Chasing the Dragon

I had seen his type before in Thailand. So why did I feel the urge to pull over?

By / September 2013

I almost didn’t see him. The afternoon sun was cutting through the palms in quick flashes, causing me to squint and crouch behind the wheel. But he saw me. Sitting on his backpack in the tall roadside grass, he spotted my American face, illuminated in the problematic light and, getting to his feet, signaled hard for me to pull over.

I was tired after almost a week over the Burmese border, up around Kengtung, and had just crossed back into Thailand at Mae Sai. I wasn’t in the mood to pick up strangers, but this foreigner had an at-end-of-his-rope countenance that caused me to yield. Steering my gray pickup to the left shoulder, I came to a stop and waited for him to catch up. He strode up to the open window, leaned in, and asked if I could give him a ride south.

The withered, translucent skin of his face was stretched too tight, giving him a skeletal visage, all cheekbones and brows and oatmeally stubble, and his breath smelled like Singha Beer. Still, his gaunt frame and defeated eyes pricked my conscience, and I told him that I could get him as far as Chiang Mai, three hours down the road. He accepted with a grateful nod. After tossing his pack in the bed of the truck, he climbed, with a gimpy right leg, into the passenger seat beside me.

“I’m Saul,” he said, thrusting a bony hand in my direction. I shook it, feeling vaguely repulsed by the badly cracked skin of his palms. I didn’t care what his last name was, so I never asked. By his accent I could tell that he was a fellow American. He sank with a sigh into the upholstered seat and asked me where I was coming from. I indicated that I had been a few days in the Shan State, writing about the Wa people. “Opium lords,” he nodded. “Spent some time up there myself.”

“Is that where you’re leaving now?” I asked.

“No,” he answered, “spent a month or two in Laos. Just crossed back over the Mekong this morning.”

“What were you doing there?” I asked the question even though I knew the answer.

“Same as everywhere,” he said. “Just moving around and chasing the dragon.”

I looked at him questioningly. “Smoking opium,” he clarified.

I had seen his kind before, hanging around flophouses and jungle border crossings, always looking stoned and half-starved, drug tourists who spent years wasting away until they finally disappeared. Saul was getting there.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Missouri. Springfield, Missouri. You ever been there?” I told him that I had not. “It’s nice enough,” he said, though he didn’t sound convinced.

“How long have you been gone?” I asked. Saul’s odor was beginning to fill the truck, and I rolled the window down the rest of the way.

“Hell, I haven’t been there in eleven years. Just been traveling all this time.”

Eleven years on the road. I shuddered inwardly at that transient life. No roots, no home, no familiar faces smiling at your return.

Perhaps sensing my dismay, Saul quickly added, “Hey, it’s better than working forty-hour weeks, just trying to pay the rent.” I gave him a noncommittal nod of understanding.

As we proceeded down the hilly contours of northern Thailand and got lodged in the bustle of Chiang Rai, I noticed that Saul’s small talk was deteriorating. He mumbled in clutches and would often trail off mid-sentence. He tried to nonchalantly grab at his knees to stop his fingers from trembling, and would intermittently close his eyes. Growing discomfort quelled our conversation, and I pressed the accelerator toward the floor. I questioned the sense of picking up a man like this and hoped desperately that he was not about to freak out on me.

I pulled off the road near the junction at Maelao, and parked in front of a small outdoor restaurant where a smiling Thai woman was grilling pork satay on skewers. The sun had set. Saul disappeared to find a restroom, limping as he went. I bought six of the satay, three for me and three for him, along with some peanut sauce. By now, the day was getting old, and the dark green mountain tops were borrowing light from the orange sky. I had already eaten half my food by the time Saul returned. He was still limping, but seemed calmer. He looked me steadily in the eye and thanked me for the satay. I decided not to ask where he’d been all this time.

“How did you hurt your leg,” I asked him. “I didn’t,” he said. “Somebody hurt it for me.”

He frowned and began his tale. “I met a girl in Laos, sweet little thing, and I thought I might just stay there with her forever. She was young and laughed a lot, and we had a pretty time together, three beautiful days. But one night while we were sleeping at the guesthouse, she got up and took all my money and drugs, and left.”

Saul chewed his pork and stared at the rough wooden table.

“Next morning, after I figured it all out, I went to her house to get my stuff back. Four men came out, maybe her brothers, I don’t know, but they beat me up and smashed my leg with a pipe.” He rubbed his knotty hand up and down his right leg. “I laid up in my bed for a week, before I could travel again,” he continued. “Lucky I had a few US dollars stuffed down in my backpack that she didn’t know about. I changed those over and then headed back for Thailand. Crossed the Mekong on a longtail this morning.”

“That really stinks,” I said. “What are you gonna do for money now?”

His brows pinched together. “Well,” he said, “I got a little money in a bank account that I can get to in Chiang Mai, but it won’t last.”

“And then what?”

“Good question. Last time I started runnin’ out, I went down to Australia and worked construction. I can get paid under the table there. Six months of that’ll give me enough for two or three years on the road, livin’ cheap.”

My head spun. Living cheap indeed! I couldn’t imagine the miserable hovels that he must have frequented, surviving on white rice and heroin.

We resumed our journey, proceeding in a mutually consented awkward silence down long, darkening forest roads. We passed stands of villagers selling hollow segments of bamboo, stuffed with sticky rice, or bags filled with cut-up mango. They waved for us to stop and purchase their wares, but my eyes were fixed on the broad curves and early rising moon. I felt depressed and wanted to get home, wanted to get away from the wraith in the passenger seat.

“Saul,” I finally said. “Why don’t you go home?”

“To what?” he asked, and his voice was distant. “I shed that life long ago, and now I ain’t got nothin’ left back there.” He stared out the window with slumping shoulders.

As we neared Chiang Mai, he grew twitchy again. He made a few comments about knowing a guy he could stay with, and gave me some vague directions. I entered the city from the east and dropped him off near the banks of the river Ping. He thanked me for the ride. His breath rattled. His hands were trembling. In silence I watched him stumble from the truck onto the unlit road and drift from sight, rather like a man lowered down a hole, getting fainter and fainter, until the shadows swallowed him whole.


Chris Watts is a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler.