Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
Adventure writer Antonio Graceffo began his eight month long odyssey by living with forest monks, studying kick boxing in Thailand’s last Muay Thai Temple. He rode his bicycle to Burma, walked to the top of Chiang Mai’s tallest peak, and was the first to attempt to trace the Doi Saket River to its source. A departure from his standard, self-serving brand of humorous, if narcissistic and somewhat offensive, adventure writing, he spent time with the Akha Hill Tribe and documented the plight of a marginalized people. From a canoe trip down the Maekok river, to accompanying tribal people on a hunting trip with cross bows and muzzleloaders, the book is funny, informative, and meaningful.
From Chapter One:
The Last Muay Thai Temple
“Muay Thai is the ancient art which has kept the Thai people free.” Explained Pra Kru Ba, the stocky, bald-headed monk, who had once been a famous boxer. He was laying on the bamboo platform in his jungle hut, giving me my daily lesson on life. After months of living in the monastery, my Thai had finally progressed to a point that I could make some sense of what he was saying.
“Muay Thai is a spiritual pursuit.” He said. “The body is pure. The heart is pure. Only the head can create evil. And if evil invades your heart, then you cannot win in a boxing match.” Religious tattoos played across his muscles, as he reached for another handful of food. “You live too much in your head. Evil can come into you faster than it can the others, because of your education.” He told me flatly. “You are a good man. But your anger will destroy you.”
My Italian temper had become a thing of legend in Northern Thailand. Earlier in the day, I had threatened to strangle one of the monks with his own robe.
After the meeting, I knew that Maii, a devoted Buddhist lay-woman, would ask me for a full report on Kru Ba’s diet. He had been ill lately, and unable to keep food down. She would be pleased to hear that he was eating non-stop.
“Even when you are meditating you look sad.” He said with pity. “I hope you will stay with us long enough to overcome these difficulties.”
He was making an allusion to the Shaolin Temple, in China, where I had lived for a number of months. I had gone there hoping that they would be able to make me spiritually healthy. Instead, I got in fights every day, and left there unchanged, except that I had lost weight, and produced a great book, called ‘The Monk from Brooklyn’ (available at amazon.com). But I was still as angry as I had ever been.
At Kru Ba’s monastery, Wat Achatong, we shared everything. The problem was, we didn’t have all of that much, only the food which the hill-tribe people gave to the monks, in exchange for merit. After a long day of farm work and Muay Thai training, I was famished. I loved hearing Kru Ba’s words. And I cherished our quiet time together. But what I wanted now, was some food. Finally, when I judged that the rate of his consumption had slowed enough that I could ask, a sentence came out of my mouth that I thought I would never utter.
“If you’re finished with those fried cockroaches, could I have them?”
Once again, it dawned on me, just how far I was from Brooklyn.
An Adventure Writer Watches Too Much TV
It had been nearly two years since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Tuesday morning, September eleven, I had been in Manhattan. And like all New Yorkers, I had run the gambit of emotions. One minute I felt fear. Another, I felt anger. There were constant flashes of a debilitating desperation.
For the rest of the world, it had been a horrible day. But for New Yorkers, it had only been the beginning of a period of horrible weeks, and eventually months. For me, 911 had served as a wake-up call, a signal that it was time to change my life, and pursue some goal, other than making money.
911 reminded me, once again, that we were all going to die, and that we didn’t know when. My own mortality had haunted me since my earliest childhood. I remember thinking once. “If I died tomorrow, I would have nothing to show for my eight years of life.” In my prepubescent melancholy I lamented that my name would be lost, across the ages. And so, at age nine, I set out to write my first novel, which I quickly gave up, because there was a Star Trek marathon on TV.
On that Tuesday morning, my childhood angst revisited me. But this time, it seemed somehow more legitimate. “I am thirty three, and if I died tomorrow no one would even know that I had lived.
And so, I gave up my career as an investment banker, and headed to Asia, to become an adventure writer. I spent the first two years writing about Taiwan and China, climbing mountains, crossing deserts, tracing rivers, practicing kung fu, and cycling uncountable miles. People often asked how I got the idea for my various adventures.
The answer was, TV. Between Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and Knowledge Channel, there was always someone doing something that looked more interesting than investment banking. And I was motivated to go out and emulate them. I came to understand the TV liability warning, “Don’t try this at home.”
