Inner Space Thailand Part 5 : The Dive Shop
Pete and I eventually got our act together and opened that dive shop we’d talked about so often. Our timing couldn’t have been more perfect as the Asian economic crisis had just kicked in and there were hordes of tourists pouring into Thailand to take advantage of the blowout in the Baht. At the peak of the meltdown the Brits were getting around ninety Baht to their pound while the folks from the US were getting a healthy fifty five Baht to the dollar. The idea we’d thought of, the three dive daytrip, had panned out well and our boat was at maximum capacity nearly every day.
Pete’s previous army service provided an added bonus for us due to the fact that we were able to arrange regular groups, from the Australian army base in Malaysia, to undertake dive courses with us. It was part of their dedicated adventure training assignment during their four month posting. I was given the initial task of getting the ball rolling and travelled down to the base to give a whole platoon a general overview on what they would be doing during their dive training. Most of the group, apart from the Sergeants, was in their early twenties and it was the last night on the base before they were to head up to Phuket. The general overview took about thirty minutes to complete and then it was all and sundry down to the wet canteen. A couple of hours spent drinking with them and I got a pretty good idea of what to expect from the group when they arrived in Phuket; it was absolute mayhem. One of the troopers was celebrating his twenty first birthday and he eventually got to the point where he was standing on a bar stool, stripped down to his jocks and alternating between vomiting and drinking full pitchers of beer. There was long scar on his right shoulder and, after mentioning it to one of Corporals I was drinking with, was told he got it during the second battle of Brisbane.
“The second battle of Brisbane; when and what the hell was that?” I said.
“It happened a couple of years ago. A few us got into scrap with a bunch of Koreans on Anzac Day. It was in all the papers and on TV back in Australia” said the Corporal nodding his head.
“No shit. I didn’t hear about that. What happened?” I said.
“Well, being Anzac day, we’d had a few so we were in a fairly good mood to say the least. There were five of us walking, in dress uniform, through Brisbane’s CBD when we saw a couple of Asian guys. One of the boys made a racist remark, I guess, and the next thing we know there’s a horde of the buggers coming out from every nook and cranny; some of them armed with knives. Anyway, we just got stuck into them and laid about twenty of them out. Andy got a knife in the shoulder but he just kept punching on while the thing was still in there. Eventually, the cops and the channel 9 news team turned up. They were calling it a black day in the history of the Australian armed services, or some shit like that” he said taking a large gulp of his beer.
I nodded and thought what the hell have we got ourselves into here Pete?
The following morning, slightly worse for wear, I jumped on a plane back to Phuket to prepare Pete for the arrival of the group. He wasn’t surprised when I told him about the previous nights drink fest in the wet canteen. According to him, that was all fairly tame stuff compared to the stunt that a group of them pulled a couple years previously. After getting on the lash, over in Penang one night, they’d missed the last ferry back to the Malaysian mainland and, being a fairly resourceful lot, the decision was made to high jack one of the ferries and drive themselves’ back to the Butterworth side. They left it sitting high and dry on the beach and staggered back to the base. To say there was a shit storm, over the following days, was an understatement. The word was that various government officials, of Malaysia and Australia, got involved in sorting out the mess.
That evening, the soldiers began to arrive at our office. On the level above there were a number of rooms we’d rented out for them in advance. During the course of the first night in town, and aside from getting absolutely plastered (an Australian Army tradition), they managed to wreck three of the rooms. Keys were forgotten, or lost, and doors were kicked in by drunken young soldiers looking for a place to pound their bar fines. Two of the rooms had the hand basins ripped off the wall. For one room there was no real explanation forthcoming just a promise to pay for the damage. Pete told them to wait until the day they were checking out due to the fact that the damage bill would probably go up even more. In the other room the rumor was that the boys got a bit over active making an amateur porno film. Apparently four of them had a girl in there and, as one did the business with her, the others filmed it, drank beers and cheered him on. Somewhere along the way, the hand basin came off the wall.
One of the NCO’s was given the job of taking an oxy-viva set with him wherever he went. He was the dedicated first aid man and, as such, wasn’t going to be diving. Every time I saw him he had the oxy-viva set in one hand and a beer in the other. I eventually got around to asking what the story was with oxy-viva set. His reply left me gob smacked. Apparently some medic, back at the base, had recommended taking it just in case one of the boys got bent. I told him it would be better put to use trying to revive them from their hangovers each morning.
It has to be said though these Aussie soldiers were a fairly resilient lot. Day after day they’d turn up at the office suffering from hangovers and sleep deprivation – some getting by on just two hours a night – but, when the time came to get on with things, they were totally switched on. Due to their training and discipline they were probably the easiest bunch of people we ever had to train. Show them something once and they’ve got a handle on it. The problem with that though is that it can make people a little too confident at times. We started the initial training in a pool at a dive center just up the road from our shop. The pool was divided in two; a shallow and deep end. The deep end, at four meters, was actually deep enough to cause a lung expansion injury if people weren’t following proper training procedures. After being shown how to inflate and deflate their stabilization jackets (aka buoyancy control devices) the biggest guy, on the training session, decided to use some of his smaller buddies to test out the theory that a volume of air will expand as it rises into shallower water. He’d hold them on the bottom, fully inflate their stab jacket and then let them rocket to the surface. Luckily none of his mates held their breath on the way up.
