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Traveling in Bangkok with Col. Sanders


Harland David Sanders, born 9 Sep 1890, better known as Colonel Sanders, was an American who founded Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). His image is all over the world with his marketing name of Col. Sanders used as a synonym for KFC products or the restaurants. He started KFC after a lifetime as a restaurateur in which he cultivated his physical image as a prototypical Kentucky colonel. At age 65 and with his restaurant losing money to new more modern enterprises, he took $105 from his first Social Security check and founded his first KFC outlet in 1952. Ten years later he sold most of the franchises for $2 million dollars. He died a happy man in 1980 but his patented image lived on to torment anyone who remotely looked like him, especially in Asia.

Wikipedia: Col. Sanders

Although I had been to Bangkok many times, the prospect of going again in a month lifted my spirits from their winter doldrums and added a new spring to my step. I had been to Bangkok a few times and had been introduced to the wonderful places men could visit for relaxation. Although these trips were infrequent, I was learning to speak some useful Thai phrases as well as learning some of the culture such that on my last trip, I felt very comfortable traveling around the city by myself. I knew the better restaurants and hotels, but more to the point, I knew the bars where the best women could be found. This time, though, I would not be going alone. I would be traveling with a teammate I had never met before. That may seem odd, but with today’s high-tech companies, virtual teams scattered throughout the world is the norm. But on my team, it was probably a good idea as we were either in front of a customer or on a plane. As long as cold, hard cash arrived in my bank account every two weeks, I didn’t care if my team was virtual or real.

In a cost-cutting move that pissed off all of us long distance travelers, my company disallowed business class air travel. As Bangkok was a 24 hour flight away for Daren and I, this meant we would arrive exhausted and tired at our destination. So, our virtual boss, who I had only met in person once in the three years I worked for him, let it be known that on trips this long he would allow us to arrived two, even three days early. Thus Daren and I agreed to leave for Bangkok on Thursday morning and arrive on Friday evening. As we were taking different airlines, we agreed to meet in the lobby of our hotel, the JW Marriott, at 6 PM Saturday evening.

As usual, the flight over was long and boring, but I was completely revived when that first burst of hot air hit me when I walked into the night air outside of Suvarnnabhumi airport. By the time I reached a taxi queue, it was midnight. As my taxi rode swiftly through the city on the expressway, it seemed my heart beat faster as we approached the hotel. As expected, I was wide awake after I unpacked in my room, so I went down to the lobby lounge and ordered my first of many Singha beers I would have on this trip. After downing three within an hour, the wooziness of the alcohol and jet lag sent me to my room where I slept until 2 PM the next day. I ordered a sandwich from room service, checked my email, and then started to get ready for my night out with Daren.

As I made my way downstairs to the lobby, I realized I did not know what Daren looked like. I had his cell phone number but I decided to see if I could find him without any clues. The lobby was crowded with businessmen from Germany gathering to go out to dinner. I roamed the lobby with enquiring eyes and after five minutes I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned and there stood a middle-aged man with white hair, white goatee, black glasses, and a wide grin. “Glad to meet you, mate”, he said as he stuck out his hand.

The voice was English with faints trace of American and Welsh, but as I shook his hand, I was amazed at how disconnected his voice was from his appearance. But the grin was genuine as I soon discovered he had a fun-seeking personality and a curious intellect. I suggested we go to the hotel café for a quick bite before exploring Bangkok. Daren had never been here before so I explained our options for the evening. We could find an expensive, western venue, shop at some of the local shopping malls, or go down the street to some bars that featured entertainment for men. He instantly chose the latter so I knew I was with a kindred spirit. As we walked the couple of blocks to Nana Plaza, I could see Daren’s eyes become larger and larger. When we arrived at the entrance, he stopped and looked up at the entrance sign and then all around in an awe-inspired trance. The girls were bustling into the complex, someone was feeding a elephant sugar cane, and the lights were getting brighter in the fading sunset. I shook Daren’s shoulder to break the spell and suggested we get a few beers at a bar outside the plaza as it was still early. He readily agreed.

At the bar, I found out more about Daren. He was born in Leeds to a British father and Welsh mother. He went to school in Manchester for mathematics and became a mainframe computer guy. He quickly learned to be a really good systems programmer, so much so he formed his own one man consultancy after ten years in business. He made good money and traveled throughout Europe for a few years. One day, a customer asked him to develop a fairly complex security application which he then turned into a software product that he started to market. It was so successful that he formed his own small company which was bought by a larger company which was bought by my much larger company. He had a lot of money but had invested it in American real estate that was now slightly underwater. He was working to pay the bills long enough until the market improved, at which point he would retire. As he was telling me his story, bar girls would walk past and smile, some even laugh. “Wow”, he said, “Bangkok girls sure are friendly.”

