The Garuda 747 landed in Biak, a large island floating on a slate blue sea mirroring the equatorial sky. Males went naked except for a gourd on their penis. They played guitars. I stayed at an old Dutch hotel opposite the airport. I watched the Buster Douglas-Mike Tyson fight in a grass hut on the beach. I bought the natives beer to celebrate the upset. We danced around a bonfire that evening. In the morning I boarded an inter-island liner heading from Ambon. A plane took me from there to Manado followed by a boat ride off the coast of Sulawesi to Poso. A bus ride along the spine of the island to Tana-Torajah. Another plane to Bali. A ferry ride to Java and a train to Jakarta. Jet to Medan. Ferry to Malaysia and a long train ride up the peninsula to Thailand.
I was in heaven.
Snorkeling off coral cliffs, magic spices, smoldering volcanoes, ancient temples, thick rain forests, mountain Edens, exotic dancers, eating pig with headhunters, drinking whiskey with Hindi rickshaw drivers, and swimming at pristine beaches begging you to stay forever. My money was half-gone and I had half the world to see. On the Bangkok-bound train a Frenchman suggested staying at the Malaysia Hotel.
“It’s a funny hotel.” Michael had been living in Asia 10 years. "It was where Charles Sobhraj used to meet some of his victims."
"Who?" The name sounded familiar.
"Charles Sobhraj. He was half-Vietnamese, half-French. He would pretend to be friends to travelers and dosed them with pills, so they'd think they were sick. Supposedly he didn't want to kill any of them, but he was not a doctor."
"And I want to stay at this hotel?"
"It's good fun. Cheap and the restaurant downstairs is where all the go-go girls go after the go-go bars close on Patpong."
"Patpong?" I was lost after hearing so many 'gos'.
"It's the wickedest street in Bangkok. You'll love it." Micheal had a colored stone business and we discussed diamonds. He called Pattaya home. Seeing the ignorance on my face, he wrote down his telephone number.
“Come down and see me some time. It’s Disneyworld for men.”
"More so than Patpong?"
We bid farewell at the train station.
Bangkok was my first city since leaving LA. Skyscrapers rose from the wide avenues, which had once been canals or klongs. Upscale tourists stayed at the Oriental Hotel along the Chao Phraya River and backpackers crowded the hovels of Khao San Road. The taxi took me to the Malaysia Hotel. I booked an air-conditioned room overlooking the pool. The price was $20/night. I ignored the cigarette burns in the blankets. This was the Malaysia Hotel and not the Hotel de Biarritz.
Kenny’s Bar up Soi Duplei offered farangs or westerners afternoon assignations with lithe free lancers and the Patpong entertainment district provided nocturnal entertainment at go-go bars, sex shows, discos, and drugs. 99% of the girls hailed from Isaan. It was a poor plateau to the northeast. Selling off girls in times of trouble or need was a family tradition for generations. Each go-go dancer told a story sadder than the previous girl. I bought them drinks and returned to my hotel room alone. Within five days mama-sans from three bars knew my name. They all posed the same question.
“Why you no go with girl?”
“I have a broken heart,” I explained to the mama-san from the Queen’s A Go-Go.
“I fix your broken heart.” A go-go girl weighing 90 pounds swung silken black hair
across my chest. A bikini was painted on her flesh. She showed no signs of inhibition.
“Sorry, can’t not fix.” The temptation was great. The last time I had been with a woman was Gabrielle. Too long ago. "Sorry, I have to go."
"You come back. I fix heart. 100%." It was a promise she would keep offering until I said yes, so I left fast for Kenny’s Bar.
His girls were less aggressive. Most were on heroin like the farangs at the bar; old Vietnam vets, dissolute drug addicts, and young adventurers living on $10/day. Their dealer was Fat Pat. He was half-Thai, half-Chinese. A lot of Thais were half-something else.
"You want chase the dragon?" Fat Pat weighed about 300 pounds. His stubby fingers held up a black ball.
