Monday, December 25, 2006


Where was I?? Oh, yes, the third day. Ahem. After spending a very busy evening with Neng, aka Nitnoi, and sleeping until nearly noon, Pee Dang decided that all play and no driving would make Bill not give him a tip at the end of the tour. He came into the restaurant there at the Olympia as we were eating and when I invited him to share lunch, he said, "No, Pee Dang eat befo'. We go Pataya today. You eat quick." And added a few words of encouragement to Miss Neng (no political correctness then, you see). Shortly thereafter, we loaded into the Toyota and headed over to Sukhumvit Road, headed south by east sort of. Just before the old Southern Bus Terminal - it was where the new one is, sort of, but it had dirt instead of paving and the buses all were open-windowed as there was no air-conditioned bus "in the day" - we stopped and I got to pay for a nearly full tank of gas for Pee Dang's Corona. Do you know, that was so cheap: gas was 2.5 baht per liter then and that was premium. No unleaded to be found; sorry. A trip to the latrine, Thai-style of course, and a new pack of Marlboros saw me ready for the trek.

The route was Highway 3 South which we joined up with just past the Naval Academy with a right turn. The road was paved, wide, but only two-laned and this was my first exposure to extended travelling in "wrong-side driving land". Of course, I was in the front seat, passenger's side but Thai style and every time I took my eyes off the road and looked back I almost had a heart attack, as my reflexes made me think I was driving, on the wrong side of the road, and had lost the steering wheel somewhere along the way. One reason I've never gotten drunk when travelling by car in Thailand. The old Highway 3 parallels the new one down as far as Chonburi, then the new one takes off once past C'buri. The old one went off into a bit of jungle, which seemed that day to be 1,000 miles from anything resembling civilisation. We did a few "short-cuts", one long one really, which I found out a few years later were to save the Toyota's suspension. There was (is?) a short stretch of Highway 3 which is in the deepest jungle. You're going along and of a sudden the roadway drops about three feet seemingly straight down. Well, it isn't really straight down but it would wreck a car's suspension if it was going over 5 km per hour. (It almost threw me off my motorcycle the first time I traveled from Sattahip to Bangkok in '69.) After the usual interminable "first trip any new place" passage of time, we arrived at Pattaya.

Highway 3 continues south inland from Pattaya and so we took the cut off for Pattaya and connected to Beach Road at a lovely spot. I don't know if this place is still there. At the northern end of old Beach Road, the road went up a hill and at the top of the hill was one of the first falang-owned hotels outside of Bangkok (at least that's what I was told) and it was the Nippa Lodge. From the entrance road to it (dirt of course), you could stop and look down the hill and across the little bay there at Pattaya and I thought I'd died and gone to the place where they filmed Roger's and Hammerstein's "South Pacific". It was breath-taking! To me at least. Old hat I'm sure for Pee Dang and Neng. I mean, he didn't ask or say anything but pulled over and said something like, "You look" and pointed downhill. He may have even yawned. The view was truly wonderful. You could see perhaps half-way down the beach - that is, half-way to where it curves out into the Gulf again - and a third or so down the Beach Road. There were a few "huts", a couple of bungalows on the beach itself, coconut trees of course sand, etc (it is a beach you know). No high-rises, only one other hotel could be seen and it wasn't much begun. I think it was called "Oceana" or something like that.

We drove into the village - that's all it was then - and stopped at the PX where I got picnic supplies: hot dogs, buns, sodas, American beer for Pee Dang (why? I'll never know why he drank it with Singha available.), snack stuff and a package or two of napkins/paper towels. We went down to the beach about maybe half a mile north of "Tree-in-the-Road" - and yes it was worshipped then and had a dozen or more yellow and red lengths of cloth tied around it - and had a picnic there on the sand. It was perhaps 2:30 pm by the time we sat down to eat. Just dug a bit of a hole in the sand, gathered wood from a pile some generous folk had left there and lit a bit of a fire. Used some part of a palm leaf as skewers for the hot dogs and they were wonderful. Neng of course thought I'd lost my entire mind and while she enjoyed the break from her normal way of earning a living (don't worry; we stopped on the way out and made sure that she wasn't AWOL and she was paid 400 baht as it was an "all day all night, Marianne".) she was obviously asking Pee Dang what this crazy falang was so delighted with eating crap food on this shitty sand, which is blowing into my tonied hairdo and I'll never get it out by the way, etc. He must have told her that I was communing with the water spirits or something because after a bit of conversation between them, she settled down and actually enjoyed herself. There were perhaps five other people in sight on the beach and you could see the entire length of the Beach Road from the beach. The JUSMAAG/MACTHAI R & R Centre was across the road from the beach and consisted of a tiny office and a number of bungalows rented out to families of soldiers (and the soldiers of course) who were stationed in Thailand and on leave there. They had sailboats for rent and the like, but no powerboats nor water skiing, unless you rented one from an enterprising Thai chap there on the beach.

