Dateline: Khun Sa’s Golden Triangle, 1982.
I was traveling with my good friend Claude; a tall, lanky, hilarious, woolen skull cap-wearing Frenchman.
We were standing on the banks of the Mekong looking out at forbidden Laos and the then not-recommended Burma.
Burma was closer. We both winked at each other and stripped. I’d never seen him without his woolen hat.
He shyly responded to my unasked question; “Is because I ‘ave no ‘air.”
“How did you lose it?” I asked.
“You know, I ‘ave no idea. Jus’ one day I wake up and is gone.”
“You never told me what you did back home, by the way. You know, for a living?”
“Oh I work in, I am clean out ze water tank in ze, how you say– nuclear reactor.”
“Really? And the hair just fell out one day, huh?”
Naked under the broiling Thai sun we dove into the Mekong, playfully racing each other to the nearest shore.
Mid high-five, we caught movement from the brush as a phalanx of Burmese military emerged ‘en garde’ from the jungle foliage. This was not the first nor the last last time to have an AK-47 nervously pointed at me, but it keeps you fresh for sure.
An understandably humorless Captain stepped forward and presumably started to ask for our passports, then stopped, reassessing our resources.
We both offered weak smiles and upturned hands.
We were naked. In Burma. With a military patrol in front of us. No papers, no excuses.
The captain, clearly flummoxed, took his pistol and flipped it towards the Thai shore from which we had just come.
We nodded our apologies and appreciation and… well, I don’t remember the actual swim. It was my Jesus moment, walking on water.
Another high-five as we donned our shorts and t-shirts and returned to our 50 cent a night thatched roof bungalows back on Thai soil.
Our story spread amongst the now drunken teenage military patrol that was our stronghold, and we curried great favor. One of the leaders called me over to share in their meal. He leaned on his rifle and gestured me towards a bowl of something that looked like raw pork.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Oh.. is raw pork. You eat!”
Um hhmm you’re drunk, well armed and we’re a thousand miles from a real hospital: yeah, sure I’ll eat.
The next morning I woke up ‘mai sabai’, that is, not feelin’ my best.
Not since the peyote days of yore did I vomit so much.
My travel companion Claude, surveying my condition, said, “Well, zis is too much puke and shit for me. I go travel for a few days and see you after you are better.”
Really, I did love the guy.
For the next year or so — OK, maybe more like a day or two, hard to say — I lay writhing on a bamboo floor, returning all of my precious bodily fluids to the earth.
At some point a couple of days into this, a pa kow ma- ( a kind of Thai sarong) wearing man, who I had seen earlier in the week, came by to collect his $1.50 for the 3 days overdue rent.
He saw me laying on the floor, said, “Oh OK OK,” and then left.
He returned some time later with a piece of brown paper that was coated with a thick brown paste on it. He smiled and mimed a licking motion for me, then handed me the paper. It was bitter but I didn’t want to seem unappreciative and, hell, I was hallucinating at that point anyway.
Best damn stuff I’ve ever had. Pain gone, chills gone, vomiting, not that there was anything left, gone. The Golden Triangle was shining it’s amber light upon me.
To quote American satirist Bill Maher; “Ya know, I don’t do heroin, I don’t advocate its use, hell I wouldn’t even know where to get any… but it hasn’t hurt my record collection any!”
Raw opium. Well, I have no complaints.
A couple of days later I was good to go.
My landlord/’dealer’ had returned to his border duties and invited me out on patrol with him. We were going up river into Shan state to deliver ‘medicines’ to a Karen village. He slung his AK-47 over his shoulder and powered up the long tail boat. We hit the shore a while later, the very same side I’d been chased from days earlier.
The nuances of the autonomous states’ relationships remain a mystery to me to this day, but there was an alert nonchalance in my guide’s demeanor that was comforting to me. I felt like the guns that everyone wore were more like the Jambia, the ceremonial knives carried by wealthy Yemenis, or the scabbards carried by Sikhs, a kind of religious icon, more than anything actually intended for combat.
Wishful thinking perhaps?
We hiked a bit through well worn jungle paths, until coming to a collection of bamboo homes. It seemed they were no strangers to seeing shiny white faces there, even ones that weren’t carrying ‘the good book’. I was welcome. We were ushered into one home by a local soldier, and a quick exchange of goods between my military guide and what I took to be the mayor of the village ensued amongst wary glances.
Medicines — yeah, that’s what they were!
Transaction complete, I was motioned to sit on a rickety chair made of thatch. A teenage Karen hilltribe girl then emerged from a separate kitchen area carrying a tray with a couple of ceramic cups and a tea pot on it. She was wearing a t-shirt that displayed a large picture of Sylvester the cat, which incredibly and improbably had written underneath it:
Happiness is a warm pussy.
The translation, implications and irony seemed thankfully lost on all, especially the wearer, who was just happy to have a cartoon souvenir from her former Christian missionary educators. It was just some more of the flotsam and jetsam from the outside world that wound up in unlikely places, like the Chadian rebels who wound up with a case of pre-printed ‘Pittsburgh Steelers World Super Bowl Champions’ jerseys in 2011. They, of course, lost that year.
Eventually we returned from whence we came, and the next day I finally took my leave.
I set off on a solo trek. These were the days before organized eco tours, when Lonely Planet lived up to its name. I was out about an hour, on a dusty road to some hilltribe village where I was told you could share a pipe with the elders, and came to a crossroads.
If you had seen this in a movie, you would have called bullshit, but there was an old man sitting right at the ‘Y’.
I asked him if the road to the right went to the village I was looking for. He smiled and said yes.
I thanked him and headed down the road. I got about 100 yards and stopped, thinking, “Hmmm I’ve been in Thailand long enough and..”
So I returned to the crossroads and asked, “Say, does the road to the left go to the village?”
Sure enough, he smiled and said, “yes”.
And there my first important Thai lesson in truth telling was: both roads did indeed lead to where i was going, except the road to the left took about an hour, and the road to the right took about a month.
He wasn’t lyin’. But he sure wasn’t tellin’ the truth.
Featured image is by Nicolai Bangsgaard and used under a CC BY 2.0 licence