Nate is a 26yrold Anthropology student at the University of Hawaii who originally hails from Albuquerque, NM. He’s lived in Thailand and Cambodia, and has rambled through India and most of Southeast Asia. He was 23 when this happened.
(The following is derived from a recorded interview and the names have been changed to protect Nate’s Thai visa status in the future.)
This story starts in a small village called Pai, high in the mountains of Northern Thailand, at a shisha bar my friend owned.
My friend, the bar owner, introduced me to an English chick named Kate. We started shooting the shit. She was cool. We drank a bunch of beers and got drunk, telling our life stories and all that.
We were both going to be in Thailand for a while and exchanged numbers. I never called or thought I’d see her again.
Months later, after travelling through Southern Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, I ended up in Bangkok alone, trying to land a teaching job.
I was staying at a shitty hotel across the street from MBK, an enormous mall. The room cost around 400 baht per night [$10]. The hotel was shady and pretty much in a go-go bar area.
One night I headed over to a touristy part of the city called Khao San Road. I wanted to get out of the room, meet some foreigners and have a few beers. Khao San Road is like the Vegas Strip for underage drinkers on crack. It’s a tourist party zone, full of dumb t-shirts, pubs playing European football games, dance clubs, trinket shops, McDonalds, overpriced western restaurants, sarongs, flip-flops, crap.
Walking down the street, I ran into Kate, the girl from Pai. She was with three friends. They had just come from some islands in southern Thailand.
I couldn’t remember her name at first; we’d only met that one night. I sat down and we started drinking beers.
Her friends were English dudes in their late twenties. Two of them were wannabe Rastas rocking scruffy, dirty jeans almost yellow from age. They were new-age hippie types with hemp bracelets who missed the Southeast Asia hippy trail by 40 years. One of them had dreadlocks and was named Chester.
We were drinking and cracking jokes at a makeshift outdoor bar, basically a little table set up outside a real bar, in a narrow ally off of Khao San Road.
This Thai dude who worked at the bar started chilling with us. He couldn’t have been any cooler. He was tatted down, dreadlocked out, friendly, a super cool guy.
The conversation turned to drugs fairly quick. Stories began to abound about weed and drugs in Thailand. The Thai guy said he liked good weed and the Brits told a story about taking shrooms in Southern Thailand.
The drinks had been going for a while, when Chester slipped away with the Thai guy further down the alley. I took note but wasn’t concerned.
Shortly after they returned, we decided to walk to a main street and grab a tuk-tuk (a small, three-wheeled Thai taxi, basically a motorbike with a bench-seat mounted where the rear tire would be). We wanted to find a dance club.
We headed down the alley, which lead away from Khao San Road to a busy main street.
Immediately after we started walking down the alley a cop stepped out of the darkness and said, “Why are you talking to Thai men? Why are you talking to Thai men in the alley?”
Everyone was like, “What?”
Then, two more officers appeared behind him.
The cops were intense, clean-cut fuckers in brown uniforms. Most Thai police look sharp; they are considered royal servants. The first cop did all the talking, except for one-word exclamations from the rest.
I thought, I didn’t do shit. What are these cops tripping on? Then I remembered, oh fuck, homeboy did go in the alley. But I hadn’t done anything so I figured, fuck it, I’m straight.
It quickly became apparent that the cops were not going to just let us go. Soon two older, more senior looking cops arrived.
They walked us farther down the alley, hidden from the view of other foreigners. At this point I still thought, it’s all good, this won’t be an issue, we’re on Khao San Road where tourists are always doing crazier shit than this.
One by one, the cops told us to empty our pockets. I emptied mine right away to prove my innocence. So far everyone was clean, then they got to Chester, who I’d been watching the whole time.
Chester emptied his front pockets and palmed something in his hand. The cop patted his front down without finding shit. Then turned him around to check his back pockets. That’s when Chester tried to slip what was hidden in his hand back into his front pocket. Not a horrible maneuver, but all the cops were watching him. The cop yells, “Ah! Ah! Ah!”
Chester tried to turn and throw it, but he had no chance, the cop caught his arm. After a split-second hand wrestle, the cop pried something from his fingers.
I thought, well, shit, homeboy is fucked.
The cops inspected the contents of one of those mini zip-lock drug bags. It was weed, almost nothing, just a dime bag probably worth $10 in America. But that didn’t matter, we were in Thailand. Catching a foreigner with any type of drug is instant gold for Thai police.
I did a series of wai’s (Thai bows) and said “kawtor kraup (I apologize)” several times in some vain attempt to show respect. The main cop gave me a funny smile and said, “Oh, you speak Thai?”
“Nit noy kraup (a little bit),” I said, which made my attempt to speak any Thai at all look ridiculous.
Kind of a stupid move, but shit, you never know what showing a little respect will get you in Thailand. This time it just weirded them out.
