|15 Nov 1971||Cam Ranh Bay AB, Vietnam||Bangkok International, Thailand||639722||4.5 hrs|
|22 Nov 1971||Bangkok International, Thailand||Cam Ranh Bay AB, Vietnam||639765||5.3 hrs|
|Total flying time||9.8 hrs|
This trip was awarded as a "perk" to relieve the tension of flying day after day in a combat area. It was usually scheduled to assure that you had two or three days off in Bangkok -- sort of a "mini R&R". The route taken was generally direct from Cam Ranh to overhead Phnom Penh then on to Bangkok (also known as Krung Thep). We landed at Don Muang International Airport, a joint-use military and civilian airfield where the private contractor who did the Caribou maintenance was located. Bangkok is the largest city in Thailand and is situated on the southern coast, straddling the Chao Phraya (pronounced "chow pia") river. Bangkok was typical of many of the large Southeast Asian cities in that it was a bustling center of commerce teeming with people from extremes of the economic strata. Thais were generally very friendly toward Americans and their country was largely at peace with its neighbors. Bangkok is noted, among other things as a center for trade in precious stones and jewelry. From my earlier C-141 experience, I had been to Bangkok a number of times previously and looked forward to the trip.
By some prearrangement of earlier times, we were met at the airport by two young Thais who had a car and a deal to offer. For the mere price of one dollar per day from each of the three of us on the crew, they would serve as our personal chauffeurs for the duration of our stay. In return for this very low cost service, we had to agree to do our shopping at places of their choosing. They assured us they would obtain the lowest prices and take us to nothing but the best shops. We had been briefed by previous IRAN crews to accept the offer, as they were upright and earnest young men making an honest buck and delivering what they promised. They made their money in a complex scheme of "kickbacks" from the merchants we spent money with and they did, indeed, deliver on the promise of low prices. All in all, it was good business for all concerned.
The next order of business was lodging. I never quite understood how it worked, but there was a very nice hotel in Bangkok called the Chao Phraya (after the river). It was as nice as any big city hotel, but the difference was that it was solely and strictly a military Visiting Officers' Quarters. It charged the standard VOQ rate of the time ($2.00 per day) and was like heaven compared to our squalid Quonset huts at Cam Ranh. They had great onion rings (one of my favorite foods) served at poolside for 10 cents a plate. I did, however, note that the "mapple" syrup served pancakes at breakfast was not a misspelling, as it certainly wasn't "maple" syrup! I really don't know how that hotel was carried in the military budget, but I certainly didn't care at the time!
Our Thai guides left us on our own in the evening, so we took cabs to sample some of the many fine restaurants in the city. On about our third night, we had gone to a very highly recommended steak house and had a wonderful meal. Upon leaving the restaurant, the usual throng of cabs (and people) was noticeably sparse. We finally flagged down a cab and asked what had happened -- where was everyone? The cabby spoke limited English and we spoke even more limited Thai, but we got hints that something had happened involving the Thai military, tanks, and guns. We got back to the hotel, got a good night's sleep, and found out the next morning that there had been a coup d'etat. The National Assembly had been dissolved at gunpoint and tanks, armored vehicles, and trucks with machine gun mounts were at every major intersection. Fortunately, it had been a bloodless coup and the city recovered within hours and was back to its normal bustle by mid-morning. Leave it to me to time my stay in Bangkok to coincide with a coup d'etat!
Shopping in Bangkok in those days was a delight. The temperature outside was high, as was the humidity, and the first thing that was done when you entered a shop was to offer you a cold drink. The clothing stores were the most amazing. In a clothing store, you did not find any pre-made clothing. What was offered was a variety of fashion magazines showing the latest clothing from Fleet Street and Fifth Avenue, a vast array of bolts of cloth, and a tailor with a measuring tape and a notepad. First, you picked the style of clothing you wanted from one of the magazines (shirts, pants, sport coats, suits -- anything), then you picked the material you liked, then the tailor measured every possible dimension of your anatomy and wrote everything down. You made a small down payment and the clothing could be picked up in a day or two. Any final minor alterations were done on the spot. The shoe stores were similar. The one I visited had a wall of sample shoes in every imaginable style and a huge selection of leather samples. You picked the shoe style and the leather, then one of the clerks had you remove your shoes and socks and place your feet on a piece of paper. There, the outline of each foot was traced and a number of measurements were made of each foot. Once again, a small deposit and you were on your way, to return in two days to pick up your new shoes. I still have the water buffalo boots I bought for $7.00! In retrospect, I suppose that the "back rooms" of these operations were filled with grossly underpaid and exploited workers, but it certainly was a unique shopping experience. The jewelry stores were also fascinating, with their dazzling arrays of emeralds, diamonds, star sapphires, and other precious stones. Unfortunately, this was definitely a case of "caveat emptor" and, knowing nothing about gemstones, I contented myself with looking and not buying (not that I could afford precious stones anyway).
All good things come to an end that is much earlier than you would prefer, but we were, after all, slacking off while our buddies back at Cam Ranh were carrying the ball. We went to the airport to perform the functional check flight on the aircraft we were to bring back to Cam Ranh. After a short flight, we returned to Don Muang and wrote up the aircraft with a rough number one engine and had one more night in the world.
By the tradition established by previous IRAN crews, we treated our Thai guides and friends to dinner on the final night of our stay, at a place of their choosing. This was definitely the best meal of the trip. Our hosts took us to the Bangkok fish market to a place they knew Americans could eat without suffering ill effects. We had a veritable feast at a price so low it was almost embarrassing. It was a great end to a relaxing brush with the "world".
The next morning, bright and early, we lit off the P&Ws and we were all to soon back at Cam Ranh.
Revised: 24 March 1999