Getting stoned with Mr. X

Our correspondent wanders in search of an Indiana Jones adventure in Thailand's gem country.


Rolf Potts
April 20, 1999 3:25PM (UTC)

Standing wild-haired, sunburnt and jelly-bellied in the Thailand sun,
Mr. X looks like an endearing folk-tale character gone bad -- Bilbo
Baggins with syphilis and a reefer habit, maybe. Or perhaps Santa
Claus, if ol' St. Nick had chosen to swap his factory and elves for a
couple cases of whiskey and some hookers.

I have been following Mr. X through the Thai back roads all morning
because he has promised to show me some gem mines near the Cambodian
border. I have known him for only a day, but I somehow feel I can trust
him. After all, Santa Claus Gone Bad is still Santa Claus.

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Furthermore, I know that Mr. X's real name is Stjepan Jozic, that he
is a naturalized Australian citizen originally from Sarajevo and that he
is 58 years old and dropped out of normal society 20 years go. The
Thai villagers and shopkeepers who know him call him "Papa," and he
insists everyone else call him "Mr. X," since nobody can pronounce his
real name. He has a patchy beard, a limping gait and a
butterfly-shaped scar over his heart. If he owns a pair of shoes, he doesn't wear them in public.

I met him two days ago on Koh Samet island in the Gulf of Thailand,
where he subsidizes his Australian welfare pension by running an as-yet
uncompleted guesthouse. When I arrived on the island late one night to
discover there was no legitimate lodging available, some Swedish
backpackers directed me to Mr. X.

"Tonight you are milking the cow," he had told me, showing me a place to
unroll my sleeping pad amid the brooms and paint cans of his
semi-constructed guesthouse. "That is better than paying for nice
hotel."

The next morning over breakfast, he told me he was going to go to the
mainland to buy some rough gemstones. I elected to join him less for
my interest in gems than for the simple fact that it sounded like an
adventure.

"I'm going to explore some gem mines on the Cambodian border," I'd told
the Swedes later that morning, feeling a little bit like Indiana Jones.

At this moment, Mr. X is haggling over the price of the truck that will
take us to the gem mines. We have already traveled by motorcycle,
ferry, jeepney (called songthaew here in Thailand) and bus, and have
arrived in a tiny town called Makham. Our prospective driver is a small
Thai fellow who sports flip-flop sandals, aviator sunglasses and
smeared indigo tattoos that burst up from the collar of his shirt and
snake over his throat. The driver agrees on a rate of 100 baht (almost
$3), and soon we are bumping down a red-dirt road toward the Cambodian
border.

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Sitting in the back of the yellow Mazda, Mr. X pats his belly and
lectures me on his philosophy of life, which I have been learning in
bits and pieces ever since I met him.

"If you're smart, you don't get any free money," he says. "I am a
stupid man, so the Australian government gives me money. Smart men,
what do they use their money for? A place to live and food to eat, and
when they work they dream of beach holiday. Me? I live on beach
holiday, and my home and my food is free. It's milking the cow. That's
what I do. Why buy a cow just to get milk when other men pay you to
milk their cow?"

Since Mr. X's philosophy could qualify him as a welfare-reform poster
boy, I press him a little bit. "The government pays you," I say, "but
what about the people who pay the government? Don't you feel bad for
them?"

"I used to be like those people! " he exclaims. "I worked to be a rich
man, and the government took my money. The government was milking the
cow, see? But when I learned that just a little money is enough --
that's when I became rich man. When you are born, you have no money,
but you have eyes. You are already rich man! You wouldn't sell your
eyes for a million dollars, would you? Of course not! I was born with
the best parts, even if they are ugly. So now I just milk the cow, and
I am happy."

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For all his talking, Mr. X has made no mention of what his life was like
before he dropped out and started milking the cow. I suspect he was
once married and gainfully employed, but he refuses to talk about it.
For him, life began at age 38, when he walked into the Australian bush
and spent six years learning how to prospect and mine opals. The opal
trade eventually led him to travel -- and when he discovered that
Thailand had friendly prostitutes and a low cost of living, he decided
to stay here.