"Opium." My cousin Sherri would love Fat Pat. His prices were a fraction of the black tar in LA.
"Make you feel horny." He was gay and winked like sleeping with him was an extra bonus.
"Change your mind, you know where I am."
I drank a cold Singha beer and watched the farangs pick up the dope-weary girls.
"Why you not take girl?" Kenny asked from behind the bar.
"I'm not here for sex. Only beer."
"You can lie me but not lie yourself." No one was willing to take 'no' for an answer. "You not like girls. Can have me. I make love all night for free. I like straight men. You straight, yes."
"Yes, but I don't go with men."
"Not go with men. Not go with lady." Kenny shivered as if someone had walked on his grave. "Maybe you look like girls here. I have cousin. Pong."
He shouted to the kitchen. A tall 19 year-old with long hair entered the bar. Sweet smile, smiling eyes. Slender as a boy. She would have stopped traffic in Paris, London, or New York.
"You like?" Kenny already knew the answer.
"I don't want to pay for it." Prostitution was a sin.
"Not have to pay. You give her money for family. Not same pay. You not like not give anything." The going rate was $20. Pong leaned over to whisper in Kenny's ear.
“Pong like you. She say that you are not like other farangs.”
“How so?” She stepped close enough for me to smell her perfume. It offered the promise of flowers.
"Ask her not me."
Pong touched my arm and had me touch hers. Her dark skin was smoother than a baby seal’s belly.
“You not fat. You have all your hair. You not do drugs. You have no tattoo. Have teeth too and wear clean clothes,” her words caressed my ear. "You go with me?"
"Yes." Pong had broken my resistance. We went to the Malaysia. It was less than five minutes away. The desk staff smiled at my surrender and bowed with hands pressed together in a wai. I had been inducted into the ranks of the farangs. Room 203. Our foreplay skipped the usual dating context of the West. Ten minutes later within we were in the shower. Her naked skin was slippery with soap. She washed my back and front, but was shy about my embracing her wet body.
"Wait." She averted her eyes from my groin.
"Wait for what?" I wanted to make love. It had been a long time.
"For you be clean. You clean we go to bed. Boom-boom. Promise." It was no lie.
Pong stayed the night and the next. She laughed at my jokes and poured beer into my glass. We ate spicy food and had sex morning, afternoon, and night. We had a good time and Thais like nothing better than fun, unless it was sleep. Pong watched TV in the hotel room, as my typewriter clattered out pages. She said the typing sounded like monsoon rain on a tin roof. I barely lifted my head from my work. Later she leapt from the balcony into the deep end of the pool to get my attention.
“You love book more than love me,” she cried, climbing from the pool. “It make me crazy. Clack clack clack.”
This wasn’t about the typing.
“Love?” I hadn’t expected this word. I gave Pong money every morning. She seemed happy and I acted like the 500 baht was a tip.
“Khwan-rak. Love.” She stormed up to room 203 and threw herself on the bed.
“Oh, love.” I hadn’t seen a woman this mad, since my ex-girlfriend, Alice, discovered someone had pissed in her raccoon cap at a party. It had been my friend Bill. I never told her that.
"Yes, love same in movie. Same in song."
"I haven't loved a woman in a long time."
"You love men?"
Every Thai seemed convinced that if you didn't love a woman than you had to be gay. There were no other options.
"No, I had a broken heart."
"So this girl now ghost. She make bad magic to stop you love me?"
"Magic. You not know magic, but she make magic to make you not love me."
"I don't not love you."
I almost placated her fury by saying the l-word, then remembered Bill’s and Sherri’s warnings. They had my best interest at heart. The old veterans at Kenny’s told stories about love gone bad. Each one worse than the other. I had no intention of joining their repertoire of sad endings.
“Pong, I like you a lot.”
“Like?” Her skin bristled with indignation." “Like same dog. Like same pizza. Not love.”
"Like is good."
"I not pizza." She pulled on her jeans and tee-shirt like a hurry. Almost like my warranty had worn out.
