She has run out of methamphetamine, what the Thais call yaba (mad medicine), and she has become irritable and potentially violent. Jacky's cheeks are sunken, her skin pockmarked and her hair an unruly explosion of varying strands of red and brown. She is tall and skinny, and her arms and legs extend out from her narrow torso with its slightly protuberant belly like the appendages of a spider shortchanged on legs.
Sitting on the blue vinyl flooring of her Bangkok hut, Jacky leans her bare back against the plank wall, her dragon tattoos glistening with sweat as she trims her fingernails with a straight razor. It has been two days--no, three--without sleep, sitting in this hut and smoking the little pink speed tablets from sheets of tinfoil stripped from Krong Tip cigarette packets. Now, as the flushes of artificial energy recede and the realization surfaces that there's no more money anywhere in her hut, Jacky is crashing hard, and she hates everyone and everything. Especially Bing. She hates that sponging little punk for all the tablets he smoked a few hours ago--tablets she could be smoking right now. Back then, she had a dozen tablets packed into a plastic soda straw stuffed down her black wire-frame bra. The hut was alive with the chatter of half a dozen speed addicts, all pulling apart their Krong Tip packs and sucking in meth smoke through metal pipes. Now that the pills are gone, the fun is gone. And Bing, of course, he's long gone.
This slum doesn't have a name. The 5,000 residents call it Ban Chua Gan, which translates roughly as Do It Yourself Happy Homes. The expanse of jerry-built wood-frame huts with corrugated steel roofs sprawls in a murky bog in Bangkok's Sukhumvit district, in the shadow of 40-story office buildings and glass-plated corporate towers. The inhabitants migrated here about a decade ago from villages all around Thailand. Jacky came from Nakon Nayok, a province near Bangkok's Don Muang airport, seeking financial redemption in the Asian economic miracle. And for a while in the mid-'90s, conditions in this slum actually improved. Some of the huts had plumbing installed. Even the shabbiest shanties were wired for electricity. The main alleyways were paved. That was when Thailand's development and construction boom required the labor of every able-bodied person. There were shopping malls to be built, housing estates to be constructed, highways to be paved.
Around the same time, mad medicine began making its way into Do It Yourself Happy Homes. It had originally been the drug of choice for long-haul truck and bus drivers, but during the go-go '90s, it evolved into the working man's and woman's preferred intoxicant, gradually becoming more popular among Thailand's underclass than heroin and eventually replacing that opiate as the leading drug produced in the notorious Golden Triangle--the world's most prolific opium-producing region--where Myanmar (Burma), Thailand and Laos come together. While methamphetamines had previously been sold either in powdered or crystalline form, new labs in Burma, northern Thailand and China commoditized the methamphetamine business by pressing little tablets of the substance that now retail for about 50 baht ($1.20) each. At first only bar girls like Jacky smoked it. Then some of the younger guys who hung out with the girls tried it. Soon a few of the housewives began smoking, and finally some of the dads would take a hit or two when they were out of corn whiskey. Now it has reached the point that on weekend nights, it's hard to find anyone in the slum who isn't smoking the mad medicine.
When the yaba runs out after much of the slum's population has been up for two days bingeing, many of the inhabitants feel a bit like Jacky, cooped up in her squalid little hut, her mouth turned down into a scowl and her eyes squinted and empty and mean. She looks as if she wants something. And if she thinks you have what she wants, look out. She slices at her cuticles with the straight razor. And curses Bing.
But then Bing comes around the corner between two shanties and down the narrow dirt path to Jacky's hut. He stands looking lost and confused, as usual. Jacky pretends he's not there. She sighs, looking at her nails, and stage whispers to me that she hates him.
Bing, his long black hair half-tied into a ponytail, stands next to a cinder-block wall rubbing his eyes. Above his head, a thick trail of red army ants runs between a crack in the wall and a smashed piece of pineapple. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a tissue in which he has wrapped four doa (bodies, slang for speed tablets). Jacky stops doing her nails, smiles and invites Bing back into her hut, asking sweetly, "Oh, Bing, where have you been?"