words and images by Christopher Johnson —-
—-Legendary Thai journalist Pratya Sawetvimon, known lovingly as “Dr. Joe”, passed away in Australia last week on October 3.
His partner Megan Hammond, an Australian diplomat, said he left quickly and peacefully after treatments couldn’t stop the spread of lung cancer.
He wanted friends and family to gather at the Irish Club in Weston, Australia on Friday, October 12, according to Hammond’s posting on Facebook. “I’ll be taking him back to Thailand the next week for appropriate goodbyes there,” she said.
Dr. Joe was one of my best friends and a major influence on my life and writing. We lived together in Bangkok and Shanghai, exchanged playful emails from around the world, and spent precious moments in Australia as well. His wisdom, wit and friendship inspired several aspects of my novel Siamese Dreams, which I am dedicating to him.
A graduate of Bangkok’s elite Chulalongkorn University, he was an ace reporter at The Nation newspaper in Bangkok when I began working there in 1988. In the 1990s, he worked alongside Geoffrey Klaverkamp and others as a Bangkok correspondent for Asiaweek, a leading magazine in the region at that time.
In 1999 he joined a group of expatriate editors to train Chinese journalists at the Shanghai Daily. He and Hammond lived and worked in Thailand, China, Nigeria, Chile, South Africa and Australia, their base for nearly two decades. He was known by friends around the world for his kindness, generosity and tireless efforts on behalf of prisoners as well as victims of war, poverty and injustice.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, Dr. Joe took me with him on assignments across the region, including interviews with diplomats such as Igor Rogachev, the deputy foreign minister of the USSR, rebel leaders and opposition leaders of Cambodia and Myanmar, and senior military and political figures in Thailand. He once saw me jogging in my shorts and t-shirt near Sanam Luang in Bangkok and told me to get in the car with him — where he was interviewing then-Bangkok governor Chamlong Srimuang, who would later lead protests against a military dictatorship.
Years later, Dr. Joe would send me a photo of him with Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
Pratya was always Joe Cool. He could keep his composure, objectivity and neutrality in any situation, and he was equally adept at conversing with “high society” celebrities across Asia or “lo so” villagers or street people. He was an earthy, street-smart, old school, truth-seeking journalist with a dark sense of humour, born of his humble upbringing in Bangkok, and forged on his dangerous missions to jungle rebel bases and camps for refugees fleeing wars of Burma, Laos and Cambodia. He survived malaria, gunfire, shelling, mine-fields and violent battles with government forces and protesters in Bangkok. He lived an amazing life of courage and adventure and never lost his delightfully mischievous sense of humor.
His death has caused myself and his loved ones many tearful days of great sadness. I still find it hard to believe I can never enjoy eating, drinking, fishing or bantering with him again. But I can’t help laughing at his own beautiful Buddhist way of dealing with death, from the time we stepped around victims of a gangland shooting and stampede at Lumphini boxing stadium in 1988 to our discovery of a smouldering Vietnamese airliner that crashed near Bangkok’s Don Muang airport, killing 75 including several top diplomats in Asia.
I’ll never forget some of Dr. Joe’s favorite lines such as ‘Hey, hey, this war not so bad. Last one much worse”; and “Beware of dog. You cannot know his mind.”
Fortunately I kept detailed notes (below) of our conversations and adventures, which we would have forgotten otherwise, due to our affinity for the various spirits and “agricultural products” of the region. I know that Dr. Joe is laughing now in the next life, where he always said he would see “Buddha, Allah and Jehovah shaking hands in Heaven.”
* * * *
I first meet “Dr. Joe”, Pratya Sawetvimon, on a steamy day in January 1988 at The Nation newspaper. Down an alley off Banana Road near the grimy port slum of Klong Toey, the newspaper looks like other factories in the city. Scooters line the soi, ready to streak downtown via Sukhumvit or Rama IV road. Printing presses rumble in the parking lot. Technicians play takraw in a circle, keeping up the ball with their feet. Around a circular table, journalists share dishes of tom yam, fried rice, duck, spicy squid salad, and three-flavor fish. Most of them are wearing flip flops without socks, giving mosquitos the chance to eat as well.
