Not Think


We escaped the desperate hordes of Bangkok to the small island of Ko Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. Its main industry was the export of copra from the millions of coconut trees on plantations. The labourers earned a dollar and a half American per day. There was a little tourism, a little fishing, a lot of houses with self contained environments. Each house had pigs, chickens, water buffaloes and a garden.

There were free coconuts: pineapples and bananas cost pennies. We headed across the island to a village called Tongkien where you could sleep for free under a bamboo canopy in front of a restaurant. You ate whatever the fishermen came up with that day. A few kilometres away was Lamlamai, the beach.

It had pure, white sand, warm, light blue, translucent water. In the sun it was almost too bright to look at. There were sand dunes between the sea and the coconut trees. The Thai sun baked everything in vibrating shimmers, the sea breeze blew.

The only people who didn’t seem to be affected by the blazing sun were the fishermen who stalked invisible prey with their coolers, Chinese hats and wet sarongs. They stood still, waded in the shallows with their nets, looked like outgrowths of the shore.

The Thais appeared out of nowhere, two of them, sat beside us in the sand. The sun, breeze and salt water dehydration drove us up into the trees to sit in the shade and drink coconut milk

Sante, “peace” in Thai, and Anothai, hacked some coconuts open, we all drank. Joyce liked the mature yellow coconuts, I preferred the yellowish brown ones, older. Some people liked the young, green coconuts, no one ate the old, brown ones.

Anothai, tall, well developed above the waist, skinny below, challenged me as we sat. He was dark skinned, full of energy, knew English because he worked for the Americans who were stationed there.

I was forced to respond to his pushing me, using me for a Thai boxing punching bag. The kids in Thailand knew Thai boxing like Canadian kids knew hockey. It was their national sport, on tv all the time. He flopped out some lazy jabs, then surprised me with combinations of whirling knee kicks and high kicks. Most of them landed on my shoulders and upper arms.

My rudimentary karate training bluffed Anothai into giving up after a long sparring session. Sante and Joyce watched with forced smiles until we mutually backed off. I made sure our hatchet was in plain view in our pack when Anothai flourished his curved coconut knife.

Sante said that he was educated in Bangkok, taught school on Ko Samui, but decided to give it all up and grow coconuts instead.

We sat in the sand facing the beach, comfortable in the shade and the breeze. Sante and I talked of education, work, money, our respective countries, considered religion and meditation.

Sante exclaimed

“Ah, not think!”

He demonstrated by sitting up straight, looking ahead with eyes closed, pointing with his index finger from the middle of his forehead to the horizon. He wore an intense expression of concentration and made no sound until he was finished.

He said that meditation was taken for granted in Asia, everyone knew how to meditate. It was simply the emptying of the mind, the absence of thought.

We slept under the canopy of the restaurant that night, returned to the ferry dock in the morning.    Anothai was after our money, Sante tried to cadge whiskey. We bought coconut palm bongs from them, went back to the ferry dock.

A man on a neighbouring island grew powerful ganja, the Ko Samui crop was rough, less powerful, plentiful, cheap.

Two brothers, trying to escape the heroin addictions which they had picked up in Bangkok, stayed at the same hotel. They were from New York City, wired to China White and oriental women. Both swore they would take an oriental woman over a westerner any time. They apologized to Joyce, told me of the wonders of living with a Thai girl.

They knew that they had to get out as soon as possible. They knew that they would inevitably be statistics on the list of heroin casualties if they didn’t. They smoked a lot of local weed to help them get through their withdrawals.

We rested, let the tension of Bangkok drain away. We walked down long, white beaches radiated by the sun. The salt water and wind sucked the moisture from us beneath the blazing sun. We drank soft drinks constantly.

Heavy punching bags tied to trees in back yards and farm yards were used for punching and kicking practice.

The whole country was filled with Buddhist monks who survived on what the population gave them every day.

Leave a Comment


I awake to the hum of the air conditioner vibrating a fast, funk beat, green curtains opened a foot in the middle. There are white clouds on a powder blue sky, sunshine on the palms and slanted roofs. I slumber for twenty more minutes. Groping and squinting, I light the first cigarette of the day, lay back to smoke it.

