I canvassed the Bangkok street tables with thoughts of preparing myself. There were many things available there. Slingshots. Hunting knives. Switch blades. Swords. Brass knuckles. Spiked knuckles. Throwing stars. And this was just the stuff they were selling to tourists. I stopped at a table and picked up a seven-inch hunting knife with a serrated edge. The thing with carrying a weapon is, if you’re not prepared to use it, you’re better off without it. I laid the knife back down. I’ve never been in a situation where I felt like a weapon would have made things better. I did buy something though: a pair of oversized aviator shades, which, working in tandem with my newly grown handle-bar moustache, gave me the exact appearance of somebody in disguise.
I walked through Bangkok’s leafy backstreets toward Raj’s apartment. For the first time in my life I checked the hands of people who came close to me for weapons. Maybe Raj had some eyes and ears on the street, as Carl had suggested. But then, who could pinpoint a backpacker in a city full of backpackers? I bled into the street, this was my world, not Raj’s. I closed in on his apartment, striving forward by a raw drive for vengeance.
The closer I came to Raj’s building, the sweatier my palms became, and the hotter my blood boiled. After a few clandestine passes in front of his apartment, I settled in with a crowd of construction workers, buzzing about a hole they were digging in the road. I sat on a nearby wall. Then leaned against it. Then I sat on a curb. Then I took a walk around the block and returned, all the while watching the hotel, anticipating that longed-for moment. Maybe Raj had moved apartments, or maybe he was in London or Singapore or Mumbai or any of the other places he did business? I passed the afternoon like this, frustrated, venting, and shuffling around.
I took a side path around to the back of the building. It was a good idea to familiarize myself with the area, in case I needed to make a quick escape. I stood there, at the back of his building, and looked along my finger like a sniper starring down the barrel of a rifle. “One, two, three, four…” I counted up the apartment’s backside balconies, “…nineteen, twenty, twenty-one.” Could I climb it? Foolish in the extreme, but imagine the look on Raj’s face when he came home to find me mixing drinks in his kitchen. “Nice to see you again,” I’d say, “fancy a Scotch old chap?”
When you find yourself in a wild, steamy city, counting apartment floors, churning over in your head how you might lift your body from one balcony to the next, break and enter through a back door, and kick a businessman in the nuts; one realizes the great effect that the steady companionship of family and friends have on our behaviour. We don’t think about it all the time. But one of the most important functions the people in your life have is to tell you when your acting like an idiot. We all do it for each other, to keep each other on course. Emotion and instinct run amok in the mind of the individual. I was off balance, blinded entirely by a desire for justice or vengeance, I wasn’t sure there was a difference anymore. It bothered me how far I had gone off the track. I twisted my moustache at the tip while I thought about it.
That was enough surveillance for one day. I didn’t feel comfortable staying at the same hostel as before—it would be the first place Raj would look for me. All across SouthEast Asia people had told me about a place where backpackers gathered in great numbers in Bangkok, and so I asked a motorcycle taxi to drop me there.
“What is the name of this place?” I asked an English kid in a Chang Beer tank-top, one of the many gap-year backpackers revelling under the kaleidoscopic lights of bars and hostels.
“You don’t know Khaosan Road?” his face widened, “It’s the most famous street in Asia.”
“Is it?” I replied, and pulled off a pair of dark aviator lenses. In the short and narrow paradise of skin and sun before me, a current of travellers from the far shores of the world tucked into steamy street Pad Thai, and speared fresh pineapple slices out of plastic bags, and guzzled bowl-sized cocktails on patios, all illuminated by a blaze of cheap neon lights.
Khaosan Road begins in Bangkok, but it doesn’t end there. For many, the street was a gateway, a great mouth that swallowed the young traveller heart and soul. A place with a feverish sense of life, where people dance and laugh and stumble about with the struggles of the world so far away. Even the trouble brewing just around the corner was kept at bay by a cordon of Bangkok police.
