In 1989 I lived in Phuket on a small side soi off Wiset Road not far from the Seashell Museum and only a few hundred meters from Rawai Beach. Adventurer-writer Tristan Jones would soon move into the house that became his last home a bit further up on top of the gentle Rawai Hill. It was here I first met John & Hansueli. Ours was a quiet soi with just 3 houses then. Hansueli who knew the building’s developer, Khun Mayouli, had been the first to buy one in the name of his then fiancée in late 1988. Only 38 years old, he had run a small motorbike shop back home and with the proceeds of the sale intended to establish himself in the south of Thailand. He planned to study for a local captain’s license and go into tourism. But first he bought the newly built house. It cost just a bit less than a million baht. Immediately he proceeded to “Europeanize” it by installing a kitchen, washing machine & many other modern amenities. John, his good friend, was impressed by the result and after some persuading decided to buy one of the other two houses available for his girlfriend, On. The gesture was mostly directed to gain or secure the loyalty of said girlfriend as he was in competition with a German guy also courting the same lady. John was an early retiree at 43 living on a moderate disability pension and his savings. He lived modestly, if not frugal at times. When I settled in Phuket in early 1989 I was smitten to find two compatriots living in the remote little soi. Almost on an impulse I decided to buy the third house available by then at just over 1 million. At 46, I was the oldest of the three and my own ambitions were in the tourism trade that I described in another submission.
Thus was the beginning of our Thai journeys! John had already been in Phuket for several months renting a bungalow in Patong. Hansueli & me were newcomers. More houses where soon to be built and the little side soi eventually got very busy but for a short time back then it was called the “Swiss Guys Soi” by neighbours & friends. Once a week or so we met on Rawai Beach in the shade of the Casuarina trees at the nearby Salaloy seafood restaurant. We ate Pad Thai, KhaoPad seafood, Guai Tiaw & other cheap rice or noodle based dishes. Between the three of us we consumed a bottle of Saeng-Som diluted with Coke & ice. When the evening came to an end it was only a short way home for all of us. John inevitably produced his small pocket calculator to check if the waitress’s bill was correct. A few times it ended in arguments when the addition was a few baht out. But life was good. Hansueli had teamed up with an Italian guy & started to build a house in Patong with the intention to rent out. He was a busy guy by then and had gotten married to his girlfriend. She was a good cook and sometimes invited us to sample her specialty dishes, consumed sitting in their garden and invariably preparing food in the original outside Thai kitchen leaving the modern Swiss-style kitchen appliances spotless. Soon Hansueli was to become a father. A few months later another guy joined our small group; René. Back home he had been a tile setter (Fliessenleger) but had done well enough to take a year out travelling around the world. Or so he had planned. René fitted our age bracket and stayed in Hansueli’s house for a while but later rented his own lodgings nearby. To no-one’s surprise he cut the around the world tour short and decided to stay in Phuket for the year. René was a somewhat boisterous “I know it all” type. He drank heavily and occasionally had to be taken home on one of our motorbikes being too drunk to drive. I didn’t like René very much then and didn’t think he fitted in with us. Nevertheless, I continued to join the meetings at the Salaloy. By then these had become much more infrequent. Hansueli & me being occupied making a living, John and René often to be seen until late at night or the early morning hours drinking on John's porch that was directly across from my own house.
Early in 1991 Hansueli's daughter celebrated her first birthday. I did not attend the party at his house but later, in the early morning hours, we heard a loud commotion taking place in front of our own house on the soi. The next morning John came to inform me that Hansueli was taken to hospital with heart trouble. Only a few hours later he informed me that he had not survived. Much discussion ensued as to why a young man only 40 years old would die of a coronary heart attack and all wondered if more appropriate or competent treatment could have saved him. The answer came a few days later when his parents & family arrived. In a personal conversation with his father I’d learned that he had had a heart condition since an early age and should have stuck to a more reasonable & sensible diet and lifestyle. A few days later a Thai funeral took place at a nearby temple. Monks chanting and Thai & Farang people paying their last respects. Pom, his wife, broke down completely and René carried her back to be taken care of by some of her own family members. It was a somber day.
