From Bangkok to Bogotá, a hilarious behind-the-brochures tour of picture-perfect locales, dangerous destinations, and overrated hellholes from a guy who knows the truth about travel
Travel writer, editor, and photographer Chuck Thompson has spent more than a decade traipsing through thirty-five (and counting) countries across the globe, and he's had enough. Enough of the half-truths demanded by magazine editors, enough of the endlessly recycled clichés regarded as good travel writing, and enough of the ugly secrets fiercely guarded by the travel industry. But mostly, he's had enough of returning home from assignments and leaving the most interesting stories and the most provocative insights on the editing-room floor. From getting swindled in Thailand to running afoul of customs inspectors in Belarus, from defusing hostile Swedish rockers backstage in Germany to a closed-door meeting with travel execs telling him why he's about to be fired once again, Thompson's no-holds-barred style is refreshing, invigorating, and all those other adjectives travel writers use to describe spa vacations where the main attraction is a daily colonic.
Smile When You're Lying takes readers on an irresistible series of adventures in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, and beyond; details the effects of globalization on the casual traveler and ponders the future of travel as we know it; and offers up a treasure trove of travel-industry secrets collected throughout a decidedly speckled career.
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The very first editor in chief of Travelocity magazine, Chuck Thompson's work has appeared in Maxim, The Atlantic, Esquire, National Geographic Adventure, and Escape, among many others. He has played in a variety of bands, and worked as an ESL instructor, DJ, and assistant sergeant of arms in the Alaska House of Representatives.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
SMILE WHEN YOU'RE LYING
"Welcome to Thailand, Ulysses S. Grant!"
"Would you like to see a picture of me?"
A picture I didn't need. The surroundings were clear enough. Gulf of Thailand. Dinky island. Single-room, dirt-floor hut. Palm-thatched ceiling. Two chairs, table, bed. Through the smoky darkness, a kerosene lantern flickering shadows across the room at my companion, an aged, somewhat leathery Thai bar girl. Well, whore, if you must. But retired. And me, taking dictation.
Before I could answer, she shoved a creased plastic Polaroid into my hand. It was her all right. Only in the photo she was sitting on a chair. Naked. Not just naked. Leaning back on the chair, legs open, waiting-for-the-Miranda-Rights-spread-eagle naked.
The pose was intended to accentuate the usual feminine attributes, but time had not been a friend. A pair of mournful breasts wandered across her belly, putting one in mind of National Geographic. Or a lactating goat. Only by the fat, dark nose cones on the ends was it possible to determine where precisely the crenellated zeppelins ended. Partially concealed beneath them, several rolls of blubber spilled toward the edges of the picture. Yet none of this was enough to distract the eye from a fantastically ungroomed hedge of pubic hair. For all this, the woman in the photograph, the woman standing in front of me, wore a lottery winner's smile. As has been noted elsewhere, the Thais are the nicest people money can buy.
"See anything you like?" she inquired, somewhat daintily given the circumstances.
Fresh off a mind-numbing year teaching English to thoroughly disinterested brutes in Japan ("This is a pen. That is a pencil." Six days a week. Fifty weeks.), I searched a weary mind, desperate to divert the course of a rapidly deteriorating evening.
"Where'd you learn to speak English so well?" I asked, brimming with professional curiosity.
"In the bar. American guy. Australian guy. Swedish guy."
The contemplative Swedes, of course, speak better English than your average American teenager. I made a mental note to look into her unorthodox method of ESL acquisition. It might assist some of my more promising Japanese chipmunks.
In the meantime, the woman had retreated across the room. Crouching on the floor, ass tilted in my direction, she reached beneath the dusty frame of the bamboo bed and pulled out a platter upon which clumps of moist leaves were piled in a large mound. On top, like a garnish, tidy green kabobs were stacked in the shape of a little log cabin, all tied up nice and neat.
She set the platter in front of me. Next, like a priceless heirloom, she presented a red plastic bong.
"You smoke?" she asked, running a surprisingly soft hand across my sweaty forearm.
Steel-toed visions suddenly began kicking at the side of my head. Cops bursting into room. Two pounds of pot on table. Wrinkly whore in act of disrobing. See me there? I'm the one being handcuffed and hauled away. I'd seen the signs at customs in Malaysia: "Possession of drugs punishable by death." True, this was Thailand, but Malaysia was just across the border and there were a lot of Muslims in this part of the country. Somehow, in the midst of this nightmare, the woman had inserted herself squarely between me and the door.
I first heard about Thailand in jail. This was in Juneau, Alaska, in the mid-1980s. I grew up in Juneau and so naturally did a lot of stupid things there, including drinking a shitload of beer and doing the requisite amount of driving on icy roads. Combined, these activities are almost always fated to enrich a young man's life, and when I was nineteen (legal age in the days before insurance companies were writing federal legislation), I was slapped with a DWI. I blew .181 into the Breathalyzer, a score I'm told can kill a good-sized beaver.
