Over my years of worldwide adventure travel I have collected a large set of stories. The content of each varies wildly, from hilarity to destitution, from kindness to fear and from mishap to perfection. Join me in my new segment for the Travellers Post as each week I recount a different story from my life on the road.
One – Banged up in Bangkok.
We begin this saga at the tender age of 19, with a story that would be most travellers worst nightmare and one that more than a decade on I still feel somewhat inadequately prepared to discuss.
My sparse memory of the events goes like this:
We’d been staying in a rather affluent area, in an expensive hotel as part of a middle class holiday package. I was visiting Bangkok as part of a group of three, and the first couple of nights there we had found ourselves frustrated by the lack of bars at which we could not be chastised by women of ill repute.
Day three we had been on a river tour and found ourselves early evening, in the area of the city frequented by back-packers and western tourists. Being young, single, blue-blooded males the promise of meeting women whose services came without financial transaction was something we were not willing to miss. So, we decided to stay out and have a few drinks without returning to the hotel to get changed, drop off cameras, watches and other signs of western affluence.
I remember the first couple of beers perfectly well, but for the third our group decided upon a cocktail. This is the moment that not only my own but the memories of the rest of my trio goes completely blank.
Fast forward to a scared and mostly naked 19-year old me, in a 20x20ft jail cell with 30 other men. I came-to handcuffed, dirty and terrified on the floor and still not in my most cognitive of states, decided I needed out. There and then!
The cell was akin to a large steam room, with everyone sat around on the solitary bench that ringed the room. The only entrance/exit was a steel door embedded in the wall with a grill of iron bars at face level. Deciding that this had to be a mistake, I got to my feet and with still cuffed hands proceeded to grab the bars and shout for assistance.
I had failed to realize that most of my cell mates were sleeping as this was now the small hours of the morning and my cries for help were not met with support, from either side of the door.
Someone got up behind me and while distracted and shouting through the doors decided the quickest way to shut me up was to palm my head intro the grill in front of me, swiftly knocking out my front two teeth. Without thinking and with every prison movie I’d ever seen flashing through my mind I span on the spot and with clasped hands brought them into the side of my attackers face.
The metallic band of the handcuffs I was wearing split the skin of the lady-boy who I now realized was my attacker.
Despite the fact that I had won this altercation, it prompted other members of my cell to take action. And immediately I was confronted with three other men also wishing to physically shut down my protestations.
When I heard the door open behind me and having avoided the onslaught of my cell mates I briefed a short sigh of relief. The authorities were here, and I thought, this horrific mistake was nearly behind me. As I turned around to thank my saviors in blue I was met by a fist to the lower rib cage, as I hit the floor I was met by several boot heels and I realized no one was coming to save me.
I lay there upon the filthy floor, beaten and bloodied and at that point decided I would let this play out as it was necessary to do so. They took the handcuffs from my wrists and immediately before I had even breathed my sigh of relief, now took my hands and re-cuffed them behind my back.
The police having now left the room and me clad in only my underwear and staring down 30 other Thai inmates, with hands I could not even use, my survival instincts said “stay down, and shut the hell up”!
I awoke again at some point mid morning, A solitary broken ray of light illuminating the dust particles in the air, head propped on a discarded plastic bottle and the boxer shorts giving me my only semblance of modesty, soggy, with the vague recollection that I’d had to piss myself as my cuffed hands were not equipped to pull them down.
I remember lying like that for what felt like an eternity, in reality, I imagine it was between 4 and 6 hours.
By mid afternoon various people had come and gone and finally my number was called.
I was issued a towel (a grandiose term, perhaps loincloth is more appropriate) marched down to an ‘interview room’ where my two friends now sat, never before had I welcomed the site of a familiar face in such desperate terms and it was all I could do not to shed tears of relief.
My summoner now explained to the three of us that the night before I had been brought in and charged with the consumption of a class-A drug. Further more he explained that they had on record my urine samples which categorically proved I had taken Rufilin. Upon hearing this I breathed a sigh of relief, because obviously whatever infraction I had committed during the blank spaces of my memory could be chalked up to the proven fact that I was under the influence of the date rape drug.
Seldom does the path of a Thai jail detainee run smoothly however, I was informed that Rufilin is a class-A drug in Thailand and since I could not prove I hadn’t taken it voluntarily they had cause to prosecute me for its use, a mandatory sentence of ten years.