John’s girlfriend had left him for the German guy and had in fact moved to Germany. Prior to her departure he had had the good sense to make her sign a leasing contract that guarantied him a 25-year usufruct on the house. René, always an unsettled and restless type of guy, decided to move to South America. He went to live several years in Brazil, Panama & Guatemala. By the end of the millennium however he was back in Phuket. It would be my turn to get in to trouble…
After living for nearly 10 years with the same girlfriend I was stung by what the French call le démon de midi. I having a kik or mia noi understandably did not fit into my girlfriend’s perception of a happy relationship. She started to exhibit increasingly violent behavior toward me and sought advice at the wrong places. On the guidance of her mor doo she sprinkled an unidentifiable and smelly powder on my keyboards and supposedly holy water in to the PC monitors rendering them unusable. It was the final straw. I knew it was time to go. For this and various other reasons, some as much my fault as hers, we decided to separate. Unfortunately that didn’t proceed as smoothly as I had hoped. I had purchased the house originally in her name so the only way out for me was to leave. Office installations, dossiers, telephone lines etc. were all installed on the premises. Thai staff worked out of the same house. So when the relationship burst I had but a day or two to leave when her family & others started to make angry noises. Consulting friends & acquaintances searching for new premises, it turned out to be René, the guy I never particularly liked, who came forward to offer “shelter” at his house. It was a rental off the nearby Sai Yuan Road appropriately named Soi Nanachaat for the mostly Farang residents. René helped moving furniture & materials. TOT was helpful reinstalling telephone wiring within a few days. It was far from an ideal arrangement but the best I could get on such short notice. My sister moved to Phuket for an extended holiday and I was eventually able to settle in again.
René had retained his hard drinking habit after returning from South America but started to have difficulties eating, especially when chewing on tough food. A consultation at the local hospital revealed he had picked up a tropical infection in Panama and he was given antibiotics that should heal the condition. He started to make plans with a German friend to travel back to Europe on the German's boat. It needed repairing and I was happy to lend René the requested sum for his share of 60,000 baht, thinking it was a worthwhile investment for the generous and friendly gesture of helping me out when I was in need. When the time arrived for him to leave I drove him down to Satun. We checked in at the one decent hotel available at the time for a rather quiet evening together. Something unlike and unusual for René. It was a pensive mood he was in, perhaps reminiscing on the chapter of life that was coming to an end. The next morning however he was in a fine spirits and happily took the ferry to Langkawi where his friend’s ship was moored.
A few years into the new millennium I met René again on one of our promotional events in Switzerland. He had settled in his hometown near Zürich and again bonded with the girlfriend he’d left when on his travels. René had lost weight and part of his tongue had been surgically removed making speech & food intake somewhat difficult. But he had retained his upbeat personality and announced his forthcoming journey to Phuket with the girlfriend. He made sure I would reserve one of our Suzuki Caribbean rentals for the visit. But the visit never came. Instead 8 months later I got his early morning call, (late night in Switzerland) telling me that he had transferred the money he owed to my CHF account. He then went on into a never-ending drivel of jokes ending the hour-long call reminiscing all the good times we’d had together in Phuket. It was his way of saying goodbye.
About a month later his brother Dagobert called telling me René had died. According to him he had contracted a severe form of cancer of the esophagus and had known for some time that he only had weeks to live. The last days of his life he’d spent mostly on telephones calling his friends and family but never mentioning death. René had died penniless but had left no debt. I already knew that. I fished out an old Dionne Warwick CD “… in good times, in bad times, That’s What Friends Are For…” which fitted the mood I was in early that morning! Later my staff arrived and another day began.
In 2004 the year the Tsunami would hit later in the year I handed over my company to a younger guy and retired. I stayed on a few more years in Phuket but by 2008 the former “pearl of the south” had become a tourist ghetto, and it was time to move on for me. I settled in a small town about 130 km from Krabi and remain there today. Once or twice a year I take the long drive back to what was home for almost 20 years. Always in early January a meeting takes place, we call it “l’amicale du Tsunami”, a group of Swiss people on their yearly holidays that had generously contributed in the relief efforts after the tragedy struck along the seaboard in Kao Lak, Naamkhem, Takuapa.
Naturally I always checked on my old friend John when on the island. Still in the same house but now on a noisy soi and not happy about it. Even the formerly tranquil Sai Yuan Road, lacking tarmac and deserted on my first Phuket journey in 1988, had become a busy commercial and residential settlement. John had a new girlfriend. I was completely surprised when he told me he had bought a small bar for her to exploit down on Rawai Beach. Totally against his wishes, he said, but apparently necessary to keep her in line as he put it. The year-long heavy drinking had taken a severe toll on his health and I suspect it was the only way to have someone present to look after him should his health deteriorate further.
I have this theory of people growing old. Often times they turn in to a kind of enlarged version of themselves or of what they were in their younger years. That’s what happened to John. When his avaricious ways were often funny and we could laugh about, now his stinginess had become an obsession. Every baht had to be accounted for and put down in writing. Kilometers run in his car by the girlfriend were checked daily and approved or not approved. He did have a telephone line and an old but now unused fax machine. He would have nothing to do or hear of computers, internet connection or a smartphone. On one of my recent visits I observed a stack of old newspapers dating back to 1988. They were still at the same old place in a corner of the living room but now totally yellowed over.
When I visited last year I knew immediately that something was amiss. A Thai man answered my call. He’s not here, I was told. Further questions and after a telephone call I was shown inside. A sort of wall shrine with his picture, flowers & Buddha amulets hung in one of the rooms. John had had a fall one night on his head and was hurt badly, losing lots of blood, I was informed. He was found dead early the next morning by the girlfriend after she returned from work at her bar. It happened several months back. Such was the information I received.