April 2nd 1984

posted in: The way back | 1
Panga and his family

The night was very, very cold.  Panga had been generous with his blankets, but we still ended up wrestling for whatever cover there was in the middle of the night.  A rude awakening in the morning too – we heard various bumps + shouts, then Val complained to me that  a man was peering at her thro’ a crack in the door.  What was more, he seemed totally undaunted when she stared back.  At the same time, Panga was calling on us to get up + open the door.  So I leapt from bed, pulled on some clothes, + swept back the door to find myself face to face with a largish soldier (sorry, policeman) with a very large rifle.  Under the circumstances, I considered it relatively brave of me to tell him off – he can’t have understood the words, but would have recognised the emotion I’m sure.  It seems we were to be searched, presumably for drugs, so while Val quickly dressed, I pulled the bag out for it to be looked at out in the dining room.  They were extremely thorough, going thro’ our bag + checking a number of its contents, as well as giving our bedroom a shakedown – needless to say, they found nothing.  Panga was also given a going-over, he told us later, but he is a careful man, + owned several properties, so all of his illegal substances were well cached, away from prying eyes.  We don’t know why the exercise took place – Panga tells us it was a first time ever for him, but one of his guests was careless enough to lose or have stolen their wallet a day or 2 ago, + that may well have stirred up some mud.  Panga has to be extra careful, + conceals his activities (he smokes opium every day) from all fellow-Thais, tho’ he is happy to share the experience with foreigners.  The police, in their mottled assortment of uniforms, milled around for a while, asked a few questions + then left – amiability all round.  For us, it made an interesting experience, another story for the pub, but Panga must be careful.

After breakfast we set out on a walk, hoping to visit at least an Aka tribe.  Panga had explained the route + drawn us a reasonable map, so we hoped not to get lost this time around.  At first we followed the road, which took us past some hot springs – no development here beyond a broken-down hut + a sign, but no chance to bathe either, even if the water had been cool enough to allow it.  5 or 6 kms further, + we came to our marker, a school for the Chinese refugee village here, + we took a path from around the back.  It was steep, but we’d been forewarned, + to our delight we were able to cope reasonably easily.  We met some Aka ladies on their way down – their costume is unmistakable – a short black skirt, embroidered bodice, + tell black cap, onto which is attached shiny silver baubles + often, coins, frequently British or Indian, presumably obtained from the time of British occupation of Burma, from where many of the tribes come.  They were happy to have their picture taken, too, but at a price: B1 for each participant, not counting the 2 horses.

When we came to the village, not long after, we could see that this wasn’t an isolated policy – it seemed that just about every woman + child in the place clustered around us, asking for a photo to be taken – with appropriate recompense.  We soon exhausted our small change, since, despite their pushiness, they are extremely photogenic.  They also pressed, quite literally at times, their handicrafts upon us – this was the hard sell.  Most of it, however, was pretty cheap + shoddy – shell bracelets, bamboo pipes.  Eventually, I bought a pipe, + Val a waist cloth, more as a gesture of friendliness than out of any desire.  A couple of girls were weaving, but we saw no work of quality that they could have produced.  When it became obvious that our supply of money + patience had worn out, we were left alone, indicating their profound lack of interest in us.  The men, interestingly, had remained aloof at all times, either because they had more dignity or because they were busy, building a new house.

We considered trying to move on to a Lahu village reasonably near by, but the map wasn’t clear, the advice in the village confusing, there were several paths, + Panga had advised us against trying it without a guide, so we gave up on that idea, + started to retrace our steps.  After a while, however, it looked as tho’ we might be able to follow a tail parallel to the road  but way up on the ridge overlooking it.  Surely we wouldn’t be able to get lost up there, with the road keeping us moving in the right direction, so we took that instead.  For a while all was well, but the further we went, the less likely it was that Val would be prepared to turn back if things didn’t go well.  And the incentive to continue was increased when, way down to our left, ie the opposite way from the road, Val spotted a small village.  She made it clear she wanted to get there if possible – my own doubts increased, but I allowed myself to over ride them, + we pushed on.

