Thursday, 28 July 2011

Leaving Brisvegas ... and other cliches

I didn’t always want to live abroad. But by the time I departed Australia in 1992 for the helter skelter of Hong Kong, it felt like the last plane out of Brisbane was almost gone. The urge to broaden my horizons had swelled to a kind of reverse vanishing point. I didn’t just have itchy feet … more like athlete’s foot of the soul. A dull ache in some hidden hollow place that suburban bliss in Brisbane was failing to fill, and a nagging fear that if I didn’t get out and see the world soon, perhaps I never would.

I’d married far too young, at 21, to Joanne, a tall, beautiful blonde from Sydney. We met at the Australian Ballet School in Melbourne, where I was pursuing my pointy-toed dream of becoming the next Baryshnikov and revelling in the realization that I was one of the few heterosexual males amidst a veritable hit parade of unfeasibly flexible, smoking hot totty. Injuries put paid to Joanne’s nascent dance career, and the short sharp shock of that, along with my own persistent aches and sprains and niggles, convinced me to hang up my tights and jockstrap. Bereft of other ideas, I figured I might as well follow in my father’s footsteps as a journalist, and secured a job as a cub reporter on a suburban weekly newspaper on Brisbane’s rough southern outskirts.

The ‘news’ consisted chiefly of alcohol-fuelled domestic violence, petty theft, vandalism, and tawdry pork-barrel politics, leavened only by the infamous 'toxic ooze' scandal. Like something from a B grade schlocky horror show, a bunch of suburban backyards were invaded by unstoppable eructations of black, treacly goo which had spent decades working itself up into a poisonous rage in the bowels of some abandoned gold mines. The decaying suburb of Kingston was the perfect setting for an amorphous evil. Suddenly, the goo was mad as hell and wasn't going to take it any more. It might have been channelling the dull and unfocused angst of the area's inhabitants, Ghostbusters-style.

I immersed myself in the story, but when the sludge subsided, along with a few dozen homes and my enthusiasm, it was time to head back to the big city, or at least Brisvegas. I landed a job at The Courier-Mail. The Curious Snail, as we often referred to it, sometimes with affection, boasted a boisterous and vibrant newsroom, a throwback to an earlier era of gritty glamour, where contacts were greased over long liquid lunches and stories shouted down phone lines, the words transmuted into molten lead and occasionally solid gold. Of course the hot metal rattle had long since been supplanted by the subdued hum of a hive-mind of monitors. But a certain spirit persisted. You almost expected someone to shout 'stop the presses!'. The screens glowed a radioactive green, which was apt if you knew someone else had the scoop. And Phil Dickie, a mild-mannered reporter who looked like some uber-nerd out of central casting, had the scoop of a lifetime. A series of his stories had lifted the lid on police corruption on a grand and depraved scale.

What began as some bespectacled David pot-shotting pebbles against the granite-faced giant that was State Premier, Tsar, Fuhrer and hillbilly dictator Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his cronies became an unstoppable wrecking ball that cut a swathe through the establishment. Everybody from the police chief to some of the government’s most senior ministers had their snouts stuck in the trough and their hands in the brown paper bags, in on ‘The Joke’, as this unprecedented gala of graft was known. Exciting times for a wide-eyed scribe manqué. As the scandal played out, I was thrust into the role of court reporter and went on a rich run of bylines, covering the trials of some of the key players.

So there I was, living the dream. Work was going well. I was married to a dead-set stunner. We had purchased our first home, a quaint old worker’s cottage and renovator’s delight, upon which I unleashed my limited handyman skills. Life went by in a blur of backyard barbecues, home improvements and sun-and-surf-soaked weekends at the beach. 'Queensland, beautiful one day, perfect the next,’ was the advertising slogan du jour, a boast based on the state’s unusually high average of sunny days per year. But as those dazzling crystalline days accrued into years they became brittle and fractured, as the first cracks in our marriage began to appear.

I threw myself into work at the paper and pretended all was well. By now we’d moved to a bigger house; an ‘Old Queenslander’ that was all rambling verandahs and crumbling charm. Its inexorable march towards entropy was a constant and accusing mirror help up to my life. By night, I tossed and turned. Shafts of moonlight through our bedroom’s stained glass windows bathed Joanne’s peaceful, perfect features in a lambent glow while my mind roiled and raged. Was this all there was? Had I become just another faceless suburban drone living a Stepford Life? At least once in a lifetime, I wanted excitement and chaos, passion and danger. But underneath the seething unease, all this water flowing underground, a small voice was also whispering: Be careful what you wish for.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Lesbian vampire killers and the turd from hell

Google's spiders give me the creeps and put me in mind of those relentless, tentacled robots in The Matrix or the heat-seeking creepy crawlies in Minority Report. One minute you are engaged in a perfectly innocent search, the next you have been hypertextually hijacked and sent spinning, slave to the algorithm, into the outer reaches of cyberspace. Not to mention a wormhole stuffed with monsters that runs off Memory Lane.

