March 15, 2002
I saw Bob fishtailing in front of me. I had no idea why; there didn’t appear to be anything in front of us. He’d been making abrupt stops all day that made me skid out behind him, and in a flash of annoyance, I decided I wouldn’t stop this time.
Then I had a second thought. He must have had a reason for hitting his brakes so hard.
I slammed into something and felt myself launch off the bike, screaming. I hit another bike on the side of the road and landed face first in a bush.
I was numb and shaking and thought I must be hurt but not feeling it yet. I sat up in a daze. Bob was picking up my dirt bike and trying to prop it against a tree and I thought that was a strange priority given that a man was lying very still in the road, bleeding. A pickup truck screeched to a halt next to him and several men jumped out, picked up the man, loaded him into the back of the truck and drove away. I looked back at Bob and he was struggling to hold up the bike. I realized from the smell that he was trying to stop gasoline pouring from the tank.
Bob and I had just ridden down from the highest peak in Thailand, Doi Inthanon. I had had a bad feeling about renting dirt bikes that morning, given the statistics on motorcycle accidents in Southeast Asia, but since we did it on the island Ko Pha Ngang and nothing happened, I ignored it. On the way back down the mountain we had decided to take a different route and gotten lost. We had just come into the town of San Pa Tong when the accident happened.
A group of kind neighbors came out of their houses and offered me tea and a stool to sit on. No one spoke English but it was clear they were asking if I was OK, and I nodded. A Thai police car arrived and Bob and I were loaded in the back. I asked what was happening and the officer driving said we were going to the hospital. I protested that I didn’t need a doctor, and he responded, “We go to see the man you…attacked.” Bob and I looked at each other, shocked. Was that a translation error?
We walked into the emergency room and I could see the man I had hit being worked on, still out cold. A doctor who spoke excellent English told me he had a fractured skull and a possible brain injury and would be flown to Bangkok. He said they suspected he was drunk and would run tests.
“I know he was drunk,” Bob said, “because I brushed against him with my bike as I skidded to avoid hitting him, and he kept walking, never even looked up.”
The doctor looked me over, said my shoulder was sprained, and gave me some antiseptic for my lacerations and some pain pills.
Then we were in a police station, giving statements. My passport was taken. The man driving the police car said, “If the man OK, you OK. If he not OK, you not OK.” He suggested I go to the American embassy in the morning, and he said we could go back to our hotel in Chiang Mai that night but I could not leave the area. I learned that his name was Inspector Chawalit, and he would be in charge of my case.
The owner of the bike shop came with one of his people. They were surprisingly kind to us and said this sort of thing happened all the time and insurance would cover all the damage to my bike and the bikes on the side of the road.
I wanted to take a taxi to Chiang Mai but everyone said it was impossible, and I would have to ride on the back of Bob’s bike. It was terrifying.
March 16, 2002
Bob went back home to the U.S. today, which was a relief. He was very stressed and was making things harder for me. The original plan had been for me to go to Bangkok with him and meet up with a expat friend of a friend named Bernie, but I would have to stay in Chiang Mai now.
Before he left we went to the U.S. embassy, but it was closed. Then we went to the Thai cooking school Bob had attended earlier that week and made a reservation for me for tomorrow. We both thought it would be good for me to have something to do while I wait to find out what is going to happen.
March 17, 2002
I went to an internet café this morning. I’m lucky to have the friends I have; there were a surprising number of supportive emails offering help, and I’ve barely put out the word yet.
In cooking class I learned how to make fish cakes, chicken with green curry and Pad Thai, and I met several other travelers. It was a good distraction.
On the way back to my hotel I checked email again and there was a message from a lawyer my best friend Pam had put me in touch with. “Get out of the country, don’t wait to talk to the embassy,” she said. “They may try to roll you for a lot of money.” I guess Pam didn’t tell her they took my passport.
March 18, 2002
I was able to reach someone at the American embassy this morning and spoke to a sympathetic woman who said she could give me a list of English-speaking local attorneys.
“The San Pa Tong police told me to call you, but they didn’t give me a number to check on the injured man’s status,” I told her. “Do you have some way of doing that?”
There was a confused pause. “No,” she said.
“Well, they took my passport.”
“They shouldn’t have done that unless you were being arrested.”
I was quiet for a moment. I guess that’s what “if he not OK, you not OK” meant. If the man didn’t recover, I would be arrested.
The embassy woman promised to call the police and get more information for me, and we hung up. I went to an internet café and sent an email putting Pam, Bob and my brother Larry in touch, so that Larry could keep everyone updated if I went to jail and couldn’t communicate anymore.
I went back to my hotel room. Two hours later, Lan from the bike shop called.
“Anna,” he said, “the man died.”
March 19, 2002
I think I’m supposed to feel something. I have killed someone. But I just feel numb.
I learned his name this morning. Sophon Khampun.
I called the American embassy again. An assistant counsel named Ruth said she had talked to the San Pa Tong police and the charge would be reckless driving and not involuntary manslaughter, which was good. She advised me to turn myself in to the police and post bail of 50,000 bhat, about $1200 USD. She also gave me the list of attorneys and said it would be OK to see one of them before I went to the police.
“What are the likely consequences?” I asked her. An acquaintance in Bangkok had already delivered the message that “cash is king.”
“You’ll need to pay some fines,” Ruth said, confirming what I’d heard. “At least one to the court and one to the police. And there will be probation. But right now, you should just focus on posting bail. The Thai prisons are bad; you don’t want to spend any time there.”
She doesn’t know where I’ve been, I thought. I spent three months in a Jamaican prison when I was a stupid young kid. Maybe I should just go to jail and send a message that I won’t be shaken down.
