Encounters with Strangers on the Road: Part I: Thailand

A trip taken years ago

Quote from Bill Porter’s book Zen Baggage: A Pilgrimage to China:

“Someone once asked a Tibetan yogi the easiest way to attain Enlightenment. He said, ‘Leave your country.’ Living as a foreigner, one had the opportunity to reconsider the attractions of one’s own culture and to choose new, less debilitating ones with which to outfit one’s life.”

 

If felt rather ridiculous to be sitting in a plane at Frankfurt Airport. We had passed by close the day before and then had continued for six more hours or train ride to Amsterdam. We spent the night there and caught a plane back to Frankfurt early the next morning. Perhaps a cliché about unfathomable Eastern logic, since this was to be a journey to the Orient: heading northwest to go southeast. However, the reason lay elsewhere: control of selling discounted tickets. If we had booked the flight directly from Frankfurt, it would have cost a lot more, even more than a train ride to and night’s stay in Amsterdam. Fortunately, there was almost no internet at that time, so we were able to change our tickets in Bangkok free of charge to get off in Frankfurt on the way back without the necessity of returning to Amsterdam.

We checked into a “youth hostel” in Amsterdam, and it would have been difficult to find anyone under thirty. However, they did not mean that they were subdued and discreet, and I was very happy that I had earwax.

The movie shown on the plane (there was no choice of different ones at the time) was obviously designed to whet our appetites for Asia: a typical Hollywood product, A High Road to China. I was able to enjoy it and it passed the time, but there was no overlooking its basic racist ideology. A benevolent old white man organizes the liberation of the poor peasantry, who are shown to be not sufficiently intelligent to do it on their own.

I hoped to be free of such racism, of prejudices about “orientalism”. The first test was not long in waiting. When the plane was almost full in Frankfurt, it looked like there would be only one empty seat and that next to me. I looked forward to being able to stretch out when an oversized Asian man stumbled down the aisle and plopped down next to me. His huge, fat left arm immediately conquered the armrest; resistance was useless.

He immediately fell asleep, but stirred when a flight attendant walked by to mumble “whiskey!” He woke up when it was brought, swallowed it in one gulp and commanded before the flight attendant was gone “Another!” He was visibly perturbed when dinner was served and he wanted a whiskey instead. The flight attendant remained adamant and replied that whiskey would not be served again until after dinner.

He played with his food, drank a few glasses of red wine, and finally let out a great sigh of relief when brandy was served. It appeared to agree with the gentleman, because he regularly issued orders for “Brandy!” for the rest of the flight.

I was confident that all my prejudices were justified. The man wore an ostentatious gold watch and a ring the size of a goose egg (well, maybe a bit smaller). However, he later related that he was so tired because he had flown all the way from New York where he had attended a film conference. He was an actor from India, quite amiable and undoubtably well known. At a stop-over in Abu Dhabi guest workers from the Asian subcontinent recognized him and bashfully approached him to shake his hand.

 

On one hand, I suppose I could consider myself lucky to have taken this trip before the mass onslaught of tourist there today. On the other hand, it must have been even more interesting years before I went. I remember talking to a Dutch guy in India in 1976, and he said I was too late. Back in the 1950s, evenings were dark, there were no lights and no people on the streets. People were poorer, and it was still the India of the past, genuine India. If he had talked to someone who had visited one hundred years earlier, that person might have said the same.

Of course, we were not the first backpackers to stay in Khaosan Road, but the three or four shabby guesthouses in the street had plasterboard walls and communal bathrooms. If I had realized what it would look like a few years later, I certainly would have taken more pictures.

Khaosan Road area

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Its main attraction at that time was its location, being within walking distance of the King’s Palace, Wat Phra Kaew and Chao Phraya River, where you could catch a boat for traveling around the city.

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At temples in the city, monks in saffron-colored robes often wanted to practice their English with me. After a couple of minutes, the monks’ command of English was usually exhausted, and our conversations lagged. But they were extremely grateful if I made a slight correction of their speech.