Google's spiders don't creep me out as much as lesbian vampire killers though - which is what they directed me to while searching for an old yarn of mine on bareknuckle boxing on the Burmese border. Instead, I was confronted with belligerent bull-dykes from Brisvegas and whisked back through time to the late 1980s and the first really big, international-headline-making court case I ever covered as a mild-mannered young reporter at The Courier-Mail, Brisbane's newspaper of record.

It turned out that I was a footnote in a surprisingly entertaining academic analysis of the tortured mind of Tracey Wigginton, Australia's notorious 'Lesbian Vampire Killer', the tortured prose of the hacks who covered her gory story and the subsequent vampire circus of a trial.

Here's the link and like I said, it's anything but an arid academic yawnfest:   Apparently Brisbane's answer to Myra Hindley was the victim of a patriarchal society and forced into a crisis of gender. Sick of getting it in the neck from The Man, she decided to bite back. And I always thought she was just an uncommonly sanguinary psycho. In any case, I've now spent half the day remembering one of the most unpleasant human beings (and I use the term loosely) I've ever encountered.

It was my dubious honour as a newspaper court reporter to cover the trial in all its frothy gothic horror. In a town where the streets are as clean as the living, the possibility that a coven of blood-sucking brides of Beelzebub had run amok shook people to the core.

The crime was nasty and brutish. The victim, short. Edward Baldock, a ginger-haired bantamweight  of a man, was stumbling home drunk from the pub through an inner city park. Wigginton, her lover and two other friends lured him into the bushes with the promise of sex. After the victim had neatly folded his clothes and waited, naked, by the river for the romp that never was, Wigginton slashed his throat open with two knives and then sucked blood from the wound in what was later described as a vampiric feeding frenzy. The women were all lesbians and belonged to a subculture known as 'Swampies' - a kind of low-rent Goth, favouring basic black, Doc Martens and occult tattoos. Apparently Swampies only listened to 'acid house' although I suspect now the prosecutor may have had his musical genres confused. It's hard to conflate the hands-in-the-air sounds of Manchester's Summer of Love with the knife-in-the-neck horrors of Wigginton's wig-out.

As the trial unfolded, the other three women put the figurative knife into Wigginton. In hushed tones before a spellbound gallery and furiously scribbling reporters, they claimed Wigginton was a real vampire and didn't eat food but subsisted on the blood of pigs and goats. Her lover told the court how Wigginton would make her cut her wrists so she could feed. She avoided sunlight and never looked into mirrors. She could look at you and make herself disappear until all that was left were her 'cat's eyes'. She had sex with a man in a ceremony in front of a group of her lesbian friends in the hope of conceiving a child. She worshipped satan and boned up on the occult. She boasted of her prowess at cunnilingus, which she enjoyed more if her partner was menstruating. At school, she'd been expelled for molesting girls. She had 'Hitler-like powers' to control people and had mastered the art of hypnosis. She indulged in a spot of S&M and liked to force her lovers to wear collars and be her slave.

For weeks we heard excruciating psychobabble about her 'multiple personality syndrome' - a popular wheeze at the time with lawyers who knew they were clutching at straws. Wigginton, a shrink asserted, had four personalities: Bobby, the bloodthirsty and callous killer, Big Tracey, a tough but kind-hearted salt of the earth type who was horrified by the murder, Little Tracey, an innocent child, and The Observer, who watched the others dispassionately. In Matlock mode, the silks sashayed and blustered, showily carving off each fresh morsel from the funny farm, emoting and enunciating like summer stock hams.

More? You want more? As the killers had searched for their victim, they cruised Brisbane's midnight streets in the sine qua non of the suburban family, a Holden Commodore sedan. As they prowled, they grooved to the freaky funk of Prince's Batdance. The hits just kept on coming. It was the story that kept on giving. The yarns practically wrote themselves.

Now Wigginton was an imposing specimen and certainly no shrinking violet. Edging six feet tall, built like a masonry outhouse, with cropped black hair and unblinking black eyes to match. I remember those eyes well, because every so often - especially on days when the paper's headline had been unusually lurid or not to her liking - she would slowly swivel her fearsome bulk and fix me with a withering gaze. Sitting in the public gallery and giving me the ceaseless stink-eye was a glowering posse of her fellow swamp creatures and camp followers. As the trial neared its end and a moral panic gripped the city, these women became increasingly angry. Due to my paper's ubiquity, I was the chief target of their ire.