Organising a large group, of at least thirty guys, was a bit of trial and error to begin with. By the fourth, and final, day of training we had a reasonably streamlined system in place which also included extricating drunken, hung-over soldiers from some dodgy situations. I’m fairly certain that, one morning, I walked into a hotel room in the middle of an attempted drugging. The young soldier in question was staggering around while a couple of really nasty looking young bargirls were, from what I could work out, beginning to rummage through his belongings. In my broken Thai I told them to take a hike otherwise I’d call the cops. They left in a hurry but not before giving me the usual hateful glare, which a lot of the hardened ones have, when they’ve been caught out. We managed to get the young soldier onto the dive boat and, after a couple of hours sleep, a few coffees and fifteen minutes breathing off the sergeants oxy-viva set, he was good to go diving; I knew that the oxy-viva set would come in handy at some point in time.
At the end of the training, there was a huge celebration. Most of the guys, of course, had made the Kangaroo Bar, on Soi Bangla, their second home. I had a few beers with them and then went home for some well earned rest after what had been a fairly interesting, but patience testing, four days. The following morning I was relaxing in the office, enjoying a quiet coffee and thinking the mayhem was over; little did I know. I’d just made my second coffee when a guy resembling something you’d see in a hospital ward walked through the door with one of the local constabulary. The afflicted persons head was black and blue and he had, from what I could make out, a busted nose. The afflicted then told me he’d been beaten up by a big Aussie soldier and that he wanted to know where he was. I smiled; it could only be our mate that was creating all the mayhem in the training pool a couple of days previously. In my best semblance of Thai, and thereby cutting the farang out of the equation, I told the cop that it was a dispute between two guys from the same country (the afflicted was an Iraqi that had settled in Australia) and then asked if there was anything the guy could really do about it. The cop smiled, told me no and that it was really just wasting his time. Secreting a couple of thousand baht in my hand, I stood up, shook his hand and thanked him for his time. I then told the battered one that the soldier, in question, had flown back to Malaysia earlier in the morning. I waid the cop. He smiled, waid me back and then walked out the door followed by a disgruntled looking farang.
Our shop was located on a fairly entertaining little soi just off second road in Patong. Directly across the road was one of those beauty shops but, it was a beauty shop with a difference; all of the clientele were katoeys (transsexuals). When we had the army groups in town it was a hell of a spectacle. The boys would sit along the concrete veranda enjoying a beer after the days training while, across the road, half a dozen katoeys would flashing their plastic titties about.
It was around about this time that we started to see the beginnings of the Russian invasion. Now a Russian bloke, we were to find out, is a hard core sort of dude. Especially the ones that were, at that time, turning up in Phuket. Most of them looked like they were ex KGB, or something similiar, and they had the large rolls of US Dollars stuffed in their pockets to back up their bravado. Pete and I were sitting around in the shop one afternoon, doing bugger all, when a dozen of these guys marched through the door to enquire about diving. Why they chose us I don’t know; we certainly had no signs anywhere in Russian.
“You have diving boat?” said one of the bigger chaps occupying our office.
“Yes” I replied
“Good. You take us diving. How much we pay?” he said trying to impress me as he dropped a large wedge of US one hundred dollar notes on the office desk.
Pete and I looked at each other and then thought better of it as the daytrip prices were plastered all around the place in Thai Baht.
“Depends what you want to do” I said.
“We just want to dive for one day” said my burly friend.
“We can do that but I’d recommend doing a pool training session on the day before you go out on the boat” I said as a matter of fact.
They all turned and got into a lengthy group discussion.
“Okay, we do swimming pool first. For diving in ocean we want spear gun for shooting fish” said our burly friend looking at me squarely.
Pete and I looked at each other as if to say “what the fuck have we got here”
“Hmmm, I don’t know if that’s a good idea. How about we provide you with cameras instead” I said trying to give them an alternative.
“We like spear gun” he said looking at me squarely again.
“The problem with spear guns, in a big group like this, is that someone may end up getting speared” I said trying to maintain my growing impatience.
“No problem, we have Russian Navy diver here” said the groups spokesman again.
“How many are Russian Navy diver?” I said.
“Two men” he said as if coming to attention.
“So the others are going diving for the first time?” I said.
“Yes” he said.
“Well, how about we do the pool training first and then we’ll see how things are going” I said trying to sideline the spear gun situation.
They turned for another group discussion in Russian.
“Okay, no problems. When we go to pool?” he enthusiastically.
“This afternoon if you want” I said
It was time for another group discussion.
“Okay, we pay now and come back in one hour” said the spokesman
After dropping a fairly large chunk of cash on the desk the group went off to eat and we started getting the dive kit together. There were some big boys amongst them, upwards of one hundred and twenty kilo’s, and they were going to need plenty of weight to keep them down. When we eventually got to the pool, it was complete mayhem. The two ex Russian Navy divers took it upon themselves to help us with training the rest of the group. When Pete and I politely pointed out that that’s not the way things were done they just swam around by themselves for a while and then, while we were distracted with a couple of the weaker ones in the group, they’d grab a some of the others and start showing them military diving drills. Their gung ho approach, combined with the language difficulties, turned it into one of the hardest training sessions we’d ever done. By the end, they were just all swimming around doing their own thing.
