Into the Thai Twilight Zone
Where else in the world could a womanising black magician become a political advisor and chat-show celebrity, or the abbot of a Buddhist temple try to construct a pagoda out of water buffalo skulls?
Where else would a town be overrun with sacred tortoises that mate in the streets, or the preserved corpse of a serial-slaying cannibal be on permanent exhibition in the most macabre of museums? Where else but in bizarre Thailand? A Twilight Zone where nothing is what it seems.
In 1994, I started writing a series of columns and feature stories for local newspapers and magazines that led to contributions to a wealth of international publications such as the National Geographic Traveler and International Herald Tribune, regional papers like the Japan Times and Sydney Morning Herald, as well as guidebooks for major publishers in the United States and London, focusing primarily on the dark and exotic side of Thailand and detours off the well-rutted and over-glutted travel map of hotspots. The inklings of a few other stories came from the pages of Farang Untamed Travel magazine, co-founded by Cameron Cooper, Bobby McBlain and myself in 2001.
There are hundreds of books—and tens of thousands of stories, websites and blogs—devoted to the ‘palm-fringed beaches’ and ‘majestic mountains’ and ‘delightful gastronomy’ of the Introduction: Into the Thai Twilight Zone kingdom. This is not one of them. Beyond those obvious attributes, the country has many other enchantments and enticements that can be enjoyed without bowing to the tyranny of the politically correct, or snorkelling in a cesspool of vulgarities.
Starting off the collection with a bang is the ‘Crime Scenes’ section. Few people know life and death ‘Behind the Bars of the Bangkok Hiltons’ like the country’s last executioner. Trading in his electric guitar for a machine-gun, former rock musician Chavoret Jaruboon sent 55 men and women to the crematorium during his 18 years on the firing line. Interviews with convicted drug traffickers and prison authorities provide an overview of crime and capital punishment in Thailand.
Only in the sea-straddling resort of Pattaya are you likely to hear stories of a middle-aged Scandinavian man running amok in a shopping mall, throwing bottles of acid in the faces of local office ladies, because he had been spurned and sucked dry of his life savings by a bargirl. In ‘Pattaya: The Vegas of Vice?’, retirees on Viagra rub shoulders with Russian gangsters and 10,000 marchers calling for an end to violence against women as they parade down Beach Road, beside scores of streetwalkers in the country’s most bipolar city.
For chills and blood spills, readers can ride shotgun with Bangkok’s rescue workers and corpse collectors. In ‘Museums of the Macabre: See Uey the Chinese Cannibal’, the wretched life and unspeakable crimes of the forensic museum’s mascot—who is also the country’s most infamous serial killer—are autopsied.
‘From Ayuthaya to Bangkok: A Bizarre Expat Odyssey’ looks at an astonishing spectrum of expatriates who have come here over the past five centuries: pirates and samurai, writers and filmmakers, maverick entrepreneurs and mass murderers. Apart from that famous Thai tolerance of other cultures and nationalities, why do they keep coming here? The answers are as varied, and as eclectic, as the characters themselves. Also detailed are a few of the defining moments from expatriate history. Many will know about the building of the ‘Death Railway’ constructed by Allied POWs and Asian slave labourers at the behest of the barbarous Japanese Imperial Army. Few, I suspect, will be familiar with the most moving memoir of that tragedy, The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, which tracks the strange, five-decade-long relationship that develops between the Scottish POW and a member of the Japanese secret police he longs to maim and murder.
In the middle of 2010, the carnage on the streets of Bangkok during a series of showdowns between the military and the redshirted protestors exposed more than a few fault lines running through Thai society and its long-standing love and loathing for the army. Those incidents are flashpoints in ‘Weekend Warriors: Military Tourism in Thailand’, where the presence of so many troops and bases has created what may very well be a tourist phenomenon unique to Thailand: undergoing military training at real army bases scattered across the country. Despite finding it a challenge to arrange and endure, I did my basic training with the paratroopers from the Royal Thai Airborne in Lop Buri province.
The overblown genre of what I normally deride as ‘Bangkok dicklit’ has mostly been neutered from ‘The Sex Files’ section. The only organisation I’ve kept tabs on from that overexposed scene is Empower, one of the few NGOs in the region that promotes sex work as a viable form of employment for women. That said, they have been lobbying the Thai government for some two decades to get sex workers the same rights enjoyed by other members of the service industry, and they routinely deal with the Thai police in trying to get justice for women victimised by sadistic clients.
Over the last 10 years, they have implemented an incredible array of projects— a radio station featuring bargirls as DJs, setting up a miniature go-go bar at an international conference on AIDS and, more recently, setting up the only bar in the country (possibly in the world) run by and for sex workers.
Cross-cultural relationships are already weird enough without the presence of love charms, sex potions and phallic amulets. Yet they all play a part in the world’s oldest obsession as it’s practised in Thailand. Stories like ‘Erecting a Tribute to a Fertility Goddess’ look at how the mystical flirts and fornicates with love.
Profiles are travel stories, too. For the country’s architectural giant, Sumet Jumsai, his lifeline weaves through World War II, when the Japanese occupied Bangkok, to his schooldays in Paris and England, and his designs for groundbreaking buildings that resemble a robot, a ship and a Picasso-like Cubist structure, as well as a number of character-forming encounters with everyone from filmmaker Roman Polanksi to Nelson Mandela.
