In 1975 I arrive in Thailand. I have been around Asia for most of a year now, Japan, Korea, Laos, and Hong Kong before finally landing in Bangkok. I find the city seething with whores, swindlers, hustlers, every kind of expatriate and misfit, living under the feet of international corporate towers and beside old Thai family-run businesses. Surrounding office garden parks spread Bangkok's endless shantytowns rivaling any in Asia. Generations live in train-track lean-tos where every kind of drug and scam abound.
As the city boils around me, I experience my familiar mixture of exhilaration and dread. I have dropped into the sensory overload of desperately competing millions, the immediacy, emergency, the danger and the exquisite beauty. A taxi from the airport leaves me on Soi Sukhumvit and I walk the street looking for a guest house or a cheap hotel. I have a few names another traveler has given me. I battle my way through a barrage of new language and smells while dark-skinned men's eyes follow me. My positional awareness is high. This complex, adrenalized state of apprehension and adrenalin is what drives me to travel, my antidote to depression.
I find a hotel room for a few dollars a day, just good enough that I feel safe leaving my bags. There is nothing in them to steal but where they lay is my home and I don't want them disturbed. The sun is setting and I go out to begin my walking ritual to explore the city. I will walk most of the night just taking it all in and Bangkok will, for the most part, ignore me though there are certain places surly figures make it clear I am not welcomed. When I swing by in daylight I find merely innocuous storefronts.
After a month or so I have finally settled in at the Atlantic Hotel, a traveler's hotel a rung up from bottom. It is $5 a day here and it is clean and humming with young foreigners although I eventually find, not immune to the occasional surprise invasion of Thai police. I am not in the dope business in Thailand so I'm not too worried although evidently I am a little naïve and later, when the police burst into my room one afternoon I realize they routinely plant drugs to elicit bribes.
On this day, they have caught me napping in the queen-sized bed that fills most of the room and when I open my eyes I am already surrounded by uniforms, rifling through my stuff. Unencumbered by wakeful caution, my fight or flight mechanism kicks in and I explode off the bed and in their faces; "What the fuck are you doing? You fucking assholes. Get the fuck out of my room! I'm an American citizen! See? American! I will call my consulate. Out you fucking shitheads. Get out or I will have the American embassy up your asses."
I continue screaming and insulting in English as no sane person would, waving my American passport and pointing to the door. My unexpected aggression seems to catch them off-guard and they momentarily pull back to the lobby to regroup. In an instantaneous sweep of the room, I grab my few things and leave by a back balcony they have neglected to watch. They will certainly return. I quickly melt into the multitude along Soi Sathorn, hardly realizing what has just happened. Once again, I am on high alert, my traveler's awareness elevated.
Every day is not as dire as this. Besides the dope and the weather, I have discovered the other reason many travelers find it hard to leave Thailand, in the form of the Grace Hotel. In the evenings I taxi to the Grace to partake in a phenomena of our time.
The ballroom at the Grace Hotel glows in dimly lit gold, disco balls creating fireflies over a massive gathering of the most beautiful girls in the world. The room is packed, shoulder to shoulder with women of every Asian country from young teenagers to middle-aged veterans of the flesh trade. I must press myself through the sea of bodies to make my way into the room. All faces are smiling, hands caressing, some pulling;
"Hi American. Hi handsome. Over here, meet me. Come with me. I like you. You my friend. You like a date with me?" Piercing, sing-song voices, on and on.
The first night at the Grace I am nervous and don't get very far into the room before I quickly choose a date, a young, eager Thai girl who in my country would be a beauty queen. She is 16 or 17, by no means the youngest. Here she is just one of a thousand waiting every night in the Grace Hotel ballroom hoping to get picked to bed a stranger.
"You like to come with me?" I ask.
"Yes, I be you date. All night, I be with you. All night good? Three hundred Baht." she smiles into my face. She is clean and her breath smells good. She wants to stay with me all night so she doesn't have to come back to find another trick. I check myself to make sure this is real. It's so dream-like.
We leave the hotel holding hands and walk this time to the room I now have at a small guest house. She tells me her name is Mali.
Most of these women are just sweet, kind kids who had fled abject poverty in the Thai countryside or Laos to come to the big city, the land of opportunity. Even at five or ten bucks a night (the whole night) they are making more than anyone in their families had ever made. They have prospects.
In fact, it was common for them to invite you to come live with them after the first night or two. I got a few of these invites. It was so prestigious to be with an American and the possibilities were so hopeful that they would forsake their nights at the Grace and just hang out with you for a few small gifts and kind words. For the most part, they were, simple, lovable and sincere and sex was totally uncomplicated for them.
