The first time I went to Thailand as an adult, I did all the things a single male traveler is supposed to do there. For three months I hung out in bars, I hung out in brothels, I smoked a lot of Cambodian weed…
Well, I guess that’s all I did.
Or almost all. I did one other thing on that trip. I went on a trek in the Golden Triangle. A Dutch tourist in a bar, or maybe it was in a brothel, told me about it. “You ride elephants into the mountains, and you get to smoke opium with the hill tribes. It’s transcendental, yah.”
I had smoked opium occasionally when I was a college student and had enjoyed it, and I was always looking for transcendental experiences, yah. So I booked a bus ticket to Chiang Mai. I left on a Thursday morning and arrived on a Saturday evening, a hundred years later. Going from Phuket to Chiang Mai by bus is transcendental, yah. The Dutch guy didn’t warn me about that part.
On arrival in the walled city I found a little tour agency that advertised in its window elephant treks into the Golden Triangle. A tiny over-air-conditioned office on the ground floor of a shop house, one wall covered with hand-written signs describing the various services available, with all the usual comical misspellings, and lots of snapshots of happy tourists riding on elephants and posing with quaint long-necked hill tribe folk.
The other wall was plastered with Xeroxed fliers, and each flier had a photo of a smiling young European man or woman, usually sporting carefully cultivated dreadlocks. They all looked happy, just like the tourists on the other wall, but under their photos were sad messages along the lines of: “Have you seen Jeurgen Dingleman? Disappeared in the Golden Triangle. Reward for information,” or, “Becky Ingersoll, call your family, we’re worried.” Some of the fliers had been on the sad wall for years.
I booked the tour anyway. I figured that since I wore no dreadlocks I would be safe. The tour I selected from the happy wall included a bus ride to a small town on the border with Laos called Fang, two days of elephant trekking up into the mountains, a night in a hill tribe village, where I assumed it would get transcendental, yah, and then a two-day voyage by bamboo raft down a river to Chiang Rai, where a bus would bring us back to Chiang Mai.
The next morning I met the same group of tourists that go on every tour anywhere in the world: the cheerful Canadian nurse travelling alone, the rich semi-retired middle-aged couple from Seattle, the Chinese man who speaks no English and always looks embarrassed for some reason, and the dreadlocked European teenagers who speak a language that sounds like Tolkein’s elvish.
Our bus trip to Fang seemed only slightly shorter than the trip from Phuket to Chiang Mai had been, and we were all exhausted and hot and sweaty and surly when we reached the hamlet of Fang: about a dozen shabby buildings that looked like warehouses along a riverbank lined with half-sunken small boats. We got there just before dark, and were deposited in front of a two-story unpainted cinderblock structure on a mud street. There was a metal door and closed wooden shutters on the ground floor windows. There was no sign out front; it could have been a garage or a slaughterhouse for all we could tell. The bus driver either spoke no English or hated our guts or both, so there was no information coming from that quarter. He put us off the bus, threw our bags into the mud and slip-slided his way back down the muddy road.
The cinderblock building turned out to be what they called a guesthouse in Fang in those days, and a man inside introduced himself as the caretaker. He was a tiny, hard, obviously Chinese man who grinned at us like the wolf grinned at Little Red Riding Hood. He introduced himself as Mr. Chen and took our passports and some money in the room that I suppose must be called a lobby, only for lack of a better word since it had nothing to indicate hospitality was part of its raison d’être. Mr. Chen gave us keys for our rooms. Again I use a word which only marginally describes the thing being described, as our rooms were tiny cubicles almost completely filled by hard platforms that resembled beds the way a lump of coal resembles a marshmallow. No pillows, no sheets, no fans, no air conditioning, no closet or chair or desk or private bathroom. Most oddly, no windows. Just a cube of unpainted plywood with a door and a wooden bench.
My room looked like the drunk tank in a county jail in Nebraska.
After we all got settled into the packing crates that would be our resting places for the night we came back down to the lobby where our host bade us sit in plastic garden chairs while he passed out potato chips in tiny cellophane bags labeled in Chinese. He gave each of us a bottle of water with the solemnity used by the Dean of Harvard to deliver Ph.D. diplomas. He pointed out old faded photographs in crumbling gilt frames, the only decor on the walls, photos of dour Chinese men in the uniform of Chiang Kai-Shek’s doomed Kuomintang army. These were Mr. Chen’s forebears, whose units were too far south to flee to Formosa and had to hike south into Laos and Thailand instead. Finally he winked and told us he could sell us opium if we wished.
