My host slammed his bottle of Guinness export down on the table. Its viscous body swayed. He took a long drag from a cigarette and directed the exhale at a ceiling fan. The opium damaged Indian tapped his fingers on the table thinking. His eyes shot upward, observing the smoke being churned by the fan. I looked at him as if expecting a response, but he continued to gaze at the fan and none came. I peered through the thin layer of smoke and made my move on the chessboard in front of me. A broad yet friendly looking American took in my move, resting his hands on the table to consider its consequences. Our host spoke.
‘I can’t get weed, but maybe Opium?’ I shook my head. The American made his move on the chessboard. I considered my options. The host responded to a hum on his phone, then a buzz from the front door. The door creaked and opened, a broad, tattooed, Chinese man entered the room, and casually began counting out large wads of money on the table I was seated at. He discussed recovering gambling winnings in English to our Indian host, who then made a hand gesture, the two of them promptly switched to a quiet conversation in Chinese.
I got up, walked to the fridge, and took out a beer. I gestured to the American who nodded, I took out a second for him. I sat back down at the table and opened the two beers. I took a sip, the beer was cool and satisfying in the pulsing midday heat.
The daytime activity of Melaka could be heard washing in through the glassless windows. A complex mix of languages engaging in a variety of trade and business. A cacophony of vehicles, new, old and very old, and of course the occasional tourist.
The day passed quickly. In the afternoon I wandered around the city on foot. It felt like I spent the whole time eating. A hawker stall with something new and exciting appeared to be around every corner. Apart from almost being run over by a car travelling significantly fast on the pavement, the afternoon passed to evening with no other notable occurrences.
Once again a hot day became a hot night. I joined my friends in the guest house. Everyone was drinking. The place advertised itself as having “The cheapest beers in town” I’m not sure how true this was, but I just wanted to have something cold. I spent most of the night knocking them back with the patrons of the guest house, until the very small ours of the morning. Predictably our host suggested we pick up some opium, I suggested he was free to do so, but that I would pass. An elderly American spoke, I hadn’t noticed him at first, he sat against the wall on the other side of the room, a cigarette hung loosely from his mouth.
‘You know-the sun and moon they talk to each other. Exchange information, its-its all mathematics man. Astrophysics. The solar system is talking to itself and the planets…they exchange data like a computer, information between astral bodies-the solar system man, the solar system is an internet. An internet of vast cosmic computers man.’ He than stopped talking and starred blankly forward, the cigarette dropped from his mouth.
I awoke to the blinding sun penetrating the thin curtains of my room. The effect of a nights drinking seemed amplified by the heat. Not having enough energy to go far, I went to the first place I found that was serving food. It was small Chinese café. I told the proprietor to bring me whatever it was they had. It was a fishball soup place, not great for a hangover. I ordered a bowl and some tea, I devoured it swiftly and successfully prevented myself from vomiting.
I sat on an old Portuguese fort and looked into the bustle of Chinatown. My friend tracked me down and read the bus timetable to Kuala Lumpur aloud. Without listening I agreed, we were booked onto a bus for the next day.
‘Lets go get some damn Indian food,’ I said. He agreed with a nod.
We ate the miscellaneous spread from the banana leaf. The mess of little India played out in front of us. As we ate the owner of the guest house came in, he was with the dangerous looking Chinese man and some Finnish girl from one of the rooms. I nodded at him, expecting him to suggest an afternoon on the opium. He said nothing and ordered some food. We left to look for rolling tobacco. I went to sleep early that night, the bus I barely agreed to was waiting for me in the morning.—-
—-Venturing off the beaten track can often lead to somewhere uninteresting and unremarkable, possibly to realise the modern world was there all along.
Choosing somewhere randomly on the map felt like an impulse if not romantic idea, this random choice led us to the unremarkable south western Malaysian town of Kluang. The town was woefully unremarkable and bared a resemblance to many old industrial towns I have known in my native Europe.
It is off the beaten track to foreigners but not for Malaysian palm oil and rubber workers, for the foreigner it is an unvisited town. Upon leaving the bus station I realised we are far from the great modernity of Kuala Lumpur, zinc roofs and reused stone still counted for a majority of building materials.
We sat in a cheap hotel, the only hotel as far as I could tell, we had wandered most of the town and this was the only one we could find. Upon entering the hotel we saw a sleeping boy at the reception. I rang the bell but he didn’t wake. I had travelled all the way from Johor Bahru and was tired so I gently pushed the kid on the shoulder. He woke up and lazily uttered something in Malay pointing to the key rack.
‘Any English?’ I asked, like the ignorant foreigner I am.
‘Little,’ he replied ‘room?’
‘Yes, not best room.’
