Tuk Tuk Beep Beep (Absolute Thai. 2007)

 

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

Every country has their symbol. In England it’s soggy fish and chips. This probably says something about how the Brits see themselves. In Vietnam it’s the conical hat which is such an awesomely practical object that, judging by their rapidly increasing GDP it should make the rest of us very, very afraid. Thailand, for some reason, is represented by a stinking, noisy, three wheeled golf cart often driven by men whose sense of caution could legitimately be called into question.

The tuk tuk evolved from the chaotic streets of Bangkok and spread across the country belching smoke and deafening passers by whilst unpredictably changing lanes more often than David Beckham changes hair styles. Its history is an interesting one. It is believed that its predecessor, the rickshaw, was introduced to Thailand by Chinese immigrants in 1871, but was banned in 1901, because it caused traffic chaos. By 1950 the bicycle powered version, or Samalor, was also banned and today’s tuk tuk was born. Since then it has mutated into a beast of many breeds.

The symbol most often seen is the ubiquitous three wheeled rusty trike powered by a noisy two stroke engine bombing up the polluted highways of Bangkok, loitering around the tourist fleshpots or being loaded with impossible amounts of baggage by market vendors packing up after a hard day of haggling.  There are many other variations though.

In Ayuthaya they have an elegant fifties style retro look that makes them appear to be a tuk tuk attempting to imitate a Volkswagen beetle. On the formerly war torn border with Cambodia there are still Ben Hur like chariots where the passenger reclines on a trailer whilst being pulled by a large motorcycle. In Phuket the tuk tuk takes the form of an intensely practical four wheeled van.
Brooding over all these variations is the tuk tuk’s ubiquitous elder cousin; the Songthaew.

The songthaew is weightier, faster and better travelled than the tuk tuk. It only has two speeds. Very, very fast and very, very slow as the driver veers left and breaks hard thinking he has spotted a potential passenger. When following a songthaew maintaining breaking space is of the essence. They also make crossing the road a trial, not because they speed by but because, thinking you might be a potential punter, they insist on slowing down right in front of you causing all the other traffic to queue up behind them.

The songthaew loses on love and gets a bad press whilst the tuk tuk has restaurants named after it. The songthaew may not inspire the slack jawed affection amongst foreigners that the tuk tuk does, but everyone would admit that they do the job. Anywhere you go in Thailand a songthaew has been there before you. On the steepest mountain roads of the north songthaews can be seen grinding the gears at impossible inclines, crammed with locals many of them hanging precariously off the roof or the rear of the vehicle. Leaving the industrial estates of Chonburi at the end of a factory shift are songthaeows packed with impossible numbers of passengers for whom, it appears, claustrophobia has never been an issue.

In Phuket, tuk tuks and the songthaews ferry around drunken revelers, every kind of commuter, families with kids and just about anything else for a price, which is so often the real hurdle in getting from point A to point B. The day they become equipped with meters is the day that the stress levels of the entire tourist population of Phuket will be considerably reduced. Realistically however it is a day that will never come.

A Tribe Called Theft (Maxim. 2003)

A commission for Maxim UK to ghost write a six-page feature based on the experiences of a French photographer.
© Dan White. No repro without permission.

They robbed us blind then frightened us silly. Maxim crosses the southern Indian Ocean to meet the Jarawas – the Stone Age tribe that put the mania into kleptomaniac.

“They will try to steal everything,” says the guide over cheap Indian whiskey and cigarettes. “If you are clicking any snaps, tie your camera to your body with rope or chains and sleep with your head close to everything you will not want to be losing.”

I am sitting in a filthy, seedy bar in a filthy, seedy part of the world and yet one mention of ‘them’ sets the clientele immediately on edge. The guide clutches an imaginary wallet and pats a non-existent pocket. To see ‘them’ we will need a guide and a trip to a Calcutta dive has just provided Maxim with one. Ramesh is one of the few semi-legal traders who have access to the mythical, enigmatic Jarawas, the most light-fingered people on earth.

“We can go to see them,” he tells me again, finally, “but be prepared to leave their Islands with nothing.”

It’s March 1998 on the Andaman Islands. They crouch in primitive solitude in one of the remotest nooks of the Southern Indian Ocean. A local policeman is brutally murdered. He has been struck down, not by a bullet or a knife, but by a steel-tipped arrow which severs his spine, paralysing him for life. The bowmen are driven off by 600 rounds of ammunition fired from the checkpoint where the policeman lies bleeding. But he’s made his point, which is, basically, ‘go away. And stay away’.

The naked bowman responsible for the assault is a warrior of the ancient Jarawas tribe. In the local language Jarawas simply means ‘The others’. Living in the remote Andamans for thousands of years they are both isolated and infamous for their ferocity towards intruders. They are also, as Maxim is about to discover to its cost, the world’s most compulsive thieves.

February 2002, and I’m on a sweltering bus heading north on the trunk road from Port Blair, the island’s capital. We have to be vigilant. The Jarawas have recently killed on this road and the dense jungle that lines the way could have been designed for ambush. As a result, private vehicles are forbidden along the route. We can only proceed in convoy with armed police in the front of every vehicle. It’s a nervy ride, every twitch of rain or brush of foliage met with jittery silence.

I am yanked out of a fitful doze in the suffocating heat by the unmistakable sounds of people thumping the sides of the bus. I hear terrified shouts of, “the Jarawas are coming!”

In fact they are already here.

The tribesmen have laid logs across the road and are now rocking the bus from side to side in an attempt to force the passengers out. Luckily our police escorts are quickly on hand to fire volley after volley of gunfire over the heads of the enraged, naked warriors, prompting the Jarawas to retreat quickly to the shelter of the jungle. The ambush is over, but I have witnessed the full power of their rage. At least I assume I have. Either way, this isn’t a tribe overly keen on cold calling from visitors.

The Jarawas have only recently begun to emerge from their forest, mainly, it is thought out of a new-found curiosity about western culture. Two years ago a teenage Jarawan named Enmay spent three months in a Port Blair hospital when he was badly injured falling out of a tree. Enmay was treated like a celebrity by the nurses and the rosy picture of this pampered, air-conditioned retreat that he painted on his return to the forest is thought to have convinced his fellow tribesmen that there were substantial benefits to be gained from stepping out of their stone age cocoon. So far well over 2000 Jarawas visits to local towns have been recorded by the police. But as the tribe emerges from the jungle demanding food and water, so the risk of confrontation increases.

Ramesh, my guide, waits for me in a high-powered canoe at the waterfront in Mayabundar. In this long-tailed motorised death trap we start up the crocodile infested creeks, through rice paddies and past thick mangrove swamp, towards open sea and the western beaches of the Jarawas jungle.

After two hours we stop to rest on a mangrove island. “We stay here until nightfall,” says Ramesh. “We cannot pass the coast during daylight because the police or navy will apprehend us.”

By the time we push off from the bank of the mangrove around midnight we are surrounded by darkness and I have been savaged by mosquitoes. The boatman keeps the engine running on a low, but steady, hum as we pass the heavily manned Indian base. There are razor-sharp shards of coral protruding from the murky water, any one of which would tear out the bottom of our flimsy capsule in an instant. Fortunately the boatman who glides through this swampy minefield, with all the panic of a leopard in a 100-yard dash, appears to know these waters well.

Although part of India, the Andaman Islands are only a couple of hundred miles from the tourist resorts of Thailand. Yet the indigenous Jarawas remain untouched by the technology of the last 3000 years. One of the world’s last prehistoric cultures, the Jarawas were initially thought to have crossed to India from Africa during the Pleistocene era around 12000 years ago. Until as recently as the early 20th century they lived in isolation in a 500-square mile forest, hunting wild boar and gathering roots and honey. In the early ‘50s the Indian government began a policy of bribing them with cheap gifts, though this swiftly swelled into a series of ‘picnics’ for politicians curious to see the tribe. As poachers, settlers and, most recently, mainland logging companies advanced into their forest, the Jarawas have come to feel increasingly threatened. When a 210-mile road was built through their territory five years ago, it prompted a series of further attacks on outsiders. In the past 50 years they have killed or injured more than 100 people.

The sun rises early the next morning to reveal a picture-book paradise. A rich, lush green jungle coastline crowned by an almost autumnal red of tropical leaves gives way to a pristine beach. The coral waters are perfectly still and almost luminously turquoise.

When the Jarawas appear they do so almost silently. Around 15 figures gliding from beneath the huge jungle canopy. I instinctively feel for my camera. It’s still there. For now.

Some of the tribesmen are wearing grass head-dresses, others red bandannas. A couple are sporting cummerbunds fashioned from bark. They carry short spears and bows and arrows. As they run down the beach towards us I can see that they are accompanied by a pack of dogs which snap keenly at their heels. Apart from that they are naked and strangely short. The still waters break as the Jarawas charge through the shallows to our boat. We are overrun in a moment and easily tipped into the water. They know Ramesh well – though that does not exempt him from the traditional five-finger discount greeting. As they treat him to a generous group hug the Jarawas welcoming party is also robbing him blind, the men, none-too-subtly sticking their hands into his back pocket to haul out matches and car keys. At the same time, like a cluster of kleptomaniac ferrets, they have opened my knapsack and a grinning child is pulling at my Nirvana tour T-shirt. I clutch hold of my camera tightly.

“Don’t plunder the sahib!” Shouts Ramesh, managing to sound both stern and yet friendly. Ramesh grabs back his car keys and the Jara child retreats giggling and flashing a sly smile which suggests my possessions are still far from safe.

Indeed the initial rebuffed rifling proves to be only a temporary reprieve. Already our primitive hosts have relieved us of bags of rice, cooking pots and clothing. Most of these belongings were intended as gifts in any case, but the Jarawas don’t care to wait for the normal courtesies. What was ours is now very much theirs. Thankfully we have stashed extra supplies in a small rubber dinghy and hidden it in a covered creek five minutes up the coast. Ramesh has been through all this before.

The Jarawas camp is deep in the jungle. We follow in the footsteps of the naked figures carrying armfuls of what were once our belongings. When we arrive at the camp – in truth little more than a clearing with shelters made from leaves – we find a place to sling our hammocks. I turn my back for a moment. In an instant one of the younger Jarawas women has swiped the supply of toilet paper from the top of my bag and with a look of intense concentration has unrolled swathes of it and started to decorate the branches of the surrounding trees. It looks like Christmas in an Andrex factory.

She wraps the end of the last roll around her head, smiles at us and then wanders off. “That is Wo’oma,” says Ramesh. “She will get angry when it rains and the paper falls off the branch. She will blame you.”

Clearly it is going to be hard to win these people over.

As with the cargo cults of the South Pacific, the little contact they have had with the outside world and all its trappings has led the Jarawas to believe everything that comes into their hands belongs to them by rights. The concept of stealing is alien to them. It’s not so much that property is theft here, rather that the opposite applies. Theft, to the Jarawas, is property.

Around the camp are scattered water tanks, pairs of glasses, the oar of a boat, broken cans, a yellow plastic soapbox, a child’s toy car and my short wave radio. Recent pickings from the outside world. The tribe appear to have lost interest in the radio, though its is more valuable than everything else in the camp, but when I try to pick it up, Wo’oma whisks it away from me. If I want it then it must be worth having after all.

Sitting under an awning of leaves is Mamouan. He is the leader of this clan – The ‘Yadai – and charged with the important job of collecting honey from the bees. In his hand he holds the lower jawbone of an ancestor. This sacred object is saved from the funeral pyre and acts as a talisman for the whole Yada group. Mamouan speaks a little Hindi, which allows him to communicate with the Indian authorities (the Jarawas’ native tongue, which bears no relation to any other language, has never been decoded).

I ask Mamouan how many Jarawas are left in the jungle. “Enough to cover the whole world,” he replies. Ramesh points out that the Jarawas’ world is now tiny – they number around 250 – and it shrinks further with each passing year.

Night falls and as the light fades under the jungle canopy pinpricks of fire appear to be moving along the path. The hunting party is returning. Women and men, their faces chalked white with clay, their heads topped with wigs made of sun bleached grass slide into view, their eyes appearing to flicker in the firelight. It’s a perfect picture opportunity. I reach for my camera only to find that I no longer have a flashgun. These people may live in the Stone Age, but they know how to operate a zip fastener. I curse at the small child climbing the tree nearby who is now the proud owner of $600 of complex Japanese technology.

In the clearing the hunting party have deposited a wild boar they’ve killed for tonight’s feast. It’s a welcome sight as we have spent the last two days living on muesli bars, canned fish and bananas. The boar is roasted over the fire and cooked pieces are soon torn off and passed to the waiting Jaras. No food is passed to us. “The Jarawas never share,” mumbles Ramesh, “they only take.”

I open a can of fish and wash down my muesli bar with water.

After the meal the tribe sings around the campfire – the Jarawas have a song for everything and this is their song for the day’s end – then each family lays down on the ground in a huddle. The man of the household plants wooden posts around his family and joins them in their compound. I sling my hammock and make a futile attempt to protect my diminishing belongings by curling my body around my bag.

After an uncomfortable night I awake to see that one of the T-shirts that I had been using as a pillow has made its way into the hands of Ugna and Dandolah. Two bright eyed teenage girls who have torn it up and tied it around their heads to use as a bandanna. Red is the prized colour of the Jarawas.

Though the pilfering never lets up, I sense the Jarawas are beginning to accept me and I, slowly, begin to appreciate their uncluttered, prehistoric lifestyle. Their lives are very simple. They eat, sleep and procreate. Every now and then a Jara couple will sneak off into the jungle returning half an hour later giggling.

The Jarawas are expert marksmen – and take particular pride in their hunting. By far the best shot in the camp is Yuga. He stands stock still in the waters for minutes waiting for fish to swim by, finally striking like an uncoiled snake. He leaps through the shallows to claim his prize. Their prey is not always fish. Yuga describes graphically, through gestures, the fate of an unwelcome Bengali poacher who was unwise enough to enter the lands of the Jarawas unannounced.

Even more unwisely he raped a Jarawas girl.

There is no mistaking Yuga’s imitation of the gurgling sound and flapping of a man who has just had his throat cut. Yuga is very precise about the position of the exit wound from the arrow that pierced the interloper’s rib cage.

Ramesh says he has some bad news. “I have seen an Indian patrol boat near the beach. They have seen me. They will come back with more men. Tonight we must go. They will not be able to trouble us amongst the coral.”

The imminent arrival of the patrolmen is not our only problem. The Jarawas have found our hidden supply boat and are not impressed by our duplicity. Their mood is turning ugly. The jokes and the playful robbing have gone now, as they pull aggressively at the few belongings we have left. Mamouan approaches with the small vat of fried fish our boatman had so carefully stashed. Ramesh explains, “In their eyes we have betrayed them.” I cannot understand a word of the tribal mumblings, but I can recognise their threatening tone.

Having heard first hand from Yuga what can happen if you get on the bad side of the Jarawas, I have completely given up resistance. We are left with nothing but our sarongs, a T-shirt, our muesli bars and a bag of film. It is a truly miserable end to our journey. We hide at the edge of the beach waiting for nightfall so that we might escape. The Jarawas parade around in Calvin Klein eating our dried fish.

With the engine low and our eyes peering into the palely lit night, we leave the island of thieves behind. We are heading back to the 21st century. Though they don’t know it, the Jarawas are headed there too. The forests that surround them are shrinking as settlers encroach on their lands. The next generation will, more than likely, know more about fast food, Bollywood and premier league than the ancient traditions of hunting wild boar and untrammelled petty theft.

And with only 250 Jarawas left, the habits of 11,000 years could well die in the next ten.

Elephant Warriors (Absolute Thai. 2008)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

In ancient times elephants in full armour charged into violent battle like warm blooded, armoured tanks. The general who had elephants in his army possessed a psychological advantage over an enemy who did not. The impact of an onslaught of relentless, raging giants would often have been a frightening enough sight for an enemy to surrender straight away. The elephant was trained to use its tusks in close contact fighting against both man and horse, and to trample with the feet whilst using the trunk. Another technique was to train the elephant to pick up an enemy soldier and pass him to the man riding on its back, who would effortlessly slice him up with a sword. The elephant would also hold an enemy with the foot and then impale him effortlessly with the tusks. Elephants, however, are not naturally violent creatures. Quite the opposite in fact.

Thai people will tell you that their country is shaped like the head of an elephant, its eyebrows in Lampang, its eyes in Sukothai, its mouth in Bangkok and the end of its trunk in Had Yai. Elephants are at the heart of Thai culture and tradition. An integral part of Thai identity they represent the positive qualities to be found in both peace and power. Until Thailand changed its name from Siam elephants even figured on the national flag. Not just beasts of burden, elephants have always been an honoured national emblem. The king of Thailand traditionally rode an elephant at the front of royal ceremonial processions. At the turn of the 19th century, elephants were practically everywhere. Some 300,000 wild elephants roamed wild in Thailand alone, and 100,000 more were domesticated for farming and forestry.  As logging increased, wild elephant numbers fell dramatically. Domesticated elephant power was used to drag teak logs from the forest, demolishing the creatures’ own habitat. By the late 1900s, Thailand’s rain forest, which previously covered 90 percent of the country, had diminished to less than 15 percent, with an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 wild elephants. In 1990, Thailand outlawed logging to preserve what forest remained.  This left thousands of working elephants unemployed, their former forest habitats destroyed by the force of their own labours.

Once a year in Surin in North Eastern Thailand a festival is held that celebrates all the facets of Thailand’s national symbol. It culminates in the spectacular re-enactment of a noisy medieval battle. In addition to a historical reminder of the awesome power of elephants the event celebrates the relationship between man and one of the most intelligent, complex and intuitive beasts on the planet. Held on the third weekend in November the town fills up with hundreds of elephants and their mahouts wandering the streets begging food from the many visiting tourists. Many of the mahouts are from the ‘Suay’ ethnic group. They have tended and trained elephants for generations. They are thought, originally, to have migrated from Cambodia to settle in the north-eastern provinces near the border. Known for their expertise in capturing, domesticating and training wild elephants, the life-long relationship of the mahout with his elephant is an integral element of the Suay way of life. The elephant is both a companion and a family member.

The festival usually begins with a procession where all the elephants take part. The number ranges from 120 to 150 and includes calves and adults. Then there is the ‘wai kru’, a solemn ritual performed as a gesture of respect to ‘grand masters’ and teachers in martial arts as well as the performing arts. Indra, the Vedic god of the sky, clouds and monsoon and Guardian of the East then descends to earth on his elephant, Erawan.  The scene changes with village children accompanying baby elephants into the arena. This represents the almost sacred relationship between mahout and elephant. Acting in father and son pairs it is a close family tie based on a mutual dependency that lasts a lifetime.

Once the procession is over, the elephants begin to demonstrate their prowess through a number of choreographed events. They are designed to show that the elephant is not only a strong animal but also an intelligent, gentle and obedient one. There is traditional dancing, a tug of war between 70 burly Thai soldiers and one easily victorious tusker. The elephants paint pictures, play football and pirouette demonstrating the delicacy and precision of their skills.

The festival concludes with a mock battle involving hundreds of costumed soldiers and elephants festooned with elaborately ornamental silk and armour. Horsemen ride out into the arena jousting, charging at each other and waving their swords, turning their horses on a pin. They are followed by massed ranks of infantry and artillery. Then come the elaborately armoured elephants to the sound of explosions and the acrid smell of gunpowder.  Prior to the 18th century the elephant was the main machine of Southeast Asian war. A Thai king of the late 17th century having had 20,000 war elephants trained for battle.  This aspect of war was most renowned in the 300-year-war between Burma and Thailand which resulted in Burma’s sacking of Ayutthaya in 1767. In Surin no one actually gets hurt but it gives you an idea of what the awesome power of elephants trained for battle might have looked like.

The battle reaches its height as one side (presumably the Burmese or Khmers) is vanquished.  Finally all the elephants troop into the arena to wave their trunks in farewell. They then disperse to mingle with the crowds. Petted and fussed over they eventually lope off slowly back to town in a traffic jam of pickup trucks, trunks, costumed medieval warriors, Honda dreams and mahouts selling sugar cane. It’s a very Thai form of chaos as the stars of the show plod home to whichever part of the country from whence they came.

War Baby (Maxim. 2001)

A commission from Maxim UK to ghost write a six page feature based on the experiences of a French photographer. February 2002.

© Dan white. No repro without permission.

Three years ago the rumours began to drip from the steaming fastness of the border jungles. Burma’s ominously titled SLORC – the State Law and Order Restoration Council – had swept forward in a savage offensive of slaughter and rape intended to cleanse the region of ethnic Karen tribes and free up the land for foreign oil companies. But even as SLORC slashed and burned its way through Karen National Union (KNU) resistance fighters, the legend of an invincible, heavily armed band of fanatics was emerging. This is their story. The story of God’s Army.

On a humid day in 1998 I found myself near the Thai border village of Ban Huay Sud. With me was a detachment of KNU refugee soldiers who had been assigned to take me to the infant generals of God’s Army of the sacred mountains: Luther and Johnny Htoo. Also known as the mystical twins, or the Divine Messengers of the Holy Cross. These were two children who took on the might of modern, military terror armed only with faith in an imaginary warrior horde and a burning hatred of the people who would steal from them the sacred mountain known as ‘Kersay Doh’.
Our guides were teenagers with fashionable haircuts, baggy jeans and bogus Nikes, one of whom did a Michael Jackson moonwalk to perfection. We were wary knowing that the Thai military intelligence knew a western journalist was trying to reach the child leaders. They would be searching for us.

Dusk fell and we bivouacked at the last outpost of the KNU. On waking the teenagers changed in to their combat fatigues and exchanged the moonwalk for the M16.

We spent the morning dodging Thai military patrols and by lunchtime we were approaching the land of the sacred mountain. We walked up a steep valley in the path of a stream, amidst a landscape of breathtaking beauty, walking in the water for the simple reason that the stream’s banks were, and still are, littered with land mines.
It wasn’t long before we got our first glimpse of them: Lilliputian warriors silhouetted against the misty jungle backdrop. Coming closer I saw the black scarves on their heads and the fixed intensity of their eyes watching us as we climbed towards them. This was a patrol of God’s Army, aged between seven and fifteen, their commander perhaps sixteen. My KNU escort hailed them and soon these tiny soldiers were posing for photos, pulling faces at each other and peering into the lenses of my cameras. This fetid spot of landmine-strewn jungle had become their school playground. After a few minutes the squadron’s youthful commander barked an order in convincing adult military fashion and the toy soldiers fell quiet before moving out in formation.

By nightfall we had arrived at their headquarters by the ‘Field of Lakes’ in the land of the Sacred Mountain. It was here, in Burma’s kindergarten Heart of Darkness that we hoped to meet their very own miniature Kurtz. As we squatted on a bamboo platform on the side of a hill, I got my first sight of Luther. A pint sized visionary decked in military green and pulling on a huge cigar, he was being carried by his bodyguard, a heap of muscles who I later learned was called Rambo. Both Luther and Johnny were chain smokers. Both enjoyed kicking away landmines with their feet, too, such were their feelings of invincibility.

Luther had already perfected the look of distant, pale intensity that he would wear almost continually after the brother’s surrender. Soon Johnny was carried over too. He was more engaging. He asked my escort for the purpose of my visit. “Later we talk. For now take him to see Mr David. He can tell the foreigner about our struggle.”

This eight-year-old boy issued orders with a high pitched, but practiced authority.
I was taken towards a drab hut. In the doorway sat a dwarf. Mr David, the philosopher dwarf. When I approached he screamed in Karen, “Get back! Get back! You are too close!” Once he had calmed down Mr David told me from a distance about how Luther and Johnny came to be the divine inspiration for the battle against the evil of SLORC. He explained that Johnny was the reincarnation of the legendary Karen freedom fighter, Johnny Htoo One. “He fought and killed the Japanese invaders many years ago. Now he is with us again. Reborn to help his people.” When the KNU fled from SLORC, Johnny and Luther left their village and went to see the leaders of the Karen. “They always knew they had a destiny to save our Kersay Doh and now is the time to fulfil it.”

Mr David told me how they asked for, “Seven guns, seven men and seven uniforms.” Then they went out and slaughtered a heavily armed patrol of 50 SLORC trained soldiers. From then on everyone knew about Luther and Johnny and volunteers inspired by hatred for the Burmese persecutors flocked to their banner of the sacred fish. He also told me of the mystical power the twins wielded against the invader. “They are helped by the six hundred thousand soldiers of the invisible army of the sacred mountain. Bullets cannot hurt them! When they see landmines they just kick them away with their magic feet!” He told me how the twins armed their soldiers with magic bullets, which multiplied tenfold on impact shattering the bones of their enemies. He told me that the twins were shape-shifters changing at night into venerable old men with long white beards. He said no one could stop them. “These are our apostles. Instruments chosen by God to bring redemption.”

In time Mr David would be proven tragically mistaken.

I was given permission to walk around the camp before my audience with Luther and Johnny. The whole place was ordered by an unwritten, but strictly adhered to, code of practice. No alcohol, no sex, no gossip, no eggs, no lies, no pork, no swearing. Although the soldiers were suicidally brave, they were prohibited from fighting the enemy on Sundays and Mondays. Strangely, the enemy chose not to act on this military abstinence. If they had done they could have won the war simply by launching attacks over a long weekend.

The two boys had just finished their evening meal and Rambo was clearing away the plates when I was motioned over. I asked them if they liked to play like other children. “Yes,” said Luther. “We like to play. We like to play war. My friends pretend to be the Burmese invaders and then we fight each other.” There was a pause before he added, “We like to arm wrestle.” The twins then demonstrated their arm wrestling skills for me. Johnny lost and looked sullen. He muttered something in Karen that I image meant, “Best of three?”

I asked Luther why a child his age smokes so much. “I am 90 years old. I can do anything I like.” Has he heard of the TOTAL French oil company? Luther looked up from the abstract shape he was drawing in the dirt with a stick. “What is an oil company?”

One year later, while I am holed up in a Burmese hotel on another assignment, I switch on the TV and catch a news flash announcing God’s Army has hijacked a packed bus in Ratchaburi, just a few miles inside the Thai border. Armed with machine guns and grenades, wearing balaclavas and jungle green, the report says, the boys have seized control of a hospital full of hundreds of now terrified patients.

I arrive at the scene just as elite anti-terrorist commandos are storming the hospital. The air crackles with the sound of gunfire, stun grenades and screams. I glimpse the kidnappers from afar, and get a gut feeling something is wrong. God’s Army cannot be responsible for this. The hijackers are clearly men, not boys. And moreover, why would Luther and Johnny want to attack a hospital in broadly friendly Thailand?

It quickly becomes apparent that the perpetrators of this act are not the twins themselves, nor their army, but a cell of the ‘Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors’, a group with close links to God’s Army. Luther and Johnny however instantly incur the wrath of the Thai authorities, who, previously, had little interest in their activities. But as soon as the Burmese renegades begin to cross the border to attack Thai targets in a bid to highlight the plight of the Karen (and protest in particular against a recent bout of shelling of their villages by Burmese and Thai military units), the Thais quickly lost patience with the twins. It is unclear whether Luther and Johnny are responsible for these acts, but their influence on, and sympathies for, the perpetrators is enough to persuade the Thai army of the need to pursue them.

The battle outside the hospital is a short one. The kidnappers are mown down. Their bodies are put on display for the waiting media who cluster around in a macabre feeding frenzy of flash bulbs. The military claims that the hijackers were killed in “the battle,” but the evidence suggests otherwise. The truth is that the student warriors had been captured, then stripped, tied-up and clinically executed one by one. Each man has been shot with a single bullet to the head.

Hunted from all sides, their sacred mountain under constant shellfire by the Thai army – who by now have pinned a further series of brutal border raids on the twins – and a price on their heads from both SLORC and the KNU (who turned against God’s Army after the Ratchaburi incident which they regarded as a blatant attack on their Thai benefactors), Luther and Johnny eventually surrender to the Thai authorities. In January, about a year after the bloody episode at Ratchaburi hospital, they are found a few miles inside the Thai border, along with twelve members of God’s Army and put under guard in a Thai border patrol police camp. The Thai authorities, however, don’t particularly want God’s children in their care. They are currently close to persuading the US to grant Johnny and Luther asylum. But for now the little generals remain in Thailand stuck in limbo. Which is where I find them shortly after their capture.

Seated beside me at the wheel of a four-wheel drive is Erika, a young, Norwegian primary school teacher. On the back seat are piled toys, sweets and cans of food.
We arrive. A fly blown outhouse in Western Thailand is the end of the road for Luther and Johnny. As I approach I hear singing. Mournful singing punctuated with cries of, “Yave!” and, “Yesus!” God and Jesus in the local language of the Karen.
There is what appears to be a thick canvas of tropical insects draped around it. It is suffocatingly hot. Sitting in a circle on the dirty cement floor are a group of adults – one a woman with a baby in her arms. Beside them is a crowd of scruffy kids listening intently to the words being read from the bible. With one final song prayers are concluded and the kids leap to their feet, running towards Erika with open arms and beaming faces. They gather around her legs, hang on to her knees, giggling as she passes out the sweets and toys. Johnny smiles at me, but like Luther, he does not move. Luther looks right through me, his vacant, pale face a mask of apathy and indifference. Johnny never seems to get older. A twelve-year-old boy who has commanded an army on the field of battle and seen his people slaughtered by a vicious regime obsessed with oil revenues.

Luther and Johnny’s father appears and pats his sons on the head. “My little generals! Are you happy my little generals?” says the proud father again.

“Johnny eat your rice! Luther eat your chicken! Or I will take away your toys.”
Their mother is impatient and cross. “My babies are not generals!” But once they were.

Lost in Laos (Observer Life. 1996)

©Dan White. No repro without permission.

Sitting on the veranda of the large two story wooden building that serves as a hotel in the village of Pakbeng in Northern Laos, you could pick your era. It could be any time in the last 150 years. The only light is from the candles supplied by the old woman with betel stained teeth who fills the water jar every morning at dawn. There is virtually no traffic. The people get up when it is light and go to bed when it gets dark.

In many parts of northern Laos there is no electricity, only one generator powering a television between 6pm and 8pm. People will gather round in the early evening to get a fix of the high tech world – often English premier league football or Thai boxing – before the generator is switched off and they go to bed in their candle-lit wooden homes. From many parts of the country one can see Thailand only half a mile across the river. Thailand is the Twentieth Century, draped in neon with 7/11, bad satellite TV, hatchback Japanese cars, surly adolescents and Burger king. Lao people sit in their crumbling old French colonial towns staring across at a future era.

Sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, Laos has remained unaffected by the mass tourism that has consumed Thailand and is in danger of poisoning Vietnam. There are no large groups of Scandinavian teenagers or just de-mobbed Israeli soldiers trekking through the hills gawping at the hill tribe people who have taken off their Moschino T-shirts for the day and got togged up in granny’s old ethnic gear. There are few serious American students earnestly touring old sixties battle grounds in air conditioned mini buses, buying up fake dog tags and naff lighters engraved with slogans lifted from second rate eighties war films. Only in the cultural capital of Luang Phabang does one see the queues of European tour groups in their practical zippered functional trousers with water bottles attached to useful belts around their ample middles. They tend to be choppered in and choppered out again in a couple of days on their grand two-week tour of Indochina.

History has conspired to pass Laos by. For the French occupiers it was simply a buffer between British influenced Siam and the lucrative territories of Tonkin and Cochin Indochina. During the regional conflicts of the 50s and 60s Laos was ravaged by war and massive American bombing. Since the communist take-over in 1975 the paralysis of a socialist planned economy has hindered development and ensured a minimum of outside investment. Even now, outside of the main towns, visitors must expect basic accommodation, a limited choice of food, terrible roads and a great deal of interference from officialdom. In the north foreign visitors are rare and the local children look boiled with shock to see a ‘big nose’. Travel is not made easy by the police. You must get your passport stamped at every state border. In some places, in true totalitarian style, the police will do anything to avoid giving you the stamp on arrival so that on departure you are required to pay the ‘fine’ of $5 a day for every day you have stayed without authorisation. A nice little earner.

