The Koh Phangan tourist brochure stated that Had Yuen, the next beach, could be reached via the Green Dot Trail. Just follow the green dots on trees, meander through jungles and clamber over hills. It should be two, maybe three, hours of trekking.
I packed some water and set off just after dawn. It felt good to do something else apart from drinking myself silly and ogling barely-clad women on Thailand’s party island.
I didn’t complete the trail.
But I found someone who came and never left the island.
Sawadee Ban Phun Born
“Welcome to my home.” grinned Uss the Swiss. His arms were spread out as I slid down into his ditch. A colourful sign above him proclaimed: Sawadee Ban Phun Born.
This white man in his orange Hawaiian shirt intrigued me. I had spotted him shifting blue pipes in a little pool of dirty water from my perch on the dirt track.
“The Thais stole my water.” His French accent lingered gently on every word. “When I wasn’t here they cut into my water and sealed this canal with concrete. Now I have to cook my rice with dirty water. Look how thin I am now.” He flexed his forearm, it was sinewy and muscled. His cheekbones stuck out from under his eyes.
Uss looked almost fifty. His beard was speckled with white and deep furrows lined his eyes. Yet he impishly pranced around me and gestured expansively.
“I have been here for twenty years.” Uss stated. “I told my partner to close my business and I will go into the jungle to smoke my marijuana. I live with my wife and there are my trees. We grow mostly fruits. Some lemons, some durians.”
I saw grass and a smattering of slim trees around us. He pointed to my left and right. His fingers were stained with grey earth. “That durian tree is 20 years old. This rubber tree is 19 years old. You can’t see it now but I live in a big hut further up.”
“20 years ago, there are very few tourists here,” continued Uss, changing track without warning.
“50 families grew coconut trees and sold coconuts there and there.” He pointed in several directions behind me. “Then more tourists came and they sold off their land for some money. Now they have motorbikes and TVs. Many bills too! But no chili to eat.” His fingertips closed on each other as if holding up a chili padi and he laughed, delighted at his cleverness. His torso bobbed in time to his laughter.
Uss ran from the world a long time ago.
The nine-to-five life annoyed him and he travelled extensively until settling in Koh Phangan. He spoke about his trip to Singapore in the 1970s.
“I lived at a dorm in Arab Street 23 years ago. And I smoked opium with the Chinese.” He mimed lying down and puffing on a big pipe.
“They would serve me tea as I smoked opium. That was the only time I was in Singapore. Now it’s very clean isn’t it?” Uss shrank away from me. He seemed to expect a beating but his eyes twinkled merrily under his shady trees.
My head hurt to keep up with him; there were so many things that we talked about during that hour. Koh Phangan: Before the tourist hordes. Singapore: harshly critical of skinny white guys. The unchanging office: Escape. Thailand: living with Thais and the jungle. The world: As it was a lifetime ago.
Before I left, I took a snapshot of this unusual white man. As the shutter whirred and clicked, Uss the Swiss stood proudly in front of his colourful sign. The one that proclaimed: Sawadee Ban Phun Born – “Welcome to Phun Born’s home”.
Originally written for Youth.sg (2006); re-edited (2010).