SIAM: The Queen

(Dec. 1972) I was on an extended leave in Florida from my base in northeastern Thailand at Nakon Phanom RTAFB (NKP), a few miles west of the border with Laos. While I was away I read in the paper that the base had been attacked. Our unit, the 6908th Security Squadron, participated in the Christmas bombings of Hanoi from December 18th to the 29th. Our intercept operators gave warnings on SAM (surface to air) launches aimed at the B-52s. Click image to enlarge photo.

I returned in early January of 73. I decided to fly commercial rather than military charter since on the last trip over I had extreme difficulty breathing. Of 167 troops on board, 165 were smoking. The aircraft was thick with smoke.

When we landed at Don Muang airport and I heard the announcement that everyone should have their passports ready, I realized I didn’t have one. The Thai chief of operations escorted me to his office and explained the situation.

The solution was for me to buy a round trip ticket from here to Hong Kong, get a passport at the U.S. Consul there, fly back to Bangkok, then catch a military flight to my base. So I wrote him a check, got my ticket and slept on his office couch. The next morning he escorted me to the plane. No passport was needed at Hong Kong, only my military ID.

I had twelve dollars when I landed and still had most of it when I left. The first thing I did was find a cab. The driver said he could get me to a nice hotel room cheap in Kowloon. The cab was a brand new Mercedes 240 and the driver took me to a hotel on a hillside, across from a British cricket match in progress. A cricket match can last for days.

Room is scarce in the Hong Kong area and this five-story hotel was squeezed between two larger buildings. The hotel couldn’t have been more than 16 feet wide, counting the hallway. The elevator was between two rooms. There was enough space to walk sideways around the bed but it was air-conditioned and furnished with a mirror, a chair, a nice television and a place to hang your clothes. The decor reminded me of a 1956 low cost American motel, only smaller. But it was comfortable and I could see the cricket match clearly from my window.

Early the next morning I hired a taxi that took me to the consulate in Hong Kong, which was across the water so we went by way of the Cross Harbor Tunnel which had been finished only months ago. The consulate took a few minutes to get me on my way and I returned to the motel. My plane was leaving for Bangkok at 1:00 the next afternoon but now I was starving for something to eat. I had eaten mostly fast food lately and I decided to find a nice restaurant in the business district.

The streets were filled with cars, many new, including Mercedes, Porsche’s and one Rolls Royce. The air was dingy, auto exhaust soot to about forty feet up. They did have a problem with pollution here. I went into a new high rise which was open in the center for several levels. At the top a sign read SANDY’S and I checked it out. It was perfect. The cafeteria was designed for office workers and I arrived just before lunch break.

It was a modern, clean cafeteria and served a wide variety of food. I spent 85 cents and had an excellent meal The foot traffic was busy walking back uphill but everyone kept to themselves, silent people marching in their own personal world, making plans. I stopped at the entrance to my hotel. Two more steps and I would have passed it. I’ve seen alley’s wider than that.

As I started to enter the hotel, the white Rolls Royce drove onto the cricket field where the match was still going on. On the second story balcony of the clubhouse the “fans” were sitting down at tables and having tea and crumpets. The men and women were all dressed in white. They were quiet although there was a competitive match taking place. However, no one was dressed in their team’s colors. There were no fans dressed as alligators doing the gator chomp with their hands. I t was all very proper.

The next day I took off and a few hours later I arrived at Don Muang, again. I got a lift on a C-47 that stopped at every base in Thailand. That’s how I met the Queen.

It was warm and dusty at every base we made a stop, riding the whole way sitting in web seats facing in toward the center. By the time I reached Udorn RTAFB, a couple of hours drive to the west of NKP, I decided to depart the plane and visit our other security squadron, take a shower, change clothes and chow down at the dining hall.