In any profile, it’s incumbent upon the author to locate the circumstances that have shaped the subjects’ personalities and pushed them in certain directions. The so-called ‘Angel of Bang Kwang Central Prison’ could only have come from the shrink wrapped suburbs of Australia, as part of a generation that fled to Asia and found refuge in philanthropy.
Other forces also delineate characters and shape reputations. The growing worldwide interest in the work of Thailand’s first lady of forensics, Dr. Porntip Rojanasunan, owes a lot to the ballistic success of TV shows like CSI and the bestselling, bare-bones thrillers of Patricia Cornwall and Kathy Reichs. At first glance, Kathy and Porntip may seem to have little in common except for middle age and gruesome CVs. Dig a little deeper and the two women are case studies in similar pathologies and how they deal with mass fatalities in the most pragmatic of ways.
A dual profile of the ‘Scorpion Queen’ and the ‘Centipede King’—the country’s most infamous freaks since the original Siamese twins became the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’— spotlights the reappearance of the sideshow in popular culture.
In any agrarian society like Thailand, where rice remains the largest export, rural folks develop a kinship with wildlife and their beasts of burden that take on the fraternity of family. Inevitably and invariably, wildlife features tend to focus on the roles these creatures play in ecosystems and food chains. Rarely discussed, but equally important, is the cultural and spiritual significance of these creatures. All across Southeast Asia, the water buffalo has bred songs, festivals, religious rites, beauty contests, and in the case of Thailand, the most unlikely cinema star. As the creature lumbers towards obsolescence, all these mainstays of rural culture are also en route to extinction.
Elsewhere in the ‘Creature Features’ section are stopovers at the world’s first and only monkey hospital, a town overrun with tortoises that are deemed sacred and treated like pets, as well as a trip to a Siamese fighting fish gambling den where gangsters, gamblers and a businessman with degrees in philosophy and computer science wager bets in a millennium-ancient tradition.
Chulalongkorn University is Thailand’s oldest and most venerable institution of higher learning. Consistently ranked in the top 20 of all Asian universities for its research facilities and international programs, the institution has produced a lot of influential people over the course of a century. In the Faculty of Science, however, freshman students are advised not to use the front stairway in the White Building (the faculty’s oldest structure), because corpses once used for studying medicine were previously buried there. In the Faculty of Political Science, the main icon which students and staff pray to is the Black Tiger God. Freshmen students should not have their photos taken with the statue of the ‘Serpent King’ (Phaya Nak) from Buddhist lore in the Faculty of Art, for fear they may not graduate. Conversely, graduating students are urged to come to this auspicious place to get their photos taken.
These strange beliefs and superstitions are not secrets whispered among the students and faculty. No, they are all included in an official history book on the university that I edited for them in 2010.
Students of the supernatural can do a minor in this vast and ancient subject with the stories in the last section. During the grisly Vegetarian Festival in Phuket, spirit mediums—allegedly possessed by the nine Emperor Gods of Taoism and other deities—skewer their faces with hacksaws, chains, swordfish and cymbal stands, in shows of penance and piety. Meanwhile, what must be the world’s only radio show to feature callers reciting tales of the paranormal also takes listeners out on ghost-hunting expeditions, and they have set up their own pub with a gallery devoted to ghostly images sent in by their fans. The crew’s most terrifying encounter came after a visit to the shrine of Thailand’s most legendary ghost, Nang Nak—a woman who died in childbirth some 150 years ago, yet whose vengeful and loving spirit has haunted more than 20 feature film productions.
On the Buddhist Wheel of the Law, where life, death and rebirth spin in endless cycles, the book comes full circle, from the cradle to the crematorium, with ‘Funeral Rites: The Thai Way of Death’. A few of the characters are repeated in different stories. All are introduced chronologically. Although one running character needs to be briefly introduced here. Anchana, my former partner, who came along on research trips for earlier drafts of about seven or eight of these stories, also played the roles of cultural advisor, translator par excellence and clown princess. Born on a sugarcane farm in the northern province of Kamphaeng Phet, in a house with no electricity, running water or a proper bathroom, Anchana (which means ‘The Winner’ in Thai) put herself through university, majoring in English and tourism, by working as a waitress and a nurse’s assistant in an emergency room in Bangkok, eventually earning a master’s degree in marketing from a university in Australia. Her witticisms and saucy remarks about everything from local men to Cambodian women, her personal encounters with ghosts and favourite country songs about water buffalo add insights, comic relief and a distinctly Thai female slant to a few of these stories. Without her contributions, the stories in which she appears would have been impossible to cover with any degree of depth.
Whenever a writer is approaching such sensationalistic subject matter, they can only go in one of two directions: the senseless shock value and moral indignation of tabloid journalism and TV, or trying to look at the subjects and the subject matter with a bit more balance and empathy. Aside from the occasional headless motorcyclist, I have tried to navigate the latter route.
A lot of the new material has never been published before. Many of the older stories have been revised, rethought, restructured and continuously updated over the years, just as many of the people profiled like Dr. Porntip and the ‘Scorpion Queen’ I have met and interviewed a number of times over the past decade.
Filed under Directory of the Bizarre, the listings in the back of the book are intended as pathfinders and other mines of information. Many of the destinations and museums are easy enough to visit. Some tours of duty, such as military training at Thai army bases, can be very difficult to organise and should not be undertaken lightly.
In any event, I will not be held responsible for anyone who goes in search of a ‘love potion’ made by an occultist melting the flesh of a corpse’s chin.