During the frequent and prolonged breaks for legal argument (which could not be reported and thus precipitated mad rushes for the phones to file copy) some of these women would sidle up to me and issue veiled (or sometimes bare-faced) threats. We know where you live, they'd smirk. How's your wife, they'd leer. You're a poofter, aren't you, they'd bluster, which was pretty rich coming from a bunch of rug munchers. Fucken journalists. You're all scum. What about writing the truth for a change? Why do you fucken hate Tracy? What'd she ever do to you, ya dickhead.

I laughed it off for the most part. I wasn't exactly dodging bullets in the Middle East, where the first Gulf War was winding down. I figured I could handle a few Addams Family rejects. Depending on my mood, I would either ignore them, ask them what Robert Smith was wearing since they'd stolen all his clothes, or suggest that since it was another dreaded sunny day, they might be better off at the cemetery gates (although I suspected Anton La Vey and Aleister Crowley would be more their speed than Keats and Yeats). Eventually a verdict was reached. Wigginton and her lover got life. One woman got 18 years. The youngest was acquitted. There followed a flurry of purple prosed features, hectoring editorials and hand-wringing think pieces. Within weeks of the trial's end, one enterprising scribe had already turned a quickie book around (putting paid to any vague fantasies of my own to literarily leverage the lesbian vampires). Life went on, not least for Tracey Wigginton. End of story.

Except that a couple of weeks later, my then wife, who managed a busy branch of a woman's fashion chain, noticed a tall, fat and slightly crazed looking woman clad in full Goth regalia staring daggers at her from across the street. She unlocked the store and began the morning rituals, somewhat unnerved by scowling Swampy and her unmistakably bad vibes. Seconds later, Swampy enters the store, grabs a frock that wouldn't even fit around one of her legs and barges past the bemused staff, making a beeline for the changing rooms. My wife paused, shrugged, and then went about her business. But so did Swampy.

After what seemed like a suspiciously long time to be locked in a changing room, Swampy erupted from the cubicle, door banging in her wake, and bolted for the front door like a bat out of hell. As Swampy dipped her prop forward's shoulder and blasted through the heavy glass, there came a blood curdling scream from the back.

An ashen-faced employee was holding the changing room door with one hand, and her nose with the other. Coiled with almost artistic precision, dead centre of the changing room, was what my wife described as the most enormous poo she had ever seen. So big it seemed scarcely human.

Then again, perhaps it wasn't.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

An idiot's guide to buying a house in Bangkok

I'm writing a book. Yes, that's right, actually writing one, as opposed to just talking about it. So I figured this blog would be the perfect forum to try out some bits from it. So be nice and don't crush my sensitive artist's soul. On the other hand, if it totally sucks, be a dear and let me know. Publishers waving six figure advances, please form an orderly queue to the left. I jest, I jest. Here is a short piece I did for Time that explains a tiny fraction of the madness the seized my life for two years.,9171,629437,00.html  The working title of the book is Village Idiot. And this is how it begins.

Descent into the maelstrom

It’s a baking blue-skied Bangkok day. Just past noon, and the heat has gripped me in its cloying embrace. It’s the serious kind of Bangkok scorcher the long time resident knows is a significant trip down the ladder to hell from the general quotidian sweat-fest. This is yaba fiend kills wife in argument over who gets the fan hot. Failure to apply prickly heat powder causes suppurating crotch rot hot. The kind of heat where the City of Angels dons honorary horns and grabs a pitchfork for a day.

Not even lunch time and I’ve been drinking. At home. Alone. Again. Hey, things haven’t been going so well. Cut a guy some slack. A wise medicine man once advised me of the restorative powers of beer, a horizontal position and ESPN. And as a thrusting, questing journalist, I’m duty bound to put this to the test. In the name of research, you understand. Cover the story.  But I’m shaken from my slack-jawed sofa torpor - agawp at sport, dregs akimbo - by the insistent buzz of the doorbell; angry, urgent, waspish. I gulp the last of my lukewarm brew and lurch outside to investigate. Jabbing at the buzzer with a violence jarringly at odds with the afternoon’s indolence is a very angry man. A man who, despite his middling height, has assumed mythic proportions in my mind; nemesis, scourge and telemarketer rolled into one. Perhaps it’s the heat shimmer or the beer goggles, but for a moment, it all makes perfect sense. Satan has come back to earth and I am his chosen vassal. Then I notice that he is clutching an unfeasibly large handgun in a weathered leather holster. I mean this is a serious Dirty Harry piece. Arnie armaments. But what would Satan be doing with a gun? Doesn’t he have, like, legions of fiends who could tear you enough new assholes to make you a shit fountain just by blinking their narrow yellow eyes?  So I’m standing there, thinking and swaying, OK, possibly more of the latter, but there’s definitely something very wrong with this picture.

