Monday, December 25, 2006

STORIES - THAILAND IN THE SIXTIES - Day Three

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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