They motioned for none of us to move, stepped back and began talking amongst themselves. One of the officers radioed the station, while the others listened intently. I couldn’t tell what he was saying, it could be bad or maybe he’s just getting approval to release us, I thought.
After a minute the cops came back and insinuated that we needed to bribe them.
The main cop said, “You know this is Thailand? This is illegal in Thailand and there’s a big fine.”
I was still thinking, they may not fine me, maybe just tax homeboy who had the weed. We were all sitting down in the alley. I planned to assert myself and explain that I just met these guys. But before I had the chance, the most senior officer motioned for Chester to stand up, turned him around and slapped handcuffs on him. We all realized that the situation was fucken serious.
Chester looked at the floor but didn’t freak out. Judging from the Brits’ calm reaction, they had money for the bribe or didn’t realize they might go to jail. They seemed more worried that their big night out was fucked up.
When they started cuffing everyone I knew we all would have to pay a bribe. I wasn’t sure how much; they weren’t exactly throwing out numbers. I had heard that a bribe in Thailand was usually upwards of $1,000. In Laos, a much poorer country, I had talked to foreigners that paid police bribes of $600. I knew it was going to be more expensive in Thailand.
My head started buzzing. I thought, I only have about $200 in my bank account, fuck, I’m the only one who’s not going to be able to pay.
I started running through my options: Best case scenario, I get arrested, don’t have enough cash for the bribe, spend some time in a Thai holding cell, have a chance to call my mom before getting processed, she wires me money, I pay the bribe and I’m released.
But what if it doesn’t happen? What if they don’t let me call for the money? Instead, they demand it and process me when I can’t pay the bribe. Then I’m stuck in the Thai judicial system, usually you don’t get a court date for months and can spend a lot of time in Thai jail. If that happens I am fucked. I contact the embassy and my name goes on a list. Who knows when I get out?
I couldn’t let that happen.
The policeman motioned for Kate to stand up. They bound her hands with a zip-tie. She began a whining plea with a pouty expression on her face.
I was next in line to get zip-tied. One of the larger officers motioned for me to rise. I was shaking. He held both my wrists behind my back in one of his hands. He didn’t have a good grip. I felt a moment of time, a single moment of possibility for action.
I pushed him, thrusting myself backwards, hitting his chest with my back and shoulder as hard as I could.
I couldn’t see if he fell but I knew he went flying. He hadn’t expected it. I took off running down the dark alley. I didn’t look back but could hear their footsteps echoing off the walls as they chased me.
The alley opened into a huge parking lot full of parked cars, with a busy street and traffic circle running along one side. I looked back; the cop was right behind me with a second cop slightly behind him. I ran to the street but couldn’t cross the 60 mph Bangkok traffic, so I turned, juked the cops and sprinted back into the lot.
Thank god they were basically shitty runners and I’m pretty fast even in flip-flops. At one point they came within five feet but I quickly gained distance on them.
A car driving through the lot slammed its brakes and stopped right in front of me. I jumped the car’s hood Hollywood-style and kept running full speed through the parking lot cutting through rows of parked cars.
The parking lot was on the same enormous city block as Khao San Road, but on the opposite side. In the back of the lot were a series of narrow pedestrian alleys that cut through apartment buildings and guesthouses back towards the touristy area. I thought, one of these will lead all the way back to Khao San, just get back to Khao San Road, there’s thousands of foreigners there, I can blend in.
The cops must have stopped chasing me for a minute, maybe to regroup? I’ll never know, but suddenly I’m standing before a ten-foot wall, at the end of the lot and they’re not behind me. I couldn’t hear or see them.
I’d been holding a long sleeve shirt in my hand and wearing a baseball cap. I realized I had a few seconds and threw my hat as far as I could, then put on the long sleeve shirt to hide my forearm tattoos.
I started trying alleys; the first dead-ended at a ghetto security wall. The side of an apartment building was directly behind. I hoisted myself onto the wall, which had glass bottle shards cemented into the top.
There was a two-foot gap between the wall and the side of the apartment. I thought, I can throw myself in the gap and hide but I’ll be a sitting duck, fuck that.
I hopped back down and still didn’t see any cops. What the fuck, where are they?
The next alley led to the rear courtyard area of a guesthouse, enclosed by a cement wall. Police whistles were blowing and boots pitter-pattered as they searched the other alleys; it sounded like more cops had joined the chase. I followed a path to the back door of the guesthouse.
My first instinct was to find any young foreigners and say, “I gotta go in your room right now! I’ll give you a hundred dollars!”
The first floor was empty. I ran up stairs to the second floor hallway. I searched for somebody entering a room or an open door to force my way into and banged on random doors.
I came across two old white ladies. Will they help me or will they turn me in? I didn’t trust them and scrambled back downstairs. There were whistles chaotically blowing close by. I knew a fucken search was happening.
The first floor was still empty. The front of the guesthouse was an open-air lounge that faced the street. There was also an unattended front desk and an Internet Café with a bathroom next to it.
