Living Large Part 1
My last night in Bangkok, the night cool and pleasant, the normal humidity of the city thankfully not overly oppressive this evening. We are surrounded by palm trees and exotic foliage, with the occasionally overheard low conversations of couples and groups around us. The music of the live band pleasantly subdued, allowing for reflection and conversation. Above us, in the dark sky, a bright full moon plays hide-and-seek with slow-moving cloud, slipping in and out of the surrounding skyscrapers. The moon, the clouds, the low coloured lights and candles on each table create an almost magical ambience. This is my umpteenth trip to Bangkok, yet I never tire of the magic it is able to weave around me – the sort of visions that one only ever sees in dreams. Mind you, my friend Lin could have something to do with that as well!
As I sat there and looked across the table into those dark oriental almond-shaped eyes, I wondered what was going through her head at that moment. That led me to reflect on not only the week that I had just enjoyed here in The Land of Smiles but also the years that had brought me here. I was roused from my meditation by the gravelly voice of my crazy buddy Dick, reminding me that it was my round. I quickly summoned a waiter with a “sawadee ka” and ordered us all another round of drinks.
It was the end of a pleasant, if sad week in The City of Angels together with a few days on the beach some 2½ hours south of Bangkok at the resort town of Hua Hin. Pleasant because we’d had fun, laughed a lot, visited too many bars, drunk too much, played too much pool, stayed up too late, eaten too much, reminisced too much, told too many, “do you remember that time …” stories and had generally been far too active for our aging bodies.
En-route to Hua Hin Lin had suggested, no insisted, that we take a side trip to visit the deserted complex of Phra Nakhon Khiri, the summer palace of a Thai King at Phetchaburi. This vast complex is perched atop a hill overlooking the town below, whose inhabitants today are the cheeky monkeys. I have to admit that as one who loves history, it was quite fascinating and passed a pleasant and educational couple of hours. Once in Hua Hin she insisted that we also visit the Monkey Island temple, also perched atop a small, but steep hill of Kao Takiap. Why is it that Buddhist temples are invariably on top of a steep climb, with what appears to be several hundred steps to access them? Lin is temple mad, rarely missing the opportunity to explore one she has not previously visited … and of course to make merit, thus ensuring her future lives! Over the years, travelling around Thailand with her we have visited what seems like hundreds of these. The only one that sticks in my memory as in any way memorable, was one up north near her home on the Laos border. Sadly, I am of the unenlightened opinion that once you've seen one temple you've seen them all … after a short while, I'm afraid I get all 'templed' out!
The trip had been sad because my buddy Dick had announced on the second evening of the week that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. After due deliberation he had decided he was not going to either go for the biopsy, nor embark on any of the highly likely hospitalisation or surgery routes that would be a probable prognosis. His attitude being that if it was indeed the big C, then is his words, he was "probably toast". He'd had a great life and intended to “go down in flames” – again his words. This trip was, as I found out later, his last hurrah. Am not sure that I would have the courage to adopt a similar approach if it were me.
When I questioned him on his decision, his response in retrospect was perhaps predictable. "I'm nearly 75 and at that age, one gets that sixth sense things might go haywire at any time but I'll tackle this disease with the same renegade, maverick attitude that has guided me through most of my adult life and took me to the pinnacle of my success on the sports field."
But that train of thought brought me back to tonight in this lush green and tropical bar in Bangkok. It also started us on a discussion of the life we’d led as international consultants. It wasn’t long before we both agreed that we had indeed been living large these past 20 odd years around the world. Dick had started it by saying, "… do you remember that night at Apocalypse Now in Saigon …" He was of course speaking of the famed and memorable night in said bar, the well known nightclub, brothel, restaurant – in fact whatever you wanted it to be. It was renowned for not only its large selection of beautiful local hookers, but also the old US Huey helicopter hanging over the bar. But it was 'The Place' to be seen on a Saturday night and one could always count on a great evening out, surrounded by a fascinating and mixed bunch of people as you'd hope to meet anywhere …
We had met some 17 or 18 years previously when we shared an office in Saigon, otherwise known as ‘The Toilet’, so named as we had our very own in-office toilet – in fact two of them! It was only after a few weeks that we realised why we were so fortunate to have this en-suite facility – these were the only toilets in the office block, so we had a constant stream of 'visitors' traipsing through our office! In consequence, ever since then, we have shared tales from the toilet. He had been living in The Philippines at the time and I in Johannesburg, but we very quickly discovered that we both shared a love of Asia.
