I met Raj in a narrow Bangkok print-shop while I was getting some passport-photos taken for a Vietnam visa. Like every other shop in the city’s leafy core it seems, this one was squeezed in between two foot massage parlours. So when the lady running the place told me that the photos would take twenty minutes to process, I asked her which one of the two masseurs was the best. But before she could say a word, this deep London accent erupted from over my shoulder.
“Hah. Don’t waste your time on these dingy little joints,” came the voice, “I know the place you need to go.”
I spun around and came nose-to-nose with this portly, middle-aged brown man, my height, dressed in a crisp white shirt tucked neatly into black pants, the whole of him wrapped up in a cologne that cleared the sinuses like strong peppermint gum.
“I was just on my way out,” he said, “why don’t you join me for a walk and I’ll introduce you to the best foot-massage joint in town.”
When you travel alone, especially for a long time, you develop an instinct. You can smell the difference between genuine kindness and those too eager to help. “Actually,” I replied, “I’m planning on doing a little writing this afternoon.”
“Really, what on Earth for?’”
“Writing helps me understand why some things happen… why other things don’t happen.”
“Are there still things to write about in this little world of ours?” He leaned in closer, “You know, I could get a book published in a day… depending on the subject matter—what’s yours?”
To have a dream is to have a great weakness. Raj’s claim had its intended effect, he made a puncture in the armour from which to pry.
I told him my dream.
Raj’s smile grew wide, “Is that actually how you introduce yourself? Ha-ha-ha!” he chortled with the rhythm of a motorcycle running out of gas, “How fortuitous to meet you… heh… my name is Raj… now please entertain me, how does Bangkok fit into your political hypothesis.”
“I believe that ASEAN is evolving, like the other emerging regional organizations around the world, into a fully fledged federation with a common court, currency, legislature, and executive. And this is where ASEAN began, in 1967 with the Bangkok Declaration.”
“Ha-ha, are you sure that didn’t legalize gay-marriage?”
“I wish it had, it’s still so taboo in Asia.”
Raj exchanged some baht with the women at the counter for his print-outs, and she clasped her hands together. “Kap koon ka.”
“That’s it, I’m ready now,” he said, “shall we go?”
We strolled outside under the fearless Thai daylight and into the puzzle of tuk-tuks, fatalistic motorcycle taxis, straight-cut businessmen, entrepreneurial call-girls, diligent street vendors selling their wares from sidewalk tables, resilient cockroaches, quick-footed geckos, and world-eyed backpackers that characterize so much of the downtown’s flamboyant street life.
Raj walked with a slothfulness uncommon among those with his serious style of personal dress. “ASEAN is such a silly tin-pot club,” he said, “why would they even make such a useless thing?”
“Revenge.” I replied.
“To stop the cycle of revenge. In 1965, when Malaysia became independent of the UK, pretty well all of her neighbours were pissed off for one reason or another. Singapore was acting like a new divorcee over its bitter rejection from joining the country. The Philippines was angry about the inclusion of northern Borneo into Malaysia, which it also claimed. And the Sukarno regime in Indonesia went nuts over what it perceived to be an attempt by the English-speaking world to encircle the country and divide the Malay people.”
“They’d be lucky to be taken over by the Empire, just look at Hong Kong, Canada, and Australia, they’re all rich now. It’s paranoia.”
“Not really, think of it from an Indonesian perspective. In a few centuries, the British had largely replaced the peoples of Australia and New Zealand to the south. To the east, Indonesia shared a land border with Australia in New Guinea, which administered the eastern half of the island as a territory until 1975. To the north, the United States prosecuted the Vietnam War together with Australia and New Zealand from bases in Thailand and the Philippines—itself a former colony of the US. And though the independence of Malaysia and Singapore from the UK might ostensibly be considered a weakening of Anglo influence, Indonesia perceived it as a way of preventing the unification of the Malay-world into a kind of Greater Indonesia.”
“Hah. As if things would have been better if we left them on their own,” Raj pointed around the street, “look here, these people can barely run a plastic sidewalk table covered in a bit of cloth, let alone a nation.”
“These people will build more than just a nation, they will build a federation. It was at the invitation of Thailand, that five men representing Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia gathered in the tranquil resort town of Bang Saen, with her easy sea breezes and golf courses, to find a way to overcome the vengeance of Malaysia’s neighbours, threatening communist insurgencies, the struggle of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, and bound the region together. Not the west.”
“This is nonsense. What could you possibly learn from visiting the places where treaties were made?”