From the top of one charred crest – the farmers had obviously been busy recently burning the stubble off their fields; indeed, it was going on right now, a mile or 2 ahead of us, + very ominous + threatening it sounded – it began to be clear we would not be able to get across to the village to our left.  We should have cut off left well before this in order to manage that, but as if in compensation, we could also see a small village off to the right, halfway between us + the road.  The trail was by no means clear however, but we pushed on.  We soon ran into trouble, however – the trail swung left, + tho’ it headed in the right direction for the first village, it also passed uncomfortably close to one of the stubble fires which were filling the air with smoke + loud cracks.  Neither of us wanted to be involved with that.  I was for going back, but Val clearly disagreed, so I suggested we break off from the path + head across country down to where we could see another path heading over to the 2nd village.  It seemed reasonably sensible; after all, the path was not all that far away, just 2 or 3 hundred yards, but it turned out to be a grievous + stupid error.  The hill was much steeper than it looked; there was little or no grip; there were steep gullies running straight down the side of the hill which could only be crossed with difficulty, + forced us to take circuitous routes to avoid them if at all possible, + made us constantly re-assess our route; the plants were vicious, scratching our arms, legs, necks wherever possible.  In short, it looked a lot easier than it was, + those few hundred yards were a half-hour nightmare.

The very last section was the worst of all, for Val at any rate.  I spotted what seemed to be a short-cut across to the trail, so headed across there, but Val, aware that at so many other times what appeared a simpler route had a difficult stretch, decided to stick to the original plan.  As it happened, my route was both simpler + faster; in addition, Val’s took her both higher + thro’ the heart of a charred section that I had been able to skirt.  By the time she got down to me she was in a dreadful state.  Crossing the burnt stubble she had kicked up a load of dust, + that, in combination with the fierce heat, forced her quite literally to choke.  Luckily, we had a mouthful or two of water left in our bottle  – after drinking that, she was a bit better.  So we had made it across, but it had been a foolish, unnecessary, + desperately uncomfortable venture.

In contrast, the rest of our trip home was an anti-climax.  Five mins brought us to a stream, where we stopped to wash off some of the muck we had collected, + then into the village.  It was Lahu, I think, but if not overtly hostile, certainly not friendly.  We passed thro’ without a word, a wave, or a smile… not that there were many people about.  From the road, it was a weary trudge, + we were well-pleased to arrive back at Panga’s.  He was just off to his property in the hills behind the village, where he had promised to smoke some opium with us, but we were in no state to accompany him straight away, so he told us to come up later – there was no trouble to find the place, he said.  So we showered, + rested for a short while, drank prodigious quantities of water + a couple of warm Sprites, then strolled out to join him.

Except that it didn’t turn out to be anything like as simple as that.  We had been told we wouldn’t be able to miss him because he’d taken the truck up, + we couldn’t help but spot that.  But somehow, we reached the top of the hill, from where there was no more road, with no trace of him.  So, immensely frustrated, all we could do was walk all the way back down again.  Siva wasn’t able to help, + obviously as far as she was concerned, finding Panga was too simple for explanation.  2 other guests had arrived while we were away, a couple of Dutchmen.  One of them I took a bit of an instant dislike to (tho’ that was more a symptom of my mood than any defect on his part.)  The other was taller, had been to Panga’s before, + suffered from a stutter.

I almost gave up on seeing Panga at all, but decided to give it another crack so, feeling immensely weary, we set off up the hill.  Shortly afterwards, we were overtaken by the Dutch pair, who roared past us on the motor-bike they had come up on.  I felt unreasonably jealous, worried, I suppose, that they might disturb our promised opium session.  In fact, however, their presence had one immediate benefit – hearing the noise of the motor-bike, Panga emerged from the undergrowth, luckily just as we were walking past.  And the mystery of his disappearance was explained.  Normally, the truck would have been parked on the main track, but today he had attempted to forge a new road to his property by driving it up the tiny path leading that way.  In the process, he had got himself into a hell of a pickle – the path had been far too narrow + the truck had slipped over the edge; it was  now stuck.  Annoyingly, we had seen the truck the first time we had come up, but had dismissed it as a wreck – Val had somehow instilled the idea in both our heads that Panga’s truck was yellow, whereas, on the bits that weren’t patched or scraped, it was white.  The 2 Dutch guys came down on their bike – Panga was m ore than pleased to see Hans, + we all set to to see if we couldn’t pull, push, or lever the truck out of its position.  However, even with the help of a couple of other locals, + trying all 3 methods, sometimes singly, sometimes in combination, we got nowhere.  Indeed, at one stage it looked as tho’ we were actually making the situation worse,  but by the end, when bad light stopped play, it was  more or less back where it had been when we started – a reasonably honourable draw.

Bas, the other Dutchman, amazed everyone with his command of the Thai language, but he has been married to a Thai girl for six years, + has spent the last of those living permanently here.  Perhaps that’s what I’ll have to do – find a willing Thai maid.

