Are you ready for the final post of my nostalgic ramblings as a gay 23 year old Canadian backpacking through Southeast Asia in 1973? Here we go.
It’s nearing the end of my 4 months of exploring myself and SE Asia. I’m now on my final few weeks as I make my way back to Singapore from Laos and Thailand. From Singapore at the end of August 1973, I’d be flying to London to take up a place at the University of London’s Institute of Education.
My last post had me in Luang Prabang, the Royal capital of Laos, and from there, my companionable travel partner, Dave, and I again flew over Pathet Lao territory to get to Vientiane – the administrative capital of Laos, a much busier, dusty and hot city. When we arrived, Dave and I said our goodbyes because he was continuing straight on to Bangkok. Since I had spent well over a week with him, I’m disappointed not to have a photo of him as I can’t picture him in my head now.
Vientiane & Hubert
What hit me first about Vientiane, Laos’ administrative capital, was how French it appeared, including some of its architecture and a wide street – its version of the Champs-Élysées – with even a mini Arc de Triomphe. Laos was a French colony from 1893 until 1953 but there were still large numbers of French citizens living here, as well as a military presence.
I dined once in the French Officers’ Mess after I’d learned – by being turned away – that I couldn’t wear shorts there in the evenings. The place was relatively formal, full of civil servant-types living an expat life in this tropical city. I had a European meal which made for a change from basic Lao and Thai dishes I’d been eating with sticky rice and/or noodles.
I can’t remember where, but early on, I met a Hubert Medina, a slim, well-dressed gay man in his late 20s from France who had been living in Vientiane for over a year as some kind of civil servant. We ended up speaking mostly French because my high school French was better than his English, so that was different. I remember that he was doing the same thing as me – exploring his sexuality in a place far away – to return home at some future date with a greater confidence to face the world.
Hubert was the first “proper gay” (a phrase I use to refer to people who know who they are and what they want) whom I’d met in a few weeks, so I was very happy that he seemed pleased to spend the night with me in my cheap hotel. The only restriction was keeping our noises down as the walls were thin.
The next morning, over cafés au lait, he offered me the chance to stay with him in his apartment during my stay in the city. I quickly took up his kind offer and moved in. I loved meeting a knowledgeable gay ex-colonialist who could show me around.
“Gregg, there’s something I need to tell you”, Hubert said to me when he got back from work. “I’m going away for the weekend so you won’t be able to stay here anymore”.
Well, that holiday romance didn’t last very long. Either I had made some faux pas or he really did have alternative plans that didn’t include me. So, sadly, back to a hotel I went.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of Hubert either and, in fact, the only photo I do have from Vientiane is this one of the Wat Sisaket – built in 1565 as a Buddhist temple, destroyed in 1827 by the Siamese, rebuilt in 1942 and now a museum.
During my stay in Vientiane, besides Hubert, I met two people who would provide me with an encounter with the Thai legal system: Kim Klarlund, a tall, lanky Danish guy with dirty blonde hair and Barry Melville, a skinny, curly blonde Australian whose taste for Thai antiquities would get him in trouble. I didn’t know that at this point. They seemed friendly and they invited me to meet up with them again in Bangkok.
Completely off-topic, but before leaving Vientiane, I can’t help inserting this photo from my trip to Vientiane in 2014. Every evening, we joyfully joined hundreds of people who headed to the banks of the Mekong River as the sun set to engage in communal aerobic dancing – wearing matching team t-shirts. So much energy and so much fun. That wasn’t happening in 1973.
Back to Thailand & Trouble
To return to Thailand, I required both a new Thai visa and an exit visa from Laos. I spent lots of time queuing up but eventually made it back to that cheap Malaysia Hotel with the pool in Bangkok.
On another side note, I just discovered that my Malaysia Hotel is STILL THERE, in Bangkok with a refit over its 60s core. You may not be as excited about this as I am but I’m sure that’s the same pool! And here’s a story that confirms my understanding of its start as a hotel for soldiers from the war in Vietnam. And apparently it’s gay-ish now. I must make a return trip sometime.
When I met up with Kim at the hotel the next day, I asked, “Where’s Barry?”
“Now that’s a sad story”, Kim said. “When we got back into Thailand from Laos, he bought a nicely decorated statue at a market as a souvenir and he packed it into his backpack. The police stopped us later and asked to search his bag, probably looking for drugs. When they found the statue in his backpack, they arrested him.”
“Why?”, I asked. “What was the problem?”
“Apparently the statue was over 100 years old (which Barry didn’t know) and they claimed he was going to try to smuggle it out of the country. Since it was illegal to export antiques without a permit, they arrested him. It completely shocked me – and, of course, him.”
