Fiction: Anywhere But Bangkok


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.


Chapter One


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.


CategoriesHealthEnvironmentInternational AffairsTravelPolitics

The Sick Man of Europe

(Written during take-off from Tenerife South, Airport)


Travelling on a rickety bus in rural Thailand, back in 2000, I had my only epiphany. The vast distance from home – turbocharged by the cultural punch in the face that South-East Asia delivers with aplomb – afforded me 20:20 insight into how my life was going, and what the future might look like.


And it wasn’t a pretty picture.


For context, I had just finished my second year at university: a year I could barely recall due to too much booze, insufficient studying and little progress on the friend front. Frankly, I was a mess. As I realised, to continue on that trajectory would lead only to a 2:2 degree – or worse – with the resulting deleterious impact upon my career.


Encouraged by the bone-jangling bus – where only moronic backpackers sit at the back, being the most bone-jangly seats – I made myself a solemn promise. On return to the UK, I’d get my act together, and achieve a 2:1.


One year later, it was mission accomplished.


Travel does that, doesn’t it? It provides the gift of perspective. Perhaps perspective is the best reason to just go – and to go anywhere. And it’s from my literal vantage point, as I type, 30,000ft up, zooming away from Tenerife, that I feel confident to write the following.


The UK is poorly, not irreversibly sick, not yet on life-support, but we are in desperate need of a reset. Deep down, I think all Brits know this. Naturally, we have much to be proud about; the high net migration figures is sufficient proof that we live in an enviable land. But we are on the decline.




One week earlier, leaving the UK, from Leeds-Bradford airport (which is it: Leeds, or Bradford?), is a traumatising, harrowing experience. A national embarrassment. Twice now, in a matter of months, I have nearly missed my plane due to the unfathomably lengthy queues to get through security. And neither time was I travelling during peak season.


This time, with the knowledge that another horrible queue awaited me, I had ummed and ahhed about having special assistance at the airport, for I had been feeling somewhat unsteady on my feet those preceding days. I opted against help. I’d brave it, I thought.


Big mistake.


Feeling like something that you would scrape off your shoe, standing for 90 mins, with heavy hand luggage, it was tougher than a marathon. And I’ve run two. All around me, patient Brits – and all other nationalities – queued without grumble, for this is the national sport.


Conversely, at the far busier airports of The Canary Islands, security and passport control is so speedy that I do not recall the experience. Financially, the longer people wait in queues, the less that they can spend. Intellectually and economically, how can British airport operators justify such a delay? And why should we highlight our incompetence to the world by making travel to the UK so disagreeable?


Anyway, after a mad dash to the plane, setting-off over gorgeous, awakening and misty Yorkshire, several – just a few – relentless, small wind turbines, brought me joy. But within an hour, my joy had turned to despair, for we were flying over rural Ireland, which was carpeted by far larger, functioning glorious wind turbines. Why does Ireland get it, but we don’t? Growing up, Ireland was the butt of every joke. But who’s the fool now?


Never forget that David Cameron essentially banned onshore wind turbines, and no Tory leader since has changed the policy since (though Truss had covertly planned to do so). Future generations will be rightly furious. I’m enraged now.


To compound my misery, arriving in Tenerife, I was greeted by legions of massive turbines, standing proudly, purposefully, environmentally. See: Brits are the odd ones out! Onshore wind is a no-brainer.


What’s more, wind turbines and airports aside, in The Canaries I have repeatedly observed that the traffic flows; the hospitals function; ambulances arrive, with the utmost haste; pavements pose no danger; parking is easy and free; the people are warm and polite; the children are driven and respectful (I witnessed a language school in operation); there are public electric charging points, unlike in Harrogate; inflation is lower; life is slower; and the general costs are cheaper. Sure, not everything is better, but this isn’t the world’s 5th largest economy I was travelling in.


And what really hammered home the difference between the two countries was a sign outside of a lawyer’s office which stated that the firm closed at 2pm every day! Just imagine that, lawyers.


Perhaps the Spanish mainland has the same sort of problems that we have in the UK; I cannot say. Possibly, until recently, the blank canvas provided by The Canaries – for they are volcanic islands – allows for more sensible policies, uncoupled to outdated ways. Perhaps what we need in the UK is a metaphorical volcanic eruption of our own; to let us start over, taking the best bits of the UK and scrapping the worst parts. Perhaps Brexit was that eruption. Only time will tell.