One of the adventures I had heard about was a monastery in Northern Thailand, where Muay Thai was still taught by monks. The first time I heard about this monastery was shortly after my arrival in Taiwan.
Although I wasn’t ready to go at that time, I filed it away for another day. On the night that I was packing my things to head to the Shaolin Temple in China, I flipped on the TV, and there was an hour-long special about the same monastery. Again, I wasn’t ready to go. I had already purchased my tickets for China.
After Shaolin, I returned to Taiwan, and did every adventure I could think of. Finally, in November of 2003, I was ready to head to Thailand. My very loose plan was to find the monastery I had seen on TV, and do a series of articles and a book about my experiences there. After that, I planned to remain in Thailand, doing adventures, and submitting them to magazines inside and outside of Thailand.
When I landed in Chiang Mai, the former capitol of northern Thailand, I had about $200 in my pocket, and the name of a single magazine, who said they might buy a single story from me, for a fee of $30. (In the end, they didn’t.) I didn’t speak Thai. I had no friends. And all I knew about the location of the monastery was that it was not in Burma.
One of the nice things about being an adventure writer was that you didn’t have to over-plan.
This book is a compilation of the adventure articles I wrote in Thailand, combined with my diaries, and some commentary. Adventure writing is a lot of fun, but at times it seems like a self-serving, irresponsible way to make a living. One could say that I am helping my readers, by making them laugh. But, will my writing make a difference in anyone’s life? Will my name reverberate across the ages? Will Pra Kru Ba share his deep-fried bugs with me? Only time will tell.
From Chapter Two:
“The Life of The Lifers”
One Day in Chiang Mai
I woke up in my two-dollar-a-night hotel room and peeled the stinking sheets off of my body. Even in the hundred-degree heat and sauna-like humidity I couldn’t sleep unless I was under covers. It had been that way since childhood. A psychologist once said this represented my need for security. The way I see it, if I had needed security I would have stayed in the five dollar a night place. Shows you what psychologists know. I wrapped a towel around myself, and went into the hallway for a cold shower.
In Thailand I would generally go into the jungle for periods lasting from a few days to a few weeks, on an adventure trip. Then, I would return to Chiang Mai, to take a shower, get some sleep, eat food, file my stories, develop my photos, and if lucky, collect my salary.
Chiang Mai felt like home to me, even if I was there for only a few days at a time. The tourists were annoying, with their talk of elephant rides and politically correct sightseeing trips to Burma. But the expats were all interesting. They were people who had chosen to build a life in this remote corner of South East Asia. Most owned their own business, or had some kind of income from abroad, such as a retirement or investments. Either way, they had a great deal of time on their hands, and spent most of their day killing time.
The secret to surviving expat life is to build routines for yourself. For many of the expats this included a schedule for the gym, followed by quiz night, followed by the new music café, and the party nights and happy hours at the various bars, Hash House Harriers, and whatever leagues or clubs they would join. For me, my schedule in Chiang Mai, outside of writing and filing stories, was dependent upon whether or not I had money. If I was broke, I had to eat, alone, at the 25 Baht noodle stands, in the sinister back alleyways, where I would never see another foreigner.
But on this particular day, I was lucky. I had come in from an expedition the night before. I used my last money to pay for my room, for one night. Then, first thing in the morning.
I checked my ATM account. Yipeee! I had been paid for my last round of stories. I had enough to rent a room for about ten days and eat in style. When my money was nearly gone, I would head back into the jungle, which would allow me to live cheaply. And, by the time I got sick of the jungle again, hopefully my pay for my current round of stories would hit my account. It didn’t always work out like this. And I sometimes had to beg cash from friends and family. But on this particular trip to Chiang Mai, everything went like clock work.
Breakfast, when I could afford it, was always at the 60 Baht, all-you-can-eat western breakfast buffet. I would sit for hours, eating, and eavesdropping on the conversations at the other tables.
“Many cafes have a writers’ nook. Why don’t any of them have a writers’ cranny?” I wondered, as I sat at a table, near the back of the restaurant, taking secret dictation. The Chiang Mai lifers fascinated me. And I didn’t want to miss a word.
At a neighboring table, two young French girls, probably new journalists, were very expertly interviewing the head of the Shan State press agency. Shan State was one of the States inside of Burma, which had once been an independent country, and which the British had promised autonomy, after the Burma handover, back in the 1950s. But the current government had refused to honor the treaty, and was now waging a war of atrocities upon the Shan people.
