What follows is pure fiction, written by me twenty years ago when I was running a backpacking NGO, Voices for Burma, and after completing a travel writing course at the University of East Anglia. This is not my usual type of blogpost. I encourage readers of a sensitive disposition to read no further. The views expressed by the narrator and the characters are not my views. The views are anachronistic, but real to the time that I wrote this.
I am publishing this on my blog now as a record of what I wrote – but didn’t publish – many years ago. I write primarly for my children, so that they have a digital record of who their dad was and how I changed. By reading, you acknowledge that you are reading fiction, rather than an opinion piece.
I have changed their names to Rob, Kris and Jen. They are this story.
During one summer in the early noughties (I am never going to tell you which one), my bus ground to a halt in Chang Rai, a small, pointless town in northern Thailand; that’s where we met. This trio were arresting and rare – rare like rocking horse manure. I was bewitched; haunted if you like.
After much persuasion from me, and with the contractual obligation to share the book’s sale proceeds with them, I now have their diaries. Based on my acquisition of their innermost thoughts, I have written this book. I now know them, intimately. I write to explain what they had going; to tell their tale.
But first, let me explain how I came to meet these three intrepid travellers.
Arriving at any bus station in the 1990s in Asia is a nauseating experience – any Western visitor will tell you that. But, as a seasoned traveller now-turned writer, I should have been inoculated against the haranguing meted-out to every Westerner, by desperate tuk-tuk drivers, clambering for custom. I had fallen for their scams many times before: “So my guesthouse is closed, is it?” “Too expensive, you reckon?” “Out of town, you say?” “Get stuffed, the lot of you.”
Back in the late 90s, when I was new to this game, on countless times I had been out-foxed by the head-haranguers – bulky men who control tuk-tuk allocation. Late that afternoon, after a tediously long journey, I just wasn’t ready for them.
Having spent several unmemorable days in Chiang Rai before, this northern outpost held no particular fascination for me – or anyone at all, unless you had a penchant for blandness, bad driving and food that reeked of Japanese encephalitis. Returning to Chiang Rai was like going through labour knowing that you’ll produce a stillborn.
Stepping down from the bus, I was instantly surrounded. My best tuk-tuk-rejecting gestures got me nowhere. Irked, I came close to committing a cardinal sin in a Buddhist land by losing my temper. Fortunately, for the tuk-tukkers, I was stopped in my tracks.
Where did she come from? A genetically-blessed Western girl of remarkable femininity, whose face could have been designed by an Estee Lauder focus group, stood before me in the crowd. She must have been a late teen, just. She had long auburn hair tied taut in a high ponytail. She wore hearing-aid-beige shorts, down to her knees and a white, strappy top. With her skin the colour of frightened milk, she was a modern-day pre-Raphaelite beauty. She smiled – well I think she did – and sensed that prior to her manifestation, I was about to rage. Then, she said something in Thai, with a North American twang, and the tuk-tuk drivers skedaddled (she must have told them that they would be on the next plane to Guantanamo).
At this time, I was sweating like a darts player, for the humidity in these parts is unbearable and no matter how long I had been in the area, I couldn’t acclimatise. The girl thrust her water bottle into my hand. I drank. The ice-cold water was indescribably refreshing.
‘Jen,’ she said and extended her hand. I wanted to kiss it, but I played it cool, and squeezed it slowly. ‘Rough journey, heh?’
‘The roughest,’ I replied.
‘I’ll introduce you to the gang.’
She must be Canadian, I thought: Americans don’t travel. She beckoned me to follow her. I did what I was told: first down the main street, which I remembered, then a third right and a second left, down a backstreet. I struggled to keep up with my new tour guide. My backpack chafed like a jockstrap during a cricket match.
By now, we were in the fag-end of town. I was about to make a joke about women and directions, but my better judgement kicked in. I followed her into a bar, which was ablaze with fairy lights, and she presented me to her two friends – both men. How disappointing.
‘The gang,’ she said.
‘What’s up?’ I replied.
‘I’m Kris, with a “K”,’ said the bearded one, who looked like a 10-months pregnant Star Trek fan.
‘Good to meet ya Kris,’ I said, and we shook hands heartily. I recoiled at his vice-like grip.
‘With a handshake like that I’m sure you’re not an Israeli,’ he said. I had no idea what he meant.
The other lad, who was scratching his crotch through his denim shorts, looked at me like a cowboy looks at a horse. It was awkward.