The whistles were getting closer. The cops are figuring it out, searching each alley. I entered the guesthouse’s shitty, public restroom. It was empty. There were two stalls. I entered one, latched the door and pulled my feet onto the toilet.
The whistles seemed to be getting closer and closer. I resigned myself to having about two minutes of freedom. I lit a cigarette and smoked with my feet up.
You can’t smoke in a guesthouse bathroom. I thought, who gives a fuck? I’m about to go to Thai jail. There’s no way out.
I guessed there would be ten cops by then. I could hear men shouting in Thai.
I waited for them to come get me. Any second a cop would enter the bathroom, bust open the first stall, then kick in my stall door and drag me out of the bathroom. They would take me somewhere out of the view of any foreigners and beat the fuck out of me. That’s basic protocol in Thailand. Sometimes the Thai police beat people up just for looking at them wrong and they don’t appreciate foreigners acting above the law. I figured that first motherfucker, the cop I shoved, would get five minutes alone with me.
I smoked my last cigarette.
Slowly, the whistles became fainter. I thought, you gotta be joking me, these motherfuckers didn’t come in the guesthouse and check the restroom?
After five minutes of silence I thought, this could be my lucky shit, but I might fuck myself by staying in this bathroom.
I exited the bathroom trying to act normal but wasn’t sure what to do. I wasn’t safe yet. I could still hear whistles and yelling in the distance. A cop car was parked in front of the guesthouse.
I figured, the best thing I can do is sit at a computer, blend in with the other white kids and hope they don’t recognize me.
Ten foreigners were in the café, all looking at Facebook. I rented a computer, logged into Facebook and stared at the screen listening intently. I tried to use the screen as a mirror to watch the street.
The cops never came. I couldn’t believe it. After ten minutes of thanking God and sweating a puddle, I paid the cashier and walked outside. The cop car was gone. Instead a tuk tuk (three-wheeled taxi) sat where the cruiser had been parked. I crossed the street with my head down and got in the tuk tuk. It’s roof came down just enough to hide my head.
I had startled the driver who said, “Wow, wow!”
“You take me to MBK?” I said.
“Ah ok,” he said, smiling because it was a good fare and started driving.
He was all happy as fuck, a jolly guy.
“How you like Thailand? Your first time?” He said.
“Yeah it’s my first time. It’s fucking great! It’s a beautiful country!” I said.
After a couple blocks I thought, I’m free!
The air tasted good. That moment was, honestly, exhilarating. But at the same time I thought, What if they had caught me?
What did I just do?
Why was I hanging out with those people?
And, why the fuck am I hanging with wild folks when I’m broke?
WHAT WAS YOUR BAD CHOICE?
Well you attach yourself to people when you’re travelling abroad. It just happens and you group up. When you see something sketchy go down, like when I saw Chester go into the alley that should have been it, because I knew it’s too dangerous to buy drugs on Khao San Road.
I put myself in danger by thinking this white Rasta was intelligent enough to understand the corruption of Thailand drug trafficking. You’re basically prey for a lot of people.
I know it’s not the pinnacle of a bad decision, but certainly it will resonate with anybody who’s travelled abroad. When you’re travelling in other countries you link with people, and when you link with them you’re tying your fate together.
HAS THIS CHANGED WHO YOU CHOOSE TO LINK WITH IN OTHER COUNTRIES?
I’m a thousand times more careful bro. It could have been so much worse. He could have bought ya baa (Thai meth) or ecstasy, and I may have never have had that tiny window for escape, the cops wouldn’t have been relaxed, instead of asking for a bribe we would have all just been taken to Thai jail.
DID YOU KNOW YOU WERE GOING TO RUN?
Nah, the decision to run was instantaneous. Up until then I was just hoping they would have a wild change of heart and not arrest us. I hadn’t decided to run because the rational side of me had scenes of Thailand’s brutal shoot first and ask questions later drug policy of the early 2003’s running through my head.
Honestly, I think being raised in Albuquerque was a huge part of it. In my hometown we all had ran from the cops and I’d never been caught.
It’s embedded in your head that you have that option, it might be the worst decision you ever make, but it might be the best decision.
WAS PUSHING THE COP A GOOD CHOICE?
It was a valid choice. If my logic was right and they didn’t let me call to have money wired for the bribe, I would have had to do time in Thai jail and it could have been up to six months, you just don’t know.
YOU THINK IT WAS A SET UP?
I know for sure it was a set up because the cop was waiting for us.
I’ve done plenty of drug deals and I’ve seen enough movies, if you understand criminal activity at all then you know about set ups and this was textbook. The dreadlocked Thai dude probably got a good chunk of the bribe money.
WHAT DID YOU DO AFTER YOU GOT AWAY?
Went back to my hotel room, called my mom and told her the story. I was freaking out. She said, “You understand I wouldn’t have been able to do a goddamn thing for you?”
WAS SHE MAD?
No, she was just thankful. She said, “Are you going learn from this?”