At our factory, the product is an English-language newspaper. Working in the newsroom, I marvel at the multicultural process around me. The owners, and most employees and readers, are Thai. After that, it gets complicated. Thais find and report a piece of news. Other Thais translate it into English. Then foreigners like me polish it into “proper” English, whatever that is. Editors hail from Burma, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, as well as anglophone Western countries. Whose culture is this? Thai culture? Americanized British colonial culture with Chinese characteristics? The newspaper, as I discover, is a half-breed hybrid of firsthand Asian and secondhand Western culture; a combination of the United Nations, a non-government organization, and a college paper calling itself the independent voice of Thailand. It’s an amazing place, one of the best rags in Asia, and it has a reputation for serious, sober thought. The staff, however, seem permanently intoxicated. Editors giggle, eat pineapple on sticks, play with computers like children, and flirt with colleagues. No wonder foreigners can’t leave this country.
Editors called it “The Mothership”, because it guides aliens on a distant foreign planet. Foreign editors work less and earn more than Thai staff, who grind out copy for 60 hours a week for salaries of 200 dollars a month. But our status is below the senior Thai staff who graduated from the elite Thai universities of Chulalongkorn and Thammasat, as well as top schools in America, the UK, and Japan. The charismatic publisher has the guts to refuse army orders to shut down during coups and massacres. His deputies blast out 800-word stories in a matter of minutes, and write stinging editorials quoted by newspapers worldwide. Among all this talent, they hire me, fresh out of journalism school on the other side of the planet, to copy edit page one and join Thai reporters on assignments. I should really be a cub reporter interviewing my former professors. Instead, the senior Thai editors throw me at generals, foreign ministers, and warlords. The person who volunteers to show me the ropes is “Dr. Joe, Famous Thai journalist.”
While I rewrite his story, Dr. Joe sits like a meditating guru. His thin body and glasses remind me of Gandhi. They call him Dr. Joe because of his sarcastic wit that analyzes people as if they’re his patients. While his face resembles a praying mantis, his body is more like a frog. Sitting cross-legged, he flexes each frog leg outward until the knee joint pops in a loud “krrrrackk” that interrupts the thought processes of the newsroom. This is the ace reporter assigned to train the new farang sub-editor.
“Hey hey,” he calls to me, though I’m right next to him. “You don’t have to call me Doctor Joe. You can call me Mahaguru. Come see me, I know,” he says. The Thais laugh at his play on words. Sensing I didn’t get it, Doctor Joe explains. “Ma haa, gu ruu in Thai means ‘Come see me, I know.'”
“Your English is very good,” I say. “How did you learn?”
“When Mahaguru was young boy, he learn from US soldiers in Patpong, who come back from Wietnam and Cambodia.”
“And from Hollywood, right?”
“Yes. We have same movies as you. We know everything about American way. Mahaguru like The Godfather. Same same Thai politics.”
Like other playful journalists, Dr. Joe studied foreign relations at Thailand’s top university, Chulalongkorn. Mastering English without leaving Thailand, he can fully express himself as “the famous Doctor Joe”, while at the same time sounding like a tuk-tuk driver.
Working together for a common goal, we deal directly with the cultural barriers between East and West. Dr. Joe has just come back from a near-death experience covering the refugee crisis and the raging war near the Thai-Cambodian border. Near the end of his story about Cambodian refugees, I add some background: ‘An estimated one million Cambodians died during the Pol Pot government.’
“Oh, that is not correct. You betray our revolutionary struggle,” says Dr. Joe. I can’t tell if he is joking or serious. “Tonight, you must come with me to re-education camp.”
“The Australian embassy.”
“May I introduce you to . . .”; “Would you care for another…”
In an outdoor sala pavilion at the Australian embassy, I watch nervously as diplomats, generals, and cabinet ministers mingle with business leaders and a handful of farang and Thai journalists. In flipflops, jeans, and a sweaty basketball shirt, I look like a “birdshit backpacker” being introduced to the Thai establishment who are wearing formal silk Prem shirts. The white-haired General Prem, the Thai Premier, stands within handshaking distance of Doctor Joe, who hasn’t tucked in his rumpled shirt or buttoned his collar and sleeves.
But Joe would rather banter with me than General Prem.
“Hey hey, comrade, you are spreading false propaganda,” says Joe to me, pretending to be a Khmer Rouge rebel leader, while real political leaders mingle around us.
“Mahaguru, I cannot understand your mysterious wisdom,” I say, sampling some fine Aussie wine.
“Oh, today you wrote ‘an estimated one million Cambodians died during Pol Pot government’,” he says.
“This is just standard background info on the Khmer Rouge,” I say, trying to angle closer to General Prem and senior figures in Bangkok.
“Oh, you are wictim of brainwashing by Western ciwilization,” says Joe.
“What do you mean I’m a ‘victim’ of western civilization?”
“Because you say Pol Pot is dewil.”
“Because Cambodians say he’s a devil. He killed a million people.”
