a bend, lined on the right-hand side with bars and restaurants and pool halls, and on the left with alleys running down to guesthouses on the Kwai that look east across lily pads and a humid shimmer to the old Bridge—to a famous guesthouse.
Down a back alley between a bar and a bookstore, past a few tourist agencies and shanty houses, you come to the gateway and its sign: the Jolly Frog, with a cardboard cutout of Wolverine to one side.
Entering there is the restaurant, which is fair-priced and generally full of travelers and Thais. The acrid, throat-burning scent of frying chilies comes out from the kitchen, and waiters in Kermit-green shirts watch television in the corner and occasionally slink out to throw a menu at someone. Music plays on the speaker, an endless tape of the same five sappy Thai hits, playing over and over, so that by the end of a week I could sing the obnoxious songs.
Out in the back, between two wings of rooms, is a wide riverside garden, with hammocks strung between the coconut trees and a pleasant quay down on the Kwai, where one can see the sun set over the Bridge, dimming the karst hills and making rainbows of the clouds. It’s easy here to slip into a coma of loafing and reading and meeting travelers—the old “sublime uneventfulness” of Melville’s topmast—and it was this very chain of relaxation that had arrested Tobias the Bavarian and Francesco of Padua for nearly a week.
I had met Tobias (the Reader will recall) in my last days in Yangon, and met Francesco on my first arriving there three weeks before. Some chance brought them together on the same flight to Bangkok, and they came upriver to Kanchanaburi. By yet more chance, they were still there when I arrived, in rooms just down the hall from my own monastic accommodation in a wing of the inn.
This Hallway was on the second floor and ran from a treacherous scaffold staircase on one end to an open balcony on the other, with a half-dozen rooms on either side, and I describe it because of how much time I spent out there—a group of us sitting in deck chairs and smoking and chatting and watching the lizards hunt and fornicate on the ceiling, because it was too hot to stay inside, in those days before the monsoon cools the world—too hot to do anything, in the sun-rain lands.
Well the day I arrived was, by a final happy chance, Tobias’ birthday. We grabbed a German woman Tobias had met, Elke by name, and asked an English lass, Charlotte of Devonshire, who happened to be in the Hallway, to join us, and went to the Kanchanaburi night market, just outside the tourist ghetto.
Now the Thais are very Western in their love of three things: sex, bad music, shopping, and cheap food. The latter two can be found at the night market, where even on weeknights, so long as it is not raining, crowds of Thais stroll through racks of cheap clothes and non-functional Chinese electronics, and long rows of vendors selling fruit shakes, pearl tea, grilled meat and fish, old sushi, spicy green papaya salad, and heaps of noodles, in wasteful Styrofoam containers and plastic bags, the whole complex set up in the hour of sunset in a parking lot, and removed by ten that same night.
The foremost of Thai loves—sex and bad music—can be found on the street to and from the market. “Welcome!” they shout, the bar girls, splayed languidly on stools in the empty bars, five girls and no customers, or perhaps a dirty old Saxon buying them drinks. It sounds like “whear-KAHM—” and is cried out of every bar as one walks past, by at least one girl, so that we wondered if the girls are paid by the Welcome.
These bar girls, as far as I can tell, do not work for the bar: they are prostitutes in a symbiotic relationship, bringing in customers to buy drinks in exchange for a place to sit, and there are more of them than the Reader would care to believe.
“Welcome!” is their mantra, “Thai massage!” their motto. They add more if a passer-by looks their way— “Where you go? You look for boom-boom?” “Hey, I know you. You boom-boom my friend. Why you no boom-boom me?” “Good drinks, good price. Hey— hey!”
After dinner, and after running back through the gauntlet of girls, the five of us ended up at a pool hall where the waitresses offered us a birthday discount on Tobias’ account. The meditative Bavarian had not had a drink in over a year, but he accepted gracefully the shot of sambuca that our hostess brought him, along with a bit of cake they had scrounged up somewhere.
They had Nevermind on repeat, and Charlotte succeeded in explaining to me what the hell “off-sides” meant, and some Thai professionals were playing pool in the midst of a crowd, and the waitress brought out Jenga for us from her collection of games. We made it a condition that whosoever toppled the tower had to buy Tobias another sambuca, and proceeded about our turns with that style of intense concentration that accompanies drinking. Eventually Tobias left, and the two girls, and Francesco and I stayed to play a bad game of pool and have another beer before going back to the Frog.
