M.V. Weybank - Chapter 9
The Thai Navy naturally wanted to draw out their vacation as long as possible and they had no trouble doing so because each and every thing aboard had to be signed off on individually before the shipyard could finally and officially hand the ship over to the navy. Sometimes it wasn‘t even the navy throwing a spanner in the works.
The corvettes were fitted with Italian Oto Melara 76mm automatic rapid-fire naval guns and Italian OM technicians were present at the shipyard during installation and also at Pattaya during sea trials. One of the times the Italians who were sent out from La Spezia were all soon homesick (apart from one - married of course- who had fallen madly in love with a Thai bar girl) and wanting to go home tried any excuse they could find to do so and during sea trials at Pattaya they found one.
For some reason during trials they had ran out of ammunition and told the shipyard that they would have to order new ammo from Italy. As it would take at least a couple of weeks they were going to fly home and would return when the ammo arrived. The shipyard in a panic contacted the navy asking if they could supply ammo which the yard would pay for. They agreed but when the navy ammo arrived the Italians said it was sub-standard and were not going to f… up their guns firing it. They were going home, subito! The shipyard tried offering them a stay at the most expensive hotel in Bangkok with additional daily spending money if they would at least stay in Thailand until the ammo arrived from Italy. Ciao, Arrivederci – they flew home!
I was thinking that they must all be nuts. Who wouldn‘t enjoy this kind of sojourn in Thailand? In retrospection I can now understand their point of view. Italy had just about everything that Thailand had to offer. Good food, wine, women and song. Great beaches, sunny warm weather – La Dolce Vita - what Italian needs Thailand?
Today you can go in the internet to YouTube and visit Patpong in Bangkok or any of the other „sin“ locations and for those that have never been there I can understand the excitement (for a better word) of it all.
Bangkok itself has many „Wats“ (Buddhist temples) some of which are spectacular such as Wat Arun, the „Temple of Dawn“ (shown below) on the banks of the Chao Phraya. However, mass tourism has long since destroyed the charm such buildings once had. Not the buildings themselves but the monks who run them who display an air of aloofness or even get bossy when demanding entrance fees to this and that. Some of the Wats on the Chao Phraya have temples stocked with fish tanks. Thais being Buddhists are forbidden from killing other beings be they human or otherwise. The fish tanks are part of a scam, especially when it comes to Thai women. The monks buy the live fish from fishermen to stock the tanks and then sell them „blessed“ to temple visitors in transparent plastic bags. The happy new owner takes the bag of fish to the banks of the river and releases them back into the river thus obtaining for his or her future life good „Karma“ points with Buddha.
There are also magnificent palaces to visit in Bangkok, amongst them the Royal Grand Palace (below), which with its collection of pavilions and golden spires can only be described as an oriental masterpiece. Inside the Royal Chapel there is the Emerald Buddha, which has been carved from a solid piece of jade. The palace is a true architectural masterpiece. Ayutthaya (about 40 km to the north of the center of Bangkok) which was once the capital of Siam is full of temple ruins and well worth a visit.
The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery is the final resting place for the remains of 7,000 British and Commonwealth troops who died in the vicinity when forced under Japanese captivity to work under atrocious conditions on the construction of the infamous Thai-Burma railway. The Japanese were in a hurry to get the railway completed and operational because it was crucial to the success of their impending invasion of NE India via Burma. Many more thousands of British/Commonwealth troops died at other sections of the line, the railway being layed through the worst kind of terrain imaginable. Around 50,000 Thai, Burmese or other ethnic minorities who were press-ganged into slave labour on the line also died.
The movie „The Bridge on the River Kwai“ was released in 1957 and became an instant international success. Appearing only 11 years after WWII had ended, it was based on a best-seller book written by the author Pierre Boule. On the one hand it tried to depict the inhuman treatment of the POWs by their Japanese masters but on the other it rapidly unraveled into a kind of „Mad Hatters Jungle Tea Party“ playing to the public sentiment of the victorious allied nations. It is one of the most iconic movies of our time and rightly so, not only because of the superb film script, camera photography and actors involved but also due to its signature music „The Colonel Bogie March“. The star of the movie is the English actor Alec Guinness, hard on his heals is the American William Holden and last but not least another English star Jack Hawkins and the Japanese actor Sessua Hayakawa.
The movie‘s bridge has a fleeting resemblance to a mini bamboo/teak version of the Firth of Forth bridge. The movie was filmed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where the movie‘s bridge was also errected. In Thailand during the war, two bridges had been errected spanning the River Kwai but both had been completely destroyed by British and American air attacks before the Japanese capitulation. After the war a railway bridge was errected close to the vicinity of one of the originals and it has long since become a powerful tourist magnet. The bridge is in Kanchanaburi which is only a four hour drive NW from Bangkok. I always wonder if the tourists expect to see the movie version on their arrival.