I had my first meeting with my new lawyer, Sanya Sukrasorn, that evening and changed my mind pretty quickly.
“Typically, these cases take three to six months,” he said. He estimated his fees at 30,000 to 50,000 bhat. I don’t want to spend three to six months in a 120-degree rathole. Sanya told me to come back the next morning with a retainer, and I agreed.
March 20, 2002
Sanya was late for our meeting this morning. He revised his timing estimate, but his news was still frustrating. He still hadn’t spoken to the police, but he said my options were to accept the charge, pay the fines, compensate the family, be put on probation and be out of here as early as one month; or fight the charge and be here for at least three months, if I win.
In Thailand there is no such thing as pleading guilty or not guilty. Either you “admit the charge” or you “refuse the charge.” Refusing the charge is considered a bad thing to do.
The many friends who have provided resources and advice so far have educated me on one very important thing. Thai culture is very different from American culture. Cultural diversity experts would call it a “consensus” culture versus an “autonomy” culture. In an autonomy culture like the U.S., what matters most is the rights and interests of the individual. But in a consensus culture like Thailand, what matters is the community. In America we would be talking about who was at fault for the accident, but in Thailand that conversation only embarrasses everyone involved. What is important is who got hurt, who needs to be taken care of, and who has the ability to pay. It doesn’t matter who was at fault.
The problem with Sanya’s options is that I don’t know what probation means. Will the probation be transferred to the U.S.? Will I have a criminal record there? Will I be able to travel? No one seems to be able to answer these questions.
Larry enlisted the help of his friend Al in New Hampshire, who recently married a Thai woman and brought her back to the States. Al’s wife Ohm offered to act as a translator. Larry also consulted a Thai friend he had met on the island of Samet to call the San Pa Tong police and offer a bribe. But that effort backfired because apparently once we got the embassy involved it was too late for bribes.
March 21, 2002
Sanya was late again today. It seems to be a habit. Then again, there is Thai time to be considered.
He had finally met with the San Pa Tong police, and he gave me a typewritten memo that said:
- Bail is 100,000 bhat, not 50,000 bhat as I was originally told. He can’t tell me why it changed. That’s about $2500 USD.
- The charge is no longer reckless driving, but negligence resulting in a person’s death. The maximum sentence is ten years in prison.
- Sanya’s fees are now 50,000 to 100,000 bhat, double what he originally quoted me.
- It is now estimated to take three to six months no matter how I plead.
- If I admit the charge, probation is likely but not guaranteed. I will also pay 100,000 bhat to the family, plus fines.
This was so different than what the police and the embassy had told me previously that I began to be suspicious of Sanya. Did he somehow get the police to escalate the charges? Was there a conspiracy to pressure me so I would offer up more money? There was also a clause in Sanya’s memo that said his retainer was non-refundable. Bernie, the expat friend in Bangkok, had told me it was not typical for a Thai lawyer to take a retainer but rather to bill for services, so I should ask what my retainer covered.
Lastly, Sanya asked if I had hired another lawyer because he had heard someone else was trying to compensate the family. I told him no, that was my brother Larry.
Sanya said I had to make a decision on my plea by 2:00 pm tomorrow, but he couldn’t answer enough of my questions for me to make a decision. He couldn’t tell me why everything had changed, either. It seems like someone suddenly got mad. It couldn’t be because of Larry’s bribery attempt because that had happened after Sanya’s meeting with the police. I think Sanya must have represented me badly to the police, and together they decided to scare me. In retrospect, it’s my own fault. I haven’t learned the culture well enough and I’ve taken an American approach to the issue of guilt or innocence instead of simply being contrite. Sanya will work against me now. I need to get a new lawyer.
Sanya said one other disturbing thing. The police, for some reason, want Bob to come back here. They said he couldn’t make a witness statement by phone or fax; it must be in person. I doubt Bob would come back here for me, so I hope they’re not serious.
I called Bob that night and asked him to get working on his statement, regardless of whether they will accept it virtually, because I’m beginning to hear a ridiculous number of false stories about the accident. The police have told various people that the accident was my fault because I was in the wrong traffic pattern, that it wasn’t very dark, that they measured my skid marks and I was going too fast. There were no traffic patterns on this one-lane dirt road, it was definitely very dark, and there were no skid marks because I never even hit my brakes. They also said my bike went through someone’s window and damaged two chairs, which is ludicrous. It must be a translation error; I damaged two bikes on the side of the road, but nothing ever went through a window.
March 22, 2002
Every time I check email I am grateful for the network of friends I have. Every day there are offers of support, money, legal referrals, etc. And Larry sent me more money today, even more than I asked for. I will pay him back when I get home, of course.
Ruth said the Thai police have no right to hold my passport because it is property of the US government, and even if they don’t return it to me, they will return it to the embassy. If they don’t, she said, they will issue me a new one.
“What’s to stop me from running then?” I asked.
She laughed. “Obviously I can’t advise you on that. But off the record…nothing.”
I had asked Bernie this before, and he said the only consequence would be that I couldn’t come back to Thailand. That doesn’t seem like much of a consequence to me right now.
I got an email from my friend Julie in Boulder saying she’d been told I would need to check if my passport was clean or dirty; if dirty, that meant it had been reported to Thai customs and I would be stopped at the Bangkok airport. But she suggested I could get out by taking a boat to Malaysia and flying out of Singapore.
