Down and Out in Paradise subtitled East West. Sex Death, is a memoir (Echo $32.99) by journalist and two-time Walkley nominee Luke Williams. His first book The Ice Age: A Journey into Crystal-Meth Addiction was nominated for both a Walkley and the Nib Waverley Literary Prize.
In his new book, he recounts coming down off crystal meth and getting the hell out of Australia. With no plans. He lands in Kuala Lumpur and the three year adventure begins.
As the blurb describes it:
‘He encounters other Westerners who go to Asia for the things they can’t find at home – riches, wives, ladyboys, cheap living and even cheaper drugs, cults, spices, mountains, tropical beaches, beach gigolos, ‘self-esteem’ necklaces, and ascended masters.’
Read Chapter One below:
Curtains shut, cameras on. Masking around my mouth. Rope looped around my ankles all the way to up to my torso. Ankles, chest and thighs tied to the padded wooden chair. Arms tied and folded behind my back.
‘Stupid thieving kid,’ says Snail, a nasally forty-something brunette in a neat navy-blue suit who has filled the room with the scent of his sickly, fruity cologne.
‘Breaking into people’s houses,’ he says as he walks half a metre closer.
‘Ssstealing,’ he says, walking in another step. He leans in. I can see that his classic taper hairdo is freshly razored.
‘Sssstealing.’ Now ten centimetres away and it seems the more times he says stealing the longer the slide of his ‘s’.
He stretches out his hand, then a finger, goes to say something else, fails, steps back, starts again:
‘Nothing you can do it about it now.’ Continues: ‘Don’t look at me.’ ‘No point lying.’
‘No point lying and trying to say you hit your baseball in here.’
‘Don’t look at me.’
‘Never break into someone’s house and rummage through people’s drawers. Think you’re so tough. Think you’re so strong,’ he says, dragging down the nose and lips on his face with his hand, as if he were momentarily melting.
Snail’s mobile rings.
‘Oh hey, Nick,’ he says. ‘Yeah, I’ll be late for work. I caught some creepy neighbour kid robbing my house. Don’t worry, I am dealing with him right now. But I’ll be there for the meeting; I’m just a little bit tied up right now.’
Snail ends the call, goes into the bedroom and comes back, walks up behind me and puts a silk blindfold over my eyes, around my head.
I can see a kind of blur of the blue suit out of the corner of it.
‘Ssssssssssssssssstealing,’ Snail says.
‘You’ve been stealing my pot.’ Smithy would spit the accusation at me, near on snort it out of his nose – the nose below the yellow-pus boil under his eye and above the mouth with the missing front tooth – as he sat on his bed by the bent spoon and his syringe and my syringe: syringes we called ‘fits’.
About a year before I went to Asia and met Snail, I was living with my friend Smithy, who also accused me – and everyone else who visited the house – of stealing. Only I wasn’t stealing anything. I don’t think anybody was. The failed psychoanalyst in me thinks he had a recurrent persecution delusion of something being taken from him by anyone he got close to because his father walked out on him when he was six. The successful drug addict in me knew he really thought it because we were constantly injecting crystallised meth.
I’d been too busy to steal: inventing plots. Shamed-based, allusion-packed, school-inspired plots. Private jokes coded in Facebook updates, angry military gangs conspiring to kill me, my parents conspiring with Smithy to poison me so Smithy could conduct a secret sex change on my ex who never returned my calls.
Hard drugs in full fits: life left the impression it was amassing to a grand purpose. Then came downs, bills, the flu. I’d half-heartedly give up drugs for a little while. Write a little, finish another degree, erect an ambition, then it would plateau: routines, high rents, cold nights, middle managers, break-ups, silence, manners, underemployment, Middle Class Anxieties, the anguished morning scream of the alarm clock. The loose ends from the times I’d been bad. Soon enough I’d plunge rocks into my foreman. The dots would connect. The hospital doctors gave this psychotic Sisyphus soft little yellow pills that dissolved under my tongue. By then it was too late; my flatmates – in the last case, Smithy – had already kicked me out; I’d accidentally told him how much I’d always wanted to kill him. I moved in with my parents, in a town four hours away from the nearest capital city. I was thirty-four, single, on Benefits in Bundaberg.
