Readers' Submissions

First Night In Bangkok 1973

  • Written by Upena
  • August 29th, 2003
  • 8 min read




It was June 1973 and I was 20 years old, in the Army, with orders to Defense Communications Agency (DCA) Thailand. I received a welcome letter from DCA Washington from a Navy Commander, a welcome letter from an Air Force Lt Colonel, and my orders read that I was attached to USMC Thailand (found out later that should have read USMAC-T, United States Military Assistance Command ­ Thailand). Was kind of worried that something was screwed up since I was in the Army and was being contacted by all these other branches of service.

I went home on leave prior to departure and spent a couple of weeks in Michigan hanging out with buddies and family. Spent the last night with a party at home and stayed up all night talking with Mom. Didn’t sleep a bit. Headed for airport for a morning flight and had to be at Travis AFB at 1600 for an 0400 the next day flight. Typical military ­ hurry up and wait. Got to Travis in plenty of time and just kind of hung out and killed time waiting for the flight. Finally got the call to board and lined up and got almost to the gate and was paged. Found a courtesy phone and it was my sponsor calling from BKK telling me he would meet me at the airport. Nice gesture ­ but had to get back in line. We were escorted out on the tarmac on a very foggy morning ­ walking and walking until we finally came upon our transportation – Tiger Airlines – a converted cargo plane. Aisle was so narrow ­ if a hostess was coming down the aisle and you were going up ­ one of you had to sit in someone’s lap to allow the other by.

Keep in mind that I am wearing my Class “A” uniform ­ coat and tie. We finally depart California and head for Hickam AFB, Hawaii ­ breakfast #1.
Leave Hawaii and go to Guam ­ breakfast #2. Leave Guam and go to Philippines #3 breakfast. Philippines to Vietnam and yet another breakfast. Stay on the ground at Ton Sa Nhut Air base in a big white plane in the middle of a “conflict”. Watched GI’s walk around with weapons and flak vests and praying that this isn’t the day for a sapper attack. All the time on the ground ­ no A/C and we were not allowed off the plane ­ guess they were afraid we might actually want stay!!

Finally leave Vietnam and get to BKK ­ Don Muang Airport. Meet my sponsor ­ an Air Force Staff Sergeant (I was a Specialist 4 in the Army) and with the help of the van driver, load up my life’s belongings ­ one duffle bag and head off to my “barracks”.

Well, the first thing I notice is that the steering wheel is on the wrong side of the vehicle and we are driving on the wrong side of the road. Wrong ­ meaning different ­ right instead of left. Back then it was a 6-lane highway ­ 3 lanes each way and no median. We start out in the slow lane and work our way to middle, then speed lane and then to on-coming speed lane ­ eventually to the on-coming slow lane and then on the shoulder. I start praying ­ figuring this will be my last night on earth.

We arrive at the Villa Club ­ on Sukhumvit and Soi 33. Think the old Villa Market is still there. Back then, we had a motel type barracks. There were about 10 buildings with about 6 rooms per building. Also a restaurant, free laundry, free maid service, swimming pool, trampoline, and exercise machine. Tough life!!. I was to work down the street at the Chok Chai building ­ at that time the tallest building in the country at about 26 floors ­ My job was located in the basement!!

My sponsor asked me if I wanted to go out for a bite to eat and something to drink and I said “Sure”. I have been awake for about 3 or 4 days now unable to sleep on any of the plane legs. He asks me where I want to go and I have no clue ­ so he takes me to Patpong!! We go to a bar where his tilac is the Mamasan. I get a sandwich and a beer and look around the room and see that we are the only males in the place (last of the month and GI’s are broke) and that there are about 20 girls in mini-skirts shooting pool, playing darts, or just chatting. My sponsor tells mamasan that it is my first night in country and she tells me to pick any girl in the bar ­ for FREE!!. Tough decision for a 20-year old, lacking sleep, having no idea what is going on, but a decision is made and I pick up a girl. When the bar closes (midnight curfew back then ­ Grace Hotel and Thermae’s were the places to go at 12:01), sponsor, mamasan, cute girl, myself and a couple of other girls head for sponsor’s apartment.