I approached the soldiers at the street’s eastern end, they wore that same black riot gear I’d encountered all over the world, as if they were a mere battalion of some larger global army. It seems to me that when economies go down, plastic-shield sales goes up.
Some of the men decorated their otherwise moody ensemble with a fashionable pink scarf in a show of loyalty to the King. Pink was his new colour, after he wore a pink jacket in a rare public appearance out of the hospital—born in 1927, Rama IX is the world’s longest serving head-of-state. Before the pink, yellow had long symbolized the King because he was born on a Monday, and in Thailand, yellow is apparently the colour of Monday. Pink became the popular replacement after anti-government demonstrators adopted yellow in a successful coup to remove then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra from power.
The Yellow-Shirts, as they’re usually called, are a loose collection of Bangkok’s wealthy merchant class; nationalistic and fiercely royalist (hence the adoption of yellow for the King’s birthday), they opposed Thaksin Shinawatra’s economic focus on alleviating the poverty of rural Thailand. A such, a yellow wave of protests surged through Bangkok in 2006, enabling the military to oust and exile Mr. Thaksin to the United Kingdom, where he has since occupied himself with a London football club, as the richest people in the world tend to do.
However, fresh elections held in December of 2007 brought Mr. Thaksin’s allies back into power. This infuriated the Yellow-shirts who believed that Mr. Thaksin was ruling the country through his proxies, thus they shut down Bangkok’s two international airports, which crippled Khaosan Road and all the places it leads. Thailand’s constitutional court declared the Thaksin-backed government unconstitutional, and the Yellow-Shirts brought one of their own to power: Abhisit Vejjajiva.
This in turn provoked Thaksin’s allies and rural Thailand. They donned their Red-shirts and stormed the 14th ASEAN Summit in Pattaya. The summit was cancelled and moved to Jakarta, a huge embarrassment for Thailand. In response, Abhisit declared a state of emergency, and a period of random seizure and imprisonment of Thaksin supporters followed. Now they were back with vengeance, dressed in red, out to once again push Abhisit from power and restore Thaksin to power.
The lesson of all this is that it when in Thailand, it is important to choose the colour of one’s shirt carefully.
I picked up a Singha in violation of the demonstration’s alcohol-ban and walked to the Red-Shirts that had gathered in glorious numbers at Democracy Monument. Situated at the centre of a round-a-bout, the monument is formed by four wings swept upwards toward the sky like a pair of Karuda birds, guarding a copy of the Thai Constitution that is encapsulated at the centre. The place was a crimson ocean. Everywhere demonstrators blew horns, clapped, sung, and shook pom-poms like so many cheerleaders. Signs carried messages like: “JUSTICE IS UNIVERSAL” and “WE ARE THE WORLD.” A tent-city of shrines and tea rooms housed sleeping-bags and camping-chairs for the restful. I noticed that people had lined up outside a white medical tent for a turn to donate blood, which was being amassed in five-litre plastic bottles. What are they going to do with all this blood? I wondered.
I joined a stream of protesters flowing steady from Democracy Monument. Where ever they were heading, I had no idea. I followed them anyway, arriving some time later at Government House, the gold Venetian palace that serves as the executive offices for the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Three rows of police blocked the road. Word went round that the first line was authorized to use batons, the second: guns with rubber-bullets, and the third: guns with real bullets.
After some festive clapping, honking, and a few lively speeches broadcast from the top of trucks, cries broke out in the distance, behind the police lines. Something was happening. The air shook with the energy and sound of the demonstrators, and I thought they were about to break through the police line. Here we go, I thought. Then they did the opposite. All and at once, as if by some invisible command, the people turned around and began marching away.
A frenzied excitement rippled through the foreign journalists that had gathered at the gates of Government House, as if they were possessed by the Organizing Power’s need to see and hear and know what was happening on this “Truth Day” in Bangkok. I listened to their rapid exchanges. But nobody was sure—or was sharing—where the protesters were carrying their blood.
