I found the place by accident, like everybody does.
I’d stayed in Phuket longer than planned, to keep an eye on Apsara’s kids while she finished up in Bangkok and got ready to move down here. I was living in a simple holiday bungalow and had rented another one for them.
It was around the beginning of November — late afternoon of a beautiful day, just coming into high season. I headed up into the hills on my motorbike, and stopped at Karon Viewpoint to take photographs. Then I coasted down a side road, a long twisting descent through forest, with amazing views westward out over the sea. I took more photographs along the way. A row of six or seven spirit houses. A forest shrine. The road halved by a fallen rock. And then a strange structure, an open wooden framework shaped like a ship, with a bow section with portholes, a deck and a mast with a crow’s nest. Sparks were flying and falling as a couple of men worked with a welding iron at the bow end, silhouetted against the sky. A hundred yards further on there was the steep driveway to a restaurant, with a great view out over the bay. After that, a couple of informal dwellings, and then the road petered out into a mud track. So I turned and went back to the boat and looked around inside.
Rastafarian colours, green, gold, red, black. Rough wood and old statues. Buddha heads. Bob Marley and marijuana leaves. Downstairs, dozens of leather belts, bags and even jackets hung from the ceiling. Beautiful chickens with strong legs and vivid plumage wandered around. A depressed monkey on a leash twitched and stared.
I bought a belt from a slender young Thai with a beautiful Afro. This, I would find out later, was Ai, second in command on this crazy boat stranded on the jungled hillside. He told me the place was called ‘Lion Rock’.
Up the stairs (still without hand-rails) there was a spacious deck, with a crow’s nest and another spiral staircase to a third level at the rear, like the poop deck on an old galleon. Supporting this, a more modern structure, a cabin with glass windows.
The view out over the sea was spectacular: a great bowl of ocean bounded by a forested headland to the left, and over to the right, a tree-covered island where I could just make out a the shape of a single house near the rocky shore. Beyond that, the tourist beaches of Kata.
Having discovered the place, I took to driving into the hills most days around sunset, bringing my laptop or my notebook. I would sit up on the top deck and write, or map out ideas on big pages. Now that I was cut adrift from teaching, I was spending my days writing hard, and by late afternoon needed to get out and get some air. While Lion Rock only attracted a trickle of people, those who found their way there were often worth passing the time of day with. Nueng, the patron, would build a joint for 300 baht if asked, or sometimes for free just to be hospitable. And the man is nothing if not hospitable. Khun Lirok, Master of Disaster, rastaman-geezer of this jungle road to nowhere.
One evening the top deck was packed with heavily muscled and tattooed guys, most of them, apparently, soldiers or former soldiers, all Australian or British. I chatted with one or two of them, and got talking to an Aussie called Clay, who turned out not to be military himself but a therapist who said he wanted to work with traumatised soldiers here. There were huts down the hill under the trees, where one such soldier had been living. The idea was to bring others here, to live in the forest, exercise, meditate and find some peace. And work with people like Clay to get their shit together. Something called the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Foundation was involved, and there was a film crew here to document the beginnings of the project. Clay was an adept in Neuro-Linguistic Programming and wanted to be involved — but he was frustrated: all the soldiers wanted to do, he said, was get wasted and go into town to find hookers.
‘I can’t work with someone who smokes marijuana every day,’ he said.
So Clay and the soldiers never got off the ground. Nor did the film, as far as I know; a trailer was released, but I believe that’s all.
There was jamming at the rock on Sunday nights, with some talented musicians turning up to play, and, sometimes, a Ukrainian girl who lit up flaming torches and danced around the deck to our music. I liked to join in on the djembe, and we all played faster when Anna spontaneously combusted like that. The musicians were the first people I got to know — Dieter, a brilliantly gifted saxophonist and flautist, his friend Philippe, a skeletal Frenchman who played gentle, melodic bass, and various Thais, guys like Samart, a talented percussionist, Chai, who played flamenco-style guitar, and Daeng, peerless on the didgeridoo. At times the music had a sparse weirdness — drums, sax, bass and didge — that was completely right for the treetops, the rhythms of crickets and frogs, and the moon peering over the top of the hill.
One Sunday night we were taking a break; Nueng had put some reggae on. There were about fifteen or twenty people — mostly strangers, including some Chinese tourists, sitting round on the benches that ran along the sides of the boat. I’d brought Steve, Ap’s boy, with me that night, and had just sat down next to him when suddenly the music stopped. There was a moment of shocked silence, and I swear I heard a sharp intake of breath from the Chinese. Then a new tune came on: ‘Land Down Under’, that pop-reggae tune by an Australian band from the nineties.
I looked round. Out of nowhere an extraordinary figure had appeared. Naked apart from a pair of shorts, his body mottled from neck to toe with tattoos, muscles snaking beneath his skin, he moved around the deck in a distinctive dance — or tried to, because he kept losing his balance, as if the deck, for him, were pitching in a heavy ocean swell. Whatever he was on, it seemed to have taken him into some other dimension altogether, leaving his body in ours, and filling everyone with a momentary unease, as they tried to assess whether there was a problem here. His appearance was so wild, it was as if he had erupted from some mythic time, a figure from legend or fantasy.
