Going Back to the Land of Smiles
We read about guys going back to revisit the battlegrounds of Vietnam some 40 years after they served. Quite often what they find is vastly different than what they remember. There’s 2 sides to every coin (don’t count the edge).
Let me tell about my first trip alone in 1989 going back to Thailand after being leaving almost 19 years earlier. Any biker will tell you it’s the journey not the destination that makes a trip memorable and mine was no exception.
I left Bangkok on July 31st, 1970 with a dufflebag and my new bride. It was her first time ever leaving her family, friends, customs and her country without a basic grasp on the English language. We settled for a time in Boise, Idaho before returning to life in the Army and traveling around the world together.
In 1988 I was on orders for an unaccompanied tour to the Island of Japan. It was to be my final overseas assignment and it was the first time our family of four was separated in 19 years. The girls were in school, my wife had opened her beauty salon and I was off to still one more foreign land.
I arrived in Tokyo in early January 1989 and as I prepared for this new assignment I figured that a trip back to Thailand was in order. My wife and I had traveled with our elder daughter in 1973 and I figured going back alone would be a piece of cake.
Being the penny pincher that I am I decided to travel the very cheapest way possible – military space available and as there were no military flights from Japan to Thailand I had to get to Clark AFB in Manila and that was easier said than done. I had minimal cash so I used my checkbook on base to get enough money for the trip (I hoped).
I first had to get booked on a flight to the Philippine Islands. I went to nearby Atsugi Naval Base and was told they had no flights, but I should go to Yokota Air Base. I arrived shortly before an unscheduled Navy C-130 was about to take off. Lucky me – I got my boarding pass and soon we were onboard and airborne.
For those who haven’t flown in those cargo net seats alongside each wall of the aircraft, with palletized cargo secured in the middle this was definitely not first class. As I glanced around I found the urinal near the back of the plane. Nice to know when the urge hits you and yes it had a partial curtain for privacy. I began to take notice of the other passengers. They were all dependents, women, toddlers and infants.
This was my first time on a Navy flight where unaccompanied dependents were transported to the base where the fleet was anchored. Instead of Clark we were headed to the nearby Subic Naval Base but first we had to stop at the Iwakuni Marine base on the tip of the main island in Japan.
When we landed it appeared to be a typical air base with slots in the passenger terminal. After discharging cargo and picking up more headed to the PI we were called over by the pilot who had some weather updates to go over with us. He said there was a storm that could be pretty severe and might upset the little ones. He asked for a show of hands of who wanted to deplane here and wait for another unscheduled flight (should there be one) or brave the storm and head on in to PI? Everyone wanted to continue.
So we were airborne once again. Did I mention that outside the crew I was the only active duty and Army member on the plane? The storm was a bit rough but we made it and landed without incident. I was never so glad to get off that plane that smelled like soiled diapers, vomit and some really sick kids and moms.
It seems that there are no space available flights leaving Subic Naval Base and nothing scheduled out of Clark for Bangkok. I did notice a lone Army VIP aircraft parked near the passenger terminal. I was told it was going to Thailand and I had to convince the pilot to take me. So I figured I’m Army and in uniform and it’s an Army plane – no problem. Wrong! The pilot was on an exercise called Cobra Gold and unless I was too, no dice. He would make no exception, I even told him he didn’t have to land, just touch and roll and I’d bail out? Nope!
I had to purchase a one way ticket from Manila to Bangkok. It was Friday and the flight wouldn’t leave until Monday. So I found that the recreation center had snorkel gear and a bungalow on a nearby beach. Not a problem since I’m scuba certified (Canal Zone in 1976). I rented the bungalow for the weekend.
As I stepped off the small boat on the island I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself as this sailor wanted to impress his girlfriend and stepped into the water and into the middle of what looked like a school of jelly fish (That must of hurt)!
I stowed my bag inside and grabbed my snorkel gear I headed for a spot without any jelly fish and began a couple hours of snorkeling. This was the life! What I didn’t count on was coming out of the water with a bad case of sunburn and a touch of sun stroke. I managed to get the girl who had opened the bungalow for me to find some blankets and I spent the next 24 hours in bed covered by blankets and freezing.
I felt a bit better on Sunday and took the bus to the Hilton in Manila. I had reserved a room for $25 per night. The bus stopped in front of the hotel long enough for me to grab my bag then took off. I walked into the lobby like I owned the place. Asked for my room and was told – no reservation found. (They didn’t even have a computerized system either). Soon the desk clerk came back apologizing and said all he had was a suite. He could let me have it for the price of the room I had reserved. I went upstairs to find a living area, a couple of bedrooms and a kitchenette – all to myself.
The next day I got a bus to the airport. I walked in and found a spot on a hard wooden bench. It was too early to check in so I had to wait. I don’t know if you remember the 1986 Michael J. “Crocodile” Dundee movies but the guy next to me was the spitting image, even had the accent “Mate”. He asked me to watch over his luggage as he went to talk to the Sheila at the counter. Soon he was back and it was time to check in.
As I was going through the immigration station the agent checking my ticket tried to get me to buy him a .45 cal. Pistol in the US and bring it back to him. He wouldn’t take “no way” for an answer. I had to wait a couple of hours in the duty free lounge and always had my back against the wall.
