He hung up the phone and I looked into his tear filled eyes. I hadn’t understood a word of the conversation I just witnessed; I’d only been in Thailand for a handful of months. It takes a decade for a westerner to learn the language, on average, if you can muster that much discipline. The conversation sounded bad, though, that much I’d deciphered. Here was a strong man that I’d come to love and admire from the moment we met and his show of emotion I knew, is rare in Thai culture. So I braced myself for the worst. He stared for a few moments into an empty space in front of me before he gathered himself and said: “Mew is dead. He passed already.” He swallowed and paused for a second before adding: “I don’t understand. They said it would take much longer”. I clearly heard him say this, as clearly as I heard myself say “what!?” in that detached, third person kind of way when the information just handed to you is momentarily too much to process. I felt myself being reduced to a confused spectator of the disintegration of my world that up to that point, I thought had made some sort of sense. I wasn’t new to death, not in the least. I’ve lost many friends and family to all kinds of horrible fates. Yet somehow something impossible had just undeniably happened. ‘He was only 25 fucking years old! I brought him a pack of cigarettes only 2 weeks ago from 7-Eleven! We were both trying to quit, he was just sitting in that chair. How did this happen? And wait… What do you mean “I thought it would take much longer?”’ My mind was reaching for grip.
This is how I learned the real story of Mew and saw with my own eyes why this small office tucked away in one of Bangkok’s millions of non-descript little alleys would have my commitment forever. The office was of Bangkok Rainbow Organization, BRO, a collection of good-hearted people from the gay community. Misfits sometimes, a few eccentrics here and there, a number of ordinaries; all walks of life are more or less represented. But almost always they are very intelligent and pragmatic people. For the past 16 years, they’ve been helping each other and the greater gay community to deal with issues larger than life. They implemented hands on, from the ground up, practical ways to stop the next Mew from dying. No foreign government would fund this group of people because they’re not “suggested by the data”. Their methods are not “scalable” and it all doesn’t fit into an Excel sheet, let alone a political agenda. ‘Jesus Christ, Mew is dead.’ I thought to myself. My head was spinning. People were scurrying around me somewhat lighthearted, as is the way people deal with death in certain exotic parts of the world. They were collecting his belongings that were scattered across the 4 story building of which only the ground floor serves as an office. They’d all understood what that phone call meant. They needed no further explanation. Out of nowhere a Buddhist monk came in as if he’d been waiting around the corner. I was grappling with my mind. ‘How did he get there so fast? What happened to Mew? And for that matter, what happened to me? Where am I? What reality is this?’
What happened to Mew, as Mr. Nikorn who is the founder and chairman of Bangkok Rainbow Organization was now explaining to me, was that Mew had AIDS. They had not said anything to me, so Mew could save face to this white skinned, blond haired outsider. He had grown up far away from Bangkok, upcountry in a rural village somewhere. Disconnected. And thus he had been un-educated on the existence of sexually transmitted diseases. One loving encounter had handed him a death sentence. And once the signs of that became apparent, the village and even his family did not know how to respond. Nor could they deal with learning Mew’s secret; about who he loved, who he was and what it had done to him. Mew was left abandoned. Sick, dying and alone. Yet somehow, someway he learned about Bangkok Rainbow Organization which, no questions asked, paid for a bus ticket to this big city where my dear friend Mr. Nikorn took him in. He gave him a bed, got him on medications and handed him a job at the “Rainbow Office” downstairs. And perhaps most of all he gave him his dignity back. Bangkok Rainbow Organization provided Mew with friends and a collective purpose whilst Mr. Nikorn mediated with Mew’s parents. Explaining, with his infinite patience that I admire so much in him, what it meant to be gay and what it was that was happening to their son. It was with his father that he had just now been speaking on the phone and who delivered the news from a nearby hospital.
Mr. Nikorn told me of the many incidents there’d been with Mew. He’d smashed the windows of the office after going on a drinking binge, unable to cope with psychological trauma from the disease that was raging through his body. Mr. Nikorn had sat him down, patiently, telling him this behavior, however understandable, was unacceptable. Mr. Nikorn replaced the windows. He encouraged Mew to live more healthy, to try and quit smoking. He supplied him with healthy food. With HIV AIDS, you don’t have much of an immune system. Avoiding certain habits can add years. Mew was only 25 years old. Mew was just a boy.
This is all, I realized with both awe and panic as I heard my friend summarize the final years of Mew’s life, very much outside the realm of scalable spreadsheets. Yet this, the organization, the people, the work they do is all very much necessary. I’d presented myself to Bangkok Rainbow not long before that critical moment, shortly after settling in Bangkok. I was new to the gay life and even more to this most confusing environment which is to the outsider almost completely encrypted. Not just is the culture different, I literally can’t read the signs! I have no idea what people around me are saying, let alone what they mean. Public announcements exclude me and forget about asking directions or figuring out which bottle holds shampoo and which one is soap. The new arrivals to Thailand have almost no way of deciphering pretty much anything. Actually getting served the food that I intended to order was in itself cause for celebration in my first few months in the Thai “City of Angels”. And even now still, my hands are sometimes my only means of communication. I point at things. I gesture a lot. I’ve gradually learned to let go of many expectations and work with whatever is coming as a result of that. But even with all my inadequacy, I felt, no, I knew that I could contribute in a meaningful way somehow. I have skills. Strategic, communicative and professional IT skills. And I have a heart. But in no way as big as the hearts of the people now accumulating around me, preparing the funeral of one of their own.