As he swayed and overbalanced, everyone seemed to hold their breath, waiting for the crash. But none came, because each time he fell he executed an instinctive and perfect roll, like a paratrooper, the heavy musculature on his back turning his body into a smooth hoop. The only noise was when his bare feet, on the upswing, brushed a table and disturbed some drinks.
Lying on his back, he looked at me upside-down and seemed to gesture towards me, so to break the tension I went over and held out my hand to pull him to his feet. He lay back on the bench and we talked for a minute or two; our conversation was somewhat incoherent, probably, because he was so high and I, despite my attempted assurance, was a little bit unsettled — like everyone else — by this apparition of a man who couldn’t stand up but fell with such grace.
He told that me he lived ‘down there’, jerking his head over his left shoulder towards the darkness of trees below us, where one or two lights peeped through the canopy.
‘There are some huts. You can stay here.’
I didn’t know if he meant anyone in general, or me in particular.
‘Can I?’ I asked.
He looked at me. ‘Are you one of us?’ he asked.
I thought, who the hell is ‘us’?
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘What do you call yourselves?’
‘People of the land,’ he drawled, an ironic self-mockery in the tone, as if to offset any pretension in the phrase. It was only now I picked up the Australian accent. I looked at his close-cropped hair and finally made the connection: this was the famous PTSD soldier of the woods that I’d heard about.
Seemed like a pretty nice guy.
Everyone calls him ‘Hoagie’.
Kind of a cosy name for a man who is such a weapon.
‘Weapon’ happens to be his highest term of praise for others — Bow, the young boxer who stays here, for instance, is a weapon, with his spare physique, quick fists and whipped, high kicks. But anyone pushing on and getting things done for the common good is also a ‘weapon’. Hoagy is a weapon if ever you saw one. Not some mass-produced mechanism, however; more like a hand-crafted Samurai sword, perfectly balanced and honed to an edge.
In a tourist paradise like Phuket you see a lot of gym-addicts driving around on their motorbikes displaying their sculpted torsos to the world. But whereas they look like they were drawn by Max Fleischer or Walt Disney, Hoagy is pure da Vinci, Vetruvian Man, all perfect proportion, physical poise and coiled power: the golden ratio in human form. And those muscles were not made on machines in some expensive gym.
No one ever built anything in a gym, says Hoagy, except their ego.
He’s a fighter, so the muscles are not, in any case, decorative. It was as an infantry soldier, carrying 180 pound packs and sniper rifles across high mountain passes, that he laid down the basis of that exceptional physical strength. He sustains it in the ring and on the bars with endless repetitions, and on the roads, where the man runs twenty or twenty-five kilometres every day. Guys who’ve gone running with him have told me that every woman he passes gapes in astonishment; every head turns; every jaw drops. And he doesn’t even notice.
Hoagy doesn’t do shoes. He was in boots for four years, and that was enough. Now he is always barefoot, even on the road-runs. He would have to have running shoes specially designed for him now, he says, since his gait has changed so much. In the jungle, he feels with his toes as he walks. No centipede or snake will ever sting him, Ai tells me confidently; they will sense his energy and let him pass.
He saw combat in both Afghanistan and East Timor, two nasty wars to find yourself in. Asymmetrical warfare, meaning the enemy doesn’t wear uniforms, and the line between combatant and non-combatant is very blurred. Your relationship with the whole civilian population is severely prejudiced. Fear and loathing on both sides.
‘You don’t know who is who, and anybody can pick up a gun, but the moment they throw it down they’re a non-combatant under your rules of engagement. So you end up being constantly alert, your fight or flight mechanisms are on overdrive, you’re on a constant adrenalin high — you’re an adrenalin junkie. And that’s why every soldier I know is fucked up on drugs, either coke or meth, to replicate the high, or tranks and sleeping pills to calm down, or smoking weed all day. You have to calm down.’
He waited a moment and added, ‘And that’s what Clay doesn’t understand.’
It wasn’t just the weed that helped him hold himself together, though. It was Muay Thai kick-boxing that gave him the discipline he needed. His life was centred around his routines of training and fighting at the stadium in Patong every few weeks.
I’ve seen video of one of his early fights. He was huge, then, so heavily muscled that his neck had disappeared and his thighs rubbed together. Shaven-headed, he looked like some kind of terminator robot. But that’s not the best build for a Muay Thai fighter, and over the next few years he progressively shed a lot of that weight. Lighter and faster, his kicks and punches ever more whipped and vicious, he started winning all his fights.
But the changes he was going through were deeper than that. To his fighter’s regime he had added the discipline of meditation. Every half moon he would spend the night motionless and in silence, facing the glittering sea on the top deck of the boat or the rocks at the edge of the ocean. His days would be spent working, clearing jungle, carrying bricks or bags of cement or wooden planks down the steep hill from the road to the clearing. He had a new mission. The weapon had changed hands.