I met Sanya at 8:00 and things got antagonistic quickly. I told him I would post bail tomorrow and wanted to compensate the family regardless of my plea, but that I still didn’t have enough information to decide on that plea. He demanded 12,000 bhat just to take me to San Pa Tong to post bail. I called Larry, who suggested I hire a local translator to take me. He also called his Thai police friend and asked him to find out what kind of relationship there was between Sanya and the San Pa Tong police, and how wise it would be to fire Sanya.
On the way back from dinner that night, a friendly dog I had always petted near my hotel woke up startled and bit me. That was the trigger that finally made me cry.
March 23, 2002
The embassy did not think it was risky for me to fire Sanya so I did it. Al’s wife Ohm had been on the phone with Inspector Chawalit last night and they said I really didn’t need a lawyer at all, just a translator. In Chiang Mai there is a separate division of law enforcement called the tourist police, and they arranged for someone to pick me up this morning. At 10:30, two very polite and friendly tourist police officers arrived with a translator named to take me to San Pa Tong with bail money.
“I’m Ant,” the translator said in a tiny voice. “Like the bug.”
We went to Chawalit’s office and spent hours typing up my statement. We went through every detail of the accident and Chawalit said he believed me when I said the skid marks were not mine. They must have been Bob’s. It seemed like he was doing his best to represent me well in the report. He gave me a copy of my passport and said I could travel around Thailand while I waited for the report to be submitted to the prosecutor, which would take about four weeks, but I must report to him every 12 days while we waited. He also said my name would be given to immigration. I guess the idea of fleeing is out.
At one point in the paperwork I was forced to answer the question as to whether I admitted or denied the charge. I was concerned that I was making a plea without understanding the legal consequences, but it was made clear to me that if I didn’t admit the charges, things would go badly for me. Not only that, but per Thai insurance regulations, the motorcycle shop’s insurance would cover medical expenses only if I confessed. If I refused the charge, there would be no coverage. Chawalit, at one point, expressed the concern that without a lawyer, I might feel I had been forced to confess. “Oh no,” I said, smiling through gritted teeth, “I don’t feel that way at all.”
At the end of the meeting Chawalit told me the brother of Sophon Khampun wanted to see me that morning. I had been told the only relative was a 20-year-old son, but now this brother was surfacing and said he needed money for funeral expenses. I said Larry would negotiate that. I know it’s best for me to stay away from all discussion of money. Larry will handle it better, and without emotion.
When I got back to Chiang Mai I was thrilled to find my friend Sheila back in town. I had met Sheila in New Zealand a few months ago and we had planned to travel to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia together, but now she was doing this without me. We went to dinner and I heard stories of her travels in Cambodia and in Krabi, in the south of Thailand. She brought me an Angkor Wat barrette and regaled me with stories until late in the evening.
March 24, 2002
I spent most of the morning hungover, in an internet café, on the phone with Larry and trying to write a statement and apology letter for my meeting with the family tomorrow. I am nervous about the meeting and having Sheila here has been a great help. She’s a quick study with languages and has been helping me learn a few key phrases in Thai, like “I’m very, very sorry.”
Sheila decided I needed to get out for some fun so she booked us on a mountain bike trip this afternoon. A bike shop owner and mountain bike racer named Tam picked us up at 1:00 pm, and his English was the best I’ve heard since I got here. He races for the Thai national team and recently trained in Australia; he told us he was also studying exercise physiology at Chiang Mai University. We went to his shop to pick up a couple of Specialized mountain bikes, then headed to Doi Suthep National Park, about 17 km north of the city. We biked from the park headquarters and did a 30-kilometer loop on fire roads climbing steeply to the top of a mountain. We stopped in a Mon village for lunch, and Tam explained that this hill tribe village had been very impacted by development; there were even villagers who drove down into Chiang Mai for work every day. We sat in a hut that sold snacks and noodle soup, and we ate honey buttered bread and drank some excellent local coffee. A cute puppy befriended me and I fed him. I vowed to come back and do this trip again, soon.
March 25, 2002
Today was my meeting with the family of Sophon Khampun, and when the tourist police came to pick me up Ant was with them, even though it was her day off. Sheila came with me too, and we spent an hour fussing over each other, trying to make sure we didn’t look like backpackers.
We spent nearly the entire day at Chawalit’s office; he seems to be quite a freak for documentation. I had feared my first meeting with Sophon’s brother Pawn, but he was polite and calm. I told him I couldn’t discuss terms because my brother would be handling it, and then I put him on the phone with Ohm, who was translating for Larry.
Their first ask was that I adopt the 20-year-old son and bring him back to the U.S. with me.
I hoped Larry would wrap things up swiftly before they could ask me to marry him, since adopting a 20-year-old would have been impossible under U.S. law.
I compensated the owner of the damaged bikes on the side of the road and signed statements saying I would pay fines for violating various unclear laws. Then Chawalit said he would arrange for my Thai visa to be extended tomorrow.
“That’s a good sign,” Ant told me later. “Usually they just let you overstay the visa and then pay the fines. He must like you.”
I took Ant and the tourist police officers across the street for a noodle soup lunch and then we went back to Chiang Mai. Ant told me Ohm had offered 100,000 bhat and Pawn seemed unhappy with it. He asked to meet with me tomorrow morning, probably because he hoped to appeal to me to make my own deal. I agreed to meet with him, but on Larry’s instructions I told him I couldn’t make any decisions about the money.
Sheila was leaving for Laos the next morning and she insisted on taking me out to dinner at a nice river-front restaurant, where she gave me the greatest gift of all – she introduced me to some friends from Boulder, Colorado, who had just arrived in Chiang Mai. Byron was here for a business trip, and his friend David was traveling through on a one-year round-the-world trip and would do some climbing over the next week. We ran into some Dutch travelers I had met in the islands earlier in the month and we all went to a bar to drink whiskey and smoke cigars David had picked up in Singapore.