The real pleasure of travel in northern Laos is the river. In fact one is left with little choice as the area is so mountainous and sparsely populated that the roads are just rain rutted dirt tracks and the river is the main highway. If you are in a hurry the quickest way to move is by Lao ‘speed boat’ – a narrow flat bottomed skiff with an outsize car engine bolted to the back that skims the surface of the water at 50mph, shooting rapids and narrowly missing boulders. The Lao government insists that passengers wear crash helmets after a foreigner was flung to his death, smashing his head on one of the many viciously sharp rocks that stick up through the water. It is, at turns, both exhilarating and terrifying. In a 4 hour trip I had, in my mind, already converted to Catholicism and made my peace with God as I imagined the bottom of the boat being ripped out and myself disemboweled by the needle sharp points just below the surface.

Another, more peaceful, way to go is on the slow boat that acts as a local bus piled with people, live stock and contraband. The boat passes through spectacular, jungle lined mountain scenery stopping every now and then to unload pigs or pick up cement.
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The cultural heart of Laos lies in the town of Luang Phabang. It is an atmospheric place built in a bend of the river. It was, until 1975, the royal capital. It still retains a sleepy elegance born of the combination of the 40 or so monasteries and temples that litter the town and the old colonial French architecture of the main municipal buildings. The road along the river front must have served, at some point, as the set for an old black and white Humphrey Bogart film. There are still old men riding by in berets on their pushbikes, passed the stalls selling freshly baked baguette. Rush hour in Luang Phabang is when school finishes and the streets are full of mopeds and bicycles, sometimes carrying as many as four people, taking the children home. Because of the number of monasteries, there are huge numbers of monks. They are everywhere, wandering about under large yellow umbrellas to keep the sun from burning their closely shaved heads. Luang Phabang would have to be relatively prosperous because all these monks live on hand outs from the townspeople. You see them coming by and leaving their little mettle pots outside restaurants and houses.

Northern Laos is so close to Thailand that in time it will inevitably be swamped by pop-Thai culture. Up to now a totalitarian regime and an appalling infrastructure have deterred mass tourism. Given what has happened in northern Thailand, and what is underway in the northern hills of Vietnam, one can only hope the Lao government sees the long term advantage and prevents this small and underpopulated region from becoming yet another South-East Asian, ethnic theme park.

Hail the Laughing Guru

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

One would normally expect an urban park in a rich suburb of Bombay to be relatively quiet at 4AM save the howling of the odd stray dog or the snores of a beggar who has found a secret place to sleep for the night. The park I am in at this fiendishly early hour of the morning is anything but quiet and peaceful. The reason is that I am surrounded by well dressed professionals in expensive labeled clothing and beautiful silk saris and trouser suits going absolutely, barking mental.

They the have fallen under the spell of one of India’s most charismatic teachers. His name is Dr Madan kataria and for his followers he has unlocked the secret of never ending happiness. His formula is simple. Start at the end and finish at the beginning. When we are happy we laugh. So if we laugh it will make us happy.

It sounds simple and I entered Dr Kataria’s world with deep cynicicism. On greeting me, as dawn approached, he nearly shook my hand but then stuck his fingers up his nose shouted like a zulu, “Ho! Ho! Ho! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

This had him in convulsions and had me chuckling at his silliness before I knew what I was doing. “You are most welcome Mr Dan. Join me and my friends and become the happiest man in the world!”

Dr Kartaria’s theories are actually firmly based in yogic medicine. Laughter therapy or “Hasya Yoga” has been proven to stimulate the mind and the body. According to the giggling guru it also repairs the spirit.

As the sun comes up the respectable pillars of the community in Bombay go through their laughter routines. The first one is ‘birdy laughter’. This involves running around flapping their arms up and down and squeaking a lot. It looks like a lot of fun so I join in bounding around the grass like a tigger on speed.

The next one is ‘argumentative laughter’. Here the protagonists look at each other with mock seriousness and wag their fingers alot. My opposite ‘argumentative laughter’ opponent is an attractive woman in her late thirties who it turns out is one of Bombay’s most successful lawyers. However I don’t think she actually practices these techniques in court.

Lion laughter is the one that really gets everyone going. This where you stick your tongue out as far as it will go and then laugh your head off. I don’t know what relationship this has to wild beasts of the African plain who probably only laugh when they are searing the flesh of a brutally murdered zebra….. but never mind. It makes me feel good.
I have had a long flight to get to Bombay. I am washed out with jet lag and dehydrated from the sealed cabin, lack of sleep and a surfeit of vodka. But now, after joining Dr Kataria’s laughter group I feel invigorated and full of beans. I am a new man. I am an immediate convert. All cynicism is banished to the dustbin of gloomy thoughts.

“Now Mr Dan I will show you how these techniques are not only for the privileged of Bombay but are also being of benefit to the ordinary working man.” As the dawn turns into early morning Dr Kataria drives me across town to a depressing industrial estate. We turn into a compound where workers in overalls spend long dreary days soldering together bits of metal in order to create something electrical. As with any shop floor at that time in the morning, bleary eyed men wander about with cups of tea in their hands looking as if they believe the world is a dark and foreboding place.

In walks Dr Kataria and he is immediately greeted with smiles and slaps on the back before he says with a flourish, “Now, punks, I am going to be making your day!”

The crowd starts the signature chant of the cult. It is a rumbling, “Ho! Ho! Ho! Ha! Ha! Ha!” It builds into a crescendo at which point Dr Kataria slams a cassette in the boom box and yells, “Lets boogie!” The shop floor is transformed into a funky Bhangra dance floor as for twenty minutes the whole work force and management get down and get with it. It is an amazing site and I am now so in awe of Dr Kataria’s techniques that I believe all companies should adopt these practices as a matter of industrial law.

As the rave dies down The good doctor takes the work force through the laughter routines. They go for it with gusto. We leave the shop floor a place of harmony and industry. As I climb back in the car the manager of the factory tells me, “Laughter is good for productivity!”

Our next stop on this mirthful tour of India’s commercial capital is to meet Mr Prabhu Hinduja. At a sprightly 87 Mr Hinduja proudly shows me the trophies he has won for his laughter techniques. He then descends into aimless giggles which I am not sure could be counted as strictly orthodox laughter therapy. We leave him and his equally aged wife sniggering over their tiffin.

The culmination of my spiritual conversion to laughter therapy is ‘The World Laughter Day’ in a dusty municipal park near the city centre. Thousands, including myself, gather chanting “Ho! Ho! Ho! Ha! Ha! Ha!” It is an orgy of silliness that leaves me and all those round me in a really good mood. This can’t be a bad thing. So much for suicide, cognitive psychotherapy or religion. If you feel depressed, follow the good Doctor’s advice and leap around a lot pretending to be a birdy on prozac.

Some of Dr Katria’s ideas, such as to build a ‘laughter City’ and establish laughing as an Olympic sport border on the clinically insane. However the health giving qualities of yogic laughter are well known. Where Dr Kataria differs from other holistic practitioners is that he genuinely believes that laughter can lift the human race to another level. Laughter is without creed or religion. As Dr Kataria succinctly puts it, “Laughter is good for everyone. If people laughed more then we would not be having wars or fighting.” He also theorises, “Laughter is highly addictive, positive, contagious and once it starts it is very difficult to stop.”

The good Doctor has a point. Ho! Ho! Ho! Ha! Ha! Ha!

Dead Fowl Walking

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

The wall is encrusted with dried blood. Mould grows across the window frames and the dank smell of decaying flesh hangs heavy in the humidity. Piled in the middle of the floor are corpses. Some are still twitching with the legacy of nervous energy. The dead ones are all missing one leg while the live ones await treatment from a casually mustachioed man in a rubber apron, a soggy cigarette hanging lazily from the corner of his mouth. This is both a hospital and a morgue and the patients are gladiators. They are also chickens.

Throughout South East Asia cockfighting is one of the major gambling sports of the working man. From Papua New Guinea to Burma thousands of dollars can be lost in a frantic flurry of feathers. For the winner to die is considered mortally unlucky, so here in the chicken hospital in a cockpit in the slums of downtown Manila it is the task of this unwashed medic to do everything he can to keep the winner alive. His only tools are a a needle, some nylon thread and a bottle of iodine. When working on the the dead he uses one tool only. A pair of gardening secaturs to clip the right leg from the body and retrieve the razor sharp blade that is the universal instrument of birdy execution.

Having come in the back way with a dodgy taxi driver this charnel house is the first grisly spectacle that greets my eyes. Not wishing to linger we move through the surgery, the floor sticky with blood and emerge into a crowd. Here contestants preen their birds, talk shop and make side bets. There are some heated arguments in progress and some of those shouting appear to resemble their charges. The one major difference being that they probably don’t keep their blades in the same place. The situation is calmed by an older, fatter man who obviously carries some authority. It is he who checks the condition of the birds before the fight and ties the weapons to their ankles. Seeing a foreigner here he launches into an impassioned but friendly diatribe against human rights activists who have, apparently, been foolhardy enough to pay him a visit. “These people love the chickens like they love their children.” He laughs and strokes the feathers of a a pop eyed gladiator. “I love them more……… Grilled!”

Leaving him chortling at his cheesy punch line I make my way into the arena. The centre is a raised square surrounded by perspex. In the ring two roosters are being held only a foot apart by their trainers. This ritual of tantalising aggression puts the birds into a frenzy of murderous anger. They peck pointlessly at air and eye each other with purposeful aggression.

Whilst the fighting cocks are goading each other the punters are echoing their adrenaline. Lined up on steep banks of seats surrounding the stage, as if in a Senatorial debate, they are closely watching the form of the birds in the ring and frantically signaling bets across the amphitheatre. Everyone is pointing in different directions and yelling. Somehow out of this minute of chaos the bets are laid, the deals are done and they settle down in excited anticipation to watch a fight to the death.

The fight itself is both murderous and absurd. Upon being released the chickens fly at each and transform into one tumbling ball of feathers. As far as I can tell the bird that can jump the highest wins. That is as long as he remembers to bring his blade down on his opponent from above and stab him in the right place. This being achieved the ref rushes in to separate the antagonists and check up on the damage. To do this he picks up both birds, gazes into their pop eyes and grunts. Ascertaining that the slower one has suffered only a scratch he holds them a foot apart at waist height so that they can eyeball each other again before he drops them into onto the sand of the arena.

The next bout sees the tables turned. In a flurry of ornithological angst the wounded party makes a flying leap and, like a cross between Claude Van Damme and a packet of paxo sage and onion stuffing, lethally redresses the balance. This time the bout is utterly decisive in that when the ref picks up the birds it is apparent that one of them is decisively floppy. End of fight. Next please.

Some of the audience shout in jubilation. Others throw away betting slips in disgust and at least a couple look like they are about to follow the chickens example and start playing with blades. In a city notorious for street violence and the prevalence of fire arms the heated atmosphere makes me nervous. Trying to make my way quietly through the throng my nerves are not soothed by the site of a child holding a pistol to his head and grinning. I am reassured by the site of the fat controller holding up the loser of the bout. He is pretending to cry and yells at me, “tell the chicken lovers it’s a massacre!”

His joviality is contagious. The audience at a cockfight are not the cream of Manila society. They are the slum dwellers, the migrants from the countryside and the gamblers and the gangsters. It is slightly disconcerting to see this intimidating crew join in with the joke. They all start piping their eyes and bawling, pointing to the dead chicken and shouting.

A warm beer is pressed into my hand as the mock tears transform into drunken, Sunday afternoon laughter. In the ring the contests go on and the corpses pile up.

When it comes to the pecking order of life the chicken rates as the world’s great under achiever. The bottom of the heap. A bird that can’t fly. In Asia they are hung from the back of motorbikes, crammed into baskets, tied up in musty sacks and flung from the top of buses. In the West they live and die in vast concentration camps where they are treated worse than plants. Somehow, in the scheme of things, being pampered and preened before taking your chance on getting lethally stabbed by a fellow chicken seems positively benign. One thing is for sure. The chicken has reason to be angry.

Hard Time in the Big Tiger (Jack Magazine. 2002)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

In April 2002 Julian Gilbey from East Grinstead in Sussex woke up in the middle of the night his body pressed next to a dead man. Packed into a small cell with 72 other men, there was only enough room to lie sideways. Fetid, stinking body pressed next to fetid stinking body in a sweat bath of filth and disease lit by a never dimmed fluorescent tube. The man, who shuddered his last, tortured breath, next to a horrified Julian succumbed to tuberculosis. The guards left the dead man in the crush of still living bodies until morning. They only hauled out the soiled and stinking corpse by its feet at daybreak. Thailand may actually be the most beautiful country in the world. Every year millions of tourists enjoy the grace of its legendary hospitality. But this is Bangkok Central Prison and a few of those guests are looking at a separate menu.

Like 70% of those languishing in jail in Thailand Julian’s offence is drug related. Thailand is in a life or death struggle for the soul of its culture and the very existence of its society. The enemy is the scourge of rough speed and heroin that is fast engulfing the nation. Those caught selling or smuggling drugs are usually sentenced to death by firing squad. For westerners that sentence is usually commuted to life, but there is no guarantee. Julian claims he was duped into being a mule for a smuggling gang. They convinced him that he would only be carrying contraband diamonds. He now admits that it was “an amazingly stupid thing to do.” He was arrested at the airport along with the pair assigned by the gang to watch over him – a shifty Dutchman and his prostitute girlfriend. When the police tore apart the suitcase Julian was supposed to take on board the flight they found four kilos of pure heroin in hidden compartments.

It was the Austrian police who tipped off the Thai Narcotics Suppression Bureau of the impending shipment. They had already busted the gang in Vienna. It was made clear by the Austrians that Julian had very likely been duped. During this process the shadowy presence of Americans from the Drug Enforcement Agency was never far away. The information from Austria was ignored and Julian was thrown into Klong Prem jail to await trial.

Chucked into a cell full of murderers, madmen, rapists and drug addicts it is ironic that the first sight that greeted him was that of other inmates blowing heroin into each others veins through a straw attached to a well used syringe. Arguing and fighting over who has had a fair go on the mixture they were watched from the doorway by a prison guard. Cowering in the corner with his head in his hands, contemplating the firing squad and his own naivety Julian wept, lost in a confusion of misery and shock.

Julian was put before a court with no jury, no translation and a defence lawyer who appeared to be as intimidated by the process as the petrified and confused Gilbey. Again, important evidence from Austria that had a direct bearing on the case was disallowed. Convicted and sentenced to death, quickly commuted to life imprisonment, Julian was hauled off to Bang Kwang, 15 pound leg irons welded around his ankles.

Bang Kwang High Security Prison is more usually known as the ‘Big Tiger’. Why? Because it eats you alive, that’s why. This maybe Thailand, but there is nothing Buddhist or enlightened about Bang Kwang Prison. A decaying complex in the northern suburbs of Bangkok, here rehabilitation is not on the agenda. It is simply a place of mindless, squalid vengeance and slow, crowded, harsh, grinding punishment.

Julian joined a non-exclusive club. Thailand gets ten million tourists a year. There are thousands of Europeans, Americans and Australians resident all over the country. They flood in to enjoy the resorts, the full moon parties the women and the good life. Some will head down to the islands to spend their days on some of the world’s finest beaches. Some will go to the cities where many find work teaching English or doing business. A naive few will run out of luck, money and common sense and engage in the high-risk activity of narco-tourism in order to turn a buck and maybe find a way out. One such was Garth Hatton. A dope smoking American surfer who got way out of his depth in unfamiliar waters and ruled himself out of full moon parties for the next eight years.

The world he entered he describes as one of, “unrelenting heat,” in a place where the lights are never dimmed and the noise never ceases. The screams of the insane and the moans of the sick make sleeping a talent to be learned only with time. Garth talks of the claustrophobic proximity of bodies that defies, “every law of your heterosexual ethos,” yet the complete, “absence of warmth of the human kind.” He talks of having to wash in filthy water drawn straight from the nearby Chao Phraya River- one of the most polluted waterways in the world. The filth causes skin diseases and sores that fester in the claustrophobic humidity.

Using the toilet ‘facilities’ is a trial of the senses. The toilets are open, as are the sewers. In the rainy season the whole prison floods and the sewers overflow. Another prisoner says with a bleak chuckle….. “You have to get used to walking through your own shit for a couple of hours.” Locked in the cramped cell for fourteen hours a day from 4pm to 6am the only relief is a bucket in the corner. One bucket for twenty men. Even if the bucket is not full, “you will invariably find yourself desperately crossing your legs and turning pale green ’cause some inconsiderate wanker is crouching out of sight having a none-too-leisurely rocket polish.”

Some of the horrors of prison life can be alleviated if you have money. Everything is for sale in Bang Kwang and nothing is for free. Even the little patch of sleeping space in the cell must be paid for. “It’s two quid a month for the sleeping spot and I pay another three quid for a bucket of fresh water to wash in the morning,” says Julian. Most of the westerners have access to a little money from friends and family, but not all. One inmate serving a life sentence for heroin trafficking was on the edge of starvation for his first two years. “The only thing they give you free is a bit of dirty rice and something they call soup. It smells like it’s rotten and it looks like dishwater. If you’re lucky you might find a fish-head or a chicken-foot floating in it. I couldn’t eat it because I would throw up just to smell it. So I starved and begged what I could. After two years an English geezer from the outside saved my life. He still does. He sends me a few quid a month so that I can buy decent food. He’s a diamond.”

Those prisoners without money have to work or run scams to make ends meet. The Nigerians, the biggest group of non-Asian inmates, run the thriving prison drug trade. The Hong Kong Chinese are the lock smiths. Others will run books on the fighting fish, Bang Kwang’s biggest gambling sport. Some will be carpenters or take in washing. Quite a number of the Thai inmates paper over the gaps of a society without women. Desperate for, “a little extra chicken with their rice,” many otherwise hetero men transform themselves into, “Bang Kwang barbies.” Their fluffy pink bras and lace red panties festoon the clothes lines.

All this trade is fueled by corruption. A prison guard earns only fifty UK pounds a month. It is interesting that many of them wear a lot of gold and drive expensive cars. If the money is right they can get you a mobile phone, facilitate drug deals both in and out of the jail or get a blind eye turned when a blind eye is needed.

When a prisoner gets sick they are sent to ‘hospital’. Brian Mounsey, a scouser now transferred to finish his sentence in Parkhurst, spent time on the wards. Tuberculosis and AIDS are endemic in Thai prisons. Treatments are primitive or non existent. The screams of the dying are met with cries of, “die you F*****r! Die!” from other patients no longer able to bear the sleep deprivation caused by the noise.

Garth Hatton admitted his guilt and after serving eight years in hell is being transferred back to an American prison under an agreement that sees most prisoners get out on parole within weeks. Julian Gilbey was either very stupid or fooled by ruthless men and is facing at least thirty years behind bars. That’s three times the probable sentence he would get for murder and ten times the punishment he could expect if he had raped a child. But there is another man who has been rotting away in a Bangkok jail for thirteen years who the British government believes to be innocent of all charges.

Alan John Davies is a man of sixty two years of age. From Poole in Dorset he appears an unlikely heroin trafficker. He comes across more as a stalwart of the village golf club or one of your Dad’s mates banging on in the pub about politics. It is accepted by the British home secretary that John is innocent. 70 British MPs have signed a petition asking for his release. In 2001 the British government applied for a royal pardon on his behalf, but they made a mess of the paperwork and only got a reduction of sentence to 25 years. There is now a chance he may be released because he is over the age of sixty, but there remains no guarantee. Alan has spent thirteen years of his life living in hell for a crime that he may never have committed.

It is not just the inmates who condemn the unspeakable conditions in Thai prisons. Amnesty International released a report in 2002 condemning Thailand as a country of multiple human rights abuses. It talks of torture to extract confessions, the illegal practice of shackling prisoners in heavy leg irons, chronic corruption amongst prison staff, overcrowding beyond the capacity of the prisons to cope, the neglect of the thousands suffering from the epidemics of AIDS and tuberculosis and violence by the guards and ‘trusties’ – inmate stooges charged with keeping order in the cells.

Alan John Davis is widely acknowledged to have been falsely convicted. Julian Gilbey was sentenced by a court that refused to hear legitimate evidence that may have cleared him. They are both living in hell yet they are no more than ‘collateral damage’ in the war on drugs being fought by the US Drug Enforcement Agency. Even when guilty, those doing hard time are usually the petty dealers and the hapless mules. The real culprits remain at large protected by complex webs of corruption and unimaginable amounts of cash to keep the wheels oiled. And once the DEA has its scalp and the Thai authorities have another glorious, token bust then, innocent or guilty, the little fish are thrown to the tender mercies of the Big Tiger. It is a primitive animal in a country that trumpets its culture, tolerance and civilisation. Welcome to the Land of Smiles.

Dawn of Frenzied Spirits

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

Religion comes in many forms. Some are magnificent, some reflective and some brutal. Once a year here on Phuket Island in Thailand religion goes off the rails all together in shamanistic rituals of gore and explosives that sees shopkeepers, lawyers, travel agents, bus drivers and students descend to a level of surrealistic self mutilation that tests all definitions of worship.

I am standing on the damp streets of Phuket town at dawn in front of a beautifully ornate Chinese temple.  The gongs are beaten and the bells are rung. The rooms of the temple and the temple-yard are heavy with smoke from ancient, holy statues.

Men gather on one side of the alter, women on the other.

Presently, the Spirits announce their arrival. Facial expressions change. The devotees start to twitch. One after another the participants shift from being ordinary people to being mediators of the Nine Emperor Gods. One after another they walk, hop or run out into the yard, where a team of helpers is ready to pierce their faces and bodies with the knives and skewers.

One by one they stand in line, enchanted, enlightened or in ecstasy, bobbing up and down, uttering squeaks and dribbling saliva while waiting their turn  to have their flesh sliced and mutilated.

The piercing itself is being done with surgical precision.

What drives normally sane and restrained people to such extremes is the desire for absolute purity.

For nine days at the beginning of ‘Taoist lent’ the descendents of Chinese immigrants abstain from eating  all meat and dairy products. They devote themselves to the purification of the soul culminating in acts of physical asceticism that involve gory feats of  self mortification, walking through fire and climbing ladders with rungs of sharpened blades.

It takes two or three men to punch the metal and wood through the faces of their subjects. Many have such large and unwieldy objects pushed through their flesh that they need helpers on either side to aid them as they walk otherwise their skin would be completely shredded. The operations complete the devotees make their way out on to the streets.

Dressed in silk and running on bare feet, spirits possessed precede the mutilated. Trance like they stop for offerings proffered at street side shrines. They are nodding their heads, hopping up and down and squeaking like kittens. These are the voices of the spirits inside them. To me they look like a mass breakout from the local lunatic asylum, but they are not. They are ordinary townspeople and their rituals are deadly serious.

In the main body of the gathering procession one teenager with fashionably floppy hair has pierced his face with a huge model jet fighter made of coca cola cans. Further on a charming looking couple have a complete bicycle sticking through their cheeks. Another man has been rather more practical. Fearing rain perhaps, he has the shaft of an open umbrella sticking through his face.

Figure after figure trudges past each one sporting ever more creative piercings using ever more bizarre objects. Multiple skewers at all angles through face neck and body, tongues transfixed by iron bars or sliced with saws. Maybe the most peculiar are those who have chosen to gauge a hole in their cheeks and then pierce the wound with branches of leafy foliage.

It all started in 1825 when a Chinese travelling theatre troupe came to Phuket to perform for immigrant tin miners. The actors were struck down by a mysterious epidemic. No medicine would cure the disease. The entertainers blamed their illness on the fact that they had failed to pay proper respect to the nine emperor Gods of Taoism. Unfortunately they had no priests who knew how to perform the ceremonies that would placate the Gods. They were forced to send word back to their homes in Fujian in China. Eventually messengers returned to Phuket with the correct manual and the performers were able to resurrect their ancient spiritual crafts. It is no surprise that the origins of the Vegetarian Festival lie in theatre.

As a penance for their sins the actors adopted a strict vegetarian diet to propitiate the deities of Kiu Hong Tai Te and Youk Hong Ta Te and were cured. The villagers were impressed and decided to follow the example of their theatrical visitors. They built ornate temples in thanks to the deities and these beautiful temples are still the base camps for devotees during the festivities. It is here that you see men piercing, cutting and mutilating their friends before they step out onto the streets of the town.

Besides fasting devotees must abstain from sexual intercourse, killing, quarrelling, telling lies and, bizarrely, staying in hotels during the three weeks before the festival starts. These restrictions are all designed to strengthen them before they are possessed by the Emperor Gods.

After the procession of blood and gore comes the procession of ear splitting noise. Hooded youths carry huge shrines and effigies on their shoulders. Everywhere around people fling deafening fire crackers that whizz and boom at extraordinary volume. The acrid smell of gunpowder perfumes the smoke and ash that shrouds the air. It feels like a re enactment of the first day of the Somme and it is amazing that no one is injured or incinerated.

And as the last float is carried aloft into the distance the town falls deathly quiet. It is still only 7.30 in the morning and the street cleaners arrive, sweeping up mounds of dust and debris.

At the start of the working day it is as if all this had never happened. I wander into a travel agents to buy a ticket out. Sitting opposite me is a beautifully manicured Thai woman in her early twenties with coiffured hair and wearing a fetching and fashionable, cream coloured trouser suit. As she busies herself at the computer making my reservation and printing out my ticket I notice the stigmata of the Emperor Gods on her cheeks and her image comes back to me. Only two hours before she had been walking through town with an iron bar through her face. Now, like the whole community, she has returned to the twenty first century and resumed her life of mundane tasks….. Shopping, watching TV and working at her job.

As I make my way through town I notice others. The taxi driver too has the small wounds that betray his morning’s activities. The man who sells me a newspaper smiles at me which must be painful since both cheeks are marked by neat round scabs. I must look disturbed. He looks concerned. “Sabaa di mai?” He asks me. “Are you okay?” in Thai. “Sabaa di,” I answer him. “Yes I am okay.” He grins and carries on with his day.

Take Me to Your Dealer (Maxim Magazine. 2003)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

Squatting in a yard in Phnom Penh, the wild, dusty capital of Cambodia, Chatchom is a frightened man. His hands are shaking as he breaks off half of a small, red pill. It is ‘ya baa’, the ‘crazy’ drug that in the last decade has rampaged through the once booming cities of Thailand and is now threatening to overwhelm all the countries along the banks of the Mekong River.

It flows from the meandering delta waterways of southern Vietnam where Saigon is fast becoming a shooting gallery of heroin addicts, west into Cambodia where a land torn apart by war is now being submerged under a weight of amphetamine addiction. It heads north into Laos where the ruling Stalinist dictatorship remains powerless to stem the flow of poison from its source. Along its other shore the river borders Thailand – a whole nation facing a meltdown into amphetamine fueled chaos. Finally the Mekong makes its way into the ravines of southern China. Not far from its western bank, in a no man’s land between Burma and China, are the hills of the Wa. Here former headhunters are now the biggest producers of heroin and rough speed in South East Asia.

Chatchom crushes the lump of methamphetamine against the body of a plastic lighter and crumbles it on to a piece of silver foil. He holds the foil up to a funnel on a plastic bottle adapted as a water pipe. As he lights it, the sweet, toxic fumes drift through the air. After a frantic coughing fit Chatchom’s eyes glaze over as the cocktail of chemicals overwhelm the synapses of his brain. Chatchom has reason to be afraid. He is on a list. He is marked out for execution.

Until recently he made his living as a drug dealer selling Yabaa in the Thai town of Suphanburi until his business was brutally interrupted. The prime minister of Thailand has declared war on drugs and made it chillingly clear that, “In this war….. drug dealers must die.”

And dying they are. The police have a blacklist of 46,000 suspects and a license to shoot on site. No arrest. No trial. The license to kill comes from the top. The death toll is already 2,274 and Chatchom is in no doubt that he is in danger of becoming another statistic. “The police know what I do, but they have never been able to catch me. Now they don’t need evidence. They can just shoot me down.”

Every day more bodies appear in the streets of every Thai city. Some are gunned down in shoot outs with the police. Others die more simply. Shot in the back of the head, their faces pressed into the mud, they are murdered in cold blooded, military style executions and another name is crossed off the list.

There may be death squads in the land of smiles, but they are only going for the little people. The real drug barons remain untouched and untouchable. The drugs are coming down the Mekong River from remote areas outside the rule of law of any nation state. They are being mainlined into the streets, slums and schools of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Mekong itself is fast becoming a river of death.

Chatchom maybe a fugitive but the place he has run to is part of the problem. In Suphanburi his biggest fear was of a night time knock on the door or an unseen bullet through the back of the skull. Here in Cambodia, ironically, he is safe. There is no war on drugs here. After emerging from 30 years of war, genocide and conflict, Cambodia is facing a new scourge. An official from the United Nations told , “if nothing is done about the drugs flooding into this country then the carnage will make the Killing Fields of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge look like a walk in the park.”

The Cambodian authorities are doing nothing.

Leaving Chatchom to his water pipe and his paranoia I sidestep the glue-sniffing kids and dodge the spaced out moto-taxi drivers. I make my way to the banks of the Mekong. I am going to take a trip up river to try and see for myself what is happening along its banks.

We pass small wooden boats and larger cargo ships transporting anything and everything from China and Thailand.

We pass the town of Kompong Cham, a major dropping off point for heroin being transported east to the streets and port of Saigon. We pass Kratie where the river breaks into whirlpools and rapids and fresh water river dolphins break the surface in twos and threes. Finally we approach the Cambodia Laos border.

The fog shrouded mountains, steamy jungles and island dotted waterways of Stung Treng Province amount to some of the most remote and inaccessible parts of South East Asia. This is bandit country where no one travels the roads after dark and it is unwise to meet the gaze of strangers. In this, the last Cambodian river town before the border with Laos, men still carry guns and the police keep a low profile. The nearby hills of Mondulkiri and Rattanakiri are where ‘Apocalypse Now’ was envisioned.

There is a simple equation of physics on the Mekong River. The police and authorities have very slow boats or no boats at all. Those with something to hide have speed boats mounted with the engines from Toyota pick up trucks. They skim the rapids and whip through canyons of the Mekong at a terrifying sixty miles an hour.

I sit with Kim Saroen. He is a Cambodian customs official and he is not very busy. Lazing in his hammock by the banks of the river he laughs when asked if they ever manage to arrest the traffickers. “We know they come through, but what would we arrest them with? We have no way of catching them. We don’t even have boats or binoculars. Anyway if they have drugs on board then they will also have guns and I have a wife and two children.”

Another speed boat whips past throwing up spray and rocking fishing boats in its wake. “Tell me, how can I catch that?”

Saroen laughs again, lights a cigarette, settles back and kicks off his flip flops. “Would you like a smoke?” He asks.

I drink warm beer from the bottle as the sun goes down and the agent of Cambodian law and order drifts off.

Kim Saroen’s lack of enthusiasm may have another reason. A shipment of heroin worth US$3,000 in Cambodia is worth US$6,000 once smuggled to neighbouring Vietnam. Once it reaches dealers in the West it is worth US$250,000. By the time it is cut with additives for the street the heroin is worth a million US dollars. On the other hand a Cambodian border official earns US$30 in one month. Kim Saroen may be provided with strong incentive to turn a blind eye when a blind eye is needed.

Crossing the border into Laos, I hitch a ride on a returning speed boat. Sharing the ride is a gay Scotsman and his incongruously well manicured Thai boyfriend. Their backpacks are tied down firmly with rope. We are all issued a musty and well used crash helmet. The Thai is looking with disgust at the crash hat. “It’s better ‘an a busted head sweetheart,” points out his companion cheerfully in broad Glaswegian tones.

