On the night of May 11, 1969, I found myself flying over Vietnam on Pan Am 1 bound for Bangkok. The cabin was dark, everyone dozing. I peered out the window and thought about the war raging 28,000 feet below me at that moment. It was surreal.
Down in the darkened jungle, Viet Cong and American soldiers were ambushing and killing each other, grenades were blowing off arms and legs, and napalm bombs were turning Vietnamese kids into human torches. Above it, we floated in peace, stewardesses offering us after dinner drinks, asking us if we needed a pillow.
I felt ashamed to be looking out the window like a gawker at an auto accident, but I was grateful not to be there yet.
An hour after midnight on May 12, 1969, we stepped stiff-legged out of the air-conditioned plane onto the tarmac at Don Muang airport and into a steam bath. The sun had set hours earlier, but the temperature was still 95 degrees. The monsoon season had just started. Thunderous downpours cooled the city down for an hour or two each afternoon, only to leave behind a sauna each night. My shirt clung to my body like a wet rag as we boarded a bus for the Petchburi Hotel.
We arrived at 2:00 A.M. and found the pool bar still serving, packed with GIs and their girls, speakers blaring out the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” Hugh and I tossed our bags in our room and hurried down to taste our first Singha. Beer was cheap – 35 cents a bottle and a lot stronger than Budweiser. Either that or I was wasted from the 19-hour flight and dizzy from the heat. I downed two before staggering back to my room and collapsing into a dead sleep.
The next morning, we gathered together at the Peace Corps office on Soi Somprasong for a half-day medical orientation. They wanted to alert us to some of the unique health risks we faced during our two-year stay in the Land of Smiles.
Dr. Ron, the Peace Corps doctor, started off by cautioning us about eating food from street vendors. Of course, everybody did just that for the next two years. I only wavered twice.
The first time, I bought from a street hawker an iced, black coffee served Thai-style in a plastic baggie with a straw, and was sipping away. Halfway down the street, I noticed a gap-toothed old man pulling similar plastic bags out of a trash bin and dunking them in a bucket of dirty, gray water. Next to him stood a bamboo rack with more plastic bags, washed and hung out to dry. I walked over and asked him what he did with his bags. They were sold to vendors, he explained – like that one down there, pointing to the stand where I had just bought my oliang. I stopped sipping, looked at the half-empty bag…. and said what the hell. I finished the coffee and gave him the bag.
The second time, I was slurping a bowl of kwaitieo noodles at lunch, reading the Bangkok Post, when I spotted a story about a police raid on one of the factories that made the little luuk chin meatballs which floated in every bowl of noodles along with bean sprouts and a blob of congealed blood. The owner admitted to going out at night and catching stray dogs which he turned into little meatballs and sold to noodle vendors. The story didn’t say which noodle vendors he sold his dogballs to, so again I figured, what the hell, and finished my lunch.
Food warnings delivered, Dr. Ron switched to diseases. He pointed to a tower of boxes stacked on a table next to the door.
“Those are anti-malaria tablets. When you leave, grab a box. Take one Aralen every Sunday for the next two years, and don’t stop until you’ve been back in the States for a month.”
We needed to boil our drinking water, he warned, and see a doctor if we came down with acute diarrhea. Para-cholera had broken out in the northeast jangwats, and cholera had just been discovered in the Chao Phraya river, Bangkok’s water supply.
“Keep current on all your booster shots while you’re in country if you don’t want to be mai sabay,” he warned.
He passed out copies of a 33-page mimeographed “Medical Manual” which told us how to emergency self-treat 49 different medical crises from cobra bites and intestinal parasites to pregnancy and LSD overdoses. Even hiccups earned a paragraph. “Hold your breath and drink a glass of water – boiled of course. While still holding your breath, rub the left side of your neck with your right hand for about 15 seconds.” For some reason, it advised us to be seated while attempting this. If that failed, we were advised to “Check with your friends for a local village remedy. That’s usually as good as anything we can offer.”
Then he turned to rabies.
“Rabies is a virus that attacks the central nervous system,” he announced with grim solemnity. “And it’s 100 percent fatal.” In a matter of days, the untreated victim’s symptoms progress from paralysis and delirium to coma, cardiac arrhythmia and finally death.
