(May 1972) I had just finished my training at the NSA site on the Royal Thai Air Force Base about a dozen miles west of Nakhon Phanom, Thailand. I had only been here at Camp Tarbox since April and Ted, our instructor, also known as Teddy, volunteered to show our little group around town if we went to his apartment on Saturday and waited for him there. He would arrive by 10:30.
We checked out at the base front gate and bought our tickets from a kid about ten years old, then got on the bus. It was already crowded and we had to stand up, which is a bit uncomfortable because the ceiling is low for westerners. Most of the Thais have no problem because they average about five feet seven.
The buses were old Mercedes, picked up from a sale in Bangkok. On our bus some of the floor had been replaced with wood and the windows had lots of replacements made of plastic. Some were hanging loose and the passenger needed to hold them in place when the monsoon rain starts pouring down. Always try the window before picking a seat. Just some of the helpful advice I received from others who had learned from experience.
We drove east toward NKP and the Mekong River, a distance of 12 kilometers. We seemed to stop every quarter mile or so to let someone off but we remained tightly packed together. As soon as a passenger departed, another one got on. At one stop a lady and her friend got on at the rear door and placed a large basket on the floor filled with bananas and two live chickens, tied securely.
No one talked. The noise of the bus drowned out the largest shouts. So you just observed and thought about what you would say when the trip was over.
Each community of homes we passed displayed their version of tract houses; single family wooden structures on stilts, little garden plots scattered about and animals occasionally wandering through the yards. Making appearances were chickens, dogs, water buffaloes and once, a gigantic hog looking like some prehistoric beast, her belly touching the hard red clay.
As we neared Nakhon Phanom and a slight hill, I could see some very large trees, possibly Oak, that gave shade to a Vietnamese cemetery on the right. I could tell by the inscriptions on the tombstones (possibly Catholic). On our left, hidden behind a high brick wall, the oddly shaped and brightly colored roofs of a Thai Wat, or Buddhist monastery, clashed with the quiet green of still more Oak trees.
On the downside of the hill, the view was spectacular. A bright, golden sun welcomed us to NKP as we crossed over a meandering creek.We were surrounded by lush green foliage, stands of bamboo and frail wooden houses on stilts, turned grey from years of assault by summer monsoons and winter sun.
We pulled into a Shell service station on the corner of the first street past the creek, heading north. We immediately encountered vendors selling everything from bananas in coconut batter to cheap jewelry made in Hong Kong. A group of Laotian youths with muscular legs stood by their three-wheeled samlors eagerly offering to take us anywhere we wanted to go for a couple of baht (ten cents).
We declined and began a short walk up the street, past a large, two story bar with a wagon wheel out front. First impression of NKP, not good. Also the same for my second impression. A newspaper reporter once called NKP something out of the wild west. Another block and we were at the address but the front of the apartments were around back. There were only two units and Teddy’s was on the second floor.
We knocked on the door but no one was home, so we waited. A few minutes passed and a Thai woman came up the stairs with a young boy. After we explained that we were here to meet up with Teddy, she opened the door and let us in and offered cokes for everyone, which we gladly accepted. Only bottled water is safe to drink in most places. Otherwise it’s not worth the risk.
Her name was Liam and her son was Jason. He was a cute kid but he looked at us with what I perceived as apprehension. Perhaps from unpleasant memories. Liam said she stopped by to get some info for their passport photos.
‘Teddy and I are getting married. We’re going to America in August.”
We all glanced at each other and I said “Congratulations.”
Teddy told us another story about leaving alone.
She took Jason by the hand and walked out the door. “You can wait here for Teddy.”
As time was moving on, Teddy finally arrived and we left, crossed the street and went north another block to the farmers’ market, where everybody goes to buy their food. The thing to remember, Teddy said, was always taw rakah, bargain for a lower price. But they know that Americans are rich so don’t overdo it.
I noticed a powerful, unique odor from the open market. I didn’t want to be obvious so I took small breaths in the 95 degree heat. There were no refrigerators or freezers at the market and a lot of the food was highly perishable. For example, fish, beef, chicken and shrimp paste, which was piled two feet high in a large metal bowl. Flies were everywhere. In the beef section, barefoot women sat cross-legged as they cut up pieces of raw meat while occasionally waving at the full scale attack. I didn’t buy anything and I headed back out the entrance where Teddy and the others were waiting.
“Lost your way?” Teddy asked
“No. Just a little woozy. Takes a little getting used to”
We went north again to where the two streets join together. On a triangle at the junction of the streets is the Ho Chi Minh Clock, which didn’t run. Uncle Ho lived in NKP for a while before becoming the leader of North Vietnam. Most of the North Vietnamese in this part of town were loyal to Ho. They did have spies monitoring our base and serving as advisors to a communist insurgency near Sakhon Nakhon, an hours drive past our base on the same road we just arrived on.
We strolled across the street from the clock to a shady park overlooking the Mekong River. I leaned against the low brick wall and observed the water some 35 to 40 feet below. We were about to enter the rainy season and the water can, at times, reach the top of the river bank. I could barely see part of the provincial capital Thakek through the thick treeline on the Laotian side. Behind this town a line of limestone mountains stretched from north to south. These strangely-shaped karsts reminded me of those beautiful, mystical mountains of Kweilin, seen in so many Chinese paintings.
Teddy said we could walk around and get acquainted if we like.
“To get on the bus, just go down this street, past the clock and turn right at the next street. It’s two blocks to the Shell station. Don’t pick up anything until you see the medical film at the commander’s call.”
The other four decided to head back to the base but I noticed a little shop across from the clock where they sold ice cream and other snacks, so I decided to stay. I ordered a container of Durian ice cream and a coke to wash it down.
I took a window seat at the rear. This part of the building is supported by a network of wooden beams driven into the river bank. The store owner was tuned into a Thai station playing western music:
“Try now we can only lose. And our love become a funeral pyre. Come on baby light my fire.”
I looked across the river at the ancient mountains where some tribes were still living in a time that hadn’t moved forward in many ways, for 500 years. And Jim Morrison rocked on a few kilometers away. I bought another Durian ice cream and started my second serving of that unique fruit when I heard a roar outside. It got louder and more threatening. I stared out the window and, maybe 25 feet above the river, a Thai air force jet fighter on patrol passed below my window. The pilot waved. I waved back.
Strange days, indeed.
Filed under: Siam