“Barry is now in a jail in a town called Loei”, Kim continued, “not far from the border with Laos from where we all have just come. I need to go back there to raise bail to get him out of jail. Will you come with me? It will only be for a few days.”
Since he offered to pay for my flight to Loei, I thought, here’s my chance to have a very non-touristy experience in Thailand, so I jumped at the opportunity.
Before we flew away, Kim surprised me by saying that he first needed to find a VD Clinic (as we called STI/STD clinics in those days) as he’d picked one of those diseases up and needed some antibiotics. Believe it or not, I can’t remember if Kim was gay or not. I don’t think so. He got VD anyway. Bad luck. I just wish I could remember his story.
Nine Days in Loei
His pills in hand, Kim and I flew to Loei but the police didn’t let us see Barry in jail right away. We settled into a hotel and hung around until we were let into an area where visitors met prisoners. It was a cramped space with guards hanging over us, along with a faint odour of urine.
As very little English was spoken in this area, we struggled to find out what we needed to do to bail Barry out or how long this would take. Luckily we met a bilingual priest who helped us with translation and legal issues. As Barry was Australian, we also contacted that Embassy in Bangkok but got nowhere with them.
This process took much longer than we’d anticipated and we ended up spending nine days in Loei to sort this out. What did we do all this time? For one thing, as the food in jail was poor, we brought Barry two meals everyday. And we worked with the priest to figure out the next steps.
We still had lots of time to wander the area which included teaching English to local kids through their school and here are some of the boys who received our assistance whether they wanted it or not.
We had a scary patch when we learned, just as our cash was running out, that this small town didn’t have a bank that would take our travellers’ cheques. We had to go by bus to the next biggest town – Udon – for that sole purpose and that took up a whole day. You’ll remember that these were the days before credit cards.
I had plenty of time to write postcards and letters to my family and friends, something that I would say took up quite a bit of time on this trip as a whole. Luckily some of my correspondents kept those letters which give me insights into my thinking at the time. More on those letters another time.
Out on Bail
Finally, thanks to the intervention of that priest, Barry finally went before a judge. We were in that courtroom to hear that his bail was set at 20,000 baht. I don’t know how much that was worth in those days, but that’s about US$600 in today’s exchange rate which would have been huge then. We had raised the cash somehow, paid it and he was released – more than two weeks after being arrested. Success! Of course, having a foreign passport and access to funds like this (maybe his parents paid?) helped – something that his fellow prisoners wouldn’t have had. A good example of what we now call white privilege.
Here is Barry, on the right, just after his release, with Kim, and we take off quickly back to Bangkok. This side trip certainly wasn’t the way that I had thought that I would be spending my time in Thailand. But I certainly enjoyed plunging myself into this intimate experience with a foreign legal system in small town Thailand.
Back in Bangkok and the Malaysia Hotel, the three of us have a celebratory “expensive”, my diary tells me, dinner that night. We endlessly speculated whether Barry’s episode was a way in which the police regularly “ripped off” tourists, pocketing the bail, or whether they legitimately believed that Barry was an antiques thief and they were working hard to protect their country’s heritage.
The next day we said our goodbyes and I left Bangkok never to be in contact with either of them again. Their addresses didn’t make it into my diary nor my address book so I don’t know what happened.
I assume Barry skipped bail and the country without his statue. Back in Australia, he probably dined out on that “I was in a Thai jail” story for decades – maybe almost worth the 20,000 baht.
South to Phuket
Backpacker behaviour always included exchanging helpful tips about places to see and how to keep costs low. When a fellow backpacker heard that I was heading south, he suggested that I make a stop on the island of Phuket, a place I’d never heard of, but it was meant to be cheap and beautiful.
My 1973 Golden Guide had just these few sentences on Phuket:
“Phuket’s fame is founded on tin, which is here dredged from the shallow sea bed by a method invented by Australian engineers, of whom some are still around. But its beaches set against wooded hills recall the fabled East. Plans are afoot for skin-diving and other water sports.”
Plans certainly were afoot, given how huge tourism has now become on that island. At the time, though, tourist facilities (and maps!) were quite basic, including this mimeographed map.
When I got there, I was immediately bedazzled by the pristine and virtually empty beaches. I was able to stay in a little beach bungalow for a very reasonable price. These boys were playing nearby and I asked them for a photo and they dutifully lined up – some even at attention! Thanks, guys. The shy girls ran into the background.
The infrastructure at the time was basic and certainly non-bedazzling. Here’s the main street of the town with its non-functioning fountain.
As we all were, I was shocked and saddened when that massive tsunami hit Phuket and many other places on Boxing Day, 2004. Even though I’d only been in Phuket for just three days 30 years earlier, I still felt a particularly deep sadness for the loss of life there.