“I think all of our creative works capture an energy of the place where they’re produced, whether it be a painting, poem, song; or a treaty. I visited Bang Sean. There, I saw the sun fall into the sea as people for the length of the beach gathered around great barrel-shaped khom loy lanterns, constructed from mulberry paper wrapped around a bamboo frame. Too large and awkward for a single person to light, I looked on from the sand, as families, friends, and lovers supported the lantern while one person lit the torch from underneath. They cheered and laughed as the paper lantern lifted, escaped their fingertips, and climbed ever so gently into the sky, joining the other floating lights of the night, all hanging together like the notes of a love song.
“This is what the leaders of the original five members of ASEAN did when they negotiated the Bangkok Declaration. For they too lifted a light into the sky, an idea of regional unity through slow and steady political and economic integration, an idea which grows brighter and stronger as ASEAN assumes her rightful place amongst those skyward beacons illuminating the path toward the unification of the human race: the European Union, the African Union, the Arab League, the Union of South American Nations, and the United States of America.”
Raj stopped to wipe his brow. “A nice thought perhaps, but what about you, were you alone?”
I couldn’t judge whether Raj was being serious or just setting up a punchline. “How can anyone be alone with dreams like these?”
He sputtered a bit before bursting into a great roar, “Ha-ha-ha! You know, maybe a foot massage would do me some good. Let me just drop off my things at the apartment—it won’t take long, it’s just here. I would like to join you, that is, if you have time.”
“When you carry little, there’s lots of room for time.”
“Ha ha. Excellent,” Raj said, and steered me toward the entrance of a classy high-rise apartment. He swiftly led me through a lobby of brass and mirrors.
I watched him activate the elevator with a swipe card. “Tight security you got around here.”
“Anything to keep the scum out,” he said, without his usual joviality. We exited at the twenty first floor and entered the door immediately to the left. His flat unravelled from the doorway to a wall of glass, showcasing the great sparkling city of the Orient as if it were a jeweller’s window. Raj rested his briefcase against a side table, a pedestal really, holding up a brass buddha statue and picture frame.
“Looks like you.” I said.
“Yes. With one of the Princesses of Thailand,” he replied, holding back a smile. “Ok, that’s it, let’s get out of here.”
In our time together, Raj was definitively right and truthful about at least one thing: the foot massage. First, the agreeable staff draped us in soft white gowns. Then came the oil, the firm but gentle working of the soles, the precise pressure exerted by the thumbs into the arch, the splaying of the toes and the caressing of the spaces in between, the whole service topped off with a delightful cup of green tea.
Raj blew across his cup, summoning a steam dancer that twirled joyously across his tea before joining the air. “Where will you go next?” he asked.
“I”m going to Vietnam tomorrow, that’s what the passport photos are for. Then maybe Malaysia, or Singapore. As long as I reach Jakarta, it’s sort of a dream of mine to see the ASEAN Secretariat with my own eyes.”
“Vietnam tomorrow…” Raj said, “You know, I like your project, it’s good to get out in the world and follow your dreams. Maybe I can put you in touch with some of my friends. I’ll tell you all about them on the way, let’s get your photos shall we?”
Back on the street, Raj proceeded to tell me about all the ministers and businessmen he knew not only in Asia, but around the world. He even name-dropped a few Canadian politicians he claimed to know. I believed he knew them because nobody knows the names of Canadian politicians.
We stopped in front of my hostel, about half way between the massage parlour and the print shop. Raj took a moment to examine the building. “You know, this city can be a bit of a bore at times, why don’t we meet tonight, I’d like to hear more about your ideas, and then I’ll show you the real Bangkok. Let’s say eight, I’ll meet you downstairs in the lobby.” He handed over a business card from his shirt-pocket. “Consider this my opening offer.”
We shook on it.
After a quick trip to pick up the visa photos, I returned to the hostel and laid in bed flipping Raj’s card over and over. Something didn’t feel quite right. What was it about him that didn’t quite fit? I did what everybody does in these situations: I googled his name, email, and company, all of which produced exactly nothing. Who is this guy? Maybe he’s a back-room boy, pulling strings from behind the scenes. The project had so much to gain from his contacts in government and publishing, and little to lose, or so I thought. Still, an unease persisted. My general policy was to trust nobody immediately, nor withhold trust forever, as you will remember the people, even the ones you didn’t like, long after you forget the sunrises and the sunsets. I rested Raj’s card on my chest and fell into a dream.