My love affair having started back in the early 70’s when I had a photographic assignment in war torn Cambodia to capture images of the then jungle enveloped temples of Angkor Wat. This was after the famous 'Operation Linebacker', the US Christmas bombing of Northern Indochina in 1972.
From there a brief, but forever impactful side trip to the exotic fleshpot of The City of Angels that was Bangkok – which would be the first of many over the ensuring years. The city in those days was a young man’s dream adventure; CIA spooks and safe houses around every corner, the sex trade was in its infancy, starting as it did in Patpong. The bars and nightclubs there in full swing already, catering to a city full of American GIs on R & R from Vietnam. In those days, on any night, any bar worth its salt would have at least one resident CIA spook. I think it was Jack Needham who famously said, that you could find enough heavily armed DEA, FBI, CIA, Secret Service, and Diplomatic Security Service guys there to strike fear into most small countries.
I recall one bar in particular, The Texas Lone Staar Saloon in Washington Square (a well known spook locale!) famous for the huge stuffed African buffalo head mounted on the wall and the aging and grossly overweight American owner, George Pipas – now sadly deceased. Most of the bars in Washington Square had their beginnings back in those war years when Bangkok was the regular R & R spot for GIs. A lot of guys just simply stayed on in Asia after the end of the war, with many deciding to open a bar – I guess every young man's dream in Asia. They all had one thing in common though, the serving of cold beer, good ol’ home cooking comfort food and beautiful Asian girls – the latter always available. The heat, the humidity and the smells all adding to the vibrancy and exoticness of a then little known and far off Asian city.
But back to my initial meeting with Dick. Those halcyon days of the late 1990's in Saigon were arguably some of the best of my career, working hard during the day to make a big impact into the drinks market during the day and playing even harder in the evening. We were regulars of the many pool and karaoke bars in District 1, drinking huge amounts of Tiger beer that one just sweated out immediately due to the extreme humidity. And everywhere we went we were always greeted with a welcoming, “Chau Em”, Vietnamese for “hello” by the beautiful hostesses that every bar had. Most were dressed in their Dau Ai's, the traditional and very sexy Vietnamese trouser or calf length skirt outfit with a high buttoned tunic type top, but with a long slit up the side that gave one a tantalizing glimpse of a bare hip or midriff.
As one entered the invariably over-air-conditioned luxury of a bar or restaurant, one was immediately presented with an ice-cold face cloth or wrapped wet wipe and ushered to a seat. Then those soft, but strong fingers would do their work on your tired neck and shoulder muscles. Beer would be brought without asking and the questions would start, "what your name – where you from – why you here – where you stay – you buy me drink." And when you did eventually surrender to their charms and buy that drink, it was always accepted with grace and thanks – the Vietnamese equivalent of "Cheers, was, "Mank Khoe" (wish you good health) Vietnamese women have a unique beauty and grace about them, are softer featured and natured than some of their other South Asian sisters.
In those early days of Saigon, a foreigner was still a rarity and novelty. The city was a melting pot of excitement, hope and expectations, all tinged with a hint of underlying danger. It was just beginning to open up to the West, discovering capitalism for the first time, attracting adventurers, businessmen and cowboys from all corners of the globe. We were all eager to be part of the new age renaissance that the rising Asian Tiger of Vietnam was fast becoming. But our immediate challenge was to converse with the girls, they with their limited English and us with our limited Vietnamese … but it was all too easy to fall in love every night!