White sheets outline the pleasant hump of Joyce’s hips in the bed across the room. Henry Miller’s Plexus lays open at my feet. I try to recall the last bit I read, but several incidents jumble together, it’s not clear.

The small speaker in the wall begins to crackle. An old rock tune wheezes through. The Malaysia Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand.

We have the steaming chaos of Bangkok to travel through, to the photo shops of the Siam Centre, then the Indonesian Consulate, for visas. We need passports, return tickets, whatever other paper we have to pay for.

Old Siam? The mysterious East? Bangkok is another Tokyo or Hong Kong, another filthy, polluted, high speed, hot city. Bangkok is downright depressing.

I rise, run to the shower. The tepid water on my skin diverts me.

We smoke a joint of Buddha weed, I eat the yogurt Joyce has gone out for earlier, we gather up all the necessary papers.

Our packs sit on the floor beside the dresser.

In this room there are two single beds, a hand shower attached to the bathtub. I got a four inch cockroach in the bathroom with the flick of a towel rolled up. The room is air conditioned by a central unit that services the whole building, at times. It all costs two dollars American per night. Long before there were guide books on the subject, before Rolling Stone magazine ever suspected, restless western souls explored the vast continent of Asia. The first wanderers grew to gigantic hordes of travellers. Political policies and wars set down the route: from Europe to India, from India to Bangkok, from Bangkok to Australia or America. All of the modern roads of discovery converged on Bangkok.

In every city, in every country, there are hostels, hotels, guest houses, with cheap rates, basic accommodations, services for travellers. By word of mouth, later through travel guides, the locations of these places are revealed.

The Malaysia Hotel in Bangkok is a venerable institution on the trail around the world. Perhaps, she’s the grandmother of them all. The Malaysia is a haven of sleazy, relaxed decadence for westerners.

She’s a modern hotel, by sixties standards. She rises six stories with a grimy little swimming pool, a cafeteria and bar. The loud juke box is full of rock. There is one blues song. The lobby contains a travel agent and a second hand book shop where you can trade two of your pocket books for one of theirs. On the notice board, by the front door, we read,

‘The Dutch girls I met in Burma, I am in room 202, would like to see you again, Rob’ and

‘Don’t pick up Thai chick outside of the Pussycat Cabaret – she’s a rip off. My friend and I lost $2,000 and got badly beaten up by the guys she works with. She offers massage and takes you to Oriental Hotel on Rama 5. The police won’t do a thing – beware!’ under which is written, in another hand,

‘Too bad, you ole smoothy’.

There is an abundance of drugs, prostitutes and opportunities to encounter Bangkok’s thriving underworld at the Malaysia.

We were told of the Malaysia in Seoul, getting drunk on Soju and eating bulgogi beef with an American couple. A veterinarian and his wife who were heading home after doing the circuit from Europe to Asia, told us,

“Everybody stays at the Malaysia”

We make our way across the street to the Blue Fox. I begin to sweat. My body is adapting to the tropics. It’s affecting my mind. I think evil, violent thoughts in Bangkok. I wake up from dreams of being attacked in the street by Thais. Lots of travellers go through it. I think of the marine I talked to, who was raised in Connecticut, posted to the Philippines. He went through a painful sickness which acclimatized him to the heat. When he returned to the States, he couldn’t stand the cold.

The physical effort of a Canadian or a northern dweller confronting the heat must be more strenuous than that of a person from the south. Coldness is a way of life in Canada. Heat is a vacation.

All I thought about for the past three winters, working in the cold, was escaping to a hot climate. Now I was suffering because of  the heat.

It is cool and dark in the Blue Fox Bar, where we find an empty booth, order breakfast.

The owner is a pleasant looking Thai who works behind the bar in blue jeans. He smiles, says hello. His two pretty daughters are serving beer to a few die hard Australians at the bar.

We smoke cigarettes, drink strong coffee while the loud juke box kicks out an endless stream of Beatles, Stones and Bad Company. The daughters only understand a few words on the menu, but mouth each word of the rock songs.

The regular westerners are there every morning at quiet tables, with cigarettes and coffee. Some are guests of the Malaysia, some from the surrounding hotels. The same westerners spend most of their time in the Blue Fox. As the day progresses they switch from coffee to beer or liquor. Most can be found there around closing time.

