While I was in Thailand, my current enlistment was nearing its end. I’d already had twelve years under my belt and wasn’t planning on letting all that time go to waste by getting out so I put in a request chit to re-enlist. It was duly processed and came back favorably.
Our personnel records were kept over in Clark Air Base (Philippines) so they could handle it, but I was offered the option of going down to Bangkok (Or, Krueng Thep as they know it) and getting re-hitched there. This was my chance. I’d always wanted to get back there after the wonderful time I’d had on Oxford. Plans were made, and I caught a ride down in an old C-130 to the air base there. Confident in my knowledge of Thai, I simply left the base and hailed a taxi. What a mistake that was.
I had a hell of a time making my wishes known. It seems that my diligence in learning Thai had turned out to be practically incomprehensible to the southern Thais. I was immediately labeled a ‘hick’ because I spoke a northern patois called ‘Lao’. Eventually, I found one driver who understood me well enough to take a whack at getting me to my hotel. He did well and only passed the same intersection twice.
On our travels, which took around a half-hour, I spoke and he corrected me as best as he could. It seems that for the most part I would have to pronounce all the “L”s as “R”s and vice-versa. For instance, to pronounce the male honorific of ‘Khrap’ (Sir, or yes, or okay, or anything affirmative) I had to alter that to ‘Khlap’. Down here, I really had to make sure of which gender I spoke in before opening my mouth. It was possible, since I’d learned my Thai from Nang mostly, that I might slip out with feminine speech instead of masculine. In their language, all you needed was to change the method of address to alter YOUR sex. Very confusing; and it could net you grins at best – or worse.
The driver pulled up to my hotel and even before the paperwork at the desk was completed I was asked if I wanted female companionship. This is a normal thing in a lot of hotels. One is expected to act like most male Americans traveling by themselves and accept. Married? Smerried. It made no difference to them. I was firm, and said no; no doubt starting whispers behind my back as I went up to my room.
I’d come down two days early for the re-up ceremony and intended to make good use of it. Armed with camera, several stashes of local currency, a largely unreliable map, and good shoe leather, I left the hotel. Waiting for me was the cab driver that had brought me from the airport. I asked him how he know I was going out and he said that he’d asked the desk clerk. They knew because the hotel had no roving maids but, instead, relied on you telling them you were going out, plus they wanted you to drop off your key; hence, they passed this on to the cab driver. Easy.
He named a very good price for an ‘all day’ fare, promising to show me the sights of Bangkok. He did too. We drove, walked, took Samlars, and even a miniature train to every tourist attraction in town it seemed. Bangkok is sliced by hundreds of canals, called Khlongs. Entire shopping areas move from one canal to another, selling wares from boats. The boats themselves are kind of unique. The waterborne equivalents of a taxi have a gasoline engine sitting in the stern with a very long drive shaft sticking out like a stinger on a bee. To turn, they simply swivel the shaft out of the water and drop it back in at an angle. The boat whips to the new course in an instant. Among these are seemingly hundreds of slower and less agile craft.
These were pods of vendors selling all sorts of goods and they would bind themselves together and hire a tug to move them from one place to another. For food, I ate some of the damndest things: A ball of rice with a small fish inside it, palm hearts (which are absolutely delicious), various types of smoked meats (don’t ask what they are), and other things for which I only received the Thai name (no translation forthcoming from my guide). I drew the line at a big vat of huge water bugs. He dipped in, pulled it out by it’s wiggly feet and downed it in one gulp. I came close to barfing.
In one small two-seat “café”, I was handed a bowl of Pad Thai. Now, I knew what this was and I spotted all the pepper seeds in it. I’d always had a cast-iron stomach and had been eating the fiery food for months now. The onlookers waited for me to spout fire and brimstone, but looked pleased when I asked for some more spices. I couldn’t taste a thing for the next three hours, but it was worth it just to see their faces when I asked for more heat.
The most impressive attraction turned out to be Wat Traimit. This is a temple and a very impressive temple but the sitting figure of Buddha, all done up in gold, took honors. It stands nearly 17 feet tall and weighs 5.5 tons. Nearby is another temple (Wat Pho) that holds the reclining figure of Buddha. This is a huge statue that measure some 50 feet long.
We happened to be in the right place to catch the annual ‘turning of the royal barge’ in the Chao Phraya River. It is a stately movement done in full regalia. The barge is manned by hundreds of oarsmen who all stroke in unison. The craft never leaves the immediate area of the palace though so my pictures were kind of fuzzy from a quarter-mile away.
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It was time for my enlistment ceremony. I got to put on my dress uniform for the first time in-country and was admitted to the office of Captain (USN) Werner. We held up our right hands, and I repeated the oath for another four years. The whole thing took about an hour. Afterwards, I took my driver out to dinner in a restaurant of his choosing. It turned out to be a place loaded with beautiful women and smiling men. Before I had even been seated, two women had intimated that they were free for the evening and would enjoy my company.
I politely declined the first – although it would have been nice to at least ask her to dinner. The second sidled over and as she began to speak, I received a subtle nudge in my back. I listened closely to her speech and realized she was a he; very beautifully turned out, but nevertheless a he. I guess after trying one of each, they all gave up and let us eat in peace. The meal was excellent.
The next morning, my faithful companion, Vithoon, took me back to the base for my flight north. I really hated to leave such a great place. I’ve always wanted to get back there again but, so far, haven’t made it.