FORGOTTEN IN CHIANG MAI
Bangkok, Spring 1966
In spring 1966, having been caught by the spell of tropical Asia, and not wanting to leave, I was offered a job in Bangkok by Roy Howard, the Sales Director of Thai Airways International, Thailand’s national carrier, to serve as travel correspondent for the airline with the task of writing a weekly travel feature for the Bangkok World. The World was an English language newspaper that didn’t pay much, but in the mid-1960s, it didn’t require much to live in Bangkok, nor were any of us overworked. All I needed to do was to prepare one weekly travel column for the paper. I had a small flat on the top floor of an old apartment house near the newspaper, an old World War II jeep to drive around in, and plenty of time to myself I traveled all about Asia gathering material for my stories and books that I later wrote.
I was behind my desk at the newspaper one afternoon, getting ready to go out and report on the nightlife, when Willy Mettler came bounding into the office, all excited. “I have a great story for you,” he said, shouting. He was wringing wet. “It’s great, really great,” he announced again, waiting for my comment.
I couldn’t let myself become excited with Willy’s enthusiasm for stories. Willy was a Swiss photographer. I had met him four years earlier in southern Spain and was partly responsible for his being in Southeast Asia. I got him assigned as photographer on an overland expedition from Europe to Singapore, and when he a hard time responding for I was still half asleep. “I have a room for you at the Chiang Mai Guest House,” he said. I knew the guesthouse and liked the place, a sprawling cluster of lovely old teak buildings on the peaceful Ping River that flows right through the middle of the town. The thought of a cool bath, sluicing myself with dippers of water from a large Shanghai jar, was welcoming, but Willy said that would have to wait. “We go to Theo’s first,” he insisted.
“Theo lives with his wife near Wat Suan Dok,” Willy shouted over the clamor as he motioned for me to follow him through the mass of people waiting to greet arriving passengers. So Theo has a new wife I thought. I was thinking maybe he had gone back to his Balinese wife but obviously that hadn’t happened. Who was this new wife? A model too?
We made our way past the taxi and trishaw stands to the roadside where the trishaws waited. Willy had engaged a driver who frantically waved when he saw us. Willy motioned for me to be seated, and instructed me to put my canvas bag and a camera case on my lap, but the driver protested when Willy attempted to sit next to me. He insisted Willy take another trishaw. Willy was obstinate as ever and vehemently objected but he was forced, after a five-minute harangue, to give in. It was well that he did. There was hardly space for one passenger let along two, plus all my bags, “It’s not far,” Willy shouted from his trishaw as he took the lead.
“They cheat us.”
It was still early as we set out with the sun just behind the horizon; the tropic heat had not yet descended upon the city. Early morning in tropical Chiang Mai, when the light is still soft and filters down through the trees, is most pleasant. Once away from the railway station, the cacophonous whine of thousands of motorcycles and trishaws was left behind. With Willy leading the way I followed close behind, enjoying the slow moving scenery drifting by. Street vendors had yet to set up their portable stalls along the streets, and there were still a few early-morning monks slowly returning to their temples after seeking their alms. Passers-by greeted the monks with cupped hands and bowed to let them pass. The monks, some mere boys, seemed not to notice them. In the distance, when the trees gave way, we could just make out bluish-gray mountains that lay to the west of town. We crossed over a murky moat and entered the ancient walled city through a stone gate, the very same gate through which centuries before war elephants returning from victory once marched. Now it was vehicular traffic, and an endless phalanx of bicycles that vied for positions through the narrow opening.
On the green mass of Doi Soothe, the main centerpiece to the old city, Wat Suan Dok appeared with crystalline clarity through the morning air. We caught the low rays of the morning sun as Willy pointed out the temple with a surrounding low wall supported by rows of fine elephant buttresses. We made a sharp turn to the right and entered a narrow alley. My trishaw came to a halt in front of a low, timeworn wall. Through a wooded gate I could see an unpainted old-style Thai house elevated high off the ground on posts. The dirt yard had been swept clean with broom marks in the dust still visible. On top a set of steps that led to the house two people stood waiting. It was too far to make out faces but I presumed one would be Theo Meier.
“This is where Theo lives,” Willy announced victoriously and instructed me to pay the drivers, and how much to give them, which I did out of habit.
We entered the yard and while I stood at the foot of the stairway, Willy started up the steps and turned and said, “Come, come.” I hesitated, taking the time to look up at our host. It was Theo, no doubt, with a woman at his side. She was grinning.
Now it was Theo who called out. “Yes, yes, do come up,” he said. He spoke with a heavy German accent. When I reached the top landing, he said, “I am Theo, Theo Meier.” And then turning to the woman, he added, “This is Yattlie, my wife. Her family calls here Liliat but I prefer Yattlie.” She was Thai, dressed in an ill- fitting western dress. She greeted Willy and me in broken English.