The Reader may be familiar with Thailand’s best and tastiest rice beer, the exported Singha, and there is another local brew called Leo that is similar; but were drinking Chang, cheaper and with less taste and more alcohol. The cheapest label, at a buck for a large bottle, is Archa, which can only be found in 7-11. Singapore is making a big push with its Tiger beer, as they are in most of the region, but the import remains prohibitively expensive. Another Singapore beer available everywhere, ABC Stout, is a disastrous attempt at breaking away from the Asian trend of beer types, generally limited to Premium and Extra-Strong.
The worst thing about Chang is that it gives the ardent drinker an awful hangover the next morning—as good an excuse as any for an uneventful day.
I read the Bangkok Post over breakfast and read a book in the garden until it began to rain. At night I went with Elke to a very local restaurant I’d found: three carts, one with noodle soup, one with boiled chicken or pork and rice, and one with a wok, lined up side-by-side on a patio of plastic tables and chairs, in front of a small convenience store, where the diner can buy a beer to go with the menu. I had found the place the night before, since it was still open at two in the morning.
I ordered some spicy dish from the wok and added generously to it from the ubiquitous Thai condiment tray—chili oil, chili powder, chilies in water, and sugar, with bottles of soya and fermented fish sauce—and Elke and I made plans to go to the Erawan Waterfalls the next day.
There are seven of these, running down the forested hill in picturesque teirs of cerulean pools and lyrical falls, each of a different height and character, be it snaking stream or boulder-wide cascade or ridge-high cataract. Elke and I followed the shady path up past Lai Kuen Kung and Wang Mancha, to Pha Nam Tok, where there were monkeys in the trees and Thai boy screaming in alcoves under the waterfall and a snake in the thatch roof of a structure.
We swam in the pool beneath the fourth teir, Oke Nang Phee Sue, diving into cool clear water from the rocky and root-columned shore. Schools of Tor Soro nibbled at the feet, overanxious for dead skin. At Bue Mai Long the water slid down a gentle sloping boulder, slick with algae, and two Irish girls and an English one were climbing up the tangled creepers on one side, to slide down into the pool. We were at this for some time. Dong Pruk Sa was the sixth tier, and Phu Pha Erawan the seventh and last, where the water fell from the top of a high ridge, and the pool was sky blue and slick with white moss.
The three Islander girls rushed down from there to catch the last bus back to Kanchanaburi, but Elke and I proceeded at a more leisurely pace and succeeded in missing it. I proposed hitchhiking, and some adventures later, and after waiting out a monsoon deluge under the eaves of a police station by the side of the highway, we found ourselves in the empty truckbed of a Chang delivery truck. Elke was ecstatic.
“Have you read Into the Wild? This is like what he does. Getting around by hitchhiking, riding in the backs of trucks. I can’t believe it.”
The beer truck dropped us off near the night market, and we sated ourselves on street food before heading back to the Jolly Frog. I left a few hours later with Jarno, a hacker of Amsterdam, and Francesco and Tobias, to Tai Thai, a favorite place of the Dutchman, who had been in town for some time. They had a flatscreen television at Thai Thai and a projector that Jarno had fixed, and they were showing the England-Slovenia game on both. At my lone request, they changed the television to the USA-Algeria match.
Both England and America needed a win to advance from the qualifiers, and I watched intensely through two halves of close misses and bad calls until Donovan scored a goal in stoppage time for a last-gasp victory that called for celebration at the Ten Baht Bar out in the street. This was a lemonade stand with a line of local liquor bottles, most of them costing ten baht or thirty cents a shot, and a few paint buckets in front for stools. The bar across the street usually had a lonely Thai bard wailing Western covers, but nobody ever sat in there when they could get such cheap drinks outside.
O so full of cheer was I, and surrounded by a crew who would discuss nothing but the Cup. I drank a cup of Obama whiskey for ten cents, and I gloated with the young English, because we were the best in the group, and gloated with the Americans I met, and smoked my Burmese cheroot in glee.
We talked about football a lot, sitting out in the Hallway, with citizens of Holland, Germany, and Mexico, and always a few Brits around, all intimately and animatedly involved with the sport and its World Cup.