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After visiting a couple of temples, I already had difficulty distinguishing the differences. I have to think of the American scholar Bill Porter, who has written about and translated many books from Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, etc. and knows a thousand stories about each site he visits, somehow not getting confused in the process. (Digression: my favorite anecdote of his is when he came across an old woman in the mountains of Yunnan who had never seen a foreigner or a man with a beard previously. She started to scream that she was not ready to die, because she thought Mr. Porter was a devil from the underworld who had come to take her there.)

We met an American/French couple with their newborn baby, who had been in Asia for several years, and they took us to a food market nearby where we fell in love with Thai cuisine. The Oyster omelets were especially good, but so was everything else.

Market during the day when not a lot was going on

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Oyster omelet chef

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The American was in Bangkok for the sixth or seventh time. He related that a mere four years previously, a man could not walk down the street without being accosted with offers of girls, boys, opium, heroin, hashish, etc. A typical teenage pimp would ask him: “You wanting girl?”

“No.”

“Boy?”

“No.”

The totally perplexed pimp would then ask, “What you wanting then?”

Our first destination was Sukhothai, the capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom, which was founded in 1238 and remained the capital for approx. 140 years. It has some impressive temples and ruins. We wanted to travel by train, but that would have meant arriving around 3 a.m., so we took a bus. It wasn’t that bad, and we got served drinks and there was a stop for a free meal. Of course, there was a television with a video of a Thai version of American bandstand. Hopeful-looking, fresh-faced Thai teenagers dressed in jeans watch a middle-age Thai crooner sing a Thai version of some inane pop hit. This was followed by Thai boxing, and I could only marvel that the boxers managed not to kill each other.

The modern town, thirteen kilometers east of the former capital, is a non-descript affair. Despite the fact that there were several hotels near the bus station, we managed to walk the wrong way and spend an unpleasant half-hour in the heat and sun searching. There seemed to be no other foreign tourists or Thais who spoke English.

After finally getting a room, it was too late to visit the ruins, so we meandered around the town and came upon a temple complex. We hesitated to enter, not sure whether strangers were welcome, since it was our first visit to Thailand and we were not familiar with the customs. However, we noticed that locals were buzzing through on bicycles and on foot and seemed to take no notice of the numerous monks, so we cautiously ventured onto the grounds. A large number of monks were involved in elaborate preparations: setting up a loud-speaker system, an elevated stage, a canopy, etc.

Most of the monks were quite young and giggled as we passed. Except for their shaved heads and orange robes, they could have been schoolboys anywhere. After we had looked around for a while, an older monk beckoned us over and bade us be seated. The young monks were instructed to bring us tea, and they gathered around us with a mixture of curiosity and shyness. The older monk was a teacher and explained that the boys came from families too poor to feed them. In addition to food, they received an education. When they grew up, most of them would leave the monastery and return to secular life. The preparations were for a conference on Buddhism that was to begin the next day.

He gave us a guided tour of the complex. There was a temple that had been destroyed by fire several years previously, which they were renovating. There was pond with enormous fish. I thought he said they were intended for the next day’s refreshment, but remembered that Buddhists are not allowed to kill, especially fish because they do not scream when attacked.

We were introduced to the head monk who immediately ordered more tea for us. We were no longer thirsty, but felt obliged to drink it. After some preliminary questions, the head monk asked: “What do you think of Thai Buddhism?”

I replied that I did not know much about it besides the fact that the Theravāda school is dominant there. He let out an ambiguous grunt and returned to his work. Perhaps he had thought that we had come for the conference the next day. Needless to say, I felt rather embarrassed at my ignorance and bemoaned the lost chance for an informative discussion.

The next morning, we rented bicycles to visit the old city of Sukhothai.

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The museum was closed one day each week, which was of course the day we were there. After looking at enough that everything began to look the same, we returned to check out at the hotel and caught a bus to Chiang Mai.

I sat in the garden of my hotel feeling content. The garden was lovely, the hotel luxurious, much more than what I am used to. When one is averse to work but fond of traveling, one learns to travel cheaply foregoing many of the amenities once thought indispensable. However, this hotel barely cost more than the cheapest guest houses, so that I did not consider staying anywhere else. Apparently, the majority of the backpackers, so-called alternative travelers, people who disdained the word “tourist” and considered themselves on another level as “travelers, thought otherwise, for I found myself in the midst of a quite different crowd: older people with shorter hair and thicker wallets. The only similarity was the mixture of nationalities.

