Walk on the wild side
This is different from what I narrated before. Different from growing up under socialism in the East or adjusting to capitalism in the West. This is Asia. A different world, environment, and culture.
The past in this part of the world lingers everywhere. In the temples, in the customs, in the people. I think it’s called tradition. There was a sense of rankhere. Not your Western style egalitarianism. It was like stepping into a forgotten past and an uncertain future – at the same time.
Thailand, they say, is a land of smiles. Indeed. The name means “land of the free.” Liberals should feel right at home there. But beware. Someone wrote a book called “The Killing Smile.” Another person wrote “The Beach.”
From what I understand, these books display an aspect of Thailand that a person hardly notices when he or she goes there as a tourist. I can certainly attest to the fact that my experience as an aspiring entrepreneur was radically different from my experience as a tourist.
As a tourist, you put your money on the line. As an entrepreneur, you must raise the stakes. You put your life on the line, too. That does not mean that tourists may relax. Many a tourist also did not make it back.
Samui is a tourist island in Thailand, a nation in South Asia with a population of about eighty million. Thailand is a monarchy. It has never been colonized. The Thai people are attached to their King.
There are four main beaches there: Chaweng, Lamai, Bophut and Maenam. I generally go to Lamai, close the Big Rock. Tourists from all over the world travel there in droves every year.
Samui changed. It developed to a greater extent than before. A couple of neighboring island were added for tourism from that time, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao.
Samui is wild. I straightaway appreciated it. There was freedom and few rules. But this does not mean no rules. People for example generally do not wear helmets when riding motorbikes. A few of those rules are unwritten. People who plan to stay longer should know those unwritten rules.
I think it was the motorcycle rides that did it. During a school vacation Harry and I rented a bike each and went for a ride on the ring road. The air was fresh, the breeze was invigorating, the sky was blue and the palm trees alongside the roadside were a dark green, happily reflecting the sunlight on their leaves, as if returning a greeting from the sun. It was a fine feeling. I call it the “Koh Samui feeling.”
I think other people experience it too, and that is why the island has become so popular. Of course, it is not what it used to be, but it still retains a degree of its charm.
It was the pristine beauty of the island that attracted me to the point that I even wanted to live there. I think you have to experience it to believe it. You can see Samui on YouTube, and there are many photos and blogs on the Internet about it. You can even travel there, if you can afford it. But be careful.
For Samui has a dark side. First, the ring road was described to me as a dangerous road by a professional sportsman from Montreal, Canada, whom we met on the ferry. A bookseller agreed. The death-rate rate is high, especially as people do not wear helmets, and typically drive back to their resorts drunk, especially late at night. Someone told me that a person on average dies on Samui every day. I myself had two motorcycle accidents there. Luckily, neither was too serious.
I first heard about Samui from a Canadian friend, Neil Thompson. We met in the Campus Co-op in Toronto, co-operative housing at the University of Toronto, where we stayed. He traveled through South Asia, including Thailand, in 1984.
After he heard that I was going to Malaysia, he advised me to visit Koh Samui. I did that during my first school break, in June 1987, with a Harry a friend from City College. Harry was a biology teacher there.
We checked into the Weekender on Lamai. Harry opened a bottle of Thai Mekong whisky. I did not drink. It was peaceful there. I had trouble getting Harry out of bed next morning. I showed up as agreed, but he was still in bed.
Harry, good morning!” I shouted in front of his bungalow. First there was silence. I shouted again:
“Hey Harry! Come on, wake up!” I heard a rustling sound come out of the bungalow and then a sound you would expect from someone in pain.
“Aargh,” Harry muttered. “It’s that whisky!” He added. Harry had a terrible hangover. He emerged from the bungalow, looking very pale.
“I’ll need a bit of time to get ready,” he said.
“That’s fine,” I replied, “I’ll wait for you in the restaurant. After he showed up, we went out to see one of the waterfalls on Samui.
The Thai Mekong whisky is among the many hazards awaiting the unsuspecting. I heard once from a Dutch acquaintance that one of his friends sent a bottle of Mekong whisky to another friend, who worked in a laboratory.
