R&R Thailand in the 1960s
My saga begins just after my 17th birthday. My younger brother and sister had been sent to foster homes. My father had died about five years earlier and my mother became alcoholic. She really had a hard time accepting the loss of my father. It was really quite sad for my family as my mother really meant well, but just couldn't function enough to care for her children. Reports from my siblings were not very encouraging regarding the foster care they were experiencing and I was to be next. A local Priest that had been a huge help for our family intervened and tried to help me. (For the record, he was truly a very good man.) He helped me explore alternatives as I was almost old enough to live on my own. The only option that Social Services would agree to was my enlistment in the US Military. While they were eager to pack me to away to a foster home they had no choice if I enlisted. At that time, 17 was an acceptable age to enlist with parental permission. Well, for some reason, my mother refused to sign the permission form. This fine Priest bought a bottle of her favorite vodka and poured for her until she was sufficiently inebriated. He then pushed the form and a pen across the table and secured her signature. I doubt if this is really legal but was acceptable by all concerned.
About a month later I reported for my physical exam and I was on my way. I had a choice of Army, Air Force, Navy or Marines. I picked the Marines because I liked the Dress Blue uniform. Remember, I was only 17 and clueless. I had not heard about Vietnam or the war and was incredibly uninformed. After my physical exam I boarded a bus to Paris Island, South Carolina for boot camp. It was tough, and I do mean tough!! Recall the boot camp scene from the movie “Full Metal Jacket”? R. Lee Ermey could have been my Drill Instructor. As a high school athlete I excelled in boot camp and graduated with an extra stripe. After jungle training in Panama I was shipped to Vietnam for my first 13-month tour. Every soldier had to do a 12-month tour, except for Marines at 13 months. One tour completed your Vietnam obligation.
I arrived at the Da Nang Marine Corps Base, still aged 17, but very well trained (I thought) and confident. The base was huge and sprawling just outside the Vietnamese City of Da Nang. The base was a hub of activity with a huge volume of air traffic. Late 1965 was fairly quiet for enemy engagements but they did happen. For me, it seemed when I got relaxed something would happen to jolt me into the reality of what this place was really about. The climate was hot and humid, a little hard at first but I did get somewhat used to it. It seemed to me there was either blinding red dust or red mud most of the time.
I would go back for 2 more tours. During my first tour I distinguished myself and I am not really sure why. What we then called the “Brass” were impressed with me. You figure. Anyway, the American Military had a problem with the limit on tours as they always found themselves lacking experienced personnel. Hence, they offered bonuses of money and promotion if I would re-up for another tour which I did twice. For this effort I got stripes and cash and was made Squad Leader. I had intended to make my career in the Marines and this was quite a good deal for me. I never, ever talk about the details of my service. There will be no war stories from this Marine. The callous, insensitive way returning Vietnam veterans were treated in the US has sealed my lips and my stories about my experiences in the war will die with me. That said, I will never apologize for my service there.
This story is about my experience taking my R&R (Rest and Relaxation Leave) in Thailand. I had a total of 5 visits to Thailand from 1966 to 1970. There were 3 R&R visits for 2 weeks each and 2 shorter visits related to my duty. I spent my time mostly in Bangkok with a trip into the depths of Isaan. After R&R was approved it was possible to “hitch hike” on a plane from Da Nang to either U-Tapau or Korat air bases in Thailand. The Da Nang airport was so busy it was quite easy to secure a free seat. It was about a four or five hour trip and I always had a small bottle of Jack Daniels to keep me company. When I arrived in the Thai airport it was easy to find a ride with someone going to Bangkok, or I guess one could take a bus as there were many. At the time of my first visit I was 18 years old. As I look back I think that is very young for such a trip, but at the time I was confident and eager to party hard.
Bangkok was much, much smaller and absent much of the glitz and splash of the modern day city. It seemed dirtier and definitely more third world, much different than today's modern city. I have to say it still had a certain ambiance, sort of a life of its own. The finest Bangkok had to offer most certainly, were the people. An American in Thailand at this time had a huge amount of respect from the locals. Smiles and deep wais were everywhere. Random acts of kindness were frequent and common. We were more than welcome visitors, we were like visiting dignitaries. At that time the government had a strong pro-American policy and it didn't hurt that my country was spending a lot of money there. The attitudes of the people were genuine though, I am sure of that.
I visited the hot spots in U-tapo and Korat but just briefly while waiting for my ride to Bangkok's New Petchaburi Road, otherwise known as the American strip. This was where all the action was, at least for me. There was some action in Sukhumvit, the Thermae was then a coffee shop and massage place, and Pattaya was just a small fishing town. I never made it to the Thermae but many servicemen that were stationed in Bangkok went there regularly. When I did my R&R I went to the American strip and with so much going on there I never left to explore other areas, with the exception of my Isaan trip.
New Petchaburi Road had at least 3 dozen bars with many others on side streets and the general area with a total of perhaps over 100 in the area. There really wasn't the extreme glitz and glamor of the bars found today in Bangkok. The shoot the ping pong ball and the razor blade out of the pussy were to be found, but it isn't my style and I generally didn't bother with them. If you see them once, well you get it! The names of many bars escape my memory but The Nightspot, ABC Room, Bali Bar and Thai Heaven were etched in my mind for really fun spots. They were much like today's go go bars with dancers, music, live or DJ. One was karaoke but I can't remember which one. (Folks, this is well over forty years ago.) Each of these bars would have somewhere between 20 and 60 bar girls available most of the time. Many were extremely hot with very, very few dogs or fatties. The attitudes were outstanding and really much more than one could ever hope for. It was like they felt fortunate that they could spend time with us.