‘Think of your addiction as a stray cat, the more you feed it, the more it comes back,’ my bleach-blonde, husky-voiced drug counsellor told me. But I love cats. I loved my drug counsellor too. I slept on her office porch the night I had a temper tantrum and Mum kicked me out of the house. The temper tantrum I’d had at a cafe and it made the local TV news.
I moved down, down to a putrid Grandma-burnt-her-filthy-eggs-again-scented halfway house in Melbourne. There I hatched a plan to be a rapper, a famous one. I stayed in a room next to a man who wrote in my notebook saying he used to go by the names Wolfie Woolf, Lebio Lebo Lebi, Angry Anderson and David Bowie. We all thought we knew who we were, what we would become, why we did not belong. The old woman across the hall never left her room. She argued with herself. The Scottish accent would accuse, ‘I know what you’ve done, I know what you’ve done,’ then the Australian accent would respond, ‘I, I, I, I haven’t done anything wrong, nothing, I promise.’ It would go on and on, round and round, all day until dusk when I rolled and smoked a joint while watching the rainbow lorikeets fly in and hang upside down from the branches of the American oaks as they ate the tree’s round, brown seeds outside the window. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong, either; my drug use seemed part rebellion, part medicinal – a whole of fun.
One day at the half-way house a punk girl said there were cameras concealed in the sprinklers above us, cameras concealed in the ring she had stolen, cameras concealed behind the left eye of the pigeon that slept on the bathroom’s outside windowsill (by the used syringe on the inside windowsill that had sat there for three weeks). The pigeon’s eye therefore recorded another woman injecting crystal meth into her neck as that woman’s 23-year-old daughter watched. The 23-year-old then invited me to join the party. She sold me the meth I injected in my arm. A bald man politely offered to shred my face open with box cutters that night. ‘Do it,’ I said. ‘Do it. I’ve been suicidal for months anyway.’ By daybreak, I was in a hospital being rudely interrupted by an irritable Irish nurse – ‘I don’t have time, just swallow this pill,’ or something to that effect. By the week’s end, I’d booked the cheapest international flight out of Australia.
Less a destination than an escape. An escape from Australia, Australians, an Australian Community Service Order, my sister, my former psychology clinic who was trying to sue me. It was not, as I saw it, an escape from High Culture.
I hadn’t travelled overseas in seven years. I’d spent nearly my whole life in Melbourne. I had nothing tying me down. I believed that by creating enough new neural pathways in my brain they would eventually criss-cross, connect; new talents would be birthed; I would write songs, design costumes and perform in a minimalist Berlin bar. The young would be there, the good-looking too, along with the editor who rejected all my stories and the radio station program director who said, ‘Have you considering getting someone else to host it?’ to my demo that was five years culmination of work, the culmination of my then-failed ambition to be a radio presenter.
I booked the cheapest flight I could find. I took the flight while coming down off crystal meth. I flew north by north-west. I went east.
Landing in Kuala Lumpur, I travelled on to Penang, Phuket, Luang Prabang and Chiang Mai – angry, angsty, feeling hard- done-by. Then I arrived in Bangkok – and the world made like a wake-up cigarette on the first day of spring, a feeling that ripened in a winterless land – where I found home.
A city sitting under a tropical sun, of bare skins and rapid grins, purpled dusks and rabid fertility. A land once filled with cave people, sabre-toothed tigers and packs of giant hyenas. A city with reassuringly outdated western fashions. With mosaic gold statues of a placid, smiling man and multiheaded golden Brahma figures – their lord of reincarnation. In a district lined with flowering trees and flowering vines: flowers that never went out of season, flowers that looked like jasmine and smelt like jasmine, flowers that floated like lace mistletoe over flat footpaths and turgid canals.