Knowing nothing about such matters myself, I jumped on the back of a motorcycle taxi. He expertly slid through traffic and police cordons as we followed the march in parallel from a street two blocks east, catching glimpses of the vibrant red torrent at each intersection. We sped like this, excited, exhilarated, until the driver slid to a stop in front of the Yellow-Shirt party headquarters, already barricaded by a wall of plastic shields. That was the first clue I was in the right place. The second was the sight of journalists sprinting round the corner.
The red protesters flowed down the road like a rush of blood through an artery. They reached the police wall and pushed hard, but the Black Army held firm, resisting the pressure of the gathering giant. The brewing strength of the crowd crushed the people in front (me, in particular) flat against a wall of plastic shields. I put one hand against the shield to steady myself from the brewing force. Through the scuffed plastic, I came face-to-face with the young Thai policeman on the other side. He smiled. The land of a thousand fucking smiles, I thought. Then my face hit the shield. The pressure of human beings behind us had reached the boiling point, there was no where for us to go but forward, and in an instant the mood changed, and cries went out as demonstrators pushed against the wall. In the narrow space between the police and the Red-Shirts, I had no control over my movement, like a drop of water in a stream, wherever the crowd was going, I would be going too, that’s what happens when you become organized.
One policeman stumbled, another fell backwards, and all at once the line crumbled against the rising red tide in a burst of energy that sent me forward, as much chasing the police as outrunning the crowd. A tense moment of reorganization followed where new battle lines were drawn. The police regrouped into an arc, and the Red-Shirts did the same, creating a circular arena at the centre of the drama.
The crowd parted, row by row, revealing a brahman with neat, tied-back hair, decked out in a pearl-white dress with a hatch-work of gold that concentrated at the cuffs and waist. The brahman held a jug of frothy pink blood above his head. The crowd cheered and honked his every step. And then he unscrewed the cap, and threw the colour of life over the steps of the party headquarters. I tried to retreat into the crowd, to skirt the wave and ricochet of blood, but the pressure of a thousand demonstrators pressed up against a wall of riot police kept me tight in the eye of the storm. The blood coagulated across the pavement and gobs of the stuff stuck to police boots. The whole gory scene looked like the aftermath of a suicide jump. Barefoot and brave the brahman walked over the foamy red pool and went down on his knees.
He held his hands up, palms open, as if to receive Allah’s blessing, before prostrating forward like a muslim at prayer. The crowd fell silent as he spoke the curse in full-throated Thai, condemning in cold blood the party of the Yellow-Shirts. A soldier stammered backwards and fainted. The brahman rose up to his feet like a giant, lifting both hands toward the sky as if prepared to catch the moon, his palms dripping with the universal colour of humanity, the one that reminds us that there is no black race or white race or brown race, but only a human race—red in the beginning, red in the last.
Then the brahman slipped back into the crowd, hand raised high for all to see the blood that dripped there. A dozen more jugs now made their way toward the eye of the crowd, passed overhead from person to another. Schiesse, I thought, there’s no escape.
All at once and from everywhere the blood came, leaping from the pavement with the same ferocity that it hit. Blood whipped up and down my leg and torso. Trapped in a circle of police and demonstrators, there was no way for me to escape. The madness continued for some time, until a sticky red sheet decorated me and the ground with the blood of a thousand Thais.
It all felt a little something like this (you can hear me yelling “Hey!” at the protestors pushing from behind):
After the crowds released me from the circle of blood, I found a motorcycle taxi.
“Sir, are you okay? You covered in blood?”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “It’s yours.”
We weaved in the wind through the lines of revelrous demonstrators back to Kaosan Road. I walked the length of the street taking it in with new eyes. Everywhere backpackers were drinking and merry. If Thailand broke out into civil war, Kaosan Road would be the last place to know about it. Some of the more sober gap-year students fixated on the splashes of blood that criss-crossed my body and when I met their eyes, for the first time I felt distant from their youth and innocence, like I’d crossed over into a new world.