I kept going to Lion Rock for the company and the music. The Sunday night parties moved down from the road to the clearing halfway down the hillside, where the huts were. Soon a full-sized concrete and steel boxing ring with a big green roof went up, together with roofed training areas for bag-work, and bars and bags at the front edge of the clearing, overlooking the jungled slope down to the sea. The unfinished ring — not yet equipped with stanchions and ropes — became a music stage for the moment. Hoagy was recuperating from a knee operation, so there was no rush. Nueng brought in a regular band, local boys who needed the practice and the gig.
Hoagy, the elusive green man of the woods, could sometimes be found hanging around in a hammock, but was generally an intermittent presence on music nights. He had acquired a side-kick, a tall, athletic Australian called Johnnie, and seemed happy about having another resident for the huts and a partner on training runs.
Then the dry season ended, and suddenly everybody was gone. Anna had gone back to Ukraine, Daeng had found a job in Bangkok, Samart had rejoined his band in Pat-a-loon, down south. Johnnie had gone North to Chiang Mai. Hoagy was in Australia, Nueng told me.
I had no desire to go anywhere than these few kilometres of coastline, so I stayed exactly where I was. Apsara was back, and I had moved into an apartment which I rented from Dieter the sax player. I was writing hard, and because of what I was writing I was slipping back into the dark aura I’d worn like a coat for so long. All my work was about deception, about reality-creation, about the perceptual prisons which are built around us while we sleep.
It was very quiet at Lion Rock. I’d sit on the top deck with my laptop, and Nueng would come up the spiral stairs to smoke with me.
‘What are you reading?’ he would ask, looking at my laptop.
‘Writing,’ I would say. ‘About terrorism.’
And another time. ‘What are you writing?’
These were not words he knew.
And then I thought, the guy’s a Rastafarian, I know how to say this.
‘I’m writing about Babylon,’ I said, and sang — ‘Babylon system….’
He grinned his gappy shaman grin.
‘Is da wampeer.’
I nodded. ‘That’s it, man. I’m writing about the vampire.’
Then one day I coasted down the jungle road and pulled up outside the bar and Hoagy was there. Looking a lot lighter, his hair grown out, and wearing the beginnings of a pointy chin-beard.
He’d been back in Oz, he told me, fighting with the government about his army pension. The issue was that he wouldn’t go to their doctors and therapists, or accept their treatments. The upshot was that his money had been halved.
He shrugged. ‘It is what it is.’
One of his favourite phrases.
We went upstairs with our beers. It was then that we really started to talk, and not long till he’d persuaded me to move in to Lion Rock.
Come and spend time with some good people, says Hoagy.
You’ll find you don’t need half the things you think you do.
He does not talk easily, does not really trust words.
Words are actually a very crude form of communication, says Hoagy.
Well, I know that. Every writer knows that.
And yet he has an engaging way of speaking. He’d be the last to claim that he is especially articulate, but he chooses his words carefully, and has that knack of amplifying what he says by saying less. It’s a lot about timing.
In a place like Lion Rock you have to respect people’s space. Soldiers don’t always want to dwell on their experiences. It’s natural. Hoagy very much lives in the here and now, or tries to — isn’t that what meditation is about? If he spends time dwelling on the past, he keeps it to himself. He has ways of separating himself in his own private bubble. Training. Running. Meditating. And spending hours in the tattoo parlour with Boy and San and the bamboo needle. Some major new design getting laid across his back, prick by prick, the blood and ink wiped away every few seconds as he lies face down with a towel over his head, focusing on the pain. Using it?
Pain is a necessary evil, says Hoagy.
Particularly for him, it would seem.
He’ll take a break after an hour or two and come and smoke a joint, or let Nueng continue the lengthy task of fashioning his hair into short red-blonde dreadlocks. The outlines of the new tattoo shaping up slowly.
‘What is it?’ I ask him.
‘Hanuman,’ he says. I know the word, the name, but I don’t really know what it is. Actually I thought it was a type of tree.
‘No, no,’ he says. ‘Hanuman — the Monkey God.’
‘What is that, a Hindu deity, right?’ I ask.
‘Yeah, yeah,’ he says. ‘But here, too. He’s like a patron saint for a lot of these Muay Thai fighters.’
When he felt like talking, I listened. He told me that a few months ago, when they’d wanted to make that film about him, his ego had been getting out of control. That was what had blown the project up, clashing with another big ego in the guy who was directing the film. After that he’d known that he had to reign himself in. The documentary could have been useful in his plan, which was to turn this place into a retreat for ex-soldiers, combined with a thriving Muay Thai gym.
‘The ego is like a loop,’ he says. ‘You can spend your whole life just going round and round.’
‘Like a toy train,’ I say, and he laughs, ‘Ssssyeah!’ and added, ‘You have some good analogies, man.’
He seemed to have succeeded in breaking the loop. I was flattered by the interest he took in me, and the fact that if I was sitting writing on the top deck he would sometimes climb the spiral stairs to find me.