CategoriesInternational AffairsTravelThought of The DayBusiness

Duolingo and the Future of Geopolitics 

For those who don’t know, Duolingo is an awesome app which helps you to learn a language. Each day, for the last 112 days (as Duolingo tells me), I have studied Spanish on this app. Averaging 20 minutes per day on this app – bolstered by weekly online Spanish lessons with a real tutor – I now comprehend quite a lot of Spanish. At school, I despised language learning.

Duolingo gamifies language learning and uses the latest research to enhance the tutee’s time on the platform. Me encanta Duolingo! When I look at the apps assembled on my phone, there are only a few which bring me joy; most are there for functional reasons. Duolingo is good for me. Opening the snazzy app each morning brings me great pleasure.

Duolingo’s methodology of cajoling tutees to stay engaged ought to be copied by all learning establishments, because it works. Over 1.5m people have used the app each day for over one year. Using Duolingo’s simple user interface is a pleasure. I recommend that everyone has a play with this app: 97% of users don’t pay to use it. With half a billion users, Duolingo has improved the planet and made a massive profit.

Yesterday, I listened to a podcast interview with the co-founder of Duolingo, Luis von Ahn. Nice guy. For me, there were two important takeaways from the wide-ranging conversation. First, Duolingo’s mission to – for free – educate hundreds of millions of people motors most of the platform’s staff to keep improving the tech in order to educate more people. The platform’s commitment to its mission is the reason for its success. It is a potent example that the best businesses have a mission over and above profit-making. In fact, without their missionary zeal, their wild profits would not have materialised. My own experience is that colleagues working in a mission-driven business go above and beyond.

The second key learning point for me is a cultural one, which I believe will shape geopolitics for decades to come. The co-founder explained that, broadly speaking, of the half a billion users, there are two distinct groups of learners, roughly in two equal camps. Half of users are people learning English language because they need to for financial reasons: to get on at work; to get into a better university etc. The other half are, like me, learning for fun, and usually opt for languages such as Spanish and French.

Surprisingly, given that the top echelons of society are forcing their children to learn Mandarin, only around 1% of the tutees are choosing to learn Mandarin. In fact, possibly more people are learning Korean than Chinese, because of the brilliance of South Korean movies. People are voting with their fingers and eschewing Mandarin. Before hearing these stats, I would have guessed that around one-third of tutees would have been learning Mandarin.

With the meteoric rise of China as an economic and military force there is much talk that this century will be China’s. This is what I assumed would happen, but given that hundreds of millions of people are still choosing to learn English, my interpretation of these stats is that there is significant and worldwide hostility to Chinese influence. And with hundreds of millions of people voluntarily choosing to learn English it seems to me, that culturally at least, the West – primarily the English-speaking West – will remain dominant, even if economically its superiority has been neutered. English remains the lingua franca.

Certainly, part of the reason why people don’t learn Mandarin is due to its inherent complexity, but having travelled in China – albeit twenty-ish years ago – it is not a country that I am eager to return to. When I reflect on my time in China, I do not do so with any warmth. Seemingly, hundreds of millions of people have a similar antipathy towards China. My estimation is that the vast “soft power” provided by the English language and, to a lesser degree, its culture, ought to mean that although Chinese economic and military power will continue to rise, Chinese cultural dominance will not occur this century.



CategoriesInternational AffairsTravelThought of The Day

Almost Lost in Translation on the Longest Day (in 2004)

Below is a copy of my email to some friends, which I sent in August 2004, from Yunnan Province, China. That day, I had saved an American’s life. As I typed, I was knackered, discombobulated and tearful.

I record this email here, for posterity, for my children, as well as a record of what I thought – at that time – of Chinese medicine and their approach to SARS. This makes more sense to me now, 17 years on, given the initial approach of the Chinese government to Covid.

I really detest my writing style – so many typos! But more than the typos, I don’t like the tone of the person who wrote it – me – particularly the cultural tone. I am glad that I have changed.

As at a few years ago, Greg was still alive and well. We remain connected.  