The man’s back is ramrod straight. His booze-rouged cheeks are incandescent with ire and there's a sour whisky stink on his breath. His steel grey hair is cropped in a military manner and he sports army fatigues and a faded camouflage t-shirt. But what terrifies me almost as much as the gun is his eyes. They are cold and dead, yet red-rimmed and filled with an icy fury. To call them pissholes in the snow would be unfair to alfresco micturation. They are ruthless piggy nothing to lose eyes. End of tether eyes. I’m going to kill you motherfucker eyes.

I’m struck by the incongruity of the situation and feel a smile twitching about my lips. There is an armed, angry former Thai army colonel on my doorstep yet all around a typical village day is unfolding. I can hear the children playing across the street. A dog barks. The noisy chickens over the back are clucking. Someone, somewhere, is crooning through a boombox karaoke so unspeakably awful that they must be using auto de-tune. But the croaks and clucks go quiet, my vision tunnels and adrenaline burns off the beery thickness.  I’m wondering if I can run back inside faster than he can unsheath the pistol. We stare at each other for seconds that feel like hours.

   “This is my house,’’ he barks.
   “Umm, er, hem, haw,’’ I say, hoping I’ve made my position clear.
   “This is my house,’’ he screams this time, making sure I can see the gun. His face is scarlet and his screwed up eyes have disappeared under his screwed down hairdo. Random words pop and crackle in my brain but my synapses have suddenly gone on strike. Gun. Shit. Run. Wife. Kids. Dogs. Life. Death. Why?
   “Get out. The police are already on their way,’’ I lie. My wife, Ouam, is not home, but I shout back to the door, “aren’t they, honey!’’

His rusting pickup truck is parked outside, and I can see his corpulent wife smirking within. She looks like Jabba the Hut. No, Jabba the Condo. Grabba the House. Only with more slime. For all I know, she’s probably got Carrie Fisher crammed in the glove box. Feverish calculations are racing through my mind. Is he too old to climb the fence? What if he comes around to the front, where the fence is lower? If he gets in, should I run, or hide, or try to defend myself? Should I have bought myself a gun? Where’s the biggest kitchen knife?

 I summon up my courage and unleash all the terrifying might a trained wordsmith can muster:          “Urrghbluggoawaypleaseleavemealonewhatdidieverdotoyou.’’’
   He stiffens. Becomes still. Then calmly utters the words that shake me to my core and will disturb my dreams for years to come. “You get your coffin.’’ A pause, then he explodes. “YOU GET YOUR COFFIN!’’ He’s going for the gun, fumbling with the holster’s clip, and Jabba is oozing out of the car and slithering up the driveway. I turn and bolt inside as he takes aim and shrieks: “This is my house. I will stay here. I WILL STAY HERE!’’

My step-daughter has wandered downstairs to see what the commotion is all about and I bundle her back inside as I reach the front door. I peek outside and see Jabba wrestling the Colonel back towards the car, slathering him with slime, grabbing for the gun. They both bark angrily and my dogs join in. Christ, he wouldn’t shoot my dogs would he? I stab at my mobile phone, calling my father in Australia. I need reassurance, a lifeline to a calm, safe place, advice, anything. And as the phone rings, the one clear thought cutting like a laser through my panicked head is, how the hell did I end up in this mess?

Withnail, the handover, the hangover and I


Dateline: Hong Kong, July 1st, 1997.
Scene: The Star Ferry, approximately 7am.
Cast: Three idiots headed from One Nation to Neptunes, and the mother of all mornings after.

Idiot 1: Mate, how was Seb Fontaine's set? Awesome or what?
Idiot 2: Haha ... your pupils are enormous. You look completely wrecked.
Idiot 3: Bar City. Wow. It's going to be the end of an era when they pull that place down.
Idiot 1: That place will still be going in another hundred years.
Idiot 2: It could survive a nuclear holocaust. Like a cockroach.
Idiot 3: I saw a rat in the bathroom there once. True story.
Idiot 1: I've still got half a pill.
Idiot 2: Neck it.
Idiot 3. A cheeky half. Or perhaps a presumptuous quarter?
Idiot 1: So can you see any tanks?
Idiot 2: No, but I think that's the Chinese flag flying on top of the Legco Building.
Idiot 3: And there goes the Britannia. Bye bye Charles. Tata Chris.
Idiot 1: I feel ... unusual.
Idiot 2: Do you think Scary will be at Neptunes? I think I'm starting to come down.
Idiot 3: He's always there. Don't worry.
Idiot 1: Techno techno techno techno.
Idiot 2: Hummm. Amyl.
Idiot 3: People are looking at us funny.