As for Saigon itself; and for those of us that have lived there, it will always be Saigon, never Ho Chi Minh City! There are some cities that burn into our consciousness the moment we arrive. Saigon in 1997 was such a place for me. I will never forget that very first day when the Singapore Airlines Airbus landed between the rows of derelict Russian aircraft and other wrecks parked haphazardly in the reinforced concrete air raid bunkers and gun emplacements at Tan Son Nhat airport. This alien impression was reinforced by the take-your breath-away heat and humidity when the aircraft door was opened. No air bridges in those days; on disembarking we were walked and herded into the large dilapidated hanger that passed for an arrivals hall in those days.
The madness that followed on the way to the hotel in the large black American CIA type SUV with blacked out windows, accompanied by a flak-jacketed armed guard I will never forget. I'm sure that we saw all 5 million motorcycles and mopeds, (better known as Honda Dreams) on that brief ride into the city centre that inhabited Saigon in those days … I had never seen traffic like this. It was all too overwhelming – I felt like I had inadvertently stepped into a Bond movie!
Our small group of expats from all around the world would mostly hang out of an evening together, unless one had a 'piece of scenery' coming over, as Dick used to refer to the girls. After a typical evening of fun, calling at all our favourite bars, it was back to the impressive Saigon Tower apartments where we lived, mine being on the 19th floor overlooking the Saigon River – a great view of ever-changing shipping that I never tired of. I was often asked afterwards if I ever felt unsafe in Saigon. My response was always the same, "absolutely not". The very worst that could happen to a foreigner walking home alone on those darkened streets was that you might be approached and propositioned by a prowling hooker on her Honda Dream moped.
Saigon, just the name conjures up exotic Asian images. Of the likes of Jon Swain and his memorable book, River of Time predominantly set in Phnom Penh and Cambodia in the late 1960'/early 70's. Graham Greene in the 1950's of the French occupation of Indochina. He describes in his book, The Quiet American, how Pike, his central character, would take his morning coffee on the terrace of the Continental Hotel overlooking the square with the French designed Opera House at its heart. It was here where one of the most widely published and horrific images of war still linger; that of a saffron robed monk setting fire to himself. In our time, thankfully the scene in the square was more peaceful as we took our morning coffee and croissants in the French patisserie. Young Vietnamese girls cycling to school wearing the traditional Dai Ao and conical hats, the street vendors selling their wares, women, setting up small informal street-side tea houses. Saigon was in those days a real pavement society. Maybe you’ll remember Robin Williams in ‘Good Morning Vietnam’. Today T shirt manufacturers still enjoy a great living out of that.
A paragraph comes to mind from Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American, “They say you come to Vietnam and understand a lot in a few minutes. The rest has got to be lived. They say whatever it was you were looking for, you will find here. They say there is a ghost in every house, and if you can make peace with him, he will stay quiet”. I was once asked what it was about Vietnam that captured my imagination and heart. That paragraph for me perhaps sums up Indochina, beautiful, exotic, historic, mysterious and always somehow just out of your reach. Like first love, somewhere, something you never quite forget and you keep going back for more and more – you can never get quite enough of her, yet like a dream, you never find her again.
But back to Dick. He was always the central figure of any gathering, irrespective of whoever was there. I asked him one day, “how did you get to be doing what you're doing today?" and he replied, that after injuries stopped him playing professional American Football, he became a coach. That was carried on into what would become his real passion after football, working as a freelance consultant with one of the world's largest drinks companies. He had an amazing and innate ability to reach out and motivate young people, driving them to heights and achievements that even they themselves were unaware of their own abilities.
