Jul 10, 2020

Couchfish Week 15: The unluckiest traveller on earth

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Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
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I first met Ariel* in Prachuap Khiri Khan, a low key beachfront town on Thailand’s south coast. Robbed recently, he had lost everything and was helping out in a grimy guesthouse for food and board.

Prachuap was an odd place to meet a twenty–something Israeli—but there was little normal about him. He’d been there for some time, waiting for his family to send him money (again). He’d hitched down from Hua Hin (where his last robbery occurred) and had walked door to door asking for work.

By the water, Prachuap Khiri Khan. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I write his “last” robbery because, from memory he’d been robbed at least a half dozen times. The stories all involved too much alcohol and bars—I thought perhaps he was losing his wallet rather than getting robbed. Oh no, he said. He’d often get beaten up in the process. Stabbed twice in Bangkok he said, as he lifted his shirt to show a ghastly groove across his stomach.

“That one hurt,” he said.

He was my age, mid twenties. He’d hated his military service and had no time whatsoever for his country and its policies. He’d never go back, but his family was there, and they kept sending him money, so he would go home between Thai visas.

A not even remotely healthy breakfast by the sea. Prachuap Khiri Khan. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

It was difficult to imagine Ariel in a bar fight. He was perhaps five foot ten, of a medium build with a little bit extra to hold on to around the middle. Over the days we hung out together, we’d have a few beers by the sea and eat cheap seafood—with me paying. He was never anything but polite and interesting company—and boy he had some stories.

He walked with a limp—was that an injury from his service?, I asked. No. He’d been smoking weed in a Chiang Mai guesthouse when the police busted the place. Trying to escape he’d jumped out the window and broke him leg in two places. The police scooped him up off the driveway where he was laying in a pool of blood.

“That one hurt too.”

Prachuap has some good hiking. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

On his back, near his left shoulder blade, he had two near spherical depressions in the skin. They were from his service, he said, shot twice in the back. I’d never seen a bullet wound in my life—after everything else, I believed him.

He never asked me for money. I was happy to pay for dinner and drinks on the sand—he never ate, nor drank much—and he was good company.

Another afternoon we climbed Khao Chong Krachok, a stubby viewpoint overlooking the bay. Overrun by feral macaques, he’d of course had run ins with those as well. One had bitten him on the ass in Lopburi, though he said he’d deserved it. Another time in Phetchaburi he’d been attacked by a bunch of them—he deserved it that time too, he said.

Today we have seafood. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

On both times he’d needed rabies shots, but the Lopburi attack had coincided with another robbery, so he was broke. The doctor leant him the fee and his parents sent the money to the doctor.

And so it went on. Bit by a dog. Hit by a scooter. Crashed a motorbike. Had his scooter stolen. The stories were never ending. Some would say I’m somewhat accident prone, but this guy was in a class all of his own.

Three days in, money from his family arrived. He paid off some debts and took me out for a great lunch at Ao Manao, a beautiful bay to the south. There he told me about how his longtail to Ko Poda had sunk and he’d had to swim to shore. Again he lost everything.

Cooling off at Ao Manao. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

He left the next day, he was heading back to Bangkok, I was heading south.

At the time it was quite unusual to meet Israelis travelling alone. They tended towards groups. Everything about him was strange. In all my travelling, he was one of the only people I’ve met working for food and board out of desperation. And then there were the stories—he could tell a good one, that was for sure.

There was nothing “normal” about him.

A week later I was in Krabi and met a group of Israelis in a bar. We got talking and I started telling them about this strange Israeli I met up the coast. I’d been thinking about the stories all week—there was a story in this guy I remember thinking.

A conman’s speedboat perhaps? Photo: Stuart McDonald.

It was a different story to the one I thought.

About five minutes in, one of the Israelis started laughing and slapped the table.

“Did he show you his stomach?,” he asked.

I’d not got to that bit and I stopped in my tracks—yes he did.

The guy stopped laughing and told me I should count my travellers cheques. This was back in the days when everyone used traveller cheques and you’d wear them strapped to your stomach.

Sure enough, I was down at least US$300.

Annoyed at being ripped off? Go eat. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The guy was a con–man and the Israelis had heard of him. The stomach scar was from some operation, the “bullet holes” cancer moles. One of the Israelis at the table had a scar from a real bullet wound and it was anything but neat and tidy. The rest of the stories—who knows—most likely lies. They hadn’t met him, but his name was rife in the Israeli traveller grapevine as someone to watch out for.

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I have no idea how he got my traveller cheques. While I wouldn’t say his stories were worth $300—if he’d taken only one cheque, it would have almost been a fair exchange.

* Ariel is a pseudonym.