I lived with one of these girls for a while. The first night we slept together I was so taken with her velvet skin and sweet temperament I couldn't wait to go down on her. She reacted with shock, almost fear. She had no idea what to do. No one had ever done that to her before. She watched me wide-eyed and tried to push my head away. It took quite a while to get her to relax and finally enjoy it. She had always been the giver, not the receiver. It was easy to see why lonely U.S. servicemen posted in this fairyland fell in love with Thai girls. These liaisons rarely ripened it into permanent relationships but the dream was so seductive it was easy to suspend disbelief. For those who discovered the easy life in Thailand, it was hard to leave.
So now I am back at the Atlantic, the travelers hotel in the city, mostly occupied by those of us who could afford $5 a night for a room. People from all over the world stayed there, young, emancipated explorers who were trying to put together scams, to figure out who they were or just hang on to what little they had left. Plenty of druggies and losers along with some of us who still had some means and a little self respect. But as $5 Bangkok hotels went, you could do worse than the Atlantic.
Each day I continued to walk up and down Soy Sukhumvit, the main shopping area of the city, carefully selecting sapphires and rubies in the shops, one by one, and having them fashioned into jewelry. I would either send the bracelets and earrings back to the U.S. or carrying them with me to sell along the way. The craftsmen in Thailand and the precious stones mined there were incredible bargains at that time. Fabulous gold work was going for just the weight of the gold itself and with a little patience I had accumulated some beautiful jewelry pieces. I'd done the same in Hong Kong and sold some to people I'd met along the Asian route to pay for my expenses. This was common among travelers then. We'd often compare what we had found and swap names of good stone houses and craftsmen. There was enough for everyone. Amongst those of us who crossed paths frequently on the Asian Trail, there was a certain feeling of camaraderie.
By the Asian Trail, I mean the route from Tokyo to Bombay which took you through Hong Kong, Bangkok and Katmandu. Sometimes you might also stop in Korea, Laos, Burma or the Philippines but mostly it was that main beaten path from Tokyo to Bombay where you would meet the same familiar faces in the same cheap hotels, over and over again. When you are on the road alone, you are willing to make friends easily with strangers. As months or years go by and you are on your own in strange lands and cultures, you quickly form unnaturally strong bonds with people you hardly know. It was a river of tenuous associations that flowed along the Asian Trail.
One afternoon I was in the lobby of the Atlantic Hotel and overheard a couple of German guys talking about someone they had met who sold gems wholesale. My ears pricked up at this. I leaned over and introduced myself and apologized for eavesdropping. I mentioned that I was also interested in wholesale gems and after a few minutes of chatting, asked if they would mind turning me on to their source. They were very friendly and gave me the name and address of a guy named Alain Gautier. They offered to introduce me to him and so later that day we went to his flat. He lived in a large, sunny garden apartment off Sukhumvit called Kanit House, in one of Bangkok's palm lined residential neighborhoods.
Alain Gautier told me he was French/Vietnamese. He was in his thirties, small of build, very good looking and a classy dresser. He had a winning smile that really seemed to look through your eyes and into your soul. He lived with his girlfriend, Monique, a quiet, seductive French girl a little younger than himself, in an expensive flat in a gated compound with a large pool and verandas overlooking the garden.
Alain: Ah, they bring someone new. David. Goldberg. Sounds Jewish. Probably has money. What does he like? Buying gems. Good. Meditation, Tai Chi, martial arts. OK. I can do that. He's looking at Monique. Good. He's attracted to her. I can use that. Monique can help. Men really like Monique. I'll have to fuck her tonight, keep her happy. Tell her to be nice to David while I'm doing it.
I have to get this trip together. It's time. I can be away 3 days, I think. I'll go alone this time, use some of the money from the last one for the gem buy. The Germans are interested in that too but there's two of them, both men, pretty strong. Not so good. We'll see. Keep it open,
He's looking into my eyes now. I'm looking into his. He's relaxed. Have to invite him to the pool to see Monique. He's lonely and wants company. We can be his friends.
Monique: Oh, we have new people today. Alain will be glad. This one seems relaxed. He's looking at me. Alain will like it if he likes me but I can't be too nice to him or Alain will get mad. He's looking at my bust. He likes my figure. I hope I'm not getting too fat. Alain will hate it if I'm too fat. I won't eat for a few days so I'll look good for the pool. Alain likes me skinny.
Maybe I should get them something to drink. Something normal. Ha, Ha. I'll brush up against Alain as I walk by so he'll know I'm thinking of him.