That night, I took the longest, scrubbiest, shower of my life. But it would not to be the last time in Bangkok that I would wash somebody else’s blood from my skin. The next day, I was back outside Raj’s apartment. I felt different and bolder now. No more hiding among the construction workers.
I paced back and forth in front of Raj’s building, but soon tired and found myself in dire need of a drink. The red Thai sunlight mingled with the thick blue air, pricking sweat from my forehead. I slid into the convenience store opposite the apartment entrance, bought a bottle of Singha and sat outside on the curb. Turning the beer on its side, I rotated it slowly and watched closely as beads of moisture slid round the label. I watched intently as one droplet drew close to another, and in the next instant, kissed with a kind of atomic energy that reorganized them into a new whole. Like magic. One touch was enough.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the universe tends to evolve toward a state of greater disorder because entropy—or the likelihood of disorder—can only increase. But there is one important exception to this law. Let’s use an example from the Inuit. In Canada’s far north, the Inuit people stack stones into figures that resemble human beings, a useful trail marker which they call Inuksuk. There is nothing in the rules of nature that prevent the movements of snow, ice, and wind from collecting rocks off the frozen tundra and depositing them in such a fashion—its just incredibly unlikely. Think of entropy as the likelihood or probability of any given arrangement of rocks. Relatively rare, or precise rock arrangements have low entropy, because there are only a few ways their structure can be created and maintained. Relatively common, or random rock arrangements have high entropy, as there are many ways they can be organized. In the case of the Inuksuk, we say it has low entropy, because there are only a few ways in which the rocks can be arranged to stand to look like a human being. However, were we to knock the rocks over into a pile, we would say the rock pile has high entropy, as there are many ways of assuming such a generic shape. So when it is claimed that the universe tends toward disorder, or higher entropy, all this really means is that any chanced-upon rocks are overwhelmingly more likely to be scattered and piled than arrayed into an Inuksuk. And yet, despite this overwhelming probability; we have the Inuksuk. Why? Because of a creative person, because of humanity, because of life and the Organizing Power. For life is the great organizer of the universe.
I took my index finger and cleared a path through the moisture beads on the bottle, connecting the lion of the Singha’s label with the Karuda bird at the neck. It was a route I hoped to travel one day in Sri Lanka. The first chilly gulp of beer on a hot afternoon is always the best, especially on a sweltering Thai curb. But one beer beckons another, and by the third, the lady at the cashier said: “Mister, you getting drunk.”
I’d learned, rather painfully, that drinking was the most dangerous activity to engage in while travelling (some would say sex, but this is usually a subset). But I wasn’t particularly bothered about this fact on that day. “No, no,” I said, “I’m just waiting for a friend.”
The anguish and frustration of the last months turned over in my head. I’d strayed so far from my goal. I set out from Canada to drink deeply from the well of the world, to seek and understand the true nature of human organization. But there I found myself, woozy on three beers on a Bangkok curb, waiting for a businessman to exit his apartment so that I could kick him in the nuts. This is enough, I thought. Carl was right; vengeance had consumed my soul and distorted my purpose. I eased up from the ground, it was time to let go of this place, this apartment, this betrayal, this anger.
I waved goodbye to the lady in the convenience store through the window. I must never come back here. On the slow, regretful walk to the hostel, I approached the old print-shop, where so many months earlier I’d come to get a few photos taken for a Vietnam visa. The ladies outside the foot massage parlours called out to me. One particularly entrepreneurial masseuse grabbed my wrist from behind. She was an old, craggily looking thing. I wanted to free myself from her vice grip, but I couldn’t help but keep my eyes locked on the print shop. Carl’s words wrung through my head: the best chance you have of finding someone is in the place you first met them. Sitting at a small desk, typing on a computer, probably contemplating the use of a semi-colon, was Raj. I froze, and took three steps backwards, slowly, which of course put me directly in front of the foot massage shop.