He had our attention.
He held up a photo of a mangy dog – animals which I noticed on the bus ride over seemed to populate every street corner. Thais were Buddhists so they didn’t like to kill strays.
“Ok, so you’re riding your bicycle, a dog is sleeping in the road, and you accidentally roll over its tail. It jumps up and bites you on the leg. What do you do?”
“Pedal away as fast as you can?” suggested one Volunteer. The doctor frowned. Obviously the wrong answer.
“No,” he said, “You must capture the animal and observe it for ten days to see if it dies or not. If the dog is still alive and well at the end of this period, it didn’t have infectious rabies at the time of the bite.”
I’m thinking to myself – a very angry dog with sharp fangs takes a chunk out of your leg and you’re supposed to hop off your bicycle, chase him down and grab him? A girl’s voice piped up in the back of the room. It was Kathy.
“And if it won’t allow itself to be captured and taken home?”
“Then you need to kill it, cut off the entire head – well below the jaw – place it in a plastic bag or tin can with some dry ice, and bring it to Bangkok for testing.”
Everyone waited for the punch line. But there was none. He was dead serious. Your average, middle-class American from the suburbs would faint if he saw a cow being turned into a Big Mac. And that included most of us in the room.
“They gotta be nuts!” Hugh whispered. I raised my hand.
“What about the rabies shot we got in Hawaii?” I demanded. “Doesn’t that protect us?”
“Theoretically, this gives you a better chance of surviving a rabid animal bite because it gives your immune mechanism experience with the virus,” Dr. Ron explained. The way he said ‘theoretically’ made it sound more like ‘improbable’ or ‘unlikely.’ “But if we can’t confirm that the animal wasn’t rabid, we can’t take chances. You will be given a 14-day course of painful injections in the stomach.”
Suddenly, hacking the head off a dog sounded like something I could do. I could see other volunteers nodding their heads and scribbling away, probably making a note to price a machete.
Finally, he warned us about VD. Thailand was world-famous for its bar girls. We had seen them at the Petchburi Hotel. Thousands of American GIs had come and gone on R&R, returning to Vietnam and the States with tales of how cute Thai prostitutes were, and how mai pen rai – no big deal – Thais were about sex. Like street vendor food, he knew some male Volunteers in the room were going to sample this forbidden fruit. All he could do was try and scare us.
“Let me give the men in this room a few facts to think about,” he said. “Fifty percent of all prostitutes in Thailand have gonorrhea. Catch it and you’ll feel a painful, burning sensation every time you urinate. A white, yellow, or green pus-like discharge from the penis is also common, along with painful or swollen testicles. Believe me, it’s no fun.”
He paused for effect, his eyes slowly sweeping the room, then continued. “There’s a new strain of VD going around called ‘Saigon Rose.’ Penicillin doesn’t always work on it, so don’t walk around thinking all you have to do is get a shot and you can start all over. You’re playing Russian roulette every time you take a prostitute. My advice – don’t do it.”
I could see girls in the room smiling. Tell them, doctor, tell them. As soon as we arrived in country, trainee romances started fading. Girls who looked great in Hilo suddenly looked tamada in Thailand, plain and ordinary compared to exotic Thai girls. It was hard not to look at the husbands of the four married couples in our group and think, “tough break, pal.” Thailand was a bachelor’s paradise and they were left standing outside the gates.
The next day, we got a surprise audience with General Jack, head of the U.S. Army mission in Thailand. Kevin Delany, our Thai Peace Corps Director, ran into him at the posh Royal Bangkok Sports Club and the generalissimo told Delany we were all Americans – Volunteers and GIs in Thailand needed to understand each other better, even if we were barred by Congress from working together.
The “War Corps” dwarfed the Peace Corps in Thailand. Over 45,000 U.S. Air Force personnel and 500 aircraft operated out of bases in northeast Thailand, bombing targets in neighboring Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. We would also be sharing the Kingdom with another 5,000 military advisers, spooks, information spinners and rural development specialists helping the ruling military junta of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn and Gen. “Porky” Praphat Charusathian to battle communist guerilla insurgencies in the North and Northeast. They worked for an alphabet soup of agencies Volunteers bumped into everywhere they went in country – JUSMAG, MACTHAI, USOM. ARD, USIS, USAID.