Dinner tonight was an absolute mountain of fried rice + vegetables, topped off with the twin peaks of a couple of eggs.  Luckily, I was ravenous, so able to do mine full justice.  The evening was quiet + subdued, largely because we had a Thai visitor sitting in the living-room.  I was disappointed, realising that with Panga’s caution, he was likely to call the evening off… + this was our last opportunity!  Surer enough, Panga eventually announced he was off to bed.  Seeing our hopes disappear in this way, Val + I followed suit.  If our friend had been waiting for any drug action, this must have convinced him that nothing would be going on tonight, for he soon left as well, + Hans locked the gate.

We were still hovering the doorway of our room, still hoping that some action would be forthcoming.  Sure enough, they broached the subject with us immediately, in hushed tones, + Hans went off to see if Panga was really sleeping.  As we had hoped + half-expected, he wasn’t.  So much for the Dutch wrecking our dope chances!

At this point, we were introduced to the shadowy + secret world of opium.  From here on, the whole proceedings were more like religious ceremony than the studiously careless taking of the other drugs we have experienced.  We went by torchlight to Panga’s room, + had to wait while he meticulously folded two blankets + placed them close together at one end of the room.  I assumed these were meant as cushions, but apparently not – we were beckoned to sit on the 2 mattresses which, one lying along each wall, virtually filled the entire room.  Candles were lit, + we spoke in whispers, half conspiratorial, half sanctimonious.  We had all the ingredients of the Holy Sacrament, complete with High Priest to administer it.  Panga fitted together the pipe, a bamboo tube fitting tightly into a closed bowl, + unwrapped the drug, a block about the size of a large bar of soap, of a dark brown sticky substance.  Hand was the first to try a pipe – he was the only one of the four of us who had done so before.  Unlike ganja, with opium a pipe is prepared for one person at a time – Panga got to work.  Using a small stick, he scraped a small ball off the main block, + then began twirling this over the candle-flame, occasionally smoothing it on a round tin, presumably to raise the temperature evenly throughout.  Then, when he decided it was ready, Hans was called into position.  Here the 2 blankets revealed their purpose – Panga lay with his head on one, Hans on the other, facing each other.  Panga thrust the small stick into a tiny hole in the bowl of the pipe, held over the candle, so that it bubbled + vapourised, while Hans drew in the smoke.  As he did so, Panga would keep the hole filled, until it was all gone.  And that was one pipe.

Val went next, then me, then Bas, (who, because of various noises outside,   had been acting as self-appointed guard.)  I must say I found the whole thing most memorable.  I enjoyed the ritual;, was fascinated by the technical skill, + enjoyed the intimacy of the actual smoking.  In additio0n, the physical act of drawing the smoke down was not nearly as un pleasant as it is with ganja, since the smoke is not at all harsh.  As for the effect, that is difficult to say.  Not because there is no effect,  but because, as with one’s first experience of any new drug, it is difficult to separate what one actually feels from what one knows one should feel.  I felt enormously relaxed + comfortable – after a couple of pipes found it difficult to stay awake, in fact.  None of us became incoherent, but rather were able to communicate extraordinarily well.  We all got on very well – in particular, I enjoyed Hans.  He is such a nice bloke, + insisted on paying for our pipes as well.

It was interesting that our mental coherence didn’t go along with physical co-ordination, which was, when the time came to move, totally wrecked.  This wasn’t quite the end of the evening – we were all getting on so well that Val + I were happy to accept B + H’s invitation to go to their room for some ganja.  It may, however, have been a mistake.  One of the side-effects of opium is to induce vomiting – this certainly affected Bas, who had probably overdone things on his first spin at the pipe.   But no regrets, none whatever – it was all very, very pleasant.

It really was quite an extraordinary day, packed with incident, and topped with a pretty unique experience… for us, at any rate. And like I said at the time, no regrets whatever about trying it. It didn’t turn the p[air of us into opium addicts, or even to be particularly interrested in sampling it again, but the experience itself, as well as the effect of the drug, was something I asm glad we had the chance to experience.

And of course our earlier experience with Thai drug enforcement only served as an exciting appetiser. Plus there was our experiencr with the villazges, the hike, the ash… Not all of it was pleasant at the time, but all of it was memorable.

  1. Pamela Blair

    Great story, Chris. I’m loving how adventurous you and Val were in these Thai village pages. Actually, ever since you left Australia, it’s been one adventure after another! I know the feeling of time slowing down so that one more day (or week) in the itinerary means nothing.

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