I ask the driver about his cargo. He looks at me with slight annoyance and replies, “coffee,…… I always carry coffee.”

His distinctly non-conversational tone prompts me to curb any further questions. That and the fact that any chance of more chit-chat is obliterated by the screaming whine of the outsized engine bolted to the back of the boat and muffled by the visored motorcycle helmet that I, now, am relieved the driver has lent me. The narrow, flat-bottomed skiff skims the surface of the water at 60mph, shooting rapids and narrowly missing boulders. It is, at turns, both exhilarating and terrifying. I feel like a rabbit in a wind tunnel as I imagine the bottom of the boat being ripped out and myself disemboweled by the needle sharp points just below the surface.

On the left bank of the river Thailand comes into view. It is the Twenty First Century, draped in neon with 7/11, bad satellite TV, hatchback Japanese cars, surly adolescents, Burger king and a major drug problem. Every day there are lurid media accounts of murders, knife attacks and armed robberies committed by desperate or deranged drug addicts.

Passing by the province of Nakhon Phanom I am looking across the river to a low level war zone. Eight people were killed in one day. Sermsiri Tamonnin, 34, the first victim, was found dead in her house at 6am. She had been shot in the head. Thien Mokmeechai, 46, was gunned also down in his house 6.30am. Witnesses said a man came on a motorcycle, walked into the house and opened fire without warning. At about the same time, Amporn Phiewkham, 43, was shot dead at his house and Vinai Nakajat, 40, was killed by an assailant. Sompong Promson, 49, was shot at by gunmen while eating his lunch. Suriya Thong-on was gunned down in front of his house in tambon Na Thon. Killed in their home in Na Kae district, at about noon, were Thanomsak Moonsurin, 40, and his wife Chalaolak, 39.

One day’s work for the death squads was explained by police chief, Nakhon Phanom police chief Pol Maj-Gen Paiboon Phetplai. He said all of those killed were on record as having been, “involved in the drug trade.”

In other words, they were on the list.

On the other bank is Laos. It is a backward, under-populated, Stalinist state. It has changed little since the 1950s. The people of Laos sit in their crumbling old French colonial towns staring across the river at a future era. The future is bleak.

From Savannahket I take a bus along the river’s route. Passing the Lao capitol of Vientiane. I am now in Asia’s newest backpacker and tourist playground. In the cultural capital of Luang Phabang there are queues of European tour groups in their practical, zippered, functional trousers with water bottles attached to useful belts around their ample middles.

The river continues in a loop west through mountainous ravines, scene of a tribal insurgency by the Hmong minority. We reach the Thai border at Huai Say. This is the heart of the ‘Golden Triangle’.

The little town of Mai Sai lies on a narrow tributary of the Mekong that marks the border between Thailand and Burma. At the end of an overgrown jungle path at the river’s edge in the no man’s land between the two countries I am offered the junkie’s deal of the century. In a tatty clearing within view of Burmese soldiers on the opposite bank of the river tinfoil, matchsticks and burnt shreds of paper litter the ground. Emaciated, zombie-like figures stumble slowly through the vegetation or nod out at the river’s edge. A pair of hollow-eyed addicts squat in the bushes beside the trail, inhaling yabaa through bamboo pipes. It is an intimidating place.

A man in camouflage fatigues, seemingly less wrecked than the others, tells me what’s on the menu. He proffers a large vile containing what looks like about five grams of heroin for the princely sum of fifteen pounds. “You like?….. no problem. Cheap! cheap!”

Here there is only one middle man and he is grinning at me with a goofy smile. “Yabaa? no problem! Cheap! Cheap!” He adds hauling out a plastic bag full of little red pills. Each one costs a great deal less than a cup of tea in Kings Cross Station.

There is a reason why he is offering me the cheapest drugs in the world. We are within a day’s drive of the world’s most successful narco-state.

 Driving over a mountain pass in the lawless hills of the North East of Burma, we are heading into the heart of an empire built on guns, drugs and blood. Virtually every car on the road, including our own, is a battered white Toyota Corrolla estate. It’s a boxy seventies classic with reinforced suspension. Our destination is Mong La. It is the pleasure capital of a country that does not exist. The Wa State. Officially part of Burmese territory, Wa State has its own government, its own army, its own police force and its own laws. All of this is built on the proceeds of heroin and yabaa. It is the Wa who are poisoning the world and reaping the profits of death.

To get there we have to drive through one of the world’s nastiest totalitarian countries. In Burma there are military checkpoints every ten miles manned by sour faced officials, sitting under tacky portraits of even tackier military strongmen. They insist on recording my passport details and the exact time of my passing. Dollar-a-day military thugs watch my every move.

A few miles after the last Burmese military check point the road belongs to the Wa, but on either side tribal gangs rule the jungle lined hills. The car comes to a sudden halt. The driver is looking down the barrel of an ancient flintlock rifle. It must be at least a meter long and its owner has appeared from nowhere. I see two more of the same appear from the jungle to our left and right. In a moment the car is surrounded. The driver has his hands off the wheel and is slowly opening the car door an ingratiating smile fixed on his face. I am sinking as low as I can in the back seat pondering whether a lead ball from an eighteenth-century gun can pierce the door of a twentieth-century car. Thankfully I don’t have to find out. The driver has obviously said the right thing.

“They are the tribe of Thai Lu. They don’t see many foreigners here. I think they are frightened that you are here to see their opium fields. This would be a problem.”

I answer him sincerely, “I don’t want to see them if they don’t want to show me. Honestly, tell them we don’t want to leave the road.” Visibly relaxing the Thai Lu lower their flintlocks and accept the cigarettes we hand out. Soon we are just one happy family by the side of the road. They are posing for the camera and someone has hauled out a dirty bottle of lethally strong rice wine.

The party has to come to an end if we are to reach Mong La before nightfall so, light headed with liquor and relief, we move on. It is not long before the road is blocked again. This time it is by a spectacle that makes the flintlock warriors seem commonplace.

A crowd of men are whooping and jumping around the road. It looks like they have turned out the inmates of the local insane asylum. What is even stranger is that each man is carrying a child on his shoulders. Each child seems to be in some kind of a trance. Their faces are elaborately painted and their clothes are shimmering gold and silk. “These are the painted, dancing gods,” my driver tells me. “There is no danger – the children’s bodies are possessed by the good spirits of the forest and the people are celebrating.”

Beeping the horn, inching slowly forward we make our way through this surreal scene and, finally, the way is open to Mong La.

After two days of negotiating potted roads, sour faced soldiers, time warped tribal warriors and shamanistic children, arriving in Mong La is like reaching Shangri La. But this is no misty mountain kingdom.

We have passed from the mindless, dreary oppression of Government ruled Burma to a Chinese Las Vegas built on the proceeds of death. Giant casinos in sickly pastel colours draped in flashing neon are flanked by glittering luxury hotels. American style police cars and gleaming metered cabs glide by exquisite, pale skinned prostitutes sitting outside neat terraced brothels in the town’s main square. They play dominoes between tricks. Lavish transvestite cabarets entertain those punters too jaded to gamble or too tired interrupt the games of dominoes. Glittering restaurants serve freshly killed cobra or skinned dog. This is a town built entirely for hedonistic, guiltless pleasure where vast sums of drug money are laundered at the roulette wheels and card tables.

This may be a clinically efficient society geared up for the marketing of misery beyond its borders and untrammeled pleasure within, but there is no drug problem in Mong La. “We have no crime here,” a beaming Chinese restaurant owner tells me. “If you do wrong they will take you to the office.”

There are no courts or trials by jury in Wa State. Those who are sent to “The Office” are sometimes never seen again. Opium farmers found smoking their own produce, a commodity far too valuable to be consumed at source, are put in a pit for one or two years. They go cold turkey in their own faeces.

The amoral nature of money and the efficiency of its making have been distilled into a guiltless machine. Mong La is the final stop in a trail that starts in the shooting galleries of Zurich, New York or Amsterdam.

Chatchom is living the life of a drug addict and fugitive in the squalid streets of Phnom Penh. The whole region of the Mekong is under threat. In the Wa State they are laughing. There may be a war on drugs but no one has declared war on them. In Mong La it is business as usual.

The Kicking Fields (Loaded Magazine. 2003)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

Filing past the armed soldiers at the gate of a small boxing stadium in Phnom Penh, Cambodia I am frisked by security before entry. Having neither guns nor knives I take my place in the crowd. There is a strange atmosphere in Phnom Penh and anger is building. The mood feels ugly. Thais are not popular these days in Cambodia. They are stealing Cambodian culture, Cambodian land and the wealth of Cambodia’s gem mines and forests. Above all they have stolen the art of ‘Kbach Kun Pradal’. That may sound like the cry of a constipated klingon, but it is actually the Cambodian art of kickboxing. Developed and refined over centuries by the ancient empire of Angkor it was stolen by the conquering Thais five hundred years ago and renamed ‘Muay Thai’ or ‘Thai kick boxing’.

It may be called “kick boxing” but to me it looks more like “elbow jabbing”…”knee crunching”…”nose splatting”…”bone crunching,” boxing. Defending Cambodia in the ring is Hok Yathey. Today he is one of Cambodia’s top kick boxers. Only a couple of years ago Yathey was fighting for something else. He was defending a vision of a world without fun, money or casual clothing. The job on his CV may now read national kick boxing champion but his previous experience was as a soldier in the Khmer Rouge, jungle army.

During the late seventies while everyone else in the world was getting on with the business of bad hair, flaired trousers and the horrors of disco, the Khmer Rouge set about turning Cambodia into one vast concentration camp. They emptied the towns of people and put them all to work in the rice fields, even though they were given no rice to eat. They abolished money, private property and families. Then they started abolishing people too. They killed three million of their own people in an orgy of death that will scar this country forever. In 1979 they were turfed out by an invading Vietnamese army. The Khmer Rouge spent the next twenty years prowling the jungles and mountains of Cambodia killing where they could and laying landmines on their day’s off. Hok Yathey was under the command of their murderous leader, Pol Pot, and his deputy, the cold-eyed Ta Mok. A one-legged killer known simply as, “The Butcher.”

The warm up fights at a close, Yathey and his Thai challenger climb under the ropes and into the ring as the sounds of the ‘Sralei’ starts up. It is a haunting free form musical drone of reed flute and drums that becomes ever more frenetic as the fight gains in pace and ferocity. At each corner of the ring stands a soldier from the elite squad of ‘Flying Tigers’ – military police, AK 47s at the ready.

But first the fighters must make their homage to the spirits of boxers and trainers past with a shuffling, looping dance that takes them to each corner of the ring for a word of prayer.

The bell rings for round one and the fighters circle each other probing their opponent with quick feints and jabs before Yathey explodes with a kick to the body of the Thai that makes a sound almost like the crack of a gun. This is followed by a barrage of punches and an elbow jab into the face that splits open the visitor’s cheek. Seeing blood the crowd starts to roar. The fight stops and the foreigner is wiped down and patched up by his team. He comes back out fighting, going for Yathey with a flurry of kicks and punches that puts him on the ropes and into a headlock repeatedly kneeing him in the gut before they are pulled apart by the referee.

As the rounds progress it looks like Yathey will be the easy winner on points. He lands more punches and kicks than the Thai and puts him on the ropes twice in the second round and once in the third. But in the fourth Yathey is suckered by a killer move. A misjudged kick puts him off balance. The Thai is on to him like a pitbull on speed. A lightening kick to the head has him on the ropes. Then an elbow jab from a running jump into the soft space between his neck and his collarbone drops him. It takes out the blood supply to his brain and Yathey is on the deck. It doesn’t look like is getting up in a hurry and the crowd goes beserk. Once again Cambodia is the loser and insult has been added to injury.

In the dressing room Yathey has his head in his hands. He has let his nation down and failed to pop the bubble of Thai arrogance. Never having been much of a diplomat, I tell him that I am going to Chiang Mai in Thailand for three weeks to train in a Thai boxing camp. It is hard to tell if he is scowling or smirking. “Come and see me when you have finished,” he says. “You can show us what you have learnt from the Thai,” he adds grimly.

The mood around town is building to a sullen intensity. It is being reported that a famous Thai soap opera star has said that she would “rather be a dog than a Cambodian.” Hun Sen, Cambodia’s one-eyed prime minister has proclaimed that she may be a famous actress but that the Thai are not worth, “two blades of Cambodian grass.”

Driving out to the airport I see gangs of young men riding through town. Some are waving flags. Others are shouting anti Thai slogans. From the plane I see that buildings are in flames. The mob has had enough. It looks like they have been given the green light to do their worst. Enraged by the insults to their nation they are rampaging through the streets of Phnom Penh looking for anything with the taint of Thailand. First they burn the Thai Embassy to the ground, the embassy staff only escaping death by the narrowest whisker. Then they systematically move through town burning and looting anything associated with the hated Thais.

In Bangkok the Thais too are lost in fury. For them the Khmer are little more than untamed savages and they have been stamping on a portrait of their beloved King. On the TV the talk is of war. Elite commandos are sent to Phnom Penh to evacuate Thai nationals. F16s are put on standby and an aircraft carrier is poised to enter Cambodian waters.

The atmosphere is still tense three weeks later. After, what I feel, is rigorous Muay Thai training and even more rigorous drinking, I am back in Cambodia and out on the tiles with Yathey and his boxing mates for a night of wine women and karaoke. After half a bottle too much of lethal home-brewed rice wine I start getting a bit cocky for a fat bloke from North London with all of three weeks patchy, kick boxing experience. Yathey issues a late night challenge. We establish the terms. It seems like a simple idea. We go into the ring. I have to make only one kick or punch, however feeble or fleeting, connect with his head or body and I win. If he can put me down before I do that then I am the loser. All on condition that he promises not to hurt me. “Nityay dtrong,” he tells me. “Honest.”

Hungover at a painfully early hour of the morning, I am in a ramshackle little boxing ring at the back of the police headquarters. I see Yathey smiling at me across the ropes as he puts on the gloves. The thought that his buddies brutally murdered three million of their own people over four years when in power in the 1970s is making me quite nervous. Knowing, as well, that until very recently, when they could get their hands on a foreigner or tourist, then they too would be tortured and killed isn’t making making me feel any better. In the mid 1990s three backpackers were captured and held for three weeks. When they tried to escape, the Khmer Rouge, literally, sliced their hamstrings so that they could only crawl and plead for mercy. Then they shot them in cold blood. As they would often say before they smashed a victim’s skull open with a sledgehammer, “to lose you is no loss, to keep you is no gain.”

But Cambodia has moved on in the last three years. The Khmer Rouge being light on personal loyalty, Pol Pot was poisoned by his own men just after he had murdered his own closest friend of thirty years by tying him up and running him over in a tank. Then he ran over the wife and kids. Not long after that little neighbourhood bloodbath between Khmer Rouge leaders, the last survivor of this murderous game of musical chairs was captured by the Cambodian government forces. The Butcher is now in a high security prison, hidden from the world’s curiosity. All this left Yathey and his mates out of a job.

It was never going to be a long contest. After lightly tapping me on my head and chest a few times and firing a couple of playful kicks at my knees I do the stupid thing and actually try and speed things along by attempting to stick one on him. It turns out to be a mistake. My inept attack meets nothing but air and in a millisecond of flailing feet and gloves Yathey has taken my feet out from under me and tapped me lightly enough to put me on my back before I can even think about doing it again. He gives me another chance. Feeling like I have just been rolled by an ocean breaker I grovel in the dust before getting up, dizzily, to my feet to see if it was just a lucky fluke on the part of my frightening friend. It doesn’t look like it. He is dancing from foot to foot kicking his knees in the air like a relic from the age of Ska shouting, “Ot mien dai! Ot mien dai!” meaning, “No hands! No hands!” He then puts his hands on his head and sticks his tongue out daring me to take another pop. There is an early morning chill in the February air and I am beginning to smell humiliation.

I know that Yathey is just playing with me as he might with an over ambitious slug, but honour requires me to see if I can at least touch a glove on him before he ritually flattens me once again. No chance. Each time I try to touch him he dances out of the way. A couple of times he kicks me lightly up the arse to demonstrate what he could do if he was being serious. Trying to meet fire with fire I make a clumsy attempt to boot him in the head. This is met by a knee to the gut. Then he Deftly taps my leg out from under me with a precision flick of his right foot. Once again I am on the deck Winded and looking foolish. I ponder my options deciding that my best plan is to remain horizontal for quite some time to come. Khmer Rouge 2, Loaded nil…… Game over. Point made.

It could have been worse. In his old job he might just have sliced out my liver and lightly sautéed it over an open fire for a late breakfast.

The art of Khmer Rouge cuisine may be dying out, but the art of putting the frighteners on your opponent, if only in jest, is alive and well. That and booting things harder than I have ever seen anyone boot anything in my life. Yathey invites me to attend one of their training sessions that afternoon. I soon realise that my gentle meanderings in the tourist boxing rings of Chiang Mai is kindergarten stuff. Every one of the boxers here is a battle hardened veteran of the thirty odd years of war that has defined this wrecked country. Looking at the way they can do two hundred sit-ups at a go is awesome. The fact that between each one the trainer jumps on their gut with both feet and his full weight is stupefying. I realise how easy going Yathey was in the ring. Seeing him kick the punch bag I realise that if he was a less kind man, that punch bag could have been me. Suddenly my insides start to feel very soft and vulnerable.

I even start to feel sorry for his next Thai opponent although it will be sometime before Yathey and the Thais have a re-match. In a place where wars can be started by soap operas it might be wise to hold the next bout in a neutral country.

WORDS. 2157.

BOX OUT/SIDE BAR – Sporting Despots 

Idi Amin

The despotic and bizarrely brutal ruler of Uganda in the seventies was also a huge sports enthusiast. In addition to butchering vast numbers of his own people, Idi Amin was also nine times heavyweight boxing champion of Uganda between 1951 and 1960. A big fan all things tartan, Amin declared himself to be ‘King of Scotland’. This can have hardly gone down well with his former British colonial masters. When he was a soldier in the King’s African Rifles he was described as, “a splendid type and a good rugby player,” but also, “virtually bone from the neck up and needs things explained in words of only one letter.” Kicked out of power in 1979 he now lives in that other liberal haven of tolerance and democracy, Saudi Arabia, where he is on record as getting into fishing and swimming. Lets hope the bastard gets eaten by sharks.

Domitian

When the Romans went to the circus it wasn’t to see clowns and tame lions. It was to see people tare each other limb from limb or get savaged by poorly fed wild animals. After three or four centuries of this the Emperor Domitian thought the crowds would like something new. Thus the celebrated sport of lesbian dwarf fighting was launched. Sadly, it bored the crowd into a stupor so things went back to normal with the wildly popular sport of watching Christians pretend to be Kitekat.

Fidel Castro

Despite being the scourge of all things American, Fidel Castro’s greatest love is baseball. In the ’50s he was given a trial as a pitcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Rejected for being shit, an embittered Castro decided to become a revolutionary despot. With the 1962 Cuban missile crisis he very nearly took his revenge against the United States with a nuclear home run. This all came to nothing when he fell at the last plate when his Soviet sponsors confiscated the bat.

Franco

General Franco, autocratic ruler of Spain from 1936 to 1975 was a massive Real Madrid fan. His death was largely attributed to his insistence on watching every single match of the 1974 world cup finals against medical advice. It’s a pity it didn’t happen sooner….. Like 1938.

Mussolini

Firmly adhering to the Alex Ferguson model of player motivation Mussolini took the beautiful game very seriously and he asked for 110% from the national team. Before the 1938 World Cup Finals he sent a telegram to the coach, Vittorio Pozzo saying “Win or die.” Luckily they played a blinder.

Uday Hussein

Presently one of the world’s nastiest men, Saddam’s psychotic eldest son tortured three national footie team members after losing to Japan in the Asian Cup. This specimen of deranged evil also had the entire squad whipped on the soles of their feet after losing a 1998 World Cup qualifying game. Their failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals was answered back in Baghdad by making them take turns to kick a concrete football. Those who were thought to have been particularly slow in the field were dragged through gravel pits and immersed in sewage tanks.

That’s Not a Horse! (Absolute Thai. 2007)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

It’s amazing what raw eggs and beer can do to a man. What is more amazing is what they can do to a normally slow four legged beast that weighs as much as a truck whilst displaying a contrary nature. Once a year in the small port town of Chonburi beasts that normally amble are inspired to hurtle as they race each other in a bonanza of rustic traditional prowess. Greyhounds, thorough bred horses and even Camels look like they are born to run. Buffaloes do not, but run they do. Whether it’s the raw eggs and alcohol that have been fed to them, the crack of the whip or a simple desire for it all to be over they pick up frightening speed over a 300 metre track under a burning hot sun under the gaze of hundreds of onlookers. This event has been happening for 136 years. By the beginning of the last century the races were well established. In 1912 King Rama V himself was a witness to the spectacle. It first started as a trade fair where farmers gathered to buy and sell buffaloes which were, and are, almost a form of currency in rural Thailand. Buffaloes are a status symbol even though their traditional role on the farm has been superseded by the tractor.   Many of the buffaloes taking part in the race never do farm work at all being trained and cherished for this event alone. The farmers raise them to be as lean and sleek as a buffalo can be.

Events start early in the morning as pick up trucks pull up to the ground disgorging reluctant seeming buffalo who are then led by their noses in single file into waiting pens. Before the serious business starts there is a parade of lavishly decorated carts drawn by equally lavishly decorated buffaloes preceded by a gaggle of elaborately dressed beauty queens smiling coquettishly as they pass, shimmering in gold and feathers. This being Thailand ‘sanuk’is the order of the day and following the procession is a brass band and streams of small children in fancy dress. As the buffalo count rises so does the smell of ordure and it is fast becoming imperative to watch your step if you want to keep your shoes clean. In the tents outside the spectator stands buffaloes take part in a beauty contest. With spectacularly long horns and tired eyes they are dressed in shiny blankets, tinsel and bunting. It is hard to tell the criteria by which the winner is chosen, buffalo beauty being an art only for enthusiastic connoisseurs. As the heat builds up the racing buffaloes are lined up in the sun beside huge metal tubs full of water. Farmers splash them constantly keeping them in shape for the big event. It is amazing in some ways that the races ever get underway as forcing these huge beasts into the starting gates against their will is no mean feat.  They buck and squirm as the scruffy race officials dance around them coaxing them into place. Often they break lose and make a run for it charging up the track solo and riderless to be corralled at the other end and returned to duty whether they like it or not.

Out of this chaos the riders get the nod and they are off out of the gates. Seeing a buffalo leap is an awesome if unlikely site, but at their first stride that’s just what they do. Mud flying everywhere they charge at full tilt up the track the jockeys perching precariously on their rear haunches hanging on for dear life whilst belting them with sticks. Some don’t hang on hard enough, tumbling into the dirt and buffalo waste. They do not come up smelling of roses although they are smiling in friendly embarrassment at having tumbled so publically. As one or other beast tares over the line the jockey dramatically leaps off its back running alongside it as it slows to a halt to be doused with water by the farmers waiting by the metal water drums. The races are short and intense after a seeming age spent getting the contestants into place. The signal is given with no warning and the race is over in seconds. Over the loudspeaker a laughing woman commentator gently mocks those who take a tumble.

Buffaloes are expensive in Thailand. They certainly cost more than motorbikes and so since these buffaloes don’t do any work they are quite a major investment in prestige. The prize money of 5000 baht to the winner seems small given the amount of time, work and trouble the owners put in. The truth, though, is that it is not about money. It is an event about culture tradition and that very Thai special ingredient that is all about fun. It is also an event that is very confusing to outsiders. One minute buffaloes are charging in all directions, the next it is all over and a farmer in a red arsenal strip is marching up the track with his thumbs in the air, apparently celebrating victory.

The event at an end the farmers load their charges back on to the trucks, ladies in useful scarves hose down the buffalo waste that now carpets the whole area and police direct the traffic  to the various corners of Thailand from where it first arrived. Within half an hour the place is deserted although still less than fragrant. Driving back through the countryside the road is lined with fields, water buffalo bathing languidly in ponds and ditches looking unconcerned as the sun beats down. Little do they know that with a small taste of beer and raw eggs and the crack of a whip they too could take a shot at being champions.

Boy Racers of Saigon

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

Phu may be only nine years old, but he knows the meaning of speed. Jabbing his spurs into the flanks of his tiny horse he sails past the finishing line only inches ahead of his friends. They are equally young, equally animated and, very nearly, equally as fast. Phu may only be nine years old, but this is no game. Thousands of dollars are placed in bets on the outcome of this horse race and Phu is a professional.

 This is Saigon, Vietnam and Phu is a throwback to the glory days of French Indo China. This whole place is art deco in motion. In an elegant but crumbling stadium that has survived years of wars and revolutions and decades of neglect child jockies race a breed of miniature horses introduced to Vietnam by the French. The dimensions of the participants are lilliputian and as they emerge from the initial weight checks and walk past the spectators they present a peculiar spectacle. Tiny, proud, little men making their way to the paddock.

Once there, fathers and uncles help them into the saddle. Mothers gossiping and joking shaded by the brims of conical hats sit to the side passing out snacks of fermented pork and fresh baguette sandwiches. The jockeys may be children, but the are not exploited. They are treasured.

All the competitors and horses live in the same village, just outside Saigon, and theirs is a shared fate that mirrors that of the nation. During the Vietnam War many civilians fled to the surrounding countryside and joined up with the Vietcong, fighting the Americans and the Saigon forces. Others, meanwhile, went on to serve in the southern forces, while some families even hedged their bets over the final outcome and sent a son to each army. That was a fate suffered by Phu’s two uncles.

The ravages of war and the initial harshness of the communist regime put an end to the fun at the races, but with growing liberalisation the residents of Saigon are, once again, free to enjoy the adrenaline of the race and the illicit the pleasures of gambling. “I have ridden horses ever since I can remember,” Phu says as he mounts his charge. “My father did when he was a boy. He told me to do my best now, because in a few years I’ll be too old and heavy to race.”

The idea that in only a couple of years he will be too old to race obviously troubles Phu. Unfortunately, the little horses can only cope with the lightest of charges. Even pint-sized Phu’s diet of rice and noodles will be too much for the animals as he grows older. “That’s my best friend there and here’s my cousin,” Phu says, pointing at two riders close by.

All the boys train with each other during the week when they are not at school. Come rain, shine, pestilence and frequent floods, the boys dedicate all their spare time to the race. The jokes and laughter end as the race approaches. The boys may be relatives, but they are also deadly competitors.

The adrenaline is high but the stakes are not. 2,000 dong (about 9p) is the usual amount pressed into into the hands of roving touts and glum-looking state-employed bookies sitting behind rusting wire mesh windows. Never mind. Gambling is still strictly forbidden by the Communist Government in Vietnam – except at the Saigon races. Even a small stake can raise Vietnamese passions to fever pitch in the 90-degree heat.

As the horses emerge in front of the stadium, It is more like watching charioteers at the Circus Maximus than children racing horses in Saigon’s district 10. As the riders move into the starting gate the passions of the crowds rise to a crescendo. Many break into a run, making for the outer fences to get the best views, eyed by surly Vietnamese police who make little or no effort to control the mayhem. Ringing the course’s dusty track is a wire fence intended, it is said, to thwart spectators trying to influence a race by throwing stones at the horses. Punters climb on anything available to get a better view. They throng the roof of the stadium and perch precariously on motorbikes and tables.

With a startling crack the gates are flung open and Phu and his friends fly far beyond the metal cage, careering on to the track with what looks like dangerous abandon. They kick up clouds of dust as they fly around the bends, the crowd bellowing encouragement.

The race is intense and fast. In the searing heat neither the horses nor the pint sized riders can cope with a long race. Phu is not the winner. Disappointment is etched on his face as his uncle helps him dismount, but he holds his head high as he walks to the pavilion to change out of his racing silks. His mum hands hims some mineral water, helps him to remove his hard hat and sits him down in front of a bowl of noodle soup. As his uncle leads the family horse away on his bicycle, Phu stares down miserably contemplating his noodles.

By Phu’s estimate he has about another 18 months before he is too heavy to race. He has won before and he desperately wants to win again. So each weekend he will return to the track and go through the same ritual of make or break speed. For the next eighteen months Phu will live for the race.

Rodeo Gay (Loaded Magazine. 2001)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

Pushing through the swing doors of the Sidekick Saloon in downtown Kansas City I am greeted by the hard stares of six of the largest men I have ever seen in my life. Even without the stetsons on their heads not one of them can have been less than 6 foot 3 and they look nearly as wide. Loaded has come to the heart of God’s own country to check out one of the largest rodeo circuits in America. My nervousness is prompted not only by the size of the saloon customers, but also by uncertainty at the ideas that may be forming in their heads about me.

This is the Kansas City Gay Rodeo 2001. We came here to see if America’s most cherished myth is under attack from an army of Village People lookalikes wielding doilies. Confusion has set in and it is disconcerting that the first gay cowboys I meet look like they could take on the whole Sioux nation before breakfast and still be home in time for a mess of grits.

The confused signals in the Saloon are amplified when one of the cowboys sporting the dimensions of an industrial freezer greets me with, “howdy honey. What’s a purty li’l thang like you doin’ in a joint like this.”

Considering where I am, it is unwise to get indignant and aggressively press my heterosexual credentials. What is wise is to thank him politely for the compliment and humbly ask for permission to be straight. The cowboy spits on the floor, looks me up and down and in a voice that sounds like he’s chewing gravel replies, “no problem sugar.”

Not so long ago Kansas City was the jumping off point for the wagon trains heading across the prairie to get scalped by injuns and bored shitless by Kevin Costner. It was a frontier melting pot where gambling, gunfights and showgirls were the order of the day. Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody tried to keep order using the power of the gun and the hangman’s noose. These days it turns out that the most serious roughrider in town is a florist.

This is Cowboy Steve and before he was a peddler of floral arrangements he had a ranch in Arizona and farmed 800 hundred head of cattle. “I been ropin’ cattle since I was ten. Only been ropin’ other cowboys since I was 29. When my wife found out she set fire to my truck.” This florist not only knows how to lasoo a rogue steer, he also drinks like Oliver Reed in an airport bar on his way to a holiday in Saudi Arabia. Successive rounds of tequila shots are downed in turn. The only way out of this with honour is to fall down. Loaded falls down quite quickly. As I am helped to the taxi, Steve imparts one last piece of homespun wisdom, “don’t fuck with the lesbians. They’ll fuckin’ kill ya.”

I realise that means the cigar-smoking women arm wrestling in the corner may be volatile.

It was one Phil Ragsdale of Reno, Nevada who put on the first gay rodeo at Washoe County Fairgrounds in 1976. At first he could not get any local ranchers to allow cowboys the use of their animals. So, in true western style, he was alleged to have rustled five “wild” range cows, ten “wild” range calves, one pig, and a Shetland pony. The next day over 125 people took part in this first event and the winners were crowned; first, “King of the Cowboys,” second, “Queen of the Cowgirls,” and third, “Miss Dusty Spurs,” the drag queen. Within ten years it was as if a smoke signal had been transmitted from one side of America to another drawing together thousands of men in tight white jeans and big hats. Bar the odd knife fight amongst the ladies its been going strong ever since.

Arriving at the Waynedotte County Rodeo grounds I am stopped at the gates by a woman who, if anything, is more intimidating than last nights drinking companions. Rodeo riding is not the sort of thing undertaken by lipstick lesbians and this lady is well muscled and takes her security role seriously. “You cain’t take pictures. Hand over the camera.” After an explanation that I am here for a magazine and she has radioed the rodeo director, she sullenly backs down. I feel her eyes on my back as I make my way to the arena and distinctly hear a muttered, “eurotrash.”