I had been led to believe that it was cooler in Chiang Mai than Bangkok. It was certainly less hectic and the air did not stink as much, but the heat still forced me off the street for a couple of hours in the afternoon.

We took a ride out to a couple of nearby villages to see silk weaving and umbrella production. We were not able to find anyone working on looms at first, but there was an expensive air-conditioned stored filled with an US American tour group. The store was selling the same vest that I had bought for nine dollars for thirty-five – and there was no bargaining.

The Americans were buying as if these were the last articles to be had in all of Asia. The prices were cheap compared to the States, but extremely inflated for Thailand.

Not many years previous to when we first visited, it was considered dangerous to hike in the northwest corner of Thailand near the border of then Burma and Laos. It is the area of the infamous “Golden Triangle”, where much of the world’s opium came from at that time. Racketeers operated with private armies consisting of thousands of me in that hilly regions, easily able to withstand any attempts to crush them. And there was just too much money involved; a villager could cover his annual expenses with just a handful of opium, whereas he would need a ton of another agricultural product.

When the first tourist decided that the Golden Triangle would be a good place for hiking, visiting the hill tribes who live there and their opium plantations, the locals were not so understanding. Several tourists were killed and many were robbed. Still, the word was out that this was the place to go. Each person praised his or her experiences, but cautioned others to think twice before doing the same. Many who heard this were loath to be outdone, and soon the whole affair became a flourishing business. Most people went with guides to minimize the risks, but also because good maps were hard to come by and the cultures of the hill tribes are not easy to grasp. There are a number of different tribes in the area, each with its own language, customs, dress, etc.

The streets were line with tour book offices in Chiang Mai. Each claimed to offer the most original tour to the most non-touristic areas. We had been warned to expect less.  We booked out tour after talking to a few guides. They all pretty much said the same tings; from their years of experience with young Westerners, they know exactly how to come on and what to say to arouse trust. You realize that probably half of what they are saying is not true, but that is all part of the game. We arranged for a tour or only three days and two nights, since it was the beginning of the rainy season. Our guide said we would leave that next day and that he we were only five people. He claimed that he never takes more than seven.

We rushed to the train station to reserve a sleeper back to Bangkok after we would return and then went back to our hotel. There was already a letter from our guide telling us how sorry he was, but the other people in the group would not be able to make it the next day and that we would leave the day after. We wondered whether we were ever seen him or our money again.

The next money, a maid knocked on our door and woke me up to call me to the phone. It was the guide again begging for forgiveness, but everything was set for the next day.

He showed up a half hour late, and it turned out that we were nine foreigners, so much for the maximum of seven. There were two German couples, three French, Mechtild and myself as lone American. I enjoyed listening to the French and Germans speak English together, since none of them spoke the others’ language. The combination of accents of these two nationalities is a sheer delight. Due to the language and cultural differences, the two groups (except for Mechtild) soon only began talking among themselves in their native tongues. I began translating between them to try to keep everyone in the group on good terms, which was not the case by the end of the hike.

When we began our hike, we did not get the impression that we were entering some untamed wilderness, although the countryside was nice. We got out of the pickup truck that had taken us there while locals boarded another pickup there going down the same road we would hike on. No one paid much attention to us at the first village as we walked around snapping photos; they seemed used to it. Another group of tourists arrived as we were eating lunch.

Our guide explained to us that we were next going to do some real trekking with steep hills and river crossings. Okay, that is why we were there. Our guide cut us some bamboo sticks with which to balance ourselves in the especially slippery places.

Then we went up and down some little hills and waded through an inch-deep stream. It was all very pleasant, and we wondered when the real trek through the wilds would begin. However, we then noticed that it had already started for the Germans, who apparently had little experience hiking. They feared being swept away by the current in two-inch-deep water, and on a ten-foot climb over some rocks, I had to go back and hold their hands one by one until they reached the top. I felt flattered, the fearless leader of an expedition, but actually it was all a bit ridiculous. The Germans came from the north of their country, which is very flat, and had no experience whatsoever on hilly terrain.