March 26, 2002
I woke up tired and hungover again this morning. I need to stop drinking so much. Pawn did not show up for our meeting, and when I talked to Larry he said it was because he had reached a deal with him for 150,000 bhat. That is about 3600 USD, and an amount that will set up the son very well given the cost of living here.
I met Sheila, Byron and David for breakfast and said goodbye to Sheila. Then Ant picked me up to go to the immigration office for a visa extension, but they needed more paperwork from Chawalit. A tourist police officer was sent down to San Pa Tong but Chawalit was busy, and it eventually became apparent that the visa extension was not going to happen today.
Ant apologized for the waste of time and dropped me back at my hotel.
“Usually the police rush case documents for foreigners,” she told me before we parted. “I do not understand why Chawalit is waiting four weeks to submit your documents to the prosecutor.”
March 27, 2002
I stayed in my room almost all day today, talking to Pam and other friends who had advice for me. In the evening Byron and David called and invited me out to dinner. We went to a little roadside place, similar to an Indian dhaba, where we picked fresh fish, squid and prawns from a cart and had them stir-fried with vegetables and served over shared plates with rice. We strolled the night market after dinner, then had nightcaps at a bar with a climbing wall I had been to before, where you could watch climbers while drinking and listening to techno music.
March 28, 2002
Ant picked me up to go to San Pa Tong for a final meeting with Pawn and the son. It was the first time I had met the son and he was quiet, almost sullen. An officer took our photo while we exchanged money and signed documents. Chawalit had more reports to do, and then it was over. Now we wait for the case to go to the prosecutor, and my regular police check-ins will begin.
David and Byron called me for dinner again, and then we walked around the night market. It’s good to have some American friends.
March 29, 2002
David and Byron and I took a tuk-tuk to Tam’s bike shop this morning and did the same ride I had done with Sheila last week. We had a big group this time, including two Thai journalists who were doing a story on mountain biking for a Japanese-American magazine.
After biking and dinner we went to the nightclub at David and Byron’s hotel, the Porn Ping. It was loud, busy, thundering with pop dance music. We laughed and confessed how much we hated it, and wrapped up the night at the bar near the climbing wall. I staggered home at 1:30 am.
March 30, 2002
I was depressed this morning. I keep waiting for a thunderbolt to hit me – the realization that someone is dead because of me – but the thunderbolt doesn’t hit. Just gradually accumulating depression.
Byron is leaving today but David stays a few more days, and I am grateful for that. We went to a tourist desk to book some excursions. I think maybe if I just book up my time I will have to stop moping around and drinking too much.
March 31, 2002
David and I took a songthaew to Doi Suthep this morning and hiked the same route we had mountain biked with Byron. It was a beautiful day and we met travelers along the way and saw the summit of Suthep this time.
In the evening we went to the Tha Phae Street festival, which happens every Sunday. We ate squid on a stick from a street cart and had foot massages. On a dare, we bought a bag of fried locusts. We took them to the techno bar by the climbing wall and the waitress brought us drinks and a plate and sat down to watch us eat the bugs. After the initial psychological discomfort I decided they tasted like crunchy little bar snacks.
April 1, 2002
I went on one of the tours I booked today. My guide Luen picked me up in a van at 7:00 and then we collected nine other people from various hotels.
We spent a very full day touring around northern Thailand, particularly in the Golden Triangle area, where the Thailand, Laos and Burma borders meet. We took longtail boats on the Mekong River and stopped in a tourist shopping village in Laos, where I bought a bottle of snake water for my brother Toby, who has been very supportive and sent me money recently. Laos tribesmen believe snake water makes them more potent. It was actually just a dead snake in a bottle of alcohol.
I couldn’t help but think about the fact that I had just crossed the border from Thailand into Laos and there was no passport check. Then again, what good would it do me? If I showed up at a Laos airport with no passport I would not be able to fly out.
April 2, 2002
Ant picked me up for my first check-in in San Pa Tong this morning. Larry called before I left and said Ohm put in one more call last night to offer a payoff but Chawalit shot her down immediately. I’m confused, because he made many off-hand references to “tips” in our last meeting. But maybe at this point it just means I am expected to tip him after he expedites my case. It’s baffling to try to figure out who expects to get paid and how.
At the police office Chawalit said he’s waiting for a report from the hospital and then all documents will go to the prosecutor. This might happen next week, but there are no guarantees. I had hoped to go to Bangkok with David when he leaves and visit Bernie at the same time, but that seems unwise now.
It seems time to make some more long-term plans. I booked myself at the cooking school for the next week, and then at a massage school for the following week. Then I started looking for a new place to live. The tourist package hotel I have been in for the past two weeks served the purpose when I was with Bob, but now I need something more economical. After looking at about ten places I finally found a twenty-room guesthouse called the Baan Kaew, run by two delightful locals named Songkit and Sanwan.
April 3, 2002
I went for a run along the river with David this morning. I haven’t run in months; it felt good.
Afterwards I went to cooking class and we had a tour of the local market. We learned how to make a chicken in coconut milk soup, papaya salad and a red fish curry.
After dinner on the western side of the inner moat with David we went to one of the many lady drink bars on Thanon Loi Kroh and watched the beautiful young Thai girls flirt with older western men. We wondered if the girls were on salary with the bar or if they just got commissioned on the drinks they sold. Or maybe they are all hookers and the bar is looking for the business they generate on the side?
