Don’t go to Bangkok they all warned me – stay away.
Overland travelers with serious road cred, those who’d started in Athens and gotten to Southeast Asia the hard way were unanimous in their distaste for the dirt, chaos and crime of the Thai capital and really any other major city. Surely Bangkok would overwhelm a novice like myself who had flown to Tokyo from Chicago only 4 months earlier.
But I’d racked up some cred of my own. After a month navigating the Tokyo subway system, being hospitalized with dysentery in Java, managing a harrowing border crossing from Malaysia into Thailand with a ditsy travel companion from Lincoln, Nebraska who “forgot” he had some opium in his backpack – at the last minute he palmed it off on our trishaw driver as a tip – I felt prepared for Bangkok, where the prospect of Western toilets, hot showers and mail from home being held at the American Express office awaited.
Also I had a phone number to call. The forest fire fighter/journalist I’d met on Penang could be reached at this safe house for Kuren rebels in Bangkok. Thirty years before this phrase was coined he was embedded with the rebels and their cause and was filming them at their camps and on the front in the remote hill country that spanned the Thailand-Burma border up north near Chiang Mai. We’d spent a week or so in Batu Feringhi, in Penang exchanging scorching glances, always surrounded by a group of people. Peter had left a folded piece of notebook paper with this Indian guy we’d befriended on which he’d written me a poem and this number to call.
In Bangkok with Nebraska Bill and Eric from the Peace Corps, who’d joined us in southern Thailand we got a Western-style motel room with private bath and a pool and had breakfast at Mitch & Nam’s, an American-styled diner run by two Viet Nam vets who decided not to go home after the war. This was February, 1976 – less than a year after the fall of Saigon. Eggs, bacon, hash browns, pancakes, heaven. We lingered over coffee and The Bangkok Post – the first English language newspaper I’d seen since leaving Hong Kong in November.
Overland travelers in those days were almost completely isolated from the outside world. In Asia you could go weeks without access to any form of Western media. It became known that I had a transistor radio that might pick up the BBC on a clear night and sometimes a group would gather, listening to mostly static. There was a brisk trade in paperbacks, but news was a scarce commodity.
The Thais loved us Yanks. After months of being heaped with scorn and derision by both natives and Europeans who held us personally responsible for our government’s decisions – something any American traveling abroad at any time has no doubt encountered – this was heady stuff.
At the motel I tuned the transistor to an English-language station playing the blues and my frst hot bath in three months. The water turned black. Apparently the cold dipper baths didn’t slough off dead skin cells. So I refilled the tub with more hot water and shampooed my hair – lather, rinse repeat. Heaven.
I wrote home faithfully once a week but hadn’t gotten mail since Hong Kong; parents communicated with backpacking kids back then by sending letters to Amex offices marked “Hold for Arrival.” There were 7 letters from home. Ecstatic, I sat at the pool and read them from the most recent back, not understanding my mom’s references to “bearing up under the circumstances.” The earliest letter – one from my brother – was hilarious. I laughed so hard people around the pool turned to look at me. Then he wrote that our grandmother had died. Gram and I were astral twins -we shared the same birthday – and I was finding out three months later. I cried so hard the same people around the pool turned to look at me again.
When I got back to the room I reached Peter at the number he’d given me, amazing since this was the first time he’d actually been at the safe house; he’d be leaving for the hill country that night but he wanted to see me. He caught a three-wheeled taxi and came over. Bill and Eric were out. As soon as I opened the door he knew something was wrong . He held me while I cried, and for a long time afterward.