“I know you're not pizza.”
"Not sure." Pong went to the door. "I go now."
One sweet word and she would stay. I said nothing. She cursed with the venom of a rabid snake and slammed the door shut. Two minutes later I ran after her. The girl behind the desk said she was very angry.
"Be careful. Thai girls not happy. Bad luck."
"I know." I had lived under an old woman's curse. I hurried down the street to Kenny's Bar.
“Pong not here." Kenny was playing cards with Fat Pat.
"Where she go?"
"Not good idea you see her now." Kenny flipped down the Ace of Spades. "Stay away for one day. Maybe two.”
His regulars had witnessed this scene before. They laughed at my expense. I didn't ybuy any of them drinks. I visited Patpong that night. I thought I saw Pong twice. I couldn’t believe how many beautiful girls with long black hair existed on that one street, but none of them were Pong and the mama-sans repeated their query. “Why you not go with lady?”
Now I had a different reason.
I couldn’t sleep that night. The sheets bore the fragrance of jasmine. I was in danger. The next morning a travel agent booked a train to Chiang Mai.
“Girls in Chiang Mai have white skin.” The ticket agent was 30. She had been a beauty once. Now she had a German boyfriend and could eat as much as she wanted. She was getting fat. “Careful they not make magic.”
“Magic?” I had experienced Mrs. Adorno’s curse and shivered at the threat of another curse.
“Magic to make you love.” The plump travel agent smiled without humor. She was serious. “Watch what you drink. Ching-ching.”
“Okay, thanks for the warning.”
Throughout the afternoon I fought off the pull of Kenny’s Bar and I tried to recall Pong ever giving me a glass I hadn’t seen her pour from a bottle. I didn’t have enough fingers to count the times, but I was stronger than Pong. This was not love and I boarded the train for Chiang Mai, as the sun set over Bangkok.
Mekong Whiskey provided a potent dose of oblivion in the rocking dining car. I told jokes to the Thai policemen. They bought another bottle of whiskey. I didn’t remember walking back to my bunk and woke in my second-class sleeper, as the train pulled into Chiang Mai Station. I had a murderous hangover and stepped off the train into steamy heat. Distant mountains rose over the tree line. Not a single skyscraper challenged the horizon. A rooster crowed out the dawn. This was Asia.
I stayed at a cheap bungalow within the city walls. The room cost less than $5/night. The mosquitoes were free. I rented a motor scooter and drove to the temples by day and the bars by night. The lighter-skinned girls of Chiang Mai were a little more money-hungry than the Patpong girls. Their avarice might have been due to their taller height. I doubted it and avoided the beer bars. I had been warned not to fall in love by too many people to falter now.
An Australian motor trekker at Night Market had been living in Chiang Mai since 1981. Jim knew the roads north of the city well. “This time of year the dope fields are dust ankle-deep. Very few people have driven through the tribal villages; Akhas, Yai, Karens, Hmong, KMT refugees growing opium for outlaw warlords. Great stuff and nothing like smoking opium by the fire.”
The prospects of ‘Chasing the Dragon’ sold the trip and I rented a crapped-out dirt bike. 250cc. Chiang Dao was my address for three weeks. I typed over a hundred pages of NORTH NORTH HOLLYWOOD and then spent three days climbing the steep trail to the craggy peak. The view from atop the limestone peak matched Bill’s description of his movie location. The jungle stretched through the haze to the broken peaks of Burma and Laos. I sent Bill a postcard, thanking him for his suggestion.
Burma lay 50 miles to the north. I plotted out a trip to the Golden Triangle. The bungalow owners said they would watch my stuff while I was gone. My typewriter too and I woke before the dawn, ready for the road
Reaching Mai Ai I stopped for Thai noodles at a riverside restaurant. The tea-colored stream flowed from rugged mountains. Two off-duty policemen drank beers. Their guns rested on the table. They spoke about bandits between this checkpoint and the next town.