April 4, 2002
After settling a painful 38,000 bhat bill at my hotel this morning, I moved into the Baan Kaew guesthouse. I was instantly happy with my choice. Songkit and Sanwan made me feel right at home. It’s a cozy place with a garden and a small terrace restaurant, and my room is simple but has air conditioning.
April 6, 2002
Today is David’s last day; he is leaving for Nepal tonight. I will miss him. Yesterday we went for a run in the morning, did another cooking class, and met for dinner at the night bazaar. This morning he went with me to register at the Thai massage school. They suggested we come for a massage at the same time, so we each had a two-hour Thai massage that was painful at times but felt great afterwards. I met the owners, who speak excellent English. I think it will be a good week.
April 8, 2002
Our massage instructor’s name is Sombat, and he is a PhD with degrees from the US and Canada. There are four of us in the Foundations of Massage class, a small class size because of the Songkran Festival this week. I am paired up with Katie, a college student from the UK, and several assistants demonstrate while we practice on each other. Everything goes well except that I keep shaking. I notice I have an unexplained tremor recently.
The format for the school is very healthy. We start with herbal tea in the morning, then yoga, and they feed us vegetarian food all day during class.
I decided not to drink any alcohol this week. My drinking has been out of control, and now that I’m in this environment it’s time to try to get all the toxins out.
April 9, 2002
Sombat had to leave early today and we were with his partner Jan. I told her about my troubles and she was helpful.
“Unfortunately, I know the scenario very well,” she said. “Usually it is clearcut – you pay the family, you pay the police, and then they let you go. I don’t understand why you have to go before a prosecutor.” She said she knows a prosecutor here in Chiang Mai and she will call for his advice.
Later I spoke to Sanwan at my guesthouse, who is a law student, and he said the same thing, that it is unusual for me to be held up like this. I am beginning to worry again.
April 10, 2002
Jan warned us that people would probably start throwing water for the Songkran Festival today. Since people celebrate the new year by cleaning themselves and their homes, a water fight is supposed to symbolize a cleansing, a fresh start.
“In reality, however, they throw dirty canal water, sometimes with food coloring, powder and other stuff,” she said. “Make sure you wear old clothes.”
April 11, 2002
On the way home in the songthaew the school always sends to pick us up and drop us off, we drove around the moat and it was filled with people throwing water, completely out of control. We were trapped in the back of the vehicle and people ran up and threw buckets of water on us. We were drenched, and Katie started screaming at people and giving them the finger.
April 12, 2002
I met an older woman from New Mexico at my guesthouse this morning named Stuart. She has been traveling a long while – three months in Morocco, three months here in Thailand, and now she’s going to China. She did a 21-day silent retreat at one of the wats here. Sounds hard.
April 13, 2002
I’m so homesick. Or not really homesick, but country-sick. I want to go back to the US and buy a Nissan Xterra and throw camping gear inside and tour from national park to national park. Totally nomadic, as I have been the past six months, but in a country where I know the language and understand the legal system and everything is easy. And then maybe settle down in the Colorado mountains and be a ski instructor in the winter and a hiking guide in the summer, or something like that. I bought the Lonely Planet book for the United States.
April 14, 2002
Ant picked me up for my check-in this morning. Instead of her usual blue suit she was festively dressed in a colorful, traditional Thai skirt, and I felt bad for making her work during Songkran. I was hoping for an update today but I was disappointed. Chawalit wasn’t even there, and the documents still hadn’t been sent to the prosecutor. The thick packet of reports was sitting on the duty officer’s desk, along with some disturbing photos I hadn’t seen before – the wrecked bikes on the side of the road, me sitting on the stool neighbors had brought me, staring at my lap. Bob holding up my leaking bike, looking worried. We signed papers with the duty officer and left.
April 15, 2002
I had planned to stay home all day – I’m sick to death of the throwing water – but at breakfast the New Mexico woman, Stuart, asked me if I wanted to have lunch and I agreed. We went to an excellent Indian restaurant, and on the way I learned that if you plead earnestly with people not to throw water, it works about half of the time. Stuart was very good at it.
Over lunch I discovered her to be a wonderfully grounding person to talk to – wise, calm, generous. She told me about her experience meditating in the wat and suggested it might help me in my current situation. I confessed to her that I was concerned about my lack of feeling, and she suggested I write about it and maybe consider doing a meditation retreat.
I wish I could. I know I can’t.
“If you start with the premise ‘I can’t’,” she pointed out, “then it definitely won’t work.”
She’s right, of course. But it’s unimaginable to me that I could meditate silently for 12 to 14 hours a day. I’m too much of a thinker and I am instantly distracted. Lately I can hardly read a book.
Stuart told me she had been a very fast-paced and ambitious art museum executive until about 10 years ago, when she had a grand mal seizure and hit her head, losing some of her memory. She said everything changed for her after that; she slowed down, became more compassionate and more open to other people and experiences, and started communicating and thinking on a different frequency.
I think there is a message in that for me. I just hope I don’t have to hit my head to hear it.
April 15, 2002
After a leisurely breakfast with Stuart, I took a songthaew up to Doi Suthep and did my usual hiking loop through the Mon village and up to the summit of Pui. I met a well-traveled young Canadian woman named Tara who has been teaching English in Korea, and we sat and talked for a while. I told her what was keeping me in Thailand. She suggested we keep in touch.
April 17, 2002
I called my travel insurance company this morning to extend my policy and they said they no longer sell that policy. It’s been seven months since I left the US now. At first I was nervous to be traveling with no health insurance at all, but then it occurred to me that medical expenses in Thailand were so cheap compared to home that I really shouldn’t worry about it.
