Saturday, December 29, 2007

Smokey Joe's Cafe (aka My Little Town

It's about 5.30pm on any night and I'm camped at and sipping whatever on a faux marble and stone bench and cramped table outside the mom and (no pop in sight) corner store next to my rooming house. The sun is plunging quickly on the radioactive green foothills outside Hua Hin; a temporary tapestry of (I'm color blind, don't trust me on this lyrical, colorful description) yellows, oranges, blues, azure, turquoise that bleed together as night also sets in making my heart bleed for a moment. I can hear the waves crashing on the stone jetties a block just to the east. The store's owner, a 30ish but looks younger woman who kinda reminds me of a younger Thai Miss Kitty from the ancient TV western Gunsmoke, keeps the customers satisfied. Watch her walk. A snake shake that won't let go and snappy advice if you need it.

Beers, pop, chips, squid, sugar, salt, sardines, halibut, energy drinks (ramped-up Thai versions of Red Bull) the occasional women's-only product, water, general juju, advice etc. all overseen by her mother in law - a hulking elderly and stoic soul - flow faster than the sun is setting.

Outside the guy I call "Che Guevera Barbcue" is setting up shop with his portable barbcue stand (a 150 cc Suzuki motorbike welded to a charcoal burning pit and meat rack - Thailand may be the only place in the world where you can get hit and killed by a diner while crossing the road) in his black and white muscle shirt.

Though tonight it's not Che on chest display, but 1992 era Guns and Roses. Che Barbecue is in excellent shape for someone aged late 30s in tight, always-pressed faded blue jeans and an array of well-fitting wife beater t-shirts - all black and white advertising sorta, kinda mostly hip at some time or another - rock, pop and cultural icons.

School's letting out and the kids are crowding in now. I'm suddenly back in Boulder, Colorado after a day at Uni Hill Elementary grubbing like a savage for Almond Joys and pop, Snickers perhaps too, and a glimpse at Playboy at the Country Store just a few blocks down from Mrs Pollard's 6th grade classroom. No Playboys here, but candy, pop and conversation - more than any clerk at the Country Store was ever able or willing to make (and who can blame them?) - at Hua Hin's Corner Store.

Some kids arrive on scooters, others in BMWs and some in lesser SUVs. And a few on foot or bike. Miss Kitty serves them all quickly and fairly, and I am happy to see she ignores the BMW asswad who has parked outside honking incessantly for car delivery although she is quick on the run for the local cop also who wants energy drink takeaway and make-it-fast. All politics is local and her mother in law keeps a running commentary to keep her and the customer bigwigws in line and satisfied.

For a brief moment I'm content and at peace in my little town.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Empty Glass
Thailand - self proclaimed "Land of Smiles" (and military coups)- has made it hard recently to quaff a cocktail. Last weekend was "early voting" for Thai citizens unable to trek back to their home villages to vote (voting is mandatory here) for the main polls on Dec 23. While bars and liquor stores are traditionally closed on election day in many areas of the United States, Thailand took the concept further and banned alcohol completely beginning from 6pm Friday through Sunday.

It's the height of tourist season and the prohibition was announced with less than a week's notice. I was at a Bangkok restaurant with a former colleague on Friday afternoon discussing the keen wisdom and foresight it takes for a country which relies so heavily on the tourist trade to ensure that no inebriated foreigners would vote or otherwise sully what I am sure will be a fair and completely transparent election process. In fact, one of my Thai coworkers had already told me that she thought the amount of money she and her family have been strongly urged to accept to vote for a particular party was "very fair" and would not dissuade her from voting for that group.

Normally packed farang haunts such as Soi Cowboy were shuttered. Of course, Thai bar owners and employees - of which Bangkok alone has perhaps hundreds of thousands - also suffer from the ban having effectively been given two weekends off without pay.

Oh, wait. Of course, resident foreigners can't vote in Thailand. They can own property, but not the land on which it rests. They can open a Thai savings account but not a checking account and cannot obtain a loan or credit card from a Thai bank. They also have the privilege of paying, say, as much as 400 baht (US$13) to enter a national park/forest while their Thai companions - or spouses - might fork over a mere 40 baht ($1.30) or less.

"So..." my Canadian companion-with-a-Thai-wife sighed as we chugged the last of our Singhas at 5.58pm under the worried scrutiny of a harried waitress and watched a European group of tourists express dismay and disgust that they could not have wine with their dinner - "Why couldn't the government, say, just ban alcohol for Thais during voting? If they can discriminate against me at a national park, why can't they discriminate for me on an election weekend? And make some money in the process?"

Meanwhile, one of the vino-deprived Europeans was shouting, "What eeezee theeze? We are in Mormon-Bush USA? Not I think Thailand?"

We Norte Americanos laughed darkly. And my Canadian buddy had a Plan B, short of a foreign-generated counter-coup to dislodge the prohibition-minded generals. Thailand, of course, is erratic when it comes to enforcement and we made our way to a less traveled, older bar and restaurant area where we found one small pub open in which the half dozen or so foreigners were sipping furtively from large brown ceramic coffee mugs - the kind last served up by wise-cracking waitresses named "Flo" or "Lois" in mythic diners along Route 66.

"We'll have two of your 'special' coffees," he told the bar tender, no Flo, but a young Thai woman named "Tai" - "one high octaine Singha and a Jack black 'java' on ice for my friend." We sipped from the mugs and watched an older black American singer and keyboard player perform some vintage R&B standards. He was nursing a cold as well as his own "coffee" but managed to put down some wonderful renditions, including a credible version of all the voices - from tenor to bass - for the Temptations' Papa was a Rolling Stone.

I asked him if he took requests. "Sure," he said. "If I've got it." He patted his computer where he'd downloaded his backing tracks.

"How about some more Temps?" I asked. "Maybe Ball of Confusion and dedicate it to the Thai election commission?" He laughed and raised his coffee mug to me.

"You got it."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

See Emily Play

It's almost mid-December and it was only a few days ago when I saw a Christmas tree in a golf course promotion store and a bar girls wearing little red and white Santa caps with flashing LED lights that I realized Christmas was fast approaching. Unlike China - where Christmas is not celebrated but is becoming a sort of secularized cultural mishmash - it's hard to pick up any sense of the season in Hua Hin.

I have yet to hear a carol or pop holiday song, unlike Shenzhen where even in my virtually all-Chinese neighborhoods it wasn't uncommon to hear the maddeningly repeated strains of the barking dogs Jingle Bells,, Little Drummer Boy and - yes, even Mamacita, donde esta Santa Claus blaring in grocery stores. Actually, it's kind of nice, though I confess I'll be eventually breaking out a couple Christmas compilations sent to me while in SZ.

The press to buy presents, I don't miss - still waking up with nighsweats from 15 years ago, circa Dec 23, 1992 with no idea how I'll be able to find a specific model Michaelangelo Mutant Teenage Ninja Turtle for my son ... It was like planning guerrilla warfare conferring with other harried parents: "I've heard the Thornton Wal-Mart is expecting a shipment at 2.15 am..." "Or maybe it's the Castle Rock Toys R Us at 5.37 am?..." No. Please. Stop. No more.

Which had me musing this weekend while sipping a (hard to find) ginger ail on a street corner and watching two Thai boys in spiffy Spiderman wear. Ages 5 and 7 or so, I imagine and apparently the sons or grandsons of a clutch of motorcycle taxi drivers who were lazing away the day also between occasional fares.

The strains of a vaguely familiar song courtesy of a small, amateur makeshift marching band came down the street leading to the beach. No, not a holiday song but one of the most strained renditions of Girl from Ipanema I've ever heard drew everyone's attention. Behind the band fetching young Thai women were distributing real estate development leaflets and cheap paper fans to anyone within grasp and the taxi drivers took a bunch, stared uncomprehendingly at the English print before tossing the leaflets and keeping the fans.

The boys, however, were entranced by the leaflets. The smaller one sat on a curb and paged through it - pointing to homes he'll probably never own and babbling to his older brother and taxi drivers who nodded. The older one began rolling his into a cone to make a trumpet and telescope, alternately shouting through it and peering. Then it wa a sword to attack his younger brother who went from browsing for beach front property to defending himself. Their play went on for close to an hour. Perfectly happy with a couple pieces of colorful paper that bent for whatever fantasy they had.

After one "shot" me, I slumped and died in my chair before reviving and gently reaching for it. A paper airplane was one thing they couldn't make and mine was no beauty but they called for a second. Air wars and test flights followed. Would that a Ninja Turtle or TMX Elmo or Transformers Movie Leader Megatron. provide that much fun for so long for any American child ... Which gave me an idea.

I lunged at the tykes growling and swearing, tore up their papers and laughed. "HA!" I screamed as they and their taxi village protectors looked on in shock. "You're too damn imaginative you little soi urchins!" I dug into my pocket and threw a wad of baht at them - "Go!" I screamed. "TAKE THIS and get thee an X-Box 360 Platinum System and a FurReal Friends Squawkers Mcaw Parrot or a WowWee Robotics RoboPanda!
- if you can find any!...Haahahahah..."

Merry holidaze from Hua Hin.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


Born to be Mild

I was dropping off my laundry across the street from where I'm living now - and having some quiet fun watching the owner's small dog making friendly play with her other pet, a kitten - when I heard the familiar sound of Harley rolling thunder behind me. Turning around I was facing two scruffy Thai bikers - members of the Ratchaburi Dragon Jars according to the colors on their leather vests - clutching bags of dirty laundry. Even bikers need clean skivvies, I thought, as they waied polite greetings to the laundress and rumbled away.

I'd forgotten that Hua Hin is hosting a biker fest ("Hua HIn Bike Week 2007") this weekend, kind of a mini-Sturgis minus the wet T-shirt contests and mayhem, but as Saturday night approached more and more largely Thai chopper clubs were clogging bars and streets with their chrome horses. Nagas, Bangbung Riders, Fly Turtle, Black Burapa, Flying Skulls, Jesters, Jikko, Black Devils, Little Devils, Devil Dragons, Dragon Way, Prachuap Riders - a gathering of the Thai chopper tribes. Harleys, I discovered after talking to a Thai member of Chopper Ubon while watching a band do the worst version of Born to Be Wild (no guitar sound, only bass, drums and strained vocals) I'd ever heard, were scarce in Thailand until the '90s. Biker clubs were virtually unknown. Originally most choppers had come in from Singapore and ridden by foreign oil workers up north, "Crazy Dog" told me, until the first Harley dealership opened in Bangkok in 1995.