One guy looks like a French gangster. He is dressed in a tight, black T – shirt with tattoos on his skinny, big veined arms. He wears dark shades, has slicked back, greasy hair with a small, black moustache. Joyce checks out his jewellery, watches him deal.

A pretty, young Thai girl hangs by his side. She disappears, returns with strangers with whom he converses. Sometimes he slips outside with them, to do his deal. He is sitting with two large Americans who look like they just got out of the service. All three stare at the cartoons on the colour tv at the end of the bar.

When breakfast is finished, we can’t put it off any longer and we plunge into the streets of Bangkok.

It’s hard to deal with the unrelenting discomfort of a place like Bangkok. The streets are jammed with traffic which raises an unbearable decibel level of sound. There are the noises of broken mufflers on buses, motorbikes, trishaws, shouts over them. The sound hits you like a wall. We cringe at the loudness on the sidewalks.

On the main streets the air is blue from exhaust fumes. Tension stalks the faces on busy, steaming corners in the heat. The smell, noise and visual spectacle contrast with Buddhist monks who walk around silently, in saffron robes, with empty begging bowls. The population is expected to fill them with food. Everything and everyone is bathed in wet, glaring light.

We walk a short distance to Rama 4, one of the main arteries in Bangkok. There’s Rama 1 to Rama 5 all aiming, like spokes in a wheel, for the centre of town. Rama 4 is a wide six lane boulevard, lined by hotels, stores, wots and parks. It gets worse as it gets closer to the centre where it becomes another high speed, raucous, dirty street.

We walk the two long blocks of Rama 4, turn left for more long blocks, decide to take a trishaw. The sweat, noise and pollution is overwhelming. The trishaws are the worst polluters but cheap. The buses and trucks are bad, but the trishaws are driven till they drop. Mufflers don’t matter. The smoke from their exhausts ranges from black to sky blue.

We flag down a trishaw driven by a tough looking, unshaven Thai, his picture in his i.d. taped to the ceiling. There is a mandatory bargaining – pleading session required before we get in.

He starts high, we start low. He lets us stand, sweating in the heat, drinking in his fumes. He is surviving on the streets of Bangkok. We are haggling over small amounts of money. His trishaw almost doesn’t reach the Siam Centre. He revs the motor all the way. The machine coughs a lot, but makes it.

The Siam Centre is a big, air conditioned complex of businesses like American Express, banks and expensive grocery stores. We make for the coolness as fast as we can stagger. We drag ourselves up the stairs, breathe the cool air. We don’t need to come here, but it’s well air conditioned, so we walk around the grocery store, buy some soft drinks. We have to go across the street to one of the small photo shops, to get a dozen pictures each, for the visas.

We drip dry in the cool air, cross the boulevard to the warren of little streets filled with restaurants and shops for tourists. There is a good six story book store there. A spiral staircase winds up the middle through all six.

The sidewalks are steps down the hill, between stores and cars. There are turds and gray sludge floating by, in open sewers. The kids swim in the filthy canals. There are thousands of monks in saffron robes, bald men and women who walk around, all day, with begging bowls. It used to be compulsory for young men to become a monk for a year. Now you have a choice between becoming a monk or a soldier. The army is winning. The soldiers look like the best dressed people in Bangkok. The soldiers look clean, healthy, purposeful. The monks live in wots and beg for food. They go out early in the morning, the public fills their bowls.

The crowds consist of thousands of people, oriental with western dress, many very poor people, businessmen, big, rich cars with chauffeurs, ordinary people shopping, groups of guys hanging around, hiding from the glare of the sun.

They aren’t a friendly crowd. The boys in Viet Nam did their r&r in Bangkok, so the Thais know the hustle and con. They aren’t impressed by foreigners. Their national sport is kick boxing. We watched it, like hockey at home, in the Blue Fox, all day Saturdays.

At the Indonesian consulate we buy visas for twenty dollars each. They insist that you buy return tickets from Malaysia to Indonesia. We hit the street again, walk all the way back to the Malaysia, to save money.

I buy cold drinks in the lobby of the hotel before we collapse in the room.