The following day we loaded them all onto our dive boat and made for one of the nearby islands; known for its’ easy diving conditions. After a fairly uneventful ninety minute run the vessel dropped anchor and moored up in a sheltered bay with six meters of depth below us. Pete and I then set about getting the group dressed in and prepared for the first dive. A couple of them had girths so big that we needed to join two weight belts together to go around them. After what seemed like an eternity of chaos we began getting them into the water. Pete went in first and began to guide them towards the buoy, and descent line, we’d placed a few meters astern of the dive boat. Because three of the buddy pairs were couples we made the decision to leave them at the tail of the group. I would descend first and wait on the bottom for the pairs to descend down to me while Pete would wait on the surface and come down with the couples at the rear of the group. It all seemed to be going fairly smoothly as the buddy pairs moved down the fixed line to take up a position in front of me. Eventually all of the groups, except the last pair, were kneeling on the bottom. As I looked up I could make out what appeared to be a high level of agitation in one of the remaining divers; the usual tell tale sign of treading water as the person, in a state of near panic, tried to elevate themselves higher in the water. Pete stuck his head under the water and signaled for me to come up. I motioned for him to take up my position, before I moved, due to the fact that I didn’t want any of these Spetznatz boys swimming off on their own. We swapped places and I moved up towards the thrashing pair of fins. I arrived at the surface to witness some interesting Russian domestic problem solving skills; the bloke had his bird by the scruff of the neck, with one hand, while madly alternating between threatening to punch her and gesticulating downwards with his other. We eventually got the dives done and it was fairly much a repeat of the pool training; they all just swam off doing their own thing with the underwater cameras we’d provided.
Our first six months in the business was fairly hectic. Between the near on full capacity dive boat each day, and the visiting army groups, Pete and I were flat out keeping up with it. We were putting in twelve hours on a daily basis and the fatigue of the diving activities, and the booze we were consuming each night, had us operating on our nerve ends. Sometimes we just said bugger it, we’re having the day off. The problem with this was that we’d normally go out on the lash and feel even worse the following day when we’d turn up to work again. Our normal routine was to begin around mid afternoon at the Expat Hotel, in Patong, and then we’d get shit faced over the next few hours. The Kangaroo Bar was normally the next stop on the schedule and, by around seven pm, we’d end up on Soi Crocodile to watch the Shenanigans of that completely insane place.
“Jesus mate, look at this bloody circus” said Pete as we surveyed the carnival like atmosphere going on around us.
“It’s the busiest soi on Bangla mate” I said taking a pull on my Heineken.
“For fucks sake there’s one over there with no underwear on who’s high kicking to show us what it’s had for breakfast” said Pete shaking his head in disbelief.
“Well, they are an acquired taste” I said laughing.
“You know what I reckon” said Pete with that look in his eye that told me he about to launch into one of his pissed up rounds of philosophy.
“What” I said expecting the worst.
“There’s a fair few blokes who end up with these things, that don’t know what they are but there’s also quite a few who do know and just don’t care” said Pete shaking his head again.
“Well one thing’s for sure” I said
“What’s that” said Pete.
“There’s got to be real demand for them because there’s so many of the buggers around” I said as a matter of fact.
“Well there’s one less as of yesterday” said Pete taking another pull on his beer.
“How’s that” I said looking at him questioningly
“Didn’t you hear?” he shot back at me.
“What” I said.
“That cute one with the huge plastic jugs – the one that was always eying you up – that hung out in the beauty shop, across from the office, died yesterday”
“No, I didn’t hear about that” I said neutrally.
“Apparently she/he went up to a hospital in Bangers to have a load of silicone put in the arse and died of blood poisoning” said Pete nodding his head.
“Nasty” I said nodding my head as well.
“Well at least that one had the closest resemblance to being bird that might be possible. I mean, by all appearances, physically it was a woman” said Pete.
“Well yeah she/he had the plastic alright but who knows what sate it was in downstairs?” I said.
“I know a bloke that shagged it and was told the plumbing was in order. Some of them though are just like a bloke in a dress. That crazy Swedish fucker, we’ve had doing the dive-master course, told me banged one up the chocolate starfish, bareback, the other night” said Pete shaking his head again.
“Gay” I said.
“That’s about the story of it I’m afraid. What the fuck happens to blokes that come over here to get into that kind of caper” said Pete.
“Buggered if I know mate, it’s a worry that’s for sure though” I said.
“Hey Mike, are you up for a beer?” said a distinctly cockney sounding voice.
I spun around to see Dave, one of the special effects team that I’d worked with three years earlier on the Van Damme movie, standing there grinning at me.
“For fucks sake it‘s the Essex boys. What brings you back into this neck of the woods?”
“We’ve just finished doing a shoot down in Malaysia and thought we’d pop up to Phuket to see our favorite dive instructor. We’ve got three days so it’s time to Party and do a bit of diving” said Dave.
“Fuck, I know what that means. The last time you guys were here I was a walking zombie. I suppose you’re going to go with the B52’s again between beers are you?”
