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Bangkok, Thailand October 4 1968

Dear all~

I shall again begin this letter today—& heaven knows when—or where—I shall finish & mail it. Received Dad’s letter of 15 Sept/10 Oct this afternoon—the first word I’ve had from home in nearly 2 months. When I first thought PA&E was going to surplus me, I ordered mail forwarded from SF to Robb; in the ensuing weeks of confusion I never changed that, so mail dried up even before I left Saigon. Probably will get things from Glendale tomorrow.

I wrote a letter to Todd & mailed it today. I was a bit caustic, I fear, regarding Bangkok, since my camera and watch (no money) had just been stolen the day before. So far I have retrieved neither and have little hope for it. But even before that happened I was disappointed by Bangkok and its people. The contrast between Cambodia and Thailand is phenomenal; where the Khmers are so wonderfully friendly, spontaneously warm and helpful, the Thais are sullen and cold, not particularly accommodating, and greedy—a bit more-so I think even than the Vietnamese. Prices on nearly everything are frightfully high, and gouging is as frequently encountered as in France—if not more often. If Bangkok today represents the result of close cooperation with (actually, inundation by) America, then I have to agree more strongly than ever with Senator Fullbright—and I have to agree completely with Prince Sihanouk, who wants more than anything else to keep Cambodia Khmer.

BACKSTORY: Bear in mind that I was in Bangkok in 1968. It was, then, on the infamous “R&R” circuit for american soldiers fighting in Vietnam. The Thais built an industry around the R&R concept, designed to part soldiers from as much money as possible and from whatever shred of virginity a few of them might have had left after “20-p alley” encounters in VN. Consequently, since I was the right age, it was assumed I was a soldier on R&R, even though I was riding a motorcycle and entirely on my own. This led to many disappointing encounters, chief of which was the night I treated two youngsters to a “night on the town”. It was, of course, a “set-up”, and the truth is, I was “rolled”. The further truth is it was my own fault, as I had consumed more Singha (delicious Thai beer!) than I should have done. I remained mindful enough to put my wallet, passport and so forth out of reach, but left my trusted pocket-watch in my pants and my camera in plain sight. After we three had had rather desultory sex, we fell asleep—at least, I did. I was awakened some time later when the sound of my room’s door being closed sank through the fog, and I awoke to find the boys gone. Along with my watch and my camera. Shit!

I got the Honda back from the shop yesterday. It has been running well, but the work I had done in Saigon was pretty hap-hazard, what with no parts available for the larger models. (And, that was done 3000 km ago. The bike has over 12000 km on it—it was used when I bought it.) Here, at the Honda branch-factory, everything was at hand. Surprisingly, new cylinders, pistons, rings, bearings & valves, and assorted other small items came to only $57—and it runs like new; in fact, I shall have to break it in all over again. But, as you point out, Singapore is quite a ways from here—about 2500 miles as nearly as I can gather.

I surely shan’t stay in BK ’till the 15th, though, and may depart in the next couple of days, probably missing a little mail thereby. My actual plans are characteristically vague. I shall not replace camera or watch until I reach Penang (a free port); my only retribution against the Thais for the most inhospitable way I’ve been treated here will be to take no photos in their land—and I shall warn everyone I meet who is heading this way to be very careful. I would like to find a small resort with reasonable off-season rates somewhere in Malaysia where I can get the sun I missed in Sihanoukville, but have no particular spot in mind. If I could find a suitable place, I might stay several weeks there. And when I once reach Singapore, the question arises as to where to go from there? Todd once discussed the idea of meeting me in Australia early in the year—but I probably won’t have enuf money left by the time I get to S’pore to do that. Instead I shall probably hop a freighter bound more-or-less for Glendale by Christmas.  This is subject to change—don’t count on it until I get a little closer.

BACKSTORY: When I entered Thailand, I’d received only a ten-day visitor’s visa. It became apparent I would over-stay that without an extension. A chap I had met who was helpful in some ways assured me he could arrange for the extension—for a price. Instead, one morning I consulted my map, found out where Immigration Department was, found out which bus-line would get me there, and set out. The building was old (it has recently been replaced), and I could not read any signs, but by dint of approaching people politely, I was eventually guided to a chap whose desk was in the hallway! He extended the visa as requested, without charge, and sent me on my way. The extension thus cost the few baht on the bus, and the chap who had wanted to get the extension for me was royally pissed when he learned I’d done it myself.