Dateline: Hong Kong, July 1st, 1997
Scene: A very messy flat in Big Wave Bay, approximately midday
Cast: Three idiots, Withnail and I

I: Do you want a cup of tea Withnail?
Withnail: No.
I: 13 million Londoners have to wake up to this? The murder and all bran and rape?

Idiot 1: We must be out of our minds. I must go home and discuss this at once.
Idiot 2: My thumbs have gone weird.
Idiot 3: Is there any gear left?

I: I'm in the middle of a bloody overdose. My heart's beating like a fucked clock. I feel dreadful. Really dreadful.
Withnail. So do I. So does everybody.

Idiot 1: Whose got that spliff.
Idiot 2: Yeah.
Idiot 3: I left it on the sink.

I: There are things growing in there. There's a tea bag growing. You haven't slept for days. You're in no state to tackle it. Wait for the morning, we'll go in together.
Withnail. This is the morning. Stand aside.

Idiot 1: I think I've got to get out of Hong Kong.
Idiot 2: Yeah. We should go over to Macau.
Idiot 3: Get out into the country. Rejuvenate.

I: Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day. And for once, I'm inclined to believe that Withnail is right. We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell, making an enemy of our own future.

Monday, 18 July 2011

And now for something to really turn your stomach

They say you should suffer for your art. But have they ever been forced to chug a literal bucket full of sour brown slime and then spew it back up like some outtake from The Exorcist? I'm all for 'method' journalism ... getting yourself as close to the story as you can, but I have to confess I began to question my methods if not my sanity after a solid hour spent projectile vomiting and watching bits of my stomach float away down the drain like little pink life rafts, all in the name of getting free of the grip of some drugs I wasn't addicted to. Anyway, I thought you might enjoy this piece I did for the late and very lamented Colors magazine, here: ... one of the finest, most thoughtful and best art directed publications I've had the privilege to work with. I adored the photography by the very talented Mr Stephen Shaver, and his ingenious use of colour and composition. Oh, and if you look closely at the photos, you can catch me in mid-heave ... I'm the flabby white guy with a tattoo on his shoulder.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

How to lose a penis in Phuket

You have probably heard that Thailand has become one of the world's leading centres of sex change surgery, not to mention the mecca of penis reattachment. What you may not know is that I am probably one of the few people outside medical circles to have watched an entire male-to-female gender reassignment operation at first hand, and believe me, it was not for the faint hearted or weak stomached.

In the interests of propriety (or some crude simulacrum thereof) I left out some of the nuttiest parts of watching every bloke's worst nightmare being enacted before your eyes. You see, the thing was Samantha was hung like the proverbial bull elephant, and it was a poignant moment to see the two nurses swabbing his/her massive member down with Betadine and a kind of saddened awe. But perhaps the strangest and to this day unexplained thing was the surgeon's collection, in a backroom cupboard, of the formaldehyde-preserved testicles of transsexuals past, lovingly labelled with monikers like 'Tatiana', 'Judy', "Mod', 'Pla', 'Lek' and 'Priscilla' (okay, I made that last one up).

This was originally published in the SCMP's Post Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle, here:   It gives me great pleasure and an uncomfortable twinge in the groin to reprise the story of Samantha, former US marine and former man. Palani Mohan is the intrepid photographer who boldly went where few men have gone before. Enjoy, although not, I suggest, over breakfast.

Photo: Palani Mohan
MY PASSENGER giggles and shrieks as the jeep rattles down a steep jungle pass through an afternoon storm. Her tattooed arms flex as she picks at a chip in her nail polish. The road is slick and treacherous, and it takes all my concentration to carry on our conversation while peering through the maelstrom, dodging the crazed speed-freaks and half-drunk holidaymakers who have turned the Thai resort island of Phuket into something resembling a demolition derby.

Our talk ranges over the bitchy antics of the San Francisco goth scene, high-speed runs to Tijuana to load up on female hormones, and the ineffable oddity of knowing you have just 16 hours left as a man.

When she wakes up tomorrow morning, Samantha Hellstrom -  former US Marine, bodybuilder and security guard - will be wheeled into the operating theatre of the Phuket International Hospital, given a general anaesthetic and an epidural, and then during six gruelling hours will have her penis peeled apart and transformed into a passable-looking and functional approximation of a vagina.