Alain is so beautiful and so strong. I can't lose him. I can't be alone in Thailand like before. I'll make him happy. Tonight I'll suck him just the way he likes. He can fuck me in the ass as hard as he wants even if it hurts so he'll know I love him. He'll know I'll do anything for him.
Alain and I got on right away. In many ways we found kindred spirits in each other. As the weeks went on, I spent more and more time at their place. Alain was a karate black belt and I a Tai Chi teacher. We were both interested in meditation and so we had those things in common. We spoke for hours about Eastern philosophy and lay by the pool, under palm trees, soaking up Thailand's gifts. Alain and Monique's door was always open to me.
Alain had been in Thailand a long time, was well connected and at ease with the culture. He did, indeed, have connections at the mines for precious gems and within a few weeks, he had gone there and returned with large bags of rubies, sapphires and other fine stones that he sold around town. For me, this seemed a godsend. This type of connection would make my little business really fly. For the price I had been paying for one stone in a street shop, I was now able to by 20 or 30 at Alain's wholesale prices. I felt very lucky.
One morning over breakfast by the pool;
"David, next week I make another trip to the mines."
"Oh, that's great, Alain. The stuff you brought back last trip was amazing. You did well with that, didn't you?"
"Yes, I did well."
A moment later, "Would you be interested in accompanying me on this trip?"
I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
"We will be gone a week and we will stay at a good hotel. You can come to the mine with me each day and buy directly from them. I will only take a small percent as my commission. Monique will come along with us."
Whoa. My heart beat more quickly as I grasped the amazing business opportunity and considered a week at close quarters with the beautiful Monique. Probably nothing would happen but over the last month I hadn't failed to notice her eyes examining me when she thought I wasn't looking. With the intense sexuality boiling all around Bangkok it was too easy to go there in my mind.
"Alain, I'm honored you'd ask me to join you on this trip. You know, it would be great for my business but I have to confess that right now all I have to spend is $5000. Would that be enough to make it worthwhile for you?"
$5000 was probably more than 90% of the travelers in Thailand had ever seen in one place but I was trying to look like a legitimate businessman and felt embarrassed that Alain might feel it was beneath him to deal with such a trifling amount. However,
"David, $5000 is fine. Don't be embarrassed about starting small. You will soon build that into $50,000 and then more. You're good karma has brought you here and good things will continue to happen. We will enjoy each other's company and make good deals as well."
Well, that settled it. I was in.
On thinking, I also mentioned to him that my roommate at the hotel was interested in gems too and had some money to spend. He might like to come along if that were possible. Alain thought and then said he felt it might be all right and so that evening I mentioned it to my roommate, Ved.
Ved Hakim and I had met in a taxi on the way back from the Bangkok airport and as travelers often did then, had on the spur of the moment decided to share a hotel room, at least for a few nights. We both had things to do in the city and were hardly at the hotel during the day so we continued to share the room and were good companions as the days turned into weeks. Ved was a Persian (most Iranians I knew then liked to be known as Persians), about my age, a long-haired hippie but quiet, seemingly from a good family, and mostly kept to himself so he was a pleasant roommate. He had some money too so we would go out to dinner in the evenings and swap stories. It was nice not to come home to an empty room every night.
Ved was also buying gems in Bangkok and when I mentioned my luck and Alain's offer, he was eager to go along. We made the date to go with Alain in two weeks.
By that time, I had been in Thailand this trip for a couple of months and even though it had been an exciting and productive stay, I had started experiencing some of my recurring depression and consequently was already getting the urge to move on again. Depression was something that would always, eventually find me, wherever I was on the road. The exhilaration of being in a new land, the immediacy of having to cope through the culture shock and pilot my minute-to-minute survival would temporarily keep my spirits high and animated but when things got routine, it was easy for me to get melancholy, to start feeling the true isolation and begin thinking of being someplace new. In Asia I was an insignificant speck miraculously bobbing on an exotic and unfamiliar sea. This fearful realization is what makes many travelers get lost in drugs and keeps others wandering from place to place, sometimes forever. One thing after another had kept me in Bangkok longer then I had expected and waiting the two weeks, even anticipating the trip with Alain to the mines, pulled me to and fro and added to my discomfort.
I had some good friends I wanted to visit in India who were living in an Ashram with some Guru and had begged me to come and stay with them. As the land of throbbing materialism started to pale, some inner fulfillment time with familiar faces began looking more and more attractive.
I thought about it while waiting to go to the mines and the day before we were to leave, I impulsively grabbed my bags and jumped on a plane to Katmandu, my next stop on the way to India. I said goodbye to Ved and asked him to apologize to Alain for me but I needed to follow my heart which at that moment was longing for a hill station outside of Bombay. The decision whether to trade a trip to the mines for a trip to an ashram was a typical dilemma for me. My spiritual self was always at war with my worldly, carnal drives. Meditation or drugs, enlightenment or lust and the excitement of the road? I went back and forth and never knew where I would end up, but this day, it was India's call that was the loudest.