After they performed tests on the whisky, the fellow from the lab sent a printout to his friend on Thailand of what was in the whisky apart from alcohol. The list was long, and apparently had just about every toxic and banned substance known to man. After seeing the printout, the man who asked for the report never touched whisky again.
What transpired on Samui in the year 1989 to 1990? I set out to write a book, and gained knowledge regarding business, friendship, and existence. What follows is an account of what happened during this particular time.
After teaching in Malaysia for two years, in the Canadian matriculation program at Taylor’s College, I felt I wanted to write. So, in May 1989 I went off to write my book. Samui had everything I wanted, except the kind of bread I like. I thought I would make my own.
This was not just any kind of bread; it was sourdough rye bread, nutritious bread containing all essential and non-essential amino acids. No sooner did I think of baking bread, I had the thought of making a few extra loaves and selling them for to a few friends. This would help defray my expenses. So that’s how it started.
First, I had to do was to find a bungalow. I went around the island on a motorbike, checking every affordable resort one by one, until I finally found one. It was during this search that I met Markus. He would be my first customer.
Markus was from Dusseldorf, Germany, where he used to work in a music store. He was running a resort called Cozy. The resort was located on the beach near Ban Hua Thanon. It attracted a fairly cosmopolitan clientele, but most of the people were from Germany.
He had ten bungalows and a restaurant. He had a lease for nine years. His Thai partner was a teacher. Markus had a proper agreement with his partner, arranged by his father, and prepared by a top law firm in Bangkok.
He rented the bungalows for about 100 to 150 Thai baht per day. He used to play reggae at Cozy, for example Lee Perry and the Upsetters. There was a pretty relaxed atmosphere there. He gave me a few tips on the way to make the bread.
I met Markus at Cozy, near the beach. He was talking to Sau, his cook, one day late in the afternoon. He said something about the “losers” that come to Thailand for one purpose only … I could not agree with him more. I thought he was right.
Things weren’t entirely easy for him either. Once somebody set fire to tree of four of his bungalows. I saw the flames. Perhaps some competitors were trying to put him out of business. He rebounded quickly, and his morale appeared unaffected. The bungalows were rebuilt within a few days.
Another time someone extended a wire across a path he used to take on his motorbike. A person hitting the wire would be seriously injured. He saw the wired, however, and avoided it.
The neighboring people apparently wanted the land on which Cozy stood. A few rough looking characters tried to scare Markus. It did not work. A small man showed up once, known to everyone as “the gunman.” I think he was a friend of Ed.
He came once when the rough chaps were sitting in the restaurant. When they saw him, they became visibly disconcerted. Shortly afterwards they paid their bill, left and I never saw them again. I think the mere presence of the gunman” sent a message to them.
After I found the bungalow, I sat down with the intention of starting to write. But no ideas would come. I simply could not get started. I think I had the proverbial “writer’s block.” To make matters worse, I saw a fellow a few bungalows to my left on the beach, facing the sea, writing furiously.
After several attempts, I could not stand it anymore. I went over to him, introduced myself and politely asked him what he was writing about.
“I am writing about Zen Buddhism,” he said. “I am a teacher at a commune in Spain, and I am preparing some material for our members.” That was interesting. We chatted for a while.
It turned out that we both hated Margaret Thatcher and we agreed on a few other things. After that I went back to my bungalow and thought what to do next. I decided to put the idea of writing on hold for a while and proceed with the bakery.
I realized later that my mistake was not that I wanted to write a book, but rather that I wanted to write the wrong kind of book. For when I was sitting out there facing the sea, racking my brains about what to write, I was thinking about writing a novel.
After I went back to teaching, I realized that what I had to write about what was nearest to my mind, what I felt passionate about. These were various issues that I had to face in teaching. For the curriculum did not ask, let alone address,allpertinent issues, and a few concerns that I developed about education, including my own.
So, what I had to write was a kind of “extracurricular reflections.” And this, thank God, I did eventually write two years later, in 1992. I even had an offer to publish the book by The General Store Publishing House. However, I turned down the offer.