The seven of us looked at each other, looked around the bare and unsettling room we were in, and without discussion we all decided we’d rather not. Mr. Chen was disappointed; I got the feeling that selling tourists transcendental experiences, yah, generated a substantial portion of his income. We all drifted upstairs to our rooms and I assume we all stripped naked and supinated ourselves spread-eagled on our slabs, trying to expose as much skin as possible to whatever breeze might exist inside a coffin. At least that’s what I did.
Some time in the middle of a night filled with dreams of suffocation I awoke with an urgent need to urinate. I was slick with sweat and tingling with heat rash. I pulled a sarong across my hips and went down the hallway to the communal bathroom. I took the opportunity to splash some tepid water over myself, which was pretty refreshing. I felt better until I got back to my door and realized that I had neglected to bring along the key to my sweat lodge. I was locked out of my room.
I knew that all the upstairs rooms were occupied by tourists, and downstairs there was only the lobby and a tiny excuse for a kitchen. I had seen a small cinderblock shed next to the guesthouse when we arrived and I decided this must be where Mr. Chen slept. I went downstairs and found the front door of the building locked. I went through the kitchen and found a door that led to the back of the building. I had no flashlight but there was a good sized moon so I picked my barefoot way through the mud and weeds to the shed.
It too had a heavy metal door. No windows, but the cinderblocks along the roofline were pierced to let in air. I knocked politely, softly, apologetically, on the metal door, squinching my toes in the mud and thinking about ringworm. My knuckles made almost no sound at all. I was very conscious of the fact that I was standing barefoot in a muddy yard in the Golden Triangle in the middle of the night with nothing on but a sarong. I imagined a flier on an office wall in Chiang Mai: “Have you seen Steve Rosse? Please contact the delinquent student loan office at the University of Iowa.”
I knocked a little louder, hard enough to hurt my knuckles, but still made no more sound. I called out, “Mr. Chen? Mr. Chen, I’m sorry, but I’ve locked myself out. Hello? Mr. Chen?” No response from inside the shed. Probably Mr. Chen had an opium habit and was chasing the dragon. I know I would have a righteous drug habit if I lived in a dump like Fang. I heard dogs barking, fairly closely, and I panicked.
I picked up a rock and banged on the metal door with it. I shouted, “Mr. Chen! Wake up! I’m locked out!” The dogs were definitely barking much closer now. I shouted louder and louder and banged harder and harder with my rock.
The door flew open, and I had a tiny fraction of a second of relief at my rescue, but only until I noticed that there was a pistol pointed at my face. A tiny .22 caliber revolver, the kind of gun a leprechaun might carry, but a real gun, hammer back, rounds in the cylinder. The barrel was an inch from the bridge of my nose. Apparently Mr. Chen had heard of the violent reputation of the Golden Triangle, and he slept with a gun in his bedroom. He was shouting something at me, which I took to be “Whatthefuckyouwant!” in some Chinese dialect. I threw my hands up in the air, high over my head, and tried to explain myself. Of course, with my hands raised, by belly became flat and my sarong, weighted by the water of my recent shower, fell to the ground. I figured I was probably better off when it was just me and the dogs out there.
Mr. Chen finally recognized me, placed the gun on some shelf to the right of the door, and asked me “Hey, Mistah Sah-teef, why you naked?” Gosh, didn’t we both just have a good laugh about the whole thing.
So the next day my fellow tourists and I rode our elephants up into the mountains. We spent a night with a hill tribe and smoked something that looked a lot like caramel sauce. An old lady reclined on a mat in a dank hut with a long stone pipe and a wad of viscous brown goo on a banana leaf. Each time she pinched off a ball of goo and loaded up the pipe she plucked a kernel from a cob of dried maize on the mat. When you’d had enough transcendence, yah, you took the kernels outside and paid a teenager in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt. I paid for six kernels and was stone cold sober. The most interesting part of the experience was the pipe: it was carved from a single piece of jet black stone with tiny little faces all expressing agony. I asked her if I could buy it from her as a souvenir and she shrugged and sold it to me.
I was disappointed that I had traveled so far and risked a .22 caliber bullet between the eyes only to smoke what was probably ice cream topping. There was an old man tending the village fire pit and I sat down next to him. Everybody else in the village eventually went to sleep. I was wide awake despite all the dessert confection I had inhaled. I asked the old man if he could find me some ganja. I gave him fifty baht and he walked off into the dark forest. Half an hour went by and I was certain he’d robbed me. Just as I was going to go to my hut he returned carrying over his skinny shoulder a seven-foot-tall marijuana plant, still with a ball of wet soil around its roots. He stood it up on that ball by the fire like a hippie Christmas tree and began to pick buds. He and I sat by the fire all night and smoked the shit out of that plant, making joints from buds wrapped in leaves. The shit was hard to keep burning but it got us wicked high. At some time in the night I promised him that if I ever had a son I would name the child after him. I was dead serious. In the morning when we left on our elephants he was throwing the pot tree into the fire pit with the rest of the previous day’s garbage. Sold on the streets of New York in dime bags, the way I was usually buying my pot back then, the plant would have had a value of thousands of dollars. As our elephants waddled off into the woods we were surrounded by a blue cloud of sweet hemp smoke that we could still smell a mile from the village.