"Nervous? Sure, I'm a bit nervous about the surgery, but not the end result,'' she says, as we pull into the leafy surrounds of the hospital. We've just been for a walk along Karon Beach, a quiet spot half an hour from the hospital and just south of the sex-and-booze mayhem of Patong Beach. It will be Samantha's last real chance to stretch her legs for at least a week. "All I want is to be as complete a woman as medical science can make me at the present time. That's all I can hope for.''

Photo: Chris Stewart
Samantha is one of a growing number of transsexuals from around the world opting to have their "gender reassignment surgery'' performed in Thailand. She has chosen Dr Sanguan Kunaporn, an affable, gangling young doctor who is fast coming up on his 400th sex change operation and is challenging his mentor and teacher, Bangkok-based Dr Preecha Tiewtranon, 57, as the kingdom's top plastic and reconstructive surgeon. The pair operate almost exclusively on patients from overseas. They are rated amongst the best in the world, and certainly the cheapest. Each will take on sex reassignment surgery for around US$5000, which includes up to two weeks stay in hospital. Breast augmentation is another US$2,000 or so. In the western world, expect to pay three or four times that, unless you are prepared to risk the cowboys. Cheap as these prices may sound to those with hard currency, however, they are still well out of range of most local katoeys (ladyboys), who must make do with lesser surgeons and less-than-satisfactory results or remain in the sexual netherworld of the shemale.

Like many others, Samantha was lured  by the island's promise of "sun, surf and surgery'' and by Dr Sanguan's growing reputation amongst the transsexual community.  "Welcome to Phuket, the most famous holiday destination in the South-east Asian region,'' gushes his Phuket Plastic Surgery website. "Our services range from breast implants, tummy tucks, liposuction, face lifts, eye lid surgery to sex reassignment surgery.'' Of course, the combination of sand, salt water and painfully raw and tender nether regions may  not hold the same appeal for all potential patients.

"Medicine is a big business in Thailand now,'' acknowledges Dr Sanguan. "We target people to come here for plastic surgery and to stay for a holiday. Last week, I did a facelift for a 65-year-old American man, who said it was cheaper here and he got to stay in  paradise. We usually offer a package. People want exact prices. So for example, if someone comes for liposuction, they pay about US$1500 for surgery and the hospital stay, then we can organise a hotel room, anything from US$15 to US$100, in town or on the beach. I don't know if in the future we will be a hub for cosmetic surgery in the world, or in Asia. But I think there's a good chance.''

Photo: Palani Mohan 
This surgery-by-the-sea in Phuket is part of a push which began three or four years ago, when dozens of hospitals thrown up during the boom years suddenly found themselves with world-class facilities and empty beds. The medical profession, Thai Airways and the tourism authorities got together and began marketing "medical vacations'', where holidaymakers can fit a full health check up or a face-lift into their stay at less than a quarter of what it would cost in the US, Europe or Australia.  This nip-and-tuck tourism has now become a major earner for the Land of Smiles.

Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok is the apotheosis of the trend, boasting vast rooms that look more like hotel suites, with hot and cold running nurses, cable and internet access, and even Starbucks and McDonalds in the lobby. It treated more than 160,000 foreign patients last year. The hospital now prefers to play down its role in sex reassignment surgery, despite the fact that Dr Preecha has done more than 1200 of the operations there. Transsexuals don’t quite jibe with the new jet-set image, despite the fact that sex changes still fill a big part of the coffers. "It's not something we want to talk to you about,'' said a hospital spokeswoman.

Dr Sanguan and Phuket International have no such qualms, perhaps hoping publicity will boost the hospital's profile. Foreigners are greeted by Pim Solasachinda, a briskly efficient PR type who speaks seven languages. “Ah, you’re here to see Samantha,’’ she says, and leads us to her room.

What's in a name?

Being fairly new to this blogging business, I've been giving some thought as to how to classify these musings in a logical and orderly fashion. I think I've come up with a workable solution, although I am certainly open to suggestions. Henceforth, blog posts will be classified thus:

Flagrant Harbour - epistles pertaining to Hong Kong and its environs

City of Angles - tales from the dark side of Bangkok

Land of Similies - weirdness from further afield in Thailand

Busted Flushes - Greatest Hits and other misfires

Cistern Chapel - photographic and video evidence as it comes to hand

Bad Housekeeping - notes, gloats and assorted other miscellania

Saturday, 16 July 2011

The line of coke as big as the Ritz

In Hong Kong before the 1997 handover, a kind of fin de siecle madness prevailed. Hair was being let down like there was no tomorrow (and here's to you, Kim Robinson). Every weekend saw another big name DJ roll into town, leaving in their wake madness, mayhem and very blue Mondays. Everyone was partying like it was 1999. But most of all, everyone was doing exceptional amounts of cocaine.