The Mexican had his whole heart in the contest. “We’ve done well in our group, but we play Argentina on Sunday. It will be close.”
“Come on, you guys can win.”
“I don’t know man. I hope so. Jesus Christo.”
The Mexican was supremely vexed, because his flight back home was on the same night, and unless they showed the game on the airplane, he would miss what could be a supreme moment in the history of his nation.
That possibility kept people watching and talking about it. Who would win? Who would go home? America and England could both be knocked out. The French team was falling apart in a ridiculous farce of Gallic proportions, bickering and going on strike. The Dutch had to face Cameroon, and then either Brazil or Portugal. The Germans could win or lose that very night, and Italy, who won four years ago, was not doing well. And it was a different intensity in the Jolly Frog than at home, because all the tribes were represented.
Francesco was brooding over Italy’s chances, and the Germans were anxious for their skillful team. The Mexican had been traveling with two tall Dutch girls, Caren and Leonie, who had orange shirts to wear when Holland played the next day. The Lowlanders revere their football players more than their royal family, and the fairer sex is no exception to the rule.
We all sat in the Hallway between our doors, that night the American team won, and I was flush with victory and Ten Baht whiskey. A Thai brought us beers, and Jarno brought out his laptop, which routed a European satellite network through a server in Amsterdam, and turned on German-Ghana game at half-past one in the morning. Everyone leaned over his shoulder to watch it; and Elke cheered the sole German goal, and even Tobias was not insensate to the sport fervor. We watched it until the end and talked of the games to come and the wonders we had seen and the places we would go.
The following evening, Italy played Slovakia in a desperate match—only the victory would advance from the group stage. I met Francesco and Jarno at Tai Thai just after it ended, in a 2-3 loss for the champions of yesteryear. The Paduan was shell-shocked. “You should have seen his face,” said Jarno, “when Slovakia made the first goal.” The Italian team finished last in their group, heralded as the easiest.
“I think I need a drink,” said Francesco.
We went to the Ten Baht Bar and ordered rice whiskies with ice. Jarno went back to his new guesthouse—he had moved to a nice one with clean sheets and air-conditioning, since his Thai girlfriend would come from Bangkok the next day to meet him—and we sat with a Quebecois and talked nonsense.
Francesco had worked odd-jobs in Italy and wanted to live somewhere else. He said he was looking while he traveled for a place to establish a hostel. He liked Laos in particular, for its natural beauty and its relaxed mood.
“So you’ll settle down there, marry a Laotian girl?”
“No, I don’t think so,” he said in his slow measured way, with only a trace of the Latin accent by which he had won over so many German girls on holiday in the Adriatic nightclubs south of Venice,—“I don’t know if I like the girls in Southeast Asia. They are very bubbly.”
I knew what he meant: the high-pitched voice, the Jezebel smile, boiling over with bawdy humor and an ebullient interest in fun, and the skin-deep sense of themselves and the world.
“Then which girls are best?”
Francesco bashfully confessed, “I think the best girls come from Italy. They are very passionate, very beautiful.”
“They’re classy,” I added.
There are flavors of home you cannot deny. I have seen all manner of beautiful geographies all across the map of continents, and would chose over any the endless forests and rough-sketched grandeur of my Pacific Coast. As for women, I file that as a Mediterranean prerogative, a loyalty not shared by this man of grizzled Oregon.
Well, Francesco would leave the next day to meet a Canadian girl in Bangkok. I had to stay, because the US was playing Ghana.
“So I’m lucky Italy is out,” said Francesco. “Now I am free.”
We talked football and we talked nonsense, and this old Irishman was telling me about SETI, on the night when the USA played Ghana in the Round of Sixteen.
“All I’m saying is who put these guys in charge? Who elected them to beam out messages to outer space? All this whale song and Beethoven and paintings and flags—and directions straight to Earth. It’s like an advertisement. Come on down, it’s great here! But who decided that aliens are going to come and be all friendly and helpful. Do you really think that? We’re nothing. We’re an inferior species. They’re going to look at us same as we look at cows or ants. What did you have for dinner tonight? That’s what I’m saying. We’re nothing, just meat, just a resource.”