Stuart and I went to a khantoke show at the Chiang Mai cultural center. Over a delicious Thai and Burmese dinner served on rattan trays on the floor in front of us, we watched northern classical and folk Thai dances. My favorite was the fingernail dance; the women wore fake fingernails at least a foot long, and their movements were slow, elegant, striking. We saw a sword dance by one very talented woman, dressed as a man, spinning many small swords. Then there was a Lahu dance, in which men threw themselves against a huge drum. The last performance was a tribal dance called the Rice Winnowing and women with rattan trays threw synchronized handfuls of rice in the air. It made an entrancing whistling sound.
Stuart is leaving for China tomorrow. Another person I will miss.
April 20, 2002
I started my foot reflexology class today. The massage school’s songthaew picked me up with Shelly, who was one of the students in the previous class, and a new guy named Aret this morning, and we are the only three in the class. We’re not learning the full therapeutic technique — just a relaxing foot massage — but we did learn the chart showing what part of the body or organ each spot on the foot corresponds to, and then we learned to stimulate it with a small wood stick.
Aret is a Brit who hasn’t been home in four years. He wanders around, picking up jobs where he can, and most recently he worked at a Japanese ski area. Before that he was a waiter in a strip club. That sparked an interesting conversation in which I found out Shelley is an exotic dancer.
April 22, 2002
My foot massage class is done and this morning I started my last class, a three-day therapeutic message class focused on techniques for headaches, stiff neck, numbness, various other aches and pains. Tara, the young Canadian girl I met hiking at Doi Suthep, is in my class and I was happy to see her again.
The class has quite a few other people I met in cooking classes or in previous massage classes. The backpacker circuit in Thailand is a very small world.
April 24, 2002
My next check-in was not supposed to be until Friday, but Ant called me last night and said my case was ready to go to the prosecutor. She picked me up at my guest house this morning to go to San Pa Tong.
Chawalit was not there again but Ant said it didn’t matter because the police are now out of the picture – no more check-ins with them. We collected my bail money and went to a bank for a cashier’s check, then we went to a large, busy municipal office back in Chiang Mai where we reposted the bail money with a clerk and made an appointment to see the prosecutor next Tuesday. Ant said I might get a court date that day but I shouldn’t count on it.
Larry called for an update this morning and suggested once again that I get a new lawyer, but I told him based on what both Ant and Jan said, it probably isn’t necessary. Everyone says jail time is off the table and there will just be a suspended sentence and possibly a fine. Jan also said that there will be no transfer of probation to the States.
April 26, 2002
Jan called this morning and said she talked to her cousin who works in the prosecutor’s office, and he said my case is complicated and I should hire another lawyer. I don’t really understand, but it seems to have something to do with making sure the documents get submitted properly and show that I compensated the family.
I called a lawyer Jan referred me to, Khun Surasak. He made an appointment to see me tomorrow.
April 27, 2002
A weird thing keeps happening lately, I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep. I’ve always been a good sleeper.
My first conversation with Surasak this morning:
Surasak: “How long you been in Thailand?”
Me: “I came in February.”
Surasak: “Of next year?”
Me: “No, of this year.”
Surasak: “So when you come to Thailand?”
While his English is not the best, he seems straightforward enough. He said he would get my case documents on Monday, meet with me to review them, then come to court with me for 10,000 bhat. High, but not unreasonable, and I will take Ant with me to help with the communication problems.
April 29, 2002
Ruth at the embassy said they are fighting with immigration about the visa overstay issue, and will continue to fight, because the Thai government is acting illegally by charging me when they have detained me. But she also said the San Pa Tong police have promised to give my passport back tomorrow.
April 30, 2002
Ant picked me up for court this morning. Surasak wasn’t there at first; a young assistant from his office came and read from a brief, which Ant translated for the judge. It said that I had confessed to the charges and requested that my sentence be reduced. Reduced from what, I have no idea.
Surasak showed up eventually.
“I think the case will have to be continued,” he said.
“How long?” I asked.
“Maybe a month or two. And you will have to be in the jail this afternoon, just until the bail money is transferred from the prosecutor’s office to the court.”
I exploded. Spending an afternoon in jail was not a big deal, but another month or two in Thailand was not something I had expected.
I called Larry, and Ruth at the embassy, to let them know I was being locked up in case they didn’t let me back out.
At 1:30 we went back to the prosecutor’s office and waited, and finally they called a group of us to walk down the street to the courthouse where a group of prisoners were chained in a holding cell. It had tile floors and electric lights and was nothing like the hellhole I had expected. They didn’t even put me in the cell, they just had me sit on a bench in the entryway. I was glad I hadn’t paid 300 bhat for the private cell Surasak had encouraged me to buy, and besides, it was fun to chat with the Thai prostitutes through the bars of the holding cell. After a few hours we were escorted us back upstairs to the courtroom.
While I’d been sitting outside the holding cell, Ant had gone to the bank and had the name on my bail money check changed, and Surasak had filed a brief asking for a speedy continuance. It turned out that what the court needed was for the Lamphun family to appear before the court in person and tell them I had paid them. They couldn’t rely on the police reports and photos. Surasak said he was trying to get the Lamphuns into court this coming Friday.
I had given Ant the envelope I had been carrying around for her earlier in the day because I didn’t want to risk taking cash into a holding cell. She tried politely to give it back, but I didn’t let her. It was 10,000 bhat, and she earned every penny of it. She said she would share it with the policemen who had driven us around.
May 1, 2002
I had my last day of massage school today and saw Tara again. We learned how to make herbal packs, and then exchanged contact info. Tara is leaving for Cambodia tomorrow to meet a friend.
