The Penang Stranger
“I've killed two men,” he said as he reclined in his chair and took a partial drag on his black clove cigarette.
It was surprising to hear this coming from a man I had just met, who by first appearance seemed to be a casualty of free love and LSD.
“They stole money from me... ” he snarled in his sharp and proper British accent.
I was roughly a week out from the end of my visa so, as most travelers do, I decided to do a visa run in order get two extra weeks stamped on my passport. I had not yet travelled much of southern Thailand, so my plan was to head down to Malaysia, spend two days in a border town, and then travel back, stopping off at one the hundreds of islands that festoon the coast of southern Thailand for a week. I decided on the island of Penang as my destination in Malaysia, due to rumours of amazing food and architecture. However, what I wasn't advised of was the lack and excessive price of alcohol, due to its Muslim majority; Valium and opiates were the main vice of choice.
Once I arrived in Penang I spent most of the evening trying to find a bar that sold reasonably priced booze. I wandered through streets, painted with lime greens and rich reds, the smell of the spice markets wafted and mixed with the ambient sounds of locals bartering for a good price. Mopeds and bikes zigged and zagged through congested traffic in narrow streets, sounding like docile swarms of confused wasps. Eventually I found a bar tucked away in an alley nestled amongst the dilapidated and weather beaten colonial buildings, which had by now lost their charm on me. The bar was seemingly empty (most likely due to its isolated location and the country's lack of seasoned drinkers).
There was however one man sitting in the corner of the bar, drinking and smoking long thin black clove cigarettes and, after some awkward eye contact, we began speaking. We shared some satirical remarks on the irrational decision for someone to open a bar in Malaysia and hide it in the most isolate of back streets, ensuring there would be no possibility of fiscal success. He also seemed to make some questionable backhand comments on the nature of race. He was a tall, elderly British man. His long hair was tied back, and his face sun drenched and weather beaten, like the old colonial buildings we were nestled amongst. He wore shorts and a singlet which draped awkwardly on his slender frame, and he had cold blue eyes which bore the subtle hints of perversity.
Our discussion changed in tone when two new travelers joined us - a Croatian couple who had been doing work with street kids in Malaysia. The elderly gentleman's behaviour became hostile when they sat down with us, it became more bitter, and he took a particular disliking to the male of the couple. The elderly gentleman then proceeded to offend them with various racial remarks about “the blacks," and the two Croats quickly retreated from the table and left.
I confronted him about the comments and he stopped, looked at me and said “I was married to a black woman... I just don’t like Yugoslavian men.”
His logic seemed massively flawed and irrational, so I thought it best to leave my genealogy (my family is Croatian) out of the discussion. He told me that he had come from a wealthy family who he hadn't seen for around thirty years, and he spoke like most aging egomaniacs - in a way so that no one else could.
I began telling him of a relative I had in southeast Asia, whom I was planning to meet - a former smuggler who had retired.
“I used to be a smuggler...” he interrupted
“Really... A smuggler of what?” I asked while opening another beer.
“I didn't get involved in drugs… I preferred smuggling people. Usually criminals… It's easier to feign ignorance if something goes wrong." he replied.
“What do you mean 'easier to feign ignorance'? ” I said with a snigger, thinking he was just some mad old man talking nonsense to a drunk stranger.
The elderly stranger leant forward slowly, “I mean if you get caught smuggling drugs, they're usually on your person. When you're smuggling a person and they get caught with a falsified passport or visa… You just walk off - no one knows you're involved,"
“So you weren't one of those guys that smuggles crates of woman from third world countries?” I felt I was testing the waters.
“No.” he paused, took another drag of his smoke and reclined back into his chair, smiling.
“Those wankers were my friends.”
By now we had moved on to hard liquor and ordered a large bottle of Hong Thong whiskey to share. He told me he was in Malaysia for a visa run, and that he lived in Indonesia with his wife. I mentioned I had been getting involved in the red shirt demonstrations in Bangkok, and briefly mentioned that the violence had escalated.