“Not ride night.”
“I’m going to Doi Mai Salong.” The mountain town was two hours away. The Australian said that there was a comfortable hotel. I hoped to score some opium. I said nothing about this to the cops and bought the officers a big bottle of beer.
“I’ll keep my eyes open.”
The paved road ended beyond the bridge crossing the Thaton River. Dust spat from the Honda’s rear tire. The hillsides were bald from slash-and-burn farming. The red dirt was dotted with vegetables. Two pick-up trucks sped the other way crammed opium plants.
The sky was cloudless and I opened the throttle. 40 became 50 KPH on the uphill road. I turned my head and gazed at a distant village. No electrical lines connected the settlement to the modern world. No planes were overhead. I smelled the sun-glazed fields and should have been watching where I was, instead of seeing where I was going. A pick-up truck appeared in my lane. A crash was unavoidable and I said in my head “Shit, I’m dead.”
Time shattered into a universe of endless possibilities, until my left wrist broke upon landing on the flatbed. The old lady on a rice bag stared to the sky, as if I had fallen from an airplane. Her son jumped out of the truck, spewing incoherent curses in Thai. He grabbed my wrist and I threw him down the hillside. After all he had almost killed me.
Two policemen arrived on the scene. They were the two from the restaurant. The officers examined the tire tracks and ruled in my favor. The opium farmer sold a pig to cover my medical bill. The hospital at Mai Ai set my arm. The doctor gave me a packet of aspirin and ignored my request for a stronger. I spent the night tossing in bed. The aspirins barely blanketed the pain. The following morning the Australian arrived with a pick-up. Jim estimated the repairs to his bike would cost $100.
“You’re lucky you didn’t get killed.”
“Yeah, I thought I was dead.” I had a suspicion that I had suffered a fatal head injury in a parallel dimension.
“No, I was talking about the Thai. Lucky he didn’t come to your hospital room and shoot you.”
“Oh.” My hospital bill of 5000 baht was almost $200. A fortune for a farmer.
“Happens all the time up here. He’ll get drunk, think about you, and then bang. Thais are very hot-tempered.
Jim drove me to Chiang Dao for my gear. Two hours later he dropped me at The Top of the North Inn in Chiang Mai. I drank five beers, hoping to kill the pain, but by evening the fracture was pulsating with a white pain. I hurried to a pharmacy by the Eastern Gate, praying for relief. Druggists rejected slews of desperate entreaties from string-out junkies. Few had broken wrists and the Chinese pharmacist counted out twenty red pills. “Strong. Stop jep. No drink beer or whiskey, okay?”
I exited the drugstore and washed down a Dilaudid at a nearby bar. I called Kenny’s Bar in Bangkok. He said his niece was leaving for home tomorrow. She would be gone a month. The next Bangkok train was scheduled for the morning. There was no way I could make it in time.
“Tell Pong I’m thinking about her.” Gabrielle was no longer #1 and Elana was out of the # 2 slot.
“Call later. You speak with her.” Kenny hung up before I could tell him to ask Pong to stay.
Several beers washed down two more Dilaudids. They hit fast and my mind wandered through a sweaty calm, until a booming English voice shortened my nod. A Brit was babbling about the Isle of Wight. I recognized the voice and opened my eyes. The speaker was not a narcotic mirage. It was Toby Bonham. He 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. Toby squinted beyond his drunken vision and blurted out my name and then asked, “What are you doing here?”
“Just traveling.” I made no effort to move. The beer and Dilaudids had kidnapped my legs. “Why aren’t you on the Isle of Wight?”
“Gave up the hotel. It was losing money.” He weaved over to my stool and sat down heavily. The girl escaped into the night. Toby ignored my cast and 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 on going to Istanbul. After that it was strictly 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?” Thai law prohibited any farangs 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. “She’s a sweet girl. You have to meet her. This will be the new Shangri-La. 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 Orient.”
“More like a detour off the Silk Road.”
“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 words 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.”