It was after midnight, and all my friends had gone to bed. I’d met two American girls whilst walking down the street after Uruguay crushed Korea earlier that night—West Coasters like me, teaching in Bangkok, and here to have a Good Time, as advertised. They bought buckets of whiskey and coke at the Ten Baht Bar, and we sat with a big group of young and dressed-up British volunteers, who thought I was a marvel for traveling for so long (and one girl later told me, “I thought you were weird”).
I asked my American compatriots about the Bangkok uprising, as they taught there and not far from Rajprasong, but they had fled at the first stroke of revolution. They were my age and three times as lost in the world, still all song and dance and let’s just have fun, but spoke of getting Old and Settling and Marriage, as if time was short between now and dying alone.
I let the girls wander off down the street with the Brits, singing “I Gotta Feeling” and haggling with a tuk-tuk driver to go to some club, and went back to a bar we’d passed along the way that was set up in front of a bookstore and crowded with the shipwrecked forms of expats, bent masts in a marina after a storm; withered souls suffering from the tropical fatigue of hard-boozing and whoring and excessive lethargy—and I preferred their company because at least they know what they’re about in life.
One was a San Franciscan whose distinguishing features were his big gut, his stars-and-stripes bandana, his white walrus whiskers, and his way of speaking with that muttering sailor’s talk of the crazed, like, “Yeah we’re gonna fuckin’ beat ’em tonight, you know what I’m saying, we’re going to fuckin’ beat those pussies if our boys can keep together and pass the fucking ball, right Martin, right, yeah, fuck, let’s get another beer.”
Another was the Irishman with whom I spoke, of history and cycles of empires, of global warming and technology. Like most Catholics, he saw the world coming to an end—in carbon fire, genetic modification, and nanotechnology—and I saw these as shifts in the pattern of life on Earth, and some would adapt to them and some would be left behind. It’s as scary as all change is, but it had happened a million times in human history and a billion times in the history of the planet. That humans as a race would stop evolving, that’s the real horror.
I told this to the Irishman and he said, with that good-natured ribbing natural to the Irish humor, “You know what I think you are Jon? I think you’re a peacenik. I think you’re a liberal. Oh, it’ll all work out, I’m sure. Well you know what Jon? It doesn’t always work out. Sometimes life is focked, and sometimes we have to do something about it.”
That’s when the Irishman started talking about SETI, “And I’m sick of them sending those messages out. If aliens come here, it’s because of their damn peacenik messages.”
Generally when people tell me crazy things I let them talk and ask a few questions, but at this I couldn’t help but laugh and say, “No aliens are going to come here!”
“Oh yeah? And how d’you know that Jon? How d’you know there’s no life out there? Stephen Hawking says there’s life out there. Are you smarter than Stephen Hawking?”
“Well,” I said, thinking for a moment, first about how I always ended up in these weird conversations, and then about the question at hand,—“yes, there’s most likely life elsewhere in the Universe, probably in our galaxy, but the nearest potentially habitable worlds are hundreds of light-years away, in distant solar systems. If there is an alien race with the technology necessary to transport out of the heliopause of their star system, to shield themselves from all the cosmic radiation of interstellar space, to travel faster than the speed of light, and to breach our heliopause—and as far as we know this is all beyond possibility— Well, I’d say if they could do all that, they could find us without the help of whale songs.”
The Irishman said they’d need our resources, and I said they had asteroid belts and keeper belts and hundreds of unspoiled worlds and moons at their disposal; and he said I thought it was crazy, and I did, but I was interested enough in the conversation.
Anyway, I watched the game at half-past at the Pizzeria. It was up on a projector screen, and the French owner served me a beer, and served the few other Americans present: three teachers, one of the West Coast girls from earlier, and the curse-muttering San Franciscan.
“Just shoot the fucking ball, it’s easy, you run and you shoot, don’t stand around. Come on, come on.”
Ghana can run, and America excels at the underdog roles. Boateng scored a goal in the first five minutes, the US team rallied after halftime, Donovan got a penalty kick, and it’s 1-1. The Irishman came in after a while, and we started talking about Islam. I drunkenly defended the faith, which I admire, and he had been to Saudi Arabia once and called me a peacenik and punctuated it with, “And you know what? I don’t like talking with you Jon.” I said, “Alright,” and the Irishman went over to mutter about me with the San Franciscan, sending over sideways sneers.