From "The Tree" south there was Barbo's Dive Shop, the Friendship Bar, and half a dozen or so garishly painted bungalows right in the water on pilings on the beach side. After the bungalows, just beach. On the land side, there was one Thai hotel, a couple of Thai restaurants, a motorcycle repair shop (which also had three or so motors for rent; license not required), and a few of what appeared to be private homes. There were other lanes parallel the beach inland, but nothing of any substance was built there at the time. Pataya looked pretty much like this description until I left in 1972. It was quiet, peaceful in the day time, and nearly deserted.

After a few more hours, including the obligatory dip into the water, we packed up, took our trash to the appropriate place and left returning to Bangkok by much the same route as we had arrived by. When we got to the Olympia, Neng and I showered immediately and thereafter ate a nice meal in the restaurant; it never occurred to either of us to use the shower for anything else. It was almost as if we were a couple on vacation there for a few hours, rather than professional and customer. How strange that was to realise later on in the evening! Supper was delicious, probably as a result of having relaxed most all day, seen a sight or two, exercised in the warmth without any likelihood of a fire-fight in prospect. Neng even ate American food, although she told Pee Dang the next day - which he promptly repeated in English to me as he thought it was funny - that she was hungry again after only 30 minutes.

I sit here typing this and I can see the light through the trees there on the hill where the Nippa Lodge stood then, shining off the waters of the Gulf there in Pattaya. I can hear the crackle of the fire on the beach, the murmur of Thai conversation between Neng and Pee Dang, the smells of the tropical beach - all of them, not just the flowers - and for a few seconds, I am young and foolish once again, untroubled by thoughts of my own mortality and that of my loved ones, or even mundane matters like a mortgage. When I get there, my friends, let us visit Barbo's Dive Shop and search for a door into 1966, and when we find it, we shall all visit the Friendship Bar and toast absent friends, until the wee hours and our ages require us to return to this century.

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Prior to leaving the hotel parking lot - which was in the rear off the street as many of them were in those days - Pee Dang told me that his fee for the five days was 1,000 baht plus gasoline, payable in advance. I thought about it for a minute and tried to bargain with him, but he was quite firm and clinched it by saying "Is custom with GI tour." So, I promptly paid him and off we went, back along New Petchaburi Road. I realised afterwards, of course, that his insistence on being paid in advance was to insure that he got paid at all. Many of us GI's were quite capable of spending all our money on "wine, women and song" and stiffing the driver at the last minute.
The Toyota was fully air-conditioned and we moved slowly along the street. I had placed myself entirely in Pee Dang's hands in the matter of where we went and what sort of girls I would "go see" first.

The conversation went something like this: Pee Dang, "You come Bangkok befo'?"
Myself, "No, this is my first time."
Pee Dang, "You cherry-boy??" - with gales of laughter.
Me, "No, no, no! I never come Bangkok before."
Laughing, Pee Dang, "Okay. I take you go see girl. You like, okay. You no like, we go."
Myself, "Okay. Good idea."

Since I had absolutely no clue as to conditions there in the personal entertainment industry, I decided to trust him. I mean, after all, hadn't I just paid the man $50 for just that assistance? (Ah, how naive we are at 19, even after spending over a year killing our fellow man and committing various atrocities in the name of freeing the Vietnamese people.)

Our first stop was a fairly small bar on a street whose name I don't recall. However, it was one of the streets that gave onto a bridge over that canal that runs "behind" New Petchaburi Road almost immediately after the left turn. The "Whiskey A-Go-Go" was its name, if I recall correctly, and it was dark, smelled like stale cigarettes and beer, but the Singha beer was cold, the mugs were frosted, and there was enough light to tell that I was young enough to be the son of most of the "girls" who worked there. The music was American rock and roll, from a juke box of all things. One beer and Pee Dang - shrewd chap that he was - said, "We go, okay?", to which I replied with an enthusiastic "Yes!". Back out into a surprisingly bright day, into the Toyota and more air con, and back to New Petchaburi Road we went. Pee Dang was quite amused that women his age weren't my first choice, although I couldn't make out what he was saying, as it was in Thai and I hadn't learnt my first word of it yet.

