What follows is an amended version of an article that was published in The Nose early this year. As it was going to print I was flying to Denver hoping to see Pops before he died of cancer. Sadly, he passed a few weeks later leaving nothing behind but shattered friends, re-united brothers and a myriad of unbelievably tru-ish (depending on who you ask) ‘John’ stories. This is the only true story that I know of because I was there and I have his prison diaries. Now that’s another story.
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It is generally accepted that there are three ways of getting busted in Thailand, or anywhere for that matter: the most common is that whoever sold you the drugs will dob you in to the cops for a profit. The second is somebody known to you drops you in the shit to save their own skin and the third is just plain bad luck and stupidity. My old man fell into category two.
It was October 1995, Autumn had arrived at the end of another predictably shitty wet Irish summer when I got a call from my aunt in sunny California. Word was that my errant father was now in the protective custody of the Thai Royal Police.
‘Well,’ I thought, ‘at least I know where he is now.’ I’d been planning a trip to Bangkok to catch up with the man who’d been masquerading as my invisible father for 20 years or so and was giving an oscar worthy performance so far. I’d recently acquired a P.O. Box address for him in Bangkok’s seedy Nana Plaza, but no home address. Luckily my initial plans were delayed by a month or so or else I might have found myself sharing his cell, guilty by association.
A few weeks later the flight was booked, my bags packed and Ireland’s reliably depressing weather was going to be drenching somebody else.
I hadn’t been to Asia since since the early 70’s after being born in Kathmandu in 1971. My parents were trail blazing hippies living the high life on top of the world with an eclectic group of truth seekers. A motley crew of poets, writers, artists, actors and musicians of all shapes and sizes had formed a colony of first world escapees and adventurers and were busy setting up book shops, workshops and rice paper printing presses.
My father opened The Rose Mushroom night club on Freak St. in the early 70’s. The first ‘club’ of its kind in Kathmandu and probably the ‘highest’ nightclub in the world which was to be the inspiration for the Himalayan pub scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Karen Allen’s character was based on a good friend, Tory French(R.I.P), an American heiress with a formidable capacity for alcohol and drinking mountainous men under the table. Poets mingled with Buddhist monks, off duty diplomats and rock and roll drummers(The Velvet Underground’s founding drummer Angus MacLise being one!) while smoking charras balls and spinning prayer wheels. My father gave away free hash to his customers as he was prohibited from selling it. I was born into the heart of this hippy, post beatnik, renaissance paradise. But enough of me let’s get back to the nitty gritty.
I landed in Bangkok’s Dom Muang airport in the company of three Northern Irish guys on their way to Brisbane to make new lives amongst the man eating sharks, deadly red back spiders and blonde meter maids. We shared rooms on Bangkok’s famous Khao San rd, several tuk tuks and a few beers too.The only thing we had in common was that we were all embarking on an adventure. Funnily enough I was only able to understand every other word they said such was the thickness of their bog accents, I had more coherent conversations with the Thai bar girls.
As soon as the Paddies left I moved across the road to something suiting my meagre finances; a room with a wobbly fan and a colony of ants for company, I was poor in cash but rich in problems. My first problem to solve was finding the prison. It took me three sweaty days of asking for directions, getting on the wrong bus and generally getting frustrated before I found myself outside the gates of Klong Prem Prison. Remember, this was the mid 90’s, years before internet smart phones and google maps!
Klong Prem Central Remand Prison is comprised of the ‘Bombat’ or the holding prison and Lard Yao-the men’s prison for sentences less than death or 33 years. It’s situated a few km’s north of the city, is surrounded by a rat, snake and mosquito infested moat a couple of metres wide with the usual high walls capped with razor wire. The whole complex regularly floods in the monsoon season, the open sewers too.
‘Bombat’ is the first stop for convicts and those awaiting trial while going through the judicial system. After half an hour of asking directions and walking down dead ends I finally found the visitor centre as a bus load of prisoners were returning from the courts in Sanam Luang. I knew they were prisoners because they were weighed down with rusty 8kg leg irons. Each prisoner held a piece of string tied to the middle of the chain between their legs, some had garters tied to their legs supporting their chains. This stopped the chaffing of the ankles but also made them resemble depressed penguins on the march.
I filled out the forms at the visitor centre, presented my passport and was told that there was another guy waiting to see my dad. The guard pointed him out to me at the back of the waiting area. He looked like Jean Claude Van Damme(JC) with his tanned muscled body, crew cut hair and action man face. After I introduced myself he reluctantly told me that he’d been in the same cell as my father only last week. He was French but spoke better English than my school boy French. We made awkward conversation and smoked Krung Thep cigarettes (locally known as klong dip on account of their cheapness and foul taste, resembling what might be found in the city’s rancid canals-klongs). Straight away I felt that I could trust him, I think he could sense that I was all at sea and he must have felt some sympathy for pops. We were the only sweaty farangs among the families and girlfriends making their weekly or in some cases daily visits to see loved ones.