I gave a sigh of relief as I sat into my seat on the Thai Airways flight to Bangkok. Nice customer service, hot towel, hot food and a relaxing flight. We landed just before midnight at Don Muang International Airport. Going through customs was simple and soon I found myself outside the terminal.
I was headed north but didn’t want to give away my destination to just anybody. I began walking and this kid (young man) kept after me to use his brother’s taxi. He wanted to know where I was going and when I told him I was going north to Suriburi, he asked why I was walking south? I finally took his brother’s taxi to the bus stop a couple of hours north in Suriburi. The bus to Korat was pulling out and he managed to flag the busser who got the bus to wait for me.
I stood just inside the back door, holding on to the overhead rail for balance. What I found was this bus was a Cha-Cha (very slow) bus that stopped for ANYONE alongside the road. It was a long night. Finally we got to Korat and I changed buses, catching the one to Khon Kaen. By the time I arrived it was around 8AM and I had been up all night.
The town looked familiar and I thought a bowl of meatball soup would be nice. I found the first restaurant open was a fishball soup place that triggered a bad experience I’d had one time in Bangkok, but I ate it and it wasn’t too bad.
Next I wanted to ride a Samlar (bicycle taxi) out to the village. Found an older taxi guy, agreed on a price and I settled down for the maybe ½ mile ride. When we got to the main road he refused to cross the 4 lanes in each direction highway. (It had been a 2 lane road the last time I was there). So I paid him and grabbed my bag and made my way across the highway and headed up to the temple at the top of the hill.
At least I knew where I was going and this part I could do easily right?
As I walked into the temple yard and exited through the gate on the other side I stopped dead in my tracks.
As I looked around gone was the single telephone and electric light pole for the village that had drastically changed. It was no longer a sleepy little village, but had more houses and streets than I remembered.
I was lost!
Well at least I could converse right? I spotted a small shop and as I approached I asked “Bon Nung Sah Sip Hoke tee ni cop” (where is house #136 madam)? (Loosely translated)
She just stood staring like she was listening to an alien…..I guess she was because after all I was a farong = foreigner. Then a man came up the street and she asked if he could understand what I was saying?
I asked the same question = Where is house #136? I had to repeat it a couple of times before he understood and said to go down this street, 2 cross streets and turn left. I thanked him and headed that way.
After 2 cross streets I turned left and BAM = lost again!
I spotted another shop and asked the same question = Where is house #136?
She had that same deer in the headlight look as the first lady.
Then I remember I had a fairly recent photo of my wife and I in my wallet. I pulled out the photo and her face lite up and she called out to her neighbor “Tian’s husband is here”. (I understood her better than she did my Thai). Immediately my brother-in-law came out from the next house where he was cutting hair (he was a barber). He sent one of the boys to fetch his mother at the nearby rice processing plant.
I had never met him or the two boys before but when I had last seen my sister-in-law she was a lot younger. The next morning I wanted to go out to the old camp. She sent the elder boy with me. I told him get us on the bus to Udorn and when I say stop the bus he would yell “Jot Duey”.
As the bus pulled away we stood looking at several of the old billets that were still standing. Most of the base had been taken down. I took a few pictures and then a man appeared asking what we were doing?
The nephew said this crazy American said this used to be an American base.
The man confirmed what I’d said. He had even been a Thai Security Guard at the base and lived nearby. He invited us over to his house for a glass of water and he explained further about our big trucks.
We caught the next bus back to town, and walked out to the village. I ended up spending a couple of nights but had to call JUSMAG to find out about a flight to Clark. I needed to get on the list and had to do it in person at the JUSMAG compound. I decided I’d splurge on a flight to Bangkok it cost $45 and lasted about 30 minutes, but served a hot towel and a meal.
I found a taxi driver who knew where the compound was and took me there at a fair price. After I signed up on the roster, a van showed up to load the passengers and take us to Don Muang RTAFB. We got on a C-130 and as we were taking off the pilot got a call diverting us to Chiang Mai to pick up a hurt American soldier and his doctor and bring them back to Bangkok. Then after dropping them off at Don Muang we headed for Clark Air Base in the Philippine Islands.
Since I had only taken a 14 day leave when we landed at Clark I was close to being out of leave time. Lucky for me they got me on a flight to Yokota and I called for one of my military taxi drivers to pick me up and take me to Camp Zama to sign in from leave.
I learned some valuable lessons. Plan your trip wisely. Take enough money to last. Use a guide when traveling in a foreign country. Learn to ask important questions “hong nam u-tee ni” (where is the bathroom) and “towlie Cop” (how much)? Thai people are friendly and yes they smile a lot. If you make the effort to communicate they will meet you more than halfway.
I’ve been back to Thailand many times over the years and we generally have a good time, see lots of “non-touristy” things and always the food is good and it is spicy hot.
Our girls are now grandmas and all of OUR grandkids have been to Thailand at least once. They love the people and they really love to eat Thai food. Our house is southwest of Bangkok about 2 miles off the beach and not so much of a touristy place. My favorite part is getting up early grabbing a cup of coffee and watching the sun come up in the east. (Oh and the air condition, I love the air condition) – I am the Real Truckmaster!