Second was a larger better lit establishment called "Thai Garden", which looked to be modelled on a German beergarten with the outdoor tables, trellises, and band music playing through outside speakers. Inside was so crowded, I couldn't tell how the GI's were dancing with the girls. We didn't even stay for one beer, though I paid for it. Back outside to the car and away down the street.

Third was a place that looked like it was about as finished as the road, that is, not very. The facade wasn't complete, but the music was booming out through the closed doors. "Thai Heaven" was the name on the marquee. There was a live Thai band playing rock and roll music quite loudly and fairly well, but their rendition of the lyrics left something to be desired. The line from that Elvis song, "Onry foorls farr in roff", is just a sample. The girls were presentably dressed in mini skirts or mini dresses, young - at least nearer my age - and the tables were far enough apart to walk between them without danger of starting a brawl. I told Pee Dang, "I sit here" and pointed at a table, and he said, "Okay. I go," and pointed toward a group of tables off in a corner sort of where other drivers were sitting and having a light meal. A young lady asked me what I wanted to drink and I said, "Beer". Without waiting for me to name a brand, she left and soon returned with a 1-liter bottle of Singha and a - yep - frosted mug. "Twenny-fi' baht", she demanded, and I paid up as if it was the right price. Of course: the bars marked up everything about that amount above what the hotels and restaurants charged, except American food, which was perhaps triple the hotel cost and not worth half that much.

After a few sips of the beer, a young girl sat down beside me and gestured at a waiter. When I asked her what she was drinking, she pretended not to understand. Of course, they brought her "tea": some dark-coloured liquid that wasn't likely to be alcoholic or tea either. When I demurred, she said something pungent in Thai and got up and left.

The waitress came by and said, "Why you cheap charlie?", with palpable indignation.
After a sip or two of my beer - and she waited, believe it - I said "No cheap charlie".

"Shua, cheap charlie: no tea, no talk, GI". And the definitive put-down - in that time and place - "Watsa matter you?"

After that plaintive cry and urging to conform, how could I resist? Another girl sat down, I paid for her "tea" without a quiver, and discovered that she could actually talk English although we weren't discussing physics or international politics, as you might think. After considerable talking, she indicated she was both interested and available for the evening. I caught Pee Dang's eye and gestured as politely as I knew how for him to come over. He arrived, looking for the Indians, and grinned when I asked him how this was done. He spoke to the girl in Thai and then told me, "Short-time 100 baht. All night, 200 baht. You likey her?" I admitted that I was - temporarily as we all understood - smitten by her charms, and after a brief discussion in Thai, I was asked which I preferred and I confess I ponied up 200 baht. The waitress came over, wrote me out a ticket (I still don't know if it was a receipt or what), took my money and brought the girl back two tickets, the kind you get at raffles or old-fashioned county fairs, and we left.

I will draw a curtain over the ensuing events of the evening, but suffice it to say that I certainly got my money's worth, even after buying a meal in the middle of the night from a street noodle vendor.

More tomorrow, friends. Sometimes the memories seize me and it's difficult to separate myself from them enough to write intelligibly.

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

TRAVEL: A Thai Wedding in Thailand

One of the most important times in anyone's life is their wedding. Thailand is no exception to that and weddings are the subject of rituals and celebrations there as much as anywhere else. As the first Travel article, I thought I would introduce my readers to a Thai wedding. More specifically, the wedding ceremonies when my wife and I were married in Thailand.

Since I am a foreigner, I get to wear traditional American clothing to my wedding - no, not tuxedo or coat and tails! That was entirely too expensive to buy when we were married and there were no tuxedo rentals in Thailand in 1969. I had a nice suit made for the occasion. My wife, of course, wore a traditional Thai bridal outfit, made of silk and silk brocade, also custom made for the occasion. That includes a lovely but very tall hair style.

A traditional Thai wedding ceremony involves both religion and custom, just as our weddings do in America. The details are different, as you might expect, between those two ceremonies! Our Thai wedding was conducted in the house of a very good friend of mine, another American, who had earlier that year retired from the Army and was living and working in Thailand. It is a Thai custom to share every happy event in a person's life with other people in the neighborhood. Ours was no exception and in addition to what you might expect, we hired a cook and some helpers to cook a large meal which was to be served both to the monks who came to bless our wedding in the Buddhist way and those neighbors who wanted (or needed) to have a good meal and share our happiness.