Not that he was one to drag the conversation round to himself, not at all. Nor was he someone you were ever tempted to bullshit or try to impress, because he would see right through it. A good listener. Observant. Trained. Takes everything in. He had a high regard for training — but at the same time, no contempt for education. We talked about a lot of things. He asked me what I was writing about, and when I mentioned Nikola Tesla, he immediately said, ‘They really did a number on that guy, didn’t they, hey?’
I was full of thoughts about the great Electrician, but he knew a lot too, and had good discernment, a sense of what to believe and what not to believe, what he knew and what he didn’t know. Or maybe he just knew how much to (not) say.
I was curious about him. When I asked him if he had good people behind him he said, Oh yeah, without hesitation, and told me about his mother and his uncle. His father, too, he always spoke of with affection, said that me and him would get on well if we ever met. He said he wanted to get him over here at some point. He had lived with his dad during his teens, a period in which he had gone seriously and criminally off the rails. But over the last few years he had swung back towards his mother’s side of the family, and become very interested in their aboriginal heritage — hard to believe, looking at him, Celt from head to toe — but you can clearly see it in photographs of his uncle. His mother less so. As a child, her parents had passed her off as Italian to save her from being taken into the notorious residential schools. In adulthood she’d become an activist and had some significant campaign successes to her name — helping to prevent the building of a road through aboriginal lands, for example.
‘She’s a weapon,’ says Hoagy.
I was curious about what had happened in his army career to make him abandon it after his first four-year term. I imagined a disaffected soldier who had got out at the first opportunity, traumatised by his experiences. But that wasn’t it at all. When he came out of the army, he told me, he was fine. He wasn’t aware of any trauma. It was a year and a half before that came to the surface.
In Afghanistan the coalition forces shared bases with the Afghan army. The Taliban had sleeper cells inside the Afghan army, and every once in a while one of these assets would be activated. One evening a group of about twenty soldiers leaving the briefing room were mown down by machine-gun fire in a suicide attack. One of them was a good friend; Hoagy had known him since his teenage years in Perth — and his girlfriend too. Ever since it had happened, he had known he must write to this girl, or go and see her.
Even after leaving the army, it took him another eighteen months to steel himself to do it. Finally he wrote to her, and received an almost immediate reply. It wasn’t writing the letter that opened him up; it was reading the girl’s words. Everything started coming back. He was suddenly lost. He couldn’t talk to anybody. Drugs and sex didn’t work. He couldn’t even train. He didn’t know what to do or where to go, to get away from it. It’s one thing to get out of the war — but how do you get the war out of you?
He was in Phuket when this happened. One night he ended up at Nueng’s jungle bar, in its previous incarnation half a kilometre up the road from where it is now. It was nothing more than a kind of treehouse by the side of the road, but you could drink and smoke weed in the jungle, and that’s what he was doing. But, like everything else, it wasn’t working.
So he was the last one left, sitting at the bar medicating himself with beers and whisky, and it was getting late, and he said to Nueng that he’d better go.
‘Go where?’ asked Nueng.
‘I don’t know, man,’ said Hoagy. ‘I just don’t know any more.’
So Nueng closed the bar and brought him down the hillside to the rocky shore. Rastaman and Babylon’s soldier clambered along the weirdly-shaped rocks in the moonlight. Sitting on a flat rock looking out across a glassy sea, Nueng started to teach him how to breathe, how to calm himself. There was — still is — an old fisherman’s shack right on the edge of the rocks, built from bamboo, corrugated tin and driftwood around a tree. He slept there that night, wrapped in the breath of the ocean. Over the coming days, Nueng taught him how to meditate, and soon introduced him to the mystery of the mushroom that grows in this forest. Hoagy lived in the shack on the rocks for a long time, in the sound of the sea, the serial music of crickets and frogs, swimming, training, praying under the moon, finding a new self arising from deeper within than he’d ever been able to see.
The crisis was several years in the past by the time I met him. He had lived in the forest, going away from time to time to silent retreats at a temple on the mainland, and continuing to fight at the stadium in Patong. Then there had been a serious knee injury which had forced him to return to Australia for an operation. When he came back to Phuket, he started putting money into the construction of the new boat-shaped bar, the jungle gym, the boxing rings, toilet and shower block, and the new huts. And that’s when I stumbled across the place.
One night I came up to the top deck to find him ruefully massaging his knee and gazing out over the sea.
‘You can’t always do what you love to do, eh?” he said.
He’d had more than twenty fights before the injury, and won most of them. It had given him the discipline he needed to hold himself together and not revert disastrously to type — which was, in his own words, a ‘very sinful person’. He had been working to rehabilitate the associated muscles for months, but it wasn’t happening.
The Hanuman tattoo was finished, running down the left side of his back from the shoulder-blade; the god-like warrior with the head of a monkey emerging from clouds and rocks, a heavy club over his shoulder. I’d looked up the name and learned that Hanuman is an avatar of Lord Shiva, and an important character in the ancient Hindu Ramayana. Like the Singh lions and Kinnara birds of Thai folklore, he’d come down from the Himalayas, thousands of miles along the Mekong River. It was under the Islamic occupation of India that Hanuman became a cult figure as a symbol of resistance and an icon for martial artists. Along with courage and heroism, Hanuman exemplifies devotion to his personal god, Rama, and one interpretation of the name, I was interested to read, is from Sanskrit han meaning killed or destroyed, and maana meaning pride. Hanuman is a vanara, or forest-human, his divinity masked behind the face of a monkey.