"It doesn't matter who you are where you are what your job is, you're all equal when you get on your bikes," another biker, a Finn who called himself "Mingo" told me while sucking on a 32 ounce Singha as the band began to happily massacre Metallica's Enter Sandman. "Harleys aren't exactly built for the roads in Thailand so it gets interesting, you know...It a machine we all love. It's a very strange kind of machine, you don't want to abandon it - it is clumsy, loud and very heavy. And the ladies love it."

Just how sedate this whole scene really is pretty much summed up on Schedule of Events.

3.15 - 5pm: Motorcycle safety parade with headlights and helmets.
5.15-6.15pm: Games. (As noted before, did not apparently include wet T-shirt contests, tequila shot contests or urinating on newbie club members. Maybe a heady round of Pin the Tail on the Rice Burner Suzuki?)
8.15-9.15pm: Grand Opening. Provide scholarships for students in need.
9.30-12pm: Music Show.
Midnight: Sing the "Sun Sern Phra Ba Ra Me" song to show respect for the king.

Get your motors running...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Shakedown Street

While staggering back to my new digs like a herniated pack mule with my backpack full of groceries, a couple of Thai cops with their motorcycles parked in front of a gated residence were eying me. I'd seen them before irregularly and assumed they were basically neighborhood beat cops and had done my best to ignore them. My history with authority in any form is, er, well, checkered to say the least, and with police? Well, let's just say I don't wanna talk about it.

Longtime farang residents here had also told me tales of being shaken down by cops for infractions they otherwise didn't know existed - like failure to be in physical possession of a passport - so I smiled tightly at them, nodded and kept trudging.

"Hello! Hello! Where you go?"

Oh shit, I thought. My passport is in my bedroom...

"Hello, officer! Sawadee krup! (Elaborate wai on my part, the backpack's weight forcing me to an even lower level of obsequious, lick spittledom than usual when confronted with armed authorities). I go Soi 51."

"Soi 51? Why you go Soi 51?"

"I live there. My home."

"You live Soi 51?"

"Yes. No holiday. I work Hua Hin. I work Soi 39." I reached slowly for my wallet to show my Official Thai Foreign Correspondent Card, but held it back for a moment waiting for the next question.

"Where you come before?"

"USA, America." No response. Blank stares. Unlike China, I've found the United States' rep in Hua Hin mostly varies from neutral to virtual ignorance. (I've seen several maps in Hua Hin where Thailand is depicted at the largest country in the world, with China, Africa, Europe and North and South America reduced in scale to the equivalent of Texas at best. Geo-nationalism at its finest!) So I went to the Place of Origin Plan B answer, one all Hua Hin Thais seem to know.

"Hong Kong. China." Ohhh, Hong Kong! China! Yes, yes! Very good!

"My mother China," said one cop, beaming. "You have Thai lady?"

"No, I live myself. No lady. No Thai lady. Have lady in China."

Good Cop with Chinese Mother beamed.

"Good, good! China lady good, very beautiful! Thai lady too much yak-yak-yak! Too much, 'Where money? Give money yak-yak-yak-yak, money, money. No money, no honey!' You know?"

I laughed, and thought: Paging Dr Freud, but said, "Yeah, sure. I know. I know, no money, no honey yak-yak. Yes, China lady number one!"

Then Bad Cop with No Chinese Mother asked, "You have passport?" I paused for a beat. Or beating.

"Uh, yes. Yes. But in apartment, Soi 51. Not here. But, but.. I have this with me." I paused and pulled out my Super Dooper Magic Secret Decoder Thai Press Credential. I'd heard these things were gold when it came to dealing with Thai authorities, but wasn't banking on it. They both scrutinized it carefully, passing it back and forth and exchanging comments in Thai.

"You write stories? Make news?"

I didn't bother to say, No, I actually copy edit mostly tedious, poorly written reports and academic tomes by people whose native language isn't English for a website whose readers seem to be largely hysterical Indians, Pakistanis, foreign policy wonks of all nationalities, and extreme left-wing Americans who are still mourning Ralph Nader's failed presidential bids ... and just said, "Yes."

For the first time they looked at me with some modicum of almost-respect. Shit, I thought, this card really WORKS. Maybe there is a Santa Claus, too.

"You write good stories, okay? No bad Thailand stories?"

"Oh, no, no! Only good Thailand story! Good Thailand POLICE stories!" They both laughed and Good Cop with a Chinese Mother Oedipus Complex and Lousy Marriage to a Thai Wife handed me my ID back.

"Bye, bye," he said. "Remember, 'no money, no honey yak-yak'!" He laughed again.

I chuckled, shook their hands, waied goodbye for good measure and kept walking, just grateful that they hadn't asked for any money or honey

Sunday, November 18, 2007

C-c-changes

Astute readers (all three of you) noted I'd recently posted a blog entry ('Dark End of the Street') about the unexpected death of a British guy I'd come to know and enjoy here in Hua Hin, only to see it gone when you next checked in - probably hoping for some lighter fare.

For those who didn't ask but wondered (all 1.3 of you) it was a slapdash memorial of sorts to someone who'd all too briefly touched my otherwise fairly uninspired life in this seedy little piece of Thai paradise and my regret and sorrow that he was suddenly gone. It unintentionally touched a nerve, however, among some first-time - and I'm sure by now last-time - readers, who included some relatives in the UK offended at the description of how he died. It wasn't pretty but it was honest, and honesty was one attribute I really enjoyed when it came to him.

What was I thinking?

Here's one of the comments: I'm really close friends with his daughter and i agree with what she said. You ARE a sick fucker and i think you should remove this post. I didn't know him personally but I Know for sure that he didn't deserve some faggot like you to speak about him in this way. fucking remove this or you'll definitely be reported.

Most others were in that same civil, restrained and understated British vein. Though, once I realized I'd hurt some hearts I had no desire to injure, this comment - just due to the basic polite tone - had me hitting the "save to draft" button for the entry immediately. I could relate and understand. And at least he didn't call me a sick fucker, he only had an momentary urge to stomp me on the sidewalk.

X's brother says he would appreciate it if you would remove this posting. Show some respect not just to X but to the rest of his family. The way i feel about you at the moment for posting this at this traumatic time is as though i have just trod in you on the payment.

Thus I was keeping a low profile at one of X's wake's last night, one of about three that have gone one in various bars since his Buddhist-style funeral and cremation. Kind of an extended after-life pub crawl that culminated in a generally bittersweet send-off amid beers, memories, songs that the deceased enjoyed and an amazing culinary spread provided gratis by the only foreigner in Thailand who owns a private butcher and meat catering operation.

I talked with X's wife for awhile about how they met and his amazement that he'd found a Thai woman who appreciated Aretha Franklin as well as Stone Roses, and tried to fend off the pressure of a party-crasher, another Brit who upon learning that me and a coworker were both journalists tried to tell us that we should write a story about a short boat voyage he was planning. It was thoroughly unremarkable, though he was convinced otherwise, mostly I think, because he was a participant.

My coworker, an experienced sailor here as well as other climes, politely played the salty mariner card to no avail.

"It is a story," the party crasher insisted. "It is 'cuz I'm telling you it's one!"

"It's not a NEWS story," we said. "Sorry."

"It is!" he replied. "And, and...(pause for dramatic effect) we're sending a tape to the BBC!"

"Go ahead. Good luck with the Beeb," I said. "But. Not. A. Story."

I left the wake and my next opportunity for a Pulitzer after saying goodbye again to X's widow and a couple of his friends who had seen the blog but hadn't taken offense, and caught a motorbike taxi back to my new neighborhood, a studio apartment with an "ocean view".

Goodbye to former felonious psychobilly roommate R and Faulty Towers, yes.

The ocean view is a small levy about two blocks east facing the Gulf of Siam and flanked by two upscale Thai-foreign eateries and a Thai sidewalk diner. The rest of the area is quiet and close to services I need, like two small mom and pop stores, an ATM, my bank, my office, a "Mormon" 7-Eleven (no cigs or booze, cuz it's close to a school, an oddity here) and what appears to be a combination OBGYN/aroma therapy/Thai massage clinic. Regrettably there are no roaming cattle herds and few soi dogs but it's a largely Thai neighborhood, though tourist season is in full swing which means scads of elderly, large, creaky white haired, bald headed Scandahoovians and Germans filling the sidewalks with their guttural utterances, lumbering gaits and demands for fresh surströmming, frestelse und KROG!

Actually, it feels a bit like Miami Beach if Germany had won the war.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Take a Letter, Maria
Soi dogs yawping, people chattering - their voices mingling with the mynahs and other birds - and most of all the rhythmic thrumming of thousands of frogs woke me again this morning at 6. Outside Thailand was beginning to stir, oblivious to the fact that the Colorado Rockies were shortly taking the field against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway for their first World Series. I was unusually jazzed for a Thursday morning and stumbled down to the TV, fired up the tea water, found the remote and hit the switch looking for the ESPN feed.

Four hours, five innings, one Rockies, and 13 Red Sox runs later it was clear my optimism for Game 1 of the 103rd Series was entirely unfounded. I surrendered the remote to R who was obviously and pathetically grateful that he could now watch WWF wrestling ("A real sport!") and began my daily "death commute" to work. Thailand can be an idyllic and overwhelmingly beautiful place when you have nowhere to go and nothing much to do. but I am one tense, sweating, uptight white knuckled, white skinned mofo everytime I have to cross a road and/or ride on the back of a motorcycle cab.

I often think of a guy I never met on these journeys. He was an English journalist who held the same position I would later inherit in Hua Hin for only about six weeks until he died when his 115CC Suzuki and crash helmet didn't get the better of a truck load of migrant workers and sacks of concrete mix that pulled suddenly in front of him on a badly paved rain-slick road.

According to office lore, the only relative they could locate was a sister in the UK who had no interest in claiming and burying her wayward expat brother, who had also had the bad form to expire with only a month's salary to his name. In addition to a paucity of traffic laws and lights, and minus an efficient and incorruptible police force, Hua Hin also lacks a public morgue, so his remains were stored in a refrigerated locker owned by the local "wat" (monastary) for such purposes for a fee that was three times the standard rate because the dead guy was a "farang" and thus could presumably afford the fee hike. More overseas queries were made...

Then the monks pulled the plug prematurely in an apparent attempt to wrestle more baht from his dwindling bank account ... Suffice to say, I don't want to end up like this guy mourned hastily by coworkers who barely knew me and cremated quickly because I was beginning to smell.