I have to admit, at that first sight of Theo, I was a bit disappointed. I was expecting someone totally different. Perhaps after picturing him in my mind on Bali, where I first heard his name, and where I had seen his lovely Balinese wife, I expected a more dashing character, maybe not handsome, but at least debonair. He was none of these. I found not an eccentric South Sea island painter with uncut hair and a mad look in his eye, but on the contrary a very sober-looking gentleman in his mid-fifties. He was dean-shaven, with short hair, wore knee length shorts and a faded batik shirt. Except for a strong Shan cheroot he was smoking, he could easily have passed for a Swiss banker on holiday. He was very polite, extended both his hands in a warm welcome and even before we were seated motioned for the servant girls to bring us drinks.
“Mekong,” he said when a lithe hill tribe servant girl arrived with a tray of drinks. He took a drink from the tray and handed me a tall glass filled to the brim with Mekong whiskey and soda. A slice of fresh lemon floated on the top. “Foreigners don’t like Mekong-and-soda,” he was quick to say, “but you can have a Singha beer if you want.”
I assured him I drank Mekong-and-soda.
“Good,” he continued, and then in detail explained the secret to making a good Mekong. “Much soda,” he said, “and ice. You need soda and ice.”
We took seats on a wide verandah.
“You come to make a story on me,” he blurted out. “Good. What you want to know?” I was too taken back to respond immediately. It was all I could do to hold back my anger at Willy Mettler. No doubt he had passed me off as an important and well-known journalist who traveled from afar to see him. I knew Willy all too well. He had done this before.
“You came all the way from America,” Theo said. What else did Willy tell him, that I was with the National Geographic?
“From America,” I said. “Yes, originally.” I could see Willy wince.
“You write for Life Magazine!” Theo continued.
I was wrong. Willy didn’t tell him National Geographic; he had told him Life.
“Not exactly,” I said. ‘Tm with the Bangkok World.”
“He writes for Life too,” Willy interrupted.
“The World, the World, good newspaper,” Theo said. “They did reportage on me before.”
“They did,” I said, not knowing what else to say. Willy had forced me into a corner. I had to get out. “I’ll have to look it up when I get back,” I continued. “I didn’t come up to write about you. I just wanted to meet you.”
“Good, good,” he said. Idle words, I thought. It wasn’t good.
He sounded disappointed. I regretted that I hadn’t done my homework on Theo before I came. At that first meeting, I knew little about him. I gathered, from looking around, that in spite of his living on Bali for more than twenty years, he was still a struggling artist. Struggling perhaps, but he wasn’t idle which was evident. Paintings hung everywhere, along two inside walls of the verandah, and in the hallway that led to the verandah. In rooms farther in the house I could make out more paintings. Most were oils; a few were sketches and line drawings. I wanted so much to study the paintings but I didn’t dare appear over-zealous, especially after admitting I came only to meet him and not to write about him as the artist. I had to sneak glances whenever I could, when he turned to talk to Willy, or when he gave orders to his servant girls. My chance did come later, when Yattlie came and called him outside into the garden to confront with a wood carver. Theo stood up and excused himself. “Look around,” he said and left. Willy and I were alone.
Willy ran off into the house somewhere and I was left to myself to look around. Suddenly I felt as though I were walking through a tropical garden. Colors came alive, dancing all about me. The paintings did not seem real, more surreal. I had seen nothing like them before: he painted brilliant landscapes, with ultramarine background, glistening ochre and splashes of heavy green. The still lifes were a mixture of vermilion and orange yellow. The portraits burst out in shades of red, with shadows of purple. Each painting, whether landscape or portrait, had been touched with the mood of the tropics, generously lavished with emerald greens and a mixtures of delicate verdure of lush vegetation.
Theo returned from the garden and excused himself He had work to do but wanted to know if there was anything he could do for me. He had been the perfect host, with years of practice entertaining foreigners who had come seeking him out. Each visitor was a potential customer for a painting, and painters without selling their canvases cannot survive. I felt that Theo would have preferred doing something else rather than making idle talk with Willy and me. Regretfully, I didn’t have enough money to buy one of his paintings. I would have liked to help him out.
We bid good-bye to Theo Meier and his wife and at the end of the lane caught a baht bus into town. Willy took the night train to Bangkok and I decided to linger a day or two longer in Chiang Mai. I had dinner in the market place and returned to my room at the Chiang Mai Guest House. I lay in bed thinking about Theo Meier. I was deeply impressed with him, mostly for his sincerity, but I was disappointed that I didn’t get to know anything more about him now than I did before I met him. I had learned nothing about why he left Bali, the thing I wanted to know most. Maybe if I gave it time, came back in a few weeks, did a story on him, then
I could learn more. His life was certainly intriguing. I’d check with the editor at Bangkok World. There had to be a few magazines that might be interested in Theo’s story. With a proper interview, I just might get to know the real Theo Meier.