Crowds in Western gear are beginning to fill the stands. The fact that I am the only one without the requisite ten-gallon hat adds to my growing feeling of separation. That and the fact that I would rather wash my hair in glue than put knife-edge creases in my wranglers. Contestants are warming up for the off by lasooing bits of wood and whooping alot. The sound of country and western greats crackle from the PA.

Somewhere on the prairies of the American mid-West there wanders a traumatised goat submerged in doubt and wearing a pair of crisp white panties. ‘Goat dressing’ is an activity that that does not usually figure in the tales of the Wild West myth, but here in Kansas City the ability to put a pair of knickers on a fast moving farmyard animal is the new showdown. At last year’s rodeo there was a hitch. Stunned at being press ganged into the world of wild west camp the goat passed out with shock as the knickers went on. The cowboys feeling mournful and guilty and thinking that he had shuffled off this mortal coil laid him out, like Old Shep, before going off to drown their sorrows in strong liquor. When they returned to bury him they found that, like Lazarus, the goat had been resurrected, raised up and had taken his chance to make a break for the big skies of the surrounding badlands never to be seen again. I can see the goat’s point of view. Over and over again he is chased around in the mud and roughly handled until, in a flurry of manic goat mauling, the cowboys leave him standing humiliated and pop-eyed in ill fitting pants.

It is no surprise to learn that these are the ‘camp events’. You won’t see these at other rodeos. Your average redneck American rodeo fan is as likely to get enthusiastic about “wild drag racing” as he is to enjoy a day out at the cricket in pink lycra and ballet pumps. Its Ikea furnishing and Tombstone all rolled into one.

The next event is ‘steer decorating’. The bloke to my left in the ironed wranglers explains the rules. “Well you gotta tie the purty ribbon on the tail o’ the purty steer ‘fore he runs off.”

The tying bit looks easy. Hanging on to him without him gutting you with his horns or braking your toes with his hooves looks harder. More often than not the ribbon goes on alright and the steer looks ridiculous. I am beginning to realise that this thing could turn a cow into a bigot. They are not only constantly manhandled, they are also made to look ridiculous.

‘Chute dogging’ is a straightforward contest of woman against beast. This ancient art of lesbian cow-judo just invokes sympathy for the steer who is having his head twisted off by the woman who won last night’s arm wrestling competition.

“Don’t let your children grow up to be cowboys,” crackles Willie Nelson across the rodeo grounds. The animals being mauled and decorated would be singing in chorus if they knew how as yet another of their number ends up bruised and humiliated in ill fitting pants or ribbons.

And now it looks like they are about to be given a chance to get their own back. We are moving from the camp to the suicidal. Bull riding must rank as the first extreme sport ever invented. There is no medical insurance on the planet that will cover this. It’s a sport that can kill you and make you poor. The bull weighs as much as a lorry and he is pissed off. This may well have something to do with the fact that a length of rope has been tied round his gonads and then been pulled tight thereby annoying him. Once the bull is released the rider has to stay on its back as long as he can and then, when he does fall off, he has to avoid having the bull stomp on his gonads with the full weight of righteous indignation and a desire to inflict tit-for-tat revenge.

Maybe the man with the most dangerous job in the arena is Wayne the bullfighter. He is not gay but he is, incongruously, dressed as a clown. He is in the business of ‘cowboy protection’. He has to drag the rider to safety from under hooves before the animal goes in for a stomping. “Make no mistake. This ain’t no fagot Spanish bull gonna be fooled by no stupid cape. This is an American bull and he don’t care if you’re gay or straight. He just wants you off his back.”

It’s a job made for lunatics. “I got run over once and found I liked it. Been run over 28 times since then. I busted all my ribs, smashed my hand and popped my knee. Like the guys riding, I like fear.”

Wayne’s compadre adrenaline junky is cowboy Steve and he is now in the gate and ready for the off. Released from the gate the bull goes completely mental. Cowboy Steve stays on for a dramatic seven seconds before being thrown headfirst into the mud. The bull boots him one before Wayne the kamikaze clown hauls him to safety.

“Nuthin sissy about that,” Steve points out as he staggers to the ambulance in a neck-brace.

After the bull riding and the bucking broncs (bullriding-lite with the same fiendish, bollock-strapping incentive for the horse), the cowboys start just riding about very fast whooping. These are, not surprisingly, called speed events and are very, very boring unless you are actually a fan of whooping. I decide to wander off for a beer, which proves to be a big mistake.

The broncs may be wild and the bulls raging, but the women acting as sheriff and deputies are terrifying and Loaded soon becomes the outlaw. Once again I am collared by a lady with well-defined biceps who I call sir but who calls herself, “Angry Penis.” Earlier on she had been friendly. She had even agreed to show me where Joan Jett of, “I love Rock and Roll, put another song on the jukebox baby,” fame had tattooed an autograph on her arse. I was naive enough to think that this kindly mooning meant that we could be mates. Not to be. Unknowing I have wandered into the wrong part of the arena with a bottle of bud. I plead ignorance and forgiveness, but there is none. Angry Penis points out, with an air of menace, that in rodeo circles drinking alcohol near the livestock is an offence more serious than arson in a naval dockyard and I should leave. Brushing aside the bearded cowpoke in chiffon who jumps to my defence I start to understand how the goat must have felt. Faced with the prospect of a shootout with a hissing lesbian sporting dodgy tattoos even Alias Smith and Jones would have a gone for a change of a career. Even a spot of bull riding is starting to look tame. Everyone is shouting, the goats are bleating, the horses are snorting, the steers are mooing and Homer and Jethro are crackling “Mama Get The Hammer (There’s A Fly On Papa’s Head).” Enough is enough and knowing there is only one way out I take it. I throw myself through the swing doors and onto the street before possies are formed and Angry Penis decides on a lynching………

ENDS. WORDS 2012.

SIDEBARS/BOXOUT

Alexander the Great

Conqueror of the whole known world and history’s most successful military commander, Alexander was totally Greek. Most of his soldiers were also Greek. He inspired love and devotion in his army who followed him about on foot for years and years. For a while they made everyone Greek, but were pushed back just at the start of the Hindu Kush.

John Wayne

America’s most famous macho icon, all round right wing brawler and outspoken champion of the American ideal started his career in the film business under a false name complaining, “I can’t have an actor’s name sounding like a girl’s.” So “Marion,” (meaning, “generous sea goddess”) Morrison was consigned to the dustbin of doubtful gender and was transformed into the unambiguous hero we have come to know as, “John Wayne”.

Richard the Lionheart

Although married to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart was more than a fan of a wandering minstrel called Blondel who serenaded him whilst he was imprisoned in Austria on his way back from the Crusades. Eleanor decided to move out.

Angelina Jolie

The living embodiment of gun toting Lara Croft, Angelina Jolie was quoted in The Sun as saying, “I’m the person most likely to sleep with my female fans, I genuinely love other women. And I think they know that.” Angelina, we salute you.

Julius Caesar

Despite having an affair with the young Queen Cleopatra and being the toughest man in the world, Julius Caesar was rumoured to have an affinity with the rough Soldiery. Before a battle he used to bolster their courage with a stand up comedy routine involving a carrot. Amazingly it worked and the Roman Empire was to last another 500 years. The only fly in the ointment was Britain’s butch Queen Boadicea.

Rock Hudson

Even as Rock Hudson portrayed the square jawed saviour of the kidnapped stagecoach in ‘Gun Fury’ it later became apparent that he would be far more inclined to rescue Lee Marvin than Donna Reed. By the 1980’s the Marlboro man was beginning to look decidedly suspect and it turned out that Rock had been living a lie.

Lawrence of Arabia

A masochistic, ex-public-schoolboy who spent months in the desert totally without moisturiser. The official story is that Lawrence was a British agent used to whip up anti-Turkish sentiment amongst the Arabs, but that was in fact just a cunning excuse to enable him to lurk around Tunisian steam-rooms and form ‘passionate friendships’.

James Dean

Often rumoured to love everybody equally James Dean embodied teenage uncertainty at a time when being uncertain was barely legal. Asked if he had slept with male producers to get acting parts he replied, “I’m not going to live my life with one hand tied behind my back.” Back in the fifties no one knew what the hell he was talking about, so he was left unmolested by the moral majority until his death in a car accident.

Grape Escapes. Provence in Isan.

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

As our battered 1970s vintage powder blue, Toyota Corrolla sedan negotiates the sharp corners on a narrow road leading us up to a plateau, warm dry sunshine and a clear, gentle, Provencale light bring us within reach of the vineyards. This is country that could have been committed to canvas by Cezanne or Van Gough. Low, rock strewn hills line the horizon. Parched, yellowing fields testify to the passing of a long hot summer.

But there are things here that would have baffled the post-impressionists. Spirit Houses by the side of the road adorned with Buddhist offerings of flowers, rice and burning incense. Orange clad monks in pick up trucks making their way home to glittering temples where families prostrate themselves before golden statues. Small markets in clean village streets where, rather than seeing old men nursing glasses of pastis and bakers windows full of fresh baguette, one is greeted by the sight of dark skinned Asian farmers tucking into bowls of spicy soup, their Honda dreams parked up in lines by the side of the road.

This place may look like the South of France, but this is Loei – a sleepy plateau in the north -eastern part of Thailand near the border with Laos. Its physical resemblance to Provence makes it no coincidence that this is the centre of Asia’s nascent wine industry.

Thailand is not a place that one would think of first when contemplating a glass of red, but ‘Chateau Loei’ is aiming to put Thailand on the wine Connoisseur’s map. For twelve years the vineyards here have been producing over half a million bottles annually from Chenin Blanc and Syrah grapes. The vines were specially imported from France and transplanted into the dry earth of Isaan with expert care by French consultants.

Construction magnate, Chaiyudh Karnasuta, is a life long Francophile. It was not lost on him that the soil and climate here almost exactly resembles that of the South of France where where some of the world’s finest wines are produced. Chaiyudh took a gamble and at the same time satisfied an artistic longing. “I am old and I am very rich. This is an old man’s gamble.” He explains, “I believe in five to 10 years, wine production in Thailand will be at least 10 million bottles.”

To those who belittle his dream he simply points out the popularity of Chilean wine, which was initially dismissed as doomed to fail. “You see….. Rome was not built in one day and wines and vineyards take decades to settle down.”

For Chaiyudh this is a labour of love.

A tour of the vineyards themselves at harvest time reveals scenes that chime with a vision of a Provencale, pastoral calm. The vines are gently stripped by intent looking vineyard workers. Huge baskets of cut grapes are then carried between sturdy looking women, their heads shaded by straw sun hats. They are then loaded on to waiting pick-ups. At Chateau Leoi itself the grapes are processed in the modern manner whilst matured wine is bottled and labeled.

Not only are the vineyards expanding. So is the pass time of wine tasting. Urban Thais are developing a taste for combining a weekend getaway to the dry Mediterranean climate of Loei with a wine tasting trip to the vineyards. Tour buses pass through on a regular basis disgorging well heeled tourists from the cities keen to see if the wine from the vineyards of their own nation matches up to the wines produced in France or Australia.

Most would readily agree that, while pleasant, the produce of Chateau Loei still has some way to go. The consensus seems to be that the Chenin Blanc is a bit sharp, but not bad, considering its origin.

The red Syrah, on the other hand has real potential. It is light and undeniably fruity, yet able-bodied and not at all sweet. Not a great wine, but an acceptable one. As one visitor points out, “The Thai red goes well with our red chicken curry and tom kha gai,” a spicy coconut and chicken soup, “and the white complements the goong chai nam pla,” raw shrimp marinated in lemon juice and chili.

Chateau Loei is not yet going to have the Parisians ditching the Bordeaux or the Spanish pouring the Rioja down the waste disposal, but it represents a solid start in the business of producing wine. Whatever else, a trip to the vineyards of Loei is a rewarding experience for those who have a taste for the landscapes of Cezanne and the slow pace of life in rural Thailand.

Don’t Call Me Sweetie!

© Dan White/Richard S. Ehrlich. No repro without permission.

Chiang Mai 1998. A beefy youth of 21 has just been rendered unconscious. Dropped by an elbow to the neck, the blood supply to his brain has been cut and he lies flat on the deck as the referee counts him out of the fight.

His opponent flutters his eye lashes, checks his make ups, giggles lightly and blows a kiss to the thugs in the audience who have betted that this butterfly of a man would be beaten to a pulp by the local Kickboxing champion. In the world in general one should never judge a book by its cover and in the world of Thai kickboxing it is a mistake that may take a grave toll on your physical health. Even if your opponent is a transvestite who, when not beating your brains out, is most likely to be having his legs waxed or singing sad karaoke songs of unrequited love about men who just don’t care. Parinya Kiatbusaba took the world of kickboxing by storm, but his real aim was, quite simply, to be a woman.

As a male he began kickboxing at the age of twelve. By1998 he was a national champion. He hit the headlines when as teenager he was about to fight – and win – his first major bout in Lumpini Stadium – the global home of Thai kickboxing. When the doctors told him he had to strip for the weigh-in to confirm he physically qualified as a male; Parinya started to sob with humiliation. The emotional turmoil obviously stiffened his resolve. He proceeded to win the fight hands down and endeared himself to the nation by kissing his opponent in commiseration.

Five years on Parinya sways into the room dressed in a glittering ball gown. It has been a long road. At a 174 centimetres (5-foot, 8-inches) and sporting a statuesque figure of 37-27-37 he is now a she. Though hugely successful in the ring, for Parinya a life of personal sadness always distanced him from the innate violence of his chosen profession. A means to an end, fame simply became a way to flower as his true self. He suffered as a winner, but the winning made her free.

Now at peace with herself Parinya gave up boxing when she crossed the gender divide. She may have stopped fighting in the ring, but her new fight is to bring tolerance, pride and understanding to a part of society that is often misunderstood and persecuted. Like Lady Diana, Parinya is a passionate advocate for humanity and tolerance.

Even as a boxer, Parinya tried to qualify the violence with gentility. “The reason I kissed men after a fight is because it was my way of apologizing, and telling the guy, It is not that I hate you, it is just a sport, and I’m sorry that I have to do it.”

Boxing, Buddhism and the biology of gender profoundly influenced Parinya’s life. “In my next life, I want to be born as a real man in my heart and soul because now, in this life, I was born with the body of a man but with the heart of a woman.” He always knew that he was not really a boy.

“When I was young, whenever I saw a young girl I thought, ‘How come I’m not like her?’ I was fond of good-looking boys. But I don’t want to be reborn as a woman because it is much harder to be a woman than to be a man, I call myself a ‘sau prapet-song’, which translates as a ‘second-type of woman’.”

When Parinya was still a fighter he was famous for wearing make up in the ring. Before a fight each boxer performs a dance individual to themselves. Parinya’s was elegant and camp. He mimed putting on make up and adjusting his frock. He gestured imploringly to the audience as their patience wore thin. Gently teasing the macho crowd that gathers to watch Muay Thai in fields and car parks across the land was a courageous thing to do. Kickboxing is the sport of farmers and working men. His teasing paid off. The audiences loved him. When Parinya kissed male opponents at the end of boxing bouts, audiences went wild. “I was able to wear make-up while boxing, nobody stopped me. I wore foundation, powder, lipstick and so on. When I first started boxing, I used only a little bit, like eyebrow liner and a light lipstick so people didn’t really notice, though I knew I looked better with it on. Later, when everybody knew, I could put on a lot.”

Affectionately nicknamed ‘Nong Toom’ by Thais, she has broken new ground for transvestites and transsexuals in a society where many people claim to be sexually conservative while simultaneously tolerating widespread prostitution and alternative sexual lifestyles. Thai TV often includes transvestites in soap operas, comedies and talk shows though they are usually portrayed in absurd slapstick or as lonely characters. Liberal Bangkok officials allow an annual “gay pride” parade in the Thai capital. Parinya, however, said she was never gay. “I don’t understand about being gay. Do gay men want to be a man or a woman? Because if they want to be a woman, how come they work out and make themselves look more like a man? And if a person is a man, why do they like someone else who is the same gender? For me, I’m sure who I am. I’m now a transsexual. I always wanted to be a woman. I’ve always been a woman in my heart and I want everything about me, physically, to be a woman. It is not the same as being gay.”

In Thailand, a transsexual or transvestite is known as a ‘katoy’. No one knows how many there are, but some estimates suggest 10,000 katoys live and work in this Southeast Asian country, often as prostitutes but also as white-collar executives, artists, actors, models, cooks and in other professions. Transsexuals and transvestites are often mocked and feared, however, because some drug and rob clients in seedy sex scams or are quick to create loud public scenes. “People mostly accepted me being a transvestite, maybe more than they accepted other transvestites, because I’ve always been a very good person, polite and helpful to my friends. So even though they knew I was like this, they treated me like a friend. Even my parents accepted me because I would help them earn money and never do bad things.”

In the boxing ring, some opponents hit Parinya with verbal abuse.”Some Thai kick-boxers said very hurtful things, like I am ‘just a transvestite’. So I would say, Even though I’m a transvestite, I can fight. And I’m famous.’ But they would say, ‘Well, you are only famous because you are a transvestite’.” Once knocked out and winded his opponents would generally come round to seeing things Parinya’s way.

“I do not have any injuries. I really protect myself and I kick the others before they can kick me. I’m known for kicking really hard and knocking people out.”

Parinya is no longer allowed to fight in Thailand although there are still opportunities for her in the ring elsewhere. “I received some offers from America and Japan to fight.”

She insists her future, however, will now focus on “modeling, acting and singing.” Despite Parinya’s feminine appearance, she still speaks in a man’s voice because she did not have her Adam’s apple removed or voice box altered, and she makes no effort to conceal her bass tone. “I didn’t know that type of operation existed, but I am going to do that soon.”

Despite all the success and adulation Parinya’s heart is broken. Her boyfriend abandoned her last year. “Nature makes man to be with a real woman, so it probably will never work out for a man to be with me. I cannot give a man everything like a woman can. For example, I can’t give him a child. I don’t really know what a man wants from a woman. And I don’t know if I’m really a woman now, because I don’t really know how a real woman feels. But whatever I can give a man, I will give.”

More Than a Woman (Absolute Thai. 2008)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

Sally Boales played by Liza Minelli may have assured you that, “Life is a cabaret old chum,” but on actual examination that would make life pretty surreal if you applied the principal to Thailand 77 years after Christopher Isherwood chronicled the antics of a bunch of bohemian neurotics trying to live it up in the shadow of the inexorable chaos of pre war Berlin. Well that is, unless your life is full of cross dressing  she-men camping it up outrageously, energetically miming to the music hall greats and cracking sly jokes where the innuendo is only barely veiled. Life may not actually be a cabaret, if you wish to keep your feet on the ground, but at the Tangmo Cabaret on Patong Beach all who enjoy a joke, a song and a shuffle are more than welcome.

The lady-boy cabaret has become a feature of the mainstream tourist entertainment industry across Thailand. Samui has a number of choices for mildly burly feminine entertainment and in Bangkok Katoey burlesque is not only a feature of the cabaret itself but part of the Thai music hall shows at the Coliseum and Tawa Deng where audiences manage to laugh, eat, drink and dance almost simultaneously whilst still remaining at their tables throughout the performance.  Tiffany’s in Pattaya  is famous all over Thailand featuring the Miss Tiffany Beauty Content shown live on national TV every year. Here in Phuket there is the well known Simon Cabaret plus some smaller operations such as the Tangmo. Tangmo herself is a Kateoy, but she is also a very successful business person and entrepreneur.

The fact that is initially striking is that for pretty much all the performers this is the only job they have ever done. Any idea of the dancers hopping from job to job in a barely lit demi-monde of half realised ambition is banished by the fact that they are more faithful to the company than well paid suburban civil servants in any ministry you care to choose. Admittedly most suburban civil servants rarely prepare for work by preening themselves and their colleagues in front of a mirror whilst displaying their surgically enhanced features under the harsh glow of fluorescent strip lighting, but the fact is that this is a job with a secure future. Tangmo explains, “The cabaret is all about fun and the quality of the performance. The performers are like my own daughters.” Emba from Nakhon Si Tammarrat has been working at the Tangmo for 13 years, her whole adult life. Sitting demurely in a small black cocktail dress she explains, “Here I can be what I am and be applauded for it. I have everything I want; a good salary, a caring boss and a nice boyfriend who is only twenty. I don’t want to work anywhere else.”

As first time visitors quickly notice one attractive aspect of Thai culture is the positive air of tolerance that pervades it. Derived, maybe, from a Buddhist ethos of ‘live and let live’ seasoned with a general trend towards ‘sanuk’, or fun, Thais do not really incorporate judgment into their opinions of those who mean them no harm. Thus the transvestite or ‘Katoey’ is accepted into Thai society as naturally as anyone else who has a valid reason to be.  At the Tangmo Cabaret the performers represent as much of a cross section of origin, ambition, aspiration and folly as in any other work place. Emba plans to stay as long as she can, but twenty one year old Jenny is saving to go to University and study business administration and fashion whilst twenty seven year old Cindy is planning to finance the opening of a mini-mart in her native Songhla. Whatever their plans for the future in the present as Showtime approaches it is the show and the show alone that demands the concentration of everyone involved.

In the early evening, every evening, the stars of the show, Emba, Jenny, Cindy, Takky, Pan and Lada climb the rickety stairs to a pokey, humid series of dressing rooms on the third floor above the small Tangmo theatre. Here they begin the elaborate ritual of make up and preparation for the coming performance. It is a performance in itself as each layer of makeup or costume is carefully and artfully applied or arranged. All the while there is a quiet banter murmuring around the room gpassing from one performer to another, gentle gibes and constructive suggestions as they help strap each other in to impossible corsets or apply hairspray to ornate coiffures.

After the preparation comes the parade. For half an hour before Showtime Emba, Jenny and the whole cast patrol the street outside the theatre letting the whole world know what is about to take place inside. Tourists stop to have their photos taken surrounded by Kateoys in sequins and feathers. The performers are proud of their appearances. The work that goes into looking glamorous pays off in the satisfaction of the staring crowds and popping flashbulbs. As the street parade comes to an end it is time for the show.

Tangmo explains that the routines are borrowed from many different cabaret shows from around the world. As the light goes up a diva, impossibly tall in stacked heels, and sprouting ostrich feathers mimes, dances and shimmies to 70s classics as troops of lanky young man boogie behind her. She is followed by a heavily painted clown shifting from happy to sad exaggerated burlesque morphing into a slapstick wobble and exiting stage left. She is followed by the French mime classic routine of a costumed half man half woman camping up the pain of unrequited love. There is 80s techno pop, 60s kitsch, 70s glitter all topped by a couple of Sinatra like show tunes performed in the rounded arc of the spotlight. The miming is perfect. The ladies take pride in their mimicry.

As the lights go up the music is over and it is now time for the comedy. Tangmo takes the microphone and starts to gently goad the audience with chuckling innuendo, teasing both guests and performers with a bawdy humour that offends no one. As the performers line up for a musical farewell, bows are taken and bouquets are thrown. As the audience head back into the neon bustle of Patong by night the dancers and singers climb back up the rickety stairs to remove their finery, peel off the lycra and wipe away the makeup.

Range Rover (New Arrivals. 2005)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

In the rough world of the mythical wild west cowboys were rarely known to have engaged in philosophical ponderings on the relativity of time in relation to the essentials of existence and the fourth dimension.

But here on the Chokchai ranch in Thailand’s Nakhon Ratchasima province there is one revivalist cowboy who is not only confusing tradition but also forging ahead with a vision driven by his passionate desire to bring balance to a society that may be fast losing its way.

Choak Bulakul has staked his future and the future of his company on agricultural tourism. Chokchai farm is an educational playground where children come to learn about the environment and sustainable dairy farming. It attracts about 240,000 visitors a year with a particular focus on the serious business of giving children a chance to gain real hands on experience of rural farm life. The focus is also on fun with horse riding, wild west shows, off road adventures in four wheel drives and lots of whooping. But alongside the wild west excitement children can learn how to milk a cow, feed baby deer with their own hands or even make their own ice cream.

The farm itself was started by Choak’s father, Choakchai Bulakul, and came about simply because he loved the wild west and wanted to be a cowboy. “My Father was not really that interested in being a big business person. He just genuinely wanted to be a cowboy. And that’s it.”

As Choak’s father realised, to be a genuine cowboy you need genuine cows. In 1957 he bought 20,000 rai (2,598 hectares) of land in the Pakchong district of Nakhon Ratchasima with only 30,000 baht in the pocket of his levi’s. By the mid ‘90s the Chokchai brand was one of the most important dairy operations in South East Asia with over 5000 head of cattle, thousands of acres of farm land and one of Bangkok’s most fashionable steak houses. It was also the biggest producer and distributor of pasteurised milk in the kingdom.

But although the company was huge, by 1996 all was not well. Chokchai Farm Group was saddled with Bt300 to Bt 400 million of consolidated debt. As the 1997 financial catastrophe approached, it was clear that changes needed to be made.

It was at this point that the young Choak returned from his studies in America and decided to try something new to save the family business. Something that would turn conventional business wisdom on its head. Something that would be profitable and progressive but would also be creative. “If you are a business man and you are only after profit without thinking of the moral issue then I don’t think it is good enough. For me it has always been important to deliver something back to the community as well as create a profitable business.”

For Choak Bulakul the marriage of a creative vision and sound business acumen has granted a rebirth to the Farm Chokchai Group. “When we were facing bankruptcy I knew I had to think creatively to survive. To think simply in the normal business way was not enough. So in a way that is where my artistic side helped me come up with a solution.”

Choak’s plan was simple. To eliminate the debt by selling off the dairy processing side of the business and then use the newfound economic freedom to create something new on the land itself that would revive the fortunes of the Chokchai farm group and fulfil his personal desire to do something different.

There was at first a lot of family resistance to Choak’s ideas since they were the first ones to introduce pasteurised milk to the Thai market but it turned out to be a company saving decision.

Not only that. For Choak the project is helping to provide some balance for children whose lives may be dominated by ragnorok in cyber café’s or reality TV shows that, for some, may just be in danger of replacing reality. “Stuck in the cyber world, your emotion may just disapear. To appreciate nature brings a balance and harmony. On the reality TV show they play with emotion. Why? Reality itself is far more interesting. I don’t see anything wrong with the technology of the modern world, but without balance our emotions can disappear.”

Being a man of action Chokchai doesn’t spend a great deal of time reading. But when he does it is again the desire to understand the depths of all that is real that draws him. “I love books that explain to me how things work. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking is a book that I go back to again and again. I read it both in Thai and in English. Understanding time is part of understanding nature and how things in nature constantly change and evolve. I would love to see a real dinosaur for instance. If only we really could travel in time!”

Choak may be pre occupied with the relationship between time and nature, but he is also under no philosophical illusions as to the very down-to-earth realities of global competition in the dairy business. “Thailand is an agricultural country. Our wellbeing depends on our farmers, yet we are importing things more cheaply from China than the products our own farmers produce here in Thailand. The re–combined powdered milk from Australia that is produced with Australian government subsidies is cheaper than the fresh milk we produce ourselves. It’s the bad side of globalisation.”

These issues concern Choak as a businessman but will be of less concern to the children watching the wild west show or spending time with the animals in the petting zoo. For them it’s a chance to see that milk doesn’t start simply from the fridge of the 7/11 or that real creatures are as interesting as cyber monsters. There is real fascination as they take the Chokchai tour. And the word is spreading.

And what gives Choak real satisfaction? “I was buying gas for my car in Bangkok and I paid with a Chokchai Farm Group card. The gas attendant’s face lit up. A friend of her son’s at school had been on a visit and was telling all the other kids about what a great time he had. Now all the kids want to go. I didn’t tell her that I was the CEO. I just gave her directions. Take a bus to Saraburi and then change onto another bus that will take you straight there. For me its all about creating enthusiasm.”

Big Up for the Hindu Massive (Maxim. 2001)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How do you lose 252 children? In 1989 at the Kumbh Mela Festival in
Allahabad, India 252 children became separated from their families
and were never seen again. There were millions of people gathered by
the banks of the River Ganges. They were all there for just one
thing. To bathe in the holy river at the most auspicious spot at the
most auspicious moment in time. For Hindus this act of devotion is
believed to bring unimaginable blessings and good fortune. A way to
cleanse the soul of sin and leave the water with greatly increased
chances in the cycle of rebirth. It didn’t work for the 252 families
who lost their children. Most likely they were kidnapped whilst
wandering amongst the crowd and shanghaied to urban sweatshops and
brothels in Delhi or Calcutta. No one knows for sure. Nor did it work
in the Kumbh Mela at Hardwar in 1986. 50 people were crushed to
death. Trampled in a stampede to the banks of the river. Nor in 1954
in Allahabad when 800 died in a mad rush for good karma that ended up
in frenzy of death. If there were thirty million people at the last
Allahabad Kumbh Mela 12 years ago, now in 2001, 70 million are
expected to try and get wet at the holy spot. 30 million of those
people will all be there on the most auspicious day. 30 million
people all driven to cleanse their souls in the muddy waters where
the River Ganges meets the River Yamuna and the mythically invisible
River Saraswati. All at the same time. That’s the equivalent of half
of the population of Britain descending on a place the size of
Ipswich for a wash and a scrub and a chat with the vicar. We at Maxim
couldn’t get our heads round that. We decided to come to India and
take a look for ourselves.

For someone whose previous experience of big crowds involved watching
Charlton Athletic on grey South London afternoons, I am way out of my
depth. I am shuffling forward in a murky darkness exacerbated by a
mist so heavy that visibility is down to only three feet in front of
may face. If you think it is hot in India in January you are wrong.
It is freezing and because the natural history unit of the BBC have
booked up all the press tents I have had to spend 3 hours of fitful,
chilly dozing in the open air opening my eyes only to find myself
eyeballing rats or the occasional leprous beggar.

As the freezing fog lifts and dawn breaks the scene that is
revealed is awesome. I have been transported into the dusty
encampment of some medieval, mythical army and I am standing in what
feels like the largest post office queue on earth. I know all about
waiting in queues. I am British. But even for a
seasoned queuer from a nation that has elevated queuing to a national
symbol and looks down on other European nations as barging and
queueless, this particular queue is beyond anything I have ever queued in,
without exception, throughout my entire life.
Millions of people stretching as far as the eye can see marshaled into roped off
channels that wind back and forth and back and forth and back and
forth and back…….. Disappearing into a dusty haze on the distant
horizon. This crowd are queuing up for something worth having.
A leg up to the almighty. A watery word in the ear of the great God Shiva
himself. They have come from all over India to camp out on the Ganges
plain in a tented city the size of New York. 40,000 of them are holy
ascetics. Naked warrior monks smeared with ash, their hair matted
into waist length dreadlocks brandishing tridents and swords. They
have descended from their mountain and jungle hideaways to lead the
advance to the river and claim their ancient perogative of first
lucky dip.

I am about to witness a ritual that according to Hindu myth goes back
to the dawn of creation. The word Kumbh means pitcher (that’s a thing
you put liquids in; not a bowler in American cricket). At the start
of time the gods and the demons churned the primeval ocean in search
of a pitcher containing the nectar of eternal life. As soon as the
pitcher was found an almighty barney ensued. The great God Vishnu
grabbed the pitcher and bolted for the exit. During the punch up a
few drops of the nectar of immortal life fell to earth at the four
cities where they now hold Kumbh Mela. The exact timing of the
festival depends on the position of the planets. Every twelve years
when Jupiter is in Taurus and the Sun is in Capricorn the Kumbh comes
to Allahabad. This Kumbh is the most auspicious one for 144 years
because the planets are in a spectacularly good alignment. A dip just
now is the best chance any Hindu will have to book a first class
ticket to Nirvana for the next 200 years. That’s what one of the
ladies in the queue told me but she was having to shout to make
herself heard above the deafening sound of policemen blowing
whistles. She didn’t tell me who actually won the fight and got to
keep the pitcher.