Furthermore, I was told, I would return to my holding cell (my previous nights accommodation) for 3 months while I awaited trial, but that afterwards, given that they had my urine samples on record, it would be a dead-cert that I would be serving ten years courtesy of the Bangkok Hilton.
With this revelation, my accuser/warden/translator departed, left me and my two friends, reeling, panicking and all but sobbing from the news.
I remember sitting there in a state of utter destitution, with a feeling that this was a nightmare I was about to wake up from yet knowledge that this was not so. I remember going through the platitudes of acknowledging how ridiculous the accusations were, how surely in the 21st century these things could not stick. And that surely my embassy, my country, or my skin colour would at least make sure that this was not to be so. These were at least the thoughts in the first twenty minutes sat in this clinical, steel and concrete chamber. By the latter half of the hour in which we were allowed our imaginations and deepest fears to play off one another it seemed so possible, so true and utterly inevitable.
Our translator returned, with the revelation that he had ‘discussed with his superiors’ and that I may be allowed to walk free today should we pay a fine for my misdemeanor.
There was no amount he could have quoted that would have seemed less welcoming than my freedom.
Forty thousand Baht or at the time, nine-hundred and seventy-two British pounds meant myself and my travelling partners being escorted around various banks and maxing every credit card, travellers cheque and converting every piece of western currency we had to get to an amount close to what had been asked for. With this we had about eight hundred and twenty pounds and upon returning and handing this over we were told it was acceptable.
With the new knowledge that I had avoided my fate, my mind began to consider the other implications of the nights affairs. Lying upon the dirty, cold jail floor, the least of my concerns was the whereabouts of my watch, iPhone, camera. Never mind my shirt, belt, shorts and shoes. We had paid for my freedom and we had signed documentation written in Thai saying god-knows what. While to this day I have no idea what it promised, I can only assume it guaranteed a complete lack of culpability on the part of the arresting officers and a complete admission of guilt on my part. Finally being allowed to walk, barefoot, from the station that day, felt like a second chance, like a rebirth, and yet on the way to my taxi I was stopped with an abrupt hand to the arm.
“what is the password to your phone” the voice said.
“it doesn’t have one” I replied.
“if you tell us, then if we find it we will be able to return it to you” he replied.
I said four numbers, the implication that this was the police’s admission that they had all of my belongings barely registering. I was now free, this nightmarish twenty-four hours now fading in the rearview mirror of a Tuk-Tuk.
Putting this story down almost a decade later, I bring up wounds that I do not truly believe have healed. While I tell this story earnestly and completely in the way that I remember it, I do accept my own culpability, not for the events that transpired, but for my own actions (attitudes, and attire) that led to them. For the longest time I would not have returned to Thailand but finally feel I have accepted what happened and now could.
Having travelled now more extensively I see and now understand the influencing factors that were at play that day. In my experience of the world, the times that you are in real danger, are those in which you are in a place in which western media is prevalent (yet in which the local people have no possibility of achieving the materialistic goals forced upon them).
When travelling in areas which while financially poor, the subsistence living of the population gives them all that they need to have a full and happy life with nothing more advertised to them than that which they need, then you as a western traveller, are as safe as you can be.
When you travel in a place marred by a tourism industry in which a white face represents a life you will never have or just another tourist coming to your city to pay to sleep with your daughters, then the impulse to cheat them, to do your best to gain what you think they have is understandable.
The experience I had in Bangkok did change me profoundly.
For months afterwards, I was disturbed, nervous, and only able to find solace in the comfort of my home. And it was not until many months had passed that I was able to see the experience for what it was. A young and naive traveller, being taken at the mercy of a world he did not know.
I have learnt from this experience and now continue to travel the world and in places that on paper are more corrupt than those in which this event took place.
I have learnt the importance of being open, amicable and trusting of people whilst not flaunting that which they may not have.
This has been the first time I have put these events down on paper and doing so still stirs unwelcome feelings and memories, yet if I am honest with myself, these were events that whilst perhaps did not need to happen in their brutality did need to happen to forge me into the man I am today.
It is also a thank you letter to the friends who were with me then, for blitzing their own savings and shedding tears with me in that interview room, for without them and their generosity, I may still be a resident of Bangkok’s finest.