Asamoah Gyan scored in the third minute of the extra fifteen. The Americans seemed to give up after that, taking the ball into the box without the resolve to shoot it home. Come on, come on. But it was over, and the next morning I had a horrible hangover and a disillusioned sense that was worse.
I went to the street cafe that Tobias had showed me, an outdoors kitchen cart wedged in an alleyway and a few tables with a tarp for a roof, and got some rice and chicken and coffee. There was a man sitting in the corner near the sunshine, with bandages thick around his bald skull and a forearm and a calf, the cloth wet with blood and scarring fluid.
He shouted, “Hey man, you have a cigarette?” He had a strange accent, almost British and half-gone.
“No,” I said. “Don’t smoke.”
The man shuffled around and said, “I’ve got nothing now. I got a lady last night. I was kind of drunk. Took her to my room, fucked her, fell asleep for about half an hour, and when I woke up, she was gone, with twenty-five thousand baht from my wallet.”
“Yeah. I’ve got nothing man. Twenty-five thousand baht is a little money. So, man, can you help me out, give me twenty baht?”
Despising all Westerners who beg for cash in Asia, when they have things to sell and while maintaining their room and appetites, when there are people sleeping and starving in the streets, and despising pretty much everything worth the effort that morning, I said, “No,” and went back to my food.
We talked nonsense and we talked of politics out under the bare light bulbs and hunting lizards in the Hallway. We sat with our feet nestled up in the seats to protect them from mosquitoes, and our hands waved the bloodsuckers away and killed them when we could. The little tuktoo lizards chased moths up the wall, and in the garden a big gecko croaked out its name.
One night, sitting in our circle of lawn chairs, there was a Canadian girl who worked upriver at a house for children—not always orphaned, for some had mothers who had remarried and forgotten them, or fathers who could not afford to keep them; but they were all Karen refugees of the violence in Burma. Some had walked out of the blood swamps into Thailand when they were five-years-old. Some had not left the town for seven years, since the house was founded.
“It’s crazy!” the Canadian exclaimed,—“Most of them don’t have an identity. They left Burma when they were two, or they were born here in Thailand. But they’re not Thai, and Burma doesn’t recognize them. They’re not allowed to leave the camps.”
“So they’re just swept under the rug. Everyone ignores them.”
“Yes, exactly. It’s crazy. How can you children go without any identity. They’re completely innocent, and it’s like they’re being punished for some crime.”
She added that many of the Kachin refugees, who had fled into China, were deposited in Himalayan concentration camps or sold as slaves by the indifferent Chinese. At least her kids could go to school.
Although these citizens of nowhere had been through the Thai education system, getting identity papers to work or study outside their little town required a considerable donation, grease for the wheels of benevolent bureaucracy; and the house did not have much. It was an independent charity, and most of the funding came from ex-volunteers, a network that always responded to pleas.
“One year we had rabies in the house. We always have a few dogs that sleep inside with us, and we all sleep together. Two of the dogs had rabies and had to be killed. Then all of us, over fifty kids and volunteers, had to get shots, which are really expensive. We sent out an email to everyone telling them what happened, and pretty soon all this money came in. We were fine. It was close though.”
The house has investments in a few acres of rubber tree plantation, which take seven years to mature. When the first are ready to go to market, it should cover the college tuition for some of the older kids. In the meantime, they get by. Most of the locals think they are rich—all farang and all charities are rich—and try to send their children there. Even the well-off families try to get their daughters in for free schooling and one less mouth to feed, but the house turns them away. Some mornings, though, they wake up with a bundle on the doorstep, and then it cannot be helped.
Yet though the house was crowded, though its inhabitants subsisted on meager helpings of rice, sometimes with leaves and grasses they had gathered, and though there was sorrow behind them, it was always full of light and laughter and music. All the children were learning to play at least one musical instrument, and one of the veteran volunteers donated the equipment for a recording studio.
One of the kids called the Canadian while we talked. She laughed when she hung up. “They’re playing some game, and he wanted to call me. They’re good kids.”
We talked of the violence from which the Karen fled. The Karen are a Christian ethnic minority in Burma and, like most minorities, are brutally opressed by the ruling Burmese junta.