He interrupted once again “I've killed two men."
Naturally this took me by surprised and I began to chuckle.
“I'm fucking serious… I killed them on the Thai-Cambodian border.” he stared directly into my eyes.
I felt he was either telling the truth, or had became so good at lying that he had forgotten it was a lie.
“They stole money from me… Two Indian bastards… I didn't want to kill them but I didn't really have a choice,”
He seemed slightly frustrated as he spoke and topped up his glass. The frustration did not appear to be directed at me, but at the memory of murder. I could not find the right sentence to respond to this new elaboration in the strangers story, and he seemed to notice this, continuing.
“The two men ripped me off in Phnom Penh, and fled to Siem Reap. I had been doing work with high ranking members in the Cambodian military, and they picked up these two poor bastards in Siem Reap. They were trying to cross the border into Thailand.”
I was no longer a stranger in a bar, more a canvas for catharsis. I was not required to talk, I wasn't even required to listen. I was just an object he could throw his haunted memories at.
“I was picked up close to midnight after arriving in Siem Reap and taken somewhere near the border. The two men were standing in pre-dug graves, with the military. Someone gave me a gun and told me to shoot them. I pointed the gun at the first man, as he stood there crying and shot him just below his left eye. I got them to turn the second man, so he wasn't facing me and shot him in the back of the head,” he paused and sipped at the cheap whisky in his glass as the precise details of his story worked their way through the whiskey and into my psyche.
His thin fingers caged his cigarette, like the limbs of spider delicately devouring a fly, and his expressionless, pale blue eyes seemed to be looking through me. By this point I had forgotten about smoking my cigarette. It had burnt down to the filter, leaving an ashy carcass on my trousers. My eyes were transfixed on him like a deer trapped in headlights. The stranger noticed my expression and was compelled to defend his actions. He didn't realise that I was not prepared to debate the legitimacy of the motive behind the murder that he may or may not have committed.
“If I didn't do it the military would have killed me, they want a partner they can trust. It was either me or them and they fucking stole from me!" He began to get irate.
He didn't seem to realise he was arguing with himself, and that I had stopped talking. He was revisiting a moral dilemma that he had obviously done battle with in the past. However, this fight would never have a resolution, there would never be clarity on the morality of the murder he may or may not have committed. I didn't know much on the topic of murder but this appeared to be the moral repercussions of the act.
We sat in silence for a period. I awkwardly fumbled for another cigarette, while he held his glass and stared into it, deep in contemplation. He slowly got up, stumbling a little as he did. He walked past me and gave me a pat on the shoulder.
“I’m off,” he said. I looked at the table and saw he had left his black Indonesian clove cigarettes. I yelled out,
“Keep 'em" he replied. “I got plenty back home.”
Was this was my payment for being his cathartic canvas? A pack of black Indonesian clove cigarettes. I left feeling used and perplexed. I stumbled home, which took me a considerable amount of time due to the maze of back alleys I had to drunkenly navigate my way through. I got back to my hostel, went to my room, and lay in bed smoking one of the clove cigarettes. I reflected on the interaction with the stranger from Penang as I stared at the ceiling fan antagonising and coiling the cigarette smoke. I realised we never traded names. I had no idea whether this stranger was telling tall tales, or whether he was telling me the truth. He either lied to me knowing I would never be able to verify the lie, or told me the truth knowing I would never be able to verify the truth. The interaction with the stranger in Penang felt both worthless and invaluable. Two strangers passing in the night at a shady dive bar in Penang, trapped in a special breed of purgatory, known only as the visa run.
I find many travelers are often trying to force some spiritual revival, looking for some experience that will stick with them. They eat lysergic acid diethylamide and psilocybin by the handful, smoke hash, dress themselves in holy robes and pray at shrines and temples, speak to holy men and gurus and ask them the same generic questions, to which they get the same generic answers. Sometimes you just need to hit a bar and spend a night drinking with an alleged people smuggler.
You won’t get any generic answers, but the least you will get is a good story and a free pack of cigarettes.