Just like one of those sad cases you see interviewed on local TV who
camps out all night to be first into the January sales, Maxim is
determined to be as near the head of the queue as we can be. It is
not long before I am getting close to the banks. By now the crush has
begun to get frightening. Children are screaming and clawing at their
mother’s arms to be lifted above the throng. Policemen are blowing
whistles every other second. Usually right in my ear. Strangely, even
though it looks like people are in real danger of getting crushed,
many of them have expressions of complete resignation on their faces.
I get the impression that in India getting nearly crushed to
asphyxiation in huge dusty crowds is a fairly common experience. This
giant rush hour gridlock is simply an exaggerated echo of daily life.
The holy men have already taken their ritual bath, charging down the
sandy banks screaming the name of Shiva. They line the river doing
yogic exercises, engaging in mock swordplay and brandishing their
tridents at tourists or cameramen who come too close. Some are
simply bouncing up and down on one leg. Now it is the turn of the
pilgrims and the holy Ganges and Yamuna are now joined by another
river. An endless river of people. As I get to the water’s edge I am
pushed and shoved from all directions. The little old ladies seem to
be the fiercest and eventually it is one of these single-minded
geriatrics who forces me to go arse over elbow and take the holy
bath I had only meant to observe. Frozen and drenched, waste deep in
the freezing waters, I watch mothers totally emerse their children in
the holy river. Ancient, emaciated old men weep with joy as they
shiver in the shallows making the holy prayer that they hope will
wipe clean the sins of a lifetime. Whole families are holding hands
and splashing about as if they were in the shallow end at the
local swimming pool. I know there is no understanding this if you are
not a Hindu. For me it’s a cold muddy paddle I have reached at the
end of a stressful morning. For them it is something they will spend
their life savings on achieving. Something that goes right to the
core of their existance. My musings are interrupted by yet more
whistling, shouting policemen. This lot mean business. Because Channel
4 have upset everyone in India and all the Hindus in the world with
their docu-soap on the festival, all filming of the bathing has been
banned. The police think I am taking covert pictures rather than
simply trying to avoid being crushed, drowned or mugged by willful
old ladies. One of them chooses to make his point with a big stick,
so shivering and shouting with a gut full of holy (and no doubt deeply
infected) water, I am dragged off to the nearby police station where I
have to spend an hour being lectured by a man in uniform with a ‘tache
resembling half a packet of weetabix. India is a land of, “law and
order” and, “these are rulings that may not be trifled with.” That’s
the power of tabloid television. Thanks Channel 4.

On my way out I see a huge pile of shoes. Thousands of people lose
their shoes as they go to the river to bathe. The lost and discarded
shoes are collected and now there are pilgrims trying to match up
pairs. It could take them years. The pile is already virtually the
size of a public library. Staring at the multitude, my mind addled by
the noise, the crowds and those bloody whistles deep and fundamental
questions start to stir in my blancmange like consciousness. Where on
earth do all these people take a dump? How do they all get fed? What
happens if they get ill? Answers to these imponderables were
furnished by a Mr Kumar. An elegant gent from the Ministry of
something or other in Delhi. The Indian government has employed 8000
elite and highly trained turd pickers to prevent the whole place
becoming submerged in a sea of shit Mr Kumar tells me. There are 6000
newly constructed public toilets. There are 35 temporary police
stations where they will lock you up if you are caught with alcohol
or a cheeseburger and 12 hospitals where you can be treated if one of
the holy men decides to stab you with his trident. Food is brought in
a constant stream in trucks and on people’s heads. It is doled out to
the mass of pilgrims in yet more queues by the side of the road or
within the precincts of temporary temples by near naked chefs. Rice
and dahl. Dahl and rice. India is a country where chaos works, but
this particular episode of chaos is planned with precision. It has to
be. Without it this place could become a scene of plague, starvation,
thirst and mayhem in a sea of feces.

As I walk away from this seething mass of humanity I am still left
with a corner of my soul that remains strangely unenlightened. At
first I can’t put my finger on it. This has been the most inspiring
event of my life. Then the realisation dawns that in amongst
all these millions of people drawn to this one place in this
astounding congregation of worshippers the one thing that would have
made it all make sense to me was missing. The aspiration that
separates me from every other individual amongst these 70 million
pilgrims and visitors seeking enlightenment and a cleansing of the
soul in vast and complex rituals more ancient than the bible. I
looked and I looked but I couldn’t find it……. There is no beer tent.
Awed and impressed as I am by this epic gathering of massed humanity
all moving in a single spiritual direction, I realise that it’s time
to head out in search of my own spiritual anchors. A cleansing lager,
a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and evenings voiding my mind with
re runs of Fawlty Towers and the latest Kylie video on MTV.

Phnomenal (Bizarre Magazine. 1999)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

Phnom Penh is a city that has seen more suffering than most. For thirty years, Cambodia has endured uncompromising Cold War politics, incessant fighting, mass ariel bombing and crimes against humanity. Until recently, it was a bad idea to go there without a good reason. That has all changed now. Cambodia has a relatively stable government. The war with the Khmer Rouge is over and the streets of Phnom Penh are no longer as dangerous as they were.

Not so long ago, visitors risked being robbed, kidnapped or shot. Now my biggest worry, as I perch on the pillion seat of a Honda motorcycle taxi, is that I may not survive the traffic. To call it anarchic would be an understatement. Everything goes in all directions in an ebb- and- flow that’s determined only by weight of numbers. It’s terrifying.

8.00 AM
Capitol Guest House.
14 Street 182

After dumping my stuff, I go to the Capitol Guest House. It’s located in a grotty part of town where you’re deafened by traffic, freaked by glue-sniffing kids and choked by dust. But it’s the best place for the newly arrived to get information.

I am so glad to be out of the traffic that I must look stupidly glazed. The bloke at the next table leans over to check that I am alright. It turns out that he is the editor of a local magazine called Bayon Pearnik (www.Bayon-pearnik.com) which chronicles Phnom Penh’s bizarre happenings. “It’s the bloody country that’s warped, ” says Adam. “You are right to be scared of the traffic. A few years ago the government brought in a law requiring pillion-passengers to ride side-saddle. They did it because they wanted to cut down the number of grenade attacks from moving vehicles.”

When I tell Adam I am on assignment for Bizarre he says, “bizarre? I’ll show you bizarre.” And he does – starting with his idea for a morning excursion.

9.30 AM
Kambol

Half an hour later, I’m six miles out of town, blasting a machine gun at tin cans and feeling tough. How could I not? I have an M16 in one hand and an AK47 in the other. Kambol is a rough-and-ready shooting range run by the Cambodian army. They will share it with you for a price. “Let’s get some grenades,” says Adam. “They’ll sell you a cow for seventy bucks. Then you can fire grenades at it with a B40.” Apparently the guys running the range tamper with the sights so that you miss and they get to keep the cow and the money. One Australian ex-army guy was so incensed that he walked his cow back to Phnom Penh and gave it to the poor. I decline the offer of cow- murdering and stick with the tin cans.

11.00 AM
Tuol Sleng (S21) and the Killing Fields
Streets 113 and 350

To understand the less-than-logical nature of life in Phnom Penh, it’s important to understand its history and how it was totally trashed 25 years ago. Between 1975 and 1979, Cambodia was run by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge – demented Maoists who reduced the whole country to a starving, terrorised work camp. Anyone who had the slightest contact with the previous regime was murdered. Citizens were tortured and killed fore engaging in such ‘subversive’ activities as wearing glasses or speaking in foreign languages. Up to 3,000,000 died. No one knows the exact number.

The school at Tuol Sleng was converted into the regional torture centre where Khmer Rouge torturers extracted ‘confessions’ from people who generally had no idea why they had been arrested in the first place. In the strangely bureaucratic style of 20th-century butchers, the Khmer Rouge photographed their prisoners before torturing them and killing them. The walls of Tuol Sleng are lined with thousands of faces, all staring death in the eye. It’s eerie. The place is not fun, but I had to come here: anyone who comes to this country needs to know what happened here.

Adam says we should go to the ‘Killing Fields’ south of the city centre where thousands of people were bludgeoned to death with shovels and hammers. A monument to the victims has been made from human skulls. I should go. I know should go. But I can’t. Not after visiting S21. There is only so much evidence of insane, ruthless brutality that any human being can absorb in the space of 24-hours.

13.00 PM
Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Cambodia (FCCC)
Sisowath Quay

After the disturbing history tour, I have to chill out. When you need to relax, there is no better place than the FCCC. Although it’s not a real press-club, it is a restaurant-cum-bar situated in one of the nicest, old colonial buildings in town. It’s also right by the river with great views and a nice breeze. It’s a great place to drink yourself into oblivion in comfort if you have lots of cash.

14.00 PM
National Museum
Streets 113 and 350

Although it is recent, brutal history that defines the state of modern Cambodia, it’s the era of Angkor, from the 8th to the 15th centuries, that provides evidence of the country’s past glories. The Khmer empire was based near the north-western town of Siem Reap. It extended into Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. In the 15th century, the Khmers lost control of Angkor to the Thais. You can taste the richness of the Angkorian empire here. It’s full of ancient carvings, statues and artifacts.

16.00 PM
Russian Market
Streets 115 and 144

Adam takes me to the Russian Market where you can get pirate CDs, software, videos and imitation antiques. Until recently you could also get marijuana by the bale. A couple of kilos of illegal baccy might have set you back about $2.00. But because the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has has pressured the Cambodian authorities it’s now more difficult to obtain. Prices have skyrocketed and it is now a lucrative cash crop. In the past the Khmers used to feed these pointless weeds to their cattle.

It was another triumph of US foreign policy. Not content with carrying out ‘secret’ bombing raids during the Vietnam War, sponsoring a coup that led, indirectly, to the brutal fanaticism of the Khmer Rouge and imposing sanctions on the Vietnamese who were the ones who liberated Cambodia from appalling tyranny, the United States has now accelerated Cambodia’s slide into being a criminal, narco-state.

A stallholder invites me to sample a plate of bugs. I consider the choice: caramelised beetles or toasted grasshoppers….. I go for grasshoppers.

18.00 PM
Happy Herb’s and the Pink Elephant
Siseowath Quay

In the days before US intervention Happy Herb’s was said to serve pizzas with ‘happy’ toppings. They don’t anymore. Next door is the Pink Elephant, a British themed hang-out favoured by thirsty journalists.

20.00 PM
Moninvong Boulevard

As the only Cambodian food I have sampled is toasted grasshopper, I suggest we eat. There are any number of Khmer restaurants on Moninvong Boulevard, the central thoroughfare. Adam suggests a soup made from all kinds of offal – ‘meat’ that in England would end up only in sausage rolls and meat pies. Close your eyes and swallow.

23.00 PM
The Heart of Darkness
26 Street 51

The Heart of Darkness is, indeed, a small, dark, crowded place populated by a mixture of people that would be best described as ‘varied’. According to Adam it is the best drinking hole in town. Some guy called Jerome starts banging on about, “gay Khmer Rouge bikers.” He beats me at pool and then someone else starts firing a pistol at the ceiling. The pistol is real as are the ricocheting bullets. I hit the deck, as does everyone else. Maybe even the gay Khmer Rouge bikers, where ever they might be. The man with the gun walks out glowering. Once he is gone the place empties. The Heart of Darkness is best avoided unless you like that kind of thing. Apparently this is normal in the Heart of Darkness. A nasty venue.

0.00 AM
Manhattans
Street 84

This is one of the most popular nightclubs in Phnom Penh. It’s fantastic if you like taking ecstasy and dancing manically with unsmiling prostitutes in a threatening atmosphere.

1.00 AM
Martini’s

Legendary if definately bizarre. This place has been around since the influx of UN supervisors in the early ’90s. Basically, it’s a giant village disco full of heavily made-up Cambodian peasant-girl prostitutes and legions of large foreign men, all watching a huge cinema screen and eating soup. I need a cup of tea.

4.00 AM
Walkabout
Corner streets 174 and 51

It’s the only 24-hour bar in town. It comes into its own in the early hours. After a couple of hours of fractured conversation with a Scandinavian whose working day is spent digging explosives out of the ground I realise it’s nearly time for breakfast. Fortunately the Walkabout serves the finest breakfast in all of Phnom Penh. After feasting on eggs, bacon, fried potatoes and fried bread washed down with good tea garnished with real milk we wobble into the dawn light.

7.00 AM
Ecole des Beaux Arts
Street 70 and Moninvong Blvd

At first I thought he was cracked, recommending that we attend a rehearsal of the Royal Khmer Ballet at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. But he was serious. The dancers start early to avoid the heat. If you don’t cause a nuisance, you can watch. Khmer ballet is the purest form of South East Asian dance and probably the most graceful thing I have ever seen.

8.00 AM
Royal Guest House
19 Street 154

Back to my hotel, I drift into a confused sleep lulled by the maudlin strains of karaoke drifting from across the street.

Voodoo’s Children (Bizarre Magazine. 2002)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

November 24th, 2001 was a violent day in the city of Cotonou in the small West African country of Benin. Two terrified Nigerian men running for their lives were chased through the streets by a mob of hundreds bent on vengeance. For the people of Cotonou the Nigerians were sorcerers who with a touch of the hand and a murmured spell could make a man’s genitals disappear or cause a woman to be infertile. When the men were finally bought down the anger of the people was gruesome and terrifying. First they were beaten with stones and then, bloodied but still alive and conscious, they were set ablaze with a necklace of burning tires. Their screams met only with curses and laughter. For the mob this was justice against those who abused the powers of voodoo.

I am on my way from Continou to the voodoo centre of Ouidah. I want to find out what it is that would make men wreak such terrible atrocities on their fellow man. Sitting between four large women and a goat in a battered old Peugeot 504 I am disturbed by the fact that the car is going at about 120 miles an hour and my nervousness is not helped by the fact that there are wrecked and crashed cars piled by the side of the road at alarmingly frequent intervals. It’s not only the goat that is bleating. The other passengers seem oblivious. Maybe they feel immune in ways that I don’t understand to the consequences of driving without due care and attention. Here in Benin voodoo is not a suspect cult of curses and zombies. Here voodoo is the national religion and the battle between good and evil is a constant struggle of the spirits. Fetishists and witchdoctors can save you from the curses of evil juju men or alternatively they have the power to do you great harm. Ouidah is at the heart of all voodoo. At the heart of Ouidah is the ‘Grand Daagbaa Hounoun’ – the chief voodoo priest in all Africa. His powers outmatch all others and his protection is sought by those suffering the curses of sorcerers and evil juju.

Entering the dusty streets of Ouidah we make our way up an unpaved track finally pulling up at the gates of a compound with dirty, white walls and flaking paint. This is the Vatican of voodoo and the place where the Grand Dagbaa Hounoun holds court. We are ushered into the courtyard by an unsmiling thug in a dirty vest who turns out to be one of the family. Inside the gate surrounded by some of his wives and a few of his children he sits. My companions from the peugeot throw themselves to the ground at his feet. I hang back. After blessings and prayers for the faithful he calls me forward. I hand him a bottle of gin – the necessary ‘gift’ from inquisitive foreigners who disturb his afternoon.

Ushered into a darkened room decorated with murals of his predecessors I am seated on an uncomfortable wooden stool. The Grand Hounoun sits, rather more comfortably, in a dirty white, plastic garden chair. In the corners of the room on the chipped earthen floor are little piles of, what look like, scrap metal and badly made wooden sculptures. They resemble the first efforts of an infant school art class. The impression is deceptive. These are powerful fetishes in which reside spirits to be feared, pandered to and placated.

One of the old man’s children, a solemn teenager, whispers to me in French to talk only through him and to be quick. “My father is weak. He is made weak by the curses of his rivals,” he says. “Tell me about the real voodoo,” I ask him. The Grand Hounoun whispers his answers into the ear of his son who tells me, “Voodoo is an old practice and it exists for good-doing, for the good of our society. It is a religion of life. Voodoo is not the evil some think it is. There are many bad things said by those who do not understand the spirits and the Gods.” The son adds, “My father makes good voodoo. He makes voodoo of the right hand. He protects people from those who do voodoo of the left hand. There are Juju men who try to hurt him with voodoo of the left hand.”

I ask him about the murders of the Nigerians a month before in Cotonou. The Grand Hounoun is looking at me with an ever more hostile gaze. It is unnerving. Again his son translates his words. “All people are afraid of the evil spirits. Those men were sorcerers of the left hand. You should be afraid too. For 100,000 francs my father says he can protect you with prayer.”

I don’t have the equivalent of a hundred pounds on me. I smile and ask if he can say a prayer any way. Neither the Grand Hounoun, nor his son smiles back. I am beginning to feel unwelcome and ill at ease. He brings the price down to fifty pounds, but I am beginning to think this smells like a protection racket. I think back to the car wrecks I ask him if he can protect me against the traffic. “For ten pounds my father will protect you against the traffic. For ten pounds more he will protect you against smallpox.” Since small pox was eradicated in 1981. I think the pope of all voodoo is pushing the envelope on this one. I give the 10,000 African francs to the son on the off chance that further road journeys may be a little less terrifying. As I leave this bargain basement of blessings and curses the son calls after me,. “you will be at the beach tomorrow? It is our national voodoo day and my Father will make sacrifices for the good of the people.”

I will be there I tell him, but in truth I don’t know if I will feel truly welcome.

Early next morning the sound of drums and the shrieks of the hysterical grow ever louder as I approach the beach. A crowd of thousands has gathered to celebrate voodoo. Ranks of women dressed in white take it in turns to dance ever more frenetically as the drummers push the rhythms to greater heights. As the ceremonies reach their pinnacle the procession of the Grand Hounoun comes into view. It is a strange combination of Lawrence of Arabia and a school day trip. A tatty looking minivan is flanked by wild horsemen from the northern desert wastes of the Sahel. The Grand Hounoun is helped out of the van. He is in his finest ceremonial clothes. The sequined top hat sits on a head swathed in a lurid black and white spotted scarf. He looks as if he has borrowed his outfit from a 1970s suburban housewife. His huge hooped earrings are offset by the virulent lime green of his gown. At his side is the equally psychedelically attired King of Allada. It’s difficult to see the King’s face because his crown is decorated with a curtain of beads obscuring the whole of his head. As the pair make their way through the crowd the bodyguard horsemen ride down those who get too close. The hooves of their horses only narrowly miss skulls and limbs.

The Grand Hounoun takes his throne and the King of Allada starts to speak in praise of the Grand Hounoun and shouts to the crowd, “Voodoo is life! Long live his excellency the Grand Hounoun! Voodoo is life!” The crowd erupts into a frenzy. The man standing next to me shouts in my ear, “Last year his excellency The grand Hounoun cooked a goat in sea water. He took the uncooked flesh into the sea and when he came back the flesh was cooked!” This year the old man looks too weak to boil an egg let alone poach a goat in brine.

The crowd falls to an expectant hush as this year’s ill-fated goat is led to a stone altar in front of the throne. As the goat is lifted onto the dais the people push forward in a crowd that threatens to crush those at the front. The Grand Hounoun is helped to the altar and with an effortless strength that seems strange in someone so sick he lifts the goat to the height of his own face. Looking directly into the eyes of the animal he murmurs messages to be passed on to the spirits in the parallel world of the dead. They are pleas for the protection of the living. The goat is then laid on the stone, its throat pressed against the altar. The knife is stabbed into it’s jugular and the blood starts to pour. The Grand Hounoun looks ready to collapse and he is carried back to his throne while the King of Allada flings out lemons to the crowd from a sack. This puzzles me. I ask the man beside me what is the significance of the lemons. He looks at me as if I am an idiot. “We like them. They are very refreshing.”

I leave the crowds to the dancing and their gin and their lemons. I make my way back up the Route d’Esclaves – the ‘Road of Slaves’. The sound of the drums growing ever more distant mingles with the sound of the surf from the Atlantic breakers. Now this road is just a dusty track but for four hundred years it was the road that lead to a holocaust. I am able to gently walk the one-mile return journey back to Ouidah. For millions of men, women and children this road was a one-way journey. A journey that led to slavery or death in shackles and chains. The men beaten the women often raped, twenty million souls from this part of West Africa were packed into slave ships and transported to the Americas in conditions of inhuman brutality. They were sold by their fellow Africans for profit.

Of the twenty million loaded on to the ships of the European traders who took full advantage of the brutality of the warlords, it is estimated that only half survived the dreaded middle passage. Others died in conditions of overcrowding, disease and brutality that are almost too horrific to contemplate. Those that did survive the horrors of the journey were sold into generations of further misery as slaves in the plantations of the new world. One of the things they took with them from this was voodoo. The road is lined with fetishes to remember those who were taken from their homes forever.

King Gezo – one of the most brutal Kings of the empire of Dahomey said of the trade, “The slave trade is the ruling principle of my people. It is the source and the glory of their wealth, the mother lulls the child to sleep with notes of triumph over an enemy reduced to slavery.”

The Kingdom of Dahomey was not an empire built on sympathy.

Abomey was the seat of the empire of Dahomey and it remains a place where voodoo is pure and unsullied. I reach it in three hours. The roads seem clearer. The driver seems calmer. Perhaps a tenner well spent.

There is not much left of past glories. Some decaying remains of the royal palace, King Gezo’s throne mounted on human skulls. Apart from that it’s just a dusty, small, West African town. As dusk falls I walk through town on my way back to my hotel disappointed that there is so little here of interest.

Then I hear the sound of drums. As darkness falls the number of people drifting in one direction seems to grow. I follow the crowd to a clearing just out of town. People look round. I am greeted with, “Bonsoir Yove!” meaning, “hallo white man!” and led to a place at the front of the crowd. It turns out not to be a good position. Into the clearing rush four figures completely shrouded from head to toe and wielding swords. They are fighting a battle of spirits. It is hard to tell who is good and who is evil. They are all equally terrifying. They swing their swords against each other with all their strength and it seems a miracle that no one is hurt considering the fact that the ‘spirits’ have their eyes covered. I make the mistake of taking a photo and as the flashgun fires one of the spirits tares across the clearing coming straight for me with his sword, like a bullfighter on LSD. He jabs it repeatedly at my face. The point comes within inches of my eyes and nose. Children are screaming and scattering. The spirits earthly minders – thankfully men with big sticks – beat at his ankles and feet in an effort to get him to withdraw. An old woman shouts, “Give him money! Give him money!”

I throw all the money I have in my pocket at the feet of the masked figure, put my camera away and move to the back of the crowd. The spirit retreats. I have been taught a lesson in voodoo etiquette.

After the spirit dancers come the hounas. These are the mediums between worlds. They are the priests and the witchdoctors. Again the drums build to a frenzy. The chief Hououn in virulent green with her face caked in white powder spins and turns sometimes seeming as if she will collide with the crowd. She wields the axe of ‘Shango’, the God of thunder and lightening. Her acolytes, one of whom has a hat that is a giant wooden phallus, dance around her and behind her. The priestess is now in a trance her body stiffening and her eyes rolling back in her head. Possessed and shaking she falls into the arms of others who hold her still while the spirits talk.

Now it seems as if the Hounas are dancing in competition, the men flinging themselves round the circle in half somersaults. A priest with his body painted in white spots and a vast sprouting headdress is leaping high into the air bounding from one side of the arena to the other.

As this intense orchestra of drums and ecstasy is played out before my eyes it occurs to me that Voodoo is a word that strikes fear and suspicion into the hearts of many westerners. But maybe we have been misinformed. The much-maligned voodoo of Hollywood films is about evil. Zombies and voodoo dolls work well in the plot of James Bond films. But voodoo is not about evil. Voodoo is about power. Like all power it can be frightening. As the drums come to a halt and the crowd starts to disperse I think of the western voodoo of water into wine, saints and miracles, internet and telephones. The words of the King of Allada come back to me. Voodoo is life.

Monk Soul Brothers (Jack Magazine. 2002)

© Dan White. No repro without Permission.

In the remote, lawless mountains of the Golden Triangle, the region that marks the junction of Thailand, Burma and Laos, violent gun-wielding drug barons have imposed a reign of terror on the lives of the hillside villagers. Until recently the opium traffickers’ authority went largely unchallenged, but now the drug dealers have a real enemy – and the addicts have an escape route.

The hill tribes’ salvation has come from within the heart of their own culture and its crusaders are Buddhist child-monks riding divine horses and kick-boxing their way out of trouble.

Their mentor is Abbot Khru Ba Mua Chai. Until 11 years ago he was an officer in the Thai military. While serving in the armed forces, Khru Ba says he dreamt of a special place somewhere in the mountains suffused for, “thousands of years,” with legends of horses. These animals were the re-incarnation of Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha.

Khru Ba meditated and fasted sitting on a rock in the mountains for two weeks. Bees nested on his body and eventually local villagers took him to the, “cave of the golden horse.” This revelatory experience drove the former soldier to become a monk. Leaving his wife and family, he founded the Golden Horse Forest Monastery, devoting himself to the care of local children and the poor.

After six years of pastoral work, during which he witnessed the steady descent of the mountain into violence, fear and drug addiction, Khru Ba decided to take a more pr-active approach and in 1998 began ordaining novices. He gave the little monks 100 sacred horses and led them on mounted patrols to the local villages where, as representatives of Buddha, they started to tackle the region’s drug problem head on.

Possies of ‘little Buddhas’ ride to the remote mountain villages of tribes such as the Lisu, Karen and Akha and perform traditional rites and ceremonies. They gather the local children and elder villagers, impressing upon them the tragic consequences of opiate addiction. The monks’ temple also shelters recovering addicts providing them with a regime that can seem harsh. One procedure even forces the patients to meditate while immersed in freezing water.

This grass roots campaign against the drug business draws the fury of the drug barons and their private armies. Although a man of peace, Abbot Khru Ba ensures his disciples are equipped with more than the ways of Buddha and the sacred horse by instructing them in the power of physical force. The martial art of muay thai has close ties to the mental disciplines of Buddhism. The abbot is a master of the 184 traditional muay thai techniques and part of the monastery’s daily training regimen is given over to passing on this knowledge to the novice monks.

The mental and physical skills required for kick-boxing have become increasingly useful to the monks as their campaign against drugs hots up and the retaliation of the drug lords against them becomes more fierce. The monastery has been raked by fire from automatic weapons in the past.

But slowly it looks like Khru Ba may be turning the tables on the illegal regime of oppression that has, for so long, been the norm in northern Thailand’s hill country. The mounted commandos of saffron-clad youth now co-operate with the Thai army to provide security and protection for the locals.

As Khru Ba’s message spreads across the hills, the former iron grip of the dealers slackens enabling the boy monks to ride their sacred horses further and further afield as they reclaim Thailand’s hill people and their historic culture from the stranglehold of a modern evil.

Sadhu Masochism (Bizarre Magazine. 2001)

© Dan White. No repro without permission.

One morning 21 years ago Thapan Puri arose from his bed in Bihar, India. He raised one foot in the air and from that day to this that foot has never touched the ground again. When he moves from place to place he uses a crutch. He never sits down. He never lies down. He remains standing on his one terrestrial leg leaning on a swing rigged up from a branch of a tree. When he wants to sleep he simply leans more heavily on the swing and lays his head on his forearms. Even on trains or buses he remains standing. On the day he raised his foot from the ground and vowed never to sit he also took a vow of silence and committed himself to never eating solid food again. Harsh as these self-imposed disciplines are, Thapan Puri is not a masochist nor is he insane. His decision to spend his whole life as a silent, hungry, one-legged man was one born of deep conviction that these acts would aid him in his meditations on the human condition. He is a Sadhu.

These naked, ash smeared, warrior priests have been wandering the length and breadth of India for at least five thousand years. Alexander the Great called them the ‘naked philosophers’. Empires have come and gone. India has evolved from a patchwork of warring principalities to a place where Internet, TV satellite dishes and mobile phones dominate the cityscape. But this has always been a country of many worlds. Whilst college kids are at the forefront of software technology in Bangalore and Bombay, in the villages life has remained unchanged for thousands of years. The rice is still threshed by the feet of slow moving oxon. Water is still drawn from a single communal well. Sari clad women still carry the village produce to market on their heads whilst cradling small children with their one free arm. A drive from one Indian city to another is a journey traversing a thousand years of change. Thapan Puri is part of the unchanged world. For a man who needs neither food nor clothes, progress is a word without meaning. The only progress he values is in the journey towards ‘moksha’ – a state of absolute bliss free from the fetters of bodily desire or earthly gain. Like all Sadhus, Thapan Puri has declared himself dead in his earthly life and been reborn to a spiritual quest that will free him from the cycle of rebirth and pain. He is looking for a shortcut to paradise. He abstains from sex. He has cut all ties with his family and his former life. He has no possessions; he wears little or no clothing and lives on a diet of mashed lentils and milk. He makes his way from village to village living on the charity of the devout who act as his spiritual cheerleaders.

Thapan Puri is not alone in taking the short, sharp shock approach to achieving enlightenment. Until the early seventies, Amar Bharti was a senior shipping clerk in New Delhi. He had the comfortable trappings of the relatively well off Indian middle class. Married, with three children already grown, Amar Bharti made a decision. He handed in his notice at the office. He tied up all the loose ends of his life. He paid off the higher purchase agreements on his furniture and gave his car to his eldest son. Then he left his house. He left his wife and his children forever. He walked away from everything he had spent his life building with nothing to his name but a bowl, two pieces of orange cloth and a metal trident. Amar Bharti had decided to devote the rest of his life to Shiva. In time his beard grew long and his hair became matted into thick dreadlocks. Despite the harshness of his existence Amar Bharti felt that his spiritual quest was still weighed down by earthly comforts and pleasure. Three years after leaving his whole life behind, Amar Bharti made a second decision. He decided to raise his arm vertically in the air as if he was a small child begging to answer a call of nature. Once his arm was raised it was never to come down again. That was in 1973. In the UK Slade were topping the charts with ‘Skweeze me Pleeze Me’. The Six Million Dollar Man was the king of TV. In the US America had not yet lost the Vietnam war. Twenty-seven years on Amar Bharti’s arm is still raised. It is now atrophied and the joints are locked. His nails grow in long curls seemingly in random directions, partially piercing his hand. Amar Bharti will never be able to lower his arm. Not even in death. Bizarre magazine had one burning question to put to this holiest of holy men. “Does it hurt?” An old friend of Bizarre, Amar Bharti shifts slightly on his cushion and adjusts his naked tackle with his free left hand. “It hurt for the first year and a half, but its fine now thanks,” he tells me through a translator. The only other question I can think of is “Why?” By this time Bharti’s eyes are becoming glazed. Maybe from smoking repeated chillums of potent ganja. Maybe because of our repeated questions. He looks at us as if we are pesky children begging for scraps. We wait for his answer, hoping that a man who has deliberately inflicted such suffering upon himself in the name of enlightenment might be able to put a little deep wisdom our way. The translator paraphrases. “Baba ji says he felt like it.”

