South Africa

new internationalist
issue 186 - August 1988


Of B-52s and hill tribes
Jo Hugh-Jones is taken to see Camp David and the Chinese Army without even
leaving Thailand. And, for good measure, he learns what is really Good for Democracy.

[image, unknown] MR SING, rickshaw pedaller, sometime assistant pharmacist and raconteur, tried to pick me up from the bus station at Fang. I eluded him and fled to a hotel. But he caught me later in a cafe, thrusting at me a cellophane-wrapped map of 'Mr Sing's Hill-Tribe Tours'. I knew something about these: villagers clad in rainbow homespuns being snapped at point-blank range by troupes of back-packers who behave like they're touring a human zoo. It was not his tour that caught my interest but Mr Sing himself. So I went with him early next morning on a motorbike.

[image, unknown]

'I will show you Good for Democracy', he said. He was not a mis-spelt Sikh, but a middle-aged Thai in blue shorts and shirt and a straw trilby. He was also a man who read his newspapers - though I was paying through the nose, he got in more questions about Mrs Thatcher than I did about the landscape we were bouncing through. He wanted to know all about the Falklands, for a start.

After a few miles he remarked: 'Mrs Thatcher has a B-52'. I said no, it was her friend Ronald who had those. But he insisted. 'B-52 is a very good plane, very powerful. It takes you a long way very fast, and that is like a good job. Mrs Thatcher has a B-52.' He didn't hear my joke about her destructive capacity because he was sighing.

'I would like a B-52,' he remarked presently. 'I should have stayed at the pharmacy.'

'What do you call a bad job?'

'Skylab - kaboom! Mr John, are you from Cambridge College?' For heaven's sake, how did a rickshaw driver in a Thai backwater guess that? Perhaps it was my white cotton sunhat. We were passing some sort of factory buildings - dark timber-louvred structures in the middle of the day-glo green padi fields. I asked what they made there.

'Exocets! Ha! ha! ha!' He nearly fell off the bike laughing. 'First,' he said, 'I show you Plong. Then Chinese Army. Then Camp David. Then, if we have time, Good for Democracy.'

On we lurched to the tribal villages. It was a glorious day. I have photographs of Mr Sing belting out risque rickshaw songs to depressed-looking Lahu farmers, and knocking back glass after glass of rice spirit. He watched my slow, wary sipping rather scornfully: 'You drink like DC-3. Now you watch F1-11!' And he threw a glassful straight down his throat.

On we wobbled, through the ruts and the fumes. 'Chinese Army' turned out to be a village full of Kuomintang, there since the 1950s. 'Camp David' was an experimental horticultural station.

'Why do you call it that?'

'Very big negotiations. Thailand Army, Burma Army.'

'Border security?'

'No, no. Shareout of drug smugglers. Very Good for Democracy, as we shall now go and see.'

We climbed very slowly up a misty forested valley, getting colder and colder. It began to rain and my sunhat stuck to my forehead. Then we dismounted and in thick cold rain pushed through ferns up slippery paths. Mr Sing started yodelling.

We came to another Lahu village - old, tattered, the bamboo houses almost audibly rotting. Mr Sing tugged me up decayed steps to a door. Once, when new, the house would have been even darker. Now there were plenty of holes in the thatched roof and walls. There was a family, quite young. Four adults lay inert on plastic mats. A woman, in her haggard thirties, sat chewing a piece of roast corn. Nobody spoke, moved, or looked up. The fire was so nearly dead that a black cat was asleep in the ashes. The place was littered with empty tin cans.

'You want Good for Democracy?' asked Mr Sing. The woman caught the trigger phrase and nudged her husband. At once a sense of urgency came over them - lighting a candle, scraping some brown gunk onto a screwtop lid, scrabbling in a cloth bag for a brass pipe. It had the feel of the one hurried activity of the week. It felt desperate. It was "Good for Democracy'. We were going to lie down together and I was going to pay these addicts to get me smashed on opium.

The alcoholic jollity of the day evaporated. Like a damp wimp I asked Mr Sing to take me home. Which he did, without comment. Sitting shivering in the cafe again, he asked me to write a testimonial in his notebook. I managed 'Raise a glass to Mr Sing'.

He looked at it curiously. 'Not bad for me?'

'No, not bad.'

He nodded slowly, then smiled and ordered us both a cup of hot Milo, his B-52 cleared for take-off.

Jo Hugh-Jones is a nurse who recently returned from a year's work with the hill tribes in northern Thailand.

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