Extract from a travel journal I kept when backpacking in the Far East in 2005. Uploaded for #RedMatter because I didn’t really have the time or money to go on a new adventure just for the sake of a blog post (sadly).
“Don’t let go – you’ll die.”
We’re crammed into a tuc-tuc; the carriage is only designed to hold six people and, as there are ten of us, I volunteer to hang off the back. I laugh politely at the driver’s warning, but as the engine chokes and wheezes into life and we reach the main road, I realise with unnerving certainty that a sweaty grip really is all that separates me from an almost certain death. My mother’s voice rings in my head: “You won’t do anything dangerous or stupid now, will you?”
We’d just blown up a cow.
In the Far East, the (lack of) law states that any civilian can rent military-grade weaponry from licensed areas, provided they have enough cash. When Thailand became a tourist hotspot, the entrepreneurial and ever-creative Thais wasted no time in taking full advantage of this law; so, should you ever feel the need to fire an AK-47 at a bewildered sheep or – in our case – launch a rocket at an unsuspecting cow, chances are you can be accommodated. Surprisingly, you rarely see this advertised. While weapons of mass destruction are generally affordable on any backpacker’s budget, cows are surprisingly expensive and, even combined, the more homicidally-inclined members of our group could only afford the one. They named him Hamburger. A crazy Thai with shell-cases in his ears instructed the Swedes on how to aim the rocket launcher, and as the rest of us sat watching its startled expression through binoculars and imagining its final ‘moooooo’ as it detonated into bite-size pieces, I couldn’t help but think there was something poetic about the scene before us.
Content in the knowledge we’d got our share of psychopathic carnage, whilst at the same time being alleviated of all guilt because all we’d done was watch, we decided not to take the man-with-bullets-in-his-ears up on his offer of taking home the leftover meat. Not that we would have been able to find any of it.
We’re on the road, heading north to Chiang Mai. With each traveller we pick up we gain new stories, supplies and suggestions of places to visit and weird things to eat and do – we need them all, because after each town we hit, we move further and further away from the last McDonald’s we’re gonna see for a long time. I’d met up with Oliver a week before, somewhere between Phi Phi and Phuket; the Canadians and the Belgians had joined the party at Khao San; and the most recent, and hilarious, additions to our group were Matt and the Swedes, who seemed to be in every bar and strip joint we visited. They finally agreed to join us after confessing they were almost broke, and suggested the cow excursion as a way to, as Matt painfully put it, “go out with a bang.”
As night falls and the party starts drifting off, holding on becomes too tiring so Matt and I climb on the roof and trade stories. He teaches me the best way to keep off mosquitoes is vodka: as long as you have enough of it in your system it taints your blood, and they’ll leave you alone. He learnt this after discount malaria tablets made his hair fall out in Laos and, priding himself on his looks, “had to drink vodka to survive, man.” I have to get one up on him, so I tell him about the most fascinating man I’ve ever met: he’s a bartender I’d come across while working down south with the relief effort. His bar is little more than three panels of painted wood and an old bookshelf for the bottles. He’d owned a building but it was demolished when the wave hit and, like most businesses in the area, he didn’t see a penny from the relief funds. But he didn’t let it phase him; just took each day as it came. He served drinks above the bar, and slept under it – that was his life.
I ask him one night: “Where were you when the tsunami hit?” He points to the spot he was standing, smiled and said one word: “Stoned.”
I think he’s misunderstood so rephrase the question, but his story doesn’t shift. He’d been passed out, right on the beach of all places. I don’t believe him.
“How are you alive?” I demand.
He pauses for a moment, thinking of the right words.
“I sleep in smoke. I awake; I hear ‘AAAAAA!’ I see a BIG wave…”
“I climb that.” He points to a palm tree a hundred feet away.
This man survived a tsunami that claimed the lives of thousands by hiding up a palm tree. You had to admire that. But then he goes quiet, and his eyes fall to the floor. I realise I’ve upset him, and feel bad. He’s probably going to say he lost family and friends that day.
“I lost…” he starts, choking on a tear.
“I’m sorry,” I offer.
“I lost my alcohol.” He tenses his shoulders and kicks the dirt. “Fucking wave.”
I’m lost for words. But I’m glad, because what follows is priceless. He gestures his head toward the shelves of booze.
“I got it back.”
He proceeds to tell me what I’m drinking. This man – angry at the sea for destroying his bar – had run after the tsunami as it retreated back into the ocean. He fished any surviving bottles out of the water, carried them to his favourite ‘getting stoned’ spot and reopened the bar, sans building. He later borrowed a scuba kit from a friend and made numerous trips to the seabed to find the rest of his booze, and the number of watches and wallets down there funded the new shelves and bar counter. He brings down an array of dented, mud-caked bottles and places them on the counter before me.
“This vodka survived the tsunami,” he says.
I have to drink to that.
Disclaimer now that I’m a grown-up: Okay, fine, the cow bit didn’t really happen (although I did shoot a load of really big guns, which was awesome). I never confirmed whether it’s a genuine thing or just some backpackers’ urban legend, but considering you could have marijuana as a pizza topping in some towns it really wouldn’t surprise me if you can legitimately blow up a cow if you have the money. But I swear the tsunami story is absolutely true.