Amar Bharti is one of the Naga sect of Sadhus. It is the fearsome Nagas who engage in the most extreme acts of self-mutilation. They are inventively brutal in the suppression of their own physical desires. Centuries ago many would hang heavy weights from the penis in order to conquer the libido. Now it is more likely to be a padlock or a piece of heavy jewelry. One or two, the lingasana babas, still lift rocks weighing very nearly as much as they do. Tapeshwar Saraswati gives Bizarre Magazine a demonstration. Semi squatting he loops a piece of cloth around his penis and loops the other end around a rock that I can hardly lift with my hands, let alone my tackle. Then, using his groin muscles and intense concentration he rises to his full height raising the rock from the ground, leaving it dangling for at least ten seconds. This agonising exercise tears apart the nerves of the penis, intentionally rendering Tapeshwar impotent and ruining any chances he may have of fulfilling any sexual urge. Other Nagas will wrap their penis round a stick and then invite their friends to stand on it, rising up like some band of demented S&M acrobats. The Nagas are also warlike in their attitude towards others. The elite of the elite, they pursue a warrior tradition that makes them fierce in defence of their religion and their comrade warrior monks. Devoted to Shiva, the God of destruction, they carry his symbol, a trident. When provoked they will do battle. In 1998 at the huge Hindu Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar two sects of Nagas fought it out over who would have the right to bathe first in the Ganges on the most auspicious day of the festival. Naked, ash smeared men on horse back hacked at each other with swords and stabbed at each other with tridents. 40 were seriously injured in the melee. The terrified police were helpless to act and when they tried the Nagas tossed them into the swift flowing Ganges. One policeman was drowned. Historically the Nagas have been enlisted to fight in battles against both Muslim and British invaders terrifying their enemies with acts of Kamikaze like bravery. The Naga sees himself as already being dead, therefore he has no fear of dying in battle. They organise themselves into regiments or ‘Akharas’. In an attempt to monitor the fiercely independent Nagas, the British issued them with Sadhu passports. Some Sadhus still carry these passports to this day although now they are little more than a licence to smoke unending amounts of ganja and ride the trains for free.

The Sadhu’s quest is a purely personal one. No one forces him to keep his arm in the air into eternity or hang huge weights from his dick, light a coal fire on his head, sleep on nails or bury himself in gravel. Once he has undertaken the task he can stop any time he likes. Many will once they have achieved their spiritual purpose or no longer feel the need to carry on with whatever task they have set themselves. Nor is there any vetting or admission process for a sadhu. Anyone can grow their hair into matted dreads, put on the orange robes and wander the villages of India. This means that for every truly holy man there will also be a charlatan and a con man. It is never easy to tell one from another. Ramesh Giri was a standing Baba for eight years. Then one day he sat down. “ I stood for many years, but I decided to stop when I knew that rocks can float.” At first we thought this was some kind of arcane spiritual metaphor, but Ramesh was to show us otherwise. Leading us down a small tented path, with twinkling eyes he takes us into a small compound in the centre of which is a small cauldron full of water. In the cauldron, bobbing about like an apple is what appears to be a large rock. I touch it. It is a rock. It is floating. “I carve the name of Lord Ram on the rock. Then the rock will float,” says Ramesh. I must be looking goggle eyed because Ramesh then breaks into peels of demented laughter. The laughter doesn’t stop. It follows me as I make my exit and tread wearily back to my motorbike. It feels like an escape from the brink of insanity.

Not all Sadhus follow the exhibitionist path of the Nagas. Other Sadhus see them as nothing more than the football hooligans of Hindu mythology. Stripped to the waist, fighting and showing off in a way that has more to do with worldly fame than spiritual progress. Ram Krishna Das is a follower of Vishnu. A gentle man dressed all in white he has neither eaten nor drunk anything but milk for 28 years. He is known as the ‘Milk Baba’. When Bizarre tracked him down to his tiny spartan cell in the hills of Nepal, he tells us simply, “milk is all I need.” Famous for his quiet wisdom and great learning the Milk Baba is often flown abroad at the expense of devotees besotted with his depth of understanding. He has tasted the milk of fifteen different countries. “Milk tastes the same everywhere,” he ponders “except Germany,” he adds “where it tastes like urine.” When I tell the Milk Baba about Ramesh Giri and his amazing floating rock he reacts with indifference. “Lord ram does not need to make rocks float. Lord Ram does not need to impress mortal man with silly tricks.”

Holiness may sometimes be macho. Sometimes it is plain crazy. If the Nagas seem extreme in their variations on human agony and dark magic, there is another sect that outshines even them in the realms of weird perversity. The Aghoris. They take Shiva in his incarnation as conqueror of death as their lead. Like a band of medieval, crack fuelled, anarchists they turn every taboo of Hinduism on its head and go out of their way to be shocking and obscene. They will eat the meat of the holy cow. They will get horrendously drunk on forbidden liquor. They abuse passers by with foul obscenities and go out of their way to terrify small children. It is reputed that their rituals can be truly terrible. They will revel in the putrid flesh of rotting corpses and feast on rotting dogshit. They have ritual sex with menstruating prostitutes on the cremation grounds of the holy River Ganges and meditate while sitting on the dismembered remains of the dead. They are truly scary and bad. When Bizarre approached an Aghori for an interview he simply spat at me and retorted that he would “rather wash his face in the pus of a syphilitic leper.” Aghoris, like Millwall supporters, do not welcome photo calls.

Sadhus, like India itself, present a contradictory face to the world. Some are pure and dedicated in their quest for an eternal truth. Others are little more than beggars, con men or thugs. But whether saints or charlatans they represent an ancient and parallel reality. Like human crocodiles, their existence has remained unchanged for millennia. While the rest of us chase our tales in a confusing welter of fast moving and barely understood technology, fragile economics and uncertain relationships, the Sadhu continues on a path that is the same now as it was in the time of the pharaohs. When we look at him we see a naked, filthy, long haired man perversely spurning five centuries of human progress. When he looks back at us all he sees are hordes of inquisitive, pointless children.

Islands In the Storm (Maxim Magazine. 2001)


© Dan White. No repro without permission.

Atambua, Indonesia. Carlos Caceres sent one final e-mail as the militias bore down on the small compound in which he was sheltering with his two colleagues.  “We sit here like bait. These guys act without thinking and can kill a human being as easily and painlessly as I kill mosquitoes in my room”. Ten minutes later Carlos was disemboweled, dragged into the street, doused with petrol and burnt in front of a raging mob. His two colleagues were beheaded. The Indonesian soldiers assigned to protect them had mysteriously disappeared. Carlos was an American working for the United Nations, but in today’s Indonesia life counts for little and it was in someone’s interest to see Carlos burn. Indonesia is falling into the abyss.

As is my arse. I am feeling every bump in the track as I sit in the back of a four wheel drive making its way down dusty roads just across the border from Atambua in East Timor. In the company of 4 Timorese builders under the command of a deranged Bosnian called Zoran, we have passed the last checkpoint manned by Australian military and this is officially Indian Country. East Timor is now supposed to be an independent country under UN control. But someone just across the border in Indonesia doesn’t seem to agree. It was only yesterday that a few miles away Carlos had been burned in the street and no one knows what the Militia will do next. We have a UN escort but in the back of my mind I am painfully aware that in clashes between the UN peacekeepers and the Militia it is the militias who have come off better. Only a couple of weeks before on this very road, they captured a UN soldier and cut off his ears before they shot him. Merciless and with nothing to lose, these are the men who laid waste to this island. Proxies for a mysterious evil, dressed like LA street gangs.

To right and left there is little but high grass and burned out buildings, perfect ground for an ambush or snipers. I feel exposed and vulnerable. Everything is burned. Every house, every car. Even the paddy fields have been polluted and laid waste. It looks like the scene of giant forest fire. What they didn’t destroy they put on stolen trucks, which were spirited away to Indonesia. Those who refused to leave were massacred, their bodies loaded into containers and dumped in the deep water of the Pacific Ocean. Dusk is approaching as we approach the town of Suai. I hear gunfire and instinctively hit the deck. Everyone else is sitting bolt upright. “Plenty militia! Maybe 2 miles from here. No problem. They only make signal. Maybe go see their family. Maybe they are shopping”. They may be shopping, but I am shaking as this lunatic continues to make jokes and spends the next ten minutes imitating my frenzied sprawl over and over again much to the amusement of everyone else in the pick up. But close gunfire is not uncommon on this road. We are on our way to the sight of a massacre.

Sitting in a makeshift cafe set up against a blackened stone wall Antonio Milifretas tells his story. “Fucking militia” he says. His eyes are unfocused and his fingers drum constantly on his thigh. Sometimes when people swear in a language that is not their own it can sound absurd. Not this time. There is nothing humorous in Antonio’s vacant, staring eyes. Along with hundreds of others, Antonio Milifretas was made to lie on the ground and then they were systematically sprayed with gunfire only ten yards from where we are sitting. Women were raped and three catholic priests bludgeoned to death in cold blood. Antonio took two bullets through the shoulder but by laying down and playing dead he managed to escape to the long grass and the hills as attackers went through the nearby buildings looking for TVs, cash and women. But the men who shot him and killed his friends weren’t wearing only the bandanas and T-shirts of the militia. Every third one was dressed in the uniforms of the regular Indonesian army, they were carrying M16s and they were giving the orders. They were following a plan. A plan hatched long before by dark forces. People with much at stake. A plan implemented from regional military headquarters only kilometres away from The Golden beaches of Bali. An Asian Ibiza at the eye of an approaching shitstorm.

No one is sure why things happen in Indonesia. Everyday in some part of the country there is mayhem and bloodshed. Like some kind of absurd fairground game as soon as one scene of destruction and death calms down another one blows up. It almost looks systematic. Co-ordinated. Bomb plots, ethnic violence a sinking economy, a feeble and corrupt government and a brutal and paranoid military, the whole country is on the verge of meltdown. In Timor the militias rage virtually unchecked, killing villagers and international aid workers. In the Moluccas, the famed spice Islands, Christians and Muslims battle it out on the streets, the army often taking sides with one side or the other. In Kalimantan former headhunting tribes are back in business chopping up their enemies with machetes and eating their vital organs in order to make a political point. In Poso, Sulawesi, the streets ran with blood earlier this year as rival gangs fought each other through the town. Mass graves are still turning up. Jakarta has been rocked by bomb blasts, riots and mob lynchings. Muslim fundamentalists whose loyalties no one quite knows attack any symbol of ‘decadence’ in their relentless quest to turn the whole nation into a medieval Islamic state. The Government is only barely in control and no one is quite sure who is controlling the Government. There are factions within factions and it is to someone’s advantage to see that the chaos never ends.

One thing is certain. Somewhere in the secret chain of command figures the aging ex President Suharto and his parasitic family. He ruled the country for 32 brutal years. Despite Indonesia being one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, during the long years of Suharto and his military dictatorship, this was a place where saying the wrong thing to the wrong person was liable to see you ‘disappeared’ – pushed out of a helicopter or tortured to death in a secret basement. In 1998 Suharto was ousted in an orgy of bloodshed. In Indonesia money talks. Corruption and violence are the only certainties. The Suharto clan stole over 45 billion dollars in graft during their years of power – enough to completely pay off the national debt. Suharto and his family aren’t paying off debts. They are paying off scores. They are using their vast wealth to create chaos and ferment mayhem. Most chillingly of all they still have the loyalty of influential factions in the army. The elected President gives orders which are never carried out. Huge bombs have wrecked the stock exchange and foreign embassies. The military, humiliated by its reduced role and angry at the way its wings have been clipped is hand in glove employing all the black arts of special ops against the citizens of their own country. All the while package tourists and backpackers sun themselves on beaches or surf the waves of Bali or Sumatra oblivious to the mayhem that may soon engulf them. No longer. In January trouble spread to the tourist island of Lombok only 22 miles from Bali – the jewel in Indonesia’s tourism crown and one of the most popular holiday destinations in the world. As the bloodshed continued, thousands of terrified tourists joined the lines of Indonesians fleeing the island. Chaos is beginning to spoil the holiday.

We arrive in Jakarta just as the city is going up in flames. This is a modern city. A city of neon and freeways, but beneath the façade it is a city of fear. We have come to see Suharto. For the third time Judges have demanded his presence in court on charges of corruption. We want to see this stand off between the old order and the new. Already the tension is building. There have been massive explosions for which no one has claimed responsibility. Explosions carried out with military precision. Suharto is an old man. His doctors are saying he is too ill to stand trial. But his health, like the man, is an enigma. The monsoon rains have started. The whole street is awash with a downpour that is so fierce it almost obscures the sun light. I am sheltering in a roadside cafe with a camera crew waiting for the waters to subside when through the false twighlight flames go up. In the time-honoured tradition of embarrassing ex dictators, Suharto is judged to be no longer ‘sound of mind’ and therefore cannot answer his critics.

His critics who are gathered in numbers outside the courthouse have exploded in a fury of anger, the molotov cocktails arcing through the rain. Vehicles have been blown up and the chaos is now at my feet. Before we can work out what is happening military police are outside the café. They are pointing guns straight at us and screaming blue murder. These men of the BRIMOB paramilitary mobile brigades are the elite bullyboys of the former regime. Hands raised we emerge from the shelter of the verandah into the downpour yelling “Bule!, Bule!”. “Foreigner!, foreigner!”. We are pressed to the ground, lying flat in the water screaming our credentials.

We are not the ones they want and with a couple of glancing blows from the wooden staves and one camera smashed they move on to the business of really serious violence. Terrible beatings are inflicted on those they catch. Some are protesters, but some are simply bi-standers. One is only a 14-year-old girl with the words ‘mice are nice’ emblazoned on her T-shirt. She is crying for her mother as the blows rain down. She is dropped by a jab to the gut with a wooden stave. She doesn’t get up. A BRIMOB soldier fires a flaming tear gas canister straight into the face of an injured and crouching man at point blank range. Amazingly he is still alive, but the soldiers and police then beat him to a pulp with rifle butts.

As we try and run back through the crowd to find shelter we see isolated soldiers being dragged from vehicles and the air is rent by the crack of M16s as they laager up and fire to scare off their attackers until re-enforcement’s arrive. It is time to get out. This is out of control. This is a war zone. But in Jakarta it is par for the course. The insanity has become the norm. Sometimes they do it for fun. When the protesters are not fighting the police or the army, they fight each other. In one ‘minor incident’ 30 people were seriously injured and hospitalised. “We like to practice” one of their leaders told me. This pitched battle warranted only one paragraph in the local newspaper. The whole city is working itself up for the big bang. Suharto is free. His money is intact. The fuse is lit. The military are waiting.

They are still partying in Jakarta. The great leveler here is not violence. It is disco dancing. It may yet be the only thing that prevents a blood bath. Sitting at the bar in JJs, one of Jakarta’s most famous clubs, I am drinking vodka talking to a couple of newly arrived tourists. My nerves are still jangling from the previous day’s events and it is relief to be somewhere the only concerns are drink and women. Barely clothed Indonesian ‘dancers’ are gyrating either on small platforms or on the barstools where they sit. The music is pumping and the dance floor is packed with a mixture of backpackers, bar girls, businessmen and tourists fuelled by bad local Es and expensive spirits. It is like any tourist disco from Chiang Mai to Darwin. Dave and Rachel are from Weleyn Garden City. They are on their way to Bali for a couple of weeks of chilling out on the beach. They both wear the uniform of the British backpacker in Asia. The cheap Khao San Road sarongs, the beaded hair, the Camden Town tie-dye. They like it here. Dave says he likes the people. ”They are chilled out”.

I think of the burned out buildings, the staring eyes of the victims, the hate etched on the faces of soldiers as they break the bones of teenagers. “Yeah – chilled out Dave”. Just as Dave is offering to buy a round he is interrupted by a wave of panic pushing everyone in the crowded disco back into the narrow corridors that lead to the toilets. It is a dead end. People are pushing and shoving and leaping over barriers and across the bar. Then they arrive. Masked men wielding staves and Samurai swords, white prayer scarves around their heads are sending people fleeing in panic. The holiday is over. The Islamic brotherhood have come to town. Metal chairs are flying towards us, the sound of breaking glass, crys of “Allah hu Akhbar” – God is Great – and the wails of screaming bar girls. Looking back I see the masked faces and I know these people are serious and pumped up. The Islamic Brotherhood don’t like vice. They don’t like tourists, they don’t like drugs and they don’t like you. Rachel is screaming and Dave is trying to pull her further back into the crowd. But we need to be in the open. Throwing petrol bombs is almost as common as shaking hands in this country and if they chuck one at us there is nowhere to hide. We will burn. Tourists, who don’t know what have hit them, are screaming in disbelief, their minds muddied by alcohol or overloading on ecstasy. These warriors of God are taking men out from the front of the crowd and beating them. The damage done, as quickly as they arrive, Islamic Jihad disappear leaving a detritus of smashed glass, broken metal, bloodied carpet, a couple of broken faces and small pockets of shocked crying revelers. A single flip-flop lies in a pool of vodka and blood near the broken bar. Rachel is weeping and holding on to Dave. Dave is looking shocked. I am tired. There is nowhere to hide in this country. “Is it like this in Bali?” Dave asks. Not yet Dave, but maybe next year I would think about going to Thailand.

SIDEBAR:

Eat thy neighbour

Arriving in the neat provincial town of Sambas in West Kalimantan, there is nothing to indicate it has a dark past. Tidy rows of small gabled houses with wooden verandahs and neat gardens line the streets. Small children assuage the heat by jumping in pools of recent rainwater or make their way home from school, satchels on their backs. Girls in tight jeans and stack shoes hang around the stores selling CDs and magazines. It is a peaceful place. But this town has a dark secret. They eat people. Twice in the last two years the majority Malay population have turned on immigrants from the island of East Madura with unimaginable ferocity. Using axes and machetes they beheaded and dismembered their victims. Though brutal, this in itself is not that unusual in Indonesia. What is different is that in Sambas they go the extra mile. After murdering the Madurese they then lit fires, barbecued their remains and served them as a snack. Eat thy neighbour. Problem solved.

A local reporter spoke to one of the diners.

“Our cannibal is a teenager. He is shirtless and wears neat denim jeans. My new friend looks like nothing so much as a participant in a giant game of cowboys and Indians. He is chattering with excitement about the things he has seen and done. He tells us that the man whom they are cooking on the road was caught this morning. ‘We killed it and ate it’ he says, ‘because we hate the Madurese’. They taste just like chicken. Especially the liver – just the same as chicken'”

There is an eerie feel to the place. Any mention of the Madurese is met with downcast eyes or an aggressive stare. A warped variation of the Stepford Wives. The girls in stacked shoes ask me about bands that I am too old to have heard of. They whisper conspiratorially, asking if it is true that Prince William fancies Britney Spears. They want to practice their English and ask me to their homes for a meal. It is getting dark. This place is giving me the creeps. I make my excuses and jump on my motorbike. Breaking all speed limits I take the road south. Suddenly I am scared of ghosts.

Positive Altitude (Fah Thai Magazine. January 2012)

©Dan White. No repro without permission.

Until the final years of the last century Northern Laos was hard to travel around. Roads were bad or nonexistent and the political situation was unpredictable. The area is part of a chain of wild and mountainous country stretching from the Shan Plateau in Burma, across northern Thailand and on to northern Vietnam. Swathes of dramatic scenery dotted with outcrops of limestone rearing from valley floors is dissected by rivers, sometimes torrid and sometimes tranquil. It is home to hill tribes of varying ethnicity and dress, to enigmatic remnants of the ebb and flow of empire and vast tracts of wild lands of immense ecological value. At the heart of all this is the old royal capital of northern Laos – Luang Prabang. Set by the banks of the upper reaches of the Mekong and surrounded by mountains, it is the jewel of Indochina.

250 km to the south of Lunag Prabang is Vang Vieng. The stretch of road that connects the two is a section of Route 13. This unlucky sounding designation hides the fact that as sections of highway go, this one offers a journey through scenes of unmatched natural splendour. Sharp jagged mountain peaks, rolling hills, contorted limestone karst and dense forest is alternately clothed in mist, grilled by vivid sunshine and pounded by intense monsoon rains. Although one can do this journey by bus or by car it has become a legend for those who prefer to negotiate their bends on two wheels rather than endure the inevitable stomach-lurching and heaving that comes with four.  The 250km is easily negotiated in one glorious day on a motorcycle. To do it on a bicycle takes two or three days and you also need to be very fit.

Vang Vieng lies on the banks of the Nam Song River. The mountain ranges start on the other bank and the views are spectacular. The area is famous for caving, kayaking, rock climbing, and trekking.

Setting out in the early morning on Route 13 one follows the River Valley as it cuts through the karst. Then the road climbs and the limestone outcrops get bigger. Once past the town of Kasi they are simply huge. Jungled walls rear vertically from the valley like a giant tidal wave of solid rock. Until not long ago this spectacular scenery hid man-made danger. Vehicles were ambushed until as recently as 2003 as bandits staged hit and run attacks.  Public buses carried armed guards on the roof. Thankfully things have moved on quickly and those days are definitively over and the road is now very safe.

After passing through Kasi, one negotiates steep hairpin bend after steep hairpin bend. As one ascends the bends are punctuated with small villages clinging to the ridges and slopes.

Turning to look behind you, a dramatic panorama comes into view. It is a fanciful scene that could have come straight from the imagination of JR Tolkien – a vast emerald and russet vista of natural peaks, abrupt precipices, and sharp ridges wreathed with wisps of cloud and lit by intense sunshine. Dominating the natural canvas is the vast, jagged triangle of Phu Pha Mountain. It is sacred to the Hmong people and the other animist hill-tribes. It is said to be the abode of spirits and deities and it is not hard to see how that belief came into being. Eerie and majestic, it is not only impressive, it is also otherworldly and odd. A place made for hobbits and wizards as much as for people.

As one approaches Poukhoun near the top of the first major ridge of the journey, the road flattens out and the villages become more numerous. The seemingly never-ending visual drama shudders to a less than dramatic halt in the town itself – a dusty and uninviting truck stop that brings one down to earth with a bump. It has long been a strategically vital place. The French had a small garrison here in the times of colonial rule and during the Indochina wars of the 60s and 70s it was heavily fought over. These days a couple of shabby guest houses and a market selling the usual mixture of cheap Chinese imports, machine parts, vegetables and raw meat mark where Highway 13 branches off to Highway 7 leading to the Plain of Jars.

Once past Poukhoun the mountain scenery starts to change. Sharp and jagged limestone gives way to huge, rounded mountains stretching far into the distance. The whole route is lined with small villages of varying ethnicity. Crowds of ragged, smiling children engage in the ‘waving manically’ ritual – something you are free to reciprocate if it feels safe. These villages are made up of Hmong and Khmu. The Khmu were the original inhabitants of this region, whilst the Hmong migrated from Southern China in the mid 19th Century. The Khmu were hunter-gatherers, living on the mountain slopes. The Hmong are ‘slash and burn’ farmers, living by a mixture of subsistence farming, hunting and opium cultivation. In times past, both the Hmong and the Khmu often mounted rebellions against their Thai, Lao or French rulers.

During Colonial rule, the French authorities largely left the hill people alone although they actively encouraged them to produce opium. A French monopoly on the opium trade was declared in 1899. During the Indo China wars the CIA recruited an army of about 30,000 Hmong to fight against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese. When the Americans left remnants of this force (with their families), remained stranded in the jungle running, hiding and fighting for decades.

Now ridge after ridge of smoothly rounded mountains ripple into view as the road winds along valleys, crosses narrow bridges and crests the high ground. In the rainy season one can see the menace of the storm clouds as they gather, before they sweep up the valleys and break in a deluge on the mountaintops. The road descends again and one reaches another dusty truck stop – Kiu Kacham. After ascending again to Kio Maknao Neung one can see the final descent into the Mekong river valley as the hills start to recede like vast, green ocean breakers. It is simply spectacular. The road meanders down in gentle hairpin bends until, finally one hits the Nam Ming river valley and for the first time since morning you are driving on the flat along the wooded riverbank until the road veers left to Luang Prabang.

A jewel in the hills at the end of a magical journey, the town itself is an exquisite combination of some of the most beautiful Buddhist temples in the region and intimate, ochre, French colonial streets. It was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995 so mercifully development has been fiercely regulated. Add into this mix of perfect architectural yin and yang, the fact that the town is not crowded with traffic because buses and lorries are not allowed. One can wander at will, admiring temple after temple of shimmering gold leaf, muted red paint and dark wood and then drop down to the banks of the Mekong to enjoy an aperitif as the sun sets on the opposite bank and one ponders in which of the many glorious Lao and French restaurants one might have dinner – a perfect ending to one of the world’s greatest journeys.

Mosquito Wars

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

 

If it ever feels like there is a fly in the ointment in Thailand it usually turns out that it isn’t actually a fly at all. As that hovering, dismembered, intense whine flits into your ear at sunset causing you to leap and squirm, you may realize that your evening just got gate crashed. This means one thing only. The mosquito.

Between man and insect there is little love lost.  From childhood we learn that if not battled on every front, with every means at our disposal these tiny, buzzing predators have the power to invade our space for hours on end inspiring regular feats of twitching, insomnia, self slapping and downright bad language on our part.

Worldwide the mosquito is one of man’s most fearsome foes carrying all kinds of nasty diseases that you really don’t want to get. The good news is that Thailand, as battle grounds go, has certainly been the scene of a resounding victory on the part of humankind and indeed the Ministry of Public Health. Over the last three decades malaria has been all but eliminated in most inhabited areas.  In most of Thailand the mozzie has been medically disarmed. In fact if you were really looking to get that ill you would have to head all the way to the jungles bordering Cambodia, Laos or Burma where malaria still thrives.That, however, doesn’t mean that the mosquito has lost its power to be really annoying or, on a bad day, able to entirely ruin your evening.

No one is certain when the mosquito first reared its spiteful little head but it’s pretty safe to bet that the whining little varmint predates man by about 100,000 years. That’s quite a head start by any one’s reckoning. When scientists examined the fossilized remains of a hundred-million-year-old mosquito preserved in a chunk of amber, they found appendages on it tough enough to pierce dinosaur hide. No wonder then that, these days, soft, white, touristic flesh represents an enticingly easy meal.

The first rule of any battle is to pick your ground. When battling the mosquito, this is pivotal. Where there is still or stagnant water, let alone plants, the mosquito is always close to home base and ready to refuel. That means that when you sit down to eat in a restaurant apparently calmed by the relaxed burbling of elaborate water features and framed by a magnificent leafy canopy of foliage, both you and your hosts need to know what you are getting into.  The mosquito regards this environment with even more pleasure than you do and they will be lining up in force in vast watery encampments to get airborne and start feasting greedily on your naïve, exposed flesh.

This is a sad state of affairs since human beings are actually an acquired taste for the mosquito. Of over 2,500 species, only the females of a few varieties are interested in feeding on people. And even that is only a recent evolutionary development. Their favorite meal of choice is either deer or cattle, but they are not always guaranteed to be on the mozzie menu. The compromise reality is that mozzie-needs mozzie-must and they have learned to point their virulent little snouts at the acres of human flesh that are more conveniently available than a frisian or a moose.

Mosquitoes do, however, like some human flesh more than other human flesh. Often in a group one person will be bitten a lot more than all the others. According to recent studies about 20 percent of people attract 80 percent of bites. So if you think they are picking on you, then you are probably right. No one is quite sure why mosquitoes are so unfair in distributing misery equally but the consensus is that it is down to scent. Old Asia hands have long noticed that people who drink heavily tend to attract more mosquitoes than the better behaved. The same is true of those hygienically challenged. So if simple self respect is not enough, this is surely an added incentive not to become a filthy alcoholic in hot countries.

Although the whine of the mosquito is enough to strike anxiety into most of us, especially if one of the tiny psychos has managed to break and enter whilst you are sleeping, it is important to bear in mind their essentially puny nature. It will help you relax. They can be blown into oblivion by a single puff of wind but are far more likely to be eaten, drowned, swatted, or crushed by spiders, fish, carnivorous plants or, indeed you, before they ever reach the end of their pathetic and miserable life span. Overall, just three or four mosquitoes out of a hundred live long enough to bite two victims consecutively. It’s not a great record despite their supposed collective strength.

Scientists calculate for the mosquito to win and put you out of your misery it would have to bite you 424,242 times in order to make you pass out with blood loss. That’s a pretty tall order for such a small creature even if they come at you in enough numbers. And if they did materialize in those numbers then you would know that you were in an Alfred Hitchcock film and it would all be over. Pass the popcorn.

You, on the other hand, have many means at your disposal to swat, electrocute, crush, gas or trick the enemy. They can only resort to mass and speedy reproduction.

So on a bad evening when you feel that the mosquito onslaught is relentless, the battle is lost and you are contemplating a retreat into despair, bear in mind that the mosquito is fighting a rear guard action in terms of long term damage. Go and wield the racquet.

5 ways to fight back.

  1. Spray them with noxious, insect killing aerosol spray. It can do the trick but you will usually find that you are spraying yourself just as hard which can induce dizziness. Have a sit down.
  2. Try the traditional method of swatting them with a rolled up magazine (Try this one). It’s great exercise if you don’t want to play squash, but you do play into the mosquitoes hands by, a. Not killing any and b. handing them the psychological advantage  which can only be humiliating considering their laughable IQ
  3. Zap them with an electronic tennis racket. Hear the crackle of victory and smile fiendishly to yourself in the knowledge that each flash of sparks marks another enemy vanquished. These impressive implements of sure victory are easily purchased from your local merchants of death…. Tesco Lotus, Carrefour or the Big C.
  4. Beat yourself up with your own bare hands belting each area of your exposed flesh with such terrific force and speed that no creature hiding in the crevices of your skin can survive the onslaught. Then take yourself to hospital to be treated for concussion.
  5. The electronic mosquito trap zaps them without the effort of the awesome tennis racquet. It’s great for pacifists who want to kill whilst also living in denial.

5 ways to do the right thing. Don’t get bit.

  1. Keep all flesh covered especially at dawn and dusk. You don’t have to go for the full burqua, but it helps to wear long sleeved shirts and long trousers. Wear socks even if you are wearing open shoes. Light clothes are less attractive than dark colors. The mosquito is a gloomy little beast.
  2. Don’t wear perfumes or aftershaves. You might end up attracting a different kind of creature than the one you were actually after by attempting to be fragrant.
  3. Use repellant preferably with DEET. It’s called repellant because it really is truly foul and disgusting. It’s oily and it’s smelly. It is, in fact, utterly repelling. If it repels you more than the mosquitoes do, then skip the repellant and just head out to take your chances with racquet in hand.
  4. Mosquitoes are water babies. Anywhere there is still water there is also a potentially festering colony of pumped up mozzies waiting to get airborne and launch relentless raids on your ankles. Avoid the water or tip it out. They also love plants. Plants+water=an itchy night out.
  5. Mosquito coils can work as long as you stay downwind of the smoke. You will end up smelling like a barbecue but apparently it makes them suffer

Motorcycling Nirvana – Route 13 – One of Asia’s most amazing journeys.

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

 

For me, Laos is one of the most intriguing countries in the world. As a travel journalist I am often privileged to get the chance to motorcycle the amazing road from Vang Vieng, past Kasi and Poukhoun and on to Luang Prabang. However many times I ride this road, it never ceases to take my breath away. Above is a video with some visual impressions from these journeys. Below are a few words I wrote about Route 13 in my capacity as author of the guidebook, ‘Frommer’s Cambodia and Laos’.

The road journey from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang is one of the most spectacular jouneys in Asia. Amongst aficianodos of two wheeled travel whether self-propelled (and you would have to be a serious cyclist to undertake it) or on a motorcycle, Route 13 is famous for it’s spectacular winding roads and mountain views of unbelievable beauty. You start by driving along the banks of the Nam Song River. These jagged karst formations you see in Vang Vieng continue as you wind your way up to an ever higher altitude. This area is peppered with caves and if you have time you can stop off and explore. Bare in mind you still have 250 kilometers of winding to do. The road climbs and the limestone outcrops get bigger. Once past the town of Kasi they are huge. Jungled walls rise vertically from the valley like a giant tidal wave of solid rock. As you make your way up to Poukhoun this dramatic scenery is then laid out below you. A huge green carpet of natural peaks, abrupt precipices, and sharp ridges wreathed with wisps of cloud and lit by intense sunshine. Just before Poukhoun itself a viewing patform has been constructed and it is a great place to get an early lunch and take in this natural amphitheater. Once past Poukhoun the mountain scenery starts to change. Sharp and jagged limestone gives way to huge, rounded mountains stretching far into the distance. You make your way along roads cut into the hillside, each turn revealing yet another astounding view. The whole route is lined with small villages of varying ethnicity where hundreds of children engage in the ‘waving manically’ ritual, which you are free to reciprocate if it feels safe. In the late afternoon you slowly start to descend into the mountain panorama itself until you reach the valley floor. Again a straight wooded road takes you along the banks of the Nam Ming River and on into Luang Prabang – The ancient temple capital of the Kingdom. All this is best rounded off by a glass of decent French wine at one of Luang Prabang’s excellent Gallic watering holes.

