Did any of you watch that series “The Serpent” which was on the box a month or so ago? You know, the one based on true-life events in the 1980s where a dodgy gem dealer in Bangkok befriended and then murdered a succession of young backpackers, building up a stash of passports that helped him travel undetected as he amassed his sleazy fortune? It was harrowing stuff and served to remind me how precarious it could be travelling in and around Asia at that time. I did it myself for a couple of years.
The early 1990s saw many of us packing bags and clubs and heading off to the Asian Tour for five or six weeks, trying to hone our games before the start of our circuit in Europe in April. This Asian swing attracted players from all over the globe and the central meeting hub for the entire tour was Bangkok. I spent many an hour in that airport in my time. Once everyone was gathered in Bangkok we all flew together to the first stop on the tour, which was usually Taipei. From that point on it was recommended that all the officials, players and caddies travel together as it was deemed the safest thing to do. One year my travelling pal and I deviated from that recommendation – with almost disastrous consequences. But allow me to backtrack a little.In our day Thai Airways were part sponsors of the Asian Tour and so it was a Thai Airways flight that my fellow pro Helen Wadsworth (known as Posh Bird to her friends) and I boarded together for our Asian odyssey. Before boarding Helen and a number of passengers were pulled aside and told their hand luggage was too bulky for the overhead lockers and would have to go in a separate hold. This triggered a bit of a mad scramble for reading material and things you felt you might want access to on the long flight.
The first leg of our journey to Bangkok was uneventful and we settled down in the airport for our five-hour layover until the flight to Taipei was called. During this spell we met up with lots of other players flying in from all arts and parts and then the whole lot of us, as planned, boarded the Taipei flight. Several hours later we touched down and waited in the baggage area to collect all our gear. The clubs duly arrived, then the cases but Helen and I had to wait ages for her hand luggage to appear. As I write this I realise I’d forgotten just how tedious flying can be!
Anyway, at this juncture Helen and I join the queue for the customs check which could be quite lengthy as the officials used to check there were no drugs being brought into the country in the shafts of the clubs. When it was our turn we both automatically started unzipping cases and golf bags but to our astonishment the official stopped us and just waved us on. That was a first, but very welcome after our monster journey.
We joined a line to exchange some money and with that accomplished found the queue for the taxis as we had long since missed the official transport to the hotel. So, it was two very weary travellers who checked in to their hotel, arranging to meet again downstairs in half an hour to go for a quick bite to eat.
I found my room and was unpacking a few items when, to my surprise, the phone rang. No mobiles in those days, of course and I wondered who could be ringing me on the room phone. It was Helen. “Get round here at once!” I knew from her tone that it was serious so I ran as fast as I could down the corridor, up the flight of stairs and found her room.
The door stood open and inside, Helen, as white as a ghost, was staring at her hand luggage which lay neatly on the bed, unzipped. There, in amongst her things in the middle of the case were two unfamiliar items. One was a large cellophane bag about the size of an A4 piece of paper inside which were a dozen or so individual sachets of white powder. On the outside of the main bag was a lot of foreign writing with the word BANGKOK stamped on the bottom in capital letters. The second item was a soft, circular, cloth bag with a zip at the top. Inside were a collection of instruments that looked like the sort of thing a dentist would scrape your teeth with.
We both stood there, utterly horrified, until Helen finally broke the silence by saying, “What are we going to do?”
To my shame I confess my first fleeting, wholly uncharitable, thought was, “What’s with the we?” However, I rejected that line of thinking and after another lengthy silence I suggested, “Tell the police, I suppose.” More silence and then in unison we looked at each other and said, “No, we can’t do that.”
So, in the space of a minute, here we found ourselves, in a Bangkok hotel room with a stash of goodness-knows-what, colluding not to tell the authorities. As Helen sat stunned on the bed I went in to super-sleuth mode trying to work out what could have occurred. This was the bag from which she’d been parted at Heathrow and it had sat somewhere, unattended and unlocked in Bangkok airport during our five-hour wait for our ongoing flight. Perhaps someone was caught with having to ditch these packages very quickly and just stuffed them in to the nearest available bag. We will never know. Our blood froze, however, as we considered how unusual it was not to have been searched at the airport on arrival. What if the customs officials had opened the bag? Would they have believed us that we had no idea the packages were there? Not likely! After all, many’s the time I’d sat at home watching on telly as tearful students swore they’d no idea their luggage contained drugs and did I believe them? Of course not – yet this is exactly what happened to us.
So, what did we do with this haul? We snipped open every one of the individual sachets and poured them down the loo and then we took the soft bag and its contents and buried it deep in a rubbish bin in the middle of the city. We were haunted by the possibility that the drugs had been planted at Taipei airport and perhaps we were followed by someone wanting to retrieve them. It made for an uncomfortable week and I felt I played the entire tournament constantly looking back over my shoulder. Helen coped infinitely better – and went on to scoop the title and a healthy first prize, a much better result than an unscheduled journey to, and indefinite stay in, Thailand’s infamous women’s prison, known as the Bangkok Hilton.
I don’t often now think of this incident but watching The Serpent triggered all the old memories. I know I’ve been lucky at lots of important times in my life but this time in Asia ranks right up there with the best of them. The luck of the Irish, eh? Don’t knock it.