“Oh, but Pol Pot is independence fighter. He save Democratic Kampuchea from farang.”
“Try telling that to Cambodians,” I say.
“Oh, comrade, Pol Pot is not genocidal maniac,” he says in a loud voice to scold me, the awkward foreigner out of his depth. “He is Brother Number One. Why are you so critical of my Uncle? Imagine you live in Kampuchea willage. You want to help your people from disease and famine. So you become Paris intellectual.”
“So you can kill Cambodian intellectuals with glasses.”
“Oh, I come back to Kampuchea and see my brother starving, poor, uneducated. I am only intellectual in my country. I have responsibility to develop them, to save my mother from outsider, from China, America, Wietnam. So I must make revolution against farang teacher.”
“So why, Mr. Pol Pot, did you evacuate the entire city of Phnom Penh? If you love your people, why did you butcher them?”
“Hey, hey. Taste good. But Pol Pot cannot be angel during civil war. I am very paranoid everybody trying to kill me. I have to be strong leader to stay in power. Democratic Kampuchea is only small mosquito, only 8 million people. Wietnamese tiger has 80 million people, and Chinese elephant, 800 million. Pol Pot is worried. ‘Hmm … If I lose power, then we will be swallowed by farang.'”
“Maybe it’s better to be swallowed by foreigners than to eat your own people.”
“Oh, you have Western mind. You cannot see Asia.”
Seeing the Premier about to leave, “Pol Pot” immediately transforms back into the dignified foreign affairs correspondent Pratya “Doctor Joe” Sawetvimon. He greets General Prem with a bow and a deep wai of respect. Prem seems to know Dr. Joe already. He doesn’t wai; he just smiles and slightly bows his head to acknowledge Dr. Joe’s presence. Introducing me in Thai, Dr. Joe makes sure to keep his head level below Prem’s at all times. Copying Joe, I wai the Thai leader. But my hands are only at my chest, not high up my face. Six feet tall, I stand high above Thailand’s ruling elite, proud as I am to suddenly be in their company.
After formalities, Dr. Joe becomes Pol Pot again. He looks at me like I’ve done something wrong.
“What is it?” I ask. “Was I supposed to shake Prem’s hand instead of wai-ing him? Were my hands too low? My head level too high?”
Joe shakes his head. “Oh, many things wrong. You must go for more re-education.”
WE RISE ABOVE OUR LIVING CONDITIONS
After the embassy party, Joe takes me for “re-education” to his parent’s house near the Chao Phya River off Sathorn Tai. Full of alleys, canals and wooden houses on stilts above animals or floodwaters, the area seems more like rural Thailand than a part of central Bangkok.
Joe, who seems so animated in the foreign language of English, is more proper Thai in his own wooden house. Climbing a ladder up to the living area, he introduces me to his older brother, who’s washing the feet of his frail parent. ”He is good Thai son,” says Joe about his brother. “I’m making money for the family, so he quit his bank job to take care of our mother and father.” I enjoy being around him. Until now, I’ve had little chance to meet humble, respectful men like him who don’t speak English and work outside tourism and media circles.
“Hey, have you eaten rice yet? Let’s go eat rice porridge,” says Joe. We leave his house and follow the edge of a canal alongside a slum of scrapwood shacks. Vicious dogs bare their teeth until Joe growls back at them, “Paiii!”
In a dark area, he lights up a cigarette. “Good for health,” he says. “Good for immune system. If you can breathe in Bangkok, you can breathe anywhere.”
Drunk from the embassy party, we begin a tightrope walk along the concrete bank of the festering waterway. I follow him step for step. The canal, or klong, stinks of oil and toilets. Floating thongs suggest a dead body standing upside down in the black water below them.
“Let’s cross here,” says Joe at a concrete beam, only wide enough for one foot at a time.
“You’re not serious, right?” I say, fearful of falling into the klong.
“No. Mahaguru not tell a lie. It’s the only way across.”
“You go first,” I say. I figure this must be prank.
“No, you, my disciple, must go first,” he says. “It’s good for you if you fall. It’s cultural immersion.”
“I need to think for a few minutes, about the human condition.”
“Never mind,” he says. Balancing himself with a beer in each hand, Joe saunters across the beam without falling in.
“In Bangkok, we don’t care so much about our living condition,” he says to me across the canal. “In the West, you think about your material conditions first, and then your spiritual condition. Here, we raise our spirit above our living condition.”
“Okay, Mahaguru, then you dive into the klong and catch me when I fall.”
“Oh, you cannot compare footprints with Mahaguru, mafia leader. You should not be disrespectful to the one who took a warm bath before you. You should learn to accept your position in life.”