Which brings me to the office where the decaying stench of a new batch of Letters to the Editor awaited me. I have a new duty due to a series of abrupt, unexpected staff changes here and it is overseeing, editing or simply deleting without comment the 12-20something pithy editorial missives e-mailed to us daily from around the world. Most of our 100,000-plus daily readers are in the US, but there are equally devoted and/or outraged voices in Europe, England, China, India and Pakistan - as well as the daily pleas, prayers and promises we receive from the Australian Defence Force, helpful Nigerian banker Mr Eibraham Soto and from "陳蕙菱" concerning 讓清純可人的妹妹解開....鈕扣!! and the ever popular, "MAKE MONSTER BIG PENNIS FASTEST!"

We have a core group of correspondents, however, many of whom don't seem to have jobs, social lives or any other interaction with the world beyond firing off passionate, generally political prose regarding current events, as well as real and imagined intrigue, in their backyards. Some of most heated comes from India and Pakistan where they employ a unique English language style that combines mangled cliches and metaphors not heard since the British occupation along with their local idioms. For example:

Editor Sir, Please to promptly publish my letter! It is something of a sticky wicket we are finding ourselves in lately! I blame Benazir Bhutto for the aftermath of stomach churning carnage of the early hours of 19 October resulting in the death of over 140 innocent Pakistanis. I do not believe she has her horse in gear and further evil meddling on her part puts a distinct chill where the sun does not wish to rise and shine! We have a saying in Pakistan: "Billi soo chuhae kha ke haj to chali!"( A cat after eating hundred rats went to perform Haj for redemption). Thank you! Sincerely, KJ, Karachi.

And there are the stone crazies; one in particular who - apparently depending on his medication ingestion writes daily either about the US government's mind control experiments and why they won't give him a passport or ... this.

Dear Editors, The year 1808. A constitutional provision was also were laid out. Soon enough the kaurava hero hundred thousand cooks to distribute excellent behold anything, for with human eyes nothing can into the roaring river several hundred
feet below moments. I was ready to barter my whole life for for you to assure you that i had no knowledge alive to the slightest violations of decorum.


Of course, I can relate. When I find I am on a sticky wicket, I merely remind myself that even in Thailand with the Rockies in shambles on the other side of the planet, I have no knowledge alive to the slightest violations of decorum. Or as they say, "Billi soo chuhae kha ke haj."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Romeo and Juliet

Some of my more discerning readers have learned that my roommate is a convicted murderer, a Cockney, whom I'll call "R". Not that this has anything specifically to do with Thailand, but it's part of my current reality and it occurred to me that you might want to follow a recent evening timeline I'll call: R Goes on a Date

Friday, 6:43pm. I arrive at Faulty Towers II from work. On the couch watching
WWF Wrestling on TV is R clad only in the same black nylon bikini briefs he was wearing when I left him watching WWF Wrestling from the couch at 10am. The only difference is that the pile of empty 32oz Singha beer bottles has gone from about four to eight or nine. R is talking to himself and the wrestlers in incomprehensible Cockney gibberish (ICG). The room reeks of Tiger Balm which he applies liberally to himself about every 20 minutes. Empty tubs of it dot the pile of empty Singha bottles.

Me: "Hey R, did Triple H get his title back, yet?"

R: "Hey, my son...lapses into ICG...bastah, ya know?"

Me:"Uh..yeah. Me, too." I go to the kitchen and begin preparing my dinner. Returning to the living room where I see R has risen and is now intently focused on assembling and loading what looks like a large handgun. "Uh, expecting trouble, R? And, uh, that's an air pistol ... right?"

R: "(ICG)...You didn' see anythin'...(ICG)...Meetin' a lady." Slams banana clip looking thing into pistol handle with a smack. Sights down barrel at a soi dog outside. "Yeah...air gun, C02, bloo'y powerf'l."

Me: "Lady? A date? You're going on a date with an air pistol?"

R: "You didn' see anythin' my son." Sits down on couch, changes channel to Cinemax offering of Steven Seagal Under Siege on Deadly Ground IX. Smears more Tiger Balm on his knee, thighs and stomach.

7.15pm, R smokes a joint, snorts some white powder, drinks half a 32oz Singha and makes call on cell phone, apparently to his intended. "You come ride me take you same-same but different?" More Tiger Balm. More beer. More powder.

7:53pm R rises and wobbles to his Bat Cave with pistol and beer. Slams door.

8:17pm R emerges in old white Ralph Lauren knockoff dress shirt and same nylon black briefs. Sits on couch, finishes beer, calls Steven Seagal "a bloo'y stupi' bastad" for no appreciable reason, though I can't say I disagree.
Me: "So, what time's your date, R?"

R: "Seben thir'y."

Me: "Uh, it's almost 8.30..."

R: Grunts. Picks up air pistol. Puts down air pistol. Lights another joint, offers me a hit. I decline. Picks up cell phone and after two or three mis-dials has his lovely on the phone again. "Hey luv. You take me ride you boom-boom number one same-same, but different...(ICG)." Hangs up.

8:53pm. R rises and disappears in Bat Cave again. Emerges at 9:20 with dirty jeans to compliment the clean fake Ralph Lauren white shirt. His balding hair is wet. He begins rubbing more Tiger Balm on under his shirt. Rattles through a cabinet drawer, plucks out an old electric razor and plugs it in. It doesn't work. Unplugs razor, throws it on floor cursing and disappears into Bat Cave.

9:15pm. R reappears with another electric razor and begins shaving his ratty goatee off in front of a hallway mirror. His whiskers fall to the floor and mantle. Examines himself in mirror, appears satisfied. Grunts. Finds some hair gell and greases down his newly washed bar code-like combover with gell. Sits on couch, changes channel to Oprah rerun.

R:"Bloo'y bitch."

9.40pm. R finally heads out the door, air pistol stuffed into jeans at the small of his back. I hear his motorbike cough and roar, the rusty gate rolls back. Love is in the air.

10.57pm. I hear the gate again and R's bike chocking to a close. Looking up from my book, I see him walk in. Shirt torn, limping, no air gun. "How was the date, R? Little rough?"

"You didn' see nuttin'."

Monday, October 8, 2007

One Night in Bangkok/My City Was Gone

Waking up in the torn and frayed 500 baht/night "Royal Hotel 28" just outside Bangkok's notorious Soi Cowboy sex alley at 10.30 Sunday morning I felt a bit like Martin Sheen's Capt. Willard in Apocalypse Now. Like Sheen/Capt Willard I was alone, hungover, under a barely wheezing fan in a rat's nest, sweating and well, let me play on some of the Apocalypse dialog, though there was no ominous Doors' The End playing except in my aching head.

Mitchell, voiceover Bangkok ... shit; I'm still only in Bangkok ... Every time I think I'm gonna wake up back in Boulder, or maybe Hong Kong, Lincoln, Nebraska or Shenzhen, I'm still here. I'm here a night now... waiting for a story assignment, maybe even a decent blog item ... getting softer; every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker, and every minute my editors and creditors squat in the bush, they get stronger. Each time I looked around, the walls moved in a little tighter.

The walls were a real problem. Bad silver and red MC Escher cubes, the kind that if I'd been under the influence of anything stronger than beer would've driven me screaming off the 6-foot balcony to permanently disable - but not kill, unfortunately, myself. Instead I contented myself with phony kung fu moves, dancing around like a wobbling fool, breaking a glass, cutting myself and then wrapping myself in the dirty sheets, no, wait. No sheets. No glasses either. Whattaya what for 500 baht/night? Toilet paper, too?

Snatches of the night before were, uh, making me wish the squid fishing expedition I'd originally planned at an unspoiled fishing town about 25 klicks south of Hua Hin had succeeded, but weather had put the kabosh on that and I'd taken Plan B. Meet a coworker from HK who has been reassigned to Hua Hin, spend the night, hit some sleaze pits and go back to Hua Hin on Sunday afternoon. We'd contented ouselves with his Thai wife in tow at one fetish bar that catered to Japanese tourists who got their jollies gaping up through a clear plastic floor at exposed lower sections of Thai women in school girl dresses. Then to a live lesbian show and ... well, not much else to say. Fade to black.

Bangkok had changed a lot since I was a child, though I had enough time and one family-friendly, semi-culturally redeeming idea that didn't involve Japanese voyeur fetish tourists or lesbian stage encounters to play with. I'd learned that my Bangkok boyhood residential soi was within walking distance of Soi Cowboy and I was determined to see if anything I recalled circa 1963 or so remained.

I'd been braced for the worst. A couple people who'd been here previously and who had tried to find it had said nothing remotely residential remained. One had reported it was now a mega mall called Emporium. Another had been less specific but just as discouraging. I'd also learned that I'd mispronounced the address I'd thought I'd remembered so well and so had some hopes that something, anything might still be there.

The soi itself was there, about as wide as I recalled though the main road outside it seemed to have shrunk in width and grown in height as Bangkok's transit system SkyTrain now ran above it. The site of our old house was also there - Bahn Nung (House No. 1) though no trace of a home remained, only an enormous, gated sterile office complex of sorts called "Lighting Centre."

Looking down the soi I saw no homes but a posh Novitel hotel and plenty of restaurants and bars my parents would've given their passports to have dined in in 1963. Italian, Japanese, British ... "New Managment, New Girls!" said a sign outside one club. I remembered that our school teacher friend, a young, sophisticated, English fluent woman named Vitchitar had lived somewhere close to "New Management, New Girls," just down from other bars inexplicably named after artists: The Dali, the Monet, the Van Gogh-Go, the Goya... My late mother, an artist herself, would've laughed and then puked, though she could never abide Dali.

I misted up a bit still looking for something, anything that might've survived 40plus years when I found myself up a side soi along a route I thought might have led to the one western-style restaurant we favored at the time, a Filipino place called Nippa Hut. Kind of bamboo and log style building that I recalled was decorated with an enormous python skin nailed to a wall upstairs and some old entertainment posters. Good cheeseburgers, too. I stopped in front of a small Japanese restaurant, housed amid some newer apartments and so Japanese it had no English or Thai signs.

It was open, there were English menus and I ordered a ramen and pork lunch, a bottle of Asahi and began to look more carefully around. It was logs and bamboo. The layout was smaller than my Nippa Hut memories, but similar and amid the Japanese motifs were framed vintage posters for ancient US R&B acts such as Etta James at "Shirley's Orbit Room," Jimmy Reed, and Lowell Folsom and old movies, Law of the Tropics, Paris Underground ("Where a kiss can be more deadly than the sword!")and Hell in the Pacific. No snake skins, though.