The present day River Kwai bridge is shown above. There is a small town only 2km east of the bridge that you have to pass through to get there. I went to see the bridge only once and stopped on the way in the town for a drink and a smoke. When I got out of the car I found myself standing in front of the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. I hadn‘t even known of its existence. I went inside, the only visitor, and slowly walked up and down the rows of the grave markers reading their names, rank, regiment and age. The cemetery is kept in immaculate condition as shown below and borders directly on the town‘s bustling main road. I thought that it was a good place for their final rest as they hadn‘t been relegated to some obscure „out of sight, out of mind“ plot somewhere else. Maybe it comforted their lonely souls a bit being so close to the freedom that they themselves had died for.
The charm of other locations in Thailand such as Chiang Mai in the north west has been destroyed by mass tourism. When I worked in Bangkok I would repeatedly come to a point where I needed to desperately escape for some peace of mind. Often on a Friday evening I would go to the main Bangkok bus station and take an overnight bus north eastwards to the Mekong River which forms the frontier between Thailand and Laos – completely off the beaten track. On arrival at whatever destination I had chosen I would dismount with a small backpack and hike through the magical countryside. By the late afternoon I would stop at the nearest village I could find where the inhabitants, most of whom had never seen a live „farang“ before would gather around me and before you knew it I was the life and soul of a spontaneous village party. I would ask to be shown to the village store where I would just about buy it out of Singha beer and bottles of so-called „Thai Whisky“ called Mekhong or Sangsom which is not whisky at all but rum because it is distilled from molasses. The villagers would start up a grill with such delicacies as field rat (not in anyway to be compared with Bangkok sewer rats which you could see running all over the place when you returned from some bar in the wee hours of the morning). The parties would go well into the night to the exotic beat of the kind of Thai music particular to the Thai/Laotian border. Their houses which were built of teak wood on pillars were spacious and cool inside. Later you were given a mat to sleep on after the partying had come to an end. More often than not one of the village girls would suddenly appear out of the darkness and lay down beside you. The girls or at least those few that could speak some English would tell you all about the village „love life“, for instance pointing discreetly at some attractive Thai woman villager and saying „ See that woman? You think she pretty? Her husband work Bangkok. She go sneak late everynight to sleep with village schoolteacher“
Thailand is an enchanting land which together with its cheerful friendly people have long ago found a place in my heart. But be beware, all that glitters is not gold. You can be sitting at your favourite bar with all the girls around you as usual when suddenly they part from you like the Red Sea - their place being taken by Thai police who ask for identification and then search you on the spot for drugs of any kind. And I mean any kind – even prescription drugs you might have on you like Valium can land you in a Thai prison in the blink of an eye. Your worst nightmare, ever! If you are caught with even a few grams of chrystal meth, Marijuana, opium, - you name it – you are looking at a death sentence.
You may think „Can‘t happen to me, I‘m a Brit (or US or German or Swedish or….), my government will step in and it will soon be all just a bad dream“. Wrong again! You don‘t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out why Thai drug squads concentrate on tourists. Apart from the obvious it is good international publicity for them when they hold perpitrators and evidence up in front of CNN or BBC cameras and spout words to the effect
„Look what we are fighting against to preserve the purity of our beloved kingdom“. Some of the condemned can get lucky when the king‘s birthday is celebrated. He traditionaly grants a royal pardon to some of the condemned meaning from the death sentence but not from the life imprisonment sentence which takes its place.
Never, ever make a derogatory remark about the king or the royal family. It is akin to drug smuggling.
When I was in Thailand the death penalty for drug smuggling/trafficking was carried out in what the Thais considered a more humane manner – at least as far as the executioner was concerned. Instead of a firing squad in which two thirds would be handed blank ammunition, the Thais opted for a 50 cal. machine gun, albeit a modified version. The condemned was lead into a courtyard and manacled to a chair behind which sandbags were
piled high. A large white sheet was suspended in front of the victim so that he or she could not see the MG. The machine gun had previously been placed and anchored in position and its sights adjusted to aim precisely at the chair. The modification to the machine gun? There was nobody behind it to depress its butterfly firing levers. It was remote controlled. Don‘t ask me if someone pressed a button somewhere or wound up a countdown clock mechanism or whatever. However I do know that even the shortest of a concentrated 50 calibre machine gun burst doesn‘t leave behind much more than a red stained „Photoshop- spray can“ effect where the condemned, plus chair had once been .
If there was one thing that ashamed me in Thailand it was European or US sex-tourists. All kinds of slobs, usually totally overweight with beer bellies. Wearing neon-coloured cut-off WWW wrestler type vests and zany Bermuda Shorts with flip-flops hanging from their feet they would slop their triumphant way down the Soi (alleyway) with a girl on each arm convinced that he was God‘s personal answer to women. Seldom missing was the red bandana tied around his empty head to signal to all passersby that he was at the least on a par with Rambo or Geronimo. „Hulk Hogan“ moulded in blubber. Watching them doing their „Easy Rider“ stuff on hired 500cc or 1000cc choppers cruising up and down Pattaya‘s oval main drag, the bar girls were at least kept entertained by these „Simpsons in Thailand“, unbelievable!
I‘m getting carried away so I‘d better say goodbye to Thailand now. Next stop – Hongkong!