These thoughts were gathered in the first edition of the book under the title “Second Thoughts.” In the second edition of the book they appear under the title “Philosophical Reflections.” In fact, the reader may find this book on this website under the same title.
It was at Cozy Resort that I met my future business “partner,” Ed. She was a university graduate in economics. She was short, and reasonably well spoken. I thought I could trust her.
I named my bakery “My Bread and Butter.” Mother sent me a poster from Canada with Pressburg on it. I hung it up in the bakery in a prominent place.
Ed helped me rent a place on Lamai, at the cost of 3,000 baht per month. We went to Bangkok in the Renault, where we bought rye and white flour. I bought way too much, a few bags. That was due no doubt to my lack of experience.
On my way to Bangkok I met a man from the US in Chumphon, a city of about 30,000 people about 500 km south of Bangkok. When I told him about my plans in Samui, he said:
“Ah, I heard that’s the place where people disappear.” This was not a comforting thought.
The rye flour was delivered as promised, but the white flour did not arrive. Apparently, it was delivered to the island, but the people who received it did not forward it to the shop. I had to buy the white flour on the island. Welcome to the world of business.
I bought a fridge, a stove, and baking utensils. I remember baking the first loaf at Cozy. I put the bread to rise in the sun. A dog came and took a few bites. Perhaps this was sign of what would transpire subsequently.
I tried again. This time I did not leave the bread to rise in where any animals could easily get at it. I started to bake my first bread. I took it to Markus. The bread was a bit hard.
“Well, the bread is a bit hard, but the taste is there.” I felt relieved. I went back and tried again.
After a few tries I was getting better results. I went on to experiment with buns. I took the buns to Cozy. The customers snatched most of them from the plate even before I managed to deliver them to the counter. It looked promising. Markus was a reliable customer and a mentor of sorts to me. I trusted him.
After giving my “partner” money to buy a baking oven, she never went to Bangkok to buy it. She kept making excuses about how she had to take care of her mother. I finally realized that she did not intend to buy the oven, nor give me my money back. At that point, I knew my business adventure was over. I decided to go back to Canada and told Markus accordingly.
When she saw me winding down the shop, she returned and even threatened to shoot me.
“The fridge and the stove are in my name,” she claimed. “I can shoot you, I have a gun,” she added.
“Great,” I thought to myself. “With partners like that, who needs enemies.”
I think she was enraged by the fact that I did not give her the few appliances in the shop. A couple of Americans bought my fridge and someone else bought the stove. I sold my stereo earlier in Nathon to a French fellow operating a restaurant. It was a sad end to my adventure in Samui. I told Markus about Ed threatening me.
“Actually, she does have a gun,” he said “and tried to shoot another guy with it. I was there,” he said. “I grabbed the gun from her hand in the last moment. She is crazy,” he added.
There was a Hungarian fellow that she apparently also tried to bamboozle. He made the mistake of showing her some money and she proposed some business deal where he may have lost some money.
Another one of her victims was a Swiss man from whom she borrowed 45,000 baht but never paid back. When he realized that he was not getting his money back, he looked quite downcast. She bought a motorcycle with the money and added it to her little fleet of half a dozen motorcycles that she was renting at the going rate on the island, 150 baht per day.
I gave the remaining flower to my friend, Puum, the owner of Sunrise bungalow on Lamai. Her father was a fisherman, but they gradually entered the resort business. Her bungalows are family owned and were among the first to be constructed on Samui. She had many offers to buy her resort, including one from the well-known singer Beyonce. Puum, however, refused to sell. It is at this bungalow that we normally stay when we travel to Samui.
Man from Sweden
I heard various tales from the past while I was in Samui during that period from June 1989 to April, 1990. One of them was relayed to me by a Swedish neighbor of mine. He stayed right across the laneway that separated us on the road to Lamai. He held a PhD in biochemistry and was an excellent chess player. He was operating a restaurant with his Thai partner, a rather fierce lady.
We played a few games but I never won. When he told me that he had the ranking of an International Master, and that he played chess for two years full time when he was unemployed once, I knew I had no chance. He complimented me once though, when he said after one particular game:
“The first sixteen moves you made in the game were exactly the right moves.” I guess I must have slipped up on the twenty-fourth move.
