On Khao San Road, late night beatings, and sticking your neck out
“That little fucker just tried to take my wallet!”
Not from what I’d seen… “You sure mate?” I replied, “looked to me like you just bumped into each other.”
We were drinking and dancing in the middle of Khao San Road at 3am, as you do, drunk on buckets and still chugging big bottles of Singha from the street stalls. I was with this Belgian guy called Albert I’d just met once previously (the week before), a friend of a friend who was living in Bangkok, and if I was a 6 on the drunk scale he was probably a 9; not quite a write-off, but too far gone to make much sense (or remember much later). We’d lost the other guys we’d been out with and were getting stuck in to the weird & wonderful zoo that is Khao San Road in the wee hours of a Saturday night.
This was a short time before the military took power in the 2014 coup d’etat, before they cracked down on the wildest elements of Khao San Road. Packs of predatory ladyboys prowled on the lookout for foreign tourists too drunk to notice a missing wallet, the party went on all night with no curfew enforced on alcohol sales or loud music, and there were a lot of drugs being taken – not so much by backpacker party addicts, but by the local kids.
The drug of choice was yaba, some sort of shitty amphetamine derivative (crystal meth, more or less) manufactured and smuggled in from Myanmar, and a lot of the local kids were on it, wild-eyed, sweating, and dancing like nutters.
On one occasion around that time, myself and a few others tried to help a girl who appeared to have had a bit too much yaba – her eyes rolled up into her head and we tried to stop her bashing her skull or swallowing her tongue while she had a seizure. The police from the station at the end of the street were absolutely fucking useless when asked to help; nasty stuff, and it definitely seemed to be causing a few problems.
The combination of drunk tourists (hailing from Europe to America, Japan to Brazil, all over the place) with the local party kids, the ladyboys, the hill-tribe ladies hawking their wooden frogs (and the colourful hats right off their heads), the heartbreaking sight of the street kids selling roses and ‘I ♥ DICK’ bracelets, and even the odd random hooker from Sub-Saharan Africa, made for some wild scenes on the street; a total zoo, sketchy for sure, and usually a lot of fun.
(It’s been a bit less mental since the military takeover and subsequent crackdown, but only relative to what it was before – it still qualifies as a madhouse by most measures!)
I say it’s usually a lot of fun, because there are always victims – the Manchester lad who’d been robbed blind by a girl he took back to his room, the Canadian guys who’d had their passports swiped, the Korean girl who’d had her phone swiped. And the high energy atmosphere could sometimes turn sour in an instant; one time I saw a couple of backpackers running from a bunch of tuk tuk drivers who caught them down the street and gave them a short, sharp beating. On another occasion as I was sat with a Korean friend having late night street food a fight broke out just down the road between two groups of Thai kids; my friend went over to see what was happening, and the stall holder (who she was friends with) called her back, warning they might start shooting so she shouldn’t get too close (not that the stall would’ve been a much safer place had firearms been used). Then there was the time I saw a big American skinhead get into an argument with a stall holder; he threatened physical violence, with the result that he was subjected to exactly that. Within moments an entire crew of Khao San lads had descended on him and dished out a brutal 5-second pasting and then disappeared again just as quickly, just like that.
I love Thailand and the Thai people, but you simply do not fuck around with the locals there; sound practice anywhere really, but especially so in Thailand where verbal arguments can quickly become fatal confrontations if someone feels they’ve lost face, and on Khao San Road they’re very used to obnoxiously drunk foreigners and not shy about dealing with them vigilante style.
So when my drunk Belgian mate bumped into a yaba’d-up local kid and got it into his head it was a pickpocket attempt, I tried to reassure him otherwise and change the topic whilst manoeuvring us away from the kid and his mates; any trouble and we would come out of it very badly. Unfortunately, these kids were high as anything and covering a lot of ground with their hyperactive dancing, and before we’d moved far enough away one of them bumped into my buddy again… “That’s it!” he snapped, “I’m not taking this shit!” and went to remonstrate.