Maybe the Monkey God was watching the painful hours Hoagy was spending face-down in the tattoo parlour, because suddenly the knee had started to respond, and he was back in serious training and scheduled to fight at Patong in a month’s time. He was a little nervous about it, which you should be, in a brutal and unforgiving sport like Muay Thai.
But only a little. ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ he said, and answered his own question. ‘You get knocked out.’
In other words, it’s not like being in a war.
The way things panned out, he didn’t have too much time to dwell on it. One afternoon a messenger from the stadium turned up at Lion Rock — Hoagy having long since lost his phone — waking him from a nap, and asking him to step in that night for a fighter who’d withdrawn. Hoagy shook off his sleep, stretched and shadow-boxed and headed for Patong. That night he lost on points, but it didn’t matter. What mattered was that he’d gone the distance. He’d found himself slow, as he knew he would, and his left thigh was banged up from his opponent’s kicks, but the knee had come through without problems, and his official comeback was still on for two weeks’ time.
I booked a taxi and took Apsara’s kids, Kayla and Steve, with me to Sai Yen Nam stadium in Patong. Apsara would have come too, but she was working nights as manager of the famous Laguna nightclub in Rawai. We got ringside seats, and luckily the seat in front of me was empty, so I was able to rest my camera on the back of it and get some good footage. The stadium was big and noisy, with musicians up on a platform above the crowd in one corner providing the traditional sarama soundtrack to the action; two drummers and a piper playing the hypnotic wind instrument that sounds like a cross between a bagpipe and an oboe — whose honking, nasal, relentless rhythms, dispassionate and weird, perfectly evoked the unforgiving moment of two fighters facing off.
His opponent was a tall Thai with good reach and technique, and battle was engaged from the start, unlike the standard approach where boxers spend the first round cautiously testing each other out. The contest was even, but halfway through the first round his opponent backed Hoagy into a corner and leapt into the attack with an elbow to the head. As the round went on it was clear that he was bleeding from the scalp. At the end of the round, as Nueng and Oh washed him down in the corner, there seemed to be a lot of blood.
He came out aggressively for the second round, and it seemed to me he was trying to end the fight quickly because of the cut. By halfway through the round there was a continuous stream of blood running down the centre of his brow and down his nose — but not into his eyes. As long as he could see his target, it was not getting away. His punches were getting through, and under his onslaught the Thai eventually seemed to freeze, unable to find the tactic to repel him. Hoagy surged forward, trapping his quarry first in one corner then another, dazing him with a heavy right and finishing him with an elbow to the top of the head and two left hooks as he went down.
And stayed down, as the referee raised Hoagy’s arm. He barely celebrated, kneeling for a moment beside his unconscious opponent and raising his gloves to his forehead in a wai before leaving the ring to sustained applause, the announcer yelling ‘Superstar! Superstar!’ as he made his way to the dressing room, raising his arm just once to acknowledge the crowd.
‘Wow!’ said Kayla. ‘They like him here!’
It was getting late, and our taxi would be waiting so we left at that point rather than staying for the last fight. I edited the video and showed it to Ap, who had been disappointed she couldn’t come. She was touched to see how seriously Hoagy had taken the wai kru — the ritualised warm-up routine through which a boxer dedicates the fight to his teachers and masters. Hoagy’s carefully memorised routine was long, elaborate, and sincere, his demeanour modest and respectful, and it was easy to see why the Thais forgave his violent destruction of their man.
A couple of days later I was at Lion Rock, showing the fight on my Mac to anyone who was interested. It was decent footage, though because I was too close to the ring I needed to move the camera every so often, and I’d missed some of the action in the corners, especially the moment when Hoagy took that elbow. I’d just about captured the brutal final sequence, however.
Hoagy was on the top deck, four stitches in his scalp but feeling fine, so I gave him a personal showing of the fight and he talked me through it. He hadn’t been concerned about the cut; Muay Thai fights are not stopped for blood, and it looked worse than it was.
‘Want to watch it again?’ I asked.
He smiled at me sheepishly. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I do, actually.’
And why not indeed? He’d been out for two years, and now he was back. You have to enjoy such a moment. You never know how many more there will be.
I left the machine with him and went downstairs to get more beers.
Hoagy and Nueng were having some new huts built — traditional bamboo bungalows this time, with woven reed roofs and big verandahs, more beautiful than the simple tin-roofed huts already spaced around the clearing. I negotiated with Nueng to have another one built for me, which I would pay for. I would have rights to it whenever I was at Lion Rock, but if I was away then Nueng would have the right to rent it out.
Nueng picked out a spot for me down the hill from the main clearing, twenty meters back from the ocean, beneath a stand of huge, old trees. The four of us, Nueng, Hoagy, Johnnie and me, cleared and levelled the space with hoes and scythes, and another space adjacent to it for the wood to be stacked.
