Big John

September, 2014.

I fly into Surat Thani from Bangkok on one of those cheap ass airlines, whose Health & Safety booklet’s exhortations to do mild exercises in the sky to avoid deep vein thrombosis are nothing more than a legal fig leaf to point to should anyone’s legs explode on arrival. There’s barely room to breathe, let alone make circular and up-down ankle movements and when the guy in front of me clicks his seat back as far as he can, I think “Selfish cunt!” to myself, before deciding to do the same. Behind me there’s someone small and Chinese anyway who, as is typical of East Asians, has already fallen asleep.

And I think it’s the lack of room that means, for once, I don’t check the pocket bit in the seat back as we disembark. Which is unfortunate because I leave my iPod Classic in there, the week after they got discontinued by Apple.

I’m not to know this yet, because I’m waiting to get a coach / boat ticket to Koh Phangan via Dansak and the woman at the counter is telling me no booking no ticket. A gleaming eyed taxi guy in a pretend uniform is sizing me up for how much he can shake out of me in limousine fares for the 90 minute trip.

So I go back to the information counter who sent me over here, to complain about what’s going on and suddenly all is placatory laughter and “My friend, my friend! You lucky! Have ticket for you!”

And I’m paying in a measured but stern manner, unsure whether it would be a good idea or not to suddenly explode into a fit of righteous indignation, and maybe work myself up to accuse them of being crazy water buffalo or just saying fuck you- about the extent of my Thai knowledge. But instead I settle on “Why you say to me no ticket, huh?” only repeated three or four times, each time just a little bit louder.

Disappointingly, she doesn’t crumple then and there into apology. Instead she just sits moodily, looking away with a face that says she would like to kill me, or herself, or both of us.

Next thing, people are shouting at me to run to the bus, which makes a big play of gunning its engine. And, fair enough, I indeed am the last passenger to get on board, but as it doesn’t actually leave for another twenty minutes I feel the engine thing is unnecessary.

And as I get on, I see why it was a good idea not to get angry back there because, unexpectedly, the bus is entirely full with Chinese holidaymakers.

The Chinese are upwardly mobile now (well, a tiny minority really- but it’s a very big country, so that’s still loads). They are making all kinds of journeys on the cheap transport once the exclusive preserve of backpackers, and, in the case of Britain, those pensioners enjoying the free bus passes given to them on the unlikely grounds that, as Baby Boomers, it’s their right and they deserve it.

I have nothing against the Chinese; but between them and the internet, it means simply rocking up and seeing what happens is maybe no longer the case, at least in terms of transport. But they were all headed for Koh Samui in any case. And who knows what or where they ended up doing there because Chinese tourists are like winged ants in Summer: a sudden swarm of them and then they are gone.

It’s about then that I realise my iPod is missing but I decide I’m more pissed off with Apple for discontinuing it than myself for leaving it. But for some reason, I can never remain angry at Apple for long, no matter how pointless their products become. I’ve become sadly disappointed, of course, ever since they became popular.

Night was falling as the boat left the jetty, the sunset a glorious and radiant fire of evening light refracting through billions of stratospheric aerosol geoengineering nanoparticles.

God bless science.

And once the night was fully dark, the stars were in abundance and the Milky Way was revealed for the first time in an age. I studied its magnificence- having no music to listen to. And when I got bored I watched Robot Chicken.

Arriving in Thong Sala, I found myself in a songtaew speeding towards Haad Rin.

I was with a mainly Thai bunch, all strangers to each other. One of them was periodically whooping, singing snatches of Thai songs, a few English phrases such as “Fuck you, motherfucker!” and climbing out the back to gulp draughts of the fast night air, behaviour which can’t be ignored, except outwardly of course: any visible sign of reaction could make him even worse.

So a calculation has to be made- do I take this as

a) drunkenness

b) some Thai thing

c) meth head

I look at the other passengers who are all pretending this isn’t happening also and follow suit.

– – –

When we arrive in Haad Rin, the place is awfully quiet: a few empty bars with lone blokes watching football on TVs that aren’t even widescreen. I find somewhere to check in, deciding it’s too late really to press on to Haad Yuan, the beach where I’m heading.

Haad Yuan is the next beach along, and inaccessible except by boat.

Haad Yuan had, at least the last time I came here in 2007, a really nice vibe- pleasant and friendly travellers out to have a good time with recreational pharmaceuticals, spliff and rich, thick shakes made with Thai mushrooms.

A kind of heaven then, except for the bloody mosquitos, and the sort of happy, carefree place the world used to be: back when I was young and/or before I moved to the bloody Middle East (I don’t mean where I live there is actually bloody, BTW- if anything, it’s merely rather dull and almost oppressively peaceful.)

I am conscious that, here and now in September 2014, I’m the same age as the first person who ever engaged me in conversation on the island, back at Paradise Bungalows in Haad Rin (Haad Yuan was uninhabited back then). He was a seeming fixture of the then fairly underground scene, called Big John. And though I say it was ‘underground’, even by the time of that first visit in 2001, it was more sort of ‘underground, overground’. A bit like the Wombles:

– – –

Haad Rin was my first really good time in Thailand, back in 2001.

The second lot of people that I met were the Thai guys who worked there, offering me a bong hit from the next bungalow from mine.

It was a pleasant surprise after Koh Samui’s dull sterility where I had got conned into prepaying for three days for some deserted beach in the middle of nowhere- whose chief characteristics had been the horror of cutting my foot when the bathroom mirror fell off the wall and then the relative joy of finding an ecstasy tablet I had forgotten about- a legacy of my going-away party a week before. And then the relative horror of imagining what might have happened had I been searched. Followed, again, by the relative joy of remembering that I hadn’t been.

But Kho Phangan was a lot better.

