JUST days before Stephen Ashton was gunned down at a Thai nightspot during a New Year's Eve party, he had talked of "having the time of his life" visiting bars, riding elephants and seeing monkeys while touring the tropical southeast Asia country.
He had left his trainee job at a City venture capital firm a month earlier after resigning, and was next heading for Australia where he planned to travel for at least a few more months.
The ex-Riddlesdown student had no future plans and embarked on the travelling adventure while considering his next move in life.
But in an instant, the bright future of a "clever" and "ambitious" 22-year-old was wiped out when a local gangster reportedly opened fire at the beach bar where he was seeing in the new year with friends.
Glen Thomas, 23, who also went to Riddlesdown, spoke to his old schoolfriend online from the UK on Saturday – just two days before Stephen headed out for new year on the popular tourist island of Koh Phangan.
Glen said: "I spoke to him on the Saturday and he was having the time of his life. I was supposed to be going out there myself, I was supposed to be going in about two weeks, but I couldn't afford it in the end.
"He was going round seeing the bars and the different islands, riding elephants and seeing monkeys and sampling the country. They were moving about quite a lot.
"He wasn't really sure what he wanted to do next, which is why he was going travelling."
Glen recalled a recent trip in October, when Stephen, from Purley, and their friends went to Prague. He said: "In hindsight, that was a nice send-off if you will.
"He was a fantastic bloke, and loved by so many people. He just loved life.
"He was just a breath of fresh air, full of energy and the life and soul of the party. He was a dream of a friend.
"We are gutted he is gone. We are trying to grieve and get past this."
Glen, along with Lewis Collins, Tayler Mitchell and Jamie Cave, were just a handful of the friends who held a leaving party at the start of December for Stephen, who ended up in Thailand with another group friend, Joe Budd.
The shooting at bar Zoom, between around 3 and 4am local time, has sent a whole family and community into shock, with tributes from scores of friends who flooded his Facebook page with messages.
A statement issued by his family described a "much-loved" son, brother and nephew, who had been enjoying a holiday after the difficult loss of his father, John, who died from a brain tumour in 2011, and the death of his grandfather just months previously.
The statement said: "As a family we are completely devastated by the loss of Stephen from our lives. He has been taken away from us in such cruel and tragic circumstances. We were all so proud of him, he was a much loved son, brother, grandson and nephew."
Stephen's mother, Diane, a solicitor, had been on a skiing holiday when police contacted the family to inform them of Stephen's death – less than 18 months after his father's funeral.
She doesn't yet know whether she is required to fly to Thailand to identify her son's body, but her brother – Stephen's uncle – who wished not to identify himself, told the Advertiser his sister returned home on Wednesday morning.
Speaking from the Purley home, in Verulam Avenue, he added: "We have not slept all night. We are just still in shock. We are a very close family and everyone is still coming to terms with it."
The night before, Stephen's sister Emily, also speaking from the family home, said: "It is just such a shock. We are still trying to get our heads round it. It hasn't sunk in."
Another former schoolfriend, Tayler Mitchell, 22, also paid tribute. He said: "Nobody ever made me laugh like he did. He was just loved by so many people.
"He was a clever boy and he was doing what he wanted to do.
"This is a terrible accident that shouldn't have happened.
"He was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Jamie Cave, also a former schoolfriend, said: "He is one of the funniest guys I've met. He's very missed.
"I used to talk to him every single day. And now that he is gone, it feels like something is missing."
Stephen was often seen drinking at The Rectory pub on Brighton Road and was also a regular in tapas bar Las Fuentes on Purley High Street, which he liked because his dad was also a regular there before he died.
Gio Gonzalez, owner of Las Fuentes, said Stephen and his parents were regulars at the restaurant for years.
He said: "He was here with a load of his friends just before he left. I remember him saying he was off to Thailand because the night he came in we were selling raffle tickets, but the draw wasn't until December 24.
"So he said to me, 'if I win, we'll have a drink together when I come back'. It's unbelievable."
Stephen left school at 16 and didn't return to full-time education, according to his friends, but in January last year began work as a trainee at CSS Partners LLP – a venture capital firm where he liaised with potential investors.
Jon McCarthy, managing director of CSS, revealed Stephen resigned from his role because "he wanted to travel and to look for new opportunities".
He added: "We are in shock with what has happened. Stephen was very well liked, very talented, hard-working and very ambitious. A number of the guys who work here got very close to him and all our thoughts are with the family and friends."
Before joining CSS, Stephen had worked at 1 Essex Court Chambers for three years after leaving school and then worked as a junior stockbroker for trading services firm H20 Markets.
Gordon Smith, principal of Riddlesdown, said: "Our thoughts and the prayers of many within our community are with his family and friends at this difficult time."Following the news of Stephen's death, tributes flooded in on his Facebook page, from people he met only for one night to former colleagues to long-term friends. Amy Murrell posted: "Still in shock! Can't believe it! Don't seem long ago that we were working together! U always had a way to make everyone smile! U will b truly missed! Gone way too soon!! My thought are with u and ur family .. RIP ashton .. Forever in our thoughts x" Emma-Louise Blanshard wrote: "Still in absolute shock about what's happened & don't even want to believe it!! You were taken far too soon! It was only a while ago that we were working together.. You always put a smile on everyone's face at work with all your famous sayings!... My thoughts are with your family! RIP babe.. Gone but never ever forgotten!! Love you xxx ?" Charlie Cooksey said: "looking back at it iv had some blinders with this boy absolute legend always on form always laughing so sad what a way 2 go when your having the time of your life miss ya mate rip xxxxxx" Vicki Simmonds posted: "Such sad news, i can't believe what I have just read. We only met once at a rave but we all had a top night with loads of banter. Another beautiful boy taken far too soon. My thoughts are with his family and of course all of his friends. Rest in peace angel x x x x" Laura Grace Turner said: "I can't believe it Steve – you had so much going for u.. I'm in complete shock RIP mate my thoughts are with ur family right now- :( xxxx"