Thailand: 1990

By RJ West

    “Spinning through the void on our way to anywhere.Time is just a joke change is all we understand.  Life is a mirage, only a mirage dancing on the desert sand.”

                                                                                    -Utopia, Caravan.*

            The sun unmercifully beat down upon our heads as we trudged through the still, dry, air.  The north Thailand jungle burned around us clearing brush from the land.  Ahead a voice came back: “There’s rumors of cold Singha beers waiting at the camp!”  Suddenly the pace picked up.

            Early April, the dry season when temperatures average 40 degrees Celsius.  Up in the mountains near Myanmar (Burma) & Laos, in the Golden Triangle, a French Canadian girl, three Bavarians, & myself hiked and lived with various hill tribes who grew the infamous poppy.  Our technological society ceased to exist, unimportant to Red Lahu, White Karen & Lisu tribes who live today as they did a hundred years ago. (Colour of tribal names is derived from the woolen clothes they wear.)  Farm animals live under houses built on stilts, a lucky village may have a foot powered sewing machine, and lights are either candles or kerosene.  Communications between tribes is by foot; in a White Karen village a runner came to tell the chief that police were looking for addicts.  Poppies are grown outside the village hidden in cornfields, but little of the wealth leaving the Golden Triangle comes back to the villagers.  In fact if caught smoking the opium a man is first jailed one month, on second offence one year.  This is detrimental when hands are needed in the rice paddies during the rainy season.

            An average village consists of about 20 families or 100 people.  You don’t appreciate the size of the village until Montezuma’s Revenge strikes and you find yourself running from the center of the village out into the jungle where you commence training on strengthening your thigh muscles by squatting for long periods of time.  Water was brought up from artesian wells in old motor oil bottles, or if we were really lucky there was a stream running through the village and we could bath and do laundry (sometimes simultaneously).  Never point to anything with your foot, never sit with your feet pointing at any one, especially a lady.  (Sure, you think, no problem seated in a chair feet planted on the ground.  Ha!  Try sitting on the floor with a bunch of people.)  Never touch any one’s head, like patting a child’s head or ruffling their hair.  All Buddha knowledge is in the head, the dust of the earth upon the soles of your feet—the high & the low.

            One evening an old woman came to have tea with us.  She poured water over the tea then went to add coffee to it.  I stopped her saying: “Medi!  Medi!  Namcha, kafair.”  No!  No!  Tea, coffee.  Once she knew how to make instant coffee and add whitener and sugar she commenced to sipping and sharing it with her grandson.  More coffee was added, then more sugar, then more sugar, soon our bowl of natural sugar had disappeared into the cup and the boy was looking a little green.  When there was no more the old lady smiled and bowed her thanks for sharing.  Personally with nothing but boiled tea to drink we made “happy tea,” someone always seemed to have a bottle of Mae Kong whisky to lace it with!

            Our guide’s name was Toy.  Like most men he had been a Buddhist monk.  As Thailand is 90% Buddhist it is expected that at some point in time a man will spend part of his life as a monk.  Women may also spent part of their life as a nun, but generally not until much later in life.  Walking along the trail Toy would occasionally stop and point to a squiggle in the dust, “Snake pass here.”  Or Sniff at the air, “Some animal over there.” And point to a bush as some unseen animal bolted further into the forest.  One afternoon we broke out of the bush on to a river just as a white crane gave a sweep of its great wings and lofted into the air.

            Kids don’t care how funny looking I am or if I can speak a civilized language; usually I’m sized up before they decide: all right, let’s play!  At Kuomingtang, a Chinese refuge village, the primary class emptied when the children saw us.  They streamed around us chanting “Okay!  Okay!  Okay!” with up raised thumbs.  A brave few reached out to touch our pale skin before running off giggling at their boldness.  At a Black Lahu village three children sat in rapt attention as I played taiji on their dirt soccer field, or at least until they got bored and wandered off.  The adults, however, thought it was hilarious watching this ferang (slightly derogatory term for foreigner) dancing around in their field.

