An Amer­i­can’s View of Thai­land or What It Used To Be

Thai-American Business (T-AB) Magazine - - Contents - Writ­ten by: Jorges Orgi­bet Reprinted from: T- AB, May- June 1980

In 1945 at the end of World War II Bangkok justly de­served the ti­tle Venice of the East. It was a city filled with beau­ti­ful tree- canopied streets and criss­crossed with placid klongs. The most mod­ern build­ings were those that still line Ra­j­dam­no­ern Av­enue. The busi­ness sec­tion stretched along New Road.

Petch­buri, Sukhumvit, Rama IV, Suri­wongse and Silom were all two laned as­phalt roads along­side klongs. The Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal sta­tion on Sukhumvit was a nice drive out of the city and be­yond were open fields of rice pad­dies.

Am­phorn Gar­dens pav­il­ion was the so­cial cen­ter of the up­per set and other night life re­volved around some 85 cabarets. Hoi Tien Lao was the lead­ing Chi­nese restau­rant, Western food avail­able in the ho­tel was noted for bland­ness and the for­eign com­mu­nity did most of its en­ter­tain­ing at home. Sun­day dances on the pier over the Bang­poo mud­flats were the “in” thing. Hua Hin was the beach re­sort, Bangsaen a se­cond choice. Pat­taya, like Pat­pong, was still a decade away.

The Ratanakosin ( now the Royal), the Ori­en­tal and the Tro­cadero were the city’s best ho­tels. The lat­ter in 1945 housed ex­pris­oner of war fam­i­lies be­ing repa­tri­ated. The Ori­en­tal was be­ing taken over by the Amer­i­can Air Trans­port Com­mand, the “Rat” was full of mil­i­tary, and the Sports Club was the re­ceiv­ing cen­ter for Al­lied pris­on­ers re­leased from the in­fa­mous Death Rail­way.

At Bangkok Noi the Dhon­buri rail­way yard was a clut­tered heap of bombed- out rolling stock. The east span of the Me­mo­rial Bridge canted askew on it piers, and al­though the Postof­fice it­self es­caped un­touched, many build­ings in that area were shat­tered.

That was Bangkok in 1945. There were 300,000 Ja­panese troops and some 30,000 Bri­tish and In­dian troops mov­ing in to take their sur­ren­der. There were about 50 Amer­i­cans in town, mostly spe­cial­ized mil­i­tary such as OSS, Graves Reg­is­tra­tion and ATC. I was one of the mere hand­ful of Amer­i­can civil­ians who came in with the State Depart­ment. I set up press op­er­a­tions for USIS and later was the Em­bassy’s first press of­fi­cer un­der Am­bas­sador Ed­win F. Stan­ton.

Two of those OSS of­fi­cers were des­tined to make his­tory in Thai­land. Big, jovial Alexan­der Macdon­ald founded the Bangkok Post shortly af­ter leav­ing the ser­vice and for three years he and I shared a big house on Sathorn Road. The news­pa­per was lo­cated in an old palace on Klong Kasem and printed on a tem­per­me­n­tal press that only one prin­ter, and el­derly Ja­panese, ap­peared able to con­quer. Mac’s big­gest and tough­est job in those days was to get the au­thor­i­ties’ per­mis­sion for the Ja­panese prin­ter to stay with the press.

Macdon­ald’s book, “Bangkok Editor” came out a few years later, one of the best ever writ­ten about that post- war pe­riod.

There was an­other OSS of­fi­cer who left his mark on Thai­land. Jim Thomp­son had trans­ferred into the Em­bassy Mil­i­tary At­tache’s of­fice and while at that post he and I took the trips that cov­ered ev­ery mile of Thai­land’s rail­way. One of those trips launched Jim Thomp­son in the Thai silk busi­ness.

We had been as­signed to make a sur­vey of the rail­way, first to the south­ern bor­der. As ev­ery bridge south of Bangkok had been bombed out, trains ran be­tween bridges and the pas­sen­gers were fer­ried across the rivers from one train to the next. We, of course, were pro­vided with a “pri­vate train.”

We, in­cluded M. L. Chuanchuen Kambhu, West Point grad­u­ate who was a Free Thai dur­ing the war and who had served with our Air At­tache Reg­gie Vance at Ran­dolph Field, was now our li­ai­son of­fi­cer. To this day he’s still “Johnny.”