A tuk-tuk drove 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 from every corner of the world. They were listening to Bob Marley. We drank more beer. I tried calling Kenny’s. The line was busy. I was jealous of Toby. His girlfriend doted on him. Before I fell asleep in a hammock, I told Toby, “You’re right. This is paradise.”
I woke around noon covered by mosquito bites and my wrist hurt enough for me to want to cut it off. I swallowed another Dilaudid and drank beer with Toby. He accompanied me to the train station. I bought a 2nd Class sleeper berth. He shook my good hand on the platform. “Come next year and you’ll see the miracle.”
“The Chiang Mai Arts Club.” I waved from the last car and the train lurched down the tracks into the mountains. I drank whiskey in the restaurant car. The night air was sultry. The small villages were aglow with life. The Orient didn’t get any better than this.
The train arrived in Bangkok shortly after dawn. The receptionist at the Malaysia gave me the same room as before. I soaked in the bathtub, while reading the Bangkok Post. The rest of the world didn’t seem too important and neither did the sports.
Having breakfast in the hotel coffee shop I wrote a long letter to Sherri and a series of postcards to my family and friends. I mentioned nothing about my accident or Pong. When I visited Kenny’s bar, he looked at my cast.
“Lucky you not die.”
“I have a tough body.”
“No you lucky man not kill you.” Kenny like the Australian understood danger of an irate farmer.
“Can I call Pong?”
“Her house not have phone. She go to help with rice. Maybe stay one month.”
I believed him about the phone, but her hands were too soft to work a rice field.
I let the travel agent arrange my visa to Nepal and didn’t wander far from Soi-Duplei that week. No temples. No river tour. No snake farms. No Patpong ping-pong shows. With a broken hand I couldn’t write the end to NORTH NORTH HOLLYWOOD, so I mostly read books and drank beer at Kenny’s. Another girl asked me to take her to the hotel. “You wait for Pong. She go Phuket with German. Stupid farang. I show you good time. More than Pong.”
I refused even knowing that she was telling the truth.
“Pong be happy you say no.” Kenny heard my refusal.
He had lied to me about her working. I spotted Pong with a farang at the Malaysia Hotel.
I wasn’t angry. Everyone had to do what they had to do. The travel agent confirmed my flight to Kathmandu and a connecting flight to the world’s highest mountains. Kenny said good-bye at the hotel taxi stand. “See you again.”
“I’m not sure.” This was not America or New York.
“You not know. I can tell you come back. You like Thailand too much.”
“I’ll see you when I see you.” I didn’t turn around as the taxi pulled away from the hotel.
In Kathmandu I broke open the cast to scratch an itch. I trekked through the Himalayas and then flew via New Delhi to Paris. I showed my friends photos of temples, beaches, and mountains. I did the same thing in New York. Richie rehired me within a week.
Life was back to normal. Work, eat, and sleep. New York women sensed I didn’t want them. They were after someone steady and I was already planning another Asian trip. I had finished my novel. My typing was worse than before and my agent told me to take lessons. I didn’t have the time. Bill laughed at my travel stories, especially having survived the motorcycle crash. I told him I still wanted to see those mountains. He wished he could come too, except he was too busy making films. My cousin came to dance at ShowWorld. Sherri wore long gloves to cover her tracks. Seeing Pong’s picture, she said, “You didn’t tell me about her.”
“Pong was a girl I met.”
“Glad to hear she had a name. You going back?” Sherri was much better than before. Her habit was in remission.
“Yes, but not for her.”
“Six months is a long time for someone to wait.” Especially in Bangkok.
“Someday you’re going to wake up and fall in love again.” Sherri was talking about my recovering from Gabrielle, not a go-go dancer. She understood the difference between love and lust and loneliness.
“I’m through with love.” I had not said her name in over a year.
“Never say never.” Sherri was a hopeless romantic and knew me well.
“Never.” I was still under Mrs. Adorno’s curse.
I could only hope that it didn’t last forever.