After about 30 minutes of winding through a highland road in the monsoon
forest, our truck descends into a dry flood-plain. Red dust swirls
around in the back of the Mazda. My Indiana Jones fantasies are
faltering; the Thai frontier looks a lot like Oklahoma. Mr. X pounds
his fist on the cab, and we pull to the side of the road near a lone
wooden house.

"I used to have my own mine in this land," he says as we hop out of the
truckbed.

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"You owned land here?"

He laughs. "I didn't own it, but it was my land."

I stretch my legs and look around. About 20 miles to the east is
the Cambodian town of Poipet, a longtime Khmer Rouge stronghold.
Though Phnom Penh has accused Bangkok of being soft on Khmer Rouge
activities inside the Thai border, there doesn't seem to be much human
activity whatsoever out here.

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It occurs to me that half the thrill of travel is a matter of placing
faith in strange people, strange places: If Mr. X felt like slitting my
throat and helping himself to my Timex, my point-and-shoot Canon
"Snappy" and $300 in traveler's checks, he could probably get away with
it. Instead, he takes me past a backhoe behind the wooden house and
tells me about the mining operation -- which to me just looks like a big
pit and some rusty equipment.

"Look here," he says, pointing at the piles of earth next to the hole.
"What you do is dig dirt out of an area where you think the sapphires
are. Over there is a washing plant. All the small stuff goes inside
the sump. You put dirt in, big rocks come out this way and the smaller
stuff will go inside this box. Then the women check it by hand. If you
find some good stones, you sell them. If you find good stones under
your house, you move the house."

Since I had expected something more along the lines of a dark cave with
jade idols and tiki torches, I am disappointed by these piles
of dirt. To me, the mining operation doesn't look much different from a
suburban gravel pit -- but Mr. X speaks of it with almost
childlike enthusiasm. As he describes the workings of the mine, a
Thai man comes out of the wooden house with a tray full of rough stones.
Mr. X splashes some water onto the stones and holds them up to the sun
one by one.

"This is star sapphire," he says. "This is garnet. Here is sapphire.
This is nice color, very blue. You want to pay him 1,000 baht for
everything? We'll take them home, cook them, seal the cracks, change
the color." He holds up a garnet, which glows dark purple in the sun.
"Cut this one here, you get 6,000 baht. You want to buy?"

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When I stammer out a few skeptical excuses, Mr. X shrugs and pays the
1,000 baht himself. "No worries," he says. "We're just playing games
here." The Thai man transfers the stones into a plastic grocery sack
and our driver fires up the Mazda.

"Now we go to gemstone market in Chanthaburi town," Mr. X says, climbing
into the truckbed. He holds up the plastic bag full of stones. "Here
is a different way of milking the cow."

For the most part, the municipality of Chanthaburi is a sleepy and
charming provincial Thai town, where roosters spar on the damp ground
beneath tin-roofed houses, uniformed schoolgirls on mopeds weave past
fruit stands in the center of town and stewed beetles are sold in the
evening market alongside buckets of live frogs and fried grasshoppers.
Near the river, Vietnamese Catholic men in straw fedoras use hoses to
water the lawn of the local cathedral, and entire families sit on
bamboo-piling platforms to eat dinner and listen to boom-box music.
Across the water from downtown, the huge golden Buddha at Wat Pai Lom
reclines half-lidded and blissful, as if drunkenly thinking of a lost
love before drifting off.

By contrast, the gem district that covers several blocks in the
southeast quarter of Chantaburi is all business. Apart from a few
red-velveted display windows in the retail shops, Chantaburi's gem
district is packed with unadorned iron-gate and concrete trading halls,
where nearly 1,000 brokers oversee wholesale gem transactions every
weekend.

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One of these brokers is a gregarious Chinese-Thai man named Smit
Lohploy, and he waves Mr. X over to his table before we even have a
chance to dust off from our truck ride. Though
he owns a retail shop a couple blocks away, Smit spends his weekends
overseeing this trading hall on Si Chan Road near the river.