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We arrived at the second village and noticed that the dirt road also reached there. I was glad in a way, because the local store sold beer, albeit warm. Another half-hour hike and we reach our destination for the night: a village full of thatched huts, free-running pigs and dogs, and a lot of mud. We were served the customary tea and then washed in a nearby stream. Our guide cooked and served us dinner, and then he held a long monologue about some of the tribe’s customs.

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Then we went into a back room of one hut and watch an old man smoke opium while our guide explained the different stages in this ritual. We were told that anyone who wished to partake simply had to lie down on the other side of the pipe, and the old man would prepare the opium for him at twenty-five cents a pipe. At least five pipes would be needed, but were cautioned against smoking more than fifteen. One Frenchman decided to try it, but it took two hours for him to smoke his fifteen pipes.

Our tourist smoker was terribly sick the next day. He immediately regurgitated his breakfast and had a pounding headache.

The walk the second day was very easy. We spent about three hours walking the whole day with frequent stops for the exhausted Germans and so that our porter could smoke some opium. We arrived at our destination in the early afternoon, sat around drinking tea and eating bananas and wondering what to do. In the evening, our guide again told us about the customs of this tribe (different from the one where we stayed the first night) and others in the area. In one there is monogamy, in another free sex before marriage; this one is polygamous, but only for men who are rich and afford several wives; another has polygamy, but only for men who are poor and need several wives to work for them. One tribe builds it houses on stilts, another on the ground.

Two of the Germans had a fever and were only too glad when our guide stopped his explanations early. The guide then asked if we had some medicine for him; he was also sick. The Germans lay down on the floor mats allotted to them and tried to go to sleep although it was only eight o’clock. We were not tired and were talking to the French when one of the Germans started screaming five minutes later. He cursed us for being impolite, that is talking while he was trying to sleep. We were too shocked to answer. We took the kerosene lamp and went outside, although the ground was too wet there to sit down. Unfortunately for the Germans, the adjoining room was inhabited by a family, our guide and porter, walls in thatched huts are very thin, and they smoked opium and talked late into the night.

The chickens, pigs and dogs woke us early the next morning.

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There was a certain tenseness in the group due to the events of the previous evening. Our guide had difficulty getting up, but finally served us a miserable breakfast of toast, butter (?), jam and tea. He asked whether it would be okay to but short our hike on the third day and go back early. The Germans were thrilled by the prospect, and the French were so disappointed in the whole affair that they did not care.

The guide acted very sick, and when we got back to Chiang Mai, he could no longer walk without my supporting him. I gave him some money for medicine and sent him home in a taxi.

I met the French on the train to Bangkok the next evening, and they had seen our guide that morning as healthy as ever. He was at the train station trying to talk some newly arrived tourists into going on a trek with him.

We stopped in Bangkok long enough to eat a sleezy breakfast and then boarded the next train south. The train passed through the mandatory slums with rickety hovels built on the edge of canals filled with garbage and feces. Then came the endless rice fields with their soothing hues of green.

We wanted to go to a place where mostly Thais go and not foreign tourists. Our guide book said that Hua Hin was the place at the time, although it has become more or less a retirement community for Europeans in the meantime. We anticipated bright sunshine, clean, white beaches and clear, warm water. It was raining when we arrived, but we were determined to see something off the tourist track. We booked a sleeper car for the next evening and then tried to decide on a hotel. The stationmaster said that the one we chose was one kilometer away, so we engaged a rickshaw to take us. In the pouring rain, he took us down a lade in bad need of repair. At a large pothole, my pack flew out into a deep puddle. Our driver found that quite amusing. The hotel we had chosen turned out to be only a couple of blocks away, but with prices much higher than we had expected. Laughing and for some more money, our driver took us to another hotel even nearer to the train station.

We were given a dingy room. Swarms of mosquitos fell upon us as if this were their first meal in months. At least the rain had stopped, so we walked down to the beach, passing stands where brightly colored, plastic kitsch was on sale for the Thai tourist. It reminded me of Seaside Heights, New Jersey, minus the rides, and you cannot get much worse than that.