The raft trip down the river was notable only for a blessed lack of mosquitoes out on the water. I threw my return bus ticket into a canal in Chiang Mai and went back to Phuket by plane, where I happily spent the next two months in the bars and brothels.
On the day I left for New York I had an epiphany while talking to a monk in a temple. I decided I wanted to spend the rest of my life in Thailand. But on the 24-hour plane ride home I had too much time to think about things, about how much I loved New York City and my career in the film industry. When we touched down at JFK I had decided my idea of living in Thailand had been just a pipe dream.
I was thinking about having Chinese take-out food and watching porn on my VCR for the first time in three months when that intricately carved stone opium pipe clattered out of my luggage onto the stainless steel table in the arrivals hall. It had been in the bottom of my bag for two months and I had completely forgotten about it. I was as shocked to see it on the shiny metal table top as the officer was. He held it to his nose and said, “Well, this is enough to hold you on, son.”
Before I left Phuket I had cleaned the stems and seeds out of an ounce of Cambodian weed, packed it into three condoms, stuffed the condoms into an empty white plastic bottle that once held contact lens cleansing solution, filled the bottle with tap water, and considered myself a clever boy. The officer began to go through my bag item by item. He tried to pull the heels off my elephant hide sandals. He checked the seams of my single pair of Levis. He opened the two dozen little black plastic canisters that held the rolls of film I’d shot on my trip. He finally got to my toiletries kit. He brought a waste basket up onto the metal table and emptied my toothpaste tube into it. He emptied my shaving cream into it. He took the plastic bottle that was pretending to be full of contact lens solution and held it up beside his ear, shook it twice, listened to the water slosh around, and then placed it on the table with the stuff he’d already examined.
I looked into his eyes. He was not wearing glasses; I guessed he was wearing contact lenses. He must know how expensive contact lens supplies are, and he’s doing me a favor, I thought. He continued to go through my stuff, the plastic bag of sea shells, the battered Lonely Planet Guide to Thailand, and The Book of Puka-Puka, which I had read twice on the trip, once for each Puka. When he had run his fingers and eyes over everything he gestured for me to accompany two enormous NYPD cops into a small room off the arrivals hall.
One of those officers pulled on a rubber glove, lubricated his index finger, and told me to drop my shorts and boxers and lean over a desk. I did as I was told. I had my elbows on the desk and my nose to the wall and I prayed. I told God, “Dear God, if you keep this cop’s finger out of my ass, I promise I’ll go back to Thailand and study Buddhism.”
And just like that the cop snapped off the glove and said, “Pull your pants back up. You can go.”
I turned around, my shorts still covering my feet instead of my crotch, in a scene oddly reminiscent of my moment in the mud with Mr. Chen, and said, “What? You’re not going to probe me?”
“No,” said the cop. “We don’t have to.”
I should have pulled up my pants and run like a rabbit, but I was not being the brightest traveler in JFK airport that night. Still naked from the waist down I said, “Why not?”
The cop looked at his colleague and grinned. “Because you have a hairy asshole. If you’d shoved anything up there, some hairs would be stuck up your ass. But all your hairs are pointing out. Now get out of here.”
I went through the door still pulling up my pants. The officer at the stainless steel table told me he would keep the opium pipe and warned me to be moderate in my habits. I considered telling him that the pipe had only caramel sauce residue, but for once I wisely kept my mouth shut. As I was packing up my stuff, trying not to let my hands shake when I repacked the contact lens solution bottle, the customs officer asked me fairly kinky questions about the brothel scene in Thailand. I walked out into a frigid February Long Island midnight dressed in shorts, flip-flops and a T-shirt. I had only four dollars in my pocket, my credit cards were maxed out, so I had to take the local R train all the way to my apartment at Broadway and 200th street, 10 blocks at a time. It was a 90-minute trip in an unheated subway train with roving bands of gang-bangers, psychotics and the random homeless. On that train ride I made my plans to leave New York forever and spend the rest of my life on Phuket.
I had finally had my transcendental experience, yah, and it came with my elbows on a desk and my pants around my ankles.
Better late than never.
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