The First Time
We all had our firsts. I can’t say I remember mine like the back of my hand. But some bits and pieces always bubble up from time to time. Like cream on top of a latte, I swirl it around a bit in reminiscence, until it disappears.
Ahhh, one’s first adventure to Thailand… Well, mine anyway, and I reckon a lot of military folks might have had similar experiences. 20 or so years ago is a bit of a distant memory I suppose at this point in time, but a few things still linger in the recesses up there.
I was a brand-new boot lieutenant to the unit in Okinawa, and it couldn’t have been more than a few days in at my first duty station, when I was told I’m heading to ‘Exercise Cobra Gold’ in Thailand. And like more than a few people that I’ve mentioned Thailand to over the years, at the time I probably didn’t even know the difference between Thailand and Taiwan. I can’t even recall how I ended up getting to the land of smiles. Boat? Plane? Both equally plausible. But ahhh, I do remember that first soapy… Oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Training went well, I mean, that’s “really” why we were over there… right?… Got to blow some shit up with our Thai army / Marine counterparts, practice some basic manoeuvres, and learn how to do our jobs in the field. I screwed a couple things up, as expected of a new lieutenant, but nothing too bad and that couldn’t be joked about later over a couple beers.
Man, running and hiking in that humid heat was no joke. Just sweating non-stop. “Showers” were interesting, Thai military style. Just a big open room with a long trough of water in the middle. You drop your skivvies, head over to the tough, and start pouring ladels of water over you. Then soap up, rinse and repeat. Woe is you if you’re the one who gets all sorts of soap in the clean water trough. There was an art to handling the ladel and pouring the water to make sure you weren’t dripping dirty soap back in.
We took in the sights of Lop Buri while out jogging, and avoided getting ganged up on by screaming monkeys. Seemed surreal at the time for an American that never left the states. I thought it was crazy, all the monkies jumping around all over town, but when I’ve seen the recent videos of the monkey gangs there, it didn’t compare to how bad it is now.
Our senior enlisted in our unit happened to be a Thai-American fella who showed us the ropes and looked after us. I can still taste the very first Thai mango I had. He peeled it so easy and plopped it in my hand. I devoured it in a sticky mess. Just a pig in slop. I didn’t know anything so natural could taste so good. Like if vanilla ice cream and cotton candy had a fruit baby. Fruit in the states now seem so bland and boring in comparison. To this day I try to time my Thailand trips around all the exotic fruit seasons, particularly Durian. What can I say, I’m in love.
Eventually we convoyed our way to the Sattahip base close to Pattaya. Public speaking’s not my strong suit, but I had to give a libo(R&R) brief to the Company, I somehow found myself in charge of, before we were let loose on some free time. I vaguely remember telling them to heed the doc’s std warnings, and telling them don’t make me come bail them out of jail. A few other points, half directed at the troops, half secretly to myself. Hell, I’ll be damned if I wasn’t going to enjoy myself as well.
Pattaya was a bit of a blur those couple nights we had out to be honest. I know we stopped by the Tahitian Queen and walking street of course. In the mornings I remember we had to be back for morning formation, accountability, and whatever we had in store for training that day. My buddy and I cut it pretty close at least one morning, leaving Pattaya as the sun was starting to peak up over the horizon, getting back to base with a few minutes to spare. Think the troops got a kick out of seeing the young Lt’s scurrying back in the wee hours of the morning, just in the nik of time. Probably helped to show we weren’t always stiff and uptight. At least I didn’t miss my own deadline I set for the troops!
At some point in time we ended up getting a couple days R&R in Bangkok. Somehow I ended up with a Thai fella that was working with the US military. An interpreter, R&R liaison, not sure what he did exactly, but he showed me around some of the usual stomping grounds. He probably got a kickback from each place we went. Didn’t realize it at the time, but didn’t care then and don’t really care looking back on it. He was your typical friendly good-natured Thai just hustlin to make a living. His Thai name sounded like “robo-cop”, so that’s what we called him, and he always got a kick out of it. Went to one of the big gem shops, and bought a few overpriced pieces of jewelry for family back home. I probably patted myself on the back for talking the salesperson down a buck or two. Took in the usual obligatory temple sights for a first timer, and then Robocop told me he had just the antidote for my tired and sweaty self.
J-One. I believe that was the name of the soapy place. Now, Robo-cop was talking a big game about how fantastic it was going to be, and what was on the menu. I didn’t know quite what to make of it. Started to make sense pretty quick though once you start admiring the fishbowls inside. There were some exquisite choices, both inside the bowls and out. Service was exceptional and it ended up being an hour or more well spent. It was just what the doctor ordered.
At night, we hit up Patpong. Made the rounds there, following my eager guide through dark alleys, neon red lights beckoning us here and there. Eventually made our way underground. He said I just had to see the ping-pong show. I told him I’m quite handy with a paddle, but my game is probably a bit rusty in my current inebriated state. Needless to say, no paddle needed. And not sure if I even saw any ping pong balls, but I did see a whole lot of other paraphernalia coming out from between those legs. I hear Patpong is dying, or changing… Actually haven’t been back there since that trip. Since then, been more of a Sukhumvit-area type of guy I guess. I hear the museum at Patpong is worth a visit though, so will have to make a trip back to that area next time.
On occasion I’ll see a news article about the current Cobra Gold going on that year. I feel sorry for the guys these last couple years, that they didn’t get to experience the “full” Thailand. And may never, because she never got to dig her fingers in them and leave that lasting impression, calling them back again. I reminisce about those good times and how much that first trip changed my life subsequently. I’ve been fortunate to spend time in quite a few countries around the world, but Thailand always seemed like the place for me. It’s not perfect, doesn’t necessarily have the “best” of anything in particular in my mind. For instance, in Japan, I don’t think I ever had a bad meal (I don’t mind raw stuff..). Can’t say the same thing about Thailand as I can’t stand bplaa and some of those related dishes. But damn, if the good stuff isn’t f’n great. Traffic is another example. You hear about the abysmal traffic fatality numbers in Thailand, but to a certain extent the chaos and free-for-all just makes sense when you get used to it. When I’m waiting at a red light in the states with nary a car for miles around, I always think that no way this would happen in Thailand. I wouldn’t worry about running the red light and getting caught by the cameras and getting a $600 ticket in the mail the following week. It’s a give and take relationship with Thailand. As long as you’re willing to give a bit, you’ll get a lot in return. She’ll pull you in and keep you forever, or you’ll constantly be hearing the siren sounds and keep returning for more.
Thailand just has a certain je ne sais quoi…
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