“Maybe my position is to stay dry above the klong.”
“Hey, the klong not so bad. The smell of klong remind me of childhood. We used to swim in klong. Like frog on lotus pond.”
“Maybe you’re used to it. But I’m not.”
“Oh, my disciple, you cannot understand Asian mind if you don’t cross the bridge,” he says.
Before I can think any further, I step onto the beam. Unbalanced by the wine, beer and Mekong whiskey, I get half way across, and fall. I barely make a splash in the hot and buoyant water. Bobbing to the surface, I spit out black pus and wipe slime from my eyes. Joe jumps in after me. We are now two journalists, Thai and farang, swimming in the sewer.
“Hey hey, look at this,” says Joe, delighted to find two styrofoam containers. “Two pillows.”
We put the styrofoam under our necks and kick back to gaze at the starless Bangkok sky. As we float, I think about how Joe is going to be my new amoebic brother.
In the newsroom, Dr. Joe notices that I am becoming listless in the steaming humidity of my first hot season.
“Oh, my son, you are too serious,” says Joe. “You know, Thai language have no word for serious. We use the word from English. Farang khon nii pen seriot, na.”
“I’m not serious, I’m just wasted on Bangkok,” I say. I can’t even begin to talk about my problems living alone in a stuffy room in a slum.
“Living alone is ewil. Comrade, come stay with Uncle Pol at Democratic Kampuchea Headquarters.”
Joe’s room, #707, Rattana Apartment, off Sukhumwit Soi 63, is about 10 minutes by foot and 15 minutes by bus from Ekamai, Bangkok’s eastern bus terminal. We park my motorcycle and carry up a backpack containing all my possessions. Opening the door, Joe’s single cell room appears too small for two people. But it’s a good deal. For 3000 baht per month, we have a cold-water bathroom, ceiling fan, fridge, eating table, queen-size bed, and eye-killing fluorescent light. From our seventh floor balcony, we can see residents upstairs throwing garbage out their windows and balconies onto the zinc-roofed scrapwood shacks below. Tucked behind glossy hotels and apartments away from the eyes of tourists, the slums look like the diseased fur of a mangy dog left to rot in the soi. Joe explains that they are migrants from drought-stricken northern villages. They come to Bangkok to build condos that will soon overwhelm their shanty-towns and give them no affordable place to live. When they look up in the sky for hope, leftover rice and chicken bones rain down upon them.
We ride my motorbike to work, interview generals, and then eat and drink together. Our fridge is full of leftover noodles and half-consumed bottles of beer. We use bottles of whiskey to hold down pages of newspaper on the table. Watching TV news, he points out the good guys and the bad guys, and maps out the mafias. I begin to talk like him and take on his manners. While he sleeps, I saunter around the room like him: head down, shoulders up, lips pursed, squinting as if wearing his glasses. Studying my transformation in the cracked bathroom mirror, I have a smirky Sri Thanonchai smile, born not of happiness but of mischief. I’m now modest, polite, mai pen rai, sabai sabai. I’m reincarnating my roommate into me. Of all the people I could have chosen, he’s the weirdest and therefore most interesting to copy. I feel closer to Joe than anybody. Living with him, my head balloons, my heart bubbles, and my conversation is giddy on laughing gas. Like the Thai language, I no longer have a word for serious.
THE LAND OF SMILES
While senior editors are eating lunch, Joe gets information that an airliner has “gone missing” near Bangkok’s Don Muang airport. We jump on my motorcycle, rush through Bangkok traffic, and bribe police not to fine me for speeding. When Joe and I finally reach the airport, an official explains to Joe that the missing plane has been “found”, in a rice field one kilometer short of the runway.
In emerald rice paddies, a Vietnam Airways jet lies split into three pieces. The nose and cockpit look like a dog burying its snout in the mud. The fuselage resembles crumpled aluminum foil burned around a baked potato. Water buffaloes sniff the jack-knifed tail. The black rubber landing wheels still bubble out air in a mud puddle.
Villagers have set aside their rice planting and TV watching to search for the money that’s dropped out of the sky. Ladies in sarongs forage around corpses, charred black in blood red puddles. They remove watches from their wrists, and jewelry from their necks, fingers and ankles. “Ma nii – over here,” one lady calls out to her grandkids. The kids come splashing through the field, smiling and laughing as if playing a game. Together, the family rifle through the pockets of corpses for wallets loaded with cash and credit cards.
