FROM: MY JOURNAL AND MEMORY, SUCH AS THEY ARE, VIETNAM 1994

Bits, pieces, wacky verb tenses....

Bangkok Street Altar
Bangkok Street Altar: Constance Lee Menefee

Off to Saigon via Bangkok

Finally, long past having nothing to do in the Seoul airport, our flight is called: 5 + hours to Bangkok. I felt a momentary rush of annoyance when I found out we could have taken a direct flight to Saigon. This was a particularly long five hours even though I sat by an exit, which gave me leg room. The meals were passable, but couldnít compare to the lunch on the LAX-Seoul flight. I even ate the sushi, although I realized that raw fish at any altitude can be risky.

Lots of watch re-setting up and down the aisles before we land at about 11:30 p.m. Bangkok time. The airport was busy. Uninspiring. Duller than I had imagined. Open and hollow and alternately frantic shrill and still. A saffron thread of monks padded softly off another flight. Some in sandals, some barefooted. Further down the concourse, a throng of Sikhs shifting erratically around, voluble and disheveled.

We were efficiently whisked into one of the passport control lines - there seem to be 30 or 40 of them. It looked much worse than it was. The lines moved slowly but steadily.  I was in line with two of my traveling companions. When Sandi, attired in the denim garb of the lost age of innocence, gets to the passport control counter, the clerk becomes noticeably sharper and more officious. Clearly the Thais are wary of travelers who look like later day hippies. He makes her show her passport, visa, and then asked to examine her airline tickets.

When I get to the counter, I am brisk and lay out my passport, the Thai arrival/departure card, and visa down matter-of-factly. The clerk was still chuckling about Sandiís visa to Vietnam. As if there were any reason on earth to travel to Vietnam.

I played along, and said, Another visa for Vietnam. He giggled. I had already endured a lengthy lecture on the flight over from Seoul from a Thai businesswoman about Vietnam. She couldnít believe we were going to spend three weeks in Vietnam. She said, the Vietnamese have to be watched constantly, it was a waste of time and effort to invest in Vietnam. And there was nothing to do there, either. She kept shaking her head, looking at us and saying, Three weeks? Being next to that supercilious negativity wasn't much fun.

As I left the passport counter, and Dan stepped up, I said over my shoulder to the clerk, Another visa for Vietnam. He shook his head.

Thai Bank

When we were properly stamped and certified, we zipped over to exchange travelerís checks for baht, along with carefully presented receipts. No black-market exchange, this. The clerk was matter of fact, but pleasant. I am on automatic pilot, unsure of what day it is. We could have had a direct flight to Saigon! This refrain echoes loudly in my ears as we struggle through a brief time in Bangkok - ostensibly to help us acclimate to Asia. I found out later, much later, that our guide liked Thai women. No harm, no foul, but I could have lived without the disjunct, hurry up and wait visit to Bangkok.

Keith and I didnít expect our bags, we had been warned in LAX that they would come on another flight. We went to talk with baggage service. They found my number in the computer and said, with great certainty: On the way. Keithís was missing in action. He filled out a claim form. They agreed to keep our bags at the airport when they finally showed up. (Big mistake as it turned out.)

The Plaza Hotel

At last, frayed and gritty, we sail through the ďnothing to declareĒ customs line and go hunt for the van from The Plaza Hotel. It, of course, was nowhere to be seen. Tom called the hotel, the clerk assured him the van was there. Dan - showing his leadership skills as a former battalion commander with the 101st AB - decided to check in another direction. He located the van, we loaded up and roared into the busy, sluggish Bangkok night. At 2:00 a.m. the traffic was barely moving. Incense and flower sellers walked among the cars and trucks.

We could have had a direct flight to Saigon!

Motor Bike

Motorbikes are everywhere. Many helmetless riders, although I donít know how a helmet would help when a scooter gets squished between trucks. There are road crews working on a road expansion. That only means room for more cars to not go anywhere. Between the hulking construction equipment, we catch glimpses of lighted spirit houses - they looked much like gingerbread houses with white Christmas lights.

We finally arrive at the hotel to a flock of uniformed bell men, doormen and unspecified others. Immediately presented with a refreshing drink that has floating pineapple, maybe some guava, and, could it be, a touch of alcohol? Even if it had been laced with cholera, we were so tired and thirsty we would have gulped it down, with the paper umbrella, had there been one.

They had cards filled out, so we only had to sign a few things and gratefully went to our rooms. The Plaza was just a wee bit shopworn, but the rooms were large, with hot and cold running water, comfortable beds, and an almost adequate air conditioner with a only touch of emphysema. The little refrigerator was stocked with Green Sport, a barely carbonated, fruitish, fairly unmemorable drink. Polaris water and beer, plus some snack foods that I left just as I found them. Tom was disappointed. He didnít think it would be so quite so shabby. It could have been much worse, was my thought.

One advantage of having no luggage is there is nothing to unpack. I slept well for about five hours, after which I got up for the complimentary breakfast. I am not sure what I expected, but it wasnít eggs, fried potatoes, and bacon. Guess they were used to American appetites. The papaya and pineapple were wonderful. I availed myself of the strong coffee. I needed all the stimulation I could get.