Eventually people started to move towards the main gates across the road where I had seen the chained prisoners disappear earlier. A few moments later we were sitting on a bench in a small courtyard with plants and trees in front of two sets of inch thick iron bars separated by a wall of hot dusty tropical air. I was nervous and sweaty. These were not ideal conditions to meet lapsed family members but nothing about my life had been ideal up to that point (kitchen induced drug and alcohol dependency-crap jobs-Catholic education and too much fucking rain) so you could say I was used to falling in the deep end and coming up for air.
Within moments there he was. All my memories of him were with a long mane of sunny hair, colourful clothes and a big smile. All that remained was the smile. The mane had been chopped down to a crew cut which revealed his enormous ears (I count my blessings that they skipped a generation). He was surprised to see me but played it cool, the next half an hour was probably one of the most awkward moments of my life. I mean, what do you say to your father in a situation like this?
‘Long time no see!’ ‘Fancy meeting you here!’
‘How the hell are you?’ ‘Where have you been?’
JC could sense this and after making some small talk eventually left us to talk in relative private. I can’t remember a thing of what we talked about apart from his unfounded optimism that he was going to be released by the weekend and he’d be off to Bali on the next plane out of Don Muang international airport.
After buying a few slabs of Pepsi and a jar of Nescafe and Coffeemate at the prison shop for pops I left Klong Prem on the back of JC’s 750cc Kawasaki. Pops had given me some contacts to go see, but first things first, we went to JC’s apartment for a joint and a beer. I wasn’t sure of the sensibility of this but after he’d placed a damp towel at the base of the door to stop the sweet pungent smell of Thai stick from wafting down the corridor I felt stupidly at ease and let the days events sink in.
I was stoned, on the back of a motorbike and racing down a freeway on my way to see a friend of my father’s at the famed Atlanta Hotel. We entered the lobby and asked the receptionist to page Ted so and so. A few moments later the living incarnation of drug induced paranoia crept down the stairs and sat down with us in The Atlanta’s famed restaurant.
Paranoia is rife among Thailand’s expat junkie community. During my three month stay in Bangkok Ted continually amazed me with his heightened sense of paranoia. He was convinced the CIA or DEA were watching him. Why, I never asked but you only had to look at the yellowed whites of his eyes to understand, and why he was staying in a hotel that actively discouraged junkies and bar girls was beyond me but in hindsight it was probably a master stroke of genius. Ted was no help but that didn’t matter, he was likeable and I needed friends.
Ted filled me in on some of the details of my father’s arrest;
A young Scottish acquaintance of my father got busted one day in his apartment which unfortunately was in the same block as my father’s. As the cops and sniffer dogs were leading him down the stairs to a living hell the little fucker lead them to my father’s door, perhaps he wanted some company.
480 grams of cocaine and a party sized bag of smarties later, and pops was staring down death by firing squad. Possession of cocaine is a category 1 offence and carries a sentence of life imprisonment (25 years and a huge fine) or death if disposal(dealing) can be proven and with half a kilo of the stuff pops was gonna need to prove that he had a very big personal habit! Don’t get me started on the smarties.
If the truth be told, according to the daily papers another accomplice, a young English squealer, was picked up and then set about relieving himself of the confidentiality agreement he had with his business partners tout de suite! Pops was looking at life in the belly of the Big Tiger, the local name for Bangkok’s infamous Bangkwan high security prison, so-called because it’s a man-eater and you rarely get out alive. Its little brother is ‘The Bangkok Hilton’, a.k.a.Yard Lao, where the room service is legendary!
Facts of life in ‘Bombat’ prison:
1-You pay an inmate to make your food ‘cause what they supply you will kill you, that is if there is any left. 2-Prisoners sleep up to 60 to a cell, head to toe, with 24/7/365 flouro strip lighting. 3-One open toilet per room. 4-Everything you could possibly think of is rife and available for a price. 5-You will not meet Nicole Kidman there. 6-Death and disease are common.
Over the next three months I met all sorts of insidious characters, boring expats and sauced up journalists as I tried to navigate the Thai legal system. I wasn’t sure how I was going to help pops. So far I was buying trading supplies in the prison shop for him, perhaps I could get him a decent lawyer, perhaps one of his old wealthy friends could buy him out. I didn’t know and was doing my best just to stay sane. My worst memory is of foolishly going to the American Embassy one insufferably hot day without any real idea of what I was going to say. The conversation went something like this:
‘Hello, I’m the son of so and so and I can’t prove it because all record of my existence and lineage went up in a puff of smoke in Kathmandu when the government offices were burnt down by a well-aimed thunderbolt from the Hindu god Shiva. Something to do with Richard Nixon, the King of Nepal and foreign drugs policy, yeah long story, anyway, pops got caught with half a key of White Powder Ma’s best Mighty White and, err, what are you going to do about it?’