Dear All,

I write this email to you a different man that wrote the last. I have a lump in my throat, a potential tear in my eye and I am semi delirious through lack of sleep.  Maybe this should not be in an email but I have nobody else to talk about it with.

Last Monday was to be my last day in China as my flight from Bangkok was today, however, I had been placed on a waiting list to extend my stay by one week. The kind lady in Bangkok had bought my story that I was ill in China and granted me my extension. Delighted, I returned to my guest house to break the great news to my two travelling companions.

So, we decided to go to something called the Tiger Leaping Gorge in a remote hilly area of Yunnan bordering Tibet (dont worry if you have never heard of it because I hadnt either). The gorge is possibly the largest in the world, with 3900m between the top of the mountains and the Yantse river below. The only problem we had was that the gorge was closed because of the wet season which made it even more prone to landslides than before. Many travellers and locals had died on this gorge.

We arrived in a ghost town. Only one cafe open and managed by an eccentric Aussy woman called Margo. After settling into our hotel, which for some bizarre reason possessed a western loo, we returned to the cafe to pick up some info on the next day’s trekking. She made us some delicious food which did not contain the following: chicken feet, heart, head, eyes or bones. We began to settle down and drink beer.  Margo told us everything that we needed to know, including the fact that we must start walking at the crack of dawn and the first three hours would be a 1000m assent.

As we relaxed, whilst listening to Savage Garden, Margo received calls from other points along the trek that an American couple that had set off from her cafe hours earlier were in serious trouble. She began to panic but we continued to drink beer as there was nothing we could do and the beer was good.  As the afternoon became evening and the locals had begun their annual torch festival, the heavens opened. We made friends with an American (yes, another American traveller in China) and a shy Chinese guy called Wang Wei ‘Wrong Way’. More calls came in from the almost deserted Gorge that the American couple were in need of desperate help. We just sat, drank and watched a local child in beautiful traditional dress pull the wings and legs off an unfortunate huge insect. More calls came in.

Suddenly, out of the rain, emerged a Chinese man, shaking. He was saturated and scared. The atmosphere amongst us five travellers changed. The problem was here. An American woman burst in a minute later in a state. Her boyfriend, Greg, was in the local hospital across the river. He was seriously ill. He set off in the morning with a cold and when he was 3000m up his chest began to hurt, he vomited, went into a fit and fell 5-feet down the gorge, landing on his head and swallowing his tongue.

Margo called the US embassy (a bunch of useless bloody morons) and I ran to the ‘hospital’. Can you imagine what this ‘hospital’ looked like in a rural village of 1,000 people? I found a crowd around the patient and the American girl, Liz, wailing. The patient, Greg, had his eyes open, fixed in one position, whilst he was in a constant fit. His arms and legs moved uncontrollably, as they had done for the last three hours and continued to do so for next 12 hours. I cannot think of a hospital I would less like to be ill in.  The crowd around the bed consisted of 15 people, including the drunk chief of police, a doctor, some nurses and anyone else who wanted to see a foreigner in risk of losing his life with only Wrong Way who could translate for us. Liz was delighted that there was a Westerner around who understood what she was saying.

I cleared the room, with the help of Wrong Way. Greg, the patient, continued to scream and fit. I assembled the doctors in the next room and, with the help of Wrong Way’s very broken English, I managed to understand that Greg was in danger and that we owed 700 yuan (80 US). The consensus was to take him by ambulance (van with flashing lights) two hours to a little city with a better hospital.

It took 8 men to carry Greg, with drips coming out of him, to the van. Liz wanted me in the van, as a friendly face, even though we had never met, and Wrong Way got in to help translate.  The journey was crazy. Greg was unconscious, but yet his arms and legs would not stop. Liz talked to him throughout. The journey was undertaken at midnight on roads that were prone to landslides, through the rain. To make it worse for me, I had been drinking most of the afternoon. I called all the people that Greg knew in the US, insurance companies and anyone who would listen to me on my mobile, as you need a special phone that is registered with the communist regime to call abroad (bastards).