Three of us set out to see the bazaar with a chatty taxi driver. We drove by young boys under the overpasses. They would dart out and wipe the windshields. Our taxi driver told us, No father, no mother. Smoke morphine. If people didnít give them some baht, they would scratch a line in the carís finish.

Even though we kept saying, Here, just stop here, our driver hesitated to let us out. More fare? Genuine concern about these green tourists? Who knows. A little of both: this was Asia.

It was my first encounter with an Asian marketplace. I have had only two other, what I might call exotic exposures, to markets. One was in Barrow, Alaska. Big wide aisles and broad wooden plank floors, Neil Diamond playing in the background. Get all your basics here: tea strainers, sugar, flour, exceptionally large ladies long johns, and fox pelts. Red and gray, green and black, wool socks that kept growing and growing the more you wore and washed them. The other was in Jamaica. Like the one in Bangkok, it was open air and everything was just out there, but much more subdued and less colorful.

Fleas have eminent domain

CatThe Bangkok bazaar was orchestrated chaos. Motor scooters turned within a hairís breadth of us. People pushed forward, backward, nudging the flow of humanity on almost stolidly. Cats of every crude arrangement and color combination curled up under the booths. Needless to say, reaching cathood in Bangkok usually cost a bit of ear or tail and fleas and mange had the power of eminent domain over fur.

Young children slept stretched out under the tables full of dime store junk and cosmetics. Around piles of Calvinish Kleinoid shirts and green and pink silky underwear there were tables of fruit - odd reddish fruits with green tendrils that look like galls. Breadfruit, pineapple, coconuts; grills and earthen stoves smoked and steamed, charcoal odor twisted in with strands of flower perfume and general organic green grass and moldy tea leaf smells.

The sidewalks were death traps with sunken stone trap-doors sporting metal handles just high enough to chomp on unwary feet. Many sidewalks were beds of sand with bricks piled off to the side. I wonder how long some of these improvement projects have been underway. The Thais seemed to be in the process of re-furbishing the bazaar. Piles of torn down buildings, abandoned clothing in colorful lumps, trash, dead rats, and unrecognizable bone and meat pieces. It will probably all be bulldozed into the nearest narrow, slimy canal.

Not too many Westerners around. It was hot and we retreated to an air conditioned shopping center. The sidewalk in front was mostly sand with stacks of brick and zigzag shape concrete blocks. I wonder if they are some kind of halfway step in sidewalk karma? The reincarnation of sidewalks is slow.

In front of the center were satellite dishes, plucking who knows what from the ether. We ate soup with noodles, greens, and other delicious but unidentifiable floating objects. Now I understand why this hot salty broth is a staple of Thai and Vietnamese diets. It is refreshing in the heat and the salt replaces what you sweat away just moving around.

We went back to the hotel and I took a two hour nap, which I regretted later when I couldnít fall asleep at night. The group went to dinner at Siam Village, and outdoor shopping and eating center. I had lotus leaf wrapped fried rice. So-so. We had traditional Thai dancing and singing with dinner. Lovely.

Night has a different texture in Bangkok than Mid-Western American cities. Little stands and stalls suddenly show up at night - the darkness makes shopping much cooler. There is a graceful atmosphere of socializing.

Our deadly sidewalk friends were more treacherous in the dark, we managed not fall into any holes. No bad vibes from the folks on the street. Of course, we werenít in the touristy part of Bangkok.

We saw one fine example of a Western tourist in the morning. Looked like a disheveled businessman, nice hair cut, maybe in this thirties, slowly weaving back and forth on the sidewalk. Leaning against the buildings and then staggering on his way. No obvious signs of injury. He was truly out of it, though. He didnít ask for help. Maybe he knew he was beyond help, already sucked into Bangkokís slipstream of sex a la carte and drugs for every mood.

Back at the hotel, the taxi drivers were hunkered down playing some sidewalk game. Little cooking stands sprouted in the construction area across the street, along the canal. Where were these people all day? Did they go to work and this was home?

When we got back to the hotel and the news about the missing luggage was confusing. Was it here? Should they send it if it was here? We told the airport luggage service to keep everything because we were leaving the next day.

Ah. Lesson here: it doesnít matter what you tell people, they will do what they want.

The luggage arrived at the hotel as we were leaving the parking lot to go to the airport. I recognized my suitcase on the way by and yelled out indignantly. We were happily reunited.

We eagerly looked forward to getting on with the Vietnam adventure. It was 88 degrees at 7:00 am. Zowie. This is one hot part of the world.

Our trip to the airport - in the daylight - revealed Bangkok in all its perplexing, discordant splendor. New high rises going up everywhere, with workers slowly moving tiny piles of sand in rickety contraptions. Although half-finished buildings surround the road, most look abandoned. Only a few workers at each site. Work seems to go on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but slowly. The cranes arch against the sky around the entire horizon, giant herons waiting for unwary fish to spear.

Huge, gaudy temples hunch over next to modern glass and smooth stone buildings. Along the road run long strips of shantytowns - corrugated steel roofing, scrap wood all tangled in with thickets of bamboo and stands of palm. People walk along the road, indifferent to the trucks, cars, and scooters that go one way and the other in unending procession. Canals choked with slimy green algae and debris line the highway.

There are clearly two realities in Thailand.

Finally, Off to Saigon

Constance Lee Menefee
Copyright 2000