The beach was okay, at least if you did not pay attention to the dogs using it as a toilet. The water was pleasant too, except for the Portuguese man-of-war that chased me out after a couple minutes.

Back in our hotel, we strung up our mosquito net and tried to make ourselves comfortable. Perhaps it was possible to change the train reservations to that same night. I put on my windbreaker and suffered a downpour to find out.

No, the sleepers were all booked for the night. I returned to the hotel, but then thought of how short the trip was and was back in the station to trade in our tickets for a regular seat. It would be a long night.

Our hotel owner was rather uneasy when we left without spending the night. We lost the money for the hotel, the rickshaw driver and a penalty with the train tickets were exchanged. But time was more important.

We wanted to travel second class because third class was just too full and did not want to stay awake all night worrying about thieves. There were only seats left in an air-conditioned car, and I got a stiff neck that was to bother me for days.

In Surithani, there were young Thais waiting for us when we got off the train. Each tried to convince us of the merits of the bungalows they worked for on the island of Ko Samui (actually, “Ko” means “island”, so I really wrote “the island of the island”: rather silly!). They guided us to a restaurant where other foreigners were waiting for the combination bus/ferry to the island. They had little maps of the island, which they passed around, with the locations of their bungalows. They also had snapshots of their huts and beaches.

Since it was not the high season, we decided to head for the nicest beach, which we thought would otherwise be overcrowded. On the ferry, the Cambodian manageress of one bungalow discussed with the Japanese owner of another one about the disadvantages of our choice within discreet hearing distance. They claimed that there were big, modern hotels being built there, thievery was rampant, prostitutes and junkies abounded. A small island next to Ko Samui, which years later became the big party beach for young Westerners, was run down as a cutthroat’s den with no services but inflated prices. We wondered whether we should not really go to a smaller, quieter and more secluded beach. We decided that we would do that after a day or two.

Chaweng Beach was nearly empty. The bungalows were begging for guests, and there were certainly not any high-rises. The new hotel, which the Cambodian woman warned us against, was an unimposing two-story affair that could not have had more than five or six rooms. A day passed before we even saw a prostitute, and we did not see any junkies at all.

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The supposed high-rise hotel can be seen on the right.

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Our bungalow costs $1.25 per day, and meals were between one and two dollars (fried rice for fifty cents). There were many young people from Europe on their summer vacation, and although many looked like they were a disreputable group of hirsute, lazy, disease-carrying drug addicts and hippies, there were actually doctors, lawyers, teachers, social workers, engineers and even a butcher and baker. Sometimes I think back fondly of the looks of most travelers of those days; modern marketing has since done its job, and most young people nowadays traveling actually look like doctors, lawyers, etc. on vacation. How times have changed! A couple of people were there for drugs and/or sex, but it was not the best place for that and they were in the minority.

We sat one evening in a restaurant with a Canadian couple. I had guessed that they were future executives, since they were a lot more well-groomed than most there. I was not very far amiss with my guess: he was dentist and she a physical therapist. They almost did not come there, because his wife had a difficult time convincing him to take a year off to travel after he finished his studies. He finally consented, but looked forward to returning, setting up a practice, starting a family, etc.

There were four Thai prostitutes with their European customers in the restaurant, and the Canadian woman was fascinated by them.

“Bu tell me,” she said somewhat animated,” are those woman …, are then, I mean those are their husbands, are there?”

We only smile.

“But are they really ..,” and since she was unable to pronounce the name of the profession, I did it for her.

“Prostitutes.”

“But everybody knows that,” she said excitedly.

We shook our heads affirmatively.

“And then they just come in here! Aren’t they ashamed to be seen?2

“Do you mean the men or the women?”

“Well ….,” she had to think hard, “both!”

“Why should they be ashamed?” her husband chided although he obviously had not more experience in the matter than her. “Nobody here knows them, and we’ll never see them again.”

“Yes, but …,” and in her astonishment, she did not know what to add. She actually felt that she was being naughty just by being in the same place as those men and women.

