Saturday, July 01, 2006

STORY: Thailand in the Sixties - First Day

Today, Sherman, we'll set the way-back machine to June, 1966...."
I have no conscious recollection of the flight from Ben Hoa, RVN. Mainly because I had gotten seriously drunk the night before the flight to Bangkok, there at the barracks they had us in and so was comatose most of the flight. I was awakened by the smells of Thailand, wafting through the newly-opened cabin door of the 707 and the rather loud sounds of about 150 soldiers - each as horny as a three-peckered billy goat - who were being told we had to wait another hour to get near enough to the terminal building to unload. (For those who may not know, that year the entire terminal was that one building that has "Bangkok, Thailand" in neon on the taxiway side of it.)

About ten minutes later, an enterprising fellow in the ground crew wheeled up a set of stairs, the doors were fully opened and we all rushed out into the bright sunlight of the early afternoon of Bangkok. The smells of frang-pangi and jet fuel mixed into a combination that still to me says, "You're in Bangkok". An interminable time later, several Army buses came for us, those few (officers) who had more than an AWOL bag they carried on the plane got their bags and the officers were whisked off to whatever hole in the ground they got to go to. We, the elite enlisted fighters of Uncle Sam's baby-killer branch, got to listen to nearly two hours of dull boring "orientation" lectures about Thailand. The only parts that stuck were: (1) Stay in your own part of town unless a Thai takes you elsewhere; (2) It's not necessary to rape anyone, they make their livings bonking you.

Another endless bus ride and I found myself looking out on a street that wasn't quite finished. The sidewalks were dirt and the street itself was only about one full lane and a wide shoulder paved. The rest of the street was - right the first time: dirt. (Later - perhaps years later - I found out this was "New Petchburi Road" or as the Thais call it "Petchburi Dhat Mai - 'New Cut'".)

The bus pulled into a startlingly modern hotel, about six or eight stories high, pulled around to the back and our military guide said, "This is where you boys get out. Don't forget: six days from today, we're coming back for you and if you're not here .... well, you want to be here." At which we all laughed. We got out, formed another of those inevitable lines that military life brings, and waited our turns to check into the back desk of the Olympia Hotel. (Nowadays, I think it's been called the "Modern Hotel" or something, but it's still there, just down the block from the Morokot Hotel.)

Finally - with a bellhop struggling with my AWOL bag containing four changes of underwear, socks and tee-shirts plus a shaving kit I hardly ever had to use apart from the toothbrush - I entered my room. There were two twin beds, only one person (me!) in the room, nice bath and windows. I gave the bellhop 20 baht (we had changed a bit of money at the orientation centre) and took the room key. The room key was a normal size, but it was attached to a wooden or plastic rectangle large enough to use as a "boogie board". I suppose they were afraid we'd steal the keys, else.

The bellhop left, I locked the door behind him. Tore off my khaki uniform, pitched it and my underclothing onto the floor, turned on the hot water in the shower and showered until I looked like a prune. I dried off, wrapped a towel around me, and went and took the badges and other crap off my uniform. I put the badges and brass into a drawer under the large mirror that faced my bed, called Housekeeping and finally got someone who understood "laundry". A tiny Thai woman picked up my khakis, underwear and the worst of the clothes I had brought with me. I returned to the bathroom, filled the tub with the hottest water I could stand (sit in, actually) and promptly fell asleep. When I woke, it was dark outside. My laundry had been returned while I slept and was clean, neatly folded and put away into the drawers of the dresser. The khakis were pressed neatly and properly, my badges restored onto them, and they were hanging on a clothes hanger in the closet/wardrobe, with my spit-shined low-quarter shoes underneath them. One of the two civilian outfits I had brought with me - both quite unique: blue jeans, white tee-shirt, coloured short-sleeved shirt, and white socks - was laid out on the empty bed next to mine. Mine had the covers pulled back, there was a fresh pair of large bath towels on my pillow, and they had stocked the little refrigerator. A note on the top of the 'fridge told me that I didn't have to pay extra for what was in it. I got my clean underwear on, turned out the lights, crawled between the cleanest sheets I had seen in over a year, savoured the air conditioning for the thirty seconds it took me to fall back to sleep, and woke up about 10:00 a.m. the next day, refreshed and ready for the delights of the City of Angels. I was 19 and that was a very long time ago, gentlemen and ladies, and I remember it as if it were yesterday.

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Thursday, June 29, 2006

STORIES - Thailand in the Sixties Introduction

If there were time machines, I'd go back to about 1960 or so and travel slowly around in Thailand, watching all the beautiful women (I did tell you - didn't I? - that the ugliest woman I'd ever seen was drop-dead lovely?) in various stages of life and various states of dress and undress: from walking down the streets of Bangkok in mini-skirts to plodding along behind the water buffalo wearing a sarong and blouse out in the countryside.

Listening to the water in the Chao Paya River. Watching Wat Arun light up in the mornings - it is the Temple of Dawn, after all. Having a small house with a garden and a competent staff, out on one of the far lanes of Sukhumvit Road (in those days, probably about Soi 35 or 40), and a driver with a small car to drive me around.

