Perhaps the first ever hippy was Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862). Just like a hippy he liked hanging out in nature, not working and bitching about the government. And just like most hippies he didn’t like to stray too far from the benefits of ‘civilization’ (Walden Pond was only 1.5 miles from his family home). And just like a middle-class hippy, his protests were financed by his family (his aunt paid for his release when he was incarcerated for tax evasion). However, for all his inconsistencies he did write:
“My life is like a stroll on the beach…as near to the edge as I can go.”
Obviously his edge was only a few clicks from home. In this final part of life is a beach I’ll write about a few topics that might have interested Thoreau.
One of Thoreau’s main occupations while living next to a pond was observing nature and the changing of the seasons. To his credit he did this alone and without the benefit of a shed load of ganja. I had human company and a handy dealer whose bungalow was only 10 meters away. Nevertheless I did more than my share of nature watching. What follows for a few paragraphs is a bit of purple prose detailing these observations. For those readers adverse to poetry I suggest you skip the italicized section below.
To observe nature properly you also have to be at its mercy. You only appreciate how hot it is when you aren’t secure from the sun’s burning rays in a sealed air-con unit. You can’t get an idea of how much rain falls during the rainy season until you have lived through a torrential Thai monsoon. You can’t appreciate just how flooded the unconcreted jungle roads become until you risk driving down them on your crappy motorbike. And it’s hard to understand just how alarming it is to watch the water levels inching closer to the top of your bungalow stilts. If you don’t live in it and experience the extremes then nature remains an abstract idea or a commodity to be bought.
Sometimes just before the rains come the sky changes to a dark purple where the rain clouds are hanging in the bay. The sea takes on greens, blues and blacks, and in the distance behind the clouds the sun will pour down like an alien visitation that turns the sea a golden colour.
There’s a bird that makes noises like R2 D2; another bird that seems to say “For real” (the Ali G bird); and there’s the swooping bird that flies just over your head, dive bombing you to protect her young.
There are the ants that crawl along the power lines to the bungalows in order to capture other ants and insects. And there are the tens of thousands of red ants that are distracted by the rotten fish that a local often nails to a tree near the nest.
In the jungle and on the rocks at the far southern end of the beach there are mini-crocodile-sized lizards with bad breath that sometimes are hunted and eaten (with tons of chilies no doubt).
I liked getting stoned in the hills overlooking the beach and watching the silent ballet of eagles and hawks gliding in the thermals.
I love the flowers. The frangipani with its pink, orange and white petals and the variegated but always sluttishly alluring orchids hanging from the trees and in the cocktails provide running motifs throughout the beach.
If you keep still you can see crabs scurrying sideways along the beach. If you look carefully in shady nooks and crannies you spot the furtive cat community that hides from the dogs. ‘Flowers’ and ‘Baby Flowers’, the evil black and white kitten and the gremlin grey are all minor hero cats that have since departed the beach. And who could forget Mr. Ginger? Poor soul never recovered from getting sticky rat poison on his fur, then being cleaned with turps before being trapped in the water bucket to wash it all off. He ran away in shock and when he came back he was funny in the head and then he vanished.
The dogs have a lot of dog business to attend to. Not only do they have their own pack hierarchy to squabble over, but they also have to protect their territory from other packs, form alliances with other dogs and then sometimes see to the human business of protecting the place from Burmese. And on top of all that, the packs come together once or twice a month for a massive howling session that wakes everyone. Eerily enough this is often around the full moon.
Nature is also snakes and scorpions and nasty millipedes. Not to mention the occasional vicious dog and chained monkey. To illustrate the dangerous side of nature I’ll relate one incident that happened while my brother and I were getting stoned in my brother’s bungalow in the swamp. We heard an odd scratching noise coming from his toilet. Being the braver of the two of us, my brother opened the toilet door a fraction. He screamed and flew through the air and onto the bed. Luckily I was holding the weed and tobacco mix in the palm of my hand so his sudden flight didn’t ruin the next joint. But what did ruin my equanimity was the sight of a dinosaur looking lizard flicking its long forked tongue at me. The monster was nearly a metre long from tail to head. He gazed at us with his beady eyes. It’s fine seeing lizard motherfuckers on wild life shows but in real life it is most unpleasant. I closed my hand to not lose the joint mix then froze in fear. My bro with a practicality that would’ve been respected by Thoreau grabbed the broom from the back balcony and approached to do battle with our Jurassic visitor. The monster seeing we were armed insolently flicked his tongue at us and retreated back into the depths of the toilet. After a few seconds, my brother and I built up the courage to approach closer. When we did we were met with the sight of the giant lizard trying to squeeze himself down the shower water plug hole. Being a plug whole it was just a few inches in diameter but still the ghastly thing persevered like Houdini wriggling out of a straight jacket. Eventually only the tip of the tail was still visible. It looked like the monster had got stuck. Probably the u-bend in the pipe had done him no favours. My brother and I quickly improvised. We got a big bucket and filled it with water and roughly plonked it over the hole with the tail sticking out.
The joint mix was ready to go and much needed after the ordeal.