“Absolutely me old china, there’s a tradition to maintain. You seemed to cope with it okay last time” said Dave smiling.
“Thank fuck for Jean Claudes oxygen” I said.
Dave gave me a bit of a blank look
“Well, I used a bit of his oxygen every now and again to help me recover” I said.
“Fuck me; that explains it then” said Dave.
“Explains what” I said questioningly.
“Why Jean Claude was always saying his oxygen bottle was only half full” said Dave laughing.
“Half full’s better than empty” I said.
We all laughed.
“Do you want to go across to the kangaroo Bar to kick things off?” said Dave enthusiastically.
“We’ve just come from there and we’re not exactly the flavor of the month at the moment” said Pete with a snigger.
“How come?” said Dave.
“One of the soldiers, from that last group we had here, hooked up with one of the barmaids there. She took him home to her room and he was that pissed that he couldn’t get up, when he needed a dump, so he just shat in her bed. She’s
well pissed off” said Pete nodding his head again.
We all burst out laughing.
“Fuck mate that is pretty fucking raw” said Dave.
“Why don’t we just hang out here, it’s the best entertainment on Bangla” I said.
“Everyone up for a round then” said Dave.
I waved over a waitress.
“The usual then is it Dave” I said.
“Too bloody right” said Dave.
“Right then, it’s a round of Heinekens and B52’s for everyone” I said as I looked at the waitress.
“So what were you up to in Malaysia mate” I said turning to Dave.
“Just the usual shit mate; shooting a movie with Sean Connery and Katherine Zeta Jones in it. A lot of it was filmed at the Petronas Towers. Had the sphincter going a little bit when we were doing the filming on the bridge between the two towers. Fucking long way down that is. What’s the go with this lot then” said Dave as he started checking things out.
“You mean these Katoeys” I said.
“Is that what they call them” said Dave.
“The go with this lot is that they’re available for hire if you feel so inclined. The word on the street is that they’ll give you the best blow job you’ll ever have. Not that I’ve ever tried it myself of course”
“No, no of course not”
“Yeah” I said.
“Yeah” said Dave.
“Apparently they’ll do it in the toilets over there for five hundred baht” I said nonchalantly.
“You don’t say. Hmmm, that’s fairly convenient” said Dave smiling and nodding his head.
“Anyway, cheers you lot” said Pete as he picked up his B52 shooter glass.
“Cheers” we said in unison.
“I think I need to go to the loo” said Dave.
“Is that a piss or a blow job then mate” I said laughing.
“Just a piss”
“When you get back we’ll finish our drinks and head up the road to Flash Ago-go” I said.
“Probably better” said Dave with a smirk.
After Dave arrived back from the toilet we finished off our drinks and made the short move up the road to Flash Ago-go. It was a small place up one flight of stairs and it had all the standard trappings of your average Thai go-go bar; elevated dance platform with ringing barstools, chrome poles, dimmed lighting and loud, ear assaulting music. The only state to be in, when you were in one of these places, was shit faced, or a three parts shit faced condition. We took our seats, ordered another round and stared up at the semi naked Isarn girls dancing around the chrome poles.
“Some of these birds look like a bit of alright mate. If you want one, what’s the routine?” said Dave.
“If you see one you like the look of, catch her eye and ask if she wants a drink. When she comes over to sit with you can then ask to pay her bar-fine” I said.
“Is it that simple’ said Dave with slightly naïve air of disbelief about him.
“Like shooting apples in a barrel mate” I said.
“Are any of them any good?” said Dave.
“As a shag?” I said.
“Yeah” said Dave looking at me more seriously
“Bit of a lottery there mate. Some are and some are just starfish. Ask Pete, he’s done a few of them in here” I said.
“Wow, he must be fairly popular then” said Dave looking at Pete in Admiration.
“No mate, quite the opposite in fact. None of the ones he’s shagged will go with him now because he’s seen as being a big butterfly” I said laughing.
“A what?” said Dave looking at me incredulously.
“Thai bar girl psychology at work” I said as our drinks arrived.
“Is there a psychology about fucking for money?” said Dave.
“It’s all about protecting the cash cow. If you want one take your time and select one that really appeals to you otherwise you just get stuck with the same one and the others will steer clear each time you come in here” I said as a matter of fact.
“How did Pete get away with it then?” said Dave raising his eye brows.
‘Pete’s a cagey operator. Comes from being in the military for all those years” I said.
“And?” said Dave.
“Well, if he shagged one, he’d find out when their day off was and then come in here and grab another while the other wasn’t about” I said.
“Cagey bastard” said Dave nodding his head in admiration.
“It was okay until they cottoned on to what he was up to” I said wryly.
“Hey Pete” said Dave.
“Yeah mate” answered Pete.
“A toast to the big butterfly then” said Dave.
“Mate I’ve graduated way up that scale” said Pete smiling.
“I’m now known as the Skylab” he said as we all raised our glasses.
“What about you Mike, did shag any of them in here?” said Dave.
“Yeah, just the one” I said soberly.
“Does she still work in here?”
“No, she’s back at my place with a two year old in tow” I said nodding my head.
“The fuck, no way” said Dave looking stunned.