I asked for toilet directions and was directed up some steep, rickety wooden stairs to a small closet toilet area amid what had been a dining room and was now storage for a staggering amount of old restaurant equipment and furniture. Then I saw it. Nailed a wall blocked by several stacked malfunctioning gurneys was a long, almost rotted-into-the wood, faded black and yellow boa or python skin. Not the 20-foot long, 4-foot wide wonder that my 10-year old memory had enshrined. It was about 5-feet long and a few inches wide. I walked quickly over and leaned almost painfully across the stacked gurneys to try and touch it without toppling them and alerting the bored wait-staff below. My fingertips brushed a few scales; virtually dust they crumbled and fell.

"Hello, again," I said to it. A foreign idiot talking to a decaying snake skin. "It's been a long time. Rest easy."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

T for Texas, T for ... Thailand?
A recent visitor, a native Greenwich Villager who nonetheless made the inexplicable decision to go to school at Rice University in Houston, made an observation during a hangover ridden Sunday morning as we blearily watched a three wheeled covered 'tuk-tuk' pass sporting a large, red and white "Hua Hin Detox Center" sign on its rear. He's a world traveler. No local yokel, currently residing in mainland China with his equally well traveled Dutch galpal.

"You know, Thailand reminds me more and more of Texas," he said. "I think there are some distinct similarities." We'd spent most of the previous evening at what can only be described as a Thai country music bar, a large, log cabin-styled affair virtually visually indistinguishable from its American counterparts save the neon beer signs for Chang, Leo and Singha instead of Coors, Miller, Pearl or Lone Star. Pickup trucks and choppers had jammed the dirt parking lot and there was even been a photo of Sitting Bull, or "Famous American Indian king," as I explained to a Thai companion. The music was Thai country, Issan province passion, provided by arguably the slickest hardest working house band I've ever seen. Four-plus hours of nonstop sweat, rhythm and soul with a lotta Santana stylings. No Willie or Waylon or Hank, but that's not what we came for. But It was nice to see Sitting Bull still looking solemn and stolid halfway across the world from his Hunkpappa home.

A week earlier we'd been at a local road rally where we'd chowed down on some world class ribs, swilled beer and watched Mad Max-type vehicles along with off-the-showroom floor hump and bump and roar over a mess of hastily constructed dirt obstacles while the emcees screamed encouragement and hyped for Chevy, Ford, Dodge and Toyota in Thai.

I could kinda see my friend's point. To stretch the point further I noted in a recent English language rag that Hua Hin recently enacted a "No Weapons Zone" ban for the "primary tourist areas." In other words: No handguns in the Hilton.

Other superficial similarities fall apart, though. No big hair, no big hats, few shitkicker boots except on occasional German touristas, no "big" anything except Buddhas and wats, and really - that part of the parallel also fails - little of the outright "Don't Mess with Texas" mentality that I picked up on while living there in the army and later during during more enlightening visits to the annual SXSW Music confab in Austin. Corrupt politicos, though. A no-brainer, though they exist everywhere, but certainly no one as purely shameful as Dubya, say, in Thailand despite the generals, exiled former prime minister and other rascals.

There's certainly a frontier, kinda Deadwood, Tombstone feel (I know, neither are Texas) certainly to Hua Hin. Sleazy speculators, myriad roadside taverns and eateries, hookers, hustlers, stray wild dogs, con artists, all despite the benign peaceful ambiance of a great little train station and the Royal Summer Palace.

Food for thought. Gonna go check in my Colt at the door, now, and eat me a mess of Khanom chin namya and maybe some of my favorite fried chicken here, from a sidewalk stand prepared by the world's oldest, homeliest ladyboy.

I call it Colonel Sandra's Fried Chicken. Fried chicken from a balding, aging transvestite probably wouldn't fly in Texas, but, that's another reason I'd prefer Hua Hin to Houston.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

I Wanna Be Your Dog
One of my most disturbing memories of my short Bangkok childhood was being in a dusty wat/temple courtyard with my parents on a hot afternoon. The saffron robed monks were lazing placidly about, flies were plentiful and while I can't recall why we were there, what I remember painfully was the anguished howls and whines coming from a small dusty gray short haired mutt trying to drag itself slowly with its front legs. The back legs were useless because its back was clearly broken.

I asked my father why the monks didn't put it out of its misery. The howls were soul searing, bouncing off the courtyard and making the dog's agony all too evident. My dad explained that it was against Buddhist belief to kill an animal, even if was suffering. I found the explanation not entirely satisfying and briefly contemplated finding a brick or rock in an attempt to mercifully smash its head. But, no. We left and I could hear the howls for minutes after the temple was out of sight. It still haunts me today...

Which is probably why I've got a new pal in Hua Hin, a white and brindle, short haired "soi dog", one of seemingly hundreds feral mutts roaming the city and dozens in my benighted neighborhood.

I haven't named her, afraid of getting too attached, I guess, but since I tossed her some dinner scraps about two and a half weeks ago, she's been hard to shake. Faithful, friendly, flea bitten, I don't allow her inside or even through the gates, but her attachment based on the few eggs and scraps I throw her way several days a week has become something of a joke among a couple Thai employees at Faulty Towers.

"We never see you with Thai lady," said one. "But now you have dog. You like dogs, not ladies?"

"Heh," I respond. "Umm, I like ladies fine. But mine is in China. Dog's are easier, too. They don't ask if their butts are too big. They just sniff each others."

"Why you nice to dog? She dirty! Don't feed!"

This is the part I don't comprehend. Yeah, she could use a bath and delousing, but what does a little pat on her head and doggy baby talk and a few scraps cost me? What about making merit? Thais regularly give free food and gifts to monks to make spiritual merit. But I've also seen monks with cell phones and one with what appeared to be an iPod. Meanwhile the dogs are unsightly, loud, yes, but I'd rather make small merit with a soi dog. Maybe because of what I saw so long ago...

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Mystery Train
The mystery is why am I such a sucker for hard luck cases? Inspired by the idyllic glow cast by the Hua Hin train station several weeks ago, this weekend I determined to hop a car south a few hours to Chumphon, a smaller beach town I'd never been, just for the helluva it. In the meantime, M, the hardluck case Cypriot/Brit who'd introduced me to the station's joys had reappeared.

He's been living penniless, without a valid visa with a poor family of "forest people" on the outskirts of Hua Hin where he says they've been feeding him "fried tiny frogs and beetles". I don't doubt it. But I made the mistake of mentioning my weekend plans and after telling me he just wanted to meet me at the station for a "little chat" he showed up with a ratty backpack and hopes I'd take him along.

Sigh. I sprung for two tickets and since then have regretted every minute, beginning from his inability to keep ahold of his ticket within 3 minutes of almost missing the train because he was rolling a (yes, tobacco) cigarette. After I found his ticket on the floor where he'd dropped it, seconds before the conductor almost booted him, he fell asleep snoring and coughing loudly to the disgust of our fellow passengers. But not before he'd seen a young Canadian watching a video iPod near us and asked loudly, as if he'd just arrived from a cave in 19th century Mars, "Wos' 'he wotchin' wha' the bloo'y 'ell is tha?" He'd never seen an iPod though he's 10 years younger than me.

"Well, you know a Walk-Man?" I said slowly as though talking to a mentally challenged 7-year old. "It's an I-POD. I-POD. Like a Walkman only with pictures, video." I didn't even go into the whole tape-is-dead deal.

Our train was late and upon arrival at about 12.30am vs the original 9somethingpm, I disembarked ahead of M who stumbled off completely disoriented, demanding to know where we were and why we weren't in Hua Hin. No, he wasn't stoned and had only had a couple beers. I couldn't account for his confusion and after 20 minutes of first patiently explaing, then screaming that we had: "GONE FROM POINT A. HUA HIN. AND NOW WE'RE AT POINT B. CHUMPHON. PERIOD."

"Bu' I don' unnderstan'" he said. "Sto'p shoutin' a'me."

Nothing like wandering the dark, nearly deserted streets of a strange Thai beachtown at 1am with an impoverished moron who mystically dropped 50 IQ points on the rails in 3 hours. We wandered and finally found a guesthouse. The good news is that it's small, inexpensive, clean, has a working Internet connection, and the staff, including a 20something year old transsexual "lady-boy" with possibly the best breasts I've ever seen, are friendly. The owner is a rotound, chatty, young Thai woman who calls herself Kay and speaks better English than M. The bad news is that Kay just had to leave suddenly: "A cousin's mother has swallowed poison! I must go to hospital."

The road goes on forever and the party never ends...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho it's off to work I go ...
My route to work is basic and occasionally basically dangerous involving some high speed traffic dodging by foot, though largely via motorbike taxi, usually piloted by an elderly guy who seems to have lost most of his sight several decades ago.

Nonetheless, there's one sight that never fails to amuse, intrigue and baffle me at least once a week, usually on a Monday. It's common in both Hong Kong and throughout Thailand to see small offerings - usually food, beverages, fruit - outside businesses and in residential spirit houses to honor ancestors, invoke good fortune, more customers, a wider profit margin, etc. In Hong Kong paper offerings - fake money, cigarettes, cars - are also burned outside the businesses - notably many girlie bars in the Wanchai district - in lieu of the real deal.

About a block or two before I turn into the soi that leads to Asia Times Online there is a small western-style bakery (great rye and sourdough!) that has a tiny portable fountain on the sidewalk ringed by small, foot-high or so statues of Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs. Nothing special except for a tray of offerings (most recently a whole chicken, glass of beer, small meat or vegetable pie, flowers), burning incense and the sight of one of the store owners or employees - a thin, graceful woman in her 20s - supplicating herself and praying in front of Snow White, Sleepy, Grumpy, Happy, Dopey, Bashful, Sneezy and Doc.

I can't imagine who they represent to her. I thought of some Chinese mythological characters called the "8 Immortals", but nah, probably not. Maybe ancestors? Meanwhile, I'm thinking of trying to slip a lawn jockey in the mix if I can find one...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Unknown Soldier
I've recently encountered the second Asian Vietnam vet I've met since coming overseas. Not a Vietnamese vet from the US-Vietnam conflict, but a Thai man who lives across the way from my office in the residential soi (street) where I work.

He briefly scared the bejeebus outta me the first time I encountered him. I was leaving work and I could hear him before I saw him striding a bit awkwardly around a corner. He had an exaggerated missing teeth grin, James Dean shades, dressed neatly, in his late-50s/early-60s perhaps and talking loudly to no one in particular in Thai.

Startled, I did a sort of startled half-wai, half-salute to show I meant no harm. He snapped a real salute, military-style, grimacing-grinning a bit, before resuming his dialog with his invisible pals and going through his gate where one of the loudest most obnoxious dogs in Southeast Asia joyfully greeted him.
I privately dubbed him "the crazy walking man" about a week later after I noticed him striding far from his home several times, still talking.