A wild sprawling metropolis which, taken street by street, still hummed and played like it were a village; the land of the people we once called Siamese. The locals are called Thais, now. The majority of Thais are thought to be the Tai peoples who migrated from Southern China and probably Taiwan at least eight hundred years ago. The word Thai was created after the Siamese military stepped in to end the absolute monarchy in 1932; the word was also created more or less to suggest the land was free from and of mandarin-speaking Chinese: Thai now officially means ‘free’ – controversially. Not least of all because of the eight coups of democratically elected parliamentary governments by the Thai military since 1932. Yet, for reasons I shall explain, it is appropriate that Thailand officially means ‘land of the free’.
In Bangkok I lived at a place called the Cake – the cheapest hostel in the city at four dollars a night, located in a cluttered high-rise residential area on Bangkok’s city fringe. A six-storey building squashed in alongside other six-storey buildings sitting along a four-lane highway in a residential area. The Cake, a purportedly haunted former brothel, wasn’t air- conditioned; it had flies, fleas and stray cats. It had a spiral staircase. It had a 24-hour bar downstairs that served laughing gas in balloons. Many westerners had lived there for years. Most visitors just stayed for a couple of days; people came and went all the time.
Bangkok is a place where the flesh and spirit intertwine. I sweated into my pillows, into dizzy pre-sleep, surrounded by both long-term residents and short-term travellers. Late each morning, sun would come in through the window, illuminating dust. The window’s outside bay had a wet-flat plastic bag, a noodle package and a single toenail clipping lying on a sheet of green algae. The window provided choice: it needed to be opened if the room smelt like cat-piss; it needed to be closed if the room smelt like spiced-shit from the open, stagnant canal two doors down where the locals hung fishing lines to lure catfish.
When the dusk bruise faded, the canal smells eased and the grimy air softened, we would commune on cushions on the mezzanine rooftop. Someone played bongo drums, someone strummed guitar, someone played a didgeridoo. Tiger balm was passed around to stop our mosquito bites turning to blisters. A joint was lit. Conversations became honeyed sweet and hollow; memories: honeycombed. Someone said they knew of a girl who woke to find a cockroach nibbling at her cold sore. Someone would eventually say the CIA had infiltrated the Cake with undercover agents – let me explain.
It began when Karla was talking about one Thai family she met, whose ancestors had kept a stillborn baby on their mantelpiece, believing it contained a ghost, believing they were giving it another chance at life. She lost track. Got distracted. Got into an argument with Gary, the nasal- toned, chocolate-eyed man from San Diego who had come to Thailand after a psych ward stay. They argued about the difference between crack cocaine and cocaine. Karla said they were completely different drugs; crack did totally different things to the brain. Gary said crack cocaine and cocaine were the same as he rolled a small black communal Nokia phone in his hands. A small black communal Nokia phone that always stayed on the roof because the local police would sometimes come into the Cake, arrest people, demand they take a drug test and then tell them to either pay an ‘on the spot fine’ or go to prison. Sticky-taped on the front, a piece of lined paper, inscribed: ‘If this rings the police are coming.’
An Australian man had watched the entire melodrama fish-mouthed in wonder.
‘Where you are from?’ he asked me. ‘Melbourne.’
‘You’re joking, fucking hell, that’s unbelievable. I’m from Alice Springs – fucking talk about a small world,’ he replied. ‘I’ve got a cousin from Melbourne.’
Wonder World. What a coincidence.
Alice Springs is just 100,000 kangaroo hops away from Melbourne. A similar distance as Moscow to Brussels, Istanbul to Dusseldorf, or Chicago to Los Angeles. Time for bed. Perhaps time to leave my body; if only it were that simple: the possibility of reincarnation perpetually looms in the City of Angels.
Later that night, Wonder World slowly closed a steel dorm door behind him. Tiptoed over to me. Spoke in a whisper. Turned out to be very opinionated: he would be the one to explain how covert drug-bust operations were being conducted by the CIA at the Cake. What’s more, he told me had evidence Gary could be the lead undercover agent: Gary’s detailed crack-cocaine-law knowledge. Wonder World had been smoking crushed yaba pills, a concoction of caffeine and methamphetamine.