He told me that in 1984 there was another Swedish fellow on Lamai, who opened the first restaurant managed by a foreigner. There were four or five additional restaurants there, all locally managed.
The man had a Thai wife and a daughter, three or four years old. They also had a Thai maid working there. His restaurant became the most popular on the beach. He was making a decent living. I guess somebody got jealous of his success, because of what happened next.
“One night, some gunmen came and shot the whole family down,” my friend from Sweden told me. “The man, wife, child and even the maid was murdered.”
That was shocking, I thought, but not altogether unusual, as I gradually discovered later. Business rivalries are at times settled with violence. I guess this holds true for quite a few places in the world.
“Nine months later,” my Swedish friend continued, “thirteen men came from Sweden. They included four professionals.”
“What do you mean by professionals?” I asked.
“Well, you know, people who handle firearms, explosives, and so on.” I gathered these men were from the ‘underworld’ in Sweden. I did not realize until then, that Sweden – the country with such a squeaky-clean reputation – also had an ‘underworld.’
“So, what happened then?” I asked.
“In a few days, all the bars on Lamai burned to the ground,” he said, “and the owners were not in a position to talk about what happened.”
I asked what he meant buy the last remark, but he would not elaborate. He only repeated what he said. So, I left it at that, thinking that the owners of the restaurants that burned down did not know what happened. I suppose the deceased must have had some friends in Sweden who did not take kindly to what happened to their friend.
This happened while I was on Samui. One of the things I really liked about Samui is that it had plenty of second-hand bookstores. One in particular stood out. It was located on the “middle street” in Nathon, the town in Samui.
It was a large bookstore, and I immediately recognized my favorite classics there. There was Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Orwell. The bookstore even had a small area where a person might have a coffee. The best part, as I thought at the time, was the bookseller himself. He had an Eastern-European accent, so I asked him where he was from.
“I am from Canada,” he replied laconically.
“But originally?” I persisted.
“Originally I am from Czechoslovakia,” he said.
So, I told him that I also came from the two countries he mentioned. We talked some more. He had a Thai wife, her name was Bayem. She came from northern Thailand, so she was not as well-protected by tribal custom as a Samui person.
It turned out that he owned two more, albeit smaller shops, both in Nathon. One of them was located in a little laneway where there were many shops selling clothing, music cassettes, sunglasses, travel bags and so on. The wife “manned this little shop, while Igor worked in the main shop. The third shop was managed by a hired person, a young Thai fellow.
One day Igor told me that the wife was threatened by the owners of the shop across the laneway. A lady came over to Bayem and said:
“You cannot sell those cassettes here at 23 baht each,” she hissed. “You must sell at the same price as the rest of us, 25 baht, or else,” she made a sign with her hand to signify that Bayem’s throat would be cut if she did not comply. I guess this was a case of price fixing. However, Igor’s wife ignored the threat.
A few weeks subsequently, Igor came the resort where I was staying, looking very agitated.
“My wife was murdered,” he informed me. “Two men in police uniforms pulled her over on her motorbike this morning as she was going to work. One of them shot her. One bullet hit her in the neck. The other bullet went into her forehead. She is dead.” I shuddered.
“And none of the neighbors saw anything or hear anything,” he added.
“Oh my God,” I said to myself, “not this.”
“I think they are after me too,” he continued. “I can’t go back to my house. They might be waiting for me there. Can I stay here tonight?” he asked.
“Of course, you can stay,” I replied.
So, Igor stayed the night in the resort. The following day he went to another resort. He did this for a few days after the death of his wife, until he felt confident to return to his house.
After this, I did not see him again until we met again in Ottawa in 1998, where he lived and where I also temporarily moved with my wife and daughter.
“So Bayem lost her life because of two baht, I thought to myself. “How cheap can life get?”
Shooting on Lamai
One day Markus and I were chatting near one of his bungalows at Cozy, when we heard the siren of the ambulance screaming in the distance.