"What's with our crazy neighbor? The guy who talks to himself and walks everywhere," I asked one of our two Thai employees, a 20something woman named Nam, a few days later.

"He has no arms," she said.

"What? I saw them," I said.

"Not real," she replied. "Look more when you see him again." I realized that, yes, they had looked a bit stiff but I'd been concentrating on his face so much I'd barely noted the arms. Nam explained he'd lost them in an explosion "a long time ago."

"Where? What happened?" I asked. "Vietnam, I think. Maybe Lao," she said. "He was a soldier." She went on to say he'd served with a "special army for the Queen" and had been mutilated by what must have been a Vietcong or Pathet Lao mine. I Googled around and found, yes, Thai soldiers - including an elite group called "The Queen's Cobras" - had fought in Vietnam and covertly in Laos.

"I ask him before if he wants help," she said. "I can ride my motorbike and get things for him but he say, 'Thank you. No, I am a soldier! I do it myself. A soldier does it himself.'"

I do a real salute when I see him these days. He snaps one back with his brown, plastic arm, grins and keeps walking and talking on his endless reconnaissance.

The other vet was a Chinese "black taxi" (gypsy cab) driver, one of about eight or so that always parked their cars outside my second Shenzhen apartment. He hadn't fought against the US, but against the Vietnamese in a short, nasty and obscure 1979 Sino-Vietnam border war that the Chinese don't talk much about, partly because they got their heads handed to them by the battle tested Vietnamese who, after kicking US butt, had then gone into Cambodia and overthrown Pol Pot.

C told me about "Mr Zhang" and later translated for me as he drove us to the Shenzhen border crossing on our way to Hong Kong late last year. His wounds weren't visible but he was hurting. "I told him you were a soldier before," C said. "He asked me Vietnam? I said Korea. You didn't kill anyone, did you? No. Anyway, he wants to meet you anyway." I guess they don't have a lot of veteran's support groups in China and I was the next best thing.

I shrugged. "Sure," I said. "I knew a couple American soldiers who were in Vietnam. Chris's brother was one. He didn't kill anyone either but his friend died falling off a truck in Saigon. His name is on a plaque of dead soldiers at my university."

Mr Zhang had some horrors to recount. He'd served with a Guangdong province group of the People's Liberation Army and until they'd been mobilized with what he called "50-year old maps and old guns from when China liberated Korea from the US" he said he had had little idea of where or what Vietnam was.

What he told me sounded depressingly familiar. After declaring "victory" when they captured a town called Lang Son, the Chinese retreated with a scorched earth policy. "We burned everything," he told me and C. "We did bad things to the people. Old people, children everyone." He sounded haunted and also oddly matter of fact when he described burying Vietnamese civilians up to their necks and torturing them for reasons he either couldn't articulate or C couldn't translate. I kept thinking of My Lai and mentioned it.

He never heard of it but said, "Americans, Chinese, it does not matter. All soldiers are animals sometimes." Then he changed the subject and asked C if I knew any American women who wanted to marry a Chinese man. He wants to go to the US. His plan is to sell his late model car and use the money to pay an American woman to marry him and get him into the country.

I thought about it and surprisingly no women came to mind who would want to marry a psychologically damaged Chinese Vietnam vet who drives a gypsy cab, even for money.

"Tell him I'll ask around," I said anyway. "But probably not. Tell him I hope he has better memories sometime soon, though." That was the last time I saw Mr Zhang but I think of him now every time I salute my damaged neighbor. Two vets, two wars in one country neither understood. In Shenzhen Mr Zhang drives and dreams, and in Hua Hin the old Queen's Cobra walks and talks.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Heartbreak Hotel
Wednesday was the 30th anniversary of Elvis Presley's death, a date of not much note in Thailand though a Bangkok hotel hosted a "30th Elvis Presley Memory Lives on 2007" blowout with a slew of Asian Elvis impersonators, including a 12-year-old named Papontee Veerapravati who performs under the moniker "Elvis Pro."

I wish I'd have been able to make it, but lacking the time off I did the second best thing and hosted my own remembrance. I donned a treasured short-sleeved, (one of a kind, homemade by a former copy editor friend of mine at the Rocky Mountain News who'd originally sewn it for her Elvis lovin' ex before his stomach expanded and their marriage went south) shirt featuring florescent Warhol-like images of the King in three of his crucial eras: Rockabilly Elvis, GI Elvis and Bloated Vegas Elvis. It only lacks Comeback Special Elvis. But three outta four ain't bad.

I grabbed a 14 oz Coke and half pint of Thai Mekong whiskey, a compilation disc of Elvis hits sent to me a couple years ago by Chris, my equally Elvis-happy pal in Colorado, and headed across the dirt road, dodging two brahma cattle, slogging from Faulty Towers II to Faulty I where I found the Johnnie Walker wisdom was already running high among three Brits and one Aussie. Or more specifically, two Brit ex-felons (embezzler, murderer), one hard core sex tourist (Aussie) and a frighteningly normal 69-year-old retired Brit who almost began crying in combined joy and memory when I announced:

"Gentlemen! Your attention please. Thirty years ago Elvis Aaron Presley left the building for good after dying on a toilet in Graceland." (Drunken, heavily accented Brit murmurs followed:"He did? Wha', blood'y hell! Thir'y ye'z, wahz it? A toilet? A loo dih'e say?")

I continued. "But his memory lives on. Elvis is everywhere, including Hua Hin, Thailand where we will celebrate him tonight."

With that I ceremoniously hit the eject button on the bar CD player, slid out the Thai pop pap (a half Thai-half American singer with the unfortunate name of Tata Young), inserted the King, and Scotty Moore's distinctive opening chords to Heartbreak Hotel rang like a ringin' a bell through the sweaty, mosquito clogged tropical murk.

"' 'eart Break 'otel, perfect," sighed the sobbing normal Brit. "Jus' like whea' we're drinkin' tonigh' " Indeed. Aw, man it was sweet. Even their Thai women at another table got into it after a couple songs and the gin-soaked Aussie sex tourist began some pretty decent lip-synching and Elvis-like moves, including the Vegas-era kung-fu chops. In China the King is known as the "King Cat." I don't know if he has a nickname here, the women seemed only vaguely aware of him, damn their souls, but the Elvis trivia began flowing - mine mostly accurate, theirs dug from the Internet and tabloids like the Daily Mirror, I imagine.

"Thi'is abou' his mum, Priscilla" the embezzler sighed as Are You Lonesome Tonight began. "No," I said trying to bite my tongue. "Priscilla was his wife. His mother was Gladys. He called her feet 'sooties'. Elvis had a thing about his mom's feet."

"He di'nt!" cried the murderer. "Bloo'dy hell. He truly loved his mum, not a nutter 'bout her feet!" I shut up and just let the music wash over the comments that ranged from Elvis's "half-Indian" blood to how an obscure '60s British pop star named Billy Fury, (virtually unknown outside of the UK, but roughly the equivalent of Fabian or maybe Frankie Avalon in the US) was second only in the world to Elvis.
Twenty two songs later we'd repeated In the Ghetto ("This song is my life!" sighed the murderer) and Suspicious Minds twice, Jailhouse Rock three times ("This is my life, too!" said the murderer again) and closed the night with Elvis's post-mortem remix, A Little More Conversation.

Briefly we were all, Brits, Aussie, Yank and Thais, felons and low-level miscreants alike, united as one by The King.

As I left I noticed that a color printout of the Thai royal couple and Elvis on the set of GI Blues that I'd managed to make at work before the printer died and had presented to the embezzler/owner of Faulty Towers had been framed and was hanging over Faulty I's alcove next to a more traditional portrait of the Thai royal pair. I very gently nudged one of the Thai wives as I left and pointed at the picture. "See, even your King loved the King."

"Oh, that is him?" she said, peering at Elvis. "No, he is not king. Only one king in Thailand."

"Not tonight," I said. "But thank you. Thankyouverymuch." And with that I left the building.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Voices Carry
All areas carry distinct sounds, like the accents of the locals. In Boulder what I recall most is - forgive me Paul Simon - the sound of silence following a heavy snowfall. So quiet it was peacefully overwhelming. Then the 'scrich,scrich,scrapescriching' sound of ice scrapers dancing irregularly down the street as the beleaguered dawn patrol began gearing up for another day.

In Hong Kong it is , alack, alas , not exotic temple bells or gongs (except on a few religious holidays) but the sheer 24/7 nonstop din of jackhammers as the city's powerful construction interests once again tear a perfectly good site down only to build it up again, to tear it down. Got to keep those employment figures artificially high, doncha know, in Asia's World City.

In Shenzhen it was the unrelenting pounding of massive pile drivers, at least outside my last abode. Downtown the distorted, shrill wattage of public ads, social slogans for one child families intermixed with looped recordings of Western chestnuts such as Moon River, Theme from Exodus (A Time for Us) and, of course, what's a day without at least four or eight renditions of Hotel California and/or Yesterday Once More.

Hua Hin has a different, slightly less mechanized rhythms. The baying of countless feral hounds seems to dominate a lot of the local soundtrack beginning about 5am when they begin skirmishing for the choice shady spots to beat the fast-rising tropical heat throughout the day. Then come the hawkers, though not the melodious chants and sing-songs of my youth. They've been replaced by the familiar ice cream wagon jingles of American summers gone by, the parp-parp from a broom seller squeezing the horn on his overloaded bicycle and often the sonorous chants and exhorations from a large, over-amped Buddhist temple high on nearby foothill. The chanting sounded quaintly exotic the first 90 or so minutes I heard it, though less so at 10pm and for hours at a stretch beginning at 6am when a 9-day funeral is being held.

Then inside Faulty Towers II where I am currently sharing living space with R, the ex-brother-in-law of my landlord, it's a whole different soundtrack. R is a convicted murderer who did his time in the UK before discovering Thailand's less demanding expat underbelly. He's also an accomplished swordsman who once had some bit parts in the Highlander series. Depending on his level of sobriety, (frequently low) he maintains a generally cheerful civility, punctuated with frisky knife play and ... well, let's take 3am last week when I was awakened by an inebriated R and three equally swacked Thai ladies of the evening. Further hilarity ensued when they saw me peering over the balcony in my boxers and T-shirt at their impromptu bacchanal in the swimming pool below.

"Hey, Justin, why not come make number one party-party!" R has been here so long that he often talks to native English speakers as if they were Thai service workers. He's non-discriminating in that way. I begged off and asked them to keep it down, please. No chance.

