I wish my mind was addled by travel, drugs, or love in some kind of disguise, but the sad truth is that it’s as clear as a good piss, and I’m just in shock.
“Jarred. You fuck. What are you doing?”
In the middle of a weeknight when most of the wine was gone, that message was perfectly poignant.
“Come to Thailand. I know you can milk it. 13 Frets are bookin shows in Chiang Mai, Pai, a bunch of places… like what we talked about in Amsterdam”
He was an old drinking buddy I hadn’t seen in a year. The rest of us back then called him ‘Nemesis’ because he was so perfect that he made it impossible to compete for girls around him. His band sucked, but they had fun and he had an insatiable appetite for drugs & madness. We talked for a while and he told me where I should stay and what dates to fly over. Then he spelled it out,
“Russians bring all the essential amphetamines into India. The Burmese then ferry them across into Thailand. Something’s happening, and you should be there with me” he said.
I’d heard about the drug trade switching from Heroin to Meth in Thailand, but it was meant to be based along the Mekong, not the mountains. I’ve always wanted to be rich, and a roving sex-hound/drug-fiend like any normal person, but I’ve never wanted to get involved in anything truly dangerous. Of course, I did want to know what was going on.
In just over four weeks I walked into the Chiang Mai night. The calm started in on me quick – that yellow haze of heat, colour and relaxed bureaucracy. In Australia, everything feels blue – sterile, serious, frantic yet trying so hard to seem perfect. Nemesis was nowhere to be found. I sent him a message. It was close to midnight so I just slept. In the morning, the cold I’d picked up on the flight over was still bubbling away. I chugged half a litre of bottled water, completely naked in front of shoddy Thai blinds, then, I looked at my phone to see the response from Nemesis. He’d gotten drunk and booked a flight to Brazil on Skyscanner. Three weeks ago.
I found a pharmacy. The ugly girl with a long pony tail gave me a full barrage of cold killers. Codeine? No problem, take as much as you need. I did. Then I walked around. And around. I took photos. Power-lines in tangled but purposeful webs all over streets astride vines, hanging tree limbs and peeling paint. Little kids running with giant smiles and worn out sandals. A fridge on the back of a scooter. A mansion opposite shanties. A plate of sardines drying in the sun beside a barely toothed old man. Teenagers listening to 90s songs that were barely cool back then, and watching their cocks train to fight. I know they weren’t fighting because they kept taking breathers in between lunging kicks. Resting their giant chicken necks on each other like old heavyweights. That fucking song bleating out, “I said hey eye y yay, I said hey!” Four Non Blondes. Why do I remember that fucking song?
I jumped onto a Hike & Bike trip to have some fun and to see how the villagers lived in the mountains. Five of us were in the back of a truck and conversation was dull. I reached into my bag for some of the “diet pills” I picked up. (i.e. amphetamines). The guide sitting next to me noticed the pill bottle and got off his phone for the first time in twenty minutes. His calves were the most terrifyingly dense calves I’d ever seen and his forearms matched.
“What bring you to Thailand?” he said.
“Vacation” I said.
“Oh” he said.
Good talk. Good lies.
“You ride this mountain a lot?” I said.
“You ridden from the bottom to the top?”
“Yes. In 45 minutes, my best time. Not now. Now there been too much partying”
“You a big drinker?” I said.
“Some things” he said.
“Is pot big over here?” I said. The guide looked at me and smirked.
“It no problem. It, ah… drug problems still here. Methamphetamine. You don’t fuck with that. They bring over here and this much” he held out the tip of his pinky finger, “this much cost you only 200-300 bhat” he scoffed, leaned back and shook his head.
Then the truck stopped, another guide yanked the flap down and the hike started. Sweating, ball chafing, and beautiful views for 4 hours. Then a lakeside café for lunch. I asked the guide where a lively place would be to go at night. Where the young people went and where I might see some bands. He wrote the name of a strip for the young & affluent in both English and Thai. He told me he might be there the following night, around 9:30. His name was Kung.
I went back to my hostel and lay under the air con drinking a beer and swiping on Tinder until the beer was done. The hostel had a beer garden with a pool. There was a BBQ and easy conversation. An old guy I thought was a creepy hanger-on with a beard he couldn’t help but stroke turned out to be the owner, Phil. He was happy to talk about the history of Thailand, but stated fiercely that he was weary of talking to travellers about the drug trade in Chiang Mai and beyond.
One of the Thai staff offered me a joint and then I got in his over-sized, brand new Land Rover with another staff member and an English girl who’d been living at the hostel for two months. The car was suspiciously nice. A company car, he said. I showed him the piece of paper and asked if we were going there. He ripped it up,
“No fun, you go there… no”
He took us to the main square that’s dominated by a couple of bars called Zoe in Yellow. Bars lined a square, all backing into each other with shared seating and there were backpackers as much as there were Thais. It was a fine place to be high, and it was easy to get lost. The English girl showed me one of the bars at the back. A metal music bar with low hanging and musty cross beams. A band played pitch perfect covers of popular hard rock and metal songs from last century. They were maybe twenty years old and all looking just like metal bands usually look. I tried to interview the singer, then the guitarist. They brushed me off. I wanted to know what the market is for Western music in Thailand, what the Thais themselves wanted, not what appealed to asshole tourists. I got nothing and another band played with the same mix of songs. It was charming, nostalgic, and then I hit a wall.