“Ah, another accident,” I said. Later Markus went to Lamai on his motorbike. He came back in about half an hour.
“There was a shooting on Lamai,” he said. “Three dead, including the shooter.” Then he explained what happened.
“There were three people, two Germans and an Italian. Initially, the two Germans were partners. They ran a bar on Lamai.” I remembered that bar. It was full of mirrors. Right on “Main Street.”
“So, what happened?” I asked.
“Well, this Italian fellow showed up, and became friends with one of the two partners. The German chap then decided to become partners with the Italian fellow, leaving his former partner out in the cold, so to speak. It looks like he told his former partner to get lost. The trouble was that he still owed his ex-partner 2,000 baht. Apparently, he did not want to pay it back.”
“Oops,” I said.
“Yea, oops. The German ex-partner took a firearm and went to confront his former partner in the bar on Lamai. He again demanded his money. When the ex-partner refused to pay, the man pulled the gun and shot both his ex-partner and the Italian fellow dead right on the spot. Then he shot himself, too.” I was shocked.
“He used three bullets to kill three people.” Markus added. “He knew how to shoot.”
“How is that?” I asked.
“The man was in the army before. I guess he learned how to shoot while he was there. He was from East Germany,” Markus added.
“Wow, I said to myself. Three people dead over 2000 baht? How crazy can people get?” I thought.
There were additional stories. There was another man from Germany who started a restaurant on Lamai. I was there; it was an excellent restaurant. The young man was exceptionally polite. He came to our table and inquired:
“How is the food?” he said.
“Excellent, thank you, I replied. I guess appearances can be deceiving, because one day he simply disappeared into thin air.
“What happened to the fellow that was running the German restaurant on Lamai?” I asked Markus.
“Oh, it turns out that he borrowed 600, 000 marks from a bank and did not pay back. The bank hired detectives who tracked him down. They then asked the Thai authorities to arrest him and hand him over.
They arrested him but did not immediately hand him over to Interpol. When he refused to buy his way out, they handed him to detectives who brought him back to Germany, where he is facing a trial for cheating the bank. He’ll probably be in prison for a few years.”
“Oh, so I guess that’s not the best way way to start a business,” I said.
“Definitely not,” Markus said.
“So, there it was, another business gone down the drain,” I said to myself. “I guess this business got off to a wrong start from the beginning. That’s definitely not the way to start a business.”
Another tale concerns a Swiss man. I heard it from Bjorg, a young man, also from Switzerland. Bjorg lived on the island. He was an occasional customer in my shop. He seemed to be a ladies’ man. He always looked relaxed and carefree.
“How does he do it,” I said to myself. Bjorg said that a fellow from Switzerland rented land, for the purpose of building a resort on it. The trouble was he paid all the rent in advance, for a total of nine years and he paid it in cash. In the evening, he celebrated the agreement with the landlord.
“They drank whisky. By the morning, he was dead,” Bjorg said. I could see distress in Bjorg’s eyes as he said that. He was friends with the deceased.
“His body was incredibly swollen. I saw it,” he added. So how did the man die? Was any foul play involved? I don’t know.
“Swelling of the body like that is one of the signs of strychnine poisoning,” Bjorg said.
Then there is the tale of the Thai lady who ran a bar. One day she decided to sell it. The trouble was, however, that she did not sell it just to one buyer; she sold it to three different buyers, simultaneously. They were all foreigners. In this way, she received three times more than what the bar was worth. I guess the buyers were cheated.
None of the buyers was aware of the others. So, when they showed up to claim the bar, they were in for a surprise. There were two other buyers claiming ownership of the bar. Another story, another lesson. What more can I say?
This is a story of a man who wanted to open a supermarket on Chaweng beach. The owner of the existing supermarket did not want any competition. He warned the fellow from Nathon not to do it:
“If you open a supermarket on Chaweng, I will kill you,” he reportedly said.
The man from Nathon went ahead with the supermarket anyway. As he showed up with a contractor and they started to measure the land, a gunman came along and shot both to death on the spot.
Two young men opened a shop renting ping-pong tables to customers on Lamai. They rented some space, bought a couple of table tennis tables, some bats, and though they were in business.
