OK, where was I?
So the next morning we all got on the slow boat. Virginie, took off to make a phone call, and the minute she did, the hotel manager showed up with the police. I plead my case, and it fell on deaf ears. I said the guy assaulted me, and I wanted to press charges. I was ignored. It all came down to the money. They were interested in nothing else. “You must pay 600 baht (about $20) for the rooms,” they said. “No,” I said, “he must pay me for pushing me.”
It wasn’t so much the money. I just got pissed at the situation, and I got pissed at this hotel manager who thought he could intimidate me out of my money. The pressed me for 1 1/2 hours. They said that the boat would not leave until I paid. They asked me to come to the police station. The policeman poked and prodded me, trying to get a reaction. This increased everytime I got animated and started using my hands for expression. He was trying to provoke a reaction, and it all felt very rehearsed. He wanted me to say “don’t touch me.” He wanted me to push back so that he could arrest me. I don’t know how close I was to arrest. At one point the other traveler I was with got into it, and she got pissed. The hotel manager pounded his fist into his palm, pretending he would hit her, like Ralph Cramden, but not in a funny way.
They were trying to get me off the boat. The policemand would put his hand in my armpit and try to lift me to a standing position, but I just became dead weight when he did that. He actually said many time, “let’s get away from all these people. I think if we get you alone, we can convince you.”
No shit. You take me to an interrogation room or lock me up in a cell or start beating the crap out of me, I’ll give you all the money I have. But I knew there was no way I was leaving that boat. My fall back plan was simply to pay if it came to that.
There were threats of arrest, threats of reprisal, and threats of violence. “This man has many friends. Maybe his friends wait for you at the dock in Luang Prabang.”
“I will not pay. This is not right.”
“I will go make a call and have you arrested.” At one point one of the hotel manager’s thugs showed up. Another tough guy with tight t-shirt and an uncharacteristic beard. He accused me of not turning in the key. The hotel manager said “We go outside and settle this in a minute. Give me a minute alone with you.” At another point, the policeman said, you go meet him at the temple courtyard (definitely too many bad martial arts films) I considered the black belt I had in kung fu. The years I’d spent learning how to defend myself, maim people, even kill if necessary. I was relieved to realize I had no desire to fight this guy. This was no excuse to use what I’d learned. And I felt sincerely and personally the old cliche that violence begets violence. It would only end if I lost. And either way, I’d probably be arrested for fighting or assault.
At one point the policeman said, “If I leave I cannot protect you from them. I go and leave you with them.” I shrugged. “OK, I go,” he said and began to leave. I sat calmly. Number one, I wasn’t really afraid of these two. Number two, there were 30 westerners watching. I figured at least the Irish guys had my back (when the going gets rough, make friends with the Irish–a saying passed to me from M. Mahoney via A. Lang). The policeman got to the edge of the boat and stopped, turned around and walked back. “You pay more.”
At one point I looked in the cop’s eyes and asked him if he was buddhist. “Yes,” he said. “Then you know right from wrong,” I said. “Do you think this is right?” He lowered his eyes and said, “No, but this man has many friends, and I must do as he says.” I wondered if he meant business friends or criminal friends. I asked the policeman if he would stay at a hotel where the manager acted like this guy. “No,” he said, “but you must pay.” “This is not right,” I said. “But you must pay,” he said.
I was really getting nowhere. After an hour I finally said, “OK, I pay 100 baht ($3). “That is not enough.” Usually when you start haggling, the other person meets you partway and you come to an agreement. These guys were not budging, so I went back to saying I would pay nothing. More threats, more intimidation. After another half hour and the ship needing to leave, I pulled out 50,000 kip (about $5), and I handed it to him. The policeman talked to the manager and handed it back. I took it but didn’t put it away. I sat there for another 15 minutes listening to “You pay more.” He must have said that phrase 200 times. I have to give him credit for persistence. At this point, though, I knew I was not going to pay more. There was a line I could not cross. I don’t know how I arrived at it, but I knew that if I payed no more than that, I would be the winner in all this.
We had reached an impasse. I had gotten stuck on values and the manager had gotten stuck on saving face. He had made a huge deal out of this, gotten the police involved, made a scene in front of 90 farangs. Throughout the ordeal, the policeman had been a pawn, deferring to the hotel manager on everything. Finally, he must have had someplace to go, because he took the kip that was still in my hand and took it to the hotel manager and spoke emphatically. What I offered was too little for the manager, but he knew I was going no further. The manager could not accept this amount and walk off with a victory, so he did the only thing he felt he could do. He ripped up the money and threw it overboard.
I didn’t care. Once the bill left my hand it was no longer mine. But I thought about all the kids on shore watching. The same kids who dove in the filth below decks on the chance to carry our bags for a few thousand kip.
I think that among everything that was said, the thing that bothered me most was when the policeman said, “I think you are not a very good person.” Coming from a corrupt cop, that should not bother me, but given my previous blog about being good and kind, it gave me pause. Being good and happy in not always easy or possible. The kind thing to do would have been to just give him the money, give him twice the money. Turn the other cheek. But that butted up against my own personal philosophy of right and wrong and personal justice.
I’m not sure I made the right decision. Only that I made the decision taht will help farangs in the future. I weakened, if only a little, the ability of the police to harass and intimidate. But I also kept that money safely in my pocket and out of the hands of people that may have needed it more. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to wave over one of the kids on shore and give him the 600 baht when it was all over.
So, it was over. At least for a few minutes. That was when the know-it-all came up. I hate know-it-alls because the don’t know it all and they pull so many people into their bullshit. I can usually spot them and avoid them. I’ve found that even if you challenge them, they just keep changing the subject until they find something you don’t know anything about.
“You’ve got to bargain with these people,” he told me.
“Cripe’s sake, what do you think I was doing? Do you even know what was going on here? Did you even hear half of that?”
Pause while he tried to think of another subject. “He’s probably mafia,” he said.
What a dick. You mention mafia to someone from the States and you bring up images of not only a network of thugs, but of police connections, political connections, customs agent connections. Had I just pissed off the Don Corleone of Laos? It was ridiculous, I know, but when you travel alone, you tend to be a bit more paranoid than normal. Try as I might, I could not shake that idea. There were no thugs waiting in Luang Prabang. No police came to my guesthouse. I did not get questioned at customs, but I did not relax completely until I got to the taxi stand outside the airport in Siem Reap Cambodia.
posted Sunday February 2008