I was walking along a mountain ridge in Cambodia and came across a stone staircase and began to climb. I found a temple at the top, and entered. I went further, into the inner sanctum and found a women praying before a statue gripping a bundle of incense. Her hands began to shudder, and then the whole of the temple shook violently. The temple disappeared and I opened my eyes to find a rattling old ceiling fan above me. Raj’s card still rested on my chest, it was almost eight. I put together my best backpacking attire. It’s a good idea to have a dedicated outfit for passing dress codes, conducting interviews, and for all purposes where you need to present yourself as something other than a backpacker. Such clothes are not easy to keep clean and cannot be scrunched up into a bag, so I kept them to an absolute minimum. One: a single good white shirt with these cool epaulettes on the shoulder, and a pair of black jeans that could pass for being formal, but had other uses. Everything needed other uses.
I settled into one of the plush couches in Raj’s apartment lobby, feeling great as always to be in the white shirt, and took in the sleek splendour of the place.
Ding—the elevator doors slid apart and Raj hurried out in shorts and a T-shirt, both marred in sweat. “Forgive me. I got a little carried away at the gym,” he said. “I tell you this apartment has a great gym complex—the best in town. If you don’t mind, let’s run up quickly to the apartment and I’ll get changed, then I’ll show you the real Bangkok,” he said, pumping a first into the air.
I followed Raj’s lead into the elevator, which once more, he activated with a keycard; a fact that would become important to me later. We returned to his apartment with the great view, the picture of the Princess, and the idol of the buddha.
“Are you a buddhist?” I asked.
“Heavens no, I’m a Hindu. I brought that silly thing for a friend in London… left it there on the stand for the night, and by morning, the house keeper had taken it upon himself to light incense and make a shrine out of it. Now I leave it there for him. The design is Indian anyway, but the bloody Thai’s don’t realize this, the fools… do you like Scotch?”
“I’m half Scottish.”
“And the other half?”
“A yes then. Please, take a seat, I want you to be comfortable for this.”
I eased into a leather couch near the window as the sound of glass clinks and Raj’s chortles emanated through a rectangular cut-out separating the kitchenette from the living room.
“Look at me, pouring drinks.” Raj peaked his head through the opening, “when I’m at home in London I’d leave this sort of thing to the butler. Ha-ha!”
Satisfied with his work, Raj came over and handed me the drink, “Enjoy that, I’ll be back in a moment,” and he disappeared into the bedroom.
The Scotch was rude, but not obnoxious, a welcome companion to gaze upon the steel and concrete exoskeleton of Bangkok’s organic mass. The city spoke.
And I did. And after a time, my mind wandered, as it often does, to the subject of organization. If earlier forms of organization are natural, Aristotle wrote in Politics, then so too must be the later forms, “for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end. For what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature, whether we are speaking of a man, a horse, or a family.”
If we accept that the end of a thing is its nature, then we could say, for example, that a sequoia tree is the nature of a seed. This does not imply that the tree is a final cause, or pre-determined in anyway. Quite the opposite, the seed may catch an unfavourable wind and land on a barren patch of soil. And even if it should land on a moist recess of good earth it will adjust to local conditions, it’s roots directed toward the most nutritious ribbons of soil just as it’s branches bend toward the best light. The exact configuration and growth that will take the seed to sequoia is unknown, yet, given a chance, it will find a way toward its destined form—its nature. Only time keeps them apart. Just as time keeps us, the lot of humanity, apart from our nature: our maximum possible expression, all the while living in each and every one of us, just as the great sequoia lives in the seed, and the butterfly in the caterpillar, so too does the destiny of humanity live in all of us. Only time keeps us apart.
Bang—the door popped open and Raj emerged out of a cloud of steam like a magician, dressed head-to-toe in black, “Ha ha, I hope you’re ready.” I thought he might just as well throw two doves into the air. In his first act, he led a trail of sharp cologne swooping around the room lighting candles. And in his second, he snatched away my glass. “One more for the road old chap?”
“There’s always time for one more… chap.”
The fresh little fires of the candles burned together with the sparkling lights of Bangkok, all to the sound of ice tumbling and scotch pouring into glasses, and then, with the stereo turned on, to the Pet Shop Boys.
This is all a bit odd, I thought; but then, what in the world isn’t?
A bracelet slid down my forearm as I reached to accept the glass. “Thanks.”
Raj sat at the far side of the couch, but took the middle pillow for his back, removing the sole obstacle between us. “What is it about travelling that makes good men decorate themselves with jewelry?” he asked.