However, a few days later two men armed with M16s showed up and said, pointing the weapons in the faces of the young men:
“Tomorrow You leave.” They left.
It may be that the young men started their business without a local partner.
A man and wife from Holland bought a boat and, with a local partner started to rent it to customers. Then the Dutch partner and wife had to return to Holland for a while. The local partner was supposed to keep renting the boat, and perhaps he did.
However, when the Dutch partners returned, the local partner did not give them any share of the proceeds of the rental. The foreign partner became angry and started to beat their partner. They beat his so badly he died from his injuries. The Dutch couple were convicted with murder and went in jail.
But there are also a few “success stories.” There is Erik on Lamai, who has been running a restaurant there for a few years already. Erik is from Sweden. He and Markus are tennis partners. Markus also has his breakfast at Erik’s place.
Another success story is that of a German young man who runs a restaurant, Kokomiko, on the main rad not far from Lamai. One can get a decent meal there for less than two hundred baht. There are also a few French bakeries that have been around for some time and a newly opened Italian bakery near Chaweng.
Motorcycle mama from France
On one of our visits we met an interesting couple at the French Bakery in Lamai. This was the bakery with the garden rather than the one closer to the Lamai Cultural Centre, as there are two French bakeries on Lamai. French bakeries are popular on Samui; there are about half a dozen of them on the island.
As we were sitting there with my wife and daughter, having our breakfast, a couple came along. It was a lady in her thirties accompanied by a young man who looked to be in his twenties. They were looking for a place to sit. Our table was about the only one that still had space for additional customers.
“Please, I said,” pointing to the empty places at our table. The woman nodded and they both sat down. We started chatting.
“We are members of Los Bandidos from France,” said the woman.
“Ah, I said, Los Bandidos,” I said, as I glanced at her companion. He looked at me and said:
“Sorry, I no speak good English.”
Samui was becoming popular with motorcycle clubs. They were a pleasant couple, appearing to be quite civilized. My wife was wearing a headscarf so it was obvious that they were Muslims. Pointing to my family I said anyway:
“We are Muslim people.” The woman nodded as she looked at my wife.
Then I said something to the effect that Islam is in substance the same faith as that sent to Moses and Jesus.
“It’s the same religion,” the woman said. I was amazed at the insight of this motorcycle mama. Then I told them various tales from Samui, which are also recounted in this book. I thought that they might have been contemplating doing business there. I told them the story about the man from Sweden, for example, and a few others.
Island of the Rising Sun
So, was there anything to learn from the above? I was listening to the song “The House of the Rising Sun.” I realized from the words that they applied to an extent to me and my education – the proverbial “school of hard knocks” – in Koh Samui. “O mother, tell your children not to do what I have done …” Indeed. It reminded me of an experience I had during an early trip.
I stayed in a hotel for the night in Hat Yai. Then I would drive the rest of the way the following day. I checked in a place and sat there, thinking what to do. I wanted to change my lifestyle. I wanted to focus on my project, which was to write the book. I did not want to be distracted. Then I had an interesting experience. It was as if a discussion was taking place. A voice was telling me:
“Go out and enjoy yourself.”
“But I don’t want to go.” I replied by saying. The voice said:
“If you don’t go out, you know what will happen. You’ll sit here and get depressed.” I thought about it for a while. Then, as I turned and reached for the book behind me, I replied:
“I don’t care.”
At that point the room lit up. It became perceptibly brighter, as if a 100-watt malfunctioning bulb behind me suddenly lit up. I turned around to look at the bulb. I had a surprise. There was no bulb. Then I realized what happened. I said to myself:
“I think I saw the light.”
This was no usual light. This was “enlightenment.” Any feelings of depression vanished instantly. It was amazing.
The experience reminded me of what a friend, Art Krause, once told me. He had a comparable experience. Art lived in a teepee tent on a farm near the university. I tried to talk him into taking up philosophy. When I asked why he became religious, he simply said:
“I saw the light.”
When I heard this, I had a hard time believing it. Not anymore. This may be difficult to believe for people who have not experienced this. But it is true.