I mentioned Rambo 4, and the Canadian told me that parts of the movie had been filmed in her village (and the children of the house put on a musical performance for the film crew). Much of the graphic violence—peasants herded across minefields, villages razed, grown men killed and women and children sent away as if we still lived in the days of Assyrians and Huns—was true to life, she was sad to say. Yet things were changing.
Last year the Burmese generals commanded all the insurgent armies around its borders (the Karen National Liberation Army, the Shan State Army, the Kachin Independent Army, etc. etc.) to contribute troops for policing political prisons, or risk a renewal of violence with the state. Universally, the armies refused.
There was some startled looks around the room, for none of these armies had ever agreed on anything before, and were as used to killing each other over opium profits and old revenge as they were to fighting off the Burmans. The army of the oppressor—called Tatmadaw—having lost much face, quickly revised its manifesto, demanding that the insurgents contribute only a few guards for these prisons in a few months time. Again the answer was no.
Oh, sayeth Tatmadaw, well in fact we meant to say at the end of the monsoon season.
Oh yes, sayeth the armies, I’m sure you did.
Meanwhile, from their swamps and forests and mountains, they correspond with each other for the first time—
We’ve always been enemies, you and I, but is it possible we could be friends? And if we were, imagine our strength! Alone, we are like solitary sticks, to be stepped on and broken in two at the leisure of our common enemy, but bound together: they will not break us again! Yes, when the monsoon rains have ended, there will be a reckoning, and we will liberate our people.
Now of course nothing may come of it, O Reader, as nothing came of the successful revolution in 1988 but a change in name for the military dictatorship and a tightening of the chains with which the junta has bound up their country. China benefits too much from the kowtowing generals of Tatmadaw, who send gifts of oil and natural gas as tokens of vassalage, to permit them from being overthrown; and India would be terrified of a minority uprising in a country so close to the seven states of Assam, already wracked with ethnic violence. If violence broke out, Thailand would at least permit all the refugees encamped just across the border to enter the country, but Thailand has enough on its plate to worry about neocon crusades.
Who knows what will happen, a truce or a war; but if anything can be learned from the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan or from the peace process in the Middle East, it is that change in a country has to come from elements within. No outside force will ever, ever force a change. So, American, watch what happens in Burma, and hope that the same will happen against the dictators of Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the same realizations will strike Palestinians and Jews, and be safe in knowing that the USA will never get involved—though China might.
We talked politics and we talked of home, trying to translate foreign mysteries known only to those who have lived in a place.
Immigration has become a universal issue— The French can’t decide on a suitable definition of “French”; half a million Anglos voted for the British National Party to keep Britain British; in Holland, the xenophobic politician Geert Wilders, who has been banned from entering the UK, won over fifteen per cent of the country with his agenda of ejecting all foreigners and Muslims from the Lowlands. My own Union was not lacking in such news, as anyone who looked un-American was now legally suspected of being an illegal immigrant in Arizona.
And we smoked cigarettes and cheroots and sat in lawn chairs out in the Hallway, and the same sappy songs floated up from the restaurant, and the sun colored the karst hills, and the Kwai was brown with silt washed out by the monsoon.
Francesco scoffed at the news from northern Italy, one nationalist party blaming the immigrants for their poor performance at football: “Good,” say the racists, “next year it will be Italians playing for Italy.”
Once I asked Francesco about Berlusconi and the habitually incompetent politics of his Italian Peninsula.
“If you want a job, a contract, a position in the government, you have to know somebody—a patron—and get it from them. They all put their friends or family in power. Some offices, everyone is cousins. It is all about favors.”
“My history professor showed the first scene in The Godfather to explain Roman politics. Some bad boy is messing with the undertaker’s daughter, and Marlon Brando gets rid of him in exchange for a favor from the undertaker later on. It’s all about patron and client.”
“Yes, it is like this. And people just accept that it is like this. It has always been like this. Nobody thinks this can change.”
Another time, Tobias and Elke told me about this series of child mystery books they remember from the eighties, titled with “Alfred Hitchcock” and three question marks like ???, wherein three teenage sleuths—two boys and an intelligent girl—would solve mysteries in Rocky Beach, California, not far from Hollywood. Sometimes they worked with famous actors, especially Hitchcock, who was a sort of Mentor or Dumbledore to the gang. They called the Director when they needed a hint, and he appeared at the end of the chapter to say: “Reader, did you notice this clue?”