It was different down here, steep and densely jungled. To the front, the slope was overgrown with tangled bush, papayas and banana trees, new growth that had not been cut back for several years. To the rear of where the hut would stand, broken ground, rocks and gulleys, old forest with a treacherous floor of ivy and dead wood — darker and more dangerous.
Johnnie’s spade turned up a huge, acid-yellow centipede, fully six inches long. It writhed and thrashed, already wounded. We all looked at it — Johnnie trapped it with his blade and looked at Hoagy, who said yeah, it’s already done for, and Johnnie cut it in half and flicked the pieces away into the brush.
Bamboo poles of all sizes and woven reed panelling had already started arriving up on the road, and the next day we began the task of lugging everything down the motorcycle track to the clearing and down the rough earth steps Hoagy had cut. As usual Hoagy’s back took most of the strain, carrying the big stuff while I staggered around with bundles of thin poles and awkward reed panels. His money had enabled most of the construction in the main clearing, the huts, shower block and boxing rings and so on, but more than that, most of the bricks, wood, concrete and steel had found their way down the hill on Hoagy’s back. There’s no four-wheeler access on this hillside, though you can get a motorbike half-way down. So almost everything has to be carried in by hand. Johnnie too had put in some shifts — but Hoagy has an appetite for physical work; he goes into a work-trance and just keeps going.
Before we’d finished transporting all the wood down the hill, the team of builders moved in — four men and two women. There was no plan or blueprint, no tapes or spirit levels, everything cut by eye, custom-built to fit between a ring of rocks and the huge, snaking roots of the trees. In three days the bungalow was done.
That night I sat on my verandah with no lights, feeling my peripheral vision awakening under the moonlight. Angled glints from a leaf here, another there. Wriggles of luminescence through the leaves, below me to the right, where the waves broke against the rocks. And under the banana trees on the other side of the valley, a firefly, and then another.
The fact that there are things that can hurt or even kill you here means you have to open your senses. The beauty of the place means you want to anyway, but you have to be mindful, as they say. I find especially that my sense of hearing seems sharper. It’s dark exactly half of the time, and sound is everything after dark. Sometimes I would lie for hours listening nervously to every leaf-fall. Nature-paranoia takes a while to subside.
So the nights were sometimes long, but the days flashed by. It’s hard work clearing jungle. Using the word ‘jungle’ might seem overdramatic, since this was not old growth, probably only four or five years since it was last cut back, but it’s the only word that conveys the impenetrability of matted, entwined vegetation. There were young trees, thin enough to sever with a blow, briars and bushes, banana trees and elephant palms with their watery stems, shoulder-high brush, and everything tied together by nets of ivy-like runners. Big mats and screens of it hanging down from trees. All so woven together that you had to cut away underneath and at the sides and roll it up like a carpet.
I was keeping myself to myself and focusing on my task. I’d hang out for a while at morning training, and spend the rest of the day working on my paths and terraces and at my writing. Usually I came up later than the others to eat, because I loved the twilight time in my valley. Often Hoagy had gone to bed — he rose at first light and often slept soon after dark.
He came down to help me a few times, and we instantly fell into a good rhythm of silent co-operation. Like him, this is something I really like — to work together without needless conference — each in his own mental space but in tune with the other. So Hoagy starts raking mats of vegetation from the top of a big rock and without saying anything I climb up on top to cut the creeper-lines holding it back. That kind of thing. I think more than anything else my respect for silence helped to win his trust. We talked when he was in the mood.
I had no way to imagine the things he had done, or picture the visceral memories backed up and waiting to spool through his mind, in relays of horror, fear and guilt. But it seems that at some stage, this thing they call PTSD is going to suddenly grab you by the throat and hiss:
You remember all that shit you lived through? Now you get to go through it all over again.
I imagine that at some point your self-narrative, the story you tell yourself about yourself, collapses and implodes, and reality sets in — the reality of how they used you; what they turned you into. A weapon. And at that point, the weapon is turned on you.
Sometimes if I was awake early and climbed up to the main clearing for a shower, I’d see him in the ring, stretching or shadow-boxing, both of which are more like a ritual dance the way he does them. Or late at night I’d find him meditating in the centre of the ring in darkness, at half-moon or full-moon especially. I would respect the ropes and not speak to him, of course. But that’s the way he is. He appears soundlessly or is already there. By nine he is doing chores, carrying bags of ice and racks of bottled water, sweeping leaves into piles all over the clearing. Earth has to be kept bare and walked regularly or the undergrowth creeps back. He’ll sweep for an hour or even two while everybody else sits around the boxing ring, watching the training and waiting for their turn. It seemed to me all the sweeping was about keeping mental space; he liked to be around people but alone with his thoughts.