“Hey, this crash not so bad. Last one much worse.” says Joe, behind me. He is tour-guiding farang journos now vulturing upon the scene. “I’m looking for treasure,” Joe says, grabbing my wrists. “Are you wearing a gold watch? Or maybe diamonds? Hey, you’re still a little bit alive. Let me kill you.”
Nearby, a foreign reporter flips through a passport and diary of a dead passenger.
“Clear the way. I am official from airport authority of Thailand,” says Joe, snatching the blood-stained books from the reporter. “Hey, this man is official from United Nations. Hmmm. Maybe this crash is political. Hey hey, this diary very interesting. The official was writing when the plane crashed. It says, ‘Some people expect heaven on earth from the United Nations. But the UN’s mission is not to send us to heaven, but to save us from hell.'”
A gang of bodysnatchers surrounds us. Young men in uniforms with Chinese writing strain their veins to drag corpses over our feet to a pile of bodies in their truck. We slog through the mud to get a closer look at the bodysnatchers’ truck. Dozens of dead passengers are piled up like luggage in the truck’s payload, as blood drips out the back. The smell hits me, like sour pork, and I’m glad I’m plugged up by a cold from mouldy air conditioners.
“They are famous for collecting and burning the dead. Good for making Buddhist merit,” says Joe. “You know, they are first to arrive at accident. Faster than police, or ambulance, or even Thai Rath newspaper. Hey hey, but be careful. Sometimes they finish the job before you are finished.”
While I try to stop from vomiting, Joe asks the bodysnatchers for the number of dead and survivors.
“What are they saying?” I ask.
“They ask me, ‘What about this farang? He didn’t shave today. He looks a little dead. Let’s put him on the truck.'”
After filing our story, Joe and I eat some noodles on the street. ”Hey hey. Let’s go to Burmese border,” says Joe. “We are already outside Bangkok traffic. We can drive to Mae Sot. Only seven hour from here. Hey hey, I know Karen guerrilla commander there. We can get exclusive interview. Many dead body there too. Good for story. You can get a raise.”
Beyond the airport, the road to Ayuthaya and the north is spiced with freshly crushed snakes at sundown.
“Hey hey, over there, in the rice paddy,” says Joe, spotting a black cobra’s head periscoping above the wet field.
“Look, another one,” he says a few minutes later. “The snakes are looking for rat for dinner. This is good time to see snake.”
Then a green snake zigzags in front of us. “Hey hey, don’t run over snake,” Joe says, as I swerve to miss it. “If you hit snake, the wheel will throw snake into your face.”
To the west, the sky glows revolution red over Burma. Suddenly, mosquitoes pelt our unhelmeted faces. Joe has glasses for a windshield. I face the rainy season offensive with naked eyes. My sunglasses only darken the road. “Here, this will help,” says Joe, covering my eye with his hands, blinding me at 120 kilometers per hour, just for fun.
From behind, a blue and white VIP passenger bus blares its horn. The driver’s assistant windsurfs out the doorway, waving at us. “Hey hey, you have to move into shoulder to let him pass,” says Joe. Before I can react, the bus drives into the other lane, straight into oncoming traffic, forcing a car into the ditch.
“We should stop and help them out,” I say, looking back.
“Mai pen rai. Ditch is safer than highway,” says Joe.
“Highway Darwinism,” I say. “Survival of the biggest.”
“Thai style,” says Joe, rhyming it with ‘Thai sty’.
Now I have the bus to block the mosquitos. Together, we make great time, passing cars and forcing them into the cobra ditch. After a few hours, we turn west, toward Tak province and Burma.
“Beware of dog,” says Joe, as a mongrel darts in front of the high beams. “You cannot know his mind.”
Several dogs, as if sniffing snake blood on the tires, run in front of us. Other dogs, brain damaged by a life of rancid leftovers and human cruelty, sleep in the road, oblivious to vehicles.
“Beware of dog,” repeats Joe. “You cannot know his mind.”
Villagers suddenly pop into view, riding straight into traffic on unlit bicycles and scooters.
“This is crazy,” I say, swerving.
“This is Thailand,” says Joe.
By around midnight, we’re ascending uphill towards the Burmese border.
“Beware,” says Joe.
“Of what, cats?”
“No, of bandit. They put rope across road and raise it when you come. They want to take your motorcycle back to Burma, as souvenir from Visit Thailand Year. They are guerrilla fighter. They eat heart of their wictim.”
“Never mind,” I say. “Farang heart not so delicious.”
“Not delicious. But good for health.”