Backtrack to a temple and incense-strewn city, to a bowling alley in Luang Prabang, Laos three weeks earlier: I’d rubbed a ball of sticky-black opium tar on my cigarette. Smoked that cigarette with a bespectacled, fresh-skinned English yoga teacher who happened to be walking past my hotel balcony as I lit up. We went to a nightclub, then to a bowling alley where we bought pot. Rolled a joint. Rubbed the opium on the joint. Smoked the joint as we rolled bowling balls at the bowling pins and missed.
The yoga teacher screamed, ‘But it’s like a trampoline,’ as she was ejected from the minibus we took at 2 a.m. after she’d refused to stop jumping up and down on the roof. The bus’s wheels spun in the mud, and we drove off, leaving her and a female friend on the jungle-edged dirt road. Her screams became aggressive, but fainter, ‘It’s my birthday, it’s my birthday, I can do whatever I fucking want,’ as the bus drove away.
I went back to town calm as the sea, smoked more opium, ate a magic mushroom, sunk the magic mushroom with a vodka shot, slept outside alone under a table at a hotel that was not mine. Dreamt I fell in love with a blond I met at the bowling alley. I lived with their family. We all lived together in the English countryside. They were all blond-haired. A very strong golden yellow blond. I stared as their blond hair started growing very quickly, down past their shoulders, down their legs and torsos and then onto the ground, all over the ground and all over the walls until all their hair connected together, became a big slide, then vines, and it swallowed everything in the room, took up all the oxygen. I woke up, it was light, I was lying back down and throwing up chunky yellow vomit.
Then a three-day boat ride down the Mekong to Chiang Mai. I ran out of money. Stayed in a two-dollar-a-day, 600-year- old Himalayan temple on top of a mountain, Doi Suthep, by a mist-cased national park. The Vipassana temple based its philosophy on the idea that liberation comes when you see the perpetual suffering and perpetual change inevitably ‘rising and falling’ in cycles of and within existence. The rules: no talking, no eating after midday, pass a flower-wreath to the monk each morning, dress in supplied meditation whites, meditate all day, do not inject crystal meth. I felt very hungry at first, then less hungry, then more hungry, then less hungry than I ever had before.
I meditated by fireflies, vines and a cemetery. Thoughts wouldn’t go away. The monk said I was there to slow my thinking, that I must wait for each thought to pass and come to see that reality is more than the sum of your thoughts. He said I might think that I am my job or my thoughts or what my family said I was. He said if I meditated long enough, I would experience something deeper.
The thoughts wouldn’t go away because I was – apparently – angry. Day after day of fury. Then one day the thoughts did stop, just for a second. I’d been meditating all afternoon, vibrating with hymns, and the things I’d been thinking about mutated – flying red and purple flowers that diffused, turned blue and then faded away. But when I left the temple I couldn’t help but start thinking again and I thought that people had been very good to me, that actually I was the arsehole and meth had made me an even bigger one.
A salient lesson: in reincarnation, in starvation. After Chiang Mai, I travelled to Bangkok and moved in to the Cake; I was waiting for invoices to be paid, struggling to get more freelance work. I crawled the Cake’s dusty, hairy floors for spare change; I found some, bought pad thai, then didn’t find any the day after that.
I meditated: felt less hungry, then more hungry again, then less hungry, then nothing but hunger. Then despair.
Then you feel hungrier than you’ve ever felt. You feel nothing but hunger. You feel desolate. You become an animal. A disembodied stomach. A siren goes off, overlayed with a looped recording: eat motherfucker eat. You can’t hear anything else.
I walked into the local 7-Eleven store, placed a chocolate bar in my pocket and walked out.
My days without money stretched to a week. Then ten days. I started stealing every snack, every meal.
Siam became Thailand in 1939 and remains – along with Japan – the only two Asian nations never completely colonised by a foreign empire. The first recorded Europeans in Siam were a Portuguese merchant fleet. The Portuguese arrived in 1511 and eventually entered into a pact with the Siamese.