I think it is important for the reader to understand that things were very much different in the bar scene in Bangkok back in the 60's. It was much lighter and really more about fun than money. At times, I am sure you could have walked out of a bar without paying your bar tab, not that anyone would. I remember stories of bar girls going with broke soldiers with no money to pay them. Sure there was an occasional fight but it was always Americans, never Americans and Thais. The police would break it up sometimes, but they took the drunk combatants back to their hotel, never to jail. It is difficult to say how fine an experience it was. This was something you really had to experience. As Mama Noi said:
“ What was Bangkok like in the 60s when you first started?” (Stickman's question)
“ I think it was quite different from now. Back then everyone had lots of fun. Everything is different now. I cannot explain how, but it's just different. It was real sanuk in the past, but it's different today. Fun sometimes, but a different kind of fun. Not genuine fun for fun's sake like it was in the past.”
Stickman Weekly May 20, 2012
When you found a girl you liked it was more like a courtship than a rough proposition. When the time was right you would say something like “you go with me?” You never made a direct proposition as it was simply understood what it was all about. The girl expected to, and wanted to stay the night. For me this became problematic, as at times, if I took a girl back to my hotel early I wanted to return her and fetch another. (Sigh..isn't youth great?) You would never flash cash to the girls as that was impolite. Placing money in her purse or palm in private was accepted, without a glance to make sure the amount was right. The payment amount was about 5 dollars all in, for a hot girl. For the average girl it was much less. A very nice hotel room was about 4 dollars a night, with some much less and beer was about 25 cents. However, to put it in perspective my earnings were between $170 and topped out at about $300 per month during a 4-year period. A helicopter pilot would earn about $550 and a General a little less than $3000. Room and board was added, as we called it 3 hots and a cot. So not as cheap as you think.
At a karaoke bar a very lovely Thai girl, with hair so long it draped over her butt, belted out some Janis Joplin blues tunes that were absolutely outstanding! The singing, facial gestures, and movements were performed with perfection and in perfect English! After she finished she drew a crowd of R&R soldiers that were amazed with her performance. The accolades heaped on her were met with a blank stare. A deer in the headlights type of reaction. A Thai-speaking American Airman was enlisted and we confirmed that this lovely girl did not speak a word of English! To this day I have never figured that out. Amazing Thailand!
On a trip to a jewelry store the owner of the store was totally fascinated with my school class ring. In broken English he asked me apparently technical questions about it that I didn't know. He was actually quite fanatical about it. It was really nothing special but this man had to have it. He offered me a good sum of baht for the ring which I refused. Then he began to offer jewelry in trade including some gold. The offer finally looked fairly good so I agreed. It seems that he had never seen a ring like this before. A few years later when I was back in the states I took the jewelry to a gold broker and walked away with about $100. I am sure I didn't pay more than $20 for the class ring. A different twist for sure.
A young Thai girl with long thick silky hair and butter smooth, flawless, brown skin had my affection on one R&R trip. I was with her almost the entire 2 weeks. We traveled to Isaan to visit her village for a short time. I cannot remember the name of the province. It was a long trip, first on a bus, then in a real beat up pickup before we finally arrived. Her family's house was a claptrap of rough unpainted boards with gaps between them, no plumbing or electricity, and it creaked loudly when anyone walked around. The village roads were dirt with a dusting of gravel on a few areas. Chickens, pigs, and dogs had the run of the village and I couldn't tell which family actually owned them. To the folks in this village I was quite a curiosity. They were quite polite but the staring was just too much. I felt like I was the first Farang they had ever seen. It was something like the farming areas of Vietnam and I simply could not relax. I was eager to return to New Petchaburi Road so the trip ended quickly, with a long trip back to Bangkok. When I left to return to Vietnam she meticulously packed my bag with every piece of clothing very carefully folded. I have wondered from time to time what happened to this very lovely girl. Although I had intended to see her again we lost contact with each other. I would like to think she found someone. She was a real stunner and very sweet.
I came across what appears to be a dissertation written by Porphant Ouyyanont entitled The Vietnam War and Tourism in Bangkok's Development, 1960-70. He (or she) describes the huge impact on Bangkok and Thailand from the US activities there during the war. Some of the numbers are simply staggering. In 1968, a peak year, the US spending in Thailand was a staggering 5.6% of the total national Thai income (GDP) for that year. Another number for that year I thought was significant was a total of 21% of the visitors to Thailand were Americans on R&R. He discusses other aspects of how the war impacted the Thai economy. These two figures really struck me as I read his paper. It is written in excellent English and over 30 pages in length. If anyone wants it I will email it to you. It is 1.8 MB in size in a pdf format.
I will always remember my R&R days in Thailand with fondness. It was an experience that I will not likely ever have again. Thailand has changed quite dramatically from those days and so have I. My last experience with bar girls was in 2008. I have to say, that while not disappointing, the experience was not at all like the 60's. I do think the changes have been good for Thailand and I have been delighted to witness the growth of this fine country over the years from time to time. It remains truly a special and unique part of our world.
The experiences of readers in the Thailand of old is a genre I never bore of.