‘Thats fine.’I replied
The boy showed us upstairs, unlocked the door and showed us the room, three mattresses on the floor and a toilet plastered off to give the impression of being a separate room.
‘Fine,’ I said and handed him the first nights room rate, three hundred Ringgit If I recall. Two minutes later I could hear him snoring downstairs, he had fallen asleep again. I smiled at my companions, they laughed and looked out the window, the only visible things were warehouses and a shopping complex under construction, it started raining.
We sat in the hotel room, drank tiger beer from the Chinese drinking joint across the road and played cards, there really was nothing else to do at that point, the rainy season had visibly manifest itself outside. The television did not work in the room, we probably played fifteen games of cards before the rain stopped.
The boy was still asleep at reception, some kind of musical was playing on the muted television behind him. The nearest building was the half constructed shopping mall, some shops were open, they all seemed to be discount electronics stores. I wondered If Malaysians even bought clothes and food in this damn town, or did they somehow survive on generic brands laptops and smart phones. The attendant in the shopping mall wanted to take our bags, I was suspicious thinking it was some kind of scam, I would later learn this was for security purposes and a regional custom, I felt a little bad in retrospect—for refusing.
Leaving the mall I noticed several expensive custom cars in the parking lot, I supposed there were a lot of people who had made big money in palm oil and rubber, it was possible. Wandering around the town again it began to rain a second time, we noticed a covered hawker stall and sat down. I ordered some seafood with rice and a few beers, a mangy cat mewled at my feet for some scraps but I did not feed it as the owner quickly chased him off, he yowled and ran into an alley.
I inquired with the boy at the hotel if it was possible to climb a nearby mountain visible over the buildings, I learned that it wasn’t, the damn thing was surrounded by palm plantations on all sides. The rain hit the zinc roofs all over again, we sat and played cards drinking beers from the Chinese place all over again. The next day we went to the bus station and brought tickets for Melaka leaving on the earliest bus, our intention now was to get back onto the beaten path as quickly as possible.—-
—-It was hot. Too hot. You couldn’t get a city bus there. But I heard you could take a minibus from Trang bus station. I paid three hundred baht for a ‘seat’ on the minibus. But as per Thai custom, it was vastly oversold. I let an old monk have my seat. It thought it odd he took the bus. I sat on the floor and read. Then played angry birds with some kid. You really sweltered and roasted inside the minibus. The drive was maybe an hour. It felt like more.
The city was a mess of low hanging wires and crumbling buildings. This was the great spiritual capital of the south? I asked the driver if he could take me to the hotel I had noted down. He agreed for bit more money. Though we picked up his friends at the bus station first. The friend turned around and grinned at me. He chewed tobacco, his teeth were blackened, some were missing.
‘You here in Thailand for the girls hahahaa…In Nakhon for the girls hahaha…You want to know where to find some?’
‘No, thank you.’ he turned around as if disappointed. Maybe he was some kind of pimp and was looking to make some money.
I arrived at the hotel I had marked down. Like all buildings in the city it was somewhat unkempt. But it was situated in a large, pleasant and well-kept garden. Which dripped refreshingly with rainy season moisture. The calm meditative surroundings slowed my heart after the stressful bus journey.
I stood fumbling with my bags outside the main gate. An elderly woman approached me and began to yell at me. She pointed behind me and threw her arms into the air.
I shrugged, she grabbed me, pointed harder and yelled louder. I broke free of her grip.
‘I’m sorry I don’t understand!’ I yelled back. This seemed only to agitate her more. ‘No Thai, I’m’ sorry!’ I answered with another shrug, picking up my bag. Her daughter approached clutching an umbrella from down the street. I looked up, the sky was darkening. She placed a firm hand on her mothers shoulder. Then turned to me.
‘I am sorry. She did not mean to scare you,’ she said.
‘It’s OK, but I can’t understand what she wants.’ I answered.
‘That sign, behind you. For the garden hotel…’
‘It is very old. Not very safe. Look only held on by cables,’ I looked, it was. It swayed in the wind. ‘Recently It fell. Almost killed a man.’
‘Oh.’ I moved from the sign’s trajectory. She smiled and towed her mother down the street. The rain hit instantly and heavily. I ran with my bags into my new room. I watched as the rain drenched the garden in only a few seconds.
I asked the owner of a Chinese café how to get to Wat Mahathat. One of city’s landmarks. He pointed down a long road that seemed endless.
‘A small open top blue bus comes down that road. You can ride it all the way to Mahathat. Biiiiig Buddha, Cant miss it.’ he said.
‘Thank you.’ I replied walking out of the cafe. He grabbed me by the arm.
‘But be careful! Bus only costs ten baht ok! These Thais will cheat you for more if they can.’ he closed his hand into a fist.