For a while, though, I allowed Big John to be my guide and mentor, due to his deep understanding of the “omm shanty shanty” nature of Thai culture. This understanding was based on his having been here for three months and finding himself a niche knocking out MDMA and anything else in order to pay the rent. Despite not knowing any of the language beyond “sir woddy crap” and “spidery my”, he impressed upon me that the Thais were an “omm shanty shanty” people who were deeply attuned to the cycles of nature, as evidenced by the enormous orgy of drug-taking and actual orgying that went on each full moon.

As for John- what can I say? At the age of 41 he had taken to wearing shells through the holes in his ears and had a way about him that seemed he was either on the verge of a breakthrough or breakdown. His hair had been dyed black on one side and bleached on the other and he was prone to bursting out into the performance poetry he had started writing. One of these went something like

What do you wanna be
Like me
Or just
A wannabee?

What do you wanna do
I feel sorry for you
Living by the rules

You know you can be
just let go like me
And we will be mirrors
And mirrors can’t see

I said I kind of liked it. It rhymed, but was unlikely to be a call to arms unless he changed the ending.

I asked what was all that stuff about mirrors. He said it just came to him when he was washing his hands and he liked it because it was only because he was looking in the mirror as he did this that there was his reflection looking back at him.

He tried to impress upon me how profound this actually was but I wasn’t so sure. It seemed more like a clumsy phrase, needing rewriting for clarity.

“Well,” Big John patiently explained. “I wanted to make it clearer but I got kind of stuck on the word ‘mirrors’. Nothing really rhymes, except maybe ‘terrors’ or ‘errors’ and neither of them are proper rhymes. And besides, I was really looking for a happy ending.”

This and a few other works he would perform on passing tourists and Thais who didn’t seem know how to respond, settling on smiling or laughing politely.

The Ballad of Big John began to be bothering, to be honest. But as I was keen on MDMA and weed, and as he lived two doors down, chances are he would collar me and ask if I wanted anything. In those days I’d often answer “yes” but then he’d take cart blanche to try to monopolise my time for as long as it took me to shake him off. An attention thief, in other words.

He told me all about his previous life as a timeshare salesman in the southern Seychelles, the slurp of the surf on its soft shores a sop to his smooth sure patter, pleasing and flattering punters to sign up to repetitive breaks.

And then he had thought fuck this: this isn’t what I was put on earth to do. I need to be creative and find myself. Stick seashells in my ears, dye my hair and just go native somewhere.

The poems were a stopgap while he got himself a band together, he explained. The fact that he couldn’t play anything and had only ever sung in the shower was neither here nor there, he reckoned, because he’d be a natural anyway. His poems were really the lyrics for when he found the right musicians to come together and write the actual songs and perform them for him.

One Thai band were showing some interest, John told me. But they only knew No Woman, No Cry and Buffalo Soldier and John demanded that the band could only have relevance as a creative engine of new and bold material, such as

Got any weed?
Got any Veras?
Got any speed?
God, are you serious?

I got weed
I got speed
I got anything you need

I got ket
I got phet
I got LSD
You bet

I got blotters
I got poppers
Unless of course
You’re coppers

In which case
The forementioned
Was for an entertainment purpose.

I said I liked that one. It was informative for customers and had a legal caveat.

At about that time, I had been fancying another holidaymaker from Europe that I had met on Koh Samui and travelled with, but then she ended up copping off with a German idiot instead because I had been too shy and deranged and had missed the opportunity. It was grim.

So I thought I’d just make a break for it, head to Chiang Mai for a change of scene. The mushroom shakes were beginning to do my head in.

Big John was dumbfounded.

“But, but- you can’t leave. Don’t you understand? You’re fated to stay. It’s a coming together of all the tribes. Like in the Celestine Prophecy.

I had left anyway, but not before Big John gave me his farewell performance, which was a piece he had written just that day. He said it wasn’t about me.

Just go
But just know
You could grow
If only though

You could see
Like me
Then you could be free

Of the errors of your ways
In the mirrors of your maze
In the middle of your days
In the muddle of your ways

You have yet
To get
You have yet
To be
Like me

Oh no
I don’t think so
You have
A long way to go.

He explained he had written it about the manager at the timeshare office back in the Seychelles, but I wasn’t so sure.

– – –

Two months later, after I had done a TEFL course in Phuket, I went back to Koh Phangan.

I returned to the Paradise Bungalows but had to stay in a different bungalow.

Times had changed.

I asked the Thai bong smokers what had happened to Big John- I hadn’t seen him around.

“He not Big John no more. He big mother fucker. He go away. He owe money. He not tell truth. He bad man!”

They wouldn’t be more specific.

The next day, I bumped into him.

“Hello, Rick.” He said. “Great to see a friendly face around here.”

He filled me in on his moving to a cheap omm shanty shanty hut on the other beach and how the Paradise Bungalows lot were all fucking liars who didn’t know what they were talking about.

It was true, he conceded, that his visa had expired and he didn’t know how he could renew it as nearly all his timeshare savings were gone. I asked if he could afford a TEFL course. He said he wasn’t put here to be a teacher- he was a creative artist:

I was born to create
I was made to make

I don’t teach, bitch
I reach, bitch
And when I see you
When I am rich

I will definitely pay you
I’m telling you,
Trust me

Omm shanty shanty
Omm shanty shanty

ThIs he performed as a verbal IOU in lieu of rent to his omm shanty shanty landlord who promptly threw him out, Big John protesting all the time “But you can’t DO that! You can’t actually DO that!”

After that, he was strangely never seen again and nobody ever knew what happened to him, at least among the tourists.

If you asked the Thais they’d go all quiet in a way that made you wish you’d never asked .

– – –

Cut to the future, which is round about now.

– – –


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