May 5, 2002
I think I’m falling apart.
I had worried the Lamphun family would not show up for my second court date, but the son appeared and said he was satisfied with what I had paid him. The judge, with Ant translating, explained that my charge normally carried several years in prison–I gulped as he left a pregnant pause–but because I had confessed and paid the family I would receive a suspended sentence and a fine. He said I needed to get release paperwork from San Pa Tong and then my bail money could be released.
But then Ant and I went to the immigration office. We were there for hours, being shuttled from office to office, seeing all the higher-ups. No one would admit they had denied my visa extension application and they said they had no record of us applying for it. Then one woman said she remembered Ant and I coming in, so they said the San Pa Tong police must have filed the paperwork incorrectly. A woman inspector said I had to either pay the fine or be locked up until my flight and then deported.
I was at the end of my rope. “Fine!” I shouted, “lock me up, I don’t give a shit anymore!” I made a couple of frantic calls home with instructions on what to do if I was not heard from again.
Ant looked distressed and offered to pay my fine herself, and I was immediately contrite. The consulate conceded to the deportation order, but said that if I got locked up, they would still take the issue to Bangkok.
Finally, they agreed I could be free until my flight, but then I would be escorted to Bangkok by the police and locked up in the airport for the night and put on my flight the next morning. As if I might try to stay in Thailand. To top it all off, I would have to pay expenses for the officer deporting me, and that would cost about the same amount as the overstay fine would have cost.
May 9, 2002
I’ve been so frustrated I couldn’t write for days. Larry booked me a flight home for last Thursday but I couldn’t take it. Ant and I tried twice to collect my bail money, once on Tuesday and once on Friday, but we were told the big boss was too busy to sign the paperwork. They finally gave me the judgment letter from the court to take to San Pa Tong, but Chawalit also needs a letter from the prosecutor telling immigration to release me. The prosecutor said he didn’t have the authority to write this letter and it must come from the governor. No one can say how long it will take. Ant and Songkit talked at my guest house one night when Ant was dropping me off and speculated that maybe the police and prosecutor were looking for a payoff but wouldn’t risk saying so to me. Songkit said my lawyer should really be handling this for me, but Surasak went on holiday to Phuket.
I talked to Larry again and he said during the initial negotiations, Ohm had told Chawalit that if he helped me he could have my bail money. The question is, did he help? Ant seems to feel that he did, and I guess I agree. Maybe. It does seem he wrote up my case in a favorable light.
Yesterday Larry had Ohm call him again and he said no one is expecting any money. But then Songkit said, of course they expect money, they just won’t say so.
Christ! How am I supposed to go about paying anyone off if they won’t tell me how to do it?
Ruth at the embassy is disgusted at this point and said I can have my passport back anytime I want it. We discussed the possibility of me running, and she almost seemed to be suggesting it. But then she talked to some of her staff about my status in the immigration computers and it sounds like no one is sure I won’t be stopped at the airport.
There are no more cooking or massage classes, no more structure to my days. My drinking has become out of control. I found a western bar and restaurant called the Chiang Mai Saloon that shows pirated western films for lunch and dinner and I started hanging out there every day, drinking rum and cokes, watching movies that haven’t even been released in the States yet and have badly translated subtitles. I’ve developed a habit of stumbling home drunk at night, trailing a couple of filthy stray dogs into the yard and pleading with the kitchen to cook dinner for them. Sanwan never complains the next morning when the stray dogs are found passed out on the dining room floor from an overdose of fried rice. I love Sanwan and Songkit.
May 10, 2002
Something had to change. I talked to Rungsan, the trekking guide Sanwan and Songkit used to work for who has a travel desk in the guest house, and I told him I needed to get out of town. He suggested a three-day hill tribe trek that looked pretty good. Ant and I were supposed to try to get my bail money back again, but I called her and asked if we could put it off, since I am clearly not going anywhere soon.
My travel group has four other people in it: three rabble-rousing beer-drinking Irish construction workers on a four-week holiday who are also staying at the Baan Kaew — Steve, Decky and Brian — and a very sweet Thai prostitute named Na, who has hooked up with Steve. Brian told me she is “bar fined” out to them, which apparently means they payed the bar she works in to let her travel with them.
This morning we drove about two hours north to Chiang Dao, where we toured limestone caves filled with alters and Buddhist statues. Some of the statues were built up high on walls or fitted into elaborate limestone formations, and Rungsan said they were Burmese but no one knew how old they were.
We drove another few hours to ThaTon, where we had lunch in a noodle shop on the Kok river, then to an Akha village nearby. We took a very tippy longtail boat down the river through class 1 and 2 rapids that threatened to capsize us, then a two-hour hike up into the hills, to a Lahu village where we stayed for the night. Along the way, Decky had his photo taken with a 60-kilo boa constrictor wrapped around his neck.
The village was clean and friendly, and the houses were on stilts, with chicken and pigs living underneath. We went to a large hut with several bamboo-floored rooms and a deck spread with colorful rattan matts. The family was sitting in the kitchen with a fire going as if they expected us, and Rungsan handed them a bag of food. He said there were several families always prepared for trekkers, since it was impossible to communicate with them in advance.
The family was impressively well stocked for guests, and Rungsan explained that his company gave them money to set them up. They had sleeping mats and pillows, mosquito nets, silverware, glassware and khantokes. They had a tub of beer, soda and water for us and we sat on the deck and relaxed. Later the family served us dinner on the deck; coconut soup, green curry, fried pork. After dinner we drank tea and Rungsan told us more about the Lahu tribe, which are experiencing the same struggle between development and tradition that most Thai hill tribes are grappling with.