The pool scene at the Malaysia is weird. English and Australian guys make fun of Thai girls who withstand everything. The guys drink, put on spectacular diving displays from the railing of the balconies above. The girls stare into space, in silence.

We are stoned on Buddha weed, the whole thing is in slow motion.

Bangkok is everything that’s wrong with Asia. While we are in Thailand the police have a feud with the army, three district police chiefs are shot. There are three different guerilla groups in the south, more in the north, mixed with communists, drug lords and the Golden Triangle.

Bangkok is the capital of it all, the centre. It tears along at its own breakneck speed. People there are on the edge of hysteria.

We leave on a train which is guarded, near the border of Malaysia, by soldiers with sub machine guns and radios.

Leave a Comment

The Lion’s Gate

If you’ve never spent time on welfare during a Vancouver winter, you won’t understand my motivation. It can rain hard for three weeks at a time. You get wet no matter what you wear or how careful you are. The sky can be dark grey with massive clouds for more than a month with never a peek of sunshine. They say the suicide rate is the highest there. I believe that is the reason.

Everyone who has lived there knows about the advantages of Vancouver, but the depressing winter rain is not mentioned so much. It’s hard to take, day after day.

I had finally left the house in Kitsilano where the longest, poorest, wettest, greyest, most depressing Vancouver winter had driven the guys living there to desperation.

We met the winter before on the False Creek seawall job. The bosses were permanent city truck drivers. They trucked in millions of boulders, needed them dumped by wheelbarrow down the sides of False Creek.

Four of us lived in a house in Kitsilano. Soon we were broke. The winter we spent in that house in Kits was so depressing that, by spring, I knew I had to get out. I found a bachelor apartment on 16th Avenue.

Les had worked on the Lion’s Gate bridge in years past, encouraged me to apply for the job.

When I got up in the morning on 16th Ave., I could see the tops of the Lion’s Gate towers above the surrounding roofs, snow caps of mountains called The Lions, beyond.

The pay, on being hired by the highway department, seemed astronomical after the past winter.

Ron was the boss. He was a tall, slim, grey haired man with an English accent. They said he could climb like a monkey. He made a remark about “getting stuck with the choirboys” in the morning meeting on the first day.

Apparently, the crew on the Second Narrows bridge had inherited more experienced men from the personnel department and he wasn’t happy about it. Apart from that he was civil to me. He only came up on the bridge once a day to see how things were going. The rest of the crew, having worked there for years, appreciated that.

They put me with Tim, the sandblaster, for the first two weeks. He was a big, bald guy who worked in a three sided building where he sandblasted all day. He did plows, grader blades, all kinds of things for the department of highways. I loaded the sandblaster drum for him, moved things around until he got me doing the sandblasting.

In the hot summer, with all the equipment a sandblaster has to wear, it’s not a pleasant job. No matter what you do, the tiny grains of silica get into every crevice and crack.

The day finally came when they told me I was going up. I followed the rest of the crew up the sidewalk from the North side of the bridge. The view gets more spectacular as you walk.

At the first tower you climb the protective barrier between the sidewalk and one leg of the tower. It is then that you first step across a little space which provides a clear view of the sunlight dancing on the water, two hundred and fifty feet below.

My job was to prepare the steel for the painters to spray. They gave me a wire brush, a paint scraper and a needle gun. You plugged the needle gun into an airline wherever you needed it. You scraped the steel clean of rust before the red paint was applied. There was a lot of bird droppings. Some areas needed more work than others, but they all had to be done because when the spiders arrived from above, the painters wanted the surface cleaned and primed.

The painters attached their spiders near the tops of the towers, descended to prepare the surfaces unreachable otherwise, then spray painted the whole structure with several coats.

The logistics of the painters’ jobs, their five gallon cans of paint, spray guns, lines and spiders, make it a long process. No one can go onto the bridge to work if there is precipitation. They’re lucky to get one half of the bridge done in one summer.

When we climbed up from the road level to the next work area, the men left their lunches, threw their safety belts into a pile in the corner. I did the same. The safety belts were too much trouble. Every time you moved, you had to unhitch the belt.

Sun filled, windy days on the Lion’s Gate made you feel alive and strong and in the right place at the right time. The trials of life were always waiting when the day was over, but those summer work days were irreplaceable.