An hour later, a knock at my door. I ignored it as well as the Thai female voice but finally relented and opened it. "Why you no want to see me?" she said, swaying a little. She was wearing about as much material as, well, not a lot, actually. I kept my eyes at her unfocused eye level as much as possible but couldn't help noticing that she ... well, R could be heard shouting downstairs for "Big Tits! Big Tits! Where you, Big Tits? Come to R now!" Yes. This was probably the young woman in question.

"You no want me?" she asked as coyly as someone blowing a 1.9 alcohol blood level probably can. No, actually, well, no. No. But thanks for the offer. R again: "You in Justin room? JUSTIN, you pay Big Tits 1,000 baht you touch her! Big Tits where you go, baby?"

"Where you from?" BT asked as I tried to gently shove her out the door. "USA, America," I replied. "R is England," she noted. "Why you fear England? Why USA fear England?"

Mmmm, maybe because he's convicted murderer who likes to play with knives while drunk? But I said nothing much and was able to politely eject her, complete with her mismatched opened toed cheap stiletto heels that she'd mixed up with one of her compadre's and discarded in my room while attempting a lap dance standing up. Gone, I thought. I locked the door, lay down and covered my head as outside dogs began to bark, and hounds began to howl. Downstairs little red rooster was still on the prowl. "Big Titsssss! Why you make R cry?"

Give you everything I got for a little peace of mind.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Life During Wartime
"And the categories are ..."
Free and easy use of the "n" word among white expats in Thailand
Invasion of the Monitor Lizard King

"Alex, I'll take "n" word for 500."

Okay, you're a bleeding heart white liberal who, though despite graduating from a high school class of 500-some Caucasoidz + three blacks, only one of whom could be remotely described as a friend, thought he was making a difference w/$10 mo to the NAACP for a couple years following college and 13 or so years writing occasional odes to the likes of obvious American soul, R&B jazz and blues masters.

Now you're overseas for 4 years and suddenly noticing that, unlike the rootlesss, law dodging expat scum in China and Hong Kong, in Thailand you're encountering an even lower form of expat. After nary a peep elsewhere, you're suddenly hearing the "n" word and variations like 'wog' almost on a daily basis from UK and related Empire castoffs, especially after they've had a couple or 4 pints of "nig-nog" beer and deep into complaining about how "thick" and "lazy" the Thai govermental visa renewal and private service industry and Thais in general are. (And they wonder why there seems to be an increasing distaste for foreigners here ... )

What do you do?

"Hey, you know, excuse me, but I'd really appreciate it, 'mate', if you'd stop throwing that word around."
That's my polite approach, usually met with derisive laughter followed by a witty rejoinder like "Wha' word? You mean n****? That word? Why, you got a n***** gran'fatha' or sompthin', have you?"

Then I go into my 'it's a dangerous, ugly, loaded word where I come from used only by bigoted scum and, in the case of blacks themselves, yeah, sometimes, but it's their business and nothing for whites to be tossing around' rap.

Then comes the "it's only a word" or "they use it" and "What do you call them anyway, 'Colored?' 'KNEEGROWS?' It's the same thing almost ... and what are you lecturing us on bigotry when your country is bombing the shite outta little brown wogs in the Middle East..."

Ugly, any way you cut it. It's then that I long to mystically conjure up W, a black American occasional e-mail pal of mine from New York. He's Ivy League educated, white collar and very large and very articulate. "Don't mind me, Justin," he said to me once during some kinda excitable, good-natured (non-racial) barroom discussion in New York. "I'm just a big, angry black man." He'd explain it terms they understand.

But moving on, let's try Thai Monitor Lizard Kings for $200. I was lounging on a low slung couch, my back to the floor-to-nearly ceiling front window of my Faulty Towers lodgings last Sunday feeling tremendously stupified, hot and generally guilty while watching the History Channel.

Here I was in the exotic Land of Smiles, an entire day to do whatever I choose - visit another temple, practice Thai with natives, watch the waves, do volunteer work at the local discarded dog shelter or orphanage - and instead I'm zombied out watching a show about WWII Japanese germ-warfare experiments in China. Maybe I should see what's on Oprah?

Then came a scratch-scratch-scratching on the window. I was alone as far as I knew and wondered who-what-the-hey might ... turned slowly from the horrific black and white archival footage of Unit 731 to confront another sort more immediate primal horror. It was a beady eyed, lengthy dragon-like lizard which had reared up on its hindquarters enough to peer in the window and claw, with what appeared to be enormous talons, at the glass. Its tongue snaked out as I yelped and lurched back, nearly falling from the couch.

"Fuggin' hell!" I screamed to no one in particular. What to do? I vaguely recalled seeing something similar in a seedy Florida reptile farm, a Monitor Lizard - a form of the dangerously swift and occasionally lethal Komodo Dragon.

I don't think a broom handle would cut it, I thought glancing around for something, anything to evict the prehistoric looking unwelcome lodger and finding nothing suitable such as a stun gun, I ran. Out the back, across a dusty lane scampering to Faulty Towers II where I found only the 20-year old maid/waitress/Girl Friday with minimal English skills. "Ah...big! Big! Animal!" I gasped. "My house! Help me? Please?" She was puzzled. "Jussin make no happy same-same shiny toilet?" she asked. "Gin? Jussin happy I make gintonic number one boom-boom gintonic?"

"No!" I gestured towards my quarters. "Big no-good bad animal!" I pulled out a tattered generally useless Brit-centric pocket Thai phrase and vocabulary book bequeathed to me by a leaving expat and flipped through the vocab pages..."lessee, 'Leprosy', 'Leprosarium' no., 'Lice', no, 'Litigation,' uh...damn, no 'Lizard.' None. 'Bangers and mash,' Useless. Phrases ... okay, 'I would like to book a business class ticket to Glasgow promptly Thursday next at 3 p.m. ...' No. 'Excuse me, is your sister, Promporn Rojjanasukchai also the lass who observes Boxing Day?'

Eventually, I pulled her over to the house and pointed out the window at Godzilla's little brother. She gasped and smiled. "Ahhh! (String of Thai followed by ..) Good! Taste very good!"

The local Monitor Lizard Police were eventually phoned as a small crowd grew outside Faulty T-I's gate to watch the action, which initially wasn't much. I kept my distance and the King Hell Beast continued to mindlessly scratch at the window before giving up to slowly sort of lope/swagger around the area.

I recalled reading that Monitor Lizards are 'carnivorous' and 'highly intelligent, with some possessing the ability to count.' This did not reassure me as I imagined it tallying up the two legged interlopers and cleverly calculating the odds of escape + meal. The real action began when the MLP arrived in thick gloves, helmets, jack boots, a large canvas sack and a snake choker on a very long pole. A flurry of what appeared to be experienced Lizard Snaring followed and the 3 1/2 foot creature was soon dangling from the snare above the gaping sack as onlookers cheered and he was photographed before disappearing, flipping and twisting into the bag.

I asked later what had become of him. "Police eat him, I think," was the reply. I was not surprised, only a little saddened. He'd put up a good struggle and deserved better.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

New Sensations
If you're not into the girlie bar scene, massages (legit or not), are bored playing pool, can't afford the freight at Hua Hin's several 5-star hotels and assorted spas, eschew golf, dodge real estate investments and developers (beware the Aussies!), have no invites to the King's summer palace and hanging with near-homicidal temple monkeys doesn't carry the charge it used to, options for foreigners here aren't exactly jumping out at you.

There are beaches, of course and a few unorganized seemingly random charter boat trips for lounging, surf-splashing, swimming and riding fatigued looking ponies. And an elephant trek park/paintball combat zone ("Dress in authentic Cambodian army fatigues!" screams the paintball part of the promotional brouchure. No idea if you can also recreate Pol Pot's reign of horror). Otherwise, Hua Hin. so far, seems to be a combo of Peyton Place, mixed in with a dollop of Mayberry and a zinger of a low budget version of a scummy Carl Hiaasen Florida beach town.

At least that's my in-depth and entirely superficial insight approaching a month or so here. but a week ago on a slow Sunday I was fortunate to discover some more redeeming values.

Hua Hin sports an utterly charming, small, airy train station. Shaded under palms, cozy, wooden, red and white and set in a small park along the north-south rail line that bisects Hua Hin, it's so idyllic that one's immediate impulse is to simply use it: buy a ticket from the visor shaded agent and hit the rails. Where to go? Well, the train schedule isn't on a flipping LED read-out but carefully inscribed in classic penmanship in English and Thai in white paint on a blackboard. It's as if the schedules and routes haven't changed for 50-years. And perhaps they haven't.

Bilingual wooden sign shingles hand from the doors of the neatly arranged, side-by-side depot offices. Luggage, ticketing, 1st and 2nd class waiting rooms all look as if they're awaiting Maugham or Kipling to chug through on a steam train to the Malaysian or Burmese borders. Built in the late 'teens or early 1920s, I believe, it has a laid-back, colonial/Thai ambiance that the likes of Spielberg, Ron Howard or Disney would kill for as a movie set.

A self-described "half-Cypriot, half-Irish" (English passport and birth) expat-since-on-the-lam, M, introduced me to the joys of train spotting-Thai style as we drifted around on a lazy Sunday afternoon looking for a mission other than sitting and drinking and pretending to think. "Les' go to the train station," M said. "Grab some cheap noo'les an' wa'ch the worl' go by."

A deal. We ordered up some shamefully inexpensive Thai fare at one of the several rickety, outdoor eatieries across from the station and sat in the shade watching a few passenger trains and one cargo train slowly come and go while marveling at the station's time machine-like cast in the past aura. He told me about a 10 or so hour rail trip he'd made from the station a few years ago to Malaysia (two trains daily to the Malaysian border) on a whim.

"It was lovely," M enthused. "Just the rails, the rhythm, a pint in a sleeper car, rolled m'self a spliff and watched the jungle and all click by. Met some lovely, lovely people. Got to Malaysia, didn't come back for 5 days and finally make me way back. Boss says, 'Where you been?' 'Malaysia,' says I."Ah' he says. 'On the train were ya?' I says, 'Yes, actually.' He laughs and says he's done it, too. Never paid me for the time off, o'course. But he didn't gi' me the sack."

I was sorely tempted to follow his example. I had my passport, the next train to Malaysia arrived in about 25 minutes, I had enough baht on me to carry the fare and maybe some cheap lodging ...but nah. Not that irresponsible yet.