In the summer it’s incredibly hot and then just when it seems unbearable anymore, it rains for an hour or so. The power goes out and someone has to go out in the rain and start up the generator, if they can be bothered. The reward for the heat is the intense beauty of clear blue skies, a flat blue ocean and bright white sand. The beach is nearly empty and you have to squint to look up. You instantly feel the sun burning your shoulders. Standing in bare feet is torture. However, you walk into the sea, through clear warm shallows and into the deeper waters. A stray yellow butterfly flitters past. It is a perfect entry; not the slightest shudder or hesitation about fully submersing your body. The water remains an ambient temperature, and further out still it is cooling. To have the experience surrounded by dozens of people paddling or doing some sport would destroy the soul of the thing.
My main man Thoreau would have had a thing or two to say if had encountered the Thai immigration services. He might not gone so far as civil disobedience (especially if had read any of the harrowing tales by foreigners rotting away in Bangkok prisons), but I’m sure he would have unleashed some choice invective about the Thai civil service.
The first thing to remember about visas for Thailand is that the rules governing them change every year. It seems to be a favourite of the civil service to announce sudden changes and not update the website. Add to this the unfriendliness of Thai consulate staff in Penang and Kuala Lumpur and the outlook for those foreigners hoping to stay in Thailand on a long term basis looks bleak. In the golden days of the 80s and early 90s expats lived in Changmai and Changrai and nipped over the border every month to Burma or Laos for another free month visa.
Not happy with foreigners bringing money and investment into the country, the civil service introduced the tourist visa to deal with the situation. They doled out 3, 6, 9, or 12 month visas that weren’t cheap, but weren’t too expensive. These tourist visas allowed so many re-entries into Thailand. Every embassy and consulate made up their own rules about who could get which type of tourist visa. London gave out 6 month visas and Hull 12 month tourist visas. In Laos you could only get 3 months. It was as mysterious as religion. Despite the inconsistency, the real caveat was the necessity of leaving the country every three months to use another re-entry and thus secure another 3 months. You can imagine the glee with which travel agencies have jumped on the possibilities of supplying the need for ‘visa runs’. It’s pure middle man heaven. At the border at Aranyaprathet there is a mass of entrepreneurs looking to help people get a Cambodian visa and negotiate the bewildering number of snaking lines available to join. And in between countries what is there? Obviously, a mini Las Vegas built in the Chinese neo-tasteful style. It must be one of the oddest mini-breaks in the world to visit the no-man’s zone between Thailand and Cambodia and gamble, drink duty free, shag whores and stare out of the window at the wretched lines of humanity being preyed upon by steerers, hawkers and thieves.
Most recently (May 2009) the visa situation changed again. Now, tourist visas are free. This might sound great but at the same time to get a Non-immigration B and then a work visa you need to work for a company with a net worth of 8 million baht – before it was only 3 million. That has screwed many small business owners and partnerships. The non-B used to entitle you to a year work permit, but now it’s only 3 months. For those married to Thais with only a non-O they now have to re-apply for a new visa out of country every 3 months; rather than simply cross in and out of the country. The Thai authorities are pushing all foreigners towards tourist visas, thus depriving people of the chance of legally working in Thailand; and even forcing those married to Thais but with low incomes to abandon their families in Thailand. The whole thing is riddled with jargon: ‘Non-O’, ‘Non-B’, ‘re-entries’, ‘work visas’. Confused? Well everyone is. My advice is to avoid having too many boring conversations in bars about visas, it begins to sound like British people moaning about the weather.
Petey was just speeding away, thought he was god for a day. Then I guess he had to crash; valium would have helped that bash. Well Lou Reed wasn’t thinking of Petey when he wrote the song, but the lyrics have an archetypal quality to them that sums up Petey’s story. Petey was a young lad from Australia. It was his first time on the beach, and as soon as he discovered about the easy availability of drugs, he went at it like the proverbial kid in the candy store – all obligingly provided by one of the pseudo gangsters on the beach. He munched on the e’s and chased Yaba (pronounced Yar bah or Ya bai), downed gallons of whiskey and breakfasted on ganja. And in between, Petey snacked on magic mushrooms and snorted lines of cocaine. I don’t think anybody is exactly sure what and how much he did. But what is certain he went on a binge to rival Ozzy Osbourne back in the day. And just like Ozzy he didn’t come out of it unscathed.
One morning he went into the village and announced to the random bunch of locals and tourists that he had gotten to know that he now possessed the ability to read minds. Everyone could tell from the intensity of his gaze and the paleness of his complexion that he had gone to another level with his drug taking. All and sundry tried to humour him in what was obviously a very fragile state. This consideration didn’t help. With his new found powers of telepathy he ascertained that everyone was harbouring evil thoughts about him. In short he had managed to exacerbate his paranoia with extra-sensory perception. He started raving and shouting and running around to evade the insinuations from other people’s mental babblings.