A Karen boatman takes us across the river on a canoe into Burma. Silently, without flashlights, we follow him through a jungle path to a village under the forest canopy. We are given hammocks. I kick off my muddy shoes and lay back. With little breeze, the muggy air is dense with insects. I tuck myself inside a mosquito net nailed to the thatch roof.
“Joe, aren’t you going to use your mosquito net?”
“Oh, I am immune to malaria,” he says, pronouncing it ‘im-moon’. He swigs a bottle of whiskey that looks like fuel sold in soda bottles.
“I don’t think the mosquitoes care who’s Thai or farang,” I say.
“Hey. Mai pen rai. I am immune to malaria.”
I’m too revved up to sleep, and I’m worried about tigers and Burmese soldiers. I stare transfixed at a moon machete-ing its way through a forest of clouds.
“Mahaguru, when you were young, did you see the American walk on the moon? It’s the first thing I remember. My parents put me in front of the TV. ‘Roger, Houston. One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’ Then my parents showed me the moon. And I said to myself, What a Wonderful World.”
“Oh ho, not so wonderful,” counters Joe. “I wrote story in school then, about an auntie and uncle who live with rabbit on the moon. They were farmer. Planting rice, living peaceful life. Then, one day, farang land on sand. The farang put a flag on their land and say, ‘This land belong to America. We are here first.’ Hey, but not true. That land belong to the old farmer. The farmer got scared and hid inside cave on the moon. After that, farmer cannot have peaceful life on the moon.”
Waking up at first light, I’m hot and itchy, desperate for a shower, and stiff from the awkward hammock sleep. Mosquitoes have bitten through the net and clothing. Doctor Joe, needing no shave, looks fresh and ready to stroll through the jungle.
“Didn’t they bite you?” I ask Joe.
“I have no blood in my body, only alcohol.”
Half asleep, walking toward the guerrilla stronghold, Joe pokes me. “Hey hey, stop, stop.”
A snake, as thick as my leg, slithers across the red dirt path. Its metallic body seems to uncoil from an unlimited source in the grass. “Beware of King Cobra,” whispers Joe. “He is not afraid of people.”
Sensing our vibrations, the snake raises his head in the air. “Be careful. He can spit wenom,” Joe says.
We wait and watch. Joe asks the Buddha to meditate a peaceful vibe to the Nagas wrapped around him. When the snake finally vanishes in the grass, we gather our breaths and walk on.
“In Thai culture, snake is not evil,” says Joe. “He is friend of the Buddha.”
“Since coming to Thailand, I no longer know what’s good or evil,” I say. “I’m simply suspicious of all life forms. Especially heart-eating guerrillas.”
“You do not understand freedom fighter. This is problem in the world,” says Joe, taking a breakfast swig of whiskey. “Delicacy and truth is becoming extinct. Journalistic balance and scientific inquiry are dying. Foreign correspondents don’t know about context of events in Asia. They ignore development of cultural history. Only know Hollywood history. Farang live in Thailand, in satellite community of Los Angeles. Farang assume everybody thinking same same Hollywood. They can’t understand local people. Same as reporting about Democratic Kampuchea. They report in a wacuum.”
“For example, farang think it still 1970. They don’t know about Cambodia in last 20 years. What if Cambodian go to America? He can’t speak English, but he read Khmer-language book about Watergate in 1970. He think America is same as 1970. Free sex and drugs. He doesn’t know about computer, video and cocaine, or movie and political fashion. But he make world opinion of America. Farang are doing same in Asia.”
“Not all farang,” I say.
“Oh, you are angry, you think you are rebel. Oh, but you do not understand rebel. Rebel is not hippie playing guitar. Khmer Rouge rebel is fatcat, sitting on Thai beach. Rich from sale of gem and log to Thailand. Children dancing at Bangkok disco. Disciplined young soldiers at group wedding, village tradition, drinking Pepsi while Mahaguru drink whiskey. Hey, you know, rebel are very clever. They let government take over Pailin in Kampuchea in dry season offensive. Farang report about government success. But it is guerrilla tactic. Guerrilla wait on the hill to surround them. When rainy season comes, easy to kill enemy stuck in the mud. Farang don’t know this.”
REBELS WEAR SKIRTS
Armed with machine guns and dressed in skirt-like longyis, the Karen guerrillas don’t bow, shake heads, smile or chitchat like Thais. They look ready to kill us. These are hardened jungle warriors, toothless men who’ve been fighting since childhood against outsiders. While Joe talks with them in Thai, I take a clear look at the guerrilla who brought us here by boat and foot. His eyes are hard as wood. I imagine his life story: at nine, his father says: ‘Here son, this is your machine gun.’ At 10, his father dies under enemy mortar fire. At 12, invaders rape his sister. At 14, his mother escapes with his baby brother and sister. At 15, he finds her at a refugee camp in Thailand, but the babies have died from malaria. At 16, he returns to find his village in ashes. At 17, he gets his first kill, a Burmese soldier he barely sees across a dark jungle. At 18, he gets a taste of the enemy’s heart. By 22, my age, he’s already killed enough people to qualify as a serial killer in other countries. All this, because he was born in a tribe with uncertain borders.