Beginning about 5:30 a.m., my bride and I, dressed in new clothes, waited outside the house for the monks from the local temple to walk by. They did this every morning, to give the lay people the opportunity to make merit by donating food and items of everyday use such as flowers, candles and the like to the monks. After we had given food to the monks, we had a larger table set up, like a buffet, and served the first few people from the neighborhood who came by to share our wedding breakfast. After the first few, we left it to the servants and went inside and changed into our wedding clothes to begin the Thai wedding.

The bride and groom give gifts of food and other useful items to the monks at the beginning of the ceremony. And, as this is the first day of their new life as wife and husband, they do so together. giftsYou will notice that the monks do not take things from our hands. They are forbidden by the rules of their monastic life to touch a woman even on the hand; this rule is so strictly enforced, they may not touch anything at the same time a woman does so. Because of this rule, you see that we place the food and other gifts on a cloth, which the monk then draws toward himself. gifts2 This allows us to give gifts to a monk together, without insulting him and without his violating his vows.

The monks chant Buddhist prayers in the Pali language, gives a brief sermon on marriage in Thai and perform other religious rituals. One of those is to "bless" a small bowl of water. This blessed water is used by the couple to pour over each other's hands, as a symbol of their union.water After the prayers and chants are completed, we moved along the row of seated monks, bowing to each as a sign of our respect for them, and each of them in turn sprinkled us with blessed water. blessing The sermon about marriage is quite a bit like the ones you hear from the priests, preachers, reverends and rabis who marry people in America. The biggest difference was that it was spoken in Thai, not English!

Once the monks have completed their part, the traditional - rather than the religious - part of the wedding starts. The couple knee on what look a lot like prayer benches - but aren't - and the oldest person from either family places a crown made of string on the heads of the bride and groom. These are connected and made from a single piece of string that was blessed by the monks earlier.blessing The symbolism is exactly the same as with the wedding rings: two people joined as one. crowns The elderly lady who is "crowning" us in these photographs is my wife's maternal grandmother. At the time, she was 92 years old and was both pleased and amused by her granddaughter marrying an American. Next and finally, each person beginning with the eldest, pours water over our hands while giving us their wishes for a long, happy and fruitful marriage. hands When this is over, the socializing begins. By this time it is about 9:30 or 10:00 a.m. and those who haven't had breakfast now have lunch instead! The monks eat also, as it is considered a blessing on the house for them to eat there. That was our first wedding ceremony, but there are two more to come!

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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

STORIES - Thailand in the Sixties - Second Day

Starting off from where we left me back in June of 1966, sound asleep in my hotel room, in the Olympia Hotel (third floor front if I remember right). I awoke about 10 am, well-rested but a bit disoriented. I mean, we had left Vietnam - the front shooting part, not the rear-area, movie theatre and PX part - about 24 hours before my awakening. I was clean, the bed was clean, the air was fresh, cool and smelled like ... like nothing was dead within 100 miles. What an amazing thing that was! Well, off to the bath, another hot hot shower, brush the teeth, use the thoughtfully provided dental floss (that was something new back then, you know?), and a flush toilet. What a wonder all that was! Dress in my brand new blue jeans; I'd bought them at the PX in Ben Hoa just for the trip (everything else I had was either uniforms or rotted cloth.) And my new (in retrospect, hideously garish) short-sleeved shirt and my low quarter shoes.!
Down to the elevator, amazed by the quiet and the cool air. Tiny little elevator. (If you want to see one of comparable size, go to the Florida Hotel which is on the Phayathai Circle across from a branch of the Thai Military Bank and look at their elevator.) Hadn't seen a living soul yet, since about 4 pm the day before. Down to the lobby floor. Look left, there's the front desk with a young man and a couple of young lovelies behind the desk looking attentive. A couple of fellows a bit more disreputable looking hanging out there looked - somehow - like taxi drivers. Look about and there's couches and chairs and tables with ashtrays and newspapers all neatly racked. Nice. Restaurant to the right, not too large and only one customer at the bar. Walk into the restaurant and - another wonder! - it smells like food cooking as compared with .. well, best leave that description still-born in my memory. Nice place. Booths along the wall to the left, the front wall of the hotel, nice windows with curtains at each booth. Fake leather, just like in the States. About 20 feet wide and from the booths to the bar about 40 feet, just enough room for a half dozen 4-place tables and a nice bar the width of the room on the wall opposite the booths, with captain's chairs along the bar! And the bartender, who greets me with "How you today, sir?" The waiter invites me to a table and hands me a menu. What a delight

"You drink, sir?", he says.

"Coffee," says I.

He replies "Ice?" .. a bit of an impasse, as I had never been here before and had no clue about what iced coffee might be.

