Tuesday, November 25, 2008


When I went back to Bangkok in ’76, after those seven in-between years, it was hard to sort out what was there at this point and what had been there before. The place had had another ten boom-town years, so different from the devastation in nearby Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia. Thailand seemed more than ever to be all glitter.

I headed off to a dark bar I used to haunt – a seedy place still, despite the overall glitter, filled with grim Western spies and very un-grim Eastern girls. It was the place where ten years back I had met up with Sunisar, who wore gold lamé gowns and was more or less a singer. It had the unlikely name The Dew Drop Inn, like the name of some mundane beery place in American where lithe girls would never be found.

On my way to the bar I looked in on what had been a shiny new hotel seven years back but by now looked old and shabby. In the lobby there was a florist shop, which I remembered because I had brought girls flowers there. This time I saw a tall floral arrangement with a card on it that said “Amranand” in Western letters, and below it something else in Sanskrit. Amranand was a name known in Bangkok where not everyone used last names. When I was in Bangkok the first time around Prock Amranand, a Thai economist who worked for UNESCO, had asked me to be the English language PR man at the World Fellowship of Buddhists annual conclave, which was being held that year in the relatively cool, flower-scented northern city of Chiengmai. I had then quickly asked a Burmese guy I knew at Reuters to get Bonnie Beaman credentials for the conference as a special Reuter’s correspondent – really shrewd, for Bonnie and I were on the verge of being an item now that Sunisar was no longer living in the airy house I had rented across the river in Thonburi.

Not that the end of the Sunisar period and the beginning with Bonnie meant any decrease in sexual tension. Or any other kind of tension in this place where, along with the frenetic night life, assassinations by spies chasing spies seemed to be a daily occurrence, and every foreigner seemed to have some sort of undercover role with some national or factional intelligence service. Bonnie had come to Bangkok originally with one of the contract CIA people who were everywhere that year in this boom town city of temples and elaborate massage places (which were blessed by legions of Buddhist monks when they opened), and very big temples with gold leaf in their sweeping roofs, and cavernous nightclubs, also cozy bars, all full of girls, and also palaces whose denizens were a mystery. She had started from Tokyo, where she had gone on a teaching job via Antioch College’s innocent work-study program. She had abandoned the program for a job standing in a low cut evening gown that showed off her tanned bikini-ready figure at the door to an expensive Tokyo nightclub, she the bait waved in front of rich Japanese men. It would have worked for me if I were a rich Japanese man.

We went to Chiengmai in a special plane for the conference in which, as on many regular flights too, two monks were placed at the front so as to ward off air crashes. In Chiengmai we moved fast from being fake journalist colleagues to being lovers on a tryst. We spent the bulk of our time in bed at the compact new Railway Hotel. The first time we ordered from room service from the their new Western menu – Western food being a big fad in Thailand that year – half a dozen people burst into our room and formed a semi-circle around our bed, including two guys in chef’s hats who poured brandy over a sort of brochette dish and lit it to the applause of several boys and girls in white uniforms, the girls looking like teenagers disguised as French maids for Halloween. The room was full of dead bugs because we had left a door to a small balcony open while we were at a Buddhist conference session. And we were naked under a thin sheet, though after that first time we would get dressed before the food arrived.

Before I was finished with Southeast Asia that first time around I wrote enough of a novel about that time to get the book sold right afterwards in New York. What I did not put into the novel were family factors whose importance alluded me. I edited out that the reason I knew Brock Amranand was that he was the husband of a royal Thai lady named Pim Sai, who had been to boarding school in England with my ultra-white sister-in-law Rosemary, who was send to England for boarding school by her father who was with the India Army in Malaya. My sister-in-law was there in Bangkok my first time around along with my twin brother Peter, subject of a childhood rivalry that never ended.

I was writing hack books full of sex that belied the fleeting but intense intimations of innocence I had with Bonnie at first – the feeling that now, at 31, I had a chance to redo my early years.

Peter was there with an ominous Defense Department agency, part of the Johnson war escalation, the agency’s main goal apparently to teach the Thai army up-to-date ways to kill peasants. In my novel a character named Mickey was exactly like Bonnie, and two charactyers, Andrew and Simon, were meant to be exactly like me, Andrew them full of alcohol-fueled romantic swagger, Simon had low self-esteem. In the book there was no Peter.

Some time after I saw the floral arrangement near still seedy bar, I discovered it was indeed for the Pim Sai house. Pim Sai had just been killed, slashed to ribbons by a gardener who for some reason ran amok.

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