I wrote this for a magazine in Bangkok. Might as well chuck it in here!
Welcome To Hell – One man’s fight for life inside the Bangkok Hilton
By Colin Martin
Go into any western bookshop or airport in Thailand and you will come across a plethora of books penned by expats. These books generally fall into three categories. The first is the gritty detective novel featuring a world weary Western detective and his Thai girlfriend/wife who may or may not play an active role in the usually predictable tale. The second is a personal description of someone’s experiences in Thailand as a teacher, bar owner, punter or barfly. Colin Martin’s ‘Welcome to Hell’ falls firmly into the third and smallest category – Westerner ends up in a Thai prison and has a thoroughly unpleasant time.
Unlike some others in this latter group, Mr Martin claims that he was innocent. This alters the angle of his woeful story from a simple recounting of how horrendous prison life is and becomes a tale of injustice and frustration. A surprisingly enjoyable one.
Colin Martin worked in construction, had his own small business, and was married with kids. An almost clichéd idyll that makes the subsequent fall all the more compelling. In a nutshell – he sees an ad in a newspaper for a Thai-based company that needs some men to work on a nearby oil rig. After several meetings he ends up agreeing to supply the men and pays the company a large sum of money as a guarantee of good faith. Here begins the downfall. The company is fake and he loses all his money, his company, and his wife leaves him. Martin’s series of catastrophically bad decisions doesn’t end there though.
Rather than return to Europe with a lesson learned and his tail between his legs, he decides to stay in Thailand to try and find the men who conned him. He can certainly hold a grudge, as he ends up staying for three years. He even marries a local lady and has a kid. Eventually he finds one of the men involved and gets the address of another. After tricking the main con man into a meeting he ends up scuffling with the man’s bodyguard and kills him. He is then arrested and the police torture him into confessing to murder. The second half of the book describes the aforementioned ‘awful time’ as he languishes in prison for the next eight years.
As I said, this is an extremely readable book that I read in one sitting. It is certainly one of the better novels written about Thailand, even if it is not particularly flattering. While the prose is hardly up there with Greene or Orwell it is simply and entertainingly told. If you felt like a bit of morbid entertainment while lying on beach, then this book would fit the bill. The actual tale itself is, in fact, best read in this frame of mind.
A few things gave me pause for thought, however. Firstly, I did feel sorry for Mr Martin. He is either far too trusting or far too naive. People seem to take advantage of his nature throughout the book. For example, he asks all the men he hires to bring a £10,000 bond with them and they all agree. None of the thirty men do. Not one. He is forced to then foot the bill. When the money is not forthcoming from the company he still goes ahead with everything. He never seems to truly question the fact that he is spending vast amounts of money for the privilege of being hired. Well he does a bit. Just not enough. Later, after his arrest, his brother sends him money to post bail. Despite three years of experience in Thailand, he gives the money to his Thai wife who comes from a poor provincial village, is much younger than he is, and who has a family to support. Unsurprisingly, she runs away with the money.
I occasionally found him hard to empathise with as a person. Amidst constant claims that he is just an innocent, family loving, businessman, there were details that niggled. On the first page he talks about an incident where someone is humiliated and if it had been him, he would have ‘smashed the guys face in’. When he finally meets one of the con men he head-butts him. He then beats a bodyguard to death, which is pretty extreme for a mild mannered businessman. Maybe I am being too harsh and he is simply an innocent guy that has been pushed too far.
I was mildly confused by some of the details of his crime. I won’t ruin anything for future readers but there are also some strange goings-on with a supposedly unconscious man disappearing and then turning up dead. Again maybe I am being too harsh.
I feel I should reiterate at this point: this is a highly enjoyable, easy to read, perfect beach book. The writing style is straightforward and compulsive. It will confirm anyone’s suspicions that life in a Thai prison is horrendous but there are some touching points in the story. There are also examples of some true acts of human kindness that help our protagonist survive his ordeal and help counterbalance his tale of woe. Some people are genuinely nice after all. Recommended.