Entry visa, Bottom; Extension Top.

I’ve been delightfully ignoring world news on this tour. I gather Nixon is out-foxing Humphrey for votes—which is not surprising. In a restaurant the other day I picked up a copy of the Bangkok World & read that Long Binh had been hit by 40 VC rockets—must have been spectacular, but “damage was described as light”. If I vote absentee, it will have to be at one of the embassies en-route, and I shall try to manage it.

While I think you are essentially right that Humphrey’s record has been essentially liberal through the years, the effectiveness of his support leaves a lot to be desired as far as I am concerned. The vastness of the task of overhauling so many of america’s policies—so badly needed—exceeds both his capabilities and those of Mr. Nixon (even both together, I think!) There are many people in this part of the world who regret that neither candidate is really committed to the sort of changes that are desired. Many people I’ve talked with are really mystified by America’s policy towards mainland China. Our ostrich-like behavior is widely ridiculed, and the usually-given excuse that “China’s government is not a democratically elected one” is laughed at (as well it might be) because in the context of our recognition of such countries as Russia, Spain, and many others (South Africa, even!) the excuse is simply not germane at all.

I wish you could have seen the current issue of “Kambuja” (Cambodia), the official Cambodian news-magazine. It is, of course, 100% propaganda, except for the last 20 pages of political cartoons reproduced from all over the world. In the context, those dealing with assassination & lack of gun control in the US, and with the abortive Resurrection City incidents in Washington, are particularly devastating. The world is a whole lot smaller place than most americans seem to think, and our little foibles can no more be swept under the rug than can anyone else’s. Many people in this part of the world are far-better read on the US than most people in the US are about this part of the world—and with few exceptions I find people quite impatient with us for not getting on more quickly with the tasks of putting our house in order at home. I wish (and many people have expressed the same sad hope) that either of the current Presidential candidates were more firmly committed to doing just this.

I went to see the first movies I’ve seen on nearly a year last night. “2001″, in Cinerama, in a fine theater here. I thought the price—$1.00—quite reasonable, and found the reason—¾ hr of filmed commercials—after I got inside!! The story-line of the movie I found a bit obscure, as did others, but the photo & model effects are breath-taking and made the movie entirely worth seeing. “Man For All Seasons” is also here & I may take it in, too since the price is reasonable (one can get a seat for 50cts).

Bangkok has the same “over-employment” problem I observed in Denmark. There are always more people than necessary to do a job. The busses have a driver and 2 (sometimes 3) collectors. Delivery-vans never have less than 3 people aboard. Even small restaurants have a half-dozen waiters, and larger places veritable hoards of waiters, assistants, bus-boys, and so forth. The restaurant in the Thai Hotel next door must have a payroll (with cooks, musicians, bar-tenders, waiters, cashiers &c &c) of close to a hundred per shift—and it could not serve any more people than that at one time; the Thai Hotel is not really a tourist hotel on the “circuit”. BK has also developed the american-ism of youth-worship far beyond the extreme to which we have carried it. Whether this is wholly imported or to some extent an expression of some Thai cultural traits I can’t discern. And a new deal (with Krupp, Germany) has just been signed for diesel locomotives to replace the wonderful wood-burners still operating on the Royal Siam RR—alas!

At this point of my letters, probably through remorse that I was not still there, I returned to my wonderful visit to Cambodia, and especially the temple complex. Remember, I am writing in 1968: I’m sure it has radically changed!