“You want massage, you want massage,” the girls said.
“No… no,” I replied, “I’m going to go in there…” I said, “and I’m going to beat the shit out of that guy.”
The girl’s exchanged a confused look with one another, “No, no, mister, no.”
“Yes, yes, misses, yes, I’m going to beat the shit out of that guy.”
I sat on the curb. I’d never been in a fight before. I don’t know how you prepare for one. I stretched out my arms, reaching one each in turn around my back—that seemed like a good thing to do. And I thought of the forces that had brought me there.
Raj believed in Karma. He had told me so. He’d said Haiti had deserved an earthquake and all the ensuing misery because of the collective mistakes Haitians had made in their past lives. The fool. What Haiti really deserved was for their brothers and sisters in the world to organize a recovery force of hundreds of thousands of uniformed men and women doctors, engineers, and labourers; piloting tracked-vehicles, helicopters, supply-ships, and jets, taking-off from massive supply ships of a strength equal to that which invaded Iraq, but with the purpose of healing, not destroying civilization; just as our own bodies summon platelets through the bloodstream to seal a wound threatening the whole.
But Raj was right about one thing, everything does come back to us. If karma is justice delivered in the next life, then vengeance is justice delivered in this one. We create courts to arbitrate vengeance between people. Jury’s listen and judges execute a kind of revenge on the guilty. But in the absence of such a court, then justice must be in the hands of the parties involved, until such time, that all the people of our world can petition a universal court of justice.
I heard a crack in my shoulder. That’s good. Raj thinks I’m afraid. He spent so much time building himself up, making himself out to be a man of such power and wealth that I would be afraid. He planned everything from the beginning. He used my own dreams to lure me into his world. I wanted to believe that he could help me make contacts in SouthEast Asia, to help me write about ASEAN (which I did a pretty good job of on my own) and her role in the Era of Federations, and the coming age of human unity. He must have had the drugs ready at home. He found out where I was staying because he knew that this would encourage me to meet him in the evening. The whole act with the gym shorts, and the shower, to ensure I had time to drink. He had done this before, maybe since. His world must be so full of sweet memories of his own cleverness and incapacitated victims, encouraging him on. He needed something to think about. He thinks that he is the pharaoh of his own little Bangkok Kingdom. But I am in a unique position: for I know who he is, I know where he is, and I have the power to act. I must stop him, for I am not afraid—this is my duty.
I stood up and passed the pair of oversized aviators to a masseur, “Please hold on to these for me,” I asked.
I charged toward the door and pushed it open. “Hey Raj!” I said.
He looked backwards, smile at the ready. But then, when our smiles met; Raj lost his, and somewhere, deep in those cold dark eyes, he knew justice had found him.
To see his face in the flesh, after being haunted by his image for so long, I lost myself. I had no control. I willingly gave myself over to an unstoppable wave of anger that crested as I swung out my right arm. I hit him at full-power into the brow. His body spun out of the chair, and seemed to twist in the air, before he landed face-down on the ground.
All at once, the four or so Thai girls working in the shop thrust their hands into the air and screamed, decorating the whole bloody scene with a high-pitched chorus.
“You drugged me!” I yelled, the words reverberated through my body, picking up strength, and almost drowned out the girls. I picked up the computer chair, raised it high in the air, and smashed it across his back. Fortunately, the cheap plastic thing shattered. I didn’t want to break his back after all—just his balls.
“I’m going to kill you!” I screamed. I felt like a different person now. Raj wasn’t dealing with the whole make-up of my being, just a thin slice of anger which now pulled all the levers and switches in my mind, like a drunk operating on aggression long after their better faculties had passed-away.
Raj scurried along the floor, came up to a knee, and made a run for the back. I charged after him and kicked him in the ass. Close, I thought, but not quiet.