Delany very reluctantly agreed. Peace Corps around the world was on the defensive. One recruitment ad showed a Volunteer standing in front of a thatched hut, surrounded by a group of native kids. The headline read, “If you told these people the Peace Corps is the hypocritical extension of an imperialistic establishment’s military-industrial complex, they would think you were crazy….And you would be.” Right or wrong, Peace Corps had to deal with the perception. The personal safety of Volunteers sent upcountry to remote, rural villages, depended on Peace Corps keeping its distance from General Jack and his friends. The Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) branded Peace Corps as a tool of America’s counter-insurgency effort in Thailand. The day we landed in Thailand, the CPT’s China-based radio station, Voice of the People of Thailand, broadcast the arrival of a new group of American “spies,” and read off our names, one by one.
“What’s he gonna talk about – how to spot a commie?” one Volunteer groused.
“Nah, he’s gonna ask for your draft card. He wants to make sure you didn’t burn it.”
“One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war.”
They ushered us into a large, well-equipped conference room, coffee and notepads waiting our arrival. A young second lieutenant manned a slide projector, a map of Thailand already up on the screen. That could be me in two years, I thought, taking my seat.
General Jack seemed like an honorable guy, but he blew it a minute into his welcome speech. Just like us, he grinned, he had only been in country a short time, but he had already learned something important and wanted to share it with us. “You may find the Thai people are not very swift, but they’re great little people.” We groaned in embarrassment. He truly meant it as a compliment, but it wasn’t much better than calling them slopes or dinks. One Volunteer tried to call him out on his blunder, but the general had his slides to get through.
At the end of the week, Peace Corps bussed us over to the Thai Ministry of Education where they announced our assignments.
“Hugh Leong – Yupharat Boys School, Chiang Mai.”
“Alright!” Hugh pumped his fist. He was headed 800 kilometers north, almost to the border of China. But Chiang Mai was perhaps the prettiest town in Thailand, nestled in the mountains, cool year-round, with a university. It was also famous for the beauty of its girls.
“Kathy Fukao – Elementary Education, Yala”
Kathy beamed. Yala was 1,000 kilometers south, almost to the Malaysian border.
“Michael Schmicker – Wat Bovornives School, Bangkok.”
“That’s an honor,” Kathy whispered. “It’s the ruling Chakri dynasty’s personal temple.”
Afterwards, the three of us crossed the street to a little raan ahaan for lunch. I had hoped that Hugh and Kathy would be assigned to Bangkok, keeping our gang intact but we wouldn’t be seeing much of each other.
“Well, you got that upcountry assignment you wanted,” I told Kathy. “Squat toilets, mosquito nets, muddy roads, month-old newspapers, movies shown on a bed sheet.”
“Yes, but I also get to experience the real Thailand,” she laughed. “Farmers working in rice paddies, elephants carrying teak logs, villagers dancing the rahmwong.
Hugh dug into his cow paht, fried rice.
“That’s right. We get to live the life advertised in the Peace Corps brochure. You get a noisy city with three million people.”
“Yeah, but at least we’re in the Guinness Book of Records.” I said. Bangkok’s official name was certifiably the longest place name in the world and I had memorized it for kicks.
"While you’re living in the boonies, I’ll be living in Krung Thep Pra Maha Nakorn, Amorn-Ratanakosindra, Mahindra-Yudhya, Maha-Dilokpop, Noparatana-Radhani, Burirom, Udom-Rajnivet-Mahastan, Amorn-Pimarn-Avatarn-Satit, Sakkatuttiya-Vishnukarm-Prasit.”
I took a bow as they clapped.
“Now, for a baht, tell us what it means” joked Hugh, tossing a Thai five-cent piece on the table.
“Glad you asked,” I said. I pulled out a piece of paper from my wallet. “I will be spending my two years in – The City of Gods, the Great City, the Residence of the Emerald Buddha, the Impregnable City of the God Indra, the Grand Capital of the World Endowed With Nine Precious Gems, the Happy City Abounding in Enormous Royal Palaces Which Resemble the Heavenly Abode Wherein Dwell the Reincarnated Gods.”
“You’re making that up!”
I returned the paper to my wallet. “If anyone belongs in Bangkok, I do.”