But when the British boated up Bangkok’s Chao Phraya and the French stationed troops at the river’s mouth, the Siamese maintained autonomy, thanks to monarchical tact, and mainly by signing lopsided trade deals while facing the end of a cannon barrel. Thailand has our bureaucracy systems and Catholic-style education programs; polygamy was outlawed; people eat with utensils and spend more time at shopping malls than temples.
A semi-colonial purgatory; and some say it still exists. Case in point: Thailand has over eight thousand 7-Elevens. Bangkok alone has nearly four thousand 7-Elevens. ‘Your in- timate friend, always close by,’ Thailand’s 7-Eleven motto goes.
Push. Rattle. In the door you go. Ignore your heartbeat. Flash another smile. Make like a leopard. ‘Oops, I’ve forgotten my wallet.’ I began taking entire walking tours of Bangkok, stopping to steal food at 7-Elevens every few hours along the way.
Day after day: consuming sushi, coffee, M&M’s – which I shared with Gary and Hayley on the roof one night; democratic pleasures of the tropics: the orange-stained clouds and the pink spills of dusk.
Hayley had creamy white skin, choppy brown hair. Worked at the downstairs bar. Twenty-one going on forty-one. When she would walk up the stairs back to her room and I would clap in time with each of her steps, and she would go slow so I could clap with each of the steps, and then walk fast, then stop to see if I could still clap in time, it was the world’s best thing.
Hayley was an artist. That night she talked about not wanting to live poor in London like her mum had done while working for minimum wage. She talked about opium. She talked about wanting to try heroin. Gary stopped fidgeting for a second and said the best thing he had done in Thailand was smoke opium and then ride on his motorbike around a mountain. It’s like ‘riding on a cloud’, he said.
Gary also told me that night about the two abandoned 747 planes that lay in a Bangkok district. There are no airports or industrial areas nearby. You can go inside and look around and take pictures – for free. On my day tours I had already visited free crocodile farms, wandered around open-air markets, watched free Muay Thai at shopping centres, and curled my hands around warm, rusted dumbbells and equipment at several of the city’s free public outdoor gyms. One day I saw a blue-eyed stray cat stalk, catch, kill and eat a black-and-yellow striped snake – in a fern garden, in a skyscraper’s shadow bang-in-the-middle of a city park.
I swallowed spoonfuls of low fat, low-sugar yoghurt on a table at the Cake as Sabine, the young German girl who had big blue eyes munched an apple. She had pink hair, roughly, I imagined, the same colour as the red wine bottles in which she had been smuggling ecstasy powder into Australia. ‘Do you know what the difference between Australia and a bowl of yoghurt is? After two hundred years the yoghurt would have some culture on it . . . I didn’t meet too many smart people in Australia or people with much depth of character zere.’
I bet you bottom-dollar nobody in Australia, Germany or anywhere in the world had the ‘depth of pockets’ I created the next day. I tore a hole in my baggy pants’ pocket with a pair of scissors, so I could just drop stolen food right in, and it would fall into the elastic ankles. Life in Bangkok was liberating like a trap. Sometimes, it felt like I could do stealing like this for years.
Days rose and fell over jungled sugar plant plots, giant water lilies and wandering duos of stray dogs. A balanced diet. A skip in my step.
Three hundred half-finished, abandoned high-rise buildings scatter Bangkok’s flat, labyrinthine and walker- friendly streets: relics from the 1997 Asian financial crisis. These ecclesial skeleton skyscrapers, overgrown in vines, decorated with street art. Rats the size of cats, street food carts like abattoirs. Gender-bending dancing queens living full time in that Abba song. Post-apocalyptic. Post-nuclear, perhaps. A grittier, grimier, sexier, tropicalised alternative dimension – where the world seemed stopped twenty years ago, when we all know it should have.
I turned thirty-five the same day a new guy came to stay at the Cake: a skinny, freckled and west-coast American, only staying at Bangkok for a short time. He started discussing with Gary and I his last four years in China – his inability to teach his communist students any type of competitive sport (‘not even team sports’). He asked us what our plans were. Gary complained about the discipline and punishment in the United States. He said, ‘I’ve been back to the States twice; each time I went back I hated it a bit more.’ Gary said the police ran a racket, ‘keeping themselves employed by arresting black people for the pettiest shit they can come up with’.