It was like there was no avoiding the stuff. Everywhere you turned, someone was stumbling from a bathroom stall, nose rimed with crystalline powder, babbling nonsense about their fascinating personal histories and bandying about plastic baggies before uttering those oft-heard words: 'Fancy a line, mate?'

Well, as a matter of fact, I did, to my eventual detriment and personal disintegration. But that's another story for another time. Coke, blow, nose-up, nose candy, Bolivian marching powder, Peruvian flake, the devil's dandruff, go-fast, Charlie, Chuck, gak, gear, California cornflakes, yeyo. Call it what you want, it's exceptionally more-ish, ubiquitously abundant, and stupendously expensive, at least for those on a hack's salary.

So a kind of unwritten etiquette held sway; what went around, came around. If a mate sorted you out, you'd return the favour. Scores were definitely kept. People took notice. Call it cocaine karma. And one particular acquaintance of a certain circle of friends was deep in karmic debt. I mean, this bloke never bought his own gear, or if he did, he didn't share nicely. So a lesson was in order.

Now the popular image of coke use revolves around besuited stockbrokers piled three at a time into fancy toilet cubicles, hoovering up great rails of the stuff with thousand dollar notes, or of hairy chested disco rats daintily dipping silver spoons into ornate blow receptacles in dark corners of the dance floor. But the truth is, it's a drug best consumed in the comfort of someone's home. It was a Friday or Saturday night, and a dozen or so friends had gathered at my Bridges Street gaff to gird their loins for the festivities to come. And Mr Won't Share was on his way. I was suddenly seized by a fiendish plan.

Running to the kitchen, I grabbed the salt shaker, laid a full length mirror flat on the floor, and proceeded to rack out the biggest line you ever saw. I'm talking over two metres long, at least. All of salt, I hasten to add. The door buzzer sounded and we assumed our positions ... at least five of us, bums in the air and snouts in the trough, making the noisiest snorting sounds we could conjure through stifled giggles. Well, Mr Won't Share walked in and his eyes went wide as saucers. He was like a kid in a nose candy store. Someone handed him a rolled up note and with quaking excitement he dropped to his knees and bent down towards the mirror, where the thick white line of crystals was now broken and smudged at strategic locations along its unfeasible length.

But, dear reader, I was gripped by a last minute crisis of conscience, and as Mr Won't Share prepared to fill his hooter not with powdered good times but with stinging streams of salt I gently reached over and restrained him. Much mirth followed, and to his credit, he took the prank in good humour and laughed at his own expense.

I do believe he also discovered a more generous, giving spirit from that day hence.

You can choose your friends ...

Getting married the second time around has brought me one blessing ... I was spared the curse of the Mother-in-Law. This is because my Thai wife, who will be known in this blog as Ouam, was snatched by her dad as a baby, wedged into his bicycle's carrier basket and pedalled out of a Chiang Rai hick town as fast as his bandy legs could propel him amid a hail of ancient Chinese musket fire.

So my wife didn't really ever get to know her mother. Not that it stopped her dad trying to provide plenty of substitutes. At last count he was up to official wife number five - although apparently there are at least that many again in the many hilltribe villages he used to visit as a peripatetic doctor.

My wife comes from a colourful clan, and they've provided me plenty of fodder for stories over the years. Take her father - or as he's better known in the hills around Mae Sot, in Thailand's wild west province of Tak - "Mo Kee Mau'' or "The Shit Drunk Doctor''. He had a penchant for a tipple, you see, or at least he did until the booze almost did for his liver. After that, he sensibly switched to valium, of which he prescribed himself an inexhaustable supply. Of course, a man with a wife in every village must be in need of some serious relaxation - imagine being nagged at in six or seven dialects. He also apparently has lung cancer, although I've never seen any proof, and he's still going fairly strong while enjoying the odd crafty wheeze on the occasional fag.

He had other good reasons to want to numb the pain. When he was a young man, he was hit by lightning. A friend perished. He survived. Local lore has it that he was never quite the same after that, and some of his more erratic behaviour over the years has supported the theory that he's a few prawns short of a pad thai. (He comes to stay every once in a while, on an endless shuffling circuit around siblings. Generally he is sweetness and light for the first few days, then a mischievous, irascible and increasingly impossible bastard thereafter. By the end of week two, he has usually effected the first of his escape attempts. After the second or third time hunting him down in Bangkok's backstreets, my wife will throw the mother of all tantrums and ship him off to whoever's turn it is next.)

