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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