As I looked at the four prostitutes in the restaurant, I wondered what the men thought of their looks, which were not really the best. Then again, the men were not any prizes either! Three of the women looked rather unhappy, and the fourth looked stoned. She was a thin wisp of a woman whose hair seemed to be falling out. Her long dress was slit down both sides from her feet to her waist, exposing her underpants. She got up and went outside (it was an open-air restaurant), did a few twirls throwing her arms out and letting her dress swing. At least she felt good even if she did not look that happy either.

The customer of one of the other prostitutes was drunk beyond control, his eyes mere slits like those of a snake. She was being humiliated by this inebrious slob. She knew it, and her face showed it.

At another restaurant in Ko Samui (there were only three or four), there was an American wearing a baseball cap (the mandatory accoutrement of Americans for some strange reason) with an exhausted looking woman. He seemed bored and yelled at her in an aggressive drawl, “What’s your problem girl?!”

“Sleepy,” she replied without evening bothering to lift her head.

“You paying me?!” he retorted angrily. “I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with you girl. You’d better get your act together or get the fuck out of here!”

To my surprise, she got up and left.

Later, he rolled a joint and asked me if I wanted a hit. I turned down the offer saying that I did not indulge.

“I didn’t know anyone came to Ko Samui who didn’t smoke,” he replied astounded.

He had been in Malaysia before coming to Ko Samui. “Three months, three fucking months waiting for money that was sent to Singapore. I hated it! There were no fucking women!”

He had come to this part of the world in a sailboat with one friend. “Don’t like any more people along. As soon as you got three people, you start having intrigues.”

But now that one friend had fallen in love with a North American and spent all his time wither. The Hawaiian remained alone and restless. It seemed like he was always on the move, getting up and walking around, jumping on his rented motorbike for a quick jaunt around the island, or going out to his boat that was anchored not far from shore. All the other travelers greeted each other and sat together, exchanging stories, travel tips, and conversation. Only he sat alone.

However, he did get along well with the family that ran the restaurant and bungalows. At first, I thought it was because he had been a paying guest there for a couple of months. The family had two young boys, about 10 and 12 years old, who loved to be around him, although they mostly ignored the other tourists. They wore sunglasses, which made them look ridiculous, tried to ride motorcycles while their legs were too short for their feet to touch the ground, and in general tried to act cool. The Hawaiian took a liking to them, even though he did not want to show it. He spoke rough to them, saying things like, “You little shit, I’m gonna take you out back and beat the shit out of you.”

Then he would lift one of them up with one arm, holding him aloft and threatening to drop him. I saw them horsing around on the beach one afternoon, and they appeared to be a family, a father with his two sons.

I had exchanged a few words with him, not much more, but on my last morning on the island, he came by in his dinghy while I was swimming and said that if I had the chance, I could swim out to his boat. He was too timid ask me straight out to ride there with him. I didn’t really feel like it, but I sensed that it had only been at a great effort that he asked me and that repulsing his offer of some kind of friendship would have hurt him.

When I arrived, he was smoking dope and puttering around. He told me to take a look around the boat, and I saw the picture of a smiling, small boy in the cabin below, his son. When I came back up on deck, he was sanding the wood railings. With his head and eyes turned away, he began to tell me about himself.

He had grown up near a shipyard and had spent his whole life on or around boats. Boats were his living and his hobby. “Other people read,” he said, “but I have dyslexia, so I like to spend my free time working on my boat.”

He earned his living in Hawaii by chartering his boat. He had not had a real vacation in eight years, and nobody believed that he would really take off on a trip like this. But he surprised them all. “Left the old lady at home …,” he said, but he did not finish the sentence. He was quiet for a moment, and I wondered what he was thinking.

“Hawaii, that’s the place to be. Most beautiful place in the world. Place is booming now, you oughta go there. Any kind of business can succeed.”

I remarked that my Master’s degree in comparative literature really didn’t prepare me for the work world, but I’d think about it.

He was disappointed when I told him that we were leaving soon. I was a bit sad too, realizing that he had a good heart deep down inside, but he had difficulty expressing it and used aggressiveness to hide his feelings. We wished each other good luck, and I dove back into the water to swim to shore.