To wake up and hear the sounds of Bangkok in the 60's. To give food to the monks along the soi early. To pay respect to the Emerald Buddha in his magnificent temple on the Royal Palace grounds before all the Japanese, Vietnamese and the European tourists started coming. Take a boat ride up the Chao Paya River to Ayuthaya and walk through it listening to the ghosts. To watch the fireballs of the Naga King rise out of the waters of the Mekong River, without 7,000 foreigners and their inevitable noise and cameras. To see the original bridge over the Kwainoi River that those British POWs built at such terrible cost. To leave flowers at the British and Indian military cemeteries in Kanchanaburi, when they were on the edge of town not downtown. To see the elephant round-up at Surin when the elephants were really employed afterwards. To see the orchids open on the northern mountainsides before Christmas, through a medium mist and a gentle breeze. To visit Pataya Beach before all the building-up and sit on the beach again and watch the waves and listen to the wind. To visit the temple on top of Doi Sutep and feel the transitory, illusory nature of things. To watch Thai movies at the old (now torn down) Krung Chalerm Theatre, sitting in a 30-baht air-conditioned box with our own waiter and smoking permitted. To ride from Bangkok to Khorat (and return) on the old orange buses, buying fresh fruits and "coca cola in a plastic baggie" at the stops, smelling the burning marijuana as the farmers burn off the weeds. To hike again to that temple along the old Friendship Highway and spend the day in meditation and prayer.

To drink so much Singh beer that I cannot remember where I was after the third one. To indulge all the fleshly urges to anguished excess. To repent and know without thinking about it that there is time yet to successfully repent of such sins.

To travel to the States and - unbeknown to them - watch my Mom and Dad and brothers and sisters (and myself I suppose - how odd!) from time to time and feel sad and nostalgic and all that. To visit all the places of my childhood, still as fresh in reality as they are in my memory. To see all the old friends and relatives mostly long gone from this vale of tears.
And finally, to sit in the Friendship Bar next to Barbo's Dive Shop in the village of Pattaya just south of the Tree-in-the-Road on the Beach Road and drink myself insensible toasting to absent friends. All those things, my friends, would I visit and re-visit were there time machines.

Ah, yes. That's why there are no such machines: the world would stop for all the people scurrying back into their personal pasts to relive "the best parts" and to watch "just one more time" long-departed loved ones; the temptation to meddle and speak to Dad again would overwhelm even my good sense and eventually the time-space continuum (or whatever it is) would collapse. And, since it hasn't ended, there are no time machines. Allah the Merciful and Loving-kind be praised that is so.

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

What is "Ikeland"?

This is the imaginary place you have come to:

"This is the online equivalent of a quiet moderately dark bar. There is a long bar along the left side as you enter, with bar stools in the appropriate places. On the bottom front of the bar is a footrail. There are a few ashtrays along the bar, but no salted peanuts. This isn't that kind of a place. The bartender is an atractive younger woman, who speaks English, French, German, Swabian, Italian, Australian, American and all the other various dialects we mumble in. There is a large oil painting hung over the bar. The subject is an elephant hunt and the climactic scene in the hunt is depicted there, rendered in a wonderfully realistic manner. You can plainly see the rage and betrayal in the old bull elephant's eyes, as he stomps the living you-know-what out of some white man in a safari suit. Elephant gun? Yes, but it's in pieces, there under the tree.

To the right are a number of tables, four if my aging eyes don't deceive me. There are some of those delightful old-fashioned candle holders there; you know the ones: you can light your cigarette by holding the glass under it. Several couples are there, enjoying each other's company, a bit of nice wine and a pleasant meal produced by the bar's chef. Further to the right, where a dance floor might be in a less civilized place, are a number of wing chairs and reading lamps. All three chairs are occupied by folks reading some intensely interesting material from the bookshelves. There in the far right-hand corner at a nice table are two lads enjoying a quiet game of chess. Telly? Not in here. Band? Likewise absent. Jukebox? No gottie, GI. This is where old Friends of the Elephant come to relax and let the cares of the day be carried off by the pleasant atmosphere. Can you feel the relaxation beginning yet?"

Short fiction and perhaps something novel-length if I can manage to write enough will be in my Story posts. I have one completed short story and one nearly done with about six or seven more in draft. I have the plot outline and major characters begun for the novel. I have the first three Travel articles already written, complete with photographs. Unfortunately, they are the tale of my wedding in Thailand in 1969; fortunately, they're not too long. The next Travel posts will be genuine travel pieces, but because it's the most foreign place I know the most about, most of the Travel posts will be about Thailand.

If I can figure out how to do it, the photos will open from links in the Travel articles and there will be translations of foreign words and phrases as well as brief explanations of foreign customs that are likely to be unfamiliar to Western readers. Those translations and explanations will also open in new windows, linked from the article.

I promised not to "rant" too often and will always try to be civil, understandable and accurate.

Welcome to Ikeland - the Elephant says hello. Oh, by the way - I'm Ike.

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