‘I’m a direct descendant of slaves; I am never, ever going back,’ he said.
I talked about my love of Bangkok, my dislike of Australia, my lack of money. My half-baked idea for writing a book about what westerners do when they go to Asia. The freckled guy suggested I look for a teaching job. I looked online and found (to my relief) surprisingly few jobs. However, I did find this:
Seeking strict Thai teacher with a cane (Bangkok) Compensation: 500 baht/hour Employment type: part-time I am 52-year-old German man. I am living in Bangkok. I need to learn Thai language and need a strict female teacher who likes to use the cane. Maybe this sounds crazy for you but I know that way only will work for me. Class should be 3 times a week each 2 hours plus much homework.
I made friends with a guy named Lars. He had a Rugrats mohawk, and smelt of new sweat and old sweat. His home: a Zurich squat. His food: from dumpsters. He said he ‘lived better than most of Switzerland’s middle classes’. Worked four months a year as a social worker. In his spare time, he learned to play half-a-dozen instruments. He asked me if I played any music. No, I replied, as I picked and flicked fleas off a kitten’s stomach, I’ve never played any instrument. Didn’t really even listen to music. Didn’t have any talent; I was just a short, judgemental, gossipy nerd – an information- addict, but I did have very fast hands.
Later that night, I sat at the bar with Hayley as she inflated a two-dollar red balloon full of laughing gas for a drunken white middle-aged American moron with deflated red balloons on the ground all around him. Hayley asked me if I’d heard what happened to Wonder World the other day. ‘He started saying he was from India, then from Singapore, then he took off all his clothes, ran outside, started screaming to local passers-by how he needed to talk to the king,’ she said. ‘He hasn’t been seen since.’
It seemed like naked symbolism – no more meth, no more CIA, no more Australia. Progress.
Still I had no money. I was checking my account every day waiting to get paid for an article I’d written. The stealing continued. I couldn’t ask my parents for money.
My dad had been on the Disability Support Pension for twelve years, since he got very depressed. Like my now catatonic, couch-bound uncle who was diagnosed with late- onset schizophrenia in his mid-thirties, Dad was diagnosed with late-onset bipolar when he turned fifty-three. Their conditions seemed to get progressively worse as they aged. Neither of them wasted their money on drugs like me. Neither Dad nor Mum were speaking to me since my last temper explosion.
Lucky I met some people who helped at the Cake. I took up an invitation to peruse some remains of Asia’s 1997 debt bubble. Two friendly, chunky, happy, broad-shouldered American Jewish brothers (the type who never let me hang around them in high school) invited me and a sweet, geeky, young Canadian to climb Bangkok’s biggest abandoned building – Ghost Tower – and paid my way.
The four of us caught a taxi across town to downtown Sathorn where we gazed up at the half-built, 49-storey Greco- Roman-come-early-nineties-glam-style miscarriage. One brother paid the security guard a bribe. We began our climb up escalator steps through dust, past windowless levels: graffiti and concrete. Level seven: a rusty bathtub. Level eighteen: what was supposed to be a shopping mall, now a swampy little lake teeming with hundreds of catfish and white fish and with an escalator in the middle. We breathed in piss- stink. We breathed out exhaustion. Each level brought a more spectacular view of colour-strewn, temple-strewn Bangkok. We split up. One brother was a few levels ahead; the second brother was walking with the Canadian, discussing American politics.
We stopped and gathered on level thirty-two. The second brother fermented his thoughts: ‘You know why Americans don’t travel? Because they have been taught Americans are the best or America is the best, so don’t bother. Or they are so busy working. You need a college degree to get any sort of job. It’s now like having high school, it’s a minimum. You graduate with an $80,000 debt; you can’t get a job because everyone has a degree. So you need another degree. That will cost you $200,000.’ Then, he said, there’s health insurance, which is about $300 a month, and when people get sick, they still have to pay the gap, which is sometimes thousands of dollars. That’s why, ‘I work as a bartender in Manhattan, never went to college, live off tips,’ and that’s why, ‘We spend half of our lives in Israel; it’s liberal, people have money, and we have social health care. America is a broken place,’ and that’s why, ‘I had to vote for Trump – he’s the only one who can’t be bought.’