Rocks That Float and Sadhu Masochism

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

In 1989 an angry ascetic tried to stab me with his trident, symbol of Shiva, the Hindu God of Destruction. In 1998 myself and another journalist, Andrew Chilvers, happened upon a man who had held his arm in the air for 23 long years and I put him in the Guinness Book of Records… In 2000 a gentle devotee of Vishnu explained  he would not eat or drink anything but milk (unless it was German). After many assignments in over a decade of working in India with a bunch of sometimes cantankerous fakirs…. by 2001,  I was worn out…. 

One morning 21 years ago Thapan Puri arose from his bed in Bihar, India. He raised one foot in the air and from that day to this that foot has never touched the ground again. When he moves from place to place he uses a crutch. He never sits down. He never lies down. He remains standing on his one terrestrial leg leaning on a swing rigged up from a branch of a tree. When he wants to sleep he simply leans more heavily on the swing and lays his head on his forearms. Even on trains or buses he remains standing. On the day he raised his foot from the ground and vowed never to sit he also took a vow of silence and committed himself to never eating solid food again. Harsh as these self-imposed disciplines are, Thapan Puri is not a masochist nor is he insane. His decision to spend his whole life as a silent, hungry, one-legged man was one born of deep conviction that these acts would aid him in his meditations on the human condition. He is a Sadhu.

These naked, ash smeared, warrior priests have been wandering the length and breadth of India for at least five thousand years. Alexander the Great called them the ‘naked philosophers’. Empires have come and gone. India has evolved from a patchwork of warring principalities to a place where Internet, TV satellite dishes and mobile phones dominate the cityscape. But this has always been a country of many worlds. Whilst college kids are at the forefront of software technology in Bangalore and Bombay, in the villages life has remained unchanged for thousands of years. The rice is still threshed by the feet of slow moving oxon. Water is still drawn from a single communal well. Sari clad women still carry the village produce to market on their heads whilst cradling small children with their one free arm. A drive from one Indian city to another is a journey traversing a thousand years of change.

Thapan Puri is part of the unchanged world.

For a man who needs neither food nor clothes, progress is a word without meaning. The only progress he values is in the journey towards ‘moksha’ – a state of absolute bliss free from the fetters of bodily desire or earthly gain. Like all Sadhus, Thapan Puri has declared himself dead in his earthly life and been reborn to a spiritual quest that will free him from the cycle of rebirth and pain. He is looking for a shortcut to paradise. He abstains from sex. He has cut all ties with his family and his former life. He has no possessions; he wears little or no clothing and lives on a diet of mashed lentils and milk. He makes his way from village to village living on the charity of the devout who act as his spiritual cheerleaders. Thapan Puri is not alone in taking the short, sharp shock approach to achieving enlightenment.

Until the early seventies, Amar Bharti was a senior shipping clerk in New Delhi. He had the comfortable trappings of the relatively well off Indian middle class. Married, with three children already grown, Amar Bharti made a decision. He handed in his notice at the office. He tied up all the loose ends of his life. He paid off the higher purchase agreements on his furniture and gave his car to his eldest son. Then he left his house. He left his wife and his children forever. He walked away from everything he had spent his life building with nothing to his name but a bowl, two pieces of orange cloth and a metal trident. Amar Bharti had decided to devote the rest of his life to Shiva.

In time his beard grew long and his hair became matted into thick dreadlocks. Despite the harshness of his existence Amar Bharti felt that his spiritual quest was still weighed down by earthly comforts and pleasure. Three years after leaving his whole life behind, Amar Bharti made a second decision. He decided to raise his arm vertically in the air as if he was a small child begging to answer a call of nature. Once his arm was raised it was never to come down again. That was in 1973. In the UK Slade were topping the charts with ‘Skweeze me Pleeze Me’. The Six Million Dollar Man was the king of TV. In the US America had not yet lost the Vietnam war.

Twenty-seven years on Amar Bharti’s arm is still raised. It is now atrophied and the joints are locked. His nails grow in long curls seemingly in random directions, partially piercing his hand. Amar Bharti will never be able to lower his arm. Not even in death. Bizarre magazine had one burning question to put to this holiest of holy men. “Does it hurt?” An old friend of Bizarre, Amar Bharti shifts slightly on his cushion and adjusts his naked tackle with his free left hand. “It hurt for the first year and a half, but its fine now thanks,” he tells me through a translator. The only other question I can think of is “Why?”

By this time Bharti’s eyes are becoming glazed. Maybe from smoking repeated chillums of potent ganja. Maybe because of our repeated questions. He looks at us as if we are pesky children begging for scraps. We wait for his answer, hoping that a man who has deliberately inflicted such suffering upon himself in the name of enlightenment might be able to put a little deep wisdom our way. The translator paraphrases. “Baba ji says he felt like it.”


Amar Bharti is one of the Naga sect of Sadhus. It is the fearsome Nagas who engage in the most extreme acts of self-mutilation. They are inventively brutal in the suppression of their own physical desires. Centuries ago many would hang heavy weights from the penis in order to conquer the libido. Now it is more likely to be a padlock or a piece of heavy jewelry. One or two, the lingasana babas, still lift rocks weighing very nearly as much as they do.

Tapeshwar Saraswati gives Bizarre Magazine a demonstration. Semi squatting he loops a piece of cloth around his penis and loops the other end around a rock that I can hardly lift with my hands, let alone my tackle. Then, using his groin muscles and intense concentration he rises to his full height raising the rock from the ground, leaving it dangling for at least ten seconds. This agonising exercise tears apart the nerves of the penis, intentionally rendering Tapeshwar impotent and ruining any chances he may have of fulfilling any sexual urge.


Other Nagas will wrap their penis round a stick and then invite their friends to stand on it, rising up like some band of demented S&M acrobats. The Nagas are also warlike in their attitude towards others. The elite of the elite, they pursue a warrior tradition that makes them fierce in defence of their religion and their comrade warrior monks. Devoted to Shiva, the God of destruction, they carry his symbol, a trident. When provoked they will do battle. In 1998 at the huge Hindu Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar two sects of Nagas fought it out over who would have the right to bathe first in the Ganges on the most auspicious day of the festival. Naked, ash smeared men on horse back hacked at each other with swords and stabbed at each other with tridents. 40 were seriously injured in the melee. The terrified police were helpless to act and when they tried the Nagas tossed them into the swift flowing Ganges. One policeman was drowned.

Historically the Nagas have been enlisted to fight in battles against both Muslim and British invaders terrifying their enemies with acts of Kamikaze like bravery. The Naga sees himself as already being dead, therefore he has no fear of dying in battle. They organise themselves into regiments or ‘Akharas’.

In an attempt to monitor the fiercely independent Nagas, the British issued them with Sadhu passports. Some Sadhus still carry these passports to this day although now they are little more than a licence to smoke unending amounts of ganja and ride the trains for free.

The Sadhu’s quest is a purely personal one. No one forces him to keep his arm in the air into eternity or hang huge weights from his dick, light a coal fire on his head, sleep on nails or bury himself in gravel. Once he has undertaken the task he can stop any time he likes. Many will once they have achieved their spiritual purpose or no longer feel the need to carry on with whatever task they have set themselves. Nor is there any vetting or admission process for a sadhu. Anyone can grow their hair into matted dreads, put on the orange robes and wander the villages of India. This means that for every truly holy man there will also be a charlatan and a con man. It is never easy to tell one from another.

Ramesh Giri was a standing Baba for eight years. Then one day he sat down. “ I stood for many years, but I decided to stop when I knew that rocks can float.” At first we thought this was some kind of arcane spiritual metaphor, but Ramesh was to show us otherwise. Leading us down a small tented path, with twinkling eyes he takes us into a small compound in the centre of which is a small cauldron full of water. In the cauldron, bobbing about like an apple is what appears to be a large rock. I touch it. It is a rock. It is floating. “I carve the name of Lord Ram on the rock. Then the rock will float,” says Ramesh. I must be looking goggle eyed because Ramesh then breaks into peels of demented laughter. The laughter doesn’t stop. It follows me as I make my exit and tread wearily back to my motorbike. It feels like an escape from the brink of insanity.


Not all Sadhus follow the exhibitionist path of the Nagas. Other Sadhus see them as nothing more than the football hooligans of Hindu mythology. Stripped to the waist, fighting and showing off in a way that has more to do with worldly fame than spiritual progress. Ram Krishna Das is a follower of Vishnu. A gentle man dressed all in white he has neither eaten nor drunk anything but milk for 28 years. He is known as the ‘Milk Baba’.

When Bizarre tracked him down to his tiny spartan cell in the hills of Nepal, he tells us simply, “milk is all I need.” Famous for his quiet wisdom and great learning the Milk Baba is often flown abroad at the expense of devotees besotted with his depth of understanding. He has tasted the milk of fifteen different countries. “Milk tastes the same everywhere,” he ponders “except Germany,” he adds “where it tastes like urine.”

When I tell the Milk Baba about Ramesh Giri and his amazing floating rock he reacts with indifference. “Lord ram does not need to make rocks float. Lord Ram does not need to impress mortal man with silly tricks.”


Holiness may sometimes be macho. Sometimes it is plain crazy. If the Nagas seem extreme in their variations on human agony and dark magic, there is another sect that outshines even them in the realms of weird perversity. The Aghoris. They take Shiva in his incarnation as conqueror of death as their lead. Like a band of medieval, crack fuelled, anarchists they turn every taboo of Hinduism on its head and go out of their way to be shocking and obscene. They will eat the meat of the holy cow. They will get horrendously drunk on forbidden liquor. They abuse passers by with foul obscenities and go out of their way to terrify small children. It is reputed that their rituals can be truly terrible. They will revel in the putrid flesh of rotting corpses and feast on rotting dogshit. They have ritual sex with menstruating prostitutes on the cremation grounds of the holy River Ganges and meditate while sitting on the dismembered remains of the dead. They are truly scary and bad. When Bizarre approached an Aghori for an interview he simply spat at me and retorted that he would “rather wash his face in the pus of a syphilitic leper.” Aghoris, like Millwall supporters, do not welcome photo calls.


Sadhus, like India itself, present a contradictory face to the world. Some are pure and dedicated in their quest for an eternal truth. Others are little more than beggars, con men or thugs. But whether saints or charlatans they represent an ancient and parallel reality. Like human crocodiles, their existence has remained unchanged for millennia. While the rest of us chase our tales in a confusing welter of fast moving and barely understood technology, fragile economics and uncertain relationships, the Sadhu continues on a path that is the same now as it was in the time of the pharaohs. When we look at him we see a naked, filthy, long haired man perversely spurning five centuries of human progress. When he looks back at us all he sees are hordes of inquisitive, pointless children.

ENDS

Facials, Verbals and Tears – An Awsome American Torment

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.


In April 2001, as the rain drizzled down outside my north London home , I got a call from the Deputy Editor of Maxim Magazine telling me he was sending me on a ‘dream assignment’ to photograph untold numbers of nubile young women in short skirts flinging each other about in the bright Florida sunshine. What sounded like a dream very quickly revealed itself to be a nightmare as Daytona Beach Florida became a surreal reality.

Apart from their nationality, what do Ronald Reagan, Madonna, Jack Lemon, Meryl Streep and George W Bush all have in common? The answer is that in their college years they all practiced the peculiarly American art of ‘cheerleading’, a strange, hybrid potpourri of gymnastics, dance and rampant gurning performed in a spirit of mindless, puppy dog enthusiasm. In the United States of America it is sincerely believed that ‘cheerleading’ counts as a genuine sport.

It is a muggy night in the Florida resort town of Daytona Beach. The Cote d’Azure this is not. In some way the population seem to lack depth. The fact is that if you took everyone from the TV audience of the Jerry Springer Show, and all their families, and put them all in one run down string of shabby buildings fronting a white sand beach, then you may come close to understanding the atmosphere of Daytona Beach. Maybe then throw in the fact that, by State law, all men in the municipality must have a tortured mullet and all women must chew gum constantly; their mouths working in a gormless rhythm, their faces topped by painfully electric, bottle blonde, bouffant hair dos.

Those buildings that aren’t shabby concrete motels manned by strangely shaped middle aged people wearing a graceless air of impenetrable indifference, are shabby diners. Each eatery must have a theme. Some of them have names like “The old Cowpoke’s Rest”. Others, as all over the world, are shrines to a mythical fifties Shangri La where all men dressed like James Dean and all women stood over sewer outlets with their skirts flying in the air.

It is late. I sit at a table, my head in my hands, contemplating a snack the size of a post office. The fumes of petrol poison the taste of my beer. That is because the theme of this particular diner is motor car racing. It is, to all intents and purposes, a garage. Except for the fact that they don’t actually do anything useful. Like fixing cars for instance.

Daytona Beach is a place that adds a frisson of real desperation to the concept of ‘homesick’. But there may yet be a salvation. Tomorrow this dreary string of prefabs and concrete will be transformed in to Barbie Doll heaven. From all over America thousands of nubile young women will flood into the town for the All America National Cheerleading Championships. The effect this invasion may have on the local population of slack jawed rednecks should be a performance in itself.

Despairing of finishing the mountains of fries and grits and other assorted cholesterol rich foodstuffs on my plate, I decide to turn in and get a good nights sleep before the coming events.

The next day Daytona Beach is basking in bright, late spring sunshine. I would love to say it looks better in the daytime, but I would be lying. There is however, a change in the people. Whilst the sea front is still peppered with the usual obese and sartorially challenged holiday makers and residents, there is now a new contingent and this crowd look like an outing from the set of Baywatch.

Groups of tanned, lithe young woman dressed for the gym are wandering in groups and lounging on the seaside walls. Although smaller in numbers, their male counterparts, all of whom seem to be of hulk like proportions, are throwing Frisbees and conical footballs. Many are doing endless sets of press-ups, sit-ups and pull-ups. They are also making a lot of noise. Most of it is comprised of aimless, but friendly whooping and shouts of “yeah!!!!” and “alright!!!!” over and over and over again.

As I arrive at a grassy area in front of the main hotel the scene evolves into something truly bizarre. The cheerleaders have arrived and the show is underway. The competitors practice for this all year and what I am witnessing is the final dress rehearsal. In separate groups, teams of cheerleaders from all over the USA are flinging each other about in ways that look both reckless and impressive. One team from New England, who have “Dogs” written in large letters across their backsides, seem to be in the throws of a schism. Their trainer is yelling at the row of downcast faces, some of whose cheeks are smeared with tears.

“This not the max! Okay! You gotta go for the max and achieve the max. This awesome is not the max!!”

Turning on one girl who is gently and uncontrollably sobbing,  the coach vents his ire. “Candy, Your awesome is a disgrace and your facials are a joke.”

Utterly confused by both his tone and his language, I approach Candy as she takes a break and sips a coke. With tears streaming down her face she cries, “He is so on our case and we practice hours and hours every day! I can’t take it! It’s too much! How can I go to the max on my facials when I want to cry all the time because Brad keeps yelling at me for screwing up my awesome. It is so unfair!”

None the wiser, I seek out someone who may enable me to decipher this strange litany of angst.

The person who enlightens me confesses himself to being a ‘tosser’. These are the male members of the troop who with precision, strength and skill fling and catch their lighter female teammates. If the tosser screws up the girl can die or be paralysed for life. It is a job they take seriously. “The facial is like so important! They have to look like they are so psyched when they do the routines. If the facial is bad the team loses points.”

So this is the only sport in the world where you get marks for smiling and looking a bit manic? “That’s right,” says Brad. I ask him about the problems Candy has encountered with her ‘awesome’. Brad explains, “an awesome is when the girl is lifted by the tosser and then balanced on his hand right up in the air. If she blows it on the facial, the tosser is gonna find it hard to trust her the next time on the awesome. We all train so hard for this.”

Although we share something approximate to a common language and I respect his obvious passion and professionalism, I realize that Brad and myself are as culturally far apart as pygmies and eskimos.

But he has a point. This ‘sport’ may be weird, but it is also very, very dangerous. Between 1982 and 1994 more female athletes were injured in cheerleading than in any other sport in America. In 1990 alone 12,000 cheerleaders were admitted to hospital with injuries. A number were paralysed for life.

Bearing this in mind it is with some interest that I witness the first heats of the competition. In a large, un-atmospheric hall under harsh strip lights team after team goes through their twelve-minute routines. A blur of tumbles twists and jumps and back flips. At first I look on with real admiration at the gymnastic and rhythmic skills of the contestants as the panel of twelve judges gives them marks for athleticism, creativity and rank insincerity of facial expression. But there are one hundred and eighty teams in this competition from the United States alone. That does not count the teams who have traveled from Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico and Japan to try and make their own dent on this free for all of American self-congratulation.

After the thirtieth team has gone through the motions of bumping, grinding, flinging, jumping, landing and slapping their perfect little backsides to a sound track of fifth rate stadium pop or harmless white boys rap, I am sick and tired of it.

I wander over and talk to one of the huge burly men who are in the business of cheerleader protection. Called spotters, it is their job to catch the girls if they fly off in the wrong direction. When not actually in action the spotter is posted directly underneath the mini skirted cheerleaders staring fixedly skywards at a never-ending succession of firm teenage behinds.

Not surprisingly, one of the spotters tells me, “it’s the best job in the world. If I catch them in a fall, they are often very grateful. Very, very grateful.”

After hours of being told things like, “cheerleading is a way to grow as a human being and learn to love others in a way that makes us all better as human beings,” by cheerleaders, trainers and judges alike, the spotter is the only participant whose motivation and sincerity I can completely understand without added explanation.

The spotter’s name turns out to be Steve and I ask him if the tossers from the teams see him as some kind of a threat. “Hell no!” says Steve. “Half of them are gay in any case so the percentages work out fine for us and them. Four gals to every red blooded guy.” Steve looks happier than a roadie on a Led Zepplin tour bus.

While he is in the mood for talking, I ask him who are the most fancied team from a purely non-technical point of view. “Well the girls from Georgia are sure the purtiest and they sure have the best asses. But the girls from Houston Texas are just downright dirty, so I sure will be hopin’ one or two of them takes a wrong kind of fall.”

Two thirds of the teams having been eliminated – God knows by what criteria – in the opening heats the next day sees the grand final in a magnificent outdoor arena almost completed surrounded in gleaming corrugated iron. Inside important looking men sporting fat arses and vulgar Rolex watches are busying themselves around the stage. They are, apparently, the national media.

Taking position at the front. I am informed that, “You cain’t stand there Sir.” The word “Sir” is uttered in a manner used only by Americans in authority and is delivered in a tone that implies his real meaning is not “Sir” but “douchebag”.

“This spot is reserved for National TV,” he says with a dreary flourish of self-regarding pomposity. Although he makes himself and the event sound more important than the Bosnia Peace treaty and a Cold War presidential summit all rolled into one. I make way both for him and his even more serious looking retinue of sour faced interns.

He is not the only one behaving as if all this meant something. Following Steve’s advice I seek out the team from Houston Texas. They are in a huddle giving each other strength for the upcoming routine. As I approach I realise that the only custom more vacuous in this event than the ‘facials’ must be the ‘verbals’.

“Love y’all!” Says one to all the others.

“Right on!…. To the max!” another replies.

“Love y’all,” adds another one.

“We are Houston! We are Houston!” her friend points out.

“Love y’all!” Another chips in.

Having grasped the gist of their strategy meeting, I return to the main stage. Where Georgia are now in full flood. Steve is right about their general outlines… And there he is looking eagerly at the subjects of his appreciation. After two days of this I, however, am now so bored as to make me dizzy. All the routines are exactly the same as the ones they did yesterday. Most of them are exactly the same as their competitors. That means that if you watch this whole event then you will watch the same thing nearly four hundred times over. It is the stuff of nightmares. A man can only endure so many back flips and inanely stupid facial expressions before he wanders off to lay his hands on an axe.

But I have to stay to see if Houston, now my adopted team, can stay the course. Dirty they might be, but they have lost the plot when it comes to flinging each other about. They are a disaster. Two of them tumble right off the mat, much to Steve’s gleeful satisfaction no doubt. Their awesome crumbles and they come bottom of the heap. Funnily enough I don’t care. I have had enough.

At the end of the afternoon the losers drown their sorrows in alchopops. The winners strut the promenade and whoop alot. But in a country that doesn’t tolerate anyone losing the winners console the vanquished with wisdom. A girl from the winning Georgia team has her arm around a losing tosser from Houston. “You didn’t lose! You came tenth!”

Not daring to ask what you would actually have to do to be a loser in this town, I content myself with watching the event bought to a close with a mass simultaneous ‘awsome’ of a hundred girls. It is an impressive sight. A forest of nubile flesh. A hundred beautiful teenage girls all doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same time. It is a superb national party trick and every mulleted redneck in the town stands transfixed. I look again. It is impressive. Very impressive. But I can’t help thinking….. What is the point?


Chasing Alligators… The things we do for cash…

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.


Ten years ago today I was terrified out of my wits in a Florida swamp for the, now defunct, UK edition of Maxim Magazine… The things we do for cash…

Sitting in the passenger seat of a pick up truck only inches away from the jaws of an agitated and lethal reptile is alarming to say the least. The fact that the only thing between him and me is a thin layer of metal casing made by Ford Motors is little comfort. Only minutes before this same ten foot alligator attempted to consume a horse, nearly pulled three strong men into a lake and then thrashed like a banshee on speed as it was bundled into the back of the vehicle. I have the feeling he could open the passenger compartment as easily as a tin of sardines, if he could only get free of the flimsy electrical tape binding his jaws.

If you are contemplating a holiday in the warm sunshine of Florida, be aware of one thing. Although the average Floridian homo-sapien is a friendly beast, there are things lurking out there which are far more menacing. The whole state of Florida is teeming with these scary visitors. They get on golf courses and into municipal ponds. They lurk in the shady lakes of old people’s retirement homes and slither in ditches parallel to the main highways. As their natural habitat in the watery wilderness of the Everglades is diminished by the encroachment of man made civilization, so the alligators – a relic from the age of dinosaurs – encroach on the suburban habitats of the only predator they have to fear. That means you.

For those unlucky enough to find a giant reptile making a home in their back garden or swimming pool there is only one course of action. It is time to call Ricky and Lee Kramer. They are the father and son team that usually spell a dramatic end to the territorial ambitions of Florida’s most toothy and unpredictable residents. As an alligator catcher licensed by the State of Florida’s Game and Freshwater Fish Commission, Lee Kramer has been hauling giant, thrashing alligators by their tails from puddles and ditches for thirty years. Over five thousand of them to be exact. If there is an alligator that is deemed to be a threat to humans or animals then Lee and Ricky are licensed to hunt it down and shoot it dead. They earn their money by selling the skin and flesh. Alligator is priced by the foot.

A self-confessed redneck Lee’s leathery features break into a sly grin.

“The ladies love the alligator man, and truth be told, the alligator man loves the alligator. Its just a pity we got to shoot them in the head ‘stead of lettin’ em free. I truly do respect the alligator”.

Pulling up at the curbside of a suburban home in a wealthy residential district a hysterical and dangerously overweight resident approaches the pick up at speed.

“He’s bigger ‘an a car and he just slipped back into the river. Bastard killed my dog”.

Ricky and Lee look at each other with just the faintest hint of a smirk. As Fido’s remains are hauled back from the murky deep and into a waiting bin liner, Ricky and Lee scan the water for signs of the beast that did the deed. They silence the hysterical householder with the important snippet of information that alligators have better hearing than bats and, if she carries on squawking, the alligator would soon be miles away, sporting ear plugs and contemplating nurofen.

But this time Lee and Ricky seem to be in luck. A hundreds yard out in the lake a pair of malevolent eyes and a scaly back break the placid surface of the water.

Lee and Ricky go into action.

They wait patiently for the gator to come into range. Then a skillful game of expert marksmanship comes into play. Lee casts a line from his rod into the lake and over the alligator’s back. Winding in the line the hook catches on the scaly skin of the reptile. Realizing it’s plight the gator dives into the depths of the lake to escape.

Now is when the real artistry comes into play. In order to bring him in, Ricky must cast a second line into the water and put another hook into the fugitive. This is all done by guessing the position of the alligator under the water. They listen, wait and try to gauge the position of the alligator from the pulls on the single line that is already in place. After the eighth or ninth attempt at dragging a hook through the water and into the flesh of the animal, Ricky feels tension and then a pull. He has hooked him.

Now the technique is to let the panicked gator twist, turn, dive and move in an attempt to throw off his captors. The gator men will let him do this, giving him enough slack so that he won’t break the lines. After half an hour or so the Gator will have warn himself out and be short of air. Then it is time to reel him in.

Slowly, slowly they wind the reels. Even though he is tired the gator exerts an incredible amount of pressure and both lines are bending the rods like a long bow. Slowly, slowly he is dragged into the shallows. Lee makes ready to jump in and drag him on to the bank by his tail. Too late. This is one lucky gator. The second line has snapped. The pressure on the first line is now doubled. With the choice of hanging on or letting go the slack to start the whole casting process again, Lee decides to take a risk and hang on. As Ricky casts again at short range, he is up against the clock. He misses and the gator takes his chance. Finding reserves of strength, he thrashes and pulls. The remaining hook is worked loose and the giant gator plunges to safety.

Lee and Ricky are tired, but resigned.

“Is he gonna come back?” asks the fat lady.

“Yep”, replies Lee. “I been chasin’ that Gator for five years. This is the second time I’ve hooked him.  Never been closer than this. The bank over there is all swamp. He can come and go, as he wants. You better watch out for the puppies if you are lookin’ to get yourself a new dog. You got my number. You give us a call now if he shows his head around here again.”

Leaving her pop eyed with spent adrenaline we get back into the pick up and are only ten seconds out of her driveway before Lee and Ricky are lost in fits of uncontrollable, hysterical laughter. They have to stop the car until they recover.

“Bastard ate her dog!” howls Ricky.

“Jeez! I love the gator!” answers Lee.

The next call is even more bizarre than the first. A rogue gator has found its way into a channel at the end of a paddock in the grounds of a high society polo club. The gator has been behaving badly (you know the kind of thing…. snubbing the chairman’s wife….. drooling on the canapé’s and taking a pop at a tethered horse). Greeting us at the clubhouse is a man kitted out in jodhpurs and a cravat.

“We are in the realms of the Sosumi tribe here. If this reptile so much as scratches one of my members I am finished.”

His tones are so plummy and British, that he could only be an American.

“Yep… Its’ a small bit of water. I reckon that gator just took himself down a dead end. I think your members are gonna be fine”, drawls Lee.

We approach the pond on tiptoes in order not to frighten away the culprit. It is there, static on the other side of the pond. Lee gently kneels at the banks. He cups his hands over his mouth and makes a strange croaking sound. It is the mating call of the alligator. The interested other half glides towards him and as he does so Ricky casts and gets a line on him. The gator dives, but like lightening Lee is up with a rod casting into the water. This is a shallow pond and with two attempts the gator has two lines on him and it starts to thrash and squirm.

Soon he begins to slow down and Lee and Ricky start to reel him in. As he is pulled unerringly to the bank, Lee passes his rod to one of the farm boys and wades into the water only feet from the thrashing gator. With the water around his ankles, boiling like a bowl of feeding Piranha fish, he puts a noose on a stick around the gator’s open jaws drawing them closed. He then grabs it by its thrashing tail and hauls it backwards out of the water yelling, “Got ya peckerhead!”

By this time Ricky has jumped on its back whilst avoiding its flailing tail. Lee tapes up its jaws with gaffer tape. With one quick movement the gator is lifted into the van, its tail thrashing but making contact with nothing but air.

By now there is a small audience of Floridian high society watching events from a safe distance. As the van pulls away a round of polite applause sends us on our way. The man in the jodhpurs looks relieved.

Half an hour down the road the gator has regained some of its strength and that’s when it starts thrashing against the sides of the pick up. Weighing up the possibilities of the gator’s escape I ask if the best thing to do is to heed oft-repeated advice and run in a zigzag pattern?

“Nope, that’s horse shit”, replies Lee. “Most folks just zig when they should be zaggin’ and run back, right into the jaws of the gator. Best thing to do if you are bein’ chased by a gator is to run like hell.”

Our last port of call is to fish a gator out of a swimming pool. This is done with blasé efficiency in a matter of minutes. Whilst the family dog yaps at the reptile from behind the safety of the French windows, Ricky grabs it by the tail. This is a nippy customer and the gator turns around on its own axis and tries to remove Ricky’s left kneecap. Howling with laughter Ricky starts kicking his legs like a demented can-can dancer as the gator goes for each one in turn. He then deftly puts the noose on its jaws and the fun is over.

As the sun goes down on another day’s work Lee and Ricky take off the days catch to certain execution. I, for one, have seen enough to make sure that I give a wide birth to anything in Florida that resembles water. It’s like a jungle out there.


Two Wheels Across Thailand – The Beauty of the North

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

For motorcycling enthusiasts Thailand, and indeed neighbouring Laos, are famous worldwide for amazing scenery, great roads and fantastic sightseeing along the way. Above is a movie that gives you a taste of what is  on offer, if you haven’t experienced it already. Below is a piece commissioned by the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT) that gives you a low-down on how tos, whys and wherefores for those who prefer their scenery experienced from the  open air, rather than from the inside of a moving metal box.

FIVE STAR MOTORCYCLE TOURS – SEEING THE BEST OF THAILAND ON TWO WHEELS

©TAT


When it comes to motorcycle touring, Thailand ranks as one of the world’s great destinations. This is for the very simple reason that it has it all: craggy hills, forests, endless coastlines, unspoiled national parks, historic monuments, magnificent temples, modern cities, ancient ruins, diverse ethnicities, varied cultures, an advanced road network, accommodation to suit all budgets — and, of course, the hospitality and grace that really mark the kingdom out in the world.

See More….

English Food – Is It That Bad?

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

When it comes to the richness of global culture, justice, civilisation and recreation the English have contributed more than their fair share.

Democracy, for instance is an English invention despite what you might hear from some dodgy Greek. Whilst the French have had 327 different republics run by a shady procession of dictators, clerics and ne’er do wells, the English have a history of about three hundred years, of oppressing the general masses democratically. This tradition of consensual misery continues to this day. The English may have had some of the most horrendously stupid leaders in the history of the world (and still might), but at least they voted for them. Well that is apart from women, the poor and anyone who looked a bit foreign. But the general idea was there.

The Germans were a fractured bunch of neurotic angst-ridden serfs in bad hats suffering a justified identity crisis.

The French were….. er…. French. Liberte! Fraternite! Egalite!.. And the guillotine.

The Americans were so serious and po-faced about democracy that, until the 1960s, they entirely forgot to include huge numbers of people who came from the wrong continent under the wrong circumstances further compounding the error by killing them brutally if they had the nerve to speak their minds.

The original ‘Americans’ were, of course, fairly undemocratically, almost completely wiped off the face of the earth by lovers of freedom and enemies of oppression.

The Russians enslaved their own people until 1861 when serfdom was abolished and they reformed their ways magnificently by inventing a brand new kind of gulag.

The English also invented all organised sport. You may travel to the remotest villages of West Sumba and still be able to have a coherent discussion with a local on the merits of the 4-4-2 attack in last Saturday’s game between Sunderland and Rotherham.