He was an interesting character and in my opinion one of the original old school Asian veterans. When asked why and how he had left America, dependent on his mood, he would tell variations of the story. The only constant in all the telling, was that his divorce had cost him close on $1US million. However I suspect that the real reason was that with his complete and total political incorrectness, he had been retrenched from his full-time job back in the US. Allied to this I also suspect that his wife of the time (a lovely lady, who I was to meet some years later on a trip to the USA) eventually became fed up with his philandering and kicked him out. I am not sure of the exact date, or the route that he took to finally arrive in Manila – Philippines, some say late eighties, others say early nineties.
He set up shop in an apartment right there, on what he referred to as "the Street of Dreams". I'm sure that on the day of his arrival, he hit the bars that were his immediate neighbours in Burgos Street – the centre of the red light district of Makati City. He was very proud of the fact that within a 100 metre stroll of his apartment he had a choice of many houses of ill repute. Over the years he would write to me regularly, describing his recent activities, but always signing off with the tagline "just another day in paradise".
He started as he meant to carry on, living life to the full, experiencing moments of debauchery and decadence, together with moments of true tenderness and sad disappointments. For an outwardly strong and hard man, he had a heart of gold and I never saw him turn anybody away.
I recall on one occasion, on one of our many return trips to Saigon … I think it was the year 2000, the 25th anniversary of the end of the war, when we were greeted back like returning heroes. He was approached by one of his regular hookers whose name escapes me now. She wanted to set up a bar and asked Dick for the money to fund its start-up. Without further discussion, albeit that he did demand a BJ in exchange, he handed over US $5,000. Needless to say the bar was an abysmal failure and went bust in record time. I think he extracted his losses in kind from said girl over a very extended period!
Like so many of his fellow expat Americans living in Asia, his gypsy lifestyle and continual chasing of the next dream had changed him forever and he would have had problems adjusting to normal civilian life in America. So in The Street of Dreams he really found a home.
My first visit to Manila was in 1998, when he invited me to his wedding. For the life of me, I can't now remember what number this was – he used to collect and lose wives at an extraordinary rate. But I can well recall my first impressions of Burgos Street – Makati City, walking past all the bars thinking what the hell is this place? Even with my experience in Saigon, at that stage in my life, my exposure to such open and available debauchery, with beautiful and exotic Filipina girls had been extremely limited. I had little concept of what the bars and other outlets meant, and for me it seemed in some ways, like some sort of seedy memorial to America's involvement in the Vietnam war.
I had been told that generally Burgos Street was very safe. There was a highly visible police presence, plus every bar had its own armed security guards, turning anybody away that they didn't like the look of. Whilst there were the inevitable beggars, street walkers and scam artists selling fake Viagra and the like – once they saw a policeman, they scuttled off like scared cockroaches into dark passages and back alleys.
Dick's wedding was due to take place at The Mogambo Bar, just off the main Burgos drag. As one of the larger bars, it was an ideal place for such a gathering – although I'm fairly sure it had never hosted a wedding before. The tables had been moved back to make a makeshift aisle for the bride to walk up and the bar served as an 'altar', well at least a central point to where the actual wedding ceremony took place. The 'congregation' consisted of Dick's friends, including us the delegation from Saigon, plus the local bar girls. These girls were typical 5 foot Filipina beauties, mostly from the provinces, many of whom were looking for an escape to a better life and working the bars meant they could meet expats. For the majority, this was the best and only means of employment they could find. Jobs in the provinces were, and still are, scarce and don't pay well.
The wedding ceremony over, there were drinks and snacks served, there was a bit of dancing, but then at around 6pm the Mamasan, clapped her hands and told the girls to get back to work. This consisted of the music being turned up, and when punters came in, the girls would jump up and start shuffling around the stage. Of course one could get a 'take-away' if you saw any girl that took your fancy, although the bar fine seemed very negotiable.
So despite its seedy appearance, there was that indefinable something about Burgos Street (and as I was to learn later, elsewhere in Manila) that appealed to some and repulsed others. Dick was certainly one it appealed to.
To be continued …