One night in a Red Lahu village an old man came by with a home made kerosene lamp and pointed to our sleeping hut.  “You want to put a light in there, okay.”  What did we know?  Toy laughed, “That’s the opium man, you want to smoke opium go there.”  Well we were there to explore so in we went to take a peek.  It wasn’t like Chinese opium dens in the movies, lying back with elegant porcelain or brass pipes.  Three “old” men (who knows how old they were) curled up on our sleeping pallets in the fetal position with home made bamboo pipes & a metal pick to keep the little black ball of gum over the hole.  Thick clouds of smoke filled the hut.  “Don’t smoke more than 1 pipe or you’ll get sick,” Toy told us.  We left, preferring our “happy tea.”

            In a tiny town called Pai we found an old man who did massages in his back yard.  He had a bamboo frame wrapped in plastic with a bamboo pipe leading down to a fire; this was his 2-man sauna.  His father helped him and his two little girls ran around playing.  After days of trekking though jungle with full packs it was time for a little relaxation.  Suddenly our host asked:  “You like pretty girls?  Eighteen, nineteen year old?  You come back here after dinner.  You like boy, maybe?  Cost you little extra.”  We politely declined.

            In this small town in Asia, up in the jungle we found the most western bar I’ve ever seen.  Bat wing doors, polished hard wood floors, god knows where they got all the cowboy paraphernalia.  Later we moseyed on down to a more traditional Thai bar—plank tables under a plastic tarp in the dusty street.  We met more of which I like to call the “Lost Ones.”  You’ll find them all over Asia, Drifters, Dharma Bums, Hippies whatever you’d like to call them.  From all over the globe wandering between school & jobs trying to find them selves or the meaning of life.  Generally they’re looking for a good time, which usually means trouble.

            “I had this great revelation in a bamboo groove!” the girl chattered.  “I’m going to become a teacher and teach about hill tribes!  Isn’t that a great revelation to have in a bamboo grove?  I just don’t want to have to go back to the States.  I mean pot is illegal, & Bush is President.  How sad is that!”  We nodded sagely & chuckled when she left, how many times had she changed her mind talking to us in that half-hour?

             “What’s your style?” my female guide asks me 10 minutes after we met.  Huh?  “What you like?  You like girls or boys?”  Welcome to Bangkok!  Foreigners stand out, & if you’re male you must want sex.  The hotel had magazines telling of places to shop, customs you should know, message parlours to visit.  Legitimate parlours (few & far between) will have bold print stating NO SEX.  Walking down the street, guys would wave Polaroid’s of scantily clad girls in my face.  A weasel slipped up beside me on the street. “Hey you like to smoke, drink?  Pretty girls, 15 years old!”  Vanished before I could grab the little bastard.

            Ann, my guide, decided to take me to a “Woman show.  Not for tourists.”  We arrived at a restaurant with no one inside.  We paid to go upstairs.  At the top of the stairs I found myself in a James Bond movie.  I knocked on the door; a midget in a suit with a long, pencil thin goatee opened it.  We sat; I was the only ferang in the place.  As I looked behind me I saw middle aged Thai women.  Ann told me, “They think it’s funny, this is entertainment for them.”  Two people had sex.  Two women had sex.  A tattooed woman shot ping-pong balls from her vagina.  A tattooed woman shot a peeled banana from her vagina.  A woman blew a whistle with her vagina.  Another tattooed woman passed out balloons to be held up, she then inserted a blowgun into herself and started popping the balloons.  A woman passed around a coke bottle (the old kind that needs an opener) then used herself to open the bottle.  Finally a woman pulled a string of razor blades from herself and sliced up sheets of paper as she danced around with the string of blades still inside her.  Ann asked me if I wanted to sleep with any of them.  I didn’t even want to touch the seats, and my scrotum had crawled back up inside my stomach!  “You look very innocent about this kind of thing.” She said.  What can I say, mom never warned me there were girls like that!