He hit the back wall and spun around. I ran toward him, laughing, “Run Raj, Run!” my tongue wagging like a maniac. I wanted him to remember this image, I wanted to haunt his dreams, the way he’d haunted mine. I ran toward him at full speed, and in the natural motion of the run, swung my right leg upwards in a great arc like I was going for a game-deciding field goal in the last down of the super bowl, screaming like an apache warrior as the toe of my hiking boot collided with great fury into his nuts.
He dropped to the ground as if a bullet had passed through his head, but I dragged him back up the wall by his collar. We were now face to face. His eyebrow was cut wide open from the first strike. He looked like a boxer at the end of a fight. Blood poured out in curtains before gathering into a river that ran down his face like the Nile. I have never seen somebody more afraid in my life than the look Raj wore at this moment. He was frozen pale in fear.
He turned his face to the side, as if to protect himself. I looked to the side too, and found a wall of tiled-mirrors, and our eyes met in the reflection. Raj placed a hand to his face in disbelief at the blood now gushing out from above his eye and down the side of his face, where it dripped from his chin onto a white collar and my hands. He looked somewhat resigned now, as if he knew somewhere deep inside that his deception and violation of other human beings was bound to catch up with him, that he had sewn his own fate; for the mysterious power that governs human organization will turn any of us into an instrument of her justice.
In that moment, that Raj and I shared in the mirror with his blood, I felt all the anger wash out of my body. And it was like I woke from a long nightmare, and I was suddenly transported to find myself holding up this bleeding man at the back of a Thai print shop by his collar. It all felt strange. I had to get out before my better emotions got the best of me, so that Raj would remember me in this raging way forever.
I let him go, and started for the door.
You have to say something, I thought, this is it, the big moment, like in a movie where you say a one-liner.
I had to think fast for the door was only steps away. I stopped, and found Raj’s miserable eyes, and pointed there, and this was the best thing I could think of, I said: “I’m watching you Raj!”
Then I pushed open the door, grabbed my sunglasses from the masseurs, all of whom were in a state of shock, and gingerly cleared the view of the print shop window, so he didn’t think I was in a hurry to leave, and turned on the jets.
I sprinted back to the hostel, packed up my clothes in record time and made for the Bangkok metro. In my mind, Raj was now deploying a vast army of violent thugs, over-turning the streets for traces of my whereabouts. I flew up the stairs to the metro and caught the train before the doors closed. I collapsed into a seat, sweating, panting, my heart-pounding, my mind-racing: what the hell had I just done?
“You alright mate?” asked a fellow backpacker with an Australian accent. He had an arm around a girl in a Union Jack tank top.
I spoke quickly in between pants, “When are you getting off?”
He exchanged a look with his girlfriend, “the next stop.”
“Can I tell you a story real quick?”
“Let’s hear it.”
“A businessman drugged me in Bangkok two months ago in his apartment, I don’t know how long I was out for. Anyway, I’ve been circulating around Southeast Asia, emailing him, through Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. I came back to Thailand to find him, and I’ve just spent the last three days waiting for him around his apartment. And I just found him.”
He shook his head. “Whoa… what… what did you do mate?”
“I beat the shit out of him.”
The couple exchanged a look, before the Aussie leaned toward me and gave me a high-five. It was then I knew that I had done the right thing. I’ve never regretted it since. Raj never emailed me after that. But in case he ever does, I have a response ready: You know Raj, I’ve thought about it, and you can keep my bracelet.
The next day, while passing through Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport on my way to Myanmar, a bus-sized sculpture caught my eye. It depicted what appeared to be two teams of funny-coloured human-like beings, ornamented with gold hats and jewelry, pulling a three-headed snake from both ends, like a tug-of-war. It was strange but familiar. Where have I seen this image before? I thought. The question rose from the ground like a streamer in search of an electric cloud—but didn’t connect.
The answer to that question would lead me to India and the most powerful story in the world. But first, I made a personal pilgrimage to the house in Yangon where the world’s most celebrated political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, was still under house arrest. However, I would not get very far down that road.