The career cunt behind the bullet proof glass said ‘nothing’ and more or less gave me the bum’s rush out the security door. If he’d murdered a prostitute or robbed a bank things would have been different, anything but drugs. This was the word among my newly found expat drinking buddies who knew all the likely outcomes and didn’t hold back in their grim assessments of pops’ chances.
I left the embassy with angry tears cutting down my cheeks and vowed never to go back, instead I went to my father’s pad where I was staying and smoked the biggest joint I could roll. I’d scoured his place for anything incriminating, incase I got an unwelcome knock at the door from you know who, and found so many pill bottles and old baggies of weed that a local strain of paranoia started to infect me. I got Ted to come over and do an inventory of what I’d found. He was happy to take a substantial commission before I flushed the rest down the toilet. I kept a few downers for myself so I could lose a few days here and there when things got too nightmarish.
Progress on my dad’s case was slow. He hadn’t been arraigned yet and was starting to fantasize about being busted out by his old buddies. Truth is they wouldn’t have touched him with a barge pole. I paid his lawyer a visit whose office was just a short walk up Sukhumvit. It lasted all of 10 minutes. ‘It’ll cost US$ 60,000 to buy him out of ‘The Monkey House’ with a medical certificate from the prison doctor, mai pen rai(no problems),’ said the lawyer from behind his desk. I looked incredulously at him and then at the mural of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers covering the walls and then at Fat Freddy’s Cat in the corner by the water cooler. Seriously, I couldn’t make this up if I tried. I bailed out of there and went straight to my home away from home, Cheap Charlie’s Bar on Soi 11, giving the owner, Satit, strict instructions to get me as paralytic as an Irish man can get. I was Satit’s best customer for several months.
Ted rocked up a few drinks later and did several laps of the block to make sure he wasn’t being followed. He eventually relaxed enough to neck a few shots of whiskey before arriving at his preferred passively paranoid state. I told him about the lawyer which I instantly regretted ‘cause he launched into a tirade about ‘drug stitch ups’ and ‘DEA’ informants and then started accusing the poor sex tourist schlub at the end of the bar of being a ‘Narc’. Business as usual at Cheap Charlie’s, the best bar off Sukhumvit.
Another remarkable character who I met in Bangkok was Dr Max Henn, Ted’s landlord. Pops had told me to call on the ‘Doctor’ for a bit of guidance and advice. He was the owner of The Atlanta Hotel and one time spy for several of the world’s clandestine intelligence agencies. One day in his office he pointed out the bullet holes in the walls left over from failed attempts on his life, he also pointed out his prized portrait of Maggie Thatcher in his office and a picture of Louis Armstrong, George Bush Sr. and the King of Thailand that hangs in the restaurant. The Doctor was an old friend of my father’s and helped me out with various requests even though he was hitting 80 and juggling two Thai wives. He sadly passed on at the grand old age of 96.
It was becoming obvious that pops wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry and would soon be transferred to ‘The Hilton’ or worse yet ‘The Big Tiger’, to serve out a long sentence. Death or 33 to life were the expected outcomes. JC had asked his miracle-working French lawyer to help out as I’d dispensed with the services of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brother after my first and last visit, but even she couldn’t see much hope unless a father’s ransom was paid.
I was coming to the end of my stay in Bangkok and after 3 months of paranoia, stress, humidity and bad cigarettes I’d had enough. I’d been living in his flat, getting to know him by wearing his clothes which fitted me just fine and reading his books and diaries. The diaries interested me until I read about my younger half brother being flown regularly from America to holiday in S.E. Asia. There was me all fatherless and under the kosh of restrictive Catholic Ireland when I could have been drinking Singapore slings by the pool and working on my understanding of south east Asian culture. Pops had been living ‘The Life’, I felt forgotten about. I stopped reading and started packing my bags. I hadn’t achieved anything of note in regard to his case, which was pretty open and shut, and I sure as hell didn’t have the money to buy him out so my job was done. I went home after Christmas, a New Years basket case.
While inside, Pops got to know his true self and what really goes on in the Thai collective mind that most of us never see or experience. Their close attachment to Buddhism, realistic views on bodily functions and general acceptance of their lot in life. I bribed the prison guards(known as commodores) for extra visiting time, had a Christmas contact visit and my first face to face adult talk with pops. We shared a packet of Camel filters, the commodore let him sneak a few extra packets in with some hidden antibiotics.
My father got 25 years and was eventually repatriated to America as part of a standing prisoner repatriation agreement in 2000 after serving four and a half years. The Yanks processed him in LA for a few weeks then released him into the guardianship of an old friend. He was tattooed from elbow to knee, a bit malnourished and humbled but otherwise alive and more importantly hadn’t contracted any fatal diseases other than life.
Sadly, Pops passed away in March of this year after a short stoush with cancer. All he left behind were his prison diaries and some untold stories. I scattered his ashes with my half brother during a snow blizzard high in the Rocky Mountains, a world away from his Thai nightmare.
When friends would ask him what he was doing in The Monkey House he’d reply rather matter of factly ‘Oh, you know, just growing my nails.’