‘OK, thank you.’ He looked sternly at me as I left.
‘Ten baht! Remind them!’ I nodded and walked out, waiting for the bus. The damn thing almost didn’t stop. An old man put his hand out. I grabbed it and pulled myself aboard as it slowed at the stop. The driver never said a price. I gave him ten baht. He didn’t protest. The ride was longer than I expected. A schoolchild pushed me hard in the arm. I scowled at her. She pointed.
‘Ashh shit!’ I gestured to the driver, he slowed and let me off.
The temple was a maze of Pagodas. It also had small museum which I pottered around. There I saw another foreigner for the first time. An American.
‘Hey,’ I asked. ‘How much did you pay for the bus?’
‘Thirty Baht.’ He replied. I smiled and walked off.
The next morning I was leaving the hotel. I looked at the drenched garden. It made me feel thirsty. An obese white guy drove past on a moped. A tiny Thai woman clutched onto his back. He was badly sunburnt. A small child looked at me then pointed and laughed at the sight.
‘Hahhaha, he big fat and pink like pig!’ he yelled. I nodded, picked up bag and walked off. Avoiding the sign.—
—I was convinced to visit Khanom but the minster of tourism for the region. Or someone who claimed to be the minister of tourism. Either way I would have free transport to the town, if I agreed to stay in his new, expensive hotel.
I hefted three large boxed of tourism leaflets into his car from what must have been his office. We picked up my two friends from a nearby hotel. If this guy was going to try and murder me, at least I would have backup. We drove for hours through Thammarat province. Lush green forest, spiking pinpont rock outcrops, and towns which sprouted in corrugated iron chaos along the roadside. I feel asleep some three hours into the journey.
The guy turned out to be the real deal. We arrived in Khanom. An awkward stretch of buildings, scattered along a disturbed section of coastline. The hotel was garish and out of place. It stood towering over the shacks of local workers like a mighty whitewash castle. I took the boxes of tourism leaflets, shook hands with the minster and paid for my room at the reception.
I met my companions for some food in a restaurant which offshot from the hotel. This was hardly the image of the tourist industry in Thailand. The coast was windswept, all the trees had been torn down and the sea was permanently turbulent. We joked about how out of place this hotel was over noodles and beer.
Evening came quickly. I went for a swim in the hotel’s attempt at an infinity pool. However the pool was uneven and sloped awkwardly away from the ocean. I met my friends for a game of pool, and a few more beers. It occurred to us that there was very little in this town. It was place wanting to be part of the tourist industry and not quite making it.
I asked the girl at reception if there was a bar nearby. She said no in broken English, informing me there was one in another town two miles away. At the same time a large American man entered the hotel with his arm around a young Thai man.
‘There is a bar….a little far away though and it has a strange name. Warm ball.’ He said, walking off with his arm around his companion.
‘Thanks man.’ I replied.
The bar was maybe two miles away, so we may as well have went to the town. Regardless we wandered along the dark beach in its direction. Some workers from another hotel were out playing badminton in what remained of the light. They pointed us in the direction of a much nearer bar.
We ambled off the beach into a dimly lit group of huts. Some iron roofed, some traditional. The bar spilled light out onto the road. A group of old man sat drinking in it. The owner, a bald and somewhat damaged looking man waved us over. He pulled out three beers and placed them on the table. I opened mine, it was cool and refreshing in the humid night air. A man who looked like the Thai version of Jimi Hendrix sparked up a large spliff.
‘What about the police?’ I asked. The owner pointed to a short smiling man, nursing a beer across the table from us.
‘This man is the chief of police, and the guy smoking. He the only lawyer in town.’ I laughed, drank my beer and accepted a smoke, as it was past to me from the chief of police. I thought he was bullshitting until a police car passed, and the driver saluted him out the window.
The owner brought more drinks, he wife soon emerged with food. Noodles, rice, veg and some meat. It wasn’t great but it was free for drinking at his bar. We drank for most of the night at this bar. At closing time the owner pointed us to a light in the distance. He indicated this was the ‘warm ball.’ Before we left he showed us a painting he had made of the lawyer. In it he looked even more like Hendrix.
We traversed silent dark fields directly towards the light. Around thirty minutes later we reached the bar. The place was huge, locals crowded the dance floor. I drank and danced for a bit. An young man approached me.
‘You come Thailand suck cock?’
‘I’m afraid not.’ I left shortly after. Stumbling along the windy beach. Somehow I found my way to the hotel. The next morning I awoke and went swimming in the sea with a deep hangover.
Sanjay Bheenuck is a writer based in London, his work has appeared in Streetcake Magazine, Scrutiny and NoiseMedium, among other places.