The next months, my first time in India, at the Rajneesh Ashram in Pune, were the most important and transformational times of my life. But that is another story.
Alain: David left Bangkok? Hmmm. I wonder if he found out something. This Ved guy seems a little slicker than David but he's eager to go to the mines. He hasn't been around long enough to know anything. What does he like? He thinks he's a big businessman. Probably a dope dealer. I can play on that. He thinks he's controlling the situation. And he has more money than David. Ten thousand is good. The Iranian thing might be interesting. I could do something with that. But is he telling me the truth? I think so. He trusts me and he's alone.
Six months later;
On my way back from Puna, to spend time with my beloved Jnana, to sell all the Asian things I'd collected and to prepare for my next long trip back to India with her, I naturally stopped in one of my favorite playgrounds, Bangkok. Even though I had ditched the trip to the mines, Alain and I had been on such good terms, I thought he wouldn't mind me showing up again. Upon arriving, I made a beeline to his and Monique's place to reacquaint and hopefully, pick up some bargains to take back to the states with me. When I arrived and went up to his apartment, it was completely empty. The doors were wide open and there was not a stitch in the rooms. I was perplexed and went to the front desk at Kanit House and asked where Alain and Monique were. The Indian desk clerk in the dark office stared at me and blanched. He backed away from me, at the same time pushing a newspaper that had been laying on the desk toward me. I looked at the front page (an Indian newspaper in English) and the headline read "Serial Killer Captured in Bombay after Drugging Bus Full of Tourists." The killer was Alain Gautier. I was flabbergasted.
I read the article in shock. Alain had been caught after drugging 30 French tourists and trying to steal their money and passports. He had conned them into trusting him and then attempted to kill them. If that wasn't enough, the story went on to identify Alain as the serial killer the international police had been seeking all over Asia, who had allegedly murdered at least 12 people along the Asian Trail, from Tokyo to Bombay. In each case, he had used a similar modus operandi. He would befriend a traveler or tourist and within a short time, invite them to accompany him on a friendly trip to the mines where he could get them fantastic deals on precious gems. It was an irresistible offer, it seems. On the way to the mines, Alain would drug his companions, steal their passports and money and burn them alive to hide the evidence. He had done this at least 12 times that the police were aware of at that point. I broke out in a cold sweat.
The next few days felt surreal. Waiting in Bangkok for my plane back to the U.S., I was in a trance. Everything around me felt dangerous and I no longer trusted my own instincts. I had a hard time believing anything I saw and heard. How could I have been so wrong? Was Alain this person I had trusted or this animal in the papers. As reality set in, I began to comprehend how lucky I had been and how close I had come to a very different outcome. I was still very shaken when I finally boarded my jet to Hong Kong and then home.
I grabbed a magazine on the way to my seat and tried to get comfortable. I'm a good sleeper on planes and usually a few minutes of reading once we are in the air and I'm out. I started paging through the Time Magazine I had picked up and the lead story slammed me in the face. It was in-depth coverage of the serial killer, Alain Gautier, aka Charles Sobraj, and his rampage through Asia. I read the details in shock and finally came to a page which listed all the people Alain had killed. They were tourists and travelers like myself, from all around the world, all seduced by the lure of exotic gems pouring through their fingers and the comfort of knowing they would be guided by a friendly protector in a foreign land. I read the names and descriptions of the victims wondering who each one really was, how they had come to be there at that time and what they had left behind, until my breath caught up short. The ninth victim on the list was Vitali (Ved) Hakim.
I felt a chill and a nausea sweep over me. The day after I had left, Ved had gone to the mines with Alain and had never come back. I felt the hot, fetid breath of the Great Dog of Death at my neck. I was sitting on this plane reading a magazine and Ved was dead under some jungle brush in a strange land, drugged, burned and abandoned. Tears came to my eyes as I thought of him, so much like me, following his destiny, trusting his inner compass, believing that he was at the beginning of a long, exciting journey, only to have it arrested in mid-stride, forever.
The rest of my trip back to America was somber. No amount of joy I had experienced on the road or at the Ashram could dispel my deep melancholy on the way home. I had lived and Ved had died. A split second decision had made the difference and I didn't even know how it had happened. I had never seen it coming. Until then, I had always trusted my intuition and character judgment. With Alain, I can't even say I'd had an intuitive feeling - I was completely blindsided. I landed in Honolulu traumatized and unsure of myself.