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Thailand - The Land Of Smiles



Thailand - Land of Smiles, and other things


For many years only two beers were available in Thailand. Singha and Amarit. Both, I found at the time, pretty bloody awful. Amarit is no longer around these days which is a blessing in itself and Singha, remarkably, became a  'World Class' Ale. In many places, even in Bangkok itself, refrigeration was minimal and warm beer was drunk with ice cubes.  Very alien to an Aussie of any description let alone an Aussie Sailor. 


We would normally hit the 'Bangkok Bar', at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River before dawn, at about about 4:30 AM. Once anchored at the Bar the ship's divers would go down and fit grates over all the hull, sea water intakes. This we did in many ports, for once in Kobe in 1970 Derwent got into serious trouble when she sucked up huge amounts of plastic into her intakes.


Once that task is completed and the Thai Pilot, the Official Entourage, the Embassy Staff and most importantly the money change officials get aboard we weigh anchor and proceed up the winding, shallow, busy, fast flowing Chao Phraya River at the breakneck speed of about 4 knots. It takes about four hours to get up the river to Khlong Toey. This trip would be stinking hot for all those closed up below decks at Special Sea Duty Stations and was perhaps one of the longest harbour entries in Asia. It would be, however, a very scenic entry for the upperdeck parties. If you were super lucky you would get a berth alongside. If not, then out to the middle of the river secured to 'Dolphins'. When at the dolphins the ship would be surrounded by native Thai boats with the most dazzling Thai girls selling everything from wood carvings and sarongs, to cold beer. The sailors would have loads of fun, leaning over the guardrails teasing the life out of these young ladies. Liberty boats were the only way of getting ashore and these were provided by the local Thais in their racy, longtail, skinny boats. Many a great time was had by racing each other up and down the river in these swift, sleek craft. The Thai Skippers always ready to accept a dare and push their boats to the limit to impress the 'Farang Taharn' (foreign sailors).  Naturally slipping them a few baht helped too. 


Nit - Grand Prix Bar 1982
Nuch - Grandprix Bar Paptpong, Bangkok


Once ashore at Khlong Toey one was beseiged on the wharf by Thai owner drivers, (as opposed to taxis) most of which had a deal going with the hotels and massage parlours in Petchaburi Road. The vehicles were mainly large 'Yank Tanks' and after negotiating a deal we left the navigating to him. He would be into you as soon as you got in the car. There was nothing that wasn't for sale. I guess this had something to do with providing for R&R grunts fresh from the killing grounds of Vietnam, their every concievable wish was catered for.


During the R&R Days there were plenty of good cheap hotels and certainly no shortage of massage parlours. The kind where sometimes up to one hundred girls dressed in their evening gowns sit behind a soundproof glass window in plush surroundings watching TV, chatting with their mates, reading magazines and waiting for their number to be called. A 24 hour escort and tour guide would cost around 400 - 500 Baht $A20-25, with an option to extend. Beers cost around 20 baht or $A1.00 which was damned expensive!


Vidaeo - Phil Cunningham CBC News Report of the day about R&R in Bangkok


Towards the end of the Vietnam War and sometime after there was much political turmoil in Thailand and on a few visits we were heavily restricted in where we were allowed to go due to the serious rioting and violence. In HMAS Stuart in July 1974 the situation on the streets was so bad they were not going to allow us ashore at all. Since we had just been at sea for six weeks the ship's company threatened a mass walk off should they not grant leave. The powers that be eventually did and we streamed off to the New World Hotel andhad a great time whilst people died on the other side of the city. Patpong Road, the infamous 'night club area' would often be out of bounds, however it did little to stop the 'thrill seekers'.


Just outside the docks at Khlong Toey was the shabby Mosquito Bar and was a good place to avoid if one wished not to visit sick bay in the immediate future. Patpong boasted quite a number of pretty well run establishments where a few ex US Vietnam Vets set up shop. Rick Maynard an ex Air America 'Employee' ran the Grand Prix Bar (pictured below), opening in 1968 and remaining until just a few years ago it was the longest foreign owned and run bar in Bangkok. It catered for servicemen, diplomats, war correspondents, mercenaries, spies, and even the odd tourist it was a great place to go for a beer.


Of course one has to mention 'Tiger' Ryberg, who, married to a Filippina lady named Lucy was one of the original 'Flying Tigers' . Tiger was a legend, as hard as nails and a great bloke- a visit to 'Lucy's Tiger Den' around the corner from Patpong in Suriwongse Road was always a necessity. There was Cowboy, an ex Black US GI, who even got his own, now famous, street and bar strip named after him 'Soi Cowboy', I believe he is still there 'up country' somewhere. And of course BJ another ex GI who opened the first foreign owned bar and is a local identity down Pattya way.


Grand Prix Bar

During the war Thailand was one of the most popular R&R destinations for the troops and the yanks always had an R&R Center. The US R&R Center in Bangkok was the Windsor Hotel in Sukhumvit Soi 20. This was popular for the married blokes for everything was at US Service Club prices and you had to have Military ID to get in. The bar down below used to provide live entertainment in the manner of strippers, until one young US serviceman on R&R took some pictures and sent them home to mum, who immediately informed her congressman that the service was corrupting her son. That soon stopped! Here was was this young Marine out there killing people but watching naked ladies was corrupting him! Now that's crazy!!


Thailand was a very popular destination, but it did suffer from the very difficult language barrier (sailors were not noted for their interest in asian languages) and the high beer prices for the day. But then visits to Thailand were generally only for a week's duration at the longest, unless of course you broke down, and that's another story.