“That’s what happens when you go shagging eighteen year old gogo dancers without a condom” I said downing the last of my beer.
“It is yours isn’t it” said Dave.
“Had the DNA test done and there’s no doubt” I said.
“Fuck mate, kudo’s to you for stepping up to the plate when a lot of others might have done a runner”
“Yeah, I can assure you that that enters my mind every now and again” I said thoughtfully.
“So how’s everything going with the dive shop and all” said Dave as a couple of Isarns finest sidled up next to us.
“You buy us drink?” said a pair of them looking at us with those sugary sweet smiles and lifeless, characterless eyes.
I looked at Dave.
“Yeah, why not?” he said nodding his head.
Number forty three grabbed the bin out of its holder and scurried off to the bar.
“I thought people could do well out of running a dive shop here in Phuket” said Dave.
“To be honest mate it’s a lot of hard work, and long hours, for a very average wage. I’m starting to feel burnt out to tell you the truth. There’s an old saying which is very apt for many farang in business here” I said.
“Yeah, what’s that” said Dave downing the dregs of his Heineken.
“How do you make a small fortune in Thailand” I said.
“You tell me” said Dave looking at me thoughtfully.
“Start with a large fortune” I said wryly.
“Fuck man, it can’t be that bad” he said laughing.
“The diving part of it is still enjoyable it’s just a lot of the other factors that have me sometimes wondering if all the effort is worth it” I said looking at my empty bottle.
“Other factors, such as?” said Dave as we ordered another beer.
“The fact that foreigners have got no real rights here. The constant niggling problems with the staff. Problems with the police and the ongoing visa and work permit merry go round” I said as our next round arrived.
Number forty three arrived back and began rubbing herself up against my crotch.
“Well this has certainly got to alleviate some of the stress” said Dave as his assigned entertainment service provider began doing the same.
I smiled and nodded.
“If you don’t keep your wits about you this can only add to the problem” I said downing the shooter that was sitting in front of me.
“How’s that” said Dave doing the same.
“It’s like pouring fuel on a bloody fire that’s why mate. When you’re here on a two week vacation you can immerse yourself in it and then get the hell out of dodge. When you live here though, you’re saturated in it all the time and you can begin to lose focus on what’s real and what’s not”
“I’m starting to get a hard on. That’s real enough” said Dave as his playful little friend kept rubbing her buttocks up and down his crotch.
“Nothing wrong with that mate as long as you see it for what it is” I said taking a pull on my beer.
“And what’s that?” said Dave grinning from ear to ear.
“She’s just doing her job” I said neutrally.
“Well she’s doing a bloody good job” he said laughing.
“No doubt” I said smiling.
“So are you saying that now that you’ve got a missus and a kid you’re able to resist all of this?” said Dave looking at me squarely in the eye.
“Not a chance mate. I gave up on the idea of monogamy, in this fair land, a long while back” I said shaking my head in resignation.
“Then why do you worry about it. Just enjoy for what it is” said Dave.
“I do mate but the longer you live here the more you start to understand that, if you’re not careful, you can get sucked into it big time. It can become your life’s focus” I said as a matter of fact.
“What can” said Dave looking at me questioningly again.
“Whoremongering mate. You can get to a point where that seems to be the only thing that’s going on in your life. Pete’s already starting to go that way now”
“You reckon?” said Dave looking across to where Pete was sitting with a couple of girls.
“Yeah, he’s been here three years and he’s now starting to talk about buying a bar” I said.
“That might not be the smartest idea” said Dave.
“Not if you want to stay healthy” I said.
“Yeah well most bar owners I know have generally got to socialize with the drinking clientele” said Dave.
“Pete was looking at a bar just down the road a few days ago but luckily he smelled a rat and pulled out of the deal before parting with any cash. The poor fucker that got sucked into it handed over a one million Baht as a deposit. The following day when he turned up to check out his investment the soi, where the bar was located, was boarded off from public access. When he finally got to check out what was behind the fence all he could see was a flattened area where his bar once stood. The whole area was being demolished and made ready for the construction of a new shopping mall” I said.
“Bloody Thais, you can’t trust them” said Dave unswervingly.
“It wasn’t anything to do with the Thais mate; it was a bunch of scumbag, fucking low life farang that ripped him off. Stay here for some time and you’ll come to understand that there’s a bunch of low life foreigners, who live
here, that are into all kinds of rip off scams. Boiler room boys are what they’re called” I said shaking my head.
“No shit” said Dave.
“Yeah, no shit” I said as our entertainment packages started pestering us for another drink.
“What’s the deal with the visas and work permits for you guys?” said Dave.
“No big issues really mate; our visas are good for six months. If we can’t be arsed going out of the country, when they expire, we just call up our old mate Somchai, at the immigration office on Beach Road, and, for a bit extra, he takes care of everything” I said as I nonchalantly fondled the breast of the girl that was backed up against me.
“Is that Kosher” said Dave with that seemingly naïve look on his face again.
“Mate if the price is right almost anything is Kosher over here. Money talks and bullshit walks” I said.
“Yeah right” said Dave.
“The thing is though that sometimes you get so fucking bored with a place like this that you’ve got to get out of town for a while and so, every now and again, Pete and I head down to Haad Yai to make a border run” I said taking another pull on my beer.