May 11, 2002
I turned 37 today. I thought I would be home by now.
It stormed all night, and I enjoyed the sound of the rain and the late-night banter from the Irish boys. The family made us scrambled eggs with tomatoes and toast for breakfast and we ate on the deck again.
I was beside myself when Rungsan told me he had hired a local village boy to be my guide today. Last night he had said there was a long way and a short way down from the village, and I was the only one who had voted for the long way. I set off with my guide, who wore flipflops and a long knife on his belt to cut branches, and we left in front of the others with plans to meet them at a waterfall in three hours. My guide spoke only a few words of English, so we hiked in silence and stopped a few times to comment on lychee fruit or a snake. After a couple hours we met Rungsan sitting at a little restaurant in an elephant camp, and he sent me down to the waterfall to meet the rest of the crew. The Irish boys were romping around in a waterfall made brown by the rainfall last night.
We loaded elephants for a ride up the mountain. My elephant was named Soy and her trainers said I could ride on her neck like they did, but it seemed too precarious. The trail was steep, narrow and sometimes rocky. At the top of the mountain there was no platform so the trainers made Soy lie down on the ground to let me off. I held on tight. Then we walked back down the other side of the mountain where a songthaew waited to take us to our driver in Chiang Rai.
We checked into a little guesthouse on the Mai Sai river. It had an open-air restaurant and the rooms were private bamboo bungalows on stilts right in the river. Looking out my two windows I could imagine I was in a houseboat. After settling into my room I met Rungsan in the restaurant for a beer, and I told him this tour had been much more than I expected. We talked about the trekking industry, and we watched men walking across the river in their underwear with their clothes held high over the heads in bags. Rungsan explained that many Burmese crossed the river for day jobs in Thailand and would wade in order to avoid the 20 bhat immigration charge for using the bridge.
The Irish boys were hungry, not being used to exercise, and they ordered a first round of dinner and then a second. A storm whipped up during dinner and blew rain into the restaurant, and we moved our table up near the kitchen to escape it. After fried noodles and rice soup I was sitting back, feeling very full, when suddenly everyone was singing happy birthday and the guest house owner’s daughter, Pee, was bringing out a big cake with candles and even my name on it. Rungsan must have called ahead. I usually avoid celebrating birthdays but I was touched.
May 12, 2002
It rained all night and I kept waking up, confused about where I was. There seemed to be a knocking at my door, and then I found a gecko on the wall.
We drove to a Thai immigration office where the Irish boys got passport stamps so they could cross the border into Burma for a short visit. I had assumed I wouldn’t be able to go with them, but to my surprise the officials said if I made more copies of my passport photocopy I would be allowed to cross. We went to an immigration booth on the bridge leading across the river and an immigration official asked me where my passport was. I told him the US embassy had it. He didn’t ask why.
I was directed to a counter where they made copies, and I made two – one for the Thai immigration booth and one for the Burmese booth on the other side of the river. No one appeared to be checking any computers. Apparently if I’d had my actual passport they would have held it until I came back across, since I was only going to Burma on a one-day visa. But if I’d had it and pretended not to, it seems I could have given them a copy and then not come back. I filed this scheme away for future use, just in case.
May 13, 2002
I arrived back at Baan Kaew to find that not a single person back home had remembered my birthday, not even my mother. I guess I shouldn’t complain, since I usually ignore my birthday and expect others to do the same. But this year felt different.
I talked to Larry that night and told him I had heard about a boat I could take into Malaysia that might have less rigorous passport checks. He was exasperated. “You think this has been bad?” he asked me. “How much worse to do you think it would be if you were arrested in Malaysia?”
The weather was rainy and cool. Ant picked me up in her own car to go get my bail money, and this time they gave it to me.
May 14, 2002
I was sitting at my guest house this morning, drinking coffee, when Sanwan handed me the phone. It was Ant.
“Anna!” she shouted. “The prosecutor, he say the letter from the governor come and you can go home!”
We went to San Pa Tong to get a final letter from Chawalit for immigration. After consulting with Ant, I finally decided to give him a tip, although I had to run after him to do it. I guess that is just the Thai way.
Immigration kept me around for another few hours, fingerprinting me, taking more photos. They told me to come back tomorrow night at 10:00 pm to meet the officer who will take me to Bangkok.
Ant dropped me back at Baan Kaew and I said an almost tearful goodbye to her.
May 16, 2002
I had many people to thank yesterday; the Irish boys, who all have cute Thai girlfriends now; the owner of the Chiang Mai Saloon; the staff of the Baan Kaew, whom I left tips for; and sweet Na, who knocked on my door and gave me a key chain as a goodbye present. Then I sat with Songkit and Sanwan and we drank a bottle of wine while we waited for the tourist police to pick me up.
They showed up on time and took me to the immigration office where I met my escort for the next 24 hours. He was a tall, heavy, imposing man with diamond rings on several fingers, Sergeant-Major something-or-other, and he looked like a Mafia boss. He shepherded me through the process of being fingerprinted and signing papers yet again, and then another officer dropped us at the airport for the one-hour flight to Bangkok.
We landed at 1:00 am and everyone in the Bangkok airport wanted to be my friend. An officer named Peter said I could go for a bottle of water if he came with me, and then he dragged me all over the airport to meet his friends. I was exhausted. Finally, he let me sleep on a bench in the immigration office for a few hours.
I’ve been flying for about 11 hours now, and that’s a long time to reflect on everything that happened over the past three months and what I learned from it.
But I didn’t.
I’m just glad to be going home.