Hoagy’s second comeback match has gone down in Lion Rock legend as the fight that lasted three minutes followed by the party that lasted three days. We all went across to Patong in a minibus, Nueng and Ai and Nueng’s wife Pom and his kids, little Kim Lang and his teenage son Shokun, and Ice, Pom’s daughter from another marriage, and her friend Joy, and of course Johnnie was there, and Hoagy’s partner Perry from the business they’d opened in Chalong several years ago, and three friends who were visiting from Australia, Dannie, Tom, and Panda, and San and Boy the tattoo boys, and Kayla and Steve. Hoagy came out to a roar from the end of the stadium we’d taken over, and within three minutes had sent his opponent back to the dressing room, horizontal again, this time with a shattered knee. Then there were rounds of beer and tourists wanting to have their picture taken with the winner, and we all piled back into the bus and headed back to Lion Rock to continue the party.
It must have been the third night after the fight; the Aussies had all taken mushrooms, and I wasn’t ready for that yet, but I’d offered to stay up and roll joints for them when they needed them later. I went down to my hut and sat on my verandah above the sea for a while. Then I rolled two joints, put one behind each ear, took my torch and wandered up to the other huts. I expected to find them hanging out on somebody’s verandah but I couldn’t see or hear anyone.
The boxing ring is like the village square of this settlement, always illuminated at night. I walked around quietly but could hear nothing. I didn’t want to disturb anyone in their huts, so I sat in the ring, where I could be seen, and smoked one of the joints, staring out at the brilliant lights of the fishing boats strung across the horizon.
Then I went on up the steep climb to the boat — also deserted — took a beer from the cooler and climbed the spiral stairs to the deck. I’d managed to lose the other joint from behind my ear, so I settled at a small table and rolled a couple more. Then I went and peered out over the railing down over the village under the trees. I put my torch on strobe and shone it into the darkness, thinking it might attract scattered trippers like moths.
When I turned round again, Hoagy was there, looking with curiosity at the beer and joints on the table. I hadn’t heard his approach. When I turned he saw me too, and said, ‘Two perfectly rolled joints, and Paul too!’
A minute later he said, ‘This can’t go on forever.’
Hoagy has this way of saying something and then watching you to see how you are processing it.
I waited, and he said, ‘I’ve just had a message.’
He said, ‘I’ve been told I have to leave. To go to this centre.’
I thought that’s what he said, anyway. It sounded like military stuff. A new assignment? He’d been out of the army for nearly five years by my calculation. What was this, some kind of Jason Bourne style re-activation?
But I’d misunderstood. These were not military orders, even though he spoke as if they could not be disobeyed. No, he’d been tripping and meditating in his hut, and had received various images, and words. Rainbow snake. Didgeridoo. Clan paint on dark skin. River. Rock. A straight road through the desert.
‘Through the aether, as you like to say.’ A reference to our conversation about Tesla. The luminiferous aether — the rebirth in electro-magnetism of the medium or foundation from which all existence arises: what the Vedic philosophers called the akasha.
Part of it concerned his brother, who was to become a father of twins next April. He would go to be there for him, but along with this were instructions for a journey to the centre — not ‘this’ centre, but ‘the’ centre — of Australia. He said he had to find certain old men, aboriginal elders, before they died, in order to learn what they knew.
These were instructions from his ascended masters.
Wow. So he’d be here only for another few months.
‘I’ll have to leave this place in your hands.’
I took a few moments to absorb this. My hands?
Then I started laughing, and changed the subject, explaining my misunderstanding. I asked him whether he had ever been approached about recruitment into special forces. Given his physical and mental qualities, I said, one would think that he would be exactly the kind of material they would be looking for.
But then I backtracked — ‘But I guess you wouldn’t fit the psychological profile…’
‘I did then,’ he said.
‘They don’t recruit,’ he added. ‘You have to apply.’
He’d applied to join the SAS — the British Special Air Services. He told me he’d been given a retainer and six month’s leave before reporting for training.
‘So what happened?’
‘They said, come back in peak physical condition. And learn a martial art.’
At that point the geese sounded off. Without glancing down at the road, he said, ‘That’ll be Johnnie, with his negative vibes.’
I realised I hadn’t heard the geese when Hoagy arrived.
A second later, with goose-klaxons ringing in our ears, Johnnie came up the stairs. Hoagy prevailed on him to mix us some White Russians, and Johnnie went off happily enough to make them.
I was standing in the middle of the deck, smoking. Hoagy, leaning back against the railing above the road, was watching me.
‘I was an extremely… efficient… soldier,’ he said. ‘Like if you told me, go over there, shoot that person, I would do it.’
I exhaled, watching him back. His eyes had gone dark like gun barrels.
When Johnnie came back with the drinks, he wanted to talk to Hoagy about some thoughts he’d had about his own life, so I left them to it, and walked back down the hill to my hut.
What he’d told me had changed the picture. What I had imagined — a disaffected soldier who had served his time and got out at the first opportunity — was wrong. He’d more than survived; he’d thrived on it. He’d been — by his own description — a ruthlessly obedient killer, who wanted to progress in his chosen career. I was beginning to get an inkling of how great a transformation he had undergone.
But there was a contradiction. Babylon’s soldier, focused and disciplined; a corporal, with six men under him; ready to move on to higher things, elite units, special training, covert operations. I still hadn’t got it straight: why had he left the service, if he was so good at what he did? It wasn’t PTSD — that only came later. So what happened? What was it that turned a robotic killer for the Anglo-American empire into this vanara, this forest Yoki, this barefoot warrior-hermit meditating at half-moon in a boxing ring in the jungle?