“I guess people just want to carry their little part of the world with them. This was a gift from a boy at the temple of Preah Vihear… one of the most beautiful temples in the world. It rests on the Thai-Cambodia border, part of the spiritual axis centred on Angkor Wat, the political core of the ancient Khmer Empire. The temple sits atop a promontory, jutting out over the Cambodian basin, like this,” and I pantomimed the elevation difference with my hands.
“Unfortunately, these days the temple lands are disputed between Thailand and Cambodia, and this old majestic site is encircled by land mines and army-men sizing each other up with binoculars.”
Raj thrust an open-hand into the air, “Can you imagine, such a fuss over a pile of stone? The Thais should push the bloody lot over the cliff into Cambodia—here’s your temple back I’d say! Ha ha, Cheers!” We clinked glasses and took that first, freshest mouthful. I didn’t know then that it that would earn Thailand a place on my things-lost-drinking list.
“I’m always fascinated by you artistic traveller types. I bet you have all sorts of quirky habits. How’d you get in then?”
“A kind Cambodian villager drove me up the ridge on the back of his motorcycle. I must have looked like such a fool, it was the first time in my life that I was on a motorcycle, front or back. It got me thinking though, maybe one day, some place, I’ll learn how to ride one.
“At the top, I learned the worst way to get into an army base with only a carton of cigarettes is to give the whole carton away to the first soldier you meet. One cigarette per soldier is the best technique. From what I could see on the Cambodian side, the camp is pretty makeshift. To make barracks, they bisect cement sewer pipes with planks of wood, sleep on the top half and store their ammo and boots underneath.”
Raj realigned himself to face me directly, “If ASEAN is, as you say, all love and harmony and the rest of the lyrics from Imagine, then why is there still conflict between Thailand and Cambodia? Shouldn’t they be holding hands flying through the sky?”
“ASEAN is young, built one agreement upon another, treaty by treaty, and will take many more decades of obstacles, growth, setbacks, perhaps even collapse and rebirth, before it will reach its final form—what you might call, the full nature of SouthEast Asia. But even now, still in its infancy, when I asked the ranking Cambodian officer at Preah Vihear what he thought of ASEAN, he said to me: ‘Shot there possible, shot here possible, but with no ASEAN—war possible.’ Still, every now and again, skirmishes break out and stray bullets hit, damage, and weaken one of the great temples of humanity’s common spiritual and architectural heritage.”
Raj brought the glass to his mouth. “Pity.”
“As a Hindu, I think you will appreciate this. Preah Vihear is built on an inclined peak,” which I demonstrated by curving up my fingers, “so each of the five towers—which they call gopuras—rises in elevation, just like the five peaks of Mount Meru: the Hindu realm of the gods. In this way, each gopura blocks the view of the rest of the temple, so one discovers and approaches the inner sanctum step by step, level by level.”
“I’d love to see it from the front, that way, the whole thing would be blocked. Ha, ha, ha.”
I took another sweet mouthful while Raj’s laughter ran out of gas. “Maybe you can help me with something Raj,” I said, “there is a scene engraved at the second gopura.
I wouldn’t have noticed it were it not for a little boy wearing army fatigues and a ‘U.S. ARMY’ hat. He pointed it out to me. I stood there transfixed by the complete mystery of this scene, etched into the stone. I had no idea what it was. I could only describe it as a tug-of-war between two alien tribes. I was completely obliterated by a sense of wanting to know more. I think the world is like that: the more you see, the more you want to know, the more you need to know.”
“I couldn’t possibly care less. I’ll tell you all you need to know about Hinduism in one story. One fine day, while the god Brahma was sprawling about his garden, he saw a caterpillar metamorphosize into a butterfly. He then realized that life is transformation. A cycle of death and birth. And that the acts of this life influence our position in the next. Think of it. We are all reincarnates. Those of us who are high-born must have been very good last time. Karma makes the world simpler. Look at this earthquake in Haiti, they got what they deserved as far as I’m concerned. The earthquake is a symbol of the misdeeds these bloody Haitians must have carried out in their previous lives…”
I began to mount my defence against Raj’s argument for suffering, but the words trailed off as the bracelet’s reflection in the wide-world of the window tantalized, the place where the pale candle fires mingled with the scattered lights of the city. Gravity lessened it’s hold over my body with each passing moment, and I soon felt as light as a flame. The alcohol and whatever else was in the drink began to take hold. I placed a hand against the warm glass, drawn toward the light like a moth toward a flame. The whole of the city moved toward me, and suddenly the apartment disappeared and I looked over Bangkok from a high place full of stars, shining and splendid, floating like a mulberry paper lantern. The clouds stretched my body into the horizontal and I felt at once relaxed and at peace. Below, Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River swept restlessly back and forth.