            People will try and con you.  I read about this one and laughed, it couldn’t possibly work, but two different guys tried it one me.  “Hi!  Remember me?  I’m the customs agent from the airport, I checked you though, remember?”  That’s the hook.  Sure he’s the customs agent & specifically remembers you!  Thai’s are very friendly, helpful people, but be careful or you could end up in a crooked blackjack game pretending to be the “bad-luck” brother-in-law of the guy who’s rigged the game against a rich Singapore business man.  Not that I’d know anything about that!

            Patpong is the world infamous red light district.  I wasn’t there.  I don’t know where I was; Bangkok is huge with a population that can top 13 million when all the farmers come in to sell their crops.  One fine day I strolled down a deserted side street, looking at the bars I realized this must be the local red light zone.  A few nights later I discovered 2 of my companions, Michael & Harry, was going to visit this area so I asked if I could tag a long (I wasn’t going in there alone!)  The street is a block long, at night it is blocked off at both ends with saw horses and police, once you cross to the other side you’re on your own.  Half-naked girls wandered back & forth across the street, they’re the dancers, the prostitutes are clothed (not to say you can’t have sex with the dancers, you just have to wait until their shift finishes at 2 in the morning).  Michael yipped as a dancer pinched his bottom & kept walking.  A prostitute grabbed my arm, she was strong, and she wouldn’t let go.  My friends kept walking.  They made it to the other side of the barrier.  I talked fast, charming; I disentangled myself from her.  I made it to the other side of the barrier.  We regrouped; we went back in.  This time it was Michael: she was big, she charged, she wrapped herself around him like an anaconda!  “Ah, Harry, shouldn’t we go help Michael?”  Harry stood in the middle of the street trying to decide which bar to go into.  “Nah, he’ll be fine.  Let’s try this bar.”  A few minutes later Michael escaped the amorous coils and joined us.  Inside a stage snakes through the bar like a jungle river.  Girls in bathing suits & underwear dance, each one have a number pinned wherever they can pin it.  We sit at a table, order beers, we can order a girl by number or just wait, the girls not dancing circulate; eventually we each have a girl for the night sitting on our laps.  They rotate dancing on stage, we buy them expensive, watered drinks, and we play tic-tac-toe.  When they are on stage other girls come around.  One stunning girl in purple we’ve all admired comes by, as I’m the only one who can speak any Thai (I have a book, speak 10 words) she talks to me.  Her name is “Apil” (Oh, April!) yes, and she just turned 18, she’s from some small village up north.  I had a girl I was buying expensive, watered drinks for, I didn’t need another so she moved on.  I commented on Harry’s girl, she had 4 furrows scared into her arm.  “Oh, fight with other girl.  She scratch me.”  Just another day at the office.

            Lithe, beautiful, brown skinned girls.  A statistic to keep in mind: 1 out of ever 3 prostitutes DOESN’T have AIDs.  Most of these girls are from small villages, come to the big city to make money for their families.  Some are sold by a relative who is a drug addict, many are duped by men who come to the village to offer girls legitimate work in Bangkok, until they arrive and find themselves trapped as sex slaves.  Even if they escape & go to the police, the beat cop on the street works for the pimp and will take the girl right back to the brothel.  Drugs are also a big problem there as well.  You don’t want to get caught with drugs; you do not want to be imprisoned outside of North America!  They also have the death penalty, execution by hanging.

            The old ways are slipping away thanks to people like me treapsing through, disrupting the hill tribe’s way of life. I have heard that the Thai government is taking steps to preserve tribal lifestyles.  Yet even in the cities there exists a mix of modern & old world: sailing down the klongs—Bangkok’s waterways; monks begging for their breakfast; Pizza Hut with extra hot sauce—Thai’s LOVE spicy food!  It was my favorite country, I had even looked into moving there to teach, but life took me elsewhere.


*From the Adventures in Utopia album, Todd Rundgren