"Bes' sleep I eve' had," M continued. "Dunno if it was the train rhythm,rails and all, or wha' .. like that old American song ... " He began humming City of New Orleans.

M's a romantic,but thoroughly mostly irresponsible. Since our Sunday he's disappeared, suddenly leaving, according to the low-rent, expat mojo wire, a scattering of unpaid debts and a burned, small-time ganja deal in ashes. (I told you this was Peyton Place). I initially thought he'd joined Gladys Knight and the Asia Pips for the Midnight Train to Malaysia, but he hadn't even borrowed enough for decent train fare before splitting. However, before his sudden exit he was good to me and in exchange for noodles, a beer and motorbike gas money he also introduced me to another side of Hua Hin after we'd soaked in the railway ambience.

"Wouldja fancy mee'in' up wi' a real Thai fambly?" he asked. He'd been courting the mother until she got a better offer from Switzerland about 6 mos. ago; but M assured me he was still welcome despite her absence.

He cautioned me to prepare myself for a shock. "They aren' well off by any means," he said. "Very shabby quarters ..." I braced myself for something along the lines of of my shanty town visit but after we pulled into the family's area on M's rattling motorbike, it was clear that his idea of "shabby" might need redefining. Though smack next to the two lane highway into Hua Hin, the home was solid, mostly plaster and concrete, very clean and with new faux marble black and white floral motif flooring. Minimal electrical service and no running water, though.

M's ex's 24-year-old rather Indian-looking, English-speaking son - the result, the son told me later, of a one-week-stand between a visiting Indian pilot from Maldives and his mother - was outside putting the finishing touches on a quaint, cozy frond-roofed, bamboo beamed roadside karaoke bar he was building outside the home. He introduced himself simply as "S"and showed me a new sign in Christmas lights he'd designed on an enormous shellacked wooden slab. "S Karoeke Star Bar" it read, complete with a star to twinkle later. He hopes to plug it all in and open by the end of July. You're all invited if you're in the area.

S's barefoot, 3-year-old daughter and her three slightly older cousins all rocked and rolled and pushed one another on the gravel, mud and dust on a large log alongside the highway. No TV, no video games, or even swings, slides or a Welfare Services-sanctioned public park nearby. Just jungle-like foliage and a filthy, trash-strewn muddy klong, but S, between his building duties, kept a close eye on them and shooed them away when they teetered too close to the freeway.

It was then that I took the opportunity to unleash my pathetic Thai language skills, beyond greetings, thank you, and where is the toilet. An American friend with better language skills and more adult experience than me here had emailed me with a tip.

My absolute most useful Thai phrase for ingratiating oneself is to compliment a parent ontheir children. (phonetically spelled) "Luke chai/sow(male child/female child) na rock, krub!"(Your son/daughter is loveable) Works wonders. But be prepared for a blizzard of Thai you won't understand. "sorry, I don't understand" is "Kor toad, my cow jai, krub," he'd written.

I dredged it out of the memory banks and stuttered it out. S cocked his head, looked momentairly puzzled and then beamed. His smile momentarily outshone the 40-watt bulbs in the budding "Star Bar." "Oh, thank you!" he said. And, as predicted, unleased a blizzard of Thai. I blanked on "kor toad, by cow jai krub" but he quickly got the message

It was then that S's elderly uncle (actually, probably about my age), a sinewy, small, heavily tattoed Thai version of Ray Bradbury's Illustrated Man appeared as if a deux ex-machina to rescue me in his bare chest, floppy shorts and flipflops with a couple of Thai beers. I'm not big on body art but this guy's tattoo work, a pale blue, elaborate baroque quasi-psychedelic jungle foliage creation covering his entire upper body, save neck and arms, - was stunning.

Through S's translation,he accepted thanks from M and I for the beer and soaked up the compliments for his self-decoration/mutilation. He added that the skin canvas was done by hand by a friend of his with bamboo needles and homemade ink in three days. Oh yeah...and it was done while he was serving time in prison for (an unspecified) crime that he (naturally) did not commit.

"Yes, very painful," S told me after I'd asked the obvious question. "But my uncle wants to know if you want one also. His prison friend did his, but he can do one for you himself for 1,500 baht."

I demurred, despite the bargain. S himself said he disliked tattoos and nodded in agreement.

"What did his wife, your auntie, what did she think of it when she saw it? When he was out of prison and came home?" I asked S.

He laughed. He already knew the answer but asked his uncle again who paused, then grimaced and replied in Thai. "He says she did not like it," S said. "He said it was almost one month after he came from prison that she would even touch his body."

Saturday, July 7, 2007

The King, (Queen) and I
Thailand's royal couple, King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his wife, Queen Mom Rajawongse Sirikit (translated: "Glory and Splendor of the Kittiyakara family") are the world's longest reigning monarchs. He celebrates his 60th year on the throne this year, but we go back a long way, the King, Queen and I. I recall seeing them in a limo and waving wildly when I was last here in 1963. He was no JFK, but otherwise extremely cool and cloaked in not a little mystery and intrigue, even for a slightly more curious-than-average 10-year-old farang boy.

His Royal Majesty was born in the US where his father was a surgeon, and educated in Switzerland. King B plays jazz sax and has jammed with the some of best of the old mainstream masters, including Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Lionel Hampton and Benny Carter. He was frequently photographed in shades through the years because he is blind in one eye from a mysterious auto accident and ascended the throne after the equally mysterious death of his older brother, a death that some whisper the King of Thai Swing may have had a direct hand in.

Queen Sirikit was a stone cold babe, pure and simple. She was perhaps my first Asian fantasy woman, when I was almost too young to understand what I was feeling on seeing her pictures and during my one, very brief in-person glimpse.

They are beloved and revered here, so much so that it is crime, lèse majesté, to speak ill or otherwise make light of them. I have been hushed and shushed a couple times since arriving when I impulsively have gone into my slightly inebriated "The Queen was my fantasy babe" rap among Thais and foreigners alike. Earlier this year an elderly, drunken Swiss expat in the northern city of Chiang Mai was sentenced to a prison term that probably would have exceeded the rest of his natural life for spray painting photographs of the King, apparently due to his frustration at his inability to legally purchase alcohol on the King's birthday, a national holiday. (He has since reportedly been pardoned by His Benevolent Royal Majesty and subsequently quickly and quietly deported).

The Royal Portraits are ubiquitous here: him mostly, otherwise together and occasionally with their three girls and one (troubled) male heir in shops, private homes, highway and cityscape billboards, temples, girlie bars, etc and in a variety of poses and decades that span the swinging sixties to present day. It's a cult of personality that exceeds anything I imagined when I first went to China and is nothing that I recall from my time here so long ago.

In China, while the unspoken force of the Central Government hangs like a shroud over a lot of otherwise routine life, in major metropolitan areas one easily sees the easy-going Col Saunders and grimacing visages of Ronald McDonald dozens of times daily; much more so than, of course, Mao, or even current leaders such as Huo Jintao and Wen Jiabao - even in State offices Huo and Wen's portraits are relatively rare. I've never been to North Korea, of course, but I imagine even the Dear Leader must envy the Thai Royal Family's public exposure.

I've become something of an amateur afciando of Thai Royal Family portraits, beginning on my first visit to the Hong Kong Thai consulate on what would become an extended, frustrating and occasonally amusing attempt at securing a "M" or media visa to work here, one that has not ended by the way. I had not seen a picture of the Royal Pair since the 1960s and was momentarily stunned to see that they had aged. (Not that I had, of course...) But my royal fantasy pinup babe now resembled, well, it went like this:

"The queen, you know, Queen Sirikit, she, uh, how old is she now?" I asked the consulate official, a rather stern officious woman in charge of interviewing foreign interloping journalists. She ignored my attempt at friendly small talk but I blundered on. "She, she looks like Tammy Faye Bakker now! What happened?" I don't think my case manager knew who Tammy Faye Bakker was, but the unfortunate inference was probably clear and may explain why my premliminary visa approval took 6 rather than 2 weeks.

Here I've spotted two outstanding photos only on one very small bar. The first is black and white and,judging from My Royal Fantasy Babe's hairstyle, probably taken in the late 1960s. They are in casual, expensive wear, perhaps on tour in a foreign clime though it's hard to tell from the buildings in the background which could be as easily in Europe as a more contemporary area of Bangkok. She's slim, sleek and cuddling a slinky black and white cat and smiling warmly in an unguarded moment at the camera as His Royal Majesty does his best James Dean.

The other is perhaps 25 years later. He's in formal, gold and yellow kingwear, steel spectacles, graying thinning hair and obviously addressing a large public gathering from a high balcony. When the shutter clicks, though, he's interrupted by the Queen to whom he is caught turning and smiling as she peeks laughing around the balcony wall with a small video camera taping the invisible crowd below. In this picture particularly they're less royals and more a couple sharing a private moment in a public arena.

But my favorite is one I have yet to see displayed here. Circulated on the Internet it's easily dubbed "The King Meets the King." Their Royal Thai majesties are on the set of Elvis Presley's 1960 GI Blues. Her Majesty is smartly coiffed in what appears to be white linen and a black blouse, sitting between Elvis in army khakis and her rather stiff-in-shades husband who is next to Elvis's fetchng spiffy costar, Juliette Prowse in a airy, spring/summer-like (Thai silk?) frock. It's obviously a PR set up. You can see the security and press corps in the shadows behind them, but it's a moment of royal chic. Or schtick.

God save their Majesties and my original pinup girl.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Monkey Time
It's back to school time here in Thailand. The only reason I know this is due to a Saturday sea cruise I took with some coworkers, and a German kung-fu master who resembles Lee Marvin and an Australian industrial safety inspector with a passing resemblance to John Belushi.

Children were also aboard our Gilligan's Island type vessel, a small, seatless, blue and orange (Ed: GO BRONCOS!) fishing boat seemingly powered by a low end Sears lawnmower engine. But as the kids were either too young for school or attending Hua Hin's one small international school, they were spared the direct, personal humiliation and frivolity unfolding on the pristine beach where we gently bumped sand after about 50 minutes of ocean, beers and watching jellyfish. I'd say we docked, but there was no dock.

What greeted us was a long line of largely unoccupied beach chairs, some quaint ramshackle eateries, a dwarf selling Bob Marley headbands, and about 12 young scrawny Thai men in swimming trunks doing pushups in the pristine white sand as an older, larger guy screamed what sounded like abuse at them with a bullhorn. About 15 seconds later, another bulkier guy in yellow brief Speedos began slowly rolling over them from right to left. At the end of this homoerotic log rolling he stood, raised his arms and chanted something incomprehensible and then repeated the process from left to right as his submissive minions squirmed and giggled beneath his weight.