We got to the hospital OK and were put in a ward with a bemused old man. There was only one doctor on duty and nobody that spoke English. The nurses filled him with drips, as Wrong Way tried to explain what had happened. Greg’s breathing deteriorated, and nobody seemed to know what to do. The night was horrid. We took him to have his brain scanned. Wrong Way held his head in place and I pinned his legs down, as Liz held his hands and tried to talk to him but he couldnt hear. We think that the scan was OK. No blood on the brain. Small mercy.

We took him back to the ward where there was urine and blood all over the floor. A vision of hell. In China, there is a rather do-it-yourself approach to health care. We had to hold the oxygen over his face and often had to hold the drips in place.  One vision that will live with me forever is Wrong Way holding Greg’s hand in place from pulling his drip out, whilst Wrong Way slept. I tried to doze but needed to reassure Liz that he was in a good place which I didnt believe. Liz didnt sleep and just talked to Greg with more love than I have ever witnessed.

The morning came and so did 30 non English-speaking doctors. The monring was so horrible. His condition got worse and his heartbeat was erratic at best. Liz remained calm. I tried. Wrong Way tried explaining what had had happened and I rang International SOS to get Greg out.  He was moved to another room with an expectant mother. Doctor after doctor came in. It was such a novelty to see a Westerner, especially one naked, having a fit for hour after hour. Every medical student came for a look and so did every patient in the hospital and those visiting those already in hospital. In fact, I feel sorry for all the other patients who lost the doctors and visitors just to see Greg. The Chinese had no shame: they stared with impunity at someone close to death because he is Western.

Greg’s father, with the help of me on the phone, managed to organise a medical evacuation but it was so hard to do. I think the fact that his Greg’s father is a wealthy state representative must have helped. I took call after call from his parents and made calls to speed things up.

All of a sudden, the situation got worse. He stopped breathing. There was 15 doctors around his bed trying to save him from an illness that they have only seen six times before and they all died. Liz, who was wailing, was taken to another room to be interrogated by another 15 doctors using a local business man who spoke quite good English. I remained with Greg, threatening law suits to International SOS, whilst crying at the same time. I was put onto an English doctor who reassured me that the Chinese would intubate him but they hadnt. Muppets. Eventually he was intubated and his life saved for the time being.  Maybe I should mention that this is the place where SARS started and the Chinese’s botched response to it began.

Greg stabilised and he was eventually intubated. International SOS got their act together (once a massive cheque had cleared) and called the hospital. All was not over. The doctors had a meeting where THEY were going to decide what to do. My mission was to stop them touching him again until the plane from Beijing arrived. Are doctors the world around so condescending??  Just as China seemed like hell, Wang Wei ordered us the equivalent of a KFC and paid for it. This single gesture was magic. The only time that Liz smiled. She is the strongest of women at 23.

The plane was now fours away with English-speaking, English trained doctors, onboard. I granted myself a smile. When things get good over here something always happens that reminds you that sometimes this place is so backward. The police arrived. Three menacing brutes in uniform and two pretty female undercover agents who wanted to know why were at the gorge and how the accident happened. Liz had to sign yet another form – all in Chinese – but what did it say? Who knows.

At 6pm, 26 hours after the accident there was a commotion at the door and the crowd pulled back from the door. It was the SOS team!!!!! YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. They spoke English and they knew what they were doing. The equipment that is standard in the West fascinated the Chinese doctors. It took two hours to move him onto the trolly with crowd now at standing at 40.

I will never forget two things. First one, English-trained doctor and one English trained nurse could do what 30 Chinese doctors and 10 Chinese nurses could do. The second was a Chinese doctor saying to the English trained doctors that the patient’s salt levels were low and the better doctor retorting ‘It’s irrelevant’. The Chinese doctors looked on with disbelief. We could trust these two angels from the sky. Liz’s credit card had maxed so I paid half of the 700$ so he could be discharged.

The crowd and I waived the ambulance off, shattered.  According to the insurance company, Greg is still alive and is in Hong Kong. My prayers are with this man that I have cried over but have never spoken to. If he recovers, both Wang Wei and I have been invited to the wedding.

Dont reply. I had to write it.


on a lighter note, never tell a Chinese hairdresser that you only want a little bit off your hair and show them a small space between your fingers to show them a small amount as they will cut it to that size. I now have a number three all over and wear a hat to cover my shame.