The next day I rented a Honda CBR 250 and drove out of the city, heading for the mountain town of Pai. It is situated on a river with access to the mountain tribes as well as activities for the adventurous tourist. It’s a town dominated by a myriad of expat hippies either staying or passing through, as well as all kinds of Thais looking for some kind of peace. But, the Burmese border was not too far away, so that peace might be just in aesthetic alone before too long. This was where Nemesis was most excited about.
It would take 4 hours to get there, and the first half hour was going to be adjusting to the steering of the rental, and making my way out of the city. I was doing fine until I nudged the back of a silver Nissan while weaving through cars at a stoplight. The driver beeped at me and I waived my apologies then drove off. Eventually the traffic thinned out and we were in the sticks. The silver Nissan caught up to me forced me to the side of the road. He pointed to a smudge that could be wiped off with a rag, but then I saw a small scratch and that was hard to deny.
He wore a leopard print, short-brimmed fedora and sandals with shorts. There were strange scars all over him, including one long discoloured gash from his neck to his chest. He said he phoned the police and they would be here, then he got on his phone and yelled in Thai. I acted like I didn’t care and would wait. I snapped a photo of him. He glared and stood in place.
“Hey, I’ve got to be somewhere. How bout I just give you all the money I have?” I said. I opened my wallet and he saw there was only about $10 in there.
He shook his head. He quoted me a price. I haggled. He wouldn’t budge.
“Well, we need an ATM” I said. Then I ran into the nearby stores and they laughed under their breath. There was nothing around for a good few kilometres.
I said I’d walk down the road to the nearest one and took my key and bag. A minute later the Nissan pulled up beside me and he opened the door. I got in and thanked him. Then we passed a service station. Then another. Then I started to wonder if I remembered those fighting skills a survivalist had once taught me – clap both their ears to disorientate them and knuckle punch them in the throat.
Then he pulled up to a string of stores with a big pink ATM. I got the money out and he drove me back to my bike.
In Pai, the signs for live music and yoga classes were as plentiful as the jewellery and t-shirt stalls. After three hours there, I’d come up with nothing based on Nemesis’ emails. No one knew him, his band, or anything about the increase in Burmese drugs coming into Thailand. Nothing but dead leads and the dirty ground. At one bar that advertised live music I got an interview with the owner after exaggerating who I wrote and had written for. After a few jokes and demurring about the stigma of hippies, I seemed to genuinely piss him off when I started asking about my friend and his mentions of the meth capsules in the region. I had to return the motorbike and I wanted to meet Kung that night, so I headed back into Chiang Mai. I did notice along the way that there were check points along the road out of the mountains and I’d been waved through with no stoppage both coming and going.
I had to find Kung. All I’d learned so far could more or less have come from the internet. I remembered the name of the street and grabbed a tuk tuk. Lights were too intense to describe. It was Asia, beautiful fucking Asia. The bars didn’t make sense. They were all on top of each other and tiny. I talked to whoever would listen. People resented having to speak English even though they spoke it perfectly. I tried to be funny. I tried to be mysterious. I swiped on Tinder furiously. Every match I’d had in the last 24 hours had been a ladyboy. It was a blow to the ego.
Then I was offered entry to a Ping Pong show. I get it; I don’t need to see it. Vaginas have muscles. I know – I’ve made women come before. I did shots and said things I don’t remember. I finally asked around for Kung. Someone punched me and I was in a tuk-tuk that was shaking badly and I smelled a sewer. Then I woke up, and it was another day. No drug trade knowledge revealed unto me, and no one knew about Nemesis or his band.
The last day I just wallowed. In Thailand, methamphetamine seizures have quadrupled since 2008, and all of it is too complicated for a simple appraisal. There are too many factors, and all I wanted to do was find out what it’s like on the street level. To see if art can save people from crime, or if both are really just two sides of trying to survive. I didn’t know what to do with my ideas of morality or my inane lust for fun at no one’s expense. It was time to visit the Buddhist temples. I looked at the large, hollow ceilings with all their gold and frills, then found a monk who’d sit with me. What wisdom could he offer? Why did people chose this life? What did it take?
In short, he told me you could become a monk for as long as you liked, whenever you liked. He gave me nothing substantial and my only thought was that I needed a good end to my story. I needed to meet a drug dealer, smuggle drugs back to Australia, or at least fuck a ladyboy. If you think about it, some transsexuals are so well converted that they have very feminine features, and who says you have to touch their little dick anyway? There are other things to do.
I had a few final beers back at Zoe in Yellow with more kids from the hostel, and I saw the same bands play the same songs in the metal bar. I saw one of the Tinder ladyboys looking far more boyish than ladylike, so that option was out for an ending. I danced like I was having fun. Then that fucking song was being played.
“I said, hey, ey, hey. I said hey, what’s going on? What’s goin’ on?”
At 5am I was up for my flight. There was the whole bottle of amphetamine heavy ‘diet pills’ still to be disposed of. I uncapped it and poured the pills throughout my bag, shuffling it around like a load of washing and threw away the empty bottle. When I dropped my bag and lay down in my own bed again, I felt pride in having smuggled drugs into Australia. Sure, I’d only smuggled back my own stash, but I am a cowardly, selfish motherfucker. Then I felt the pang for tobacco and reaching into my pocket for a lighter, I found the note I’d been handed at reception when I checked out. It was from Phil, the hostel owner:
Your friend is still here. We had to, and have to be, careful. He’s waiting for you, and we’re hoping you’re ready to make a lot of money…