Surveying my new surroundings, the bar suffered from gentle decay. The white plastic seats were mismatched – the cheapo Western-garden furniture type. Plants grew majestically around the higgle-de-piggle-de veranda. From a photograph on the wall, the Thai King surveyed his subjects.
The locals in the bar were glued to the boxing on the TV, except for one couple who were plotting adultery – the real Thai national sport. The menu was in Thai, and, unlike everywhere else in Thailand which I had been to, we were the only non-Thais.
‘So, where are you from, Kris with a K?’ I asked.
‘Does it matter?’ said the other lad.
‘No, I suppose it doesn’t,’ I said.
‘Rob,’ he announced, opening his force-field, ‘But call me “Voice of Reason”, and I’m English, if you’re still wondering.’
He had a well-to-do accent, no manners and a chip on his shoulder. This could mean only one thing: a St Effing Andrews University grad.
Evidently, by arriving with his dream girl, I was invading his territory. And before I could introduce myself, the supercilious sod launched into a tirade:
‘Let me guess: you’re English. You’ve just finished media studies at the University of Toy Town. You’re doing the whole “South-East Asian thing”.’ He said, using his fingers to emphasise “South-East Asia thing”. ‘You email, email, email home and survive out here on a diet of banana pancakes. You don’t go anywhere that isn’t recommended in the bloody Lonely Planet. Nice. And Kris’s from Holland for your information, and perhaps the only fat Dutch traveller you’ll ever meet.’
The acid-tongued Englishman was right about the emails and his chunky friend, but this was no way to talk to me. I would have to handle him as if he was radioactive, I thought. I looked to Jen for moral support, in the foolish hope that we had established a rapport and she said:
‘Rob, do you always have to be like that?’
I turned to him, and he eyeballed me. He raised his whisky in his right hand and gave me one of those single nod-of-the-head apologies, which, I would have been more inclined to accept, had it not been demanded by Jen and executed with a sly smile.
I was wounded: battered by a bus journey and bewildered by conversation. I could have made a sharp exit, but I didn’t, as on a cost-benefit-analysis, Jen was there and, although Rob was blunt, I admired his honesty and shared his distain for fellow travellers.
The table was quiet with all eyes on me. I had to impress. The stage was set for my comeback.
‘I’m Vincent,’ I said. ‘And yes, I am from bloody England; but I haven’t just graduated, actually. I’m researching a book – actually – about Laotian drug-smugglers operating in the Golden Triangle, just north of here.’
They were impressed. I turned to the waiter, who was watching the boxing, and ordered myself a Chang beer.
‘Do you have a guesthouse?’ said Kris.
‘Not yet. I was gonna crash at the place I used last time.’
‘Stay with us,’ said Jen. ‘We’ve got the only four-bed dorm in town. The walls are thin, but the owner is a nice guy. A friend recommended it to us.’
Like shopping on Christmas Eve, I had no time to think: ’Why not!’ I blurted.
My first gulp of beer jolted me with a little frisson of pleasure, and boy did I need it. With every subsequent mouthful helter-skeltering down my oesophagus, I could feel my vital signs gradually returning; but, the booze went straight to my head and rendered me less able to verbally defend myself from their searching questions about my book. Each time I made a dog’s dinner of a reply, my spirit dipped in instalments. To make matters more humiliating, their knowledge of Laos was better than mine.
‘Why are you really here, mate?’ said Rob. ‘The Dickens you’re an effing Bryson,’ he said, as if he had been injected with a truth serum.
‘You know, I’m just doing a spot of writing and getting away from it all.’
‘From what? Getting away from what?’ said Kris.
I paused, cogitated and replied: ‘Career, or middleclass slavery, as I prefer to call it.’ I then peeled the label off my Chang bottle. I must have cut a sorry figure.
‘Gonad,’ whispered Rob, and then, without asking us, he ordered another round of drinks with regal aplomb. He spoke to the waiter in pigeon Thai – his pronunciation was all over the place – but the smiling, pockmarked-faced waiter, who could have been anything from sixteen to forty, beamed back at him, and leapt off to fetch the order, like a dog chasing a ball. I didn’t recall subcontracting my beer choice to Rob.
It is a curious fact – isn’t it? – that when any group of strangers meet, anywhere in the world, one wannabe-demagogue masterly manipulates his minions, while the minions passively permit their own subjugation. However, later, I discovered – much to my sheer delight – that I had misunderstood the group dynamics.
The phone behind the bar rang and the waiter went over to answer.