We sit on a stockpile of shells, guns and grenades. I’m anxious about all the firepower under my butt. I have to be careful how I sit. Don’t point your feet. Lower your head to show respect. Now comes an advanced lesson in manners: don’t break wind and set off the stockpile of explosives.
Joe, who doesn’t sweat like me, is relaxed atop the arsenal. Oblivious to the hazards, he lights a cheroot cigar. He cracks his knees, startling the jumpy Karen.
“Colonel Ta Hla is coming soon,” says Joe. “He is famous rebel. Famous for not liking farang.”
“I love your sense of humor.”
“Hey hey, I’m serious. Last farang here was French photographer. The Colonel didn’t like his question. So he locked him in tiger cage.”
“Get out,” I say.
“Yes, it’s true. You can ask rat and snake about their dinner. Hey hey, why you don’t believe me? If you want to verify, you can ask Colonel yourself. Maybe he can show you tiger cage.”
“What was the unpopular question?” I ask.
“Nobody know. Maybe we can ask same question and find out.”
After hours sitting on the arsenal, I’m edgy with hunger and losing patience. “Joe, I think he’s not here. There’s a bad vibe here. We should leave now, while we still have a heart.”
“Jai yen, jai yen. Be cool. Colonel is coming. You must obey him. You are only farang.”
Stop calling me farang, I mutter under my breath. I’m getting sick of Joe putting me down because I wasn’t born here. Enough is enough.
Seeing my sweat, Joe senses the farang about to explode. To defuse my tension, he starts kickboxing me in front of the Karen rebels.
“Oh, but you cannot fight like Thai,” he says. “You are too jai rawn. Hot heart.”
“Oh yah, well I can playfight like Thais,” I say. I kick his legs Thai boxing style. He grabs my shoulders, and we try to wrestle each other off balance.
“Hey, hey, only playfighting,” says Slo. “You must be Burmese then.”
“Because Burmese are enemy in Thai playfighting. Like cowboys and Indians.”
“Like Nazis or Japs.”
“Oh, very good. You see, we are one world, united by common enemy. I see the Buddha, Allah, and Jehovah, shaking hand in Heaven.”
Heads over shoulders, we try to knee each other in the groin. Suddenly, he flips me off balance, throws me down, and pins my arm behind my back. I can’t move. Where did he learn this? He’s definitely had some kind of martial training.
The Karen guerrillas, real fighters, don’t laugh at this display.
By the time the Colonel finally comes into the hut, I’m ready to shut up and let Joe do the interview. It’s enough just to see a real live rebel leader. This rebel isn’t a wild-eyed poet in ripped clothes singing about revolu-shun. Ta Hla appears as a pensive man, more strategy than personality. Rather than beating his chest and flexing Rambo muscles, he’s almost invisible in the forest camouflage. I imagine he’s not unlike Pol Pot. A survivor, forced to outthink his opponent in a lifelong game of cowboys and Indians.
I’m bored at first. But as the interview drags on, I learn to appreciate Joe’s skill. He doesn’t ask for opinions such as ‘What do you think of the Burmese, your traditional enemy for hundreds of years?’ Instead, Joe gets specific details. How’s the Karen’s food supply? What land have you lost and gained? Who’s in charge here and there? What happened at this and that battle? Piece by piece, he puzzles together a picture of a war zone beyond the view of the global eye, a history recorded only in the memories of warriors who can’t write. Maybe Joe really is immune to malaria.
THE GIFT OF THE SEA
I finally leave Bangkok and find my paradise on an east coast island near the Thai-Cambodian border. Dr. Joe, getting my messages, shows up on the beach in flip-flops with a day-pack and a fishing rod, looking more like a humble islander than one of Bangkok’s leading intellectuals.
“Hey hey, you have become a fish,” he greets me. He casts a hook in my direction, just missing my head. We hug each other, giggling like kids. “Hey, you smell like fish too,” he says.
After lunch and a few bottles of Mekong, we conjure up an effective fishing method. Dr. Joe, in particular, enjoys this method because it requires almost no effort on his part. I snorkel out to find the fish. Joe, standing on the beach, casts in their direction. I watch through my mask as the baited hook plops into the water, just in front of my head. The unsuspecting fish inevitably take the bait, having no idea of the sophisticated international operation conspiring against them.