“A border run to Haad Yai. How does that work?” said Dave.
“Well, a six month visa is actually divided into a double entry which means you’ve got to get out after ninety days. Most of the time we don’t; we just use our old mate Somchai again and he takes care of everything. Occasionally though we just want to go and have some fun somewhere else and Haad Yai is the place that fits the bill” I said.
“Haad Yai, isn’t that somewhere down by the border” said Dave still hanging onto his entertainment package.
“Exactly mate. It used to work out very well for us as we could fly down from Phuket, pick up a taxi from the airport, on arrival, and go straight to the border to do our re-entry. It would normally take about three hours to get it sorted and then it was straight off to the Pink lady Hotel for a bit of well earned R & R” I said smiling.
“What’s so special about that place then”
“It’s a hotel with a soapy massage center inside”
“Does that kind of thing appeal to you?”
“It used to. It’s the sort of thing the Asian boys like though. Anyway, last year, Pete and I turned up there and they had these bloody Thai Penthouse Pets putting on a show, in their bikinis, in the lounge bar. We rocked up early, while they doing a bit of a rehearsal, and we asked them to have a couple of drinks with us before the main show kicked off. Well, one thing led to another and Pete and I made a deal to take them back to our hotel once they’d done their thing up on the stage” I said smiling.
“Fuck me, what sort of money did you have to fork out for that then” said Dave nodding his approval.
“A fucking big chunk I can tell you; we took two each. With the booze thrown in it cost us around fifty thousand baht for the night” I said.
“Was it worth it?” said Dave looking at me squarely.
“Just think about having a Thai penthouse pet sitting on your face. I’ll let your imagination work the rest out” I said taking another pull on my beer.
“Yeah, no shit” said Dave.
We continued drinking and shooting the shit into the night and, eventually, we bar fined the girls that were hanging off us. Dave took his back to his hotel and I took mine to a short time room to do the business. On the way home I started to consider how things stood for me after being in Thailand for six years. It had been a blast but it was also like being on a runaway train that you knew, one day, was going to either run off the rails or come to a sudden terminal impact. The fact was that with all the drinking I’d been doing, over the past couple of years, my health was beginning to deteriorate. The play hard, work hard lifestyle was beginning to catch up with me and I was really starting to feel burned out with the whole deal of living in Thailand. I was a believer in the Chinese philosophy of Yin and Yang, or the idea that life is supposed to be in balance. Push too far in one direction and, what you’re pushing into, will sneak up behind and bite you on the ass; for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. Hard as it may be sometimes, life has a way of teaching us lessons and testing our resolve against all kinds of adversity. What doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger; over the next few months I was about to go through the school of hard knocks.
It started out being a day much the same as any other day of diving I’d been on. By the end of it I would experience something which I most definitely wasn’t keen on repeating again. I had a single, high paying customer that wanted to dive the caves of Phi Phi Islands. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have bothered as the logistics for a single diver weren’t worth the effort involved. However, with the price not being an issue, we travelled out on the fast ferry and, on arrival, did a transfer into a long tail for the day of diving ahead of us. It had been another big night out and the hangover, combined with the inadequate sleep, had me feeling decidedly worse for wear. I was feeling like crap but I had a job to do and so just got on with it. The dives went smoothly enough but the first indications I had, that something wasn’t quite right, began to surface on the transfer back to Phuket; I started to notice a dull ache in my lower back and hamstring area. The experts in hyperbaric medicine would probably have had a field day pointing out all of the contributing factors to my bout of decompression illness; fatigue, dehydration, alcohol (previous night) and hard work before, during and after the dive. Whatever the case, I continued on thinking I’d just strained my back. It was a classic case of being in denial of my condition but by eight thirty that evening I knew I had the bends. I grabbed my phone and called Pete. The background music, when he answered, told me he was probably at the kangaroo Bar.
“Mate, I’m in a seriously shit state” I said.
“Why, what’s up?”
“I’m fairly certain that I’m bent”
“Holy shit. Are you sure?”
“You’d better get yourself down to the chamber then. It’s a good thing we pay that insurance every month” said Pete sounding a bit more concerned.
“Yeah, I’ll give Steve a call then mate. Are you down at the Kangaroo Bar?” I said wearily.
“Yeah mate but I’ll finish my beer and see you at the Chamber shortly”
“Cheers mate” I said as I hung up.
I was feeling dizzy and the pain in my lower back was really starting to hit me. I punched Steve’s number and checked the time. It was nearly 9 pm; almost seven hours since I’d felt the first twinges come on.
“Steve here” said a garrulous voice with a blast of background music behind it.
“Mate, it’s Mike. I think I’m bent. In fact I’m certain I’ve got a CNS hit” I said.
“Crikey, what symptoms are you feeling” he said sounding a bit more serious.