If you manage to penetrate the inner sanctum of Taliban Islamic extremism you can go one of two ways. You can talk about the logistics of beheading the hated infidel, blowing up women and children for the general good, creating a global Islamic caliphate governed by a creed that generally involves lots of maiming …… Or alternatively you can get heated about changes in the LBW law and marvel at the historical beauty of an in-swinging yorker from Waquar Younis.

Whether it’s rugby, football or Cricket….. It all came from the same damp and grey place. Even in America they play diminished forms of English games. American football is just rugby with all the good bits taken out. Baseball is rounders played by people not in skirts with added gum-chewing and goatee beards thrown in for effect. Basketball is another schoolgirls’ game. It’s netball with added mobility. In Australia they play Aussie rules foot ball. It was invented by the English to provide exercise for soldiers leisure hours in winter when the weather was unsuitable for cricket.

Having invented all these sports (in addition to democracy) that amount to world domination in terms of fitness, skill, enthusiasm and gambling… It’s quite phenomenal that the English get beaten by everyone else when playing them….. No really…. After you.

When it comes to the achievements of this slightly depressing little country….. Even with all the footie….. the democracy….. Let alone the globally recognised international nature of importance by dint of language……. There is an elephant in the room…….

And the world winces in sympathetic embarrassment every mealtime.

English food…… What happened? Whilst France whistles up a thousand smug delicious soft cheeses, delicate and refined sources and dressings effortlessly derived from an incalculable range of local culinary traditions…… The English counter attack with equally ambitious culinary marvels.

Toast for instance. Very impressive.

Whilst the Spaniards, who despite their love affair with fascism and destroying most of the cultures of South America, can whip up a fantastic paella and use olive oil artfully at the drop of a hat.

The English answer with pies….. Marvelous.

Well that and the mighty sensual delight of pretty much anything deep-fried but slightly aged and cold.

The Italians may be generally useless at everything except creating trivial historical sidelines such as the Renaissance  (pretty pictures!), but when it comes to filling the belly on a regular they have reason to be complacent.

The Americans are clueless and unoriginal when it comes to the kitchen but they have done a great job of providing dishes in such volume that obesity is seen as normal. That and asking endless questions. “Would you like fries with that?….. Which of these forty-two dressing won’t make you vomit?…… Would you like a long tall/short/wide latte?…….. Why are you beating your head rhythmically against concrete?”………

In Florida you could starve to death simply by feeling a little vacant when peckish and giving the wrong answer……. “Good choice!”

The English sitting in their benighted, grey, depressing little houses should thank the world for two important things when it comes to mealtimes.

A.  India……

B. That they are not Scottish. Those people eat offal.

Highway Mayhem – A View From Two Wheels

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The roads in Thailand may be good, but sadly they are also lethal. With some of the highest accident statistics in the world, you don’t have to spend long riding them on two wheels, to realise that there is something seriously amiss.

When it comes to driving in Thailand it is time to ritually fling the rulebook from the rear window of a fast-moving Totoya Corolla whilst veering lazily between lanes and ignoring anything resembling traffic lights. Driving in Thailand requires not only new definitions, it also requires nerves of steel and healthy faith in the unalterable truth of karmic destiny. Often described as ‘exciting’, the exhilaration of Thailand’s bustling pavements can soon transform into something suicidal if you step off the curb, into your vehicle and head out onto the open highway.

It is no patronising condemnation of Thailand to point to the lunacy on the roads. Thai people do it themselves and the sad fact is that some of the worst offenders are farangs who having spent years in their own countries shackled by observation of the highway code and a very real fear of penury or arrest. They come to the land of similes seemingly determined to systematically break every rule of the road, not to mention contravening something as obviously idiotic as basic common sense. The likelihood is that, when in Chonburi or Chiang Mai, the guy who just cut you up in the pickup, drifted into your lane without indicating or simply went smack into the back of your vehicle, hails from Sweden, Germany or Wales. When being confronted with the fact that he is a child-murderer waiting to be, he will simply look gormless as he adjusts his grubby singlet, sinks into his acrylic, supermarket-socks and says, “Hey this is Thailand! Jah! Same-same free!”….. Same, same ‘tosser’ is what he actually meant.

The Thai Government is justifiably worried sick about road safety. With between 12,000 and 17,000 fatalities annually accidents cost Thailand a staggering 2.1% total of GDP. Road accidents are now the third leading cause of death after AIDS and heart attacks, according to the country’s Ministry of Public Health.

It is worth examining some of the more truly surreal habits of the highways. First of all tailgating. This is where drivers speed along winding mountain roads at 120mph leaving only 15cm of room between their front bumper and the boot of the car behind. It is as close to arriving at a mobile analogy for true stupidity as it is possible to find. What is the point? It is hardly an aid to overtaking on the straight. When taking the fast single lane highways between Tak and Mae Sot, up to Erewan Falls or south of Hua Hin one sees vast, pointless centipede formations of tailgating vehicles all proving once and for all everything that Peter Purves of Blue Peter fame told us in 1978, “Only a fool breaks the two second rule,”……. The fool quotient seems staggeringly high anywhere people are allowed to pick up speed. This is compounded by the fact that only 15% of road users actually bother to, “clunk click every trip.”  If Jimmy Savile had ever actually been a human being, it might have made him weep.

Pulling out from the left into oncoming traffic without bothering to look right or simply to make a point about the fact that my car is more expensive than your car is a nationwide pass time particularly prevalent in Bangkok where car-status rivalry has transformed from a smattering of average snobbery into a menacing, rabid and untamed cult sweeping through the Central Business District from Sathorn to Ekkamai. Motorcycles don’t even count.

All this applies even more to overtaking. Any driver of something German (especially if they are German) and excessively shiny will see it as nothing less than an affront to his manhood to see anything Japanese and slightly grubby attempting to take up lane space ahead. If the grubby Japanese thing has only two wheels the fury of the man with the fat bank account will explode into a crescendo of indignant horn honking. Wealth is no barrier to automotive idiocy.

Lane discipline itself is simply seen by drivers as a provocation not to indicate. And of course driving the wrong way up the highway with an assortment of bikes, trolleys and worn out trucks is actually considered an obligation of road use in certain rural areas.

Remember all these manouvres – and many more – are best accomplished whilst having an aimless chat on your mobile-phone about things far less trivial than annhilation by impact-injury, as you balletically drift across lanes and mow down the entire family on the knackered Honda wave going the wrong way up the bus lane beside you…. thereby killing them all instantly. Hurrah!… Don’t worry. None of them were wearing helmets in any case.

Of course this whole lethal dance comes to a head in a water-drenched blood-bath of mobile inanity during spring’s Songkran festival when people celebrate the coming new year by killing each other in vast numbers in the name of fun. It didn’t use to be like this. These days how could anyone spoil the party by thinking that flinging a bucket of water from a fast-moving pick-up at an oncoming drunken motorcyclist doing 90mph is anything other than ‘sanuk’? Silly me!… Fun! Fun!  Fun is Songkran! My how he will laugh as his head gets crushed by a passing truck!

Pampered Pooches or Problem People?

©Dan White. No repro without authorisation.

Some dog owners live in confusion, thinking their beloved pet is actually a person like them,  with real human characteristics.  Dogs, on the other hand, emphatically believe their human nearest and dearest are simply other dogs, albeit a little ungainly. It can make for a worrying state of affairs.

Let me run this by you. There is a Chihuahua in Florida called Conchita who had a choking incident. Obviously it is a distressing experience for any owner of a beloved pet to see their pooch’s eyes bulge as they struggle for air. Conchita, however, was slightly different from your average pooch in that she wasn’t choking on a bone, a slipper or your favourite album cover. She was choking on her very own Cartier necklace worth thousands of dollars. Traumatised by the experience, the little furry Princess who her owner calls ‘the boss’ now refuses to wear diamonds at all.

Undeterred by the mutt’s obvious lack of material consciousness Conchita’s owner still spends $7000 per month to provide her with Louis Vuitton handbags (it’s a well known fact that dogs feel naked without a handbag), bikinis, pearls, dresses and indeed makeup.

It doesn’t stop there. Conchita also has a private bathroom, a pink four-poster bed shaped like a racing car, a widescreen TV and she lunches daily at the swish Miami Shore club, her preferred dish being grilled chicken.  Conchita has her own minder (a man, not a dog). She also ‘enjoys’ weekly manicures with her publicist.

One thing is obvious. This one-year-old 500g chihuahua is living the deeply unnatural life of a neurotic and very human heiress. The second thing that is obvious is that her owner is a total idiot. One Miss Posner, the numeracy of whose father’s dollar bills quite obviously outweighs the numeracy of her own brain cells points out,  ‘I am enamoured by her and so is everyone else’. She goes on to fantasise, ‘She is a demanding diva. She cries like a baby if she thinks she isn’t going to go to the Shore Club.’

Is Miss Posner deluded? According to eminent animal psychologist Dr Werner Krugar, ‘Dogs do not think they are people, they think people are dogs. As the owner, you need to relate to the dog as another dog, rather than a furry person!’  The inference of this is that Conchita should shed the penthouse lifestyle and Miss Posner would better earn Conchita’s love by bounding about pointlessly chasing inanimate objects and publically licking her own private parts.

Despite this learned advice, Miss Posner is not alone in attributing human qualities to her pet despite the fact that poor Conchita would probably be far happier if she was credited with being the dog she is rather than the mini-human her owner wants her to be.

Here in Thailand too a few selected dogs are lined up for lavish attention whilst the vast majority languish at the end of sois licking their festering sores (Although to be fair they haven’t yet occupied central Bangkok and demanded the dissolution of Parliament in the same way as their human brethren). The fact remains that Bangkok is not a very ‘dog friendly’ metropolis. It’s hard to find places to run, roam free and consistently fail to catch frisbees in your mouth. Pavements are uneven when they exist and more often than not you are pinned to the wall by the constant stream of traffic roaring up the all too narrow streets. To add insult to injury, many of the parks that do exist don’t even allow dogs entry.

The Thai dog-pampering industry has come up with answers to combat these gross injustices.

Situated near the end of Sukhumvit soi 28 in Bangkok’s upscale Emporium district, Ozono is a hybrid shopping mall, doggy playground and meeting place for the city’s upper echelons and the dogs they adore. Ozono founder, Khun Dhanesha, explains that the inspiration came from watching the frustration of pet owners at the woeful inadequacies of Bangkok for those both with privilege and four legs. ‘I have had dogs all my life,’ he says, ‘but Bangkok is not a dog-friendly city. You can’t bring dogs anywhere.’

Except to Ozono. There are trendy shops, chic cafes and plenty of green grass, all presented with a friendly nod and a wink to our joyfully surprised canine buddies. They bound blissfully, seemingly in slow motion, ecstatic in the freedom that Ozono provides. Tiny dachshund’s frolic playfully with mighty deerhounds in a utopian bonanza of doggy joy. Owners cavort too caught up in the sheer exuberance of being at Ozono.

Feel like you are looking a bit manky? Ozono’s ‘Aqua Dog’ Beauty Salon is a place for you and your dog to relax in relaxed bliss whilst enjoying the huge number of treatments on offer. The standout feature of Ozono is that the owner may be pampered in parallel with their beloved beast. Both you and Fido can sit about under the hair dryers reading magazines and making idle chitchat about all those things you have in common.  You can swap manicure or pedicure tips (well really only pedicure tips in the case of Fido) whilst ordering lattes.

Once you are both groomed to the zenith of perfection, step out into ‘Petropolis Park’. This 3,200 square meter, purpose-built pet-park is an enclosed oasis planted with tall trees, lush plants and thick shrubbery. Dogs can lounge at tables whilst owners cavort, defecate and run around to their little heart’s content.

There is a dark side to Ozono though. Huge gangs of swarthy soi dogs lost in resentment at the sheer injustice of what they are denied are known to gather at the entrance and bark menacingly at poodles stepping out of Mercedes.

Ozono isn’t the only dog-friendly hangout in the Thai capital. Another popular establishment is the aptly named Doggiedo swimming pool in another upscale part of town – Yen Arkat (meaning Cool Wind) in leafy Sathorn. This giant pool is full of toys for dogs and several decidedly resentful looking staff members in wet suits, swimming with their doggy guests and indeed doing their every bidding in terms of flinging things repeatedly. Owners sit at nearby tables taking photos. 
Prices vary depending on the size of the dog. 50 baht for a ratty looking midget you can carry in your handbag, moving up to 800 baht for a huge German shepherd.

Pooch can’t swim?…… No matter. Life jackets are provided. Does Fido understand life jackets? Of course not. The psychological scars will last a lifetime.

And what would this beautiful country be without the ever-ubiquitous spas that have become such an integral part of the lives of the privileged? Dogs, thankfully, are not excluded.

After a tough day choking on diamonds and frolicking in idyllic pastures a better class of canine can now soak in a fragrant tub scattered with orchid flower petals, or recline on a massage table as an expert masseur (trained not quite sure where) attends to those tired and aching muscles.

‘The special selected blend of herbs help to make the dogs unwind with even fierce dogs able to relax here at our Spa,’ points out veteran dog trainer Jare Jansrisuriyawong who conceived this ‘Thai Dog Resort and Spa’. Set on a leafy acre area of land, just on the outskirts of town, pampered dogs belonging to an even more pampered human elite appreciate treatments using a complex and secret blend of special herbs from Thailand, China and India.

‘I bred dogs for more than 8-years before noticing that some dogs experienced tension too,’ adds Jare, before pointing out the medicinal properties these very expensive treatments impart to his patients. Treatments include a lemongrass rub and the Ayurvedic application of hot stones. We are assured that the dogs really do appreciate this because they tend to fall asleep in the middle of it. Allowances are also made for the international nature of the clientele and most dogs are relieved to discover that the staff at Thai Dog Resort and Spa speaks perfect English.

What does all this say about the dogs on the receiving end of this lavish, complex attention formed by the projections of their owners? Well the simple answer, of course, is nothing at all. Dogs love to eat. They love to run about. They love to sleep. They love affectionate attention from those they trust. According to their breeding dogs will naturally simulate their programmed tasks. Sheep dogs without sheep will naturally herd anything that appears to move, be that a football a chicken or a child. Pointers point. Retrievers retrieve. Despite their reputation as useless ornaments poodles were actually originally also bred as retrievers and have a natural agility in water. Take away some of the haircuts imposed on them by their disturbed owners, and they might even appear proletarian. After border collies, they are also considered the most intelligent breed of dog. German Shepherds guard and attack. Pit Bull’s also attack, but only if accompanied by really bad rap music. Most dogs are bred for a purpose and the really bright ones (most of whom probably live on the street) are a mixture of many. Dogs are actually quite simple and loveable beasts. They are dogs. Their owners, however, are often rather more worrying.

That’s Not a Horse! (Absolute Phuket. 2007)

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

 

It’s amazing what raw eggs and beer can do to a man. What is more amazing is what they can do to a normally slow four legged beast that weighs as much as a truck whilst displaying a contrary nature.

Once a year in the small port town of Chonburi beasts that normally amble are inspired to hurtle as they race each other in a bonanza of rustic traditional prowess. Greyhounds, thorough bred horses and even Camels look like they are born to run. Buffaloes do not, but run they do. Whether it’s the raw eggs and alcohol that have been fed to them, the crack of the whip or a simple desire for it all to be over they pick up frightening speed over a 300 metre track under a burning hot sun under the gaze of hundreds of onlookers. This event has been happening for 136 years. By the beginning of the last century the races were well established. In 1912 King Rama V himself was a witness to the spectacle. It first started as a trade fair where farmers gathered to buy and sell buffaloes which were, and are, almost a form of currency in rural Thailand. Buffaloes are a status symbol even though their traditional role on the farm has been superseded by the tractor.   Many of the buffaloes taking part in the race never do farm work at all being trained and cherished for this event alone. The farmers raise them to be as lean and sleek as a buffalo can be.

Events start early in the morning as pick up trucks pull up to the ground disgorging reluctant seeming buffalo who are then led by their noses in single file into waiting pens. Before the serious business starts there is a parade of lavishly decorated carts drawn by equally lavishly decorated buffaloes preceded by a gaggle of elaborately dressed beauty queens smiling coquettishly as they pass, shimmering in gold and feathers. This being Thailand ‘sanuk’is the order of the day and following the procession is a brass band and streams of small children in fancy dress. As the buffalo count rises so does the smell of ordure and it is fast becoming imperative to watch your step if you want to keep your shoes clean. In the tents outside the spectator stands buffaloes take part in a beauty contest. With spectacularly long horns and tired eyes they are dressed in shiny blankets, tinsel and bunting. It is hard to tell the criteria by which the winner is chosen, buffalo beauty being an art only for enthusiastic connoisseurs. As the heat builds up the racing buffaloes are lined up in the sun beside huge metal tubs full of water. Farmers splash them constantly keeping them in shape for the big event. It is amazing in some ways that the races ever get underway as forcing these huge beasts into the starting gates against their will is no mean feat.  They buck and squirm as the scruffy race officials dance around them coaxing them into place. Often they break lose and make a run for it charging up the track solo and riderless to be corralled at the other end and returned to duty whether they like it or not.

Out of this chaos the riders get the nod and they are off out of the gates. Seeing a buffalo leap is an awesome if unlikely site, but at their first stride that’s just what they do. Mud flying everywhere they charge at full tilt up the track the jockeys perching precariously on their rear haunches hanging on for dear life whilst belting them with sticks. Some don’t hang on hard enough, tumbling into the dirt and buffalo waste. They do not come up smelling of roses although they are smiling in friendly embarrassment at having tumbled so publically. As one or other beast tares over the line the jockey dramatically leaps off its back running alongside it as it slows to a halt to be doused with water by the farmers waiting by the metal water drums. The races are short and intense after a seeming age spent getting the contestants into place. The signal is given with no warning and the race is over in seconds. Over the loudspeaker a laughing woman commentator gently mocks those who take a tumble.

Buffaloes are expensive in Thailand. They certainly cost more than motorbikes and so since these buffaloes don’t do any work they are quite a major investment in prestige. The prize money of 5000 baht to the winner seems small given the amount of time, work and trouble the owners put in. The truth, though, is that it is not about money. It is an event about culture tradition and that very Thai special ingredient that is all about fun. It is also an event that is very confusing to outsiders. One minute buffaloes are charging in all directions, the next it is all over and a farmer in a red arsenal strip is marching up the track with his thumbs in the air, apparently celebrating victory.

The event at an end the farmers load their charges back on to the trucks, ladies in useful scarves hose down the buffalo waste that now carpets the whole area and police direct the traffic  to the various corners of Thailand from where it first arrived. Within half an hour the place is deserted although still less than fragrant. Driving back through the countryside the road is lined with fields, water buffalo bathing languidly in ponds and ditches looking unconcerned as the sun beats down. Little do they know that with a small taste of beer and raw eggs and the crack of a whip they too could take a shot at being champions.

Invasion of the Frog Ladies

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

 

That gentle tapping on the shoulder, the melting friendly eyes…. Then the daunting, insistent simulated croaking. The frog ladies are here and you will buy the frog.

Dan White lives the horror.

All over Thailand where tourists gather, visitors will often find themselves playing a part in a very common scenario. There you are sitting in a cafe watching the world go by when you are approached by an orderly queue of ten old ladies wearing brightly coloured clothing, lots of heavy jewellery and elaborate hats resembling metallic Christmas trees. Be aware that you are in the presence of the elite of the elite of the commercial street wandering crowd. They are Asia’s finest and most persistent purveyors of things you may just want but most likely it has never occurred to you. They are Bodie and Doyle, Starsky and Hutch and Charlie’s Angels all rolled into one. You have just been confronted by a crack squad of frog ladies.

Descending from the misty hills of the wild borderlands near Burma they fan out across the country in orderly lines walking quite slowly. As they march the characteristic sound of wood scraped against wood echoes across the countryside accurately imitating the mournful cry of the humble frog. This confuses genuine frogs everywhere causing them to mate wildly. Once the frog ladies finally arrive at the front lines of Bangkok, Pattaya and Patong they employ a simple tactic to corner their prey, grind them down and eventually force them, terrorised and confused, to become the proud owner of the noisy wooden replica reptile. This weapon consists of a relentless, never ending repetition. It’s  harsh. As the first kindly, smiling old lady walks by you may gently decline her offer. Forget it. This makes no dent at all on the frog lady.  She stands beside you for a seeming eternity gently scraping at her frog, and indeed at the fibres of your sanity, using a small wooden stick. Smiling serenely the noise will start to bore into the inner most chambers of your consciousness growing in volume, the sound wafting gently into your future nightmares. Then just as you are about to break the frog lady moves on.

You may think it’s over. Think again. The nightmare is only starting. As one frog lady drifts off the next in the queue approaches and the routine starts all over again. The scraping, the gentle smiles, the funny hats, more scraping. Your nerve endings exposed, the world starts to jitter around you. It will not end. You will crack. You will buy that frog. The frog ladies know this. They are merciless. The fact that they know it is what gives them their friendly serenity. The only question for them is how long it will take you to crack.You will end up vacantly muttering “The horror, the horror, the horror” over and over again whilst weeping gently and beating your head rhythmically against concrete.

Frog ladies hail from the Akha tribe living in the mountains around Chiang Mai. They are famed amongst other hill tribes for their intelligence and commercial prowess. But on Thailand’s urban streets they do have competition. You may not want a noisy frog but this does not prevent you from being presented with the opportunity to wear a hat cunningly disguised as a goldfish. This sartorial delight could be complemented by a Zippo nearly the size of a pick up truck. If that doesn’t appeal try a string of dangling cuddly monkeys, a stuffed squirrel (perfect for the beach), an amorphous splodgy thing that goes splat or the eminently practical model tuk tuk made from old beer cans. In fact old beer cans provide the raw material for a plethora of objects that you might not want…. Planes, sailing ships, motorbikes. All seem to have been beamed in from a parallel world of miniatures where all vehicular transportation is sponsored by Singha Beer or Heineken.

Of course none of this is a bad thing. The wonderful reality is that Thailand is a country where the cities and villages teem with life and excitement and commerce of all kinds takes place on the street. It’s a country where one half of the nation seems to be in the constant process of feeding the other half. Snacking is a national obsession and it is virtually a government decree that where ever more than three people are gathered together in one place it won’t be long before someone pulls up on an adapted motorcycle or staggers by with an impossibly heavy load suspended from bamboo slung across their shoulders.  From these mobile cooking contraptions will emerge delicious steaming bowls of noodle soup, grilled fish balls, omelettes and a hundred other tasty, pungent delicacies. Going hungry in Thailand would take quite some effort.

Hungry or not, going into a culinary trance will not help save you from the gentle persistence of the frog ladies (no one has ever seen them eat). They will interrupt your reverie…..

Why not save yourself the bother and just buy the frog at the outset…… and the hat made of car parts, the bracelets made of sea shells. In fact invest in the giant Zippo and festoon yourself with cuddly monkeys.  Admire your fleet of thousands of small vehicles made of used beer cans. Embrace the void.

Bongos and Backpacks – Who Controls The Pajama People?

Dan White attempts to read the runes in a world where people drink from buckets and parade in pajamas.

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

What is it that getting on a plane and travelling to Asian countries does to the young of Europe, Australia and America? They climb into their economy seats on their cut price flights looking, sounding and talking as normal as anyone else. Within hours of arriving something transforms them and they appear from their rabbit-hutch guest house cubicles decked out in infant’s pajamas whilst eating a strict diet of peculiar pancakes and suffering from a compulsive aversion to footwear. The formerly average become the strangely shaped, flocking from all over the world to wear clothing that would have them arrested in their home country. Most alarmingly of all, they appear to have any sense of humour they might have previously possessed surgically removed on arrival whilst simultaneously acquiring a deep knowledge of all things and an almost messianic need to spread the infinity of their wisdom. It may be only a sinister coincidence that they are all reading from exactly the same book.

Who is doing these terrible things to our kids? What drives the newly anointed pajama people? No one is perfectly sure.  What is known is that for the pajama people money and the not spending of it has been elevated virtually to the status of a religion. They huddle in cafes exercising the virtue of thrift to an almost devotional degree. What is also known is that they enter into a parallel existence through certain portals. The three major ones being Khao San Road in Bangkok and the island of Koh Phangan in Southern Thailand whilst the small mountain town of Pai is now, undoubtedly, the pajama bastion of the north. All these places, like a Hadrian’s wall of cheap unreality, have become hives of the po-of-face and the baby-smooth-of-skin. They exchange tales of hair braiding, bad tattoos and all else that is not too costly. Suddenly perfectly healthy teenagers who in their real lives stacked shelves at Safeway’s, worked in the local pub just near Leatherhead or just completed their A-levels in grammer school in Tonbridge start speaking in a retro hippy patois that they can only be way too young to comprehend. All this whilst looking fashionably disinterested in the sure confidence that they have recently acquired a supreme knowledge. They are of the Book. With solemn appreciation they talk misty eyed of sunrise over the Taj Mahal or the latest Full Moon party… Something that they fail to grasp resembles nothing less than Aya Nappa or summer in Hove at its most naff.

Ominously, some of them start to juggle.

Traditionally it has been a cardinal rule for the pajama people to only collect together where other pajama people have been before them. Like worker ants they tread well-worn and defined paths labeled ‘authentic’ and ‘unspoiled’. Once a suitable spot is found the necessary hive support is constructed; banana pancake stalls, cafes run by a man who looks a little bit like Bob Marley, guest houses designed for the efficient breeding of mosquitoes and three internet cafes for each pajama person. In this way the collective assimilates the authentic and makes it suitable for pajama habitation. All this at an incredibly reasonable price.

What makes the pajama collective different from average tourists? The only way we know is to is to ask them. Like programmed drones they intone “We are not tourists, we are travellers.”  They prove this by bullying hard working, poverty-stricken rice farmers to sell them coconuts at an authentically cheap rate….  all the while jealously fumbling 400 dollar iPods.

Entering through any of the allotted portals to pajama planet is a disconcerting experience for the unwary. The first thing that will strike you is the largeness of their bags. For kids who wear so little clothing or footwear they carry an awful lot about with them. The untested theory amongst pajama experts is that the largeness of the bag carried on the back denotes the importance of status. So next time you are floored getting out of a taxi by the swinging, laden arc of an alarmingly perfumed backpack you can be sure that the person wielding it is surely a big cheese on Koh Phangan.

The second thing that will strike you whilst touring pajama planet is the very controlled and hierarchical nature of the conversations you might over hear. Like ancient shamans on a spiritual quest the mind of the collective is highly focused. Pajama people make the world’s finest accountants and conversations rarely stray far from the word ‘cost’. The second characteristic of pajama interaction is the highly evolved jockeying for status based on the ‘coolness’ of the places they have visited. Although they never stray far from the collective hives pajama people increase their status by talking of visiting places that other pajama people have never been to. Some of them even wildly claim to have eaten in restaurants that are not mentioned in the Lonely Planet. All pajama people know that this is just plain crazy talk. If it’s not ‘in the Book’ then it is not worth going to. Om.

The overriding tragedy of the pajama collective, is that it is held to ransom by a regional mafia for whom the manufacturing of plastic buckets drives a scandalous brutality. In a cruel and outrageous travesty of otherwise naive but slightly pompous fair play, innocent pajama people are forced to drink their dainty shots of sangsom mixed with battery acid and Farley’s rusks out of garishly coloured buckets forced on them by suspicious looking men in ripped jeans with greasy pony tails.  Some of them genuinely don’t understand that they are being humiliated by this brutal application of pastel shades. They guzzle away like cheery, maladjusted piglets before passing out on the sand or each other.

What happens to the pajama people when the pennies run out? One of two things. The best result is a flight home, a job back in Safeway’s or a well earned career as a real accountant with proper shoes and the same kind of hefty mortgage that brings a pleasant frisson of reality into the lives of others. The most horrific scenario is that they actually do learn to juggle. Once you can juggle there is no turning back. There is nothing for you but a life of bongos.

(c) Dan White.

Karaoke – Man’s Inhumanity to Man

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

It’s a little known fact that Daisuke Inoue, the supposed inventor of Karaoke failed to patent his invention and never received a dime for his creation even though, since it first appeared in the early seventies, it has taken over the world.

Good. He should be locked up for crimes against humanity. From Delhi to Dili the monstrous caterwauling of the supremely untalented, yet supremely unaware blights lives and provokes all the wrong kind of passions.

In the Philippines singing “My Way” is justifiably against the law as it provokes gangfights with guns. Just the opening chords are enough for sinister mustachioed men to head into a trance of aggression and reach for the pump action.

In Florida a demented 21-year-old woman attacked a man singing ‘Yellow’ by Coldplay. The reason for this violent outburst was precisely explained. He “sucked.”

She screamed, “You suck!” before she punched him in the mouth very hard. Clarity is good. We should understand her pain.

“It took three or four of us to hold her down,” recalled bartender Robert Willmette. When she was escorted outside, she “went absolutely crazy,” throwing punches at anyone who came in reach. Terrified patrolmen then blocked off the street, which inflamed the woman’s fury even further. Before they could handcuff her, she charged the improvised police barricade, head-butted an off-duty officer, drawing blood and knocking him out cold…….. All this might appear extreme. Extreme perhaps, unless you were actually privy to the rendition of ‘Yellow’ that set her off. Who is anyone to judge?
In fact the horror of this viral noise pollution is unlikely to be the work of Daisuke, an unassuming man whose main line of work to this day is selling cockroach repellant.

Most likely, this aural abomination was created as some kind of Nipponese revenge for having lost the Second World War. As the Imperial Japanese army was pushed back across the Pacific and the generals knew it was all over, some demonic psycho deep in the heart of the black-ops division of the Tokyo military machine conceived a revenge so evil and so perfect that ever after the rest of the world would regret ever having won the battle of Midway let alone having bragged about it. For those in the know revenge is sweet. There are inscrutable old men smirking in Okinawa rice paddies to this day.

And now look what they’ve done? You might be in the misty, scenic foothills of Mount Fansipan In North Vietnam. Perhaps enjoying a Pina Calada as the sun sets over the mystical sheen of the idyllic paradise that is Boracay in the Philippines…. As you gently drift off into a reverie of peace, tranquility and calm, you might think that the meaning of life itself could emerge from the softly lit calm gently permeating your soul.

Forget it. In one brutal instant the air is rent by that appalling mid-tonal wailing as some deluded and half drunk stranger manages to hit notes so painfully just off key that even Ornette Coleman would be scratching his head at the split 5ths. It is supposed to be ‘Moon River’ but actually sounds like the last stand of a pig being dragged out of a pick up and into the waiting abattoir.

Perhaps the cruelest horror of Karaoke is the effect it has on those who might otherwise be quite shy and unassuming.  Mousy secretaries suddenly turn into wild and savage sex pests as the strains of Tata Young’s “Sexy, Sexy, Sexy. Bitchy, Bitchy, Bitchy” consume their being and let loose an alter ego that no one could have guessed existed.

Maybe even more terrifying than the warped flowering of the sexually repressed is the smug chest thumping of the truly in love.

It is a depressing thought that some people must actually practice this at home.

One daren’t contemplate what is going through the mind of the cheery couple that get on stage and try to perform an authentically synchronized rendition of ‘Summer Nights’ from Grease. These people know all the moves! Olivia Newton John’s coy semi-virginal come-ons….. John Travolta’s vacant, high-pitched screech as the song is eventually drawn to an excruciating close leaving sane men weeping.

When threatened mankind is capable of swift collective action to defend the species. Governments step in and nationalise banks to defend our savings. Troops are dispatched to far away countries to shoot all kinds of poor people for reasons that no one can quite remember…  One can only hope that common sense will prevail and people do the right thing before its too late.

The time for action is now! Pull the plug! Yank out the fuse!…

Open the doors of the rehab center… Envy the deaf.

(c) Dan White.