Alaska has the highest alcoholism rate in the country--as my friend Anthony Barnack used to say, "There are two things to do in Juneau, drink and get drunk"--so they tend to be tough on teenage boozers. I ended up with a monstrous fine and a three-day sentence in the crossbar Hilton. Though it's the state capital and loaded with tourists in summer, Juneau's a small town. The only jail is an imposing maximum-security lockup called Lemon Creek Correctional Center. Here are housed hard cases from around the state--drug dealers, armed robbers, rapists, murderers. Tall, concrete walls. Watchtowers. Razor wire. Heavy, clanging doors. Gloomy cell blocks. You've seen the place a hundred times in the movies.
Goody-two-shoed short-timers were housed in a cell apart from the main prison population. This was for DWIs, petty thieves, and, like me, the soft-spoken and wrongfully accused. The cell had eight bunks. Problem was, for the seventy-two-hour duration of my incarceration, fourteen guys were packed inside. Only a few were short-timers. Most were authentic war daddies waiting for space to open in the main blocks so they could be rotated into their new homes.
There was a half-Tlingit guy in for his fourth stretch. He'd violated parole by stealing cash from the till at the pet store where he'd been working. When the owners called the cops, he beat up both of them--the cops, not the owners. Then he set fire to the pet shop. Guys like me did a lot of deferring to guys like him. Fourteen guys, eight bunks. I slept on the floor. Concrete. Happy to do it. You fellas chilly? Here, take my blanket. I find it a bit itchy, anyway.
Most of the time in jail I spent playing hearts, rolling cigarettes for my cellmates, laughing amiably--though nervously--at being called College Boy, and, as the only toilet was a stark squatter in the corner of the cell with no protective walls around it, trying desperately to not take any dumps. The most interesting guy inside was a short, wiry, intensely gabby Californian named Dan, who'd stabbed his girlfriend with a broken-off car antenna. Undaunted in the face of being told to shut the fuck up every two minutes by the larger animals in the cell, Dan rambled on and on about things like the unconstitutionality of the federal tax code and how secret articles of the Kellogg-Briand Pact were actually written to facilitate Hitler's rise to power. I've always had trouble disengaging from chatterboxes, a trait guys like California Dan, to borrow from Fitzgerald, have a near mystical knack for detecting and attaching themselves to.
Dan knew a lot about a lot of things, but his favorite topic was Thailand. During those moments when violent arguments over trump suits and the questionable accumulation of matchsticks had subsided, Dan regaled the cell with tales of this bewitching land. Beaches with sand as white as cocaine flake, sunshine year-round, and, most important, legions of thin, hairless women, with skin as smooth as polished teak, open smiles, and nipples like Hershey's Kisses. Promised Dan, this army of honey brown nymphettes was just waiting to bestow foot rubs, blow jobs, and curry dinners on any guy with enough chutzpah to land up-country with a few twenties in his pocket.
Dan claimed he'd smoked the best bud on the highest volcano in Maui. He'd slept with an actress in L.A., whom I won't name but who was quite popular at the time. He hadn't paid taxes for eight years. Still, it was Thailand that danced in his dreams. Thailand, where he'd be heading just as soon as he got out of the slam and that bitch out on Mendenhall Boulevard coughed up the $750 she owed him. He had a lawyer somewhere working on her sorry ass.
"College Boy, a young guy like you'd be an asshole not to get his dick out to Bangkok as soon as fucking possible," he told me after our third straight dinner of hot dogs and Jell-O. "That's paradise for a guy like you."
For a recidivist girl beater, California Dan had a tender side. I'd revealed nothing that might've given him a glimpse of my idea of paradise, but I nodded in agreement, prudently not mentioning the sixty-some liberal arts credits to go before I could possibly experience this sexual Valhalla for myself. He wasn't Tim Robbins, I wasn't Morgan Freeman, and Bangkok wasn't Zihuatanejo. But California Dan's stories stayed with me.
Several years passed between the trauma of the Juneau hoosegow and my first visit to Thailand. I was a university graduate coming off an extremely lonely, difficult, but profitable year teaching English in the Japan Alps. Did you know there are Alps in Japan? Don't feel badly. No one else can find them on a map, either. Japanese included.
As a reward for the privations of the year abroad, fellow Japan sufferer Morgan Rodd and I had purchased tickets and made plans for ten days of R & R in Thailand. The day before our flight, however, Morgan came down with a terrible affliction. It figures that he'd meet Anime Dream Girl the week before we were set to leave the Land of the Rising Blood Pressure. He simply couldn't tear himself away from the wondrous Yumiko. He said, "Sorry, man." I said I understood, and decided to head for Thailand alone.
Just down the street from the famed 150-foot-long reclining Buddha, the magnificent Wat Phra Keo is Bangkok's primary tourist magnet. Wandering amid the temple's golden domes and intricate mosaics, I was approached by four plain-faced young women, all dressed modestly--pants, long sleeves, hair bonnets--despite the fact that in Bangkok just then it was 140 degrees in the shade, 180 inside the tuk tuks.
All four were English majors at a nearby university. The one who spoke the best English was Bit. Bit was the tallest of the group, the most mature. She had sharp, black eyes, thick ankles, and bad teeth. She said the group would like to offer me a free tour of Wat Phra Keo. For me, this would provide an opportunity to learn the secrets of a unique world treasure, and for them, a rare chance to converse with a native English speaker. The pitch was a little wooden, but as I'd been in country for two days, spent the first navigating Bangkok's maddening array of misnumbered buses, and hadn't spoken to anyone since hotel reception, I agreed to...
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