Luke Williams, author of Down and Out in Paradise, doesn’t seem too fond of the white men who visit South East Asia. There are a lot of “D-grade males”, he tells me, whose only interest is cheap sex and booze, and the availability of young women and men who would otherwise be out of their league in their home countries.
But he doesn’t let himself off the hook, either. Williams’s unwillingness to pull punches, to call it as it lies, is his strongest suit. The tales he tells and the characters that inhabit them are made all the more vivid for it.
Down and Out in Paradise is a memoir of Williams’s personal journey, first escaping Australia and a crippling methamphetamine addiction, and then plunging himself, in what he refers to as a partially psychotic state, into the steamy and often seedy parts of South East Asia. What follows is a series of vignettes, personal reflections on his mental health and vivid micro-profiles of the eccentric, the nasty and the downright dangerous individuals he encounters along the way. Always told with startling honesty, with an uncanny knack for finding trouble, Williams brings to life his misadventures with good humour and wit. And while the results are often disastrous, he will manage to pry a smile from you along the way.
The title of your book is inspired by George Orwell’s memoir Down and Out in Paris and London. Are you a fan?
I am a fan. One person who I worked with on this book was an author named Maria Hyland, who publishes as M. J. Hyland. An exercise she got me to do was to copy down the first chapters of books that she thought would help me, and long before the publisher decided on that title, she gave me A Moveable Feast to read, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and Down and Out in Paris and London.
It was quite a coincidence that the publisher suggested that title in the end.
Orwell came from a wealthy family. His days spent slumming it were investigative rather than from genuine poverty. Why did you decide to live “down and out”?
I wanted to see how minimal I could live. Before I moved to Asia, I had been indulging myself in that addict’s mentality of “more, more, more”.
And even if I wasn't abusing drugs, it was always like I needed more. I needed to have a more successful career, I needed to have more things. I needed to have more status, and I wanted to, through meditation, to try and put that to bed by seeing how far I could push it by taking things away.
But then I ended up just going too far with that as well.
There was a while there where I thought I'd worked it out, and I was like, "Oh yeah, it's consumer culture, and it's the westernised individualized, this and that." But clearly, I didn't work shit out because I ended up in a fucking psych ward, regardless. I can't pretend I have any answers at all in that early stage. But that was the thinking at the time, was that I could just abstain, abstain, abstain in all areas of life and that would bring me fulfilment.
They say running away from your problems doesn’t help. Can it?
Well, I quit drugs, so in that sense, it helped. I don't think my problems went away, but my attempt to run away from them was a fun ride. I can say that. It was quite an adventure, to try and run away, even if it didn't ultimately fix anything.
Beyond the touristy backdrop of Thailand and Southeast Asia in general, you found yourself from the company of expats from all different walks of life. Outside of the nicer parts of tourist Southeast Asia, what are Westerners doing there?
Most of them are coming here to have sex. Apart from that, tourists who just go and do the backpacking staff. But most of them, at least the ones that I saw are here because of the availability of sex and the availability of cheap prostitution as well.
What's one place you never want to see again?
I will never go back to Angeles city in the Philippines. It’s just a big shanty town with a road full of brothels in the middle of it. It's really sad. It was a very unpleasant place. The guys who go there are just fucking horrendous.
Describe your average tourists in that area.
I would say somebody who is an American, who served time in the army and was either dishonourably discharged or was medically discharged, who watches one TV station only, and that would be Fox News, who is overweight to obese, who probably has got some sort of trauma that they've never dealt with, who sleeps till two o'clock in the afternoon every day and gets drunk within an hour of waking up. He is highly suspicious of strangers, and has had sex with countless prostitutes, and is really resentful about the fact that he fell in love with one.
A lot of the expats you meet in the book do seem quite…pathetic.
Well, there's definitely a lot of D-grade males around. I guess it's because it's so easy to get sex here, and because white skin is prized and because they've got a thing with having to show respect for older people. You see a lot of short, skinny men around, even younger guys – they’re just D-grade men. They feel empowered here. I guess it's a good life in some ways if that's all you're looking for. If you’re just some basic fucking loser, it's a good place to come.
You went to hell and back in paradise, what's one thing that you would have told yourself before you left?
Don't overestimate what life will be like because you've stopped using drugs. Because I used drugs for so long every day, not amphetamines every day, but when I wasn't using amphetamines, I was stoned. If I wasn't working, I'd be stoned from the minute I woke up to the minute I went to sleep. When I stopped using drugs, I went, “Ah-ha”, that was the cause of all my problems; the fact that I used drugs, but it wasn't that at all. It obviously didn't help, but I think I overstated the extent to which drugs were making me unhappy when in fact, I think that was probably relieving some of my mental health symptoms in a lot of cases.
I never anticipated that I would deteriorate so much given that I'd stopped using drugs and given that I was taking medication and I was doing meditation and I was travelling around and trying these different things and exercising. I thought that meant I would be high mentally. I didn't realise I was as susceptible to poor mental health as what I obviously am.
There are a lot of low points in the book, not just for yourself, but for the people you encounter. Is there hope at the end of this journey?
Well, I'm back in Asia. I'm here trying to rebuild my life again because it just didn't work out for me in Australia. My parents kicked me out again, I’m always in and out of the hospital again, but I'm hopeful that I will find somewhere in Asia.
I am hopeful that we have the luxury in Australia that if we are not happy with our lives, we've got lots of other options. We've got a whole massive continent, a whole massive region, where we could live basically anywhere on a tiny little bit of our savings and start again, and if we don't like it, we can go somewhere else. I think if you take a journey like that, bad stuff is, of course, likely to happen, but there's something hopeful and exciting about that.