After a couple of minutes spent describing my condition the decision was made to call the Hyperbaric Doctor immediately and meet at the recompression facility in Patong. Thirty minutes later I was being assessed by the Doctor and, after some perfunctory paperwork, I entered the recompression chamber for a five hour hyperbaric treatment. Most people have little knowledge of what’s involved in hyperbaric treatment. It’s definitely not something that anyone would go into willingly or for fun. The patient is pressurized to a depth of eighteen meters, inside the chamber, and then required to breathe one hundred percent oxygen, for periods of up to twenty five minutes, from a mask covering the mouth and nose. This will continue for nearly five hours and, as the patient is slowly brought back to surface pressure, he will carry on alternating between the twenty five minute oxygen periods and five minute air breaks. The third part of the treatment involves drinking plenty of water during the air breaks. The inside of the chamber, while under pressure, is generally high in humidity and that, combined with the long periods of having the oxygen mask on the face, makes for a fairly sweat ridden five hours.
I had two more follow up treatments over the next four days. The problem for me was that I had been the classic case of being in denial of my condition. The most successful outcome, for anyone getting the bends, is to begin treatment within the first couple of hours of recognizing symptoms. The longer it’s left the less chance there is of a quick resolution of the problem. I had what was called residual damage and, even though the bubbles had been eliminated from by tissues, I was still feeling a certain amount of numbness, in major joint areas, due to peripheral nerve damage.
I was advised, by the Hyperbaric Doctor, not to dive for a month. For someone who’d spent the past couple years diving nearly every day, it was a fairly tough call. I was used to lots of physical activity and it became a bit of a patience test to just rest up for a while without doing anything. I spent quite a bit of time considering my personal situation and came to the overwhelming conclusion that I was just marking time staying in the situation I was currently in; earning a barely adequate income while trying to support a Thai lady and my child. To make matters worse, shortly after I’d got bent, Pete decided to buy a bar/restaurant and his focus was increasingly moving away from the dive business.
After four weeks of staying out of the water I decided to resume diving again. Most of the residual symptoms I’d been feeling had gone and I eased myself back into it with a couple of easy dives on nitrox. The problem was that I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with what I was doing. Six years earlier I’d be working in an industry that paid ten times more than the income I was currently making. I was losing interest rapidly in the idea of working as a scuba instructor. Compounding my disillusioned state of mind was the very real fact that I had to take on a greater work load as Pete’s priorities moved to the bar he’d purchased. The bottom line was that I wanted to sell up and move on. I knew that Pete didn’t have the cash reserves to buy out my half of the business so I just gritted my teeth and got on with things while waiting for the right opportunity to present itself.
As time marched on towards the beginning of the new millennium the Phuket that I remembered so fondly, when I first stumbled upon the place nearly seven years previously, was changing dramatically. Progress and commercialism are relentless; the beachside areas of Patong and Karon, once idyllic bays, were undergoing some serious development. Somewhere along the way (about the late nineties) there was an idea being floated around that Phuket was going to be the elitist model for the rest of Thailand to aspire to; the next international playground for the wealthy of Asia. Things were changing, beauracracy was getting tougher and, unfortunately, I was about to become a statistic of it.
I walked into my office one afternoon to find my Thai secretary entertaining three very polite and educated Thai ladies from the local tax office. She was sitting there having a friendly conversation with them and explaining, while at the same time showing them, folders of income sheets for the past two to three months. What is it we often hear about about “Thai Rak Thai” before farang. With the very odd exception, I’ve actually seen nothing in the past seventen years, which will convince me otherwise. The game was up; we’d been using a local accountant to submit tax statements which were well under our real incomings. The ladies from the tax office smiled, and politely mentioned that they’d be in touch within three months, as they disappeared out the door with my income sheets. In hindsight, and that’s a wonderful thing in Thailand, I should’ve been more security conscious. Those files should’ve been under lock and key. Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve. There was nothing I could do but wait. My twenty one year old secretary was unaware of the enormity of the situation. I couldn’t really blame her; she’d been hoodwinked by some very smooth operators.
Exactly three months later, the same three smiling, polite ladies were back at my office, and it wasn’t good news they were bringing. I was asked to sign a document which was completely written in Thai. I refused, stating that I wanted an English translation. The three smiling ladies quickly lost their smiles and became aggressive. I stood my ground and asked them if they would sign a document they couldn’t read. This seemed to be a concept that they had trouble understanding. There was a stalemate, a potential loss of face. I said that I’d send my driver into the tax office to pick up an English translation when they had one ready. The smiles returned and the ladies’ said they’d be in touch.
The following week we received a phone call from one of the smiling, friendly ladies at the tax office. A document had been prepared in English, please come to pick it up. My driver returned with a one sheet piece of paper in an envelope and I was expecting the worst. When I opened the envelope, there it was, an estimate for back taxes of 650k Baht. I felt sick. That amount, in real world terms, isn’t a lot of money. In Thailand however, if you’re only paying yourself forty thousand baht a month, it equates to a kick in the guts. The driver then informed me he had been told that it could be paid off over a couple of years but there was nothing official on paper telling me that. Something wasn’t right, of that I was sure. I had a fairly good idea that someone at the tax office had just plucked a figure out of the air. Tread warily; everything in Thailand is up for negotiation. I needed to find out who was in charge at the Phuket tax office.