Welcome to Paradise. It was like some kind of John Waters warped take on a 1960s Beach Blanket Bingo movie. I watched slack jawed as the submissive whatever-they-weres joyfully sprang up after being rolled and joyfully clapped their hands and chanted a song of sorts at the sound-distorted behest of Mr Bullhorn.

The rest of my party weren't as stunned. They'd seen this sort of thing before. They'd also seen what popped out of the tropical growth shortly therafter: a group of blindfolded teenaged boys and girls in school uniforms with garishly painted faces and large vegetables jammed in their mouths. They were being led by older students who giggled and teased them while making them do vaguely disgusting things with the vegetables and each other on two large, long blocks of ice. Apparently it's an annual, generally harmless Thai educational ritual intent on forging bonds, group identities, and an appetite for sandy wilting cucumbers, brocolli and large, semi-nude men hurling invectives and their oily bodies on you.

"Oh, yah, the schools initation," Klaus, the Kung-fu guy yawned. "Every year, the same." He was not without a sense of humor, however. Later after we returned to the beach from which we'd begun and lounged some more he and his French wife were on the obnoxious receiving end of an uptight German tourist couple upset because Klaus's 3-year-old daughter had been fiddling with some shells they'd collected and compulsively stacked in an orderly row on a lounge chair. "Ach, fucking GERMAHNS!" Klaus muttered. "The same all over the world."

Sunday saw me and two visiting friends from Shenzhen, G and J, plus their Thai "girlfriends" whom they'd wrested from the notorious 4-story Nana Sex Mall in Bangkok, at a Hua Hin tourist attraction nicknamed the Monkey Temple. A couple ex-editors of mine who'd been here previously had recommended a sojourn to the Monkey Temple where dozens, perhaps 100 or more rhesus monkeys are free to scamper, frolic and beg to be fed buckets of peanuts, raw corn and bananas by unwitting visitors who pay 50-100 baht for the privilege of the possiblity of contracting saliva- and incisor-transmitted primate-borne diseases.

"Go see the Monkey Temple!" one had urged in an e-mail after I'd confessed that while Hua Hin seems very relaxed, I was drifting into some kind of tropical malaise missing C and others in SZ and HK. "And the Thai hookers are very friendly. Remember, Everything's Better with Monkeys and Thai Hookers!"

Well, here I was with two of one category, though not with me, exactly. And an uncountable number of the other. I'd begged off on a food bucket, content to watch G try his hand (or not to lose his hand) at feeding the hairy little buggers, some of which were actually quite hefty, strong and disturbingly agile. "Christ!" G shouted, swatting at a large alpha male crawling and pawing at his wallet pocket. "He's trying to pick my pocket!"

I wondered if the monks - who watched impassivly in their saffron robes - had trained the thieving, tick-ridden bastards in order to enchance the take at the largely vacant souvenir counters. There were also two large chipped, faded green plaster dinosaurs perched next to a small grouping of sacred gold painted Buddhas. The significance, if any, escaped me and as I pondered it ("Buddahsaurus...?") I heard G cursing again. I turned to see another hairy primate on his back while a second clung to his right leg, grasping for the blue plastic bucket o' monkey chow. Visitors were delighted, photographing his discomfort while I urged him to remain calm and quelled the urge to yell, "I told you so!"

He finally dislodged both without a scratch. "Now at least I can say I got rid of a monkey on my back," he joked. His "girlfriend" took his arm and nuzzled him for a moment and he smiled.

"See?" I said. "Remember? Everything's better with monkeys and Thai hookers, right?"

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

After the Flood

It's moments like last Saturday night, early Sunday morning actually, that make me wonder why. While the rest of the civilized world was presumably fast asleep or 12 or more hours in the past on a U.S> Saturday afternoon at cozy family gatherings, soccer games, gardening, shmoozing,cruising through the Colorado foothils and mountains or running errands for charcoal, fluid, a 24-pack of industial strength toilet paper and cases of beer and diet soda at the JumboMart ,why, exactly, was I trapped by flood waters in a small Hua Hin bar at 3am listening to a Jack Daniels-besotted coworker's near-incoherent monologue about shoving Q-tips up his nose.

It's nobody's fault but mine, I know. Nonetheless, allow me to continue...

Peering through door at the 6-inches of filthy water streaming down the small deserted street, I looked up from the floating carcass of a dead white chicken caught on an orange plastic bag to see a long-haired Thai bar girl at an establishment across the way ecstatically dancing in the doorway, arms flung to the air, to music I couldn't hear. Inside my shelter, The No Name Bar, my inebriated pal, a Chicago-native JT, continued to hold forth as the rain came tumbling down.

"Q-tipshh! Ya' know Q-tipshh? Keew tipshh," he slurred leaning into the face of the baffled bar owner, a polite, civil English chap named Paul. "So, so, so...like, I smell bad, you know?"

"You smell fine to me," Paul replied backing away. "Whiskey and cigarettes, but otherwise fine."

"NO!" JT replied. "I mean, I can smell it but, so, I figure, quite honestly, it's nose cancer. Nose cancer! The smell ... so Q-tips. Ya know, Q-tips? So, I sit on the toilet. Sit on it. I mean, the toilet. 'Starkers', is that what you guys say?"

" 'Starkers'. yes ...why do you need to sit on the toilet naked?" asks Paul. "Starkers with Q-tips?"

"So, so.. so I can put them up my nose and get a sample. To smell. To see if I have cancer. With Q-tips."

"Why don't you simply go to a physician?"

"Weren't you listening? I had the Q-tips!"

Suffice to say, I was relieved to finally leave the No Name, Q-tips and cancer talk about 40 minutes later when the rain slowed and a covered three-wheeled motorcab was enlisted by a Thai waitress to try to haul me through the waters home. A pot hole the size of a small swimming pool forced him to cut the ride early, so I slogged the last half mile on foot, 12-year-old khaki pants rolled up over hairy white calves muck and mud stained by the time I had the key in the lock.

A 20-minute shower and not enough sleep later I awoke. I had a date. Not a serious or even real one, but a combo waitress/maid at my hostelry named Tai had the day off for her otherwise Draconian 6-day, 12 hour schedule and owned a 100 cc Honda. She'd offered to ferry me around Hua Hin in exchange for gas and lunch. By the time we rendezvoused she'd picked up her 5-year-old niece who sat confidently in front, with me perched somewhat percariously behind Tai. We slowed behind a creaky combination food stall, motorized cart that I thought she was telling to move over but instead it and we came to full halt at the side of the rural road.

"My niece, she eat," Tai said. I nodded, having no idea what was on the menu and watched fascinated as the vendor, a wiry, dark skinned guy about 30 or so hit a switch for a spinning griddle and began to gracefully, daintily pour a batter on it. He gently thinned the batter with a thin metal spatula, spinning it into a pancake. It all looked sort of familiar, but... "What is it? What is he making?" I asked Tai.

"I don't know farang name. Thai name: '"crape.'"

"Crape? Crape?" The chef reached into a plastic bucket and pulled out some chocolate chips and from another scooped some powdered sugar. "Oh!," I said. "Crepes! French crepes!"

"No," Tai said. "Not France. Thailand food!" I didn't argue. We puttered further around the outskirts of Hua Hin to drop off her niece, past rows and blocks of unoccupied, freshly built identical suburban looking tan and buff homes. There's a property boom here of sorts but it's obvious a lot aren't selling and they looked oddly like any US insta-kit development. "Her father make," Tai said, pointing to the homes. "You want to buy?"

I assumed she meant he was the developer, and politely declined. Then we left the road and turned into a muddy, semiflooded patch of scraggly near-marsh land occupied largely by stray dogs and a small, shaky shanty town made of abandoned corregated tin and wood scraps. A few 60s-era TV antennas sprouted from the shacks but I couldn't imagine what use they might be.

"Her home!" Tai said smiling. "Her father, grandfather! Come meet."

Inside the dirt floor was still wet from the rainfall through the leaky, psuedo roof but her aunt gave me a polite wai and said, "Welcome," in English. Drying clothes were draped over every available edge, as well as on tree limbs outside. Two soggy looking mattresses were stacked atop each other. "Last night, water up here," Tai said, pointing to a dark spot about 3 or 4 inches up the bottom mattress.

Amidst all this squalor, mud and poverty, though, were two signs of semi-affluence. A working flat screen Sony TV, better than any model I'd ever owned, and a recent model bright blue washing machine. Electricity seemed to be jury rigged from some nearby power lines with a long, winding, tangled plug set-up. I don't think the Royal Thai Power Company had authorized it, but it seemed to do the trick. "Josie and the Pussycats" dubbed in Thai was playing on the TV.

"Do you get Scooby-Doo, too?" I asked. Tai didn't understand so I pointed to one of the scrawny dogs. "Dog detective. Grrrrowwrufff!" I tried my best Scooby imitation but to no avail. Just another old American guy standing in a flooded Thai shanty town imitating a cartoon dog on a Sunday afternoon...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Deutschland über alles
When I was still a callow lad basking in Thailand's relatively unknown glow, I recall being awakened by two sounds: a distinct bird call that I can still feebly recreate today given enough alcohol, and the cries of a wandering hawker peddling mangoes and cooked duck.

Forty four years later, I am happy to say that the same sort of bird still seems alive and well in the early Thai a.m. hours but the cries of the barbecue duck man have been replaced by Germanic folk songs and Odes to Odin and the sounds of wood being lustily chopped. I currently live next to a pair of elderly, extremely fit, gay German twins whose Pure Aryan appearance brings the term "Dr Mengele's experiments" uncomfortably to mind.

My racist, alcoholic British landlord of the moment who habitually refers to Thais as "nig-nogs" and claims to have dropped LSD with Leonard Cohen and been chums with Mick Jagger, the Cray twins of British crime fame and Tom Jones, among others, refers to them simply as "the poofta Nazis", which is probably stretching the point. Nonetheless, it's tempting to join him on this one especially when they stride like Nordic hikers, bare chested, bald headed and blue eyed in tandem singing what sound like Hitler Youth songs while hauling buckets of what appears to be mud or odd chemicals from some unknown site back to their home.

Physical fitness is big for them, less so for the rest of us. I mean, these guys haul buckets of mystery muck and chop chords of wood purely for the sheer fun of it all. At night they can been seen sitting in matching lounge chairs, occasionally with some demure Thai ladyboys, on their porch sipping clear beverages and apparently regailing their transvestite guests with tales of their father's heroics in the Waffen SS.

I miss the duck man.