‘If it’s for me,’ shouted Kris, ‘Tell them I was never here!’ and we descended into a frenzy of laughter, even though, objectively, it wasn’t in the least bit funny.
As Chiang Rai dissolved into darkness “The Gang” explained how they had all met a month before on the Khao San Road (KSR), Bangkok – the backpacking Mecca. Describing their first impressions of each other, they rolled around laughing. They waxed lyrical about their foray into Burma. Jen recounted the minutiae of their trip to a hilltribe, somewhere. But of course I outdid them with accounts of my own travels, adding a smattering of anecdotal license to good effect.
I took note of the Dutch guy: he was thickset, with the slowness of movements that only those who are sedentary workers develop. He wore a white T-shirt with the McDonalds logo rewritten as “McShit”, in a lame pitch to anti-consumerism. Kris had an inoffensive face when talking, but, when he was thinking, he looked like he was swallowing a fly – and enjoying it, too.
Conversation flowed in multifarious directions. Why is it, we wondered, that western women rarely date Thai men, but Western men date Thai women in high numbers? Puzzling. Then, Jen nearly stormed out when Kris duped her into believing in a country called Absurdibaijan. She is, of course, gullible, uneducated and young. Jen eventually calmed down when we agreed with her – under duress – that the best way to travel round the world was from East to West.
Long after it was dark and following a delicious meal, which was entirely chosen by Jen, was washed down with bottles of metallic-tasting Chang, Jen licked her plate clean and ordered the bill in Thai. I reached for my wallet, but Rob grabbed my arm with his sweaty hands and said drunkenly:
‘Allow us, alright. You’re our guest.’
I was perplexed by the offer: travellers don’t do this. And, to top it off, when the bill arrived, Jen divided it into three, even though she had consumed only a modest portion. This was weird: travellers are the type of people who remove the light bulbs when moving house.
With the bill settled, allowing a tip for the waiter, I followed my new friends through Chang Rai. We walked in silence, in respect of the locals, who had largely turned in for the night, in a hark back to the days – not long ago – when electricity hadn’t made its way to this back of beyond.
We passed packs of feral dogs lying in the road feigning sleep. Every time one barked, I froze. Jen – much to my horror – had the audacity to feed one a titbit of food, which she had surreptitiously taken from my plate, as she later admitted. It seemed like The Gang were accustomed to the vagaries of South-East Asian life. Me, however, had much to learn.
Although we were merry, it was unlike any other stumble home that ends my typical Saturday nights back in Blighty, for we didn’t shout any ‘wayyyyyss’ at passers-by. The lads, quite unbelievably, took turns to carry my backpack, which further compounded my alcohol-induced paranoia as to where I was being taken. This was the first and only time I had ever allowed a fellow traveller to carry my backpack. (Although, once, I did let a Nepalese Sherpa carry my bags up to the Everest base camp, but that was different.)
The sublime enveloped my drunken body and my inner-anguish evaporated. I was at one with the moment. Like so many other runaways before me, I had “gone travelling” in search of something – a something that I didn’t have the wherewithal to comprehend. At this moment, as I recalled it, thoughts of Laotian drug-runners were far, far from my mind. I was finally at peace with myself. I needed some time to think about my life, about my purpose. I realised that this writing lark was doomed to failure. This revelation was like the popping-open of a corset. Who was I trying to fool?
I turned to Jen, who had remained close by, and smiled. She is the kind of person with whom one has an understanding without having to communicate with words; the type of person who you could make eye contact with on the Tube and not feel alone; the kind of woman who would be described by her friends as a “people person”. Sober, she was entrancingly pretty; drunk, she was jaw-dropping.
We traipsed along the road parallel to the river for ten minutes. Fortunately, the gang had brought torches, which illuminated our presence and protected me from the kamikaze driving of the locals. We passed numerous wats (temples) which, had they been in a First World country, would have been floodlit.
The murmurings of hushed whispers bought my attention and, to the left, I saw some Thais, living in reduced circumstances, eating in the ground-floor room of a three-storey concrete block. They’re always eating, I thought.
When I heard some English travellers on the other side of the road, I shouted over a customary and time-honoured ‘Hello’, unaware of the faux-pas that I had just committed.
‘Vincent, why do you only say hello to the whites?’ asked Kris.
‘Well that’s bloody obvious: they’re travellers and so are we. Travellers say “hello” to each other. English is the lingua franca, my friend.’