That pri­vate train was some­thing you had to see to be­lieve. It was prob­a­bly the most di­lap­i­dated con­trap­tion ever seen on the SRT. Pic­ture a six wheeled Ja­panese diesel truck con­verted to rail use tow­ing a small can­vas cov­ered gon­dola on which was loaded our jeep, also equipped with track wheels. We three sat in the flat bed of the truck un­der an at­top roof en­sconsed in bar­rel wicker chairs.

Our train was op­er­ated by two Ja­panese pris­on­ers of war, kept busy keep­ing the en­gine run­ning, which was only about two- thirds of the time. It had a habit of dy­ing out on the main line be­tween sta­tions. Where­upon we’d roll the jeep off the gon­dola onto the tracks and the three of us would rat­tle on down to the next sta­tion, lo­cate a noo­dle shop and drink beer un­til our “train” made its ap­pear­ance. Then we’d re- load the jeep, mount our un­trusty truck and con­tinue south.

That train had one de­light­fully unique fea­ture. In place of the truck’s front wheels was a four- wheel rail truck with a plat­form that ex­tended out in front of the ra­di­a­tor. A 50 gal­loon drum on that plat­form car­ried our ex­tra fuel, but left room for a cou­ple of our wicker chairs. Jim and I rode many miles on that makeshift front- end ob­ser­va­tion deck. What a way to see the coun­try!

Shortly af­ter re­turn­ing to Bangkok I “ac­quired” ( an ap­pro­pri­ate term in those days) a Ja­panese mo­tor trol­ley used as a rail in­spec­tion car. Re­built and painted, that rail car be­came the first USIS mo­bile unit and in it Jim and I cov­ered the en­tire east, north­east and north­ern rail routes. Many of those trips were shared with our good friend M. R. Chakra­tong Tongyai.

That mo­tor trol­ley was about 12 feet long. It had a pre- war Che­vie en­gine in a box be- tween driver and rail­way guard seats in a front com­part­ment. In a cov­ered but open sided rear com­part­ment was just enough room for three of our trusty bar­rel wicker chairs. Shelves on the bulk­head be­tween the com­part­ments housed hot and cold wa­ter jugs, food and other sup­plies. Our gear and ex­tra fuel was stowed in a box atop the driv­ers com­part­ment. Re­ally noth­ing fancy, but all the ba­sic com­forts.

We even car­ried our own turntable, a pair of tapered rails hung along each side and usu­ally served as run­ning boards. Th­ese were at­tached to a steel bol­ster set on the ties in the middle of the track. In op­er­a­tion the car was run up on th­ese rails and the whole con­trap­tion pushed around by hand. Once fac­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion the car was rolled off, the turntable stowed, and we were go­ing back the way we’d come.

My USIS driver served as en­gi­neer and an SRT rail­way guard oc­cu­pied the left hand seat, crank­ing the siren we car­ried in lieu of a whis­tle.

The SRT sys­tem is sin­gle tracked and train move­ments are con­trolled from sta­tion to sta­tion by tele­graph. Or­ders are picked up from a hoop held out by the sta­tion masters – white or­der, pro­ceed; red or­der, stop. Our USIS mo­bile unit ran as a spe­cial train, and usu­ally was given the right of way. That meant pass­ing trains were held on sid­ings at sta­tions un­til we’d passed. Many was the time crowded pas­sen­ger trains, with peo­ple hang­ing all over the cars and on the roof, would be wait­ing our ar­rival, which in­vari­ably was greeted with howls of laugh­ter, then they glee­fully cheered us on our way.

It was on our first trip to Chi­ang Mai that Jim Thomp­son be­came in­ter­ested in Thai silk. It hap­pened like this:

We were to be met at the sta­tion by the Gov­er­nor of Chi­ang Mai. Un­for­tu­nately, the en­gine broke down at a lit­tle sta­tion a few miles be­fore Chi­ang Mai. When we ex­plained our prob­lem the sta­tion mas­ter tele­graphed ahead to Chi­ang Mai ask­ing if there was a switch en­gine that could tow us in. The an­swer was “yes” but what showed up was a huge Mikado, one of SRT’S largest steam lo­co­mo­tives, which had backed down the track to pick us up. As our cou­pler was about two feet below the lo­co­mo­tive’s, we were fi­nally chained on. About like ty­ing a sam­lor be­hind a ten- wheel truck.

Steam­ing into Chi­ang Mai sta­tion we were a sight – un­seen, un­til lean­ing way out and wav­ing a cap we at­tracted our wel­com­ing party’s at­ten­tion. Our lit­tle rail car, how­ever, fas­ci­nated the Gov­er­nor who ar­ranged overnight re­pairs on the prom­ise of a ride the next day. He got it.

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