Four thousand miles from the moscow studio which is the scene of Vasily Federov’s television triumph, at the point where northern Thailand meets Myanmar and Laos in an area of South East Asia commonly known as the Golden Triangle, a figure swings languidly in a hammock on the wooden verandah of a bamboo hut on the outskirts of Chiang Saen.
Aubrey Argylle is in his early twenties, all long limbs and broad shoulders, with clear eyes and a strong chin softened by a dimple, and dark, curly hair which he has tied back with a brown elastic band picked up that morning from the floor of the post office in town. The strands of hair that have escaped the band have ringleted with the heat. Yesterday the thermometer here passed one hundred degrees, and while today is a few degrees cooler the humidity is too high for the warm sweat to evaporate, so instead it forms a sticky coating on his skin.
One of Argylle’s narrow bare feet is on the wooden floor, keeping the hammock in motion, but the rest of him is still. The notebook he was writing in just a few moments before rests face down on his stomach, the pen forgotten in his hand. He hasn’t long returned from leading a small tour group on a hike up to Wat Phra That Pha Ngao, a Buddhist temple on a hilltop a few kilometres out of town. The temple itself is nothing special, but it provides a breathtaking view across the Mekong River and the mountain jungles beyond, into Laos. ‘Is this it?’ the tourists had asked him, straining to see in the other direction towards the rugged hills of Myanmar, although they still call it Burma. ‘Are we in the Golden Triangle now?’
Argylle is used to managing the disappointment of tourists who have come here expecting to see mule trains laden with bricks of opium marching across distant mountain ridges. The opium trade that made the area notorious from the 1960s to the 1990s has now largely moved on to Afghanistan. There are still tribal gangs operating, particularly the warlords on the Myanmar side, and opium is still being funnelled from the poppy fields on the mountaintops down through Chiang Rai and Bangkok and then on to America and Hong Kong. But now the remaining traffickers tend to deal in methamphetamine, which is lucrative though it lacks the old-school glamour the tourists have come to find.
Argylle could tell them there is nothing remotely glamorous about the drug trade.
If you asked Argylle exactly how long he has been scratching a living here in this tropical backwater, he would give you a vague answer. ‘A couple of years,’ he might say, even though it has been more like five. He doesn’t want to face up to the fact he has hit a dead end.
He knows why he came back here—in search of answers. But he has no idea why he has stayed.
He drags himself to his feet and drains his now-warm beer. Entering the hut, which consists of wooden boards laid across a wooden frame, bamboo walls and roof and glassless windows open to the muggy air, he crosses to a wooden board resting on two empty oil cans that serves as a bookshelf for a row of well-thumbed paperbacks—some standard airport fare, traded among long-stay backpackers, others more surprising. Camus, Kafka, James Baldwin. At the far end is a stack of notebooks, on top of which Argylle places the one he was writing in earlier.
Most of the notebooks are the cheap variety he buys in the town. Only the one at the very bottom is different, thick and leather-bound, with the tip of an integral satin bookmark ribbon just visible at the bottom. He doesn’t have to open it to know what it says on the inside leaf: The world is too wonderful not to write it all down.
A present from his mother, the Christmas before she died. He never even opened it, just muttered his thanks and forgot about it at the bottom of his case. Only months later, after everything that had happened, did he open it up and, smoothing out the thick, cream-coloured lined paper, begin to write—descriptions of things he’s seen, little snippets of conversation. And he hasn’t stopped. All these books full of words.
He is writing to her. He knows that. Writing her the world she is no longer able to see.
Argylle raises the hem of the mosquito net that hangs from a hook on the ceiling and retrieves a pair of jeans from the thin single mattress on the floor. The first time he went up into the mountains, he’d worn shorts. He hasn’t made that mistake since. There’s a pair of tattered old sneakers on the steps of the verandah—they don’t smell so good so he keeps them outside—and he slips those on without bothering to untie the laces. A faded Johnny Cash T-shirt completes the look.