And then silence, golden silence, a gold-littered skyline, the golden-shower smells. A roseate dusk. A flat land below, filled with the best-looking, most expressive humans on the entire planet. I, the little provincial Australian, right in the middle of Asia, in the middle of the world’s most populated continent, in the middle of the world. You might forgive me for what I started to think – just for a moment: it is a shame we can’t live forever.
A few years earlier, on level forty-three, a local amateur photographer had been taking photos at Ghost Tower when he noticed a strong odour. He followed its source to find a figure hanging by nylon rope from an exposed beam above a dusty, dry toilet bowl. He got closer and saw a bloated human covered in insects; parts of the skin were half-peeled off, other bits had rotted into a deep dark shade; the corpse had shifted into the ‘black putrefaction’ phase – at least ten days of pendulating on a rope before the photographer’s discovery.
In the taxi back to the Cake, we tried to find out more about who the hanged man was and why he did it. The guys googled on their smartphones and couldn’t find anything at first, but did discover some articles about Thailand being the deadliest destination for most western tourists anywhere in the world. In the last twenty-four hours, at least one British person had died in Thailand. By the end of the week, a Swede and an Australian would die there too. Tourist deaths in Thailand happen under moving trains, elephants or fervent young lovers. After eating seafood or after being thrown out of a high-rise window by four ladyboy prostitutes you refused to pay. By box jellyfish. On tuktuks. Via expat bikie gang members after a trip in their car boot. Most often – accounting for three-quarters of all tourist deaths in Thailand – while riding a motorbike.
I guess the heart wants what the heart wants. In Thailand the heart is a lonely punter. One westerner kills themselves every week in the Kingdom. Officially. Many of these apparent suicides confound. We read about Russian Fedor Vasilev, found dead in a Phuket hotel a few years back. He had seven stab wounds, including many to the chest: the police quickly concluded it was a suicide. Then there was the Swedish man, found in his Pattaya bathroom kneeling on the tiled floor, his head sunk into a plastic barrel filled with water and a heavy golf bag attached to his neck – suicide, the police said. Dimitri Povse was a 29-year-old French man, reportedly in love with a woman who did not love him back on Southern Thailand’s Koh Tao – the island of twenty-two bird species, twelve reptile species and, depending who you ask, anywhere between two and ten unsolved tourist murders in the last six years. Povse was found by police hanging from his ceiling, hands tied behind his back.
In the taxi, we still could not find out what had happened with the man who hung himself at Ghost Tower. We made a stop at Bangkok’s weapons market.
Amidst palm trees and trimmed hedges, the weapons market is eighty shops staffed by giggling grandmas surrounded by Buddha statues, rows of rifles, Uzis, floral-vine decorated pistols.
Some of the guns were so big they would require a stand or a robot, possibly Robocop or the Terminator, to operate them. There were axes, ninja stars, crossbows and brass knuckles. It was exhilarating.
We didn’t buy any weapons that day. Nope. We just 18 zigzagged back to the Cake. Thai laws say you need a licence to buy most of those weapons. Licences not available to tourists. And I wasn’t wearing my baggy stealing pants that day either.
Which is a shame. I can’t begin to tell you how much, not twenty-four hours later, I needed a grenade.
Just before I left the next day to go to Pattaya, the Canadian guy, nervously pinching his nose, told me he’d found out more about the hanged man. Thailand, it seems, attracts the already broken-hearted. He had been a 35-year-old Swedish tourist named Stig Johan Hammarsten. A subsequent search of Hammarsten’s phone records and guesthouse revealed no clues about why he suicided. All that was found – and the authorities guessed he had packed them before he left Sweden for Thailand – were several different types of rope.
This is an edited extract from Down and Out in Paradise (Echo $32.99)