At this moment, the dim, sweaty trading hall is packed with an eccentric
international array of gem-buyers and gem-brokers, all of them clustered
around the worn wooden tables. Turbaned Indians rub elbows with mustachioed Malaysians and khaki-shirted Brits. Gem-runners
-- mostly locals who work on commission for wholesalers and lapidary
operations -- move from table to table, flashing their supply of rubies
or sapphires at buyers and scribbling down offers. The white walls of
the trading hall are marbled brown with accumulated grime, and the
energetic frenzy of buying and selling resembles a dingy sort of
back-alley Wall Street. My Indiana Jones fantasies are suddenly
rekindled.

One of the buyers, an American, immediately recognizes Mr. X. "Hey X,"
he says. "Did you already blow all your money on the girls? What did
you bring in for me?"

Mr. X starts to show him the rough stones. "Look here," he says to the
American. "This garnet is winking at you. What do you give me for
this?"

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The American laughs. "What do you say I give you a case of Viagra?"

As Mr. X and the American buyer begin to banter out a negotiation, Smit
shows me to a seat at his table and gives me a lamp and a magnifying
glass. Immediately, I am surrounded by gem-runners, who slide plastic
bags of gemstones in front of me. I have no idea what to look for in
these stones, so I just grab a pair of forceps and feign expertise.

As I squint and frown and hold the gems up to the light, Smit explains
the business to me. "The stones you're looking at probably come from
Cambodia or Burma. Most of the gems in this part of Thailand have
already been picked over."

"Mr. X got those rough stones out by the Cambodian border this
afternoon."

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Smit laughs. "Well, X isn't as stupid as he wants everyone to think he
is. If there are any good mines left in Thailand, he knows how to find
them."

"Why is the Chanthaburi market so popular if most of the gems have been
picked over?"

"Reputation. Wholesalers from Bangkok have been coming here for 50
years. Plus a lot of foreign buyers are discovering that you can cut
out the Bangkok middleman by coming here first." Smit grabs his
cell phone and stands up. "Come with me," he says. "I'll show you the
future of the stone market in this town."

Smit flags a taxi and takes me across the river to the edge of the city,
where he is building a new gem market next to the Robinson's department
store. As Smit walks me through the nearly completed complex, he lists the advantages: air-conditioning, more parking, cleaner atmosphere,
better merchandising, better prices for the buyers. After 50 years
in the sweaty trading halls on Si Chan Road, Chanthaburi's gem market is
finally going suburban. It makes sense -- if Smit didn't do it, someone
else would -- but it makes me wonder what will happen to the old-style operations on the other side of the river.

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As with any place touched by the market-driven hegemony of the outside
world, Chanthaburi is changing.

When we get back to the Si Chan market, Mr. X has sold off the rough
stones for 4,000 baht -- a profit of almost $80 for the day. "A good man
from Bangkok wanted our stones," he tells me. "Tonight, he will
probably tell his friends that he tricked a stupid Sarajevo man into
great bargain." Mr. X holds up the wad of cash with a stump-toothed
grin. "Milking the cow, right?"

I find a hotel room for the night in Chanthaburi, but Mr. X -- his
business finished -- is ready to go back to Koh Samet. Before he
leaves, he treats me to some of the local rice noodles at a streetside
food stand. When I express interest in his Australian opals, he pulls a
pouch from his pocket, takes out a stone, and sets it on the table.

"How much you pay for this opal?"

"How much do you want?"

"We're just playing games, here. A stone is a stone. You put your own
value on it. How much?"

"I don't know. What's a good price?"

"1,000 baht."

"OK, 1,000 baht."

Mr. X slaps his hand against his forehead. "No! Never take first
price. Whenever I give you first price, you tell me I'm full of shit."

"OK, you're full of shit."

"Good. Now make me a better offer."

"950 baht?"

Mr. X sighs. "I can tell you are smart man, but you are giving a stupid
man too much trust." He pushes the opal over to me. "Here, you were
good luck for me today. You keep it."

Thanking him, I take the small, milky stone and carefully drop it into a
film canister. "What makes you think I'm good luck?"

He shrugs. "I am just stupid man."

When we're finished eating, I shake Mr. X's hand and watch as he limps
down to the corner -- a lone, disheveled rich man looking to bum a ride
in this humid corner of Thailand.


Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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