The girls are playing cards, I am having a beer and I am trying to figure out what the heck is going on. I am trying to take in all the sites, sounds and smells ­ overwhelming. After about an hour or so, sponsor’s male roommate comes home ­ drunk as a skunk (one of my co-workers to be). I go to greet him and shake hands and he gets violent and threatens to kill me. I have no idea what is going on ­ but eventually sponsor and mamasan calm the guy down and he heads off to bed. The scene is ugly and spoils everyone’s mood and we all decide to leave. I get back to my barracks room in time to shower and go in for my first day. Still haven’t slept. The senior enlisted man meets me at work and sees how wrecked I look and tells me to hand over all my military records and he manages to get me all checked in (personnel, Finance, Medical, etc) and sends me home and tells me come back on Monday ­ about 5 days later.

I head for my barracks room freaking out over the geckos ­ never saw them before in my life and was wondering what kind of a country is this with all these lizards. I sleep and sleep and sleep ­ even sleep through the “hail and farewell” party on Friday where I was one of the guests of honor. It all worked out – it was a Joint Command – members from all branches of US service.

After finally catching up on sleep and jet lag I decided to go and hang out at the pool and wait for the rest of my “barracks” buddies to get home. One of the first things I notice is that I am sweating profusely with no exertion at all. Water is just dripping down my entire body. Swimming and ice tea helps.

A little bit of info ­ prior to coming in the army ­ I have to admit that I was a victim of the 60’s and had smoked some weed and taken a pill or three. Quit all of that prior to coming in figuring piss tests would catch it. So I am a good boy throughout basic training, my Advanced Individual Training (AIT) and then get selected for and Advanced NCO school. I come out of the last school spit-shined, starched and very close cut hair (high and tight). I am ready to be a leader of men at the ripe old age of 20.

Back to the pool. I am relaxing on a chaise lounge and two 45-passenger buses pull up. Off the bus comes a motley crew of soldiers ­ shirts unbuttoned, hats on sideways, guys carrying cases of beer ­ utter madness. Some of the guys from the bus see the “newbie’ and graciously invite me to one of their rooms. There are 4 of us in the room and within moments there are two joints, one pipe and a bong going in a circle. The guy had 5 3-pound coffee cans of Thai Stick in his room as his personal stash. We smoke a bit and then head out to the Windsor Hotel on Sukhumvit and Soi 20 (was a GI “barracks” back then ­ we go to the NCO club and I have to piss. The guys ask what I want to drink and I tell them “a beer”. Come back from the pisser and there is a case of Bud on the table in a big tub of ice. I am told that beer is normally 10 cents but it is happy hour so only a nickel ­ (this was 3.2 beer ­ so basically flavored water). We drink some beers, I am listening to stories and the waitress comes around for “last call” for happy hour. I tell the guys to get me another and wind up with another 6-pack. Well we drink that and then I find out it is time to go out drinking. We head out for Patpong (keep in mind no Cowboy, no Nana, no Soi 33 etc ­ Patpong was it BUT it was very different back then). Now I am out with 3 guys and they all want to show me their favorite 10 bars ­ each. We drink and drink until midnight curfew and then head for the Grace Hotel.

Back then the Grace Coffee Shop was where the vast majority of the Patpong girls went to after midnight ­ there was also a disco in the rear of the hotel that basically opened at midnight. Definitely the place to be. Get a girl from here and head for home. Have a good time for the whopping sum of 100 baht ­ and at that time the exchange rate was 20-1 so about 5 bucks for the night. Of course, I was only making about 300 dollars per month in 1973 but in BKK it was a king’s ransom.

Stickman says:

Sounds like you had a great time. I bet most people reading this site can remember their first night in Bangkok…