Down and Out in Paradise
Echo Publishing 2019
Luke Williams’ Down and Out in Paradise is an intriguing memoir exploring the years he spent in Southeast Asia as a recovering and relapsing drug addict and an alternately employed and unemployed journalist. Living cheap, and sometimes even on nothing, Luke explores some of the debatably unsavoury hang-outs in Southeast Asia.
The idea of dropping everything and getting on a flight somewhere else is something that many people find incredibly attractive, more so when life isn’t quite going your way. When Luke Williams hopped on the plane to Kuala Lumpur, he was coming down off crystal meth. It was the cheapest flight he could book. He made his way to Thailand, the land of the free, where he chased drugs, stories, and sex. In Bangkok he became a thief, in Pattaya he became a prostitute, and somewhere along the way he discovered Buddhism. The memoir covers Williams’s travels throughout Southeast Asia and his penchant for fully embracing his journey.
Williams is very open about his sexuality and his time in Pattaya spent frequenting Boyztown and its bars and clubs. He met a number of Westerners there and for a short time, William’s worked as a prostitute himself. Much of the book fluctuates between him being broke in Southeast Asia and the occasional splendour of an expensive hotel and a bender.
During his time in Indonesia, Williams develops a fascination with his grandfather’s suicide. Williams spent a lot of time considering the prevalence of mental illness in his family. His father’s late onset schizophrenia, his uncle’s comatose state, and his cousin’s suicide. Concerned that this could be the reason for his various issues, Williams is determined to use his skills as a journalist to uncover the truth.
At times within the memoir, Williams is critical of the influence of Westerner tourism throughout Southeast Asia, even as he contemplates that many the local people rely on tourism just to get by. Williams writes about the variety of people on his travels who coloured his world-view; reaffirming his privilege as a white Australian male and putting his problems in perspective compared to people working on the street for twelve or more hours a day just to afford food for their families. Together with perspective, Williams found spirituality as he explored various religions by trying them on for size.
There are sections of the memoir where it is clear that Williams was relieved to be clean and other sections where he embraced the highs of his addiction. Having struggled with addiction his whole life, Williams knew he needed help but had issues admitting it. While Williams had a number of boyfriends and sexual partners throughout his travels, few of them appeared to help Luke with his recovery from addiction or his trouble with jealousy. However, there is one man who inspired Luke to do better, to keep living, and to eventually return to Australia to get help.
There is so much to unpack in this book and Luke Williams, as the author, presents himself as a highly complex character who might not be mistaken for a good person but also shouldn’t be dismissed for a bad one. He is complicated and real, struggling and adapting to his situation as he goes; sometimes driven by his addiction, his mental health, or by altruistic desire. I would highly recommend this book as it is downright fascinating to read as Williams details the highs and lows of his time in Southeast Asia as a journalist, an addict, and a human being.
Words and photography by Kayla Gaskell