The Shit Drunk Doctor is a dangerous chap to be around, it seems. Long after the lightning strike, he was part of a government anti-malaria team that was kidnapped in the hills of Umphang, a stunning tourist destination on the Burmese border which was once a hotbed of the communist insurgency, its picturesque hills full of guerillas in the mist. Anyone interested can read about his abduction and my efforts to reunite him with the boy soldiers who executed three other doctors in the team in this article I wrote for Time:,9171,457391,00.html

There's also this piece I wrote,9171,268237,00.html in which my wife and I retraced the steps of her great-grandmother, who left her home in China's southern Yunnan province to walk to Thailand with her parents. We managed to track down the King of the Dai, who pointed us in the right direction of the village her ancestors hailed from. A tearful meeting ensued. And I got to see from where the Shit Drunk Doctor and others of his clan had inherited their thirst for lao khao (rice whisky).

There are plenty of other colourful characters related to my wife dotted around the northern provinces of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Lamphang and Lamphun. I spent one lost weekend making lao khao with an uncle who was the village's official moonshine man. I met the crooked former senior police general, who fed me beer for breakfast as he sheltered from mafia types he'd double-crossed behind a 12 foot barbwire-topped fence, enjoying the fruits of his retirement - or rather, the "inactive post'' to which he'd been transferred. I met the clan's illegal loggers, who used to take my wife out into the forests to hack down venerable teak trees on moonlit nights. There was the iron-fisted auntie who parcelled the family's extensive rice fields into ever smaller plots to be doled out to dissolute nephews and nieces with bad attitudes and gambling problems. And the cousin living in breast-beating, garment-rending seclusion after her farang husband ran off with their 14-year-old maid.

With a Shinawatra looking likely to reassume the reins of power in Thailand, I've also been recalling the dark days of Thaksin's War on Drugs. My wife and I love all things Lanna, and were enthusiastically building a traditional teakwood Lanna home (with legal wood, I hasten to add) in the village where we have some land just outside Chiang Rai city. However, our ardour cooled after two cousins were gunned down by balaclava-clad thugs on motorbikes two doors down from where we were building the house. No one disputed they were yaba dealers, but still. The house remains unfinished, and with a new War on Drugs being mooted, may remain so for the foreseeable future.

My wife also went to high school with some real crackers in Mae Sot. I remember passing through this Wild West town one Songkran on the way back from covering the annual bareknuckle boxing match between some of Thailand's and Burma's hardest men. We pulled up to the abode of one of her high school buddies whose parents dealt in gems from Burma, where a high school reunion party was to take place. Their home was a three storey French chateau replica boasting acres of marble, family portraits in oils, and teak floorboards wider than my waistline. At midnight, her friend roared out of the garage astride his Harley Fatboy and wove in and out of the tables, shooting real bullets skyward and ululating like a Basra housewife.

Life in Thailand is never dull when most of your inlaws are outlaws.

How to flush 20 years down the gurgler ... and other stories

Cities at night, wrote Martin Amis, are full of men who cry in their sleep. But bugger that runt with his weep ships and his sob probes. For cities at night are also full of men and woman (and everything in between) who not only weep but laugh, shout, jape, grope, jest, guzzle, nuzzle, snort, rort, gulp, shag, toke, slap, and tickle. Cities - real cities - and their denizens are defined by their nights. Their neon mean streets and their klieg lit main streets. Their pubs and clubs and their rub-and-tugs. Their gaudy emporia and their branded wonderlands. Their meandering alleys and dank secret lanes. Proper cities get dressed up at night, shed their dreary quotidian garb and put on their best pulling gear. They shift into soft focus and pout through vaseline lens flare as reality blurs around the edges. Possibilities seem endless. Temptations seem boundless.

For the past 20 years, I've woken up mainly in two of Asia's cities that never sleep; places that constantly remind you it's a short, sharp slide from king of the hill to bottom of the garbage heap. I have spent roughly a decade apiece in Hong Kong and, latterly, Bangkok, both surely amongst the world's most exciting places to work and play, towns that only reveal their lurid true colours by night. I pottered about at the wilder shores of journalism, tried to get ahead in advertising and blowtorched candles at all ends as a DJ. I know where some of the bodies are buried. I have seen some stuff. I ... done ... bad ... things.

This blog will be devoted to rants, recollections and reportage from my sometimes sanity-sapping stints in these twin metropolises where crazy is the common currency and the odd and otiose abound. I'll throw in some 'greatest hits' from my last go-round as a journo, and keep you abreast of my exploits as I clamber back into the saddle, ride off into the sunset and go in search of the earth's dark places. If culture sucks down words under neon loneliness, that shouldn't stop us trying to cough them back up.

See you on the other side.