The odds of surviving a head-on collision with a pick-truck while driving a motorcycle are not in favor of the motorcyclists, but I was lucky enough to walk away from such an accident in the North of the Thailand back in 1990.
I was unscathed.
My left wrist was warped like the neck of a Klingon Bird of Prey and the 125 cc MTX was in need of a new front fork, but I considered myself lucky to be walking the planet and bought a 2nd-Class train ticket for the night train to Bangkok.
This relief wore off with the painkillers in Chiangmai Mai. My forearm was protected by a heavy plaster cast, yet every movement zapped a pulse of pain through my body like a disco strobe. Beer offered no relief. I need something stronger and walked from Top North Inn to the pharmacy by the Eastern Gate, praying for sympathy from the old Chinese druggist.
He wasn't a man to say 'yes' easy.
Every day and night the old man was assailed by a deluge of strung-out junkies seeking a substitute for heroin or opium. Mr. Ma rejected these desperate entreaties with a poker face. He was not a methadone clinic, but few had broken wrists and the Chinese pharmacist counted out twenty red pills.
“Strong. Stop jep. No drink beer. No whiskey, okay?”
"Krap khun carp."
I exited the drugstore and washed down a Dilaudid with a Chang beer at a nearby bar. The girls were white-skinned and tall. A change from the Isaan emigres in Patpong. I smiled at them for a second and they sneered with derision.
Junkies were very low society or 'loso'.
A second pill and a third beer transported me to the sweaty netherworld and the pain faded from my body. Time ticked off a clock. The next Bangkok train was scheduled for the morning. There was no way I would be on it. I was living in oblivion.
A booming English voice cut through my nod. A tell red-headed Brit was babbling about the Isle of Wight. I recognized the voice and opened my eyes. The speaker was not a narcotic mirage.
Bentham had a hotel on the Isle of Wight. They boiled lobsters at the Osborne House Annex, where I had holidayed one August with a South African model. The tall Englishman was ranting about Goya paintings to an overweight female backpacker. Bentham squinted beyond his drunken vision and blurted out my name in disbelief.
“What are you doing here?”
“Just traveling.” I made no effort to move. The beer and Dilaudids had kidnapped my legs.
Bentham weaved over to my stool and the pimple-faced twenty year-old escaped into the night. She was looking for adventure and not whatever came her way.
“Why aren’t you on the Isle of Wight?”
“Gave up the hotel. It was losing money.” Ignoring my cast, he explained his presence far from his wife, child, and family auction house in Chelsea. “I bought a plane. One day I flew to Dieppe for some cheap wine. It was a beautiful day and I kept going to Istanbul. After that it was flying by compass, until I reached Chiang Mai. I like it here. The mountains, the people passing through, and I met this girl. Lovely girl really. So I sold the plane and bought a guesthouse.”
“You bought land?” The Thais prohibited any farang from owning property.
“No, I registered the house in my girlfriend’s name.” He unfolded his vision for a Chiang Mai version of the Chelsea Art Society, an art society off the Kings road. “This guest house will be the stepping-off point for the Shangri-La of the Orient. Tribal art, travelers from around the world going to Burma, Laos, the Himalayas, cheap beer, good food, beautiful girls. You know this was once the crossroads of the world.”
“More like a detour off the Silk Road.” The only present traffic over the Burma border was opium and ja bah or meth..
“Sure, it’s not Times Square, but Times Square isn’t Times Square anymore. If it was, you wouldn’t be here.”
I had loved 42nd street in the 70s. Go-go bars, porno shops, street thieves, hustlers, whores, and pimps. I had first seen Sherri on screen there. Nothing like that existed in the States after Reagan came into office. “New York isn’t what it was. Neither was London.
“Which is why we’re here. This is the New Babylon.”
Chiang Mai was fun and I offered “Glad to hear you’re happy.”
“Couldn’t be any happier than to be with my girlfriend. She is so cool.”
I hadn’t heard anyone describe a Thai girl as cool. Beautiful, sweet, loving usually worked for the honeymoon period. Afterwards the descriptions grew a little harsher. When I expressed my concern, Toby waved off my negativity.
"My girlfriend loves me too much to play me for a buffalo. Come with me and I'll show you."
A tuk-tuk drove us to a secluded lane in the old city. The wooden guesthouse rested in the shadow of a crumbling Buddhist spire. The restaurant was filled with unshaven youths. The unwashed hippie wannabes were listening to Bob Marley.
They greeted Bentham with a chorus of 'No woman. No cry'.
We drank more beer. Hs girlfriend spoke very good English. She was the spitting lookalike of the Chinese actress from THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG. Her name was porn. Bentham called her XXX. Her cousin played guitar by request. Porn asked if I wanted a girl. I was in no condition to imitate Bentham and I commandeered a hammock to fall asleep.
"So what do you think?" Bentham unfolded mosquito netting and the night went white.
“You’re right. This is paradise.”
I woke around noon and my wrist ached bad enough for me to want to cut it off. I swallowed another Dilaudid and drank a beer with Toby. Two evenings evening he accompanied me to the train station. I bought a 2nd Class sleeper berth. He shook my good hand and waved good-bye. “
"Come next year and you’ll witness the miracle."
“The Chiang Mai Arts Club.” The standard-gauge train lurched out of the the tracks into the mountains. I drank whiskey in the restaurant car. The night air was sultry. The small villages were aglow with life. I fell asleep in my 2nd Class AC berth. The Orient didn’t get any better than this.
For my next trip to the Orient I flew east from New York to London. I ran into Toby at a Chelsea bar. He was entertaining art dealers from his auction house. I asked “What’s happening with Chiang Mai Arts Center?
“Sssssh.” Bentham brought me to the side. “Six months ago I came here to clear up some banking details. When I returned, the guesthouse had been sold. My girlfriend had run off with the guitar-playing cousin to parts unknown. End of story. I learned my lesson. Don’t fall in love with a Thai girl.”
“They have magic in their blood.”
“Makes you crazy and do crazy things. Things you’d never do with a western girl. I lost everything I had there and still wanted her back. People want to know why, but I can’t even explain it to myself.”
“So no more Thailand.”
“I’m back with my wife. It’s a safe love for a man my age.” Toby tightened his tie and rejoined his clients. His story came as no surprise and I vowed to never succumb to such a weakness. Within a month I knew the Thai word for love.
Proving one thing.
There is no fool like an old fool.