LOY KRATHONG – FLOATING THE BOAT OF BAD KARMA
Ramwong wan loy krathong, ramwong wan loy krathong.
Bun ja song hai rao sukjai, bun ja song hai rao sukjai.
On the campus of Chulalongkorn University, Joe was singing in a froggy voice. He translated the lyrics into English. “Let’s dance on Loy Krathong. Let’s dance on Loy Krathong. Making merit brings happiness. Making merit brings happiness.”
“I didn’t know you were a singer,” I said. “Can you show me how to dance?”
“Hey, hey. Tough guy don’t dance,” he said.
“Why are you so cheerful?”
“Oh, this Loy Krathong song remind me of student days,” he said. With his glasses and leather note bag, Joe looked professorial among the gathering of students. “You know, when Mahaguru was a student here at Chula, we always celebrated ‘the serene and profound religious festival of Loy Krathong’.”
“Loy Krathong means ‘to float the sacred banana boat’, right,” I said.
“That is correct,” he said, rolling the r’s for emphasis.
Young couples in uniforms of white short-sleeve shirts and navy blue pants or skirts bowed to the edge of the pond. I watched as Joe off-loaded his sins into little round banana leaf floats, called krathong. He lit a single candle, to symbolize his soul, and then put a one baht coin in the boat, to signify paying for his misdeeds. Released into the pond, the krathong floated like a little birthday cake for a one-year-old child. Dr. Joe was now purified, ready to begin a new incarnation. Watching young couples around the pond, I couldn’t float away thoughts of my various failings with women in Thailand.
“You must put your sin on banana leaf boat…and float boat away,” said Joe.
Seeing me downcast, Joe bought me a krathong boat for 20 baht, and led us down to the pond. The pond looked like Hong Kong harbor, full of little candlelit boats. Soi boys lurked in the gooey waters, bobbing above the surface to steal the one baht coins from the boats. With Joe threatening to kickbox me into the pond, I tried to be serious about the spirit of the ceremony. I closed my eyes and rang up a mental list of recent salacious behavior. There was quite a bit. I had a lot of bad karma going into that one baht coin I laid onboard the krathong. Joe fired up his lighter to transfer the sins of my soul onto the candle on the little krathong banana boat. Transfixed by the reflection of my material being in the water, I released the krathong.
It floated away from me, toward the reflection of the moon near the center of the pond. At last, I’m free of my guilt, I thought. I’m going to become purified, like Dr. Joe. My boat bumped a few other boats, nearly capsized, and managed to stay buoyant. But then a breeze not only blew out the candle, it sailed the boat of bad karma back to me. Before I could grab it and float it again, my boat rolled over and sank face down in the pond.
“Oh, my son, my son,” said Joe. “You cannot be saved.”
A few years later, I met Doctor Joe again in the parking lot of our former “Gutter Glitter Glamour” apartment on Ekamai Soi 63. Compared to Bangkok, Dr. Joe was relatively unchanged. He was wearing a new set of the same blue-checkered shirt and tan pants as years earlier. He looked the same age as he always did — about 22, with a smirky smile and only an ounce or two of body fat.
“Oh, my disciple, you have come to seek refuge with Mahaguru,“ he said. “Come see me, I know.”
He took a circle of keys out of his pocket.
“That’s our old room key,” I said. “I thought you had moved out years ago.”
“Yes, but still have key. Maybe you can talk to manager. We owe them seven years rent.”
We slipped past the lazy dogs and sleeping security guard and into the elevator. Upstairs, we opened the door of our room to the year 2530.
“It’s exactly as we left it,” I said. My old running shoes were still there, along with Hula Hula ice powder, a Bangkok map, Singha beer empties, Honda motorcycle oil, a mattress without sheets, and the Mothership’s great protest headline, Yoot Keuan Nam Choan — Stop building the Nam Choan Dam.
While Thailand had evolved from an agrarian to an industrial economy, our relics had not been moved by time.
“Hey hey. I am conserwationist,” said Joe.
“Let’s celebrate,” I said. “Here’s to our museum of friendship.”
“Hey, hey, check the fridge,” said Joe. “Are you hungry? I ordered kuaytiaw seven years ago.”
Indeed, there was still noodles and beer in the fridge, and a bottle of Mekong whiskey holding down an old newspaper on the dusty table.
In my memories of the eternal Dr. Joe, they will always be there.
* * * *