His plan is to take his motorbike north past Sop Ruak—the town where Thailand converges with Laos and Myanmar—and up into the hills. Technically, this crosses into Myanmar, still under strict military rule, but he has his cover story should he ever be stopped: a tourist guide scouting for new routes. It is not like the old days. Everywhere are signs that the region is moving on. Yet, despite the newly whitewashed image, Argylle is well aware of the dangers that still lurk here. Heroin might have given way to methamphetamine, but make no mistake, it is still a deadly trade. The rewards are staggering—billions of dollars—and so are the risks. International criminal gangs operate here in these jungles, despite the signs everywhere declaring the death penalty for anyone caught smuggling drugs. Warlords, triads—even the Russian mafia. These are not people you want to share a beer with, and it’s not unheard of for a dead body to turn up, horribly mutilated. You venture on to a rival gang’s turf at your peril.
And what is he really looking for, Argylle, as he scrambles his bike up the dirt track behind Sop Ruak? What takes him back into the jungle again and again, keeping him stuck in this holding pattern that is his life?
Ditching the bike, he begins his climb, following a just-detectable path through the increasingly dense undergrowth. Along with a couple of bottles of water, he has brought a small machete in his backpack, to hack back the dense vegetation. It is hot, unrewarding work, his feet kicking up red dust every step of the way. Through the canopy of the rainforest overhead, the sky is mud-yellow. Every now and then he comes to a thick whorl of barbed wire—Myanmar’s attempts at demarcating its borders. He is heading for one of the Akha villages. The Akha are one of the hill tribes, displaced peoples from China or Tibet, unwelcome in any of the three countries that meet here. In the past the tribe was closely linked with the growing of opium poppies, but now they make their living from selling the artefacts they make and decorating themselves in order to pose for photographs with the tour groups that make the trek up here.
Argylle speaks Thai fluently, along with Arabic, Mandarin, Spanish, French, German and Russian, but the Akha speak a dialect all of their own and talking to them, asking his questions, is a slow process. He has the photographs of his parents in his pocket, the edges furry from handling.
But when he is still an hour’s walk from the clearing where the tribe’s distinctively thatched bamboo huts stand on wooden stilts above the earth, Argylle stops short.
Above the soft chirp of the frogmouth and the squeak of the emerald-green long-tailed broadbill and the call of a warbler in the high branches, above the thwacking of his sneaker soles in the dust underfoot and the cracking of dry leaves and twigs, there comes the low buzz of a light aircraft in the distance.
Immediately, Argylle is tumbling backwards through time to a tiny jungle airfield, just three or four planes, squeezed into a cockpit while his dad talks him through the instruments. The rush of adrenaline that first time the plane’s wheels leave the ground, knowing it’s all in his hands now. The airfields change—Brazil, the Philippines, West Africa, southern Spain, wherever his parents’ import/export business takes them—but always there’s a plane, and always his dad: impatient, mercurial, demanding, loving. Complicated.
Argylle steps into a clearing so that he can get a view of the plane.
Single-engined, maybe a six-seater, with a propeller on the nose and blue-and-gold markings. He has seen this plane before, on the tiny airfield in Mong Hsat across the border in Myanmar when he and his dad landed their Cessna there on a weekend jaunt.
‘Is it true the CIA once ran a heroin-smuggling operation here?’ one of Argylle’s tour group had asked him earlier. Argylle had shrugged. It’s possible, he told the group. The US wanted to keep Myanmar, Laos and Thailand free from the influence of communist China, just a few hundred kilometres away across the border. To this end, they’d backed the KMT, exiled Chinese trying to retake their country from the communists and funding their struggle with proceeds from the heroin trade. Whether the CIA was involved in that side of things, directly or indirectly, is anyone’s guess but it certainly built radio masts in the area, and also helped fund that tiny airstrip, now largely disused, apart from by the odd visiting contingent from the CIA or DEA.
Argylle watches the plane track across the sky, still lost in the past. A different lifetime.
Crack! A deafening noise cuts across the peace of the jungle, causing the birds to fall silent. For a split second, the world stops, all life stilled. The small plane hovers soundlessly in the air. Then . . . the unmistakable sound of a stuttering engine.