Later, feeling refreshed, I went to the bus station and bought a ticket to our base at NKP. The bus was a newer model, with comfortable seats and it was air-conditioned, unlike the pieces of junk that carried passengers from the base to NKP city. I carried a duffle bag and put it on the seat next to me as there was only a handful of passengers on board. The sun would be gone in a couple of hours and I was ready to hit the sack.

This area of the northeast is part of the Khorat Plateau, some hills, mostly rural all the way to the base. I noticed that one of the two Thai women sitting in front of me, the younger one, turned around, took a long look and smiled, then turned to the other one and tapped her on the shoulder. Then they both turned and I smiled back.

I decided they were mother and daughter. The daughter turned again and asked me something in a mixture of Thai and Lao. I retrieved my English-Thai dictionary and said,

Sa-waht dee kap.

Sawaht dee ka, she answered.

I didn’t mention it but she was extremely beautiful. So, of course I wondered why she wanted to talk with me. We continued to pass the dictionary back and forth, managing to converse somewhat.

As we approached the front gate of the air base, I asked for her name and address and she wrote it on a scrap of paper I had and she invited me to visit her at the address she  gave me. She told me her name was Porntip. I grabbed my bag and waved as I left the bus. I felt very much like I was in high school again. She was on my mind.

A few days later I went to Nakhon Phanom and asked an Indian tailor to make something nice for her and he suggested a pant suit. I gave him the address since she would have to visit the store to be fitted. I returned a week later and she left a note with the tailor. I had said that I would be down there to That Phanom on a certain day to see how she looked in her new outfit (pronounced Tat Panom).

Now that’s all I could think about. When my three days off arrived, I took the bus to NKP, then a taxi south to the town of That Phanom, the site of a religious wat (temple) which is supposed to hold the breastbone of the Buddha somewhere in the wall. Many people visit this shrine yearly.

The town is a bout forty miles south of Nakhon Phanom and I could see the wat straight ahead, towering above the town as we entered. The white spire is 57 meters tall and is decorated with 110 kilograms of gold. At the end of January and the beginning of February thousands of people visit the wat to participate in the ceremonies. The town itself was neat and the residents kept it clean, exactly the opposite of NKP.

I asked directions to her house. It was only two blocks north and the first house on the corner. I could see the Mekong River two blocks form her house. A cool breeze through the trees made me feel strange. It was like a dream, my being here. It was beautiful, serene, a universe away from home.

I went to the door and knocked. Her mother answered the door and I greeted her and asked for her daughter. She came to the door with that beautiful smile and pointed to a chair on the porch and we sat down. She was wearing that light green pants suit and she looked like a model. She brought a photo album with her and kept it on her lap as we fumbled around with my dictionary but we communicated much easier today. Her father, who was a school teacher, came out and introduced himself and sat down with us as a chaperon while she brought us some coca-colas.

But after a few minutes, her father became bored and went inside.

T REX 007I found out she was 17 and I assumed still in high school. We looked through her album and most of the photos were of her and her friends. I saw her in a majorette outfit, and she looked nice. She showed me another photo, made by a pro. She was sitting in a chair and wearing an elegant outfit and a crown. It turns out she had won first in a beauty contest and crowned, I assumed, the queen of That Phanom. (Click on photo.)

Then she took the photo out and wrote, stating in English and Thai, that it was a gift from her to me. And I was sitting there wondering why and not able to express the question adequately.

At that moment her brother came home from school with his books. He stepped up on the porch and we introduced ourselves. I looked up. He stood at least 6 feet 8 inches high. He was in good health, intelligent and physically sound. His parents, though, were maybe 5-2 and 5-7. I don’t know how that happened.

It really was an unusual afternoon for me. I was still in that same, pleasant dream. One day I’m trying to get back to my base and suddenly I’m here, in some kind of relationship with a young girl and her family.

I said good-by, see you soon, or something like that. She smiled and said something as I left.

I thought about what took place today as I walked to the main street and hailed a cab. We were driving back and I was pondering why this side trip occurred in my life. And I made a decision then to never return.


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