I wondered with exceeding wonder at this. Later I learned that the series came from America, where it was called The Three Investigators, but was always more popular in Germany. In the US, the series ran from 1964 to the late eighties, with 48 books published; and in Deutschland, translated versions of Die Drei Fragezeichen, or The Three Question Marks, continue to be published, while German writers add six new ones each year, bringing the 2010 total to 152. The radio-dramas, or Hörspiele, likewise remain popular.
“They were really very smart,” said Tobias,—“very clever crimes and clues to find.”
I watched the game between Germany and England in Tai Thai with Tobias and an Israeli flight stewardess named Meira. The whole place was full of English, so we took a table outside the wide door and watched the game proceed on flatscreen and projector screen. Tobias became increasingly animated, as Germany scored goal after goal, until he was jumping up out of his chair, saying, “Oh, wow!” Other than the Thai commentators, his ejaculations were the only noise in the bar, for the English had grimly lowered themselves into their bottles and no force in the world would coax them back out.
“It’s so great,” said Tobias, regaining his seat and his composure after another goal. “I never care about football at home, but this is really great. I can see my Dad and everyone shouting at the television. Oh man.”
The next day we went to the small restaurant Tobias had found and got Thai dishes and iced coffees from the kitchen cart. One of the Jolly Frog waitresses had given Tobias a card with her phone number.
“You should have called her.”
“I know, but come on, look at it.” The card said Honey on it. “Would you call? I thought it was for a Thai hooker or something. Like, You’ve been here a week and you’re probably lonely.”
“I think Honey is lonely.”
“I don’t know. I thought about calling her. But I made this trip to go to monasteries and work on meditation, not to bang Thai girls.”
We were both leaving the next day, going in different directions, and Tobias worried that he did not have one, or that he would not be able to chose from the several options that presented themselves; but he had a reason for traveling, his meditation, which might lead him to one of the last Perfected Souls in Thailand or to a monastery in Laos. And having a reason is far better than having a plan.
We talked about the importance of traveling with a purpose, not just to “find yourself,” having met more than a few of these wretched soul-searchers at the Jolly Frog. Too busy looking inward to see the world without, they tumble willingly into the pits of drugs, or the harems of yoga gurus, or the meccas of “fun” and “letting yourself go” like the Pink Palace, Paradise Beach, Ko Phangan, Pai, or Vang Vieng.
Meanwhile, I worked on writing, with half an anthropological bent, and Tobias developed his inner calm. So I asked him about meditation and why he enjoyed it.
“You have this whole life of experiences, and you never go through them, never process them. That’s what meditation is. Slowly you process all these emotions, these fears and worries, the traumatic experiences and expectations, the addictions and needs. You address them and put them away, and then you have this sense of inner peace. You’re in the moment. If you don’t meditate, it just builds up. It’s not good, I think.”
“So it’s like exercise for your mind? That’s how I understand it. You go to the gym to work out, you meditate to exercise the brain.”
“It is difficult, of course. In vipassana, when I started, you sit there for seven days, trying to think about nothing, and your brain is going all over the place. You keep thinking, Why am I doing this? This is a waste of my time. I’m just sitting here! And then you calm yourself down, your mind is quiet, but the doubts come back. You think, Alright that’s it, I’m leaving. You think, My back hurts, I’m hungry, I need a beer, need some pot, want to have sex. You recognize those needs, and then put them aside. There are all these harmful appetites, that can become addictions so easily.”
“Are you addicted to meditation?”
Tobias laughed. “Well, I don’t know. No, I don’t think so. You know, once I finished a few classes, finished meditating in Bangladesh and in Burma, I feel so new, so fresh, with such a clear head. I don’t need to smoke a joint anymore, don’t need to drink a beer, don’t need to fuck some girl. I feel really good. Like, I can go home now, and it’ll be great. But then the teachers say, ‘Yes, it feels good, and it only gets better.’ I can’t imagine it getting better, but I couldn’t imagine how good I would feel now before I started.”
I’ve finished my noodles, and Tobias’ plate is almost untouched, and I hope he stops talking so I can go catch an afternoon bus to Bangkok and a night bus to Chiang Mai, but he looks off into the sunny street.
“I could call Honey and drink a beer and go home and all that, and I don’t think I will fall back into my old habits, my addictions. I think I’m stronger now. But it could get better.”