Now, a few years later, it was another dear friend of mine who said it best. “Local communities are the best at solving local problems.” I couldn’t agree with her more. And being the “hacker” that I am, and having seen too much of the inside workings of big institutions, governments, and banks, I believe the systems worth supporting and pursuing, are never the sub-optimal ones. I take nature as my favorite, “best practice” example. Every component of our universe supports and serves in some way each and every other component in it. A shared responsibility for survival is implied by connection. When something dies, it gives life to something else. When a part of the system disturbs the balance, it is rooted out. That to me is a template for solving problems and implementing solutions. Not like some of our short-sighted and backward man-made systems such as politics or modern economics, where resources are distributed in grossly unbalanced proportions. “It’s the only thing we’ve got so we have to make the best of it and try to live with the shortcomings as best we can.” I’ve heard that argument a lot and I simply have to reject it. Something that’s broken you can fix. Something that’s flawed by design leaves no choice but to be abandoned and replaced by something new. It’s not even that difficult. But it can get uncomfortable. It requires patience, courage, and hard work. Better ways of doing things make the world more fair. That in itself is problematic. It requires people to let go of things and embrace something they can’t yet see or understand. It’s hard to not be impatient, though, to wait for this to happen when the Mew’s of our world are dying needlessly. But you, I, we can be accelerators when we muster the courage to choose what is simply the “most right” for the “most amount” of people. We are all connected, we are all a link in a very big chain. We can influence people and tiny parts of our environment, one by one. Let’s not wait for fundamentally flawed systems to solve the problems they keep allowing to exist. I’m a dreamer, I know. But I think you are too. Don’t we all secretly dream of a chain reaction that relieves the world from all its suffering?
So what could I do? I asked myself. Mew and the people of Bangkok Rainbow had shown me the value of easing the suffering of just one individual. And this had now inspired me. How could I do the same? How could I help at least just one other individual? I started thinking locally, as opposed to globally. Learning about my immediate environment. I studied the dynamics of the gay community in Bangkok. Listing the components. Mr. Nikorn spent endless hours pointing me in the right directions. Supplying me with anecdotes, context and history as we worked together, shared dinners together, laughed together and also attended more funerals.
We found that the Gay business community is perhaps the most overlooked, yet one of the most crucial links in the chain than can positively touch the lives of many gay individuals. The gay community works there. It meets there. It lives and breathes there. It can be reached, helped and educated there. And here the Thai gay community displays to the rest of the world that a society can be tolerant of people it doesn't understand. How healthy subcultures can make entire societies shine. I believe that when the gay business community flourishes it benefits significantly the state of the gay community as a whole. Pinktrails.com was born from this belief and many other thoughts.
I started mapping out the gay businesses in and around Bangkok. I built a location-based web app to bring withing reach hundreds of gay venues scattered around Bangkok. It now helps tourists, expatriates, and even locals explore all corners of the pink side of Thailand, right from their web browser and on any device. It explains what these businesses are really about from our countless interviews with the people that work there. We visited each and every one of them. All this is important because what may seem like just a massage shop to the untrained eye is not just a business. It’s also a home to many young Thais, from upcountry villages like Mew’s. The masseurs are each other’s substitute family, as is often the way it works in Thai culture. The manager is not merely a boss, he is also an authority figure, a father figure even, and a trainer who hands down to new generations the art of Thai massage that is an important part of Thailand’s national heritage. Examples of massage businesses that operate like families are Jey Spa, Adam Massage, Banana club and Nine Spa. Many businesses actively sponsor gay pride, gay health and LGBT advocacy programs. And have been doing so for many years. Examples are Dick's Cafe, Tarntawan Place, The Poseidon Hotel and Fork & Cork. These are just a handful of examples. These lists go on, and on and on.
We fit into the ecosystem by helping gay businesses in and around Bangkok do online marketing, something that requires highly specific expertise, a willingness and ability to bridge cultures and a dedication and passion for technology, for building the optimum system and mustering the patience for it. In nature, patience is power. We contribute to the members of the gay community by supporting their part of the economy and by marketing Pinktrails.com with free, branded condoms that we hand out to individuals and businesses. And as we go along, we’ll come up with more ways to use our technology to help the LGBT community. Our location based system that now points people to the nearest beauty promotion, gay bar or LGBT-friendly restaurant, can also be used in the future to point people to free prep suppliers or the nearest HIV testing clinics that are open now, for example.
So my story for you today ends with “Life”. “Life” is a new addition to our platform. And you’re looking at the first part of it. “Life” will show photos and tell tales of Gay life in Thailand, just like this one. And I hope it will be a reflection of my love and respect for the gay community here, and the people of Thailand in general. I look forward to showing it all to the rest of the world and guiding you through it.
Pinktrails.com has now grown into a team of truly magnificent people and together with Bangkok Rainbow we work hard to build an even brighter future: To look into it… and smile.