Bruce is back
Some of you might remember that my boyfriend from my Sydney days, Bruce, visited me in Bali two months earlier and now he joined me again here for about 4 days. He worked for Pan Am which explained his ability to travel so frequently.
How did we ever arrange to meet up? The only way would have been by mail as a telephone call would have been prohibitively expensive. A letter could take a week or more and I would have needed to pick it up at those American Express offices I talked about in a previous post. What if plans changed? What if my bus was delayed and I had no way of telling him to just wait a bit longer? What would the backup plan be? I guess we would have just missed each other.
If you have memories of how we communicated back then to make plans to meet up, I would appreciate it if you could write what you remember in the Comments.
Monogamy and nonmonogamy
Near the end of his four days with me, I read in my diary “Bruce bugs me”. I wonder what he had done to make me feel that way? I can’t remember. Or was it because he was getting in the way of me fooling around with other guys and I didn’t like that?
Looking back on those days, I realize that a pattern was beginning where I would be happy to be in a relationship but I would insist on wanting the freedom to meet others, including potentially having sex with them. I wasn’t prepared to commit to having a monogamous relationship. And certainly I believed that I had the ideology of the Gay Liberation Front to back me up on that.
That attitude led to some painful discussions, broken hearts and the ending of relationships over the decades. Everyone has to make their own decisions about how to deal with fidelity in their relationships and I stayed in this pattern until well into my 40s. At 50, I changed. Those stories will come later.
Into Malaysia & Penang
Before leaving Thailand for the last time, it dawned on me that of all the countries that I had been in over the last few months, only Thailand had never been the colony of a Western empire, a fact that it’s very proud of. It had, though, itself been a coloniser and had occupied, violently at times, parts of Cambodia and Laos.
By bus, I entered Malaysia from Thailand and crossed by ferry to the island of Penang, where I immediately noticed signs of the British colonial presence. Penang had been a British trading post since the late 18th century, making it one of the oldest British settlements in Asia. George Town, its capital city, was named after King George III. Independence from Britain was gained in 1957.
My photos are, unfortunately, taken from too far away and behind trees, but you still might get a sense of this colonial architecture. I also took some photos in the city’s beautiful Botanical Gardens. You won’t see those because they’re bad – really bad.
Despite these British bits, Penang appeared to me to be very cosmopolitan with the largest ethnicity being Chinese and, in fact, I stayed at a Chinese hotel which put me right in the centre of George Town and easily accessible to the sites and sounds of the city. The rest of the population – then and now – are indigenous Malays and Indians.
After Penang, the next stop was Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur. Both my memories and my photos of KL are poor, so I’ll say no more. Maybe my mind was on reaching my final destination – Singapore – and on my upcoming life in London. My diary also tells me that I’m occupied with buying gifts for my family and friends and also final souvenirs. I’m writing lots of letters, too, including one to the boys I taught at that school in Sydney five months earlier. I wonder if it ever got to them.
Funnily, what I do remember is this North American-like petrol/gas station – unlike any I’d seen on this trip and built in the mid-century modern style, as we now call it. So unexpected, therefore I took a photo.
The Last Stop
My hair was still short enough to get me back into Singapore and I headed to the same Youth Hostel as before which welcomed “All Respectable Looking Young People”.
My last few days in Southeast Asia were occupied with wandering the street markets still looking for last minute gifts and getting in some sightseeing – visiting its famous Tiger Balm Garden and Changi Beach. With Benny, I saw Sleuth and Lost Horizon, both new films out that year. Apparently, I also “arranged slides” – probably the same ones you’re seeing in this post.
Benny, my gay pal in Singapore, drove me to the airport for my flight to London on Tuesday, August 28, 1973. I bought him an airport dinner to show my appreciation for his many kindnesses during my stays in the city. A hug and tears and he was off.
My flight was at 11.30pm. I sat near the British Caledonian departure lounge and promptly fell deep asleep. A tap on my shoulder woke me up and I heard someone say,
“If you’re on this flight to London, I think you better go now.”
The check-in attendant said that I was lucky to get on the flight as the gates had been about to close. My story would have had a very different ending if I hadn’t been woken up from my slumbers by that kind stranger.
On the way to London, we had an hour fueling stopover in Bahrain and we could get off the plane to stretch our legs. I bought a souvenir and added that country, illegitimately, to my list of “countries visited”. I don’t think stopovers should count!
As we landed at Gatwick four hours late, I saw low-lying dark clouds and drizzle outside and I knew that, at that moment, one phase of my life had ended and a new one was starting. But what I certainly didn’t know – nor suspect – was that Europe was going to be my home for the next 17 years.