The pretty girls from the massage parlour flew over to caress my toes, climbing gently up the arches to the heal. From the ankles, the hands worked their way up to the knees and then walked their finger tips to the thighs. Below, the Chao Phraya grew angry but was powerless to wake me. Then a strong hand grabbed my balls. The river ruptured and rose from the earth like a lance. It stretched closer toward me until the tip pieced my stomach.
I was about to wake up but I did not know where. Curious and excited and fearful and brave is how you wake up to the unknown. What is that bobbing sound drawing you out of the depths of a dream like a vibrant lure playing near the sun-warmed water’s surface? It could be anything or anyone and you could be anywhere. But not anyone, never anyone—as nothing can rob you of your true and eternal place at that unique nexus of blood-bonds, friendships, acquaintances, enemies, and lovers that mark your place in the fullness of our humanity.
The next thing I knew, I came back to life like I’d been dragged out of the ocean and resuscitated. I saw a splatter of my own puke over a leather couch. Raj was there. He sat naked on the couch beside me. The sun was rising out the window. My shirt and pants were open. I felt dizzy, tired, moody, and confused seeing the world only in bits and pieces. I did up my pants and shirt as best I could, and fought to stand up. My thoughts were jumbled, I knew only that I had to get out. Raj said something inaudible, as if he were speaking to a fish in a bowl.
I moved for the door, the world felt slow and viscous, something tugged at my wrist, but I pulled away. I was drugged, operating with a different part of the brain—that last little functioning part familiar to drug users: fortunately, I’d rigorously trained mine in teenage years.
I shunted back to the hostel, throwing up here, dry-heaving there. And when I came to, hours later, in the bare, cold, air-conditioned room of the hostel, I had a choice to make: stay in Thailand and “operate on the situation,” as they say in the Israeli army, or fly to Vietnam and continue on with what was left of a dream.
The bus, the airport, and the flight, were all part of a winding river of haze, with reality making an unwelcome appearance some time in the early hours of the morning, when a Vietnamese immigration officer requested a visa photo in Hanoi. I looked at the photos of myself before handing them over. A young, optimistic traveller looked back—the look on his face suggested his biggest concern was where to get a foot massage.
Past the immigration gates, I found a fellow backpacker and inquired where the hostels were in Hanoi.
He looked surprised and confused. “You’re probably looking for the Old Quarter dude.”
“The Old Quarter?”
“That’s it,” he said, and strolled out of the airport with his arm around a girl. I watched him open an umbrella over her head and they disappeared into the rain.
I staggered out of the airport and did something I wouldn’t usually do, but these were exceptional circumstances: I called out to the first driver in the taxi queue. “You know how to get to the Old Quarter?”
“Old quarter,” the short, eager driver repeated, “Yes, yes.”
I rolled into the cab, wet now. We made it about a mile or so before the driver turned around and asked “where Old Quarter?”
“What?” The headrest prevented me from falling backwards. “You’re kidding right? Where is the Old Quarter?”
“You know Old Quarter?” He asked again.
“I don’t know old quarter, I don’t know anything about Hanoi, I don’t know anything about Vietnam. You’re Vietnamese, I’m trusting you to know. You said you knew where the Old Quarter was.”
He drove for a few minutes more, quietly heading who knows where, before pulling over to the side of the road. Through the water beads that streamed down the window, I saw the bars of a bridge, and beyond them a mercury river dancing in the dark, which transformed into a sad and tired face when the driver activated the interior light. He fumbled around in the glovebox, finally producing a Hanoi city map that looked like it had been run through a photocopier twenty-odd times. He handed the crumpled paper through the seats, and I took it in my hands. In the somber glow of the interior light and under the patter of rain, he said, “Point me where you go.”
My head throbbed. My body ached. Times like these that you feel like the world wants you to fail, like all of humanity has abandoned you and conspired to drug, fondle, lie, and abandon you in an unfamiliar place at the edge of a dark bridge in a rainstorm.
The taxi-man’s eyes glared garishly from the mirror: “Point me,” he said.
It’s only when one is truly alone in the world; disconnected from the internet and your friends and your family and all that you’ve come to rely on, that you may know just how intuitively one’s own mind truly is.
I looked hard at the map again and traced the smudged lines with my fingers. I noticed a monumental symbol within a blob, and knew immediately where the Old Quarter was.
Months later—after Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore—I reached Jakarta, and met a man in a rain storm and told him how I found the Old Quarter. In return, he told me how to find Raj.