A few days later, following a couple of phone calls by my secretary, a meeting had been arranged with the head of the Phuket tax office. In the interests of good communication and deference to a Thai male in a position of authority, I decided to go there myself. I was ushered into an office and sat down facing one of those pasty, white skinned, Thai government bureaucrats. Dressed in a white safari suit and sporting row upon row of service ribbons – the type that only comes with military service in the west – his pudgy little fingers were adorned with a myriad of gold rings. Despite my best efforts to be polite, and after less than fifteen minutes into the meeting, the head of the tax department had turned stoned faced. He handed me a scrap of paper, with the figure of 650k baht written on it, and I was also told that the sum had to be paid within 6 months. I travelled back to the dive shop convinced that the only way out of the quagmire was to sell the business and I told Pete as much when I got back there. To my surprise, he’d been considering the same idea and even said that he wanted to return Australia. Selling up was the only viable option.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did.
A few days later, Pete boarded a flight to Singapore: he was going on a visa run. A few hours after flying out from Phuket, he calls me in a bit of a distressed state. He’s been apprehended at Changi Airport, by Singaporean Immigration, and is being detained, and questioned, by Thai Consular officials. It turns out that the both of us have had a block put on our movements out of Thailand. In typical Thai organizational ability, Pete managed to clear immigration in Phuket but was stopped at Singapore, after Thai immigration realized their slip up, and a message was relayed to Singaporean Immigration authorities ahead of his arrival. After spending five hours being questioned, in an office at Changi Airport, he was refused entry to Singapore and put on a flight back to Thailand. This is not something out of the STASSI or KGB files, it actually happened.
He eventually made it back to Phuket. The following morning I had my secretary ring the Phuket tax office. She spoke with the head man and once again, the message conveyed was cause for concern. Pete and I had been officially grounded in Thailand. If we tried to leave we would be apprehended at Immigration. However, if we both paid a bond of 25k baht, we were free leave Thailand. It was absurd, we owed the tax office, in their estimation, 650k baht, but if we paid our head man 50k baht, we were allowed to go. You didn’t have to be Einstein to work out what was going on here; our friend at the tax office was hedging his bets. In the worse case scenario he got 50k baht. In the best case scenario, he got 50k baht plus a cut of the 650k Either way, we were never going to see that 50k baht again. The thing that made it even more obvious about what was going on was that, when we went to pay, it had to be in cash; a bank cheque was unacceptable.
We were heading into the low season, money would be tight and there was absolutely no way we could pay off what we owed to the tax office in six months. The only option we had was to sell the business; finding a buyer at the wrong time of the year would be a tough assignment for us. Hope springs eternal though and from out of nowhere came an offer to buy us out.
As luck would have it the owner of the dive center that we used for our pool training somehow heard of our predicament and came to our rescue. After a couple of meetings the terms of the buyout were established and we agreed on a price. It took nearly four months to finalize the deal but, in the end, I was able to clear my debt with the tax office and get on with my life. Part of the deal with the buyout was that I would continue on as an employee of the new owner. Unfortunately I had no intention of remaining in Phuket and had my sights firmly set on going back to working offshore. Once the deal was finalized, and the money was in our accounts, I put the wheels in motion for my imminent departure. The girlfriend and the child were put on a bus and sent back to the village to live in the house I’d just recently finished building.
It was the new millennium in Phuket and things were changing – not necessarily for the better – in a rapid way. There were more dive shops around than ever. Although the size of the pie wasn’t getting any bigger, the size of the slices was getting smaller. The heady days of the Asian monetary crisis were over and the exchange rate, on the baht, had dropped. Diving instructors were earning less and beauracracy was starting to tighten its grip. Over a period of two weeks, twenty or so instructors were rounded up, at the shallow water port in Ao Chalong, and taken to the local police lockup. Some had work permits and some didn’t. It didn’t matter; the cost to be bailed out was 50k baht per person. The rumor was that an appearance in court would result in a fine of 50k baht. The bail money was taken in exchange for cancellation of the court appearance. The new Tourist Police Chief had taken his sign on bonus within the first month of his appointment.
Phuket had lost its’ gloss for me and it was time to go. The year 2000 ended my involvement in the recreational diving industry. I relocated to Pattaya, did some oil industry based courses in Australia and went to work offshore. Pete sold his share in the bar and went back to Australia. The last I heard he was doing well in car sales.
If life’s a learning curve, then I’d certainly learnt a lot during the three years, or so, that I’d been in business in Phuket. I’d also learnt a bit about the downside of being a foreigner in the LOS. Thailand is a great place to live, of that there’s no doubt but as a foreigner you always need to be mindful of your position in this country. Essentially, as a farang, you’ve got no rights. A farang can’t vote, a farang can’t own land, and a farang can only have a forty nine percent shareholding in a business. We, more often than not, have to pay more than the local rate for entry into any kind of recreation or entertainment facility. I don’t mind, I just accept it as the price I have to pay for choosing to live in Thailand. However, and there’s always a however in the LOS, I’d never consider entering into a business again in this country we have a love/hate relationship with. From a personal standpoint, I just think the emotional and physical output, in running a business in the LOS, far exceeds what you get in return. When people ask me if entering into business, in the LOS, is a good idea, I always tell them tread warily.
It was the beginning of the new millennium and the beginning of a new direction for my life in Thailand. I was cashed up and ready to get down and dirty in the fleshpots of Pattaya and Bangkok.
That's a very nice series indeed!