It is 2 am when Jones* shows up—he’s only two hours late. To Pete*, Matthew* and I, waiting at the less than salubrious nightclub at Bangkok’s Grace Hotel, those two hours feel like an eternity. Jones is drunk and short on apologies—both typical of him.
He’s a journalist who I’ve known for some years. Pete and Matthew are both diplomats, and friends. At the time, the Grace Hotel has a notorious reputation for people smuggling and prostitution. It is a dump.
River scenery near Mae Sariang. Photo: Mark Ord.
“Why the hell are we meeting here?,” is Pete’s first question. Matthew just glares.
Jones, a self–branded investigative journalist, with, well no published stories that I know of, goes on a tirade. He’s worried that subjects he is writing about are following him. He figures they won’t think to look here.
He had a meeting with his “sources” a few days earlier—we’d met beforehand. Petrified these sources were going to shoot him on the steps of where the meet was, I told him not to go. With Jones it was difficult to separate fact from fiction, and both from paranoid delusion. He went to the meet. And here he is at the Grace Hotel.
Big skies near Khun Yuam. Photo: Mark Ord.
The story he is working on involves the Thai and Burmese military, the KNU, and timber and weapon smuggling. It is a catchall of hot topics people may kill you over. Pete, Matthew and I think he is bananas pursuing it.
Pete and Matthew don’t know Jones. Jones had asked if I knew anyone who was “connected but a bit dodgy”and these two are about the best I can muster. Before straightening out, Pete had smuggled hashish from Morocco to Spain. Matthew has survived three plane crashes, is good company and also has a somewhat dodgy past involving gold smuggling. My connections to organised crime are limited.
None of us actually know what Jones wants. He’s been sucked up into the border situation and spends months in Mae Sot, Khun Yuam and Mae Sariang. He sneaks over the border and meets with “contacts”. His stories are wild to say the least, but as with the fabulist I wrote about a few weeks ago, of uncertain foundation.
On the way to Mae Sam Laep. Photo: Mark Ord.
Jones is short and a bit tubby, with scrappy ill-cut long hair, roughly tied back in a ponytail. I try to imagine him crashing through the jungle in fatigues, but it is, well easier to imagine him just crashed. He likes his drink.
When Jones’ ramble finally winds up, sharply dressed Matthew, ever the smooth talker, leans over and asks in his soft London accent;
“So Jones, nice to meet you and all, but why are we meeting and why the hell are we meeting here?”
Street scenes, Mae Sot. Photo: David Luekens.
Jones lights another cigarette and replies;
“I told you, I’m worried they want to kill me.”
Matthew gives me a death stare, and suggests next time I let him know if I’m arranging a meeting at a potential shoot–out. Then he looks to Jones and asks:
“Yes, ok Jones, but what do you want from Pete and I?”
“I need a gun,” blurts out Jones.
Pete, bursts out laughing.
Months later, I’m riding down the Thai Burma border. It is a beautiful ride. Vast teak forests, the road a dropped satin ribbon winding between the fallen golden leaves. To the east mountains, to the west the Salween River. To see the river I have to ride west on side roads off Route 105, to outposts like Mae Sam Laep near Mae Sariang.
Meet Mae Sam Laep. (Very old photo!) Photo: Stuart McDonald.
They’re true outposts, the border seems like such an artificial construct when I’m there. The people on each bank grow up together, separated only by the muddy ever–flowing waters. If you happen to find yourself in the area (I recommend you do!), time your visit for late afternoon. Grab some cold drinks and a bite to eat and watch the sun set over another country. It is special.
Jones is staying in Mae Sariang at the time, so I make contact and we arrange to meet up. He is not in great shape, but is still popping over the border now and then. He offers to take me over, we’d be gone for four of five days, he says.
I love the jungle. Less so the jungle with armed people running around in it. I decline.
A spell by the river, near Mae Sariang. Photo: Mark Ord.
I ask about the story he’s been working on. It is going nowhere he says. No publisher will touch it—and given the subject matter, I can’t say I’m surprised. Even if only a fraction of what Jones tells me about it is true, it is explosive.
We drink and chat. His ever-patient Karen partner cooks us all a fine meal, and like Jones, she is very entertaining company.
Rural scenes, outside Mae Sariang. Photo: Mark Ord.
I ask about the gun, she laughs, just as Pete had back in Bangkok months earlier.
“Oh you and your gun baby,” she says leaning over and slapping him affectionately.
“No he did not get his gun. He lives in dreamland this guy. It is why I love him.”
“If he wants a gun, I can get him a gun. No problem. I ask my Dad, though he probably wants me to shoot you Jones!,” she says laughing.
* All the names in this story are pseudonyms.