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