So this Belgian guy drunkenly accused this mashed Thai kid of trying to steal his wallet; the Thai kid, high as a kite and with eyes bulging, insisted he’d done nothing. The kid actually looked mortified at the accusation, and I believed him; meanwhile his crew had gathered round, we were outnumbered 5 or 6 to 2 and were the ones causing the scene in the first place, and I urgently tried to persuade Albert to drop it.
“C’mon man, he’s just wasted and bumped into you, you’ve still got all your shit, right? Lets just go get another beer down the road,” I suggested, and he seemed to realise that was the best course.
But just as the situation appeared to be diffusing, Albert had a rush of blood and raised both hands to the kid’s face, middle fingers up in a pointblank double bird.
“Fuck. You!” he shouted, before turning and walking off.
“Shit,” I thought, “what happens now?”
In the space of a second I watched the kid’s face cycle from aggrieved innocence, to shock, to anger; he and his friends started shouting to each other and the other guys they knew on the street, and in moments there were a dozen of them, including one huge guy who emerged from the shadows somewhere who I think had been involved in battering the big American guy a week or two earlier, and now they were all picking up empty beer bottles and taking off after Albert.
“Fuck,” I thought, “they’re going to smear him into a red paste on the sidewalk, and I’m literally the only other person who knows it or has any possibility of preventing it.”
Shit, shit, shit… what to do? Do nothing, Albert gets fucked up; do something, maybe he doesn’t, or maybe I just get fucked up along with him… or maybe I get pasted in his place! He was the one being out of order (not badly enough to warrant getting bottled and headstomped, you might think, but in Thailand, for sure), and I don’t even really know the guy so am I really going to stick my neck out and risk a beating on his behalf?
But although this all flickered momentarily through my head, it wasn’t really a question; doing nothing wasn’t an option. I wasn’t sure what to actually do, but I had to do something…
So I sprinted after them, catching up a few seconds before they’d have caught Albert a short distance from the waiting taxis at the end of the street, and got round in front of them… and then what do I do?
I had no idea, so I just raised my palms and pleaded with them to let him go.
“Wait, wait, please stop,” I said, or words to that effect, and then turning to the big guy who seemed to be the leader, gave the deepest, most respectful wai I could or ever have (the wai is the Thai greeting where you place your palms together with the tips before your face; the lower you incline your head and the higher you raise your hands, the more respect you show).
I started explaining that the guy they were after thought someone was trying to steal from him but was completely drunk so made a mistake and accused the wrong person, but he cut me off with a question.
“Are you his friend?”
“Not really… I just met him once before… but I think he’s a good guy and he’s just too drunk tonight… if you let him go, next time I see him I’ll tell him he was wrong to say those things,” and I wai’d deeply again.
There was a bit more back and forth, the guy complaining about the insults Albert had given, me apologising profusely on his behalf, waiing repeatedly, and ending my English sentences with the humble Thai suffix khap.
Finally it all seemed to be up to the big guy, and the others (and myself) waited for his decision; I was effectively throwing myself on his mercy, and though I tried to hide it I was absolutely shitting my pants, bracing for a rain of bottles to the back of the head.
But the blows never came, and after the longest of seconds he finally let me off the hook.
“Okay, okay… there is no problem. But you,” he said, jabbing his finger in my chest, “you go home right now.”
“Okay, khap,” I said, and we moved away in opposite directions, me heading for my hotel round the corner on Soi Rhambuttri. I tried to find Albert on the way, but I guess he was already gone in a taxi, completely oblivious that he’d just come so close to a vicious beating or that I’d prevented it by practically prostrating myself to the local hard nut; in fact, he was probably still feeling angry about someone trying to pick his pocket, and perhaps even feeling pleased with himself for giving them a mouthful for it.
I never saw Albert again after that, and I left Bangkok a short time later. So I was never able to tell him, and to this day the way he probably tells it is that some little shit tried to steal his wallet and he told them to fuck right off… well… that is, if he even remembers it!
Moral of the story? Khao San Road’s a lot of fun, but watch out for yourself and others and absolutely don’t get into any aggro with the drivers, stallholders, and party kids (and make sure you’ve got good insurance). Show respect and you’ll receive it; show disrespect and you’ll likely get your head kicked in…
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