The constant swoosh of traffic hummed below, ships sailed the Burrard Inlet, sun shone, ocean breeze blew. Snowcapped mountains stood in the distance. When you looked West, you stared straight out to sea.

As the weeks went by, I repressed the unspoken fear of danger. I gained courage. I became used to the casual disregard for safety, took the others’ confident actions on the job for granted. They were sure they wouldn’t fail. They could do anything they had to on the job: there was no possibility of them falling to their deaths. Anyone who doubted them was a fool and this was no place for fools.

I didn’t work at the top of the tower because it was done in the past summer but, some days, I climbed the ladder inside the tower to eat lunch with the painters. The towers at both ends are attached to each other by a steel walkway in an x configuration which spans the roadway. There are two walkways, the painters ate in the top one.

I don’t know who saw me, Fred or Jimmy. I got a warning from Ron himself. My friend, Les, who told me about the job, was angry. It just seemed logical at the time.

One day, near the end of summer, we had worked our way into an area in the middle of the bridge which was too far from the towers to go back to them for anything. We took everything  with us. After needle gunning, scraping and wire brushing all of the rusty areas out in the middle, it was time to paint them with the red primer. After this they would be painted by the painters from bosun’s chairs.

I carried my can of primer and the brush with me, doing what I had been doing all summer, crawling, climbing, struggling along the side of the bridge. The bulk of my work had been where there were a lot of girders to hold onto.

I watched Les walk along the top of the bridge barrier, brush in one hand, paint can in the other. He moved along at a steady, relaxed pace, arrived quickly at the place where we were working. It would take me a long time to cover the same distance, my way. I decided to do it his way, climbed up onto the bridge barrier.

There, standing up, with nothing on either side to hang onto, I started walking along the external barrier. The water below sparkled, the wind whispered, the sun shone warm on my back. The ledge was a foot and a half wide, a crisscrossed pattern of flat, steel pieces fastened to the big girders on either side by rivets.

I saw the blur of vehicles on the road to my right, twenty feet below me, the waves of the inlet, more than two hundred feet below me, on the left. I walked on, carrying my paint can, scraper and wire brush in the pockets of my coveralls, careful to avoid the rivets.

A big cruise ship passed under the bridge at that moment. It emerged beneath me, on my left. I stopped to watch it. I was mesmerized by the slow motion. The breeze carried Les’s voice to me. He told me to move. I did.

I made it all the way to the work area, but that hesitation got me into trouble. It created a moment of worry, a sliver of unease in someone. They told the boss. He gave me a lecture about not doing a circus act, just doing the work. It must have looked worse than it felt.

It was either Fred or Jimmy who told him.

Fred was an older guy who showed me how to hold a brush properly for that kind of painting. I found out later that he used to be a boss like Ron. He was demoted when he and the crew were caught playing poker and drinking on government time too many days in a row. Fred probably told the boss in a sincere effort to save my life.

Jimmy was a big, tough biker who painted from a spider. He used to come to work hungover with his knuckles skinned from fighting in his favourite Surrey bars. He had a picture of his father doing a handstand on the flagpole on top of the Surrey city hall. Jimmy always had a smile and a laugh, even with a hangover. He probably told the boss because he thought I might fall off the bridge and embarrass the crew or cost them money.

I left at the end of the summer, got hired onto a highway crew which replaced railroad ties on the bridges to Squamish.

I saw Les later that month. He said that they’d had one more job after I left.  Ron had taken a couple of the guys, climbed up to the very top of one tower, changed the light.

When you look at the Lion’s Gate Bridge and see that red light at the top, that’s the one they changed. When they came down, after doing it,  Ron told them they had done a good job, bought them a beer.

There were a few men lost over the years. One conversation I heard was about the death of a man they worked with. Some said he shouldn’t have gone up that day, there was too much moisture. Others said he jumped into the Burrard Inlet because of problems at home and “bad nerves”. His body was never found so there was even a suspicion that he had taken the opportunity to disappear from his current life for mysterious reasons.

The Vancouver rain started again that Autumn, winter approached. I tried to get a job on a freighter. I heard that there were regular shipments of lumber from BC to Australia.

Leave a Comment


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 63 other followers