Kris continued: ‘Vincent, my problem with you is not that you say “hello” to travellers, or that you spend all your time with them, but it’s because you don’t greet locals. You only have contempt for them. You don’t speak with love for any of the countries you’ve been to. This is my observation.’
They all stopped, encircled me and Jen continued the verbal assault:
‘Today, I was just walking back from the market when I saw you. Frankly, I couldn’t miss you. You looked like a hunted animal. I felt so sorry for you, Vincent.’
I turned to Rob in the expectation of another blitzkrieg on my character, but he just nodded and added: ‘Only your real friends will tell you when your face is dirty.’
Like a British squaddie in Iraq, I was the victim of friendly fire. They were right, though. Their onslaught made me realise that I needed to reconsider my whole approach to travel. Somewhere along the line I had become battle-hardened to locals. I guess that duplicitous locals – from Hamburg to Hanoi – had burnt me so many times before that I now gave them all short shrift.
My new friends ambled off down the road, so I composed myself and returned to following the travelling circus.
The moon was almost full and cast a pale light over us. All of a sudden, they veered off down an ominous-looking path, which was potholed like the surface of the moon. I found myself following Jen in an S-shaped motion in order to avoid the puddles. The boys, however, ploughed straight through without a care. By now, I could barely hear myself think, as militant insect sounds filled the air.
Just as my feet were going to mutiny, we happened upon a clearing, with paddy fields on both sides. I made out a large hut fifty yards ahead: it was not the instantaneous relief I had expected. Jen pointed at it with her torch. I stopped to contemplate my next move: I could either endure the Third World accommodation that would surely ensue, or I could flee back to town, alone. It was Hobson’s choice.
‘Can you tell what it is yet? said Rob in his best Rolf Harris impression, pointing at the hut. ‘Can you? Can you tell what it is yet?’
A solitary light flickered outside the hut. There seemed nothing guesthouse-like about it, not even any signage to depict the presence of a guesthouse. I walked onto the veranda, which squeaked, creaked and wobbled under our combined weight. I followed Kris’s lead and removed my boots. Rob tutted at me for the delay caused by my socks.
In the front room, a Coca-Cola fridge provided the only light. I made out a table and two more doors. Jen opened the fridge and helped herself to four bottles of water, and handed them out like guns to conscripts. She then led the way down a corridor.
I opened the bottle and it hissed: fizzy water! Come on, I thought, the 1980s are long gone. Who drinks fizzy water these days?
Kris then poked me in my back and pointed at a door and whispered: ‘Psssssssssss. Toilet.’
Jen opened a door – our room – flooding it with light. I was pleased by the dormitory, as it was large enough to house a family of refugees. An un-shaded bulb provided the only light.
The room was tidy, as the occupants’ clothes had been folded and placed neatly upon their open backpacks. The room felt lived-in. I noted that, like dogs resemble their owners, so too do backpacks, as Rob’s looked pristine; Kris’s was tatty; and Jen’s had a USA badge affixed to the front.
Four single mattresses – just mattresses – had been spread out on the floor with accompanying mosquito nets, giving it the feel of a World War Two jungle hospital. Rob’s mattress was nearest the door; Jen was in the middle of her boys; and mine was at the end, next to a small window.
I brushed my teeth with fizzy water – which was a novel experience that I can recommend – and clambered into bed. The sheets smelled fresh.
I wanted to stare at Jen, but I couldn’t muster the audacity. In order to refocus my mind, I stared at a healthy-looking gecko, which had taken up prime mosquito-hunting territory above my window. Then, in the corner of my eye, I could discern that I was the only one not writing a diary.
‘What are you going to say about Vincent?’ said Rob.
‘Not telling,’ said Jen.
‘I’m telling my journal that I want to swap him for you,’ said Kris.
What were they really writing about me? What were they writing about each other? Each had experienced a similar day, and yet, each would have a unique take on events, shaped by their own experiences, prejudices, genders and nationalities. My mind popped, like a teenage boy’s zit! That was it!
When Rob turned the light off, I reached for my mobile phone (hardly a distinguished writer’s tool of choice) and saved this message to my Outbox ‘CHANGE OF PLAN! I WILL WRITE ABOUT TRAVELLERS – THESE THREE. I WILL GET THEIR DIARIES. I SHALL WRITE THE TRAVEL VERSION OF BRIDGETT JONES’ DIARY. £££££££. BRILLIANT.’
I couldn’t sleep as my mind fizzed with thoughts of my new book (and what car I would buy with the royalties). Jen talked in her sleep; Rob snored; and Kris whimpered, like a dog having a dog dream.