You—all of you—must put Angkor on your itineraries for future travels—hopefully soon, before Cambodia is destroyed by “development”. I can heartily assure you that the lack of diplomatic relations with the US will not hinder a trip to Cambodia in any way. There are flights from BK and Phnom-Penh direct to Siem Reap, and there are several excellent hotels. The Auberges Royal des Temples is directly across the moat and road from Angkor Wat, & not ten minutes from the airport. The Grand Hotel is nearer the town & a little cheaper, perhaps, though no less touristy. The Hotel de la Paix where I stayed is just on the fringe of town, & while not luxurious, is clean, comfortable, has good food, and is cheap! Personally, I enjoyed the 6 km ride from town out to Angkor Wat (& the rest of the park); what with trees & such, one arrives at the south portal of A-W very unexpectedly—just all of a sudden, there it is! Arriving from the airport it is visible for the whole distance, & somehow not so impressive, though one does come in at the main (west) gate. The very best time of year, I’m told, is January, when the jungle is still moist but rains are finished. Later as the weather warms up it gets dusty & some sort of pollen apparently settles on everything, making it quite dirty. The view from the Phnom Bakheng is splendid (as it was intended to be!) & worth the climb up, though if desired you can rent elephants to make the ascent. And if it should rain when you are there, go directly to Ta Prohm (do not pass GO!) and experience the incredible eeriness of a jungle-surrounded temple in the midst of a deluge. It is an experience you will never forget, & worth a thousand words. Drive all around the West Baray, also; stop frequently for views from the banks. This is an artificial lake over a thousand years old, created in part to supply the moat for Angkor Wat and mostly for irrigation. It is still in use, though about half of it has been reclaimed by the jungle. The perimeter is 35k m [60 mi], hence in a sense it is one of the largest undertakings of the old Khmer empire. The East Baray, a similar artifice, is only slightly smaller. There are immeasurable fine walking tours to take, to say nothing of climbing about in the temples themselves. And some interesting trips to slightly out-of-the-way temples, too; be sure to see Banteay Srei (a marvelous, though minor temple) and Banteay Samre, notable for its state of preservation (as is Banteay Kdei). Do not spend less than a week in this place—you’ll always regret it if you do, & be sure to wander about the town of Siem Reap (it’s small—you can cover all its major streets in an hour), which is a very typical Khmer town & very little affected by tourism.

Here’s a picture of Phnom Bakheng as it was in 2006:

Phnom Bakheng in 2006

As the letter continued, I found time for a dig at my step-mother:

Tommie: I find printing hopelessly slow. Sorry you have some trouble deciphering my letters, but at least you have something to decipher. I don’t recall having the opportunity of deciphering your own expert hand much since I left the US.

I did go to see “Man For All Seasons” last night, and found it well worth the praise & awards it received. One (or at least I) comes away from it wondering just how much social progress the world has really achieved since those days—the trappings are different, but human-nature is piteously slow to change.

6 October 1968

I wandered through the Erewan Hotel the other day. Had to do it. Of course, I wore shorts for the occasion! It was built about the same time Todd was here. One wonders whether or not that crazy music-review might not have been fact: the chamber-music room of the Erewan now sports a quite new Yamaha grand. The hotel is dated, but spacious—and expensive.

Through a curious set of circumstances, I have recovered the pawn-ticket for my camera, so on the way out tomorrow (today being Sunday) I will pick it up—’twill cost me 70 baht ($3.50). The watch fell into the hands of a thoroughly detestable expatriate american Negro “fence” by the name of Tony Rocca. I’m sure I could buy it back, but I shan’t do so. With american examples like this character around, Thai attitudes are perhaps a bit more understandable—though no less reprehensible.

At all events, I leave Bangkok tomorrow—hopefully forever—thereby perhaps missing a letter form Todd, but it will probably be returned. Since this letter has already developed into 7 pages, I shall mail it tomorrow as I pass the RR Station.

Love to all, of course,

BACKSTORY: I was surprised to find the two thieves where I had met them initially—Lumpini Park—and found them seemingly contrite. They admitted stealing the camera and using up the film taking photos of themselves; the film was being developed. They also agreed to take me to the man who had purchased the watch from them. I was able to find a policeman willing to accompany us. But Tony Rocco was a smooth operator, and what with the language barrier, the policemen was no help: what he wanted was a pay-off, and what Rocco wanted was for me to buy back my own watch! By this time I was disgusted with all the players, and unwilling to part with any more money, so I dropped the matter. But the boys had given me the pawn-ticket for the camera, so I was able to retrieve it. Lumpini Park was—and I believe remains—the place for “trade” in Bangkok, much of it rough.

By the way: before leaving BK, I went for one last ride on the old streetcars: I waited in vain, and read in the paper that night that the day before had been their last. There was quite a ceremony, all of which I missed. Damn! Anyone who doubts Bangkok once had streetcars can learn more here.

Bangrak Museum: Street-Car
Bangrak Museum: Street-Car

Coming up: I head south, and find wonderful steam locomotives!



Written by Bruce

December 13th, 2009 at 11:01 am

Posted in Bangkok,Thailand

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