This couldn’t be ignored; so Petey’s main dealer mate intervened to try and calm the young Australian down. Oddly enough Petey only read benevolence in the mind of his dealer. There’s irony for you. Anyway dealer chappie knowing a thing or two about drugs and break downs, dug around in his medicine cabinet and pulled out copious amounts of valium which he proceeded to feed to Petey. Being sedated partly helped Petey. His ability to run amok was diminished but sadly the voices in his head weren’t.
This went on for days: the downers and the reassurance from the only man he trusted. He didn’t start to get better. A council was held and it was decided that Petey’s parents should be called. Naturally, they got on the first plane to Thailand. When they met their son, they hardly recognized him. He had wasted away and burnt out. And sadly if Petey did recognize his mum and dad, he read in their thoughts evil intentions. He didn’t want to go home or see a doctor.
The parents had no choice but to call in the police to help. Being Thai police, they didn’t arrest dealer chappie, but they did agree to help escort Petey off the beach and get him to a hospital. Petey with his X-men powers knew what was coming and fled off into the jungle. Dealer chappie, Petey’s parents and the police gave chase. He was finally cornered on the next beach and bought down and restrained.
Petey spent two months in a hospital near the beach before he was allowed to fly back to Australia. (Apparently they don’t let mad people on planes). As far as I know he’s still recovering in a hospital back in Oz. I might be the Trippy Traveller, but let this tale be a warning to all you impressionable readers who can’t find the sanctuary of moderation at the heart of the psychedelic storm.
And as a post script to the tale, I’d like to mention that Thoreau just before dying wrote these words: “Now comes good sailing….Moose…Indian”.
For us Brits who spend most of our lives inside watching Eastenders on the box, the received wisdom is that a bit of fresh air will do us ‘a world of good’. So on the handful of Sundays when it isn’t raining or we’re not coming down from a big Saturday night, we like to take a walk in the park. For those really ardent believers in the powers of outside air, a dog is procured. This forces them outside daily to enjoy the benefits of car fumes and cold weather.
So living on a beach in Thailand, where many of the buildings don’t have walls should be ideal for the ‘old health’. Our bungalow was tiny with no toilet, so even to take a leak I had to experience fresh air. Indeed, even inside the bungalow, the gaps between the floor and wall planks were big enough to allow plenty of the invigorating outside air in. With all this fresh air, I should have been in tip top physical shape. Well mentally, I generally felt on top of the world, but that was more to do with the intensive regime of ganja therapy we were pursuing. The cheap repetitive food was making my already thin frame more angular, but at least the daily stomach cramps were forcing me to get up at a reasonable hour. To halt the possible physical atrophy I took to swimming 300 strokes every day in the sea. When the waves were high I had to swim quite far out to find suitable conditions for exercise. On a couple of occasions the under tow took me what seemed miles from the shore. I kept my head and swam sideways out of the danger. Nevertheless, risking my life for a bit of a work out seemed a bit daft so I started to slacken off on the exercise.
Junes are scorching hot on the beach. And one June my wife and I woke up to find lots of little red spots on our bodies. The other symptoms were lack of appetite and energy. On top of that our mental sharpness was not what it should have been (which is about 50% of a usual healthy adult). I decided not to try and tough it out and we got a taxi into the main town. We went to the fanciest looking private health clinic we could find. The doctor was a chubby cheerful fellow. He immediately assumed we had health insurance and was keen to provide us with a letter and receipt for our insurance company. When we told him we didn’t have insurance he looked momentarily a bit disappointed; and even more so when I told him we were only paying for him to administer to the needs of one of us. Nevertheless, he quickly recovered his bedside manner and proceeded to examine my wife. In less than a minute he had made his diagnosis. He took a book off his desk, flicked through the pages and found what he was looking for. The entry he showed me was in English. Below the medical jargon it said ‘measles’. I pointed out to him that we had both already had the measles when we were kids. He made some noises about a virus and herpes. I was mightily confused but felt I had no choice but to go along with this possible quackery if there was a chance of ridding ourselves of all the little red spots. Once outside his office we paid a hefty consultation fee of 30 US and then spent another 30 US on herpes pills.
When we got back to the beach and told our friends about our disease, its symptoms and the doctor’s diagnosis we got a whole bunch of further conflicting opinions. The only re-assuring information we gathered was that other locals had also been afflicted with the red spots disease and had lived. So we took the medicine and lay in bed and smoked dope. I began to feel weirdly light-headed like I was on the verge of a break through to a new mental state. I prayed I would avoid omniscience since it hadn’t done Petey any good.
About a week passed in this state of mental limbo and physical degradation before we started to feel better. Eventually the little red spots vanished and my mind retreated from the shady regions of delusion.
Looking back on the experience with the benefit of hindsight, I think we had dengue fever. It’s a disease contracted by mosquito bites. There aren’t any drugs to treat dengue fever. It isn’t fatal but if caught several times it can lead to death. What got to me at the time was that there was no way of telling for sure what we had. Not knowing was the worrying part. I would gladly swap a bit of fresh air for the opportunity to have a professional second opinion.
And that concludes my stroll through memories of living on a beach. My brother, wife and I went unwittingly near the edge and encountered hostile reptiles, little red spots and madness from a distance. We flirted with drowning and spent plenty of time really seeing nature in all its glory.