I laughed at that but I did notice the passing girls seemed to notice him more than me. I thought that a bit odd as I was an athletic 200 lbs while Daren’s shape was more pear-like. Maybe they saw Daren as the bigger sucker, I thought to myself. We decided it was time to enter Nana Plaza and I picked a bar on the second floor that was really good the last time I was here. The bar had a few customers but plenty of girls, so I knew I had chosen correctly. The mamasan sat us at a booth facing the stage where ten lovely girls were dancing with only their tall boots on. Daren’s eyes were as big as pizzas. I immediately had to go to the bathroom after the beers we had earlier. I told Daren that if any girls approached him, to send them away unless they were beautiful and certainly not to buy any lady drinks. I hustled off to the bathroom and when I returned, I found Daren surrounded by five or six lovely girls. Daren was telling a story and at each break, the girls laughed loudly. I sat down and asked in Thai what was happening. The girls closest to me said, “He KFC, KFC”. With that, all the girls laughed again as well as Daren.

Suddenly, I realized that Daren, with his white hair and goatee, black glasses, and portly frame, looked exactly like Colonel Sanders of KFC fame. No wonder he was surrounded by so many girls; there was a movie star in their bar. I waived for the mamasan and she shooed the girls away for the promise of a few lady drinks later on. After they left and Daren caught his breath, he asked me what KFC meant. I told him the girls thought he was Col. Sanders and he let out a huge laugh. As KFC was a huge hit in Thailand, I said this was the same as being a huge star or VIP. Daren sat back for moment in thought, then leaned forward and said, “This could work in my favor”.

Indeed it could, as soon the best looking girl in club strode over to our table and sat next to Daren. She quickly wrapped herself around Daren. I chose a nice, petit girl who was dancing on stage, and soon the lady drinks were flowing. After an hour or so I explained to Daren how bar fines and service charges worked. I also added that in my experience, if you treated them like your girlfriend, they generally treated you like a boyfriend. He gave me a knowing look and soon we were strolling through the hotel reception area with our new girlfriends. In the elevator, we agreed to meet for breakfast at 11 AM.

The next morning, Daren was waiting for me outside the hotel dining area. He was chatting up the pretty hostess who was all smiles. During breakfast, he told me last night was fantastic. He couldn’t believe that a place like Thailand existed. I noticed the waitresses were more attentive to us than the other customers, and they always left our table in giggles. I told Daren he was quite the celebrity but he again laughed it off. Later, as I was showing Daren the sights of Bangkok, the attention from service staff from the places we visited and even other Asian tourists did not decrease. I was touring Bangkok with a superstar. Everywhere we went; people laughed and giggled but mostly were friendlier than any other trip I had taken to Bangkok. It was a great day and we topped it off with an early evening dinner at a terrific outdoor Thai restaurant.

Randy Bass was an American baseball player who came up with the Minnesota Twins as a first baseman in 1977. In his six seasons he was mostly a part-time player who usually came off the bench to pinch hit. After his contract expired following the 1982 season, Bass signed with the Hanshin Tigers of the Japan Central League, who made him their starting first-baseman. Bass is often credited as single-handedly turning the fortune of the Tigers which resulted in the team's run and eventual victory of the Japan Series in 1985.

Bass is also famous in Japan for the "Curse of the Colonel." In 1985, after the team's one and only Japan Series victory, fans most resembling the victorious players were dressed in corresponding jerseys and encouraged to take a plunge into the filthy Dotonbori canal. The problem occurred when the name Randy Bass was called – the bearded, 6' 1'', 210 pound American slugger. Not surprisingly, no Tiger fans resembled their hirsute hero. A solution was quickly found after someone spotted a Colonel Sanders statue outside the local KFC. Since it was the closest likeness to Bass, the Colonel was duly dispatched to the bottom of the canal. Attempts to retrieve it the following day (by more sober fans) ended in vain. As the Tigers resumed their losing ways, their fans began to speak of a Curse of the Colonel. A local TV station even sent a scuba diver down to retrieve it, but the failure to find the missing statue only added to the legend.

Wikipedia: Randy Bass

The next day, we started work on a series of visits to some of our company’s larger customers in Thailand. Daren and I were software architects and we were there to offer any help to our customer in using our products. The real mission, of course, was the possibility they would want to buy more. The first day, as we were standing in front of our hotel waiting for the sales guy to pick us up, a new Mercedes drove up and stopped in front of us. The concierge immediately opened the door for us. Daren asked how he knew this car was for us and the concierge replied that the driver called ahead and said he was to pick up the “KFC man”. This got both Daren and myself laughing but I noticed he did not laugh as much as before when these “KFC moments” hit us. In fact, now that I think about it, as these “KFC moments” happened to us the following work week, he laughed less and less and didn’t seem to want to explore Bangkok the way he did when he first arrived.