After having been on Ko Samui for several days, I discovered what so many of the travelers sauntered over to the cookie jar so often: the cookies were spiked! I decided to try one for old time’s sake. Besides, it seemed like a sin to pass up such an opportunity, they cost next to nothing, and it was a great place to relax and enjoy one.

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A couple of hours after consumption, I was holding on to the table for dear life. I was sure that if I let go, I would go crashing down onto the floor, which seemed to be a long distance away. I truthfully did not enjoy the sensation, although I was glad for the experience in retrospect.

The Canadian dentist also tried a cookie. He got so stoned that he refused to leave his bungalow and forewent dinner. However, there were other people there who ate four cookies, then smoked some dope, and drank Mekong whiskey on top of that.

Marijuana was available in the restaurants, and some even had it on the menu. The restaurant attached to our bungalow, called Munchies, had a big sign: “We serve magic mushrooms every day.” They were normally served in omelets.

I gradually came to realize that there was more going on with drugs than I had first know. It was all very low key- A staid-looking New Zealand couple in their mid-forties came into the restaurant with their two teenage daughters and ordered a round of mushroom omelets.

There was a sickly looking, skinny German. Other German had found him in Bangkok addicted to heroin, broke and already eight months in Thailand without a visa. They paid for his way to Ko Samui where he was able to kick his habit after two weeks, although they kept him supplied with lots of smoke and cookies to ease the pain. When they left, they took him back to Bangkok, planning to take him to the German consulate where they hoped to arranged a plane ticket and exit visa for him.

It was time to leave Ko Samui and Thailand. I would be back many times, each time a bit saddened by overdevelopment that was ruining the island until it got so bad that I can never go back.

We left Ko Samui in the early afternoon. We wanted to get to bed early that night, so that we could get up for the 3:30 a.m. train the next morning. We got a room at a sleazy hotel near the railroad station with plasterboard walls and went to bed at eight. Around 10 or 11 p.m., we were awakened by loud music. I went out into the hallway and asked the perpetrator through the wall if he could turn it down. The response: “Fuck you!”

Another traveler from the room adjoining the perpetrator’s emerged to express his displeasure with the racket. He banged loudly on the door and demanded quiet. Thereupon, a drunk Australian stumbled out swearing at us and acting generally aggressive.

“I want to listen to music and I’m going to!”

We reiterated our demand that he turn it down. A woman who was with him tried to calm him down and suggested, “That sounds reasonable; let’s turn it down.”

We stood glaring at each other inches apart, and I still do not understand how we did not come to blows. We were certainly sufficiently angry, and the Australian was sufficiently drunk. My fellow complainer was rather tall and muscular, and although I was the same height as the Australian, I was sober, so we had nothing to fear from a physical encounter. After several tense moments, the woman turned the music down and pulled her companion back into the room.

Early the next morning, we were pleased to note that the drunk was not to be awoken and was going to miss the train. Talking to my fellow complainer, he admitted also to being an Australian. He remarked that he was relieved that he had not hit the drunk the previous night, though he had been very close to it. “He was so drunk; he would have gone down like a sack of potatoes and maybe really have gotten hurt. I hate hitting people. I always feel lousy afterward. Besides, there’s nothing worse than trouble with the police in a foreign country.”

Later on the train, I met two women who had been in the same hotel. “Wasn’t that terrible last night! Did you hear those two guys yelling something about loud music? We didn’t hear any music, but their shouting woke us up. These two were really belligerent. Wish somebody would have told them to shut up.”

We had reservations for the train, but they turned out to be useless. Thirty to forty travelers scrambled for five or six seats, and we spent the early morning hours trying to sleep standing. At the last big city in Thailand, Haadyai, most of the Thais got off. Our car was then filled exclusively with travelers, which rather destroyed any illusion about being on an exotic journey.

2 thoughts on “Encounters with Strangers on the Road: Part I: Thailand

    1. Thanks! Yes, I have been there about 10 times, and each time there were a lot of changes, many of them rather saddening, but then I can’t blame the people for wanting to make money and have more opportunities in their lives. I wrote down the stories in this 3-part blog long ago, but there were originally 100 pages, which I have shortened to approx. 40.

      Liked by 1 person

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