I’d have to wait to get my answer. In the meantime I watched how he was around these people.
The other Aussies had gone home and there were only a handful of us farangs around: Hoagy, Johnny and me, and Hossein, an Iranian guy who was here to detox and try to get off the tranquillisers and sleeping pills he was addicted to — and he wasn’t there much, because he kept running away. Then there was Jespersen the mad Dane, coming out of two years of hardcore cocaine addiction, who had also disappeared for the moment. So it was mainly Thais at Lion Rock. As well as Nueng’s clan and Ai and the tattoo boys, and Bow the young boxer whom everyone agrees is a weapon, there was Na Keow, our cook and masseuse, a big woman with thick glasses, intelligent and skilled, and her little girl Minh, two years old, a rocket-fuelled jungle-monkey if ever you saw one.
There were one or two older guys, too, who’ve been around this place for a long time and stay here when there’s building work to be done. Nong, not to be confused with Nueng, would come down to the rocks every day to shower under the water that comes out of the cliff. Years ago he had inserted a plastic pipe between the rocks, to bring some of the flow away from the rock-face so you could stand under it. It had never stopped in five years, and he told me he’d been drinking it that long as well. An honorary member of the family was Oh, our trainer, who came every day and brought his lovely wife and baby, and other young boxers to help when there were too many farangs wanting to train.
So what I saw was a Thai community which had adopted and embraced this impressive but damaged man, and taken him to their hearts. Nueng’s family and friends and other people who had strong connections with this place knew and loved Hoagy. Beneath it all was his enduring bond with Nueng, whom he spoke of as his master and teacher.
The kids loved him and he would spend hours with them, laughing and catch-phrasing, teaching them mischief. He celebrated everybody, teasing everybody, and lifting everybody up. ‘Joy, you sexy piece of womanhood, you,’ and she turns — ‘What?’ ‘Nothing.’ But she knows what he said and it’s smiles and good vibes all round. The guy knows how to give something of himself to others, how to spread the positive energy he’s overflowing with.
And then friends would come through, old army friends or older ones from Perth, and you’d see a lot of the ritual Aussie bro stuff, the endless roastings, the obscenity battles — man, these guys can talk forever when it means nothing. I can’t catch half of it, with accents and slang turned up full. Even if it doesn’t mean anything, it’s necessary, and Hoagy would do it to pick up where he’d left off with people. He doesn’t much enjoy it any more, he tells me, the whole drinking-culture thing, but he does it anyway because you have to meet people where they are; these rituals must be undergone.
I was the anomaly at Lion Rock — the only farang not connected with Muay Thai or military. An intellectual, with plenty of talk about Baudrillard and McLuhan, Tesla and Einstein, and barely enough muscles to cover his bones. I don’t know exactly how they perceive me… once I caught Joy looking at me sideways, like, what is this guy doing here? And of course I asked myself that as well. For me it’s the literal realisation of my dream of bohemia, like those artists and writers going to live among gypsies in the slums of post-revolutionary Paris; a spartan tropical version of that. It was always going to happen, given the chance; I was always going to turn my back on everything, disillusioned and self-exiled, like Jacques in the Forest of Arden.
What Hoagy was doing was building a community, loose but like-minded, where people could live on this land and find what they need, like he did. As for Nueng, the Westerners coming to Lion Rock provided the resources to sustain his way of life, the only way he can live. Rastaman, geezer-man, elephant-mushroom shaman. Nueng tells me that all he wants is to keep his tradition alive through one more generation.
Be like we always were. Keep on doing it till we can’t do it any more.
That’s the plan.
Lion Rock is many things: Muay Thai gym, stoner haven, Jungle School and Capital of We — you can look at it idealistically or cynically but the root is simple: two guys from very different backgrounds recognised they wanted the same thing — to live by their own values, in a little tribe of people, under trees. Two tribes, coming together.
And therein lay the answer to my question. A soldier came here to learn Muay Thai, to make himself even more deadly than he already was. He was scarred by the wars he’d been part of, but he didn’t know it yet. It was the people he met, and who embraced him so generously, who changed him. The boxers, the coaches. Muay Thai culture. Just listen to that music, the sarama, what it evokes. Courage. Acceptance of pain. Muay Thai people are tough, and honourable. The culture is all about respect, and dedication. The wai kru before the fight frames the fight in higher things. You dedicate your fight.
And that was it. Just like me sitting in my valley, my senses opening, my peripheral vision coming back, Hoagy found new awareness growing in him, new levels of understanding. Empathy awakening within that masculine ethos of ritual conflict, pain and mutual respect. With his mother’s help, he got out of the army, and his commitment to the SAS. He pled PTSD, which at that point he didn’t have. He laid low, fearing repercussions. Didn’t even have a bank account, letting his mother handle his army pension and the compensation for the damage he didn’t yet know he carried.
And then the trauma smashed into him like a train and scattered the pieces across this dark patch of jungle between garish tourist towns.
Forest humans put him back together.