At the end of the week, I decided he needed a great send off from Thailand with a no-holds barred Friday night blast at Nana Plaza before he left late on Saturday night. I called a friend of mine who was a regular at Nana and he recommended a bar and a couple of names of some of the better “performers”. We finished work early on Friday so we went to a small Thai restaurant for light snacks and beer. We arrived back at the hotel around 5:30 PM and I told Daren we should meet again in the lobby around 8. I strongly suggested he take a nap as he would need his strength. He gave me a knowing laugh before taking the elevator to his room. Promptly at 8 PM, Daren appeared from the elevator with a big smile and a newly purchased white shirt with an open, wide collar. Even though I was now used to his appearance, I couldn’t but notice he looked exactly like Col. Sanders, with the white shirt serving as the Colonel’s famous white suit. As we exited the hotel, I asked Daren if he wanted to get something to eat or drink before entering the Plaza. He said no, he was ready to start his last full night (and morning) in Thailand.

We strolled through the entrance and stopped near the beer bar in the center and looked up at the all the bars. This was also the time when many of the girls were reporting to the bars and they came in groups of three and four. As we stood gazing, each group that walked by us started saying “KFC” and pointing at Daren. Soon, we were surrounded by about 20 giggling bar girls all wanting to touch Daren. But Daren wasn’t laughing this time. In fact, his face was turning bright red and he started yelling, “Shoo, go away” as only an Englishman can. This just provoked the girls more and suddenly I realized we were close to a riot situation in the middle of Nana Plaza. I grabbed Daren’s arm and rushed him towards the entrance of Nan Plaza, with the girls screaming “KFC, KFC” behind us.

We stopped running about 10 yards outside the entrance. Daren, clearly flustered, decided he just wanted to go back to the hotel. I talked him into a small sidewalk café for a beer, hoping I could calm Daren’s nerves and sneak back into Nana when there were more people about. But every other girl who walked by us as we were drinking, giggled as they looked at Daren. After 30 minutes of this, Daren said, “I’ve had enough of this bloody place” and stormed into the hotel. I didn’t try to stop him. I finished my beer and wandered back into Nana. I tried a few bars but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I slinked back into the hotel, alone, and wondering how in the sex capital of the world, you could fuck up a wet dream.

He was covered in mud when pulled from the river, and had lost both legs and hands, not to mention his glasses, but Colonel Sanders still had his trademark smile 24 years later. On March 10, 2009, a statue of the KFC mascot had been found in a canal in Osaka, nearly a quarter century after being tossed in by crazed baseball fans who thought the image of restaurant founder Col. Sanders resembled a key team member.

"He was apparently found standing upright, which is fitting, because although he was a nice man he could also be very strict and demanding," said Sumeo Yokakawa, a spokeswoman at the chain's Tokyo headquarters. She said the statue was taken from a nearby KFC restaurant and tossed in the river as part of a celebration by baseball fans in 1985, the year Osaka's baseball team, the Hanshin Tigers, won the national championship.

With the Colonel back on dry land, Tigers’ fans believe the curse has finally been broken. Joy had, indeed, returned to Japan's version of Mudville.

The Associated Press, 2009

After I returned from my Thailand trip, I didn’t dare talk or even email Daren. I felt bad for him but I also felt like I had somehow ruined his first trip to Thailand. Maybe I could have prepared him more or warned him that Thai people love a good joke, especially if it’s on a farang. But how was I to know he was the spitting image of Col. Sanders? I worked on a virtual team and I had never met him before. Still, it bothered me and I avoided contact with him fearing the ugly feelings would resurface, even though we were under the golden rule of “what happened in Asia stays in Asia”. So, it was very surprising that a month later I received a voice mail from Daren asking me to call him as soon as possible.

He told me that he was heading back to Bangkok in a couple of weeks for another assignment. He seemed strangely upbeat but according to the “rule”, I made no mention of our previous trip. He called me, he said, to get the name and phone number of my friend who lived there so he could have a guide. I told him I would contact my friend, who I was sure would get along great with Daren. That was all he needed but he did offer to bring me back any souvenir. I said the badge of number 269. He laughed heartily at this and said he would try. I then wished him bon voyage.

A few days after Daren returned from his trip, I called my friend in Bangkok and asked him how it had all went. He said Daren had a great time wherever they went; restaurants, bars, tourist venues. Daren, according to my friend, was a natural with the bar girls who loved his big laugh, sense of fun, and, of course, his wiliness to buy everyone lady drinks. I told my friend what happened last time, with everyone thinking he was Col. Sanders. My friend was silent for a moment and then said that did not fit Daren’s description. It seems Daren, in the couple of months since his last trip to Bangkok, had decided on a new look for himself. He had lost some weight, trimmed his goatee, and now wore thin framed glasses. I chuckled a little when I heard about his new appearance; I guess Col. Sanders had a new look for today’s fat-conscious consumers. My friend also said Daren, on his last night in town, had proclaimed Bangkok as his most favorite place to visit on the planet. It seemed fitting; Col. Sanders had been rescued from the cold recesses, away from his adoring fans, and restored to his rightful place of honor and respect.


Stickman's thoughts:

Great story!

For sure, the Thais love it when a foreigner bears a close resemblance to someone famous – they love any chance to celebrate, cheer or just have fun!