“Whole villages are rounded up and made to do manual labor, at gun point, for the federal soldiers. The soldiers steal all of the food from the village. And many of the laborers drop dead, from malnutrition and exhaustion.” Said editor Ang Hen.
“They also use human mine detectors. When federal Burmese troupes have to cross a minefield, they force villagers to walk in front of them. They are often given an order to go into a village, kill all the men, rape all of the women, and burn all of the houses to the ground. There have been documented cases of whole platoons, of thirty or forty soldiers, gang raping a single nine year old girl.”
I had been reading up on the Burma issue for some time, and promised myself, once again, that I would make it there. There was a spook organization, composed of ex US Special Forces, who were running missions into Burma, collecting data and bringing humanitarian aid. They were based out of Chiang Mai, and I was scheduled to meet with them later in the week.
At another table, I saw a hugely muscled American, with a crew-cut, telling an American girl, who could have been on a sorority tour of developing nations, about the contract he had just come off of in Cambodia. He was so obviously a spook. He even admitted to being a former US Marines Force Recon combat advisor. “But I gave all of that hooa shit up to follow an academic career.” He told her. It almost seemed ludicrous for him to maintain his cover story of being a marine biologist.
The girl may have been doing some type of paper for her incredibly left-wing, very expensive liberal arts program back in the States, because she had a notebook, and was interviewing him, although she couldn’t possibly have been a journalist.
“And what would you say poses the biggest threat to endangered species in Cambodia? Is it because poor people hunt and kill the animals?” She asked, in a very ham-handed manner.
“Bush meat?” He asked, using the official US government nomenclature for illegal poaching in which the animals were eaten, as opposed to being sold for profit.
“Bush meat represents the smallest percentage of the animals being killed. You try and enforce that. But when you got people earning less than $10 per month, it is hard to convince them that it would be better to just let their children starve, so that we could maintain the balance of species.”
“Well, I think they are just using poverty as an excuse.” Said the American girl. The soldier ignored the preprogrammed response, and went on with his narrative.
“The real issue in Cambodia is endangered species trade. At this point it is actually a bigger money maker than anything except drugs. And it has spread all through Indochina, with Mainland China being one of the largest purchasers.
“There is a variable clearinghouse for illegal goods in Wa State, Burma, where they sell everything from drugs, to elephant tusks, lumber, babies, and weapons, smuggled out of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It all moves up through China, and is a huge source of revenue for the war lords.”
“Why can’t you just arrest everyone?”
“It’s not that simple. High ranking officials in the Cambodian government are making big money off of this stuff. So, they don’t want it stopped. They also get aid money from the US and other western countries to stop the problem. They pocket most of that money. But they know that the gravy train can’t last forever. The aid money will only flow in for as long as the problem exists. Once the problem stops, so does the money.”
He went on to tell her about the dirty, behind the glitter. “These projects get aid money, because they are humanitarian in nature. But everyone we deal with is guilty of something. First of all, most of the people who volunteered to wear a uniform, carry a gun, and protect the animals were former Khmer Rouge soldiers. Some of them had committed so many murders that it just seemed normal to them. And getting them to give a damn about what happened to the animals was impossible.”
“Everything is ass-backwards in Cambodia. The Forestry Department, whose job it is to protect the forests from illegal timber trade, was created out of the Lumber Department, whose job it had been to cut down the trees and sell them to China. The name changed, and the outward, publicly-stated mission changed. But all of the employees stayed the same. Do you think those guys would give up such a lucrative business? No way! The only difference is that now was that they could supplement their income by stealing international aid money.”
He told about how he and his team had been shot at a number of times. “And you don’t even know who is doing it. The Khmer Rouge, the government, the police, the army, the peasants, other aid agencies…they all have some reason to want you dead and want you out of there.”
“And the same goes for de-mining. About half the deaths in the de-mining operations were actually murders. Those contracts were lucrative, and the Khmers wanted to keep them all to themselves. Through a combination of murder, intimidation, and political manipulation, they have been able to squeeze almost everyone else out of the game. The Cambodian government now has a monopoly on de-mining and the aid money that goes with it.”
There were a lot of former military types who were drawn to Indochina. The Indochina war has be called the heyday of journalism and the heyday of soldiering. Many of the soldiers just seemed to be incapable of getting it out of their system.
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