"Hot, of course!", say I. He retreats, no doubt wondering at what coupon redemption center I got my manners. I turn to the menu.

It is covered with plastic, rather in the manner of diners' menus in the States at that time; stiff, slippery, but oh, so homelike. The contents are unremarkable, a nice photo of what I take to be the front of the Olympia Hotel on the front of the menu. First page, "Soups/Saladas" ... ?? I read, and decipher that as salads, mainly because the ingredients are listed. Aside from a few odd spellings, it's quite intelligible. The waiter brings my hot coffee with real cream in a heavy ceramic or something creamer, plus a matching sugar bowl.

"Pork chops, please," say I. He mumbles something in Thai - I suspect now he was trying to decipher my pronunciation - and I point to the item on the menu.

No numbers oddly enough, but he read it right out: "Oh, Pok Shop. Yes, sir."

One more coffee later, my meal arrives: breaded pork chops, three in number, lightly browned; thick-sliced fried potatoes cooked just right; peas and carrots (and I didn't care if they were frozen, canned or fresh!), heavy silverware, a cloth napkin nearly large enough to use as a hand towel, a large glass of iced water with what were locally made dinner rolls. It was delicious beyond words! After about a year of Army food, principally C-rations (military field rations, canned in the 1940's) and poorly cooked mess hall meals, it simply isn't possible to explain how good that simple meal tasted. The waiter brought me more water, more rolls, offered me more fried potatoes and more vegetables and - for an extra charge - another pork chop, which was just as well prepared as the three I'd already finished. Two final cups of coffee with real cream and sugar and I was ready for the balance of the day. It was also nearly 1 pm when I got up from the table!

Approaching the bar, the bar tender asks me, "Beah, sir?".

"What do you have," says I?

"Beah-Singh, sir. Numbah one Thailand beah." So I agreed and he whips out a frosted mug that held half the liter that he brought out with his other hand. It was poured with just the right amount of foam head and set in front of me. We both admired his handiwork for a few seconds and then I reached out and tasted this nectar of the gods. Delicious! Fit for Vishnu himself. I had another. Then another. The fourth one disappeared down my gullet and I sat replete and oddly at peace. Then my bladder reminded me of more mundane matters.

"Where's the latrine?" I enquired in my perfect Thai (ha! In a drunken mumble, more likely!) and the bar tender indicated a door to his left. I stood down from my captain's chair and the floor had the termidity to jump up and strike me in the head! What cheek! The waiter helped me to regain my feet, if not my composure, and pointed out the door to the facilities, where I relieved my discomfort. When I returned to the restaurant, I looked at my watch and discovered it was nearly three pm. Leaving the bar - and a nice tip for those charming fellows - I entered the lobby again, this time seeking a taxi or hotel driver to guide me to the fleshpots of Krung Thep Maha Nakorn. The fellow at the desk referred me to a somewhat worn man standing near the door, smoking a cigarette.

"Mr. Dang, sir. He very good. He know all good places. Temple Emerald Buddha, also Thai Heaven Bar", and he smiled in that way that all of us who are semi-professional skirt chasers recognise.

"Thank you, sir." said I, and I left a tip for him as well.

So far, lunch, four beers, a connection with a taxi driver - who it turned out worked out of the Olympia Hotel - and all the tips amounted to about 220 baht, including all the tips. The meal was 130, the beer was 20 a liter, the tip in the restaurant was 30 for the bar tender and 20 for the waiter and then I tipped the desk fellow 20 more. And this was when the dollar was 20 baht, roughly. So, eleven dollars, US. Of course, I only was paid $192.50 a month in those days, so it was pricey. I financed this - and other of my earliest trips to Bangkok - by teaching young officers the mathematics associated with draw poker. As I recall, I had about $1200 with me for this first visit.

The desk chap said something to Mr. Dang in Thai and Mr. Dang walks up to me and says, "Hello, my name Dang. What you name?"

Of course, I said, "My name Bill. Hello, Mr. Dang."

To which sally he replied, "You no call me Mister. Pee Dang, okay; no mister." "You go bar now?"

And of course, I replied, "You betcha, Pee Dang!" which he took - albeit with a puzzled look on his face - to be an affirmative response. We walked outside and entered a brand new Toyota Corona four-door sedan, and he drove me off into the afternoon, looking for something in most of the wrong places. That was the second most surprising discovery of the day, after the pork chops: a brand-new Toyota Corona sedan in use as a taxi. Ah, only the first of many surprises awaiting that young Bill on that warm June afternoon back in the year 2509 B.E.

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