An Early American Resident Relates His Initial Impressions of Thailand
Iam Mr. Albert Lyman, an American lawyer, still engaged in the practice of law here as a Senior Member of the law firm, MESSRS. TILLEKE & GIBBINS, R. O. P., Advocates & Solicitors. I settled in Bangkok in April, 1949, having come from Yokohama, Japan. I traveled in as a passenger on a flying boat operated by British Overseas Airline Corporation. We landed on the Chao Phya River near the Klong Toey Wharves. Earlier I had made a couple of brief trips to have a preliminary view of Bangkok, coming in from Hongkong by DC- 3 aeroplane, operated then by the early version of the now existing Thai Airways Company. In those days the Don Muang Airport facilities for passengers consisted of two old aeroplane hangers. Arrivals were given glasses of fruit juices by the Don Muang Airport officials.
The then Thailand Minister of Justice kindly gave me permission to set up an office to engage in the practice of law. My wife, Freda Ring Lyman, and my two minor children, a son David and a daughter Lucy, joined me a bit later, arriving by ocean steamer conveyance from Yokohama, Japan.
Looking around Bangkok, I discovered that parts of the city were damaged by Allied bombing raids. The Japanese Military Forces arrived here on December 8, 1941, which was the same day as December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. ( The difference in the dates was because of the International Date Line.)
The godowns at the Klong Toey Wharf had all been damaged badly by the Allied bombing planes, and were unusable. Consequently the Thailand Customs Department conducted their activities further up the river near the old Anglo- Thai Company’s Wharf. One greatly damaged building that had been hit by Allied bombers was a large structure on the river- front owned and operated by the Borneo Co., Ltd. Another damaged installation was the old Memorial Bridge for vehicles and pedestrians. The middle span was knocked out. The Thais apparently were impressed by the good aim, as the Thais naturally resented the Japanese occupation of Thailand. I believe the railway bridge further up the river was also damaged by bombs. Consequently railroad travel to southern Thailand was obliged to commence from the Thonburi side of the Chao Phya river. I noticed further bombing damage on a building directly across from the General Post Office on New Road. I was informed that all in all there was not much more bomb damage in Bangkok, and practically no fire bombs were dropped here.
There were many klongs in the Bangkok area and their drainage facilities were quite good. So lots of folks went swimming in them. There were klongs along Siphya Road which connected with the Chao Phya River and boats were rowed up the Siphya Road Klong from the river. Also along the existing Suriwongse Road there was a klong. Furthermore near the present site of the Erawan Hotel there was a large klong with many boats on it where various folks lived and farmers brought their products for sale to the population there. When I first arrived the population was little under one million persons.
I was told that the population of Thailand was about eighteen million persons then, but I believe that figure was not correct as I heard that various persons dodged the Census takers for one reason or another, perhaps out of reluctance to become involved with governmental authorities.
There used to be an electric Trolley Line running to various parts of Bangkok. I recall one which ran on New Road and there were usually two trolley cars linked together, one for first class passengers and one for second class passengers.
In those early days there was a great lack of electricity. It was caused by Allied bombing of the electric power plant which was then located up the river a bit. It was originally operated by a Belgian firm, but after the Japanese Occupation the Thai Government decided to take over the operation of the electronic plant. Consequently the Belgian company refrained from making any worthwhile repairs. So in the evenings, we had what are called “Brown- outs”, with a little electricity which barely illuminated electric lights with low wattage, or there were just plain black- outs.
I discovered that the Thai people enjoyed having social parties. I attended some down at the old Amphorn Gardens which are located near the Throne Hall, the latter then being occupied by the Thai Parliament. These parties lasted until two or
three o’clock in the morning, and were amazing to me, as Americans were not accustomed to such late gatherings.
In those early days there were food shops open all night long and travel was safe for anybody on the streets of Bangkok. Everything was calm and peaceful then.
There were not any tall buildings in Bangkok except for two structures in the Chinese section on Yawarad Road. One was called the Seven Storey building and contained a night club on the top floor. The other was a five storey building on an opposite corner.
On Rajdamnern Avenue, there was an open air pavilion called “The Cathay Dance Hall”. It was about the only one in town available to foreign visitors. It was a rather sedate place. There were numerous Thai girls dancing partners available but was not the wild and wooley sort such as now exists in Patpong and other similar areas of Bangkok. Nor do I recall hearing of any massage parlours in those days long ago.
When I first arrived in Bangkok in April 1949, there were many Opium Dens in operation and all of them were quite legal, they being duly authorized by the Thai Government. The smokers were all adult men. They were required to obtain an annual license from the Thai Government and I believe the annual fee was only about Twenty Baht ( Ticals 20) per annum. The opium was in the form of a type of paste. The smokers would lie down at full length on a small mat- covered platform, and would rest their heads on a porcelain pillow. A small portion of the opium paste was placed in the bowl at the end of the pipe and smoked over a coconut oil flame. The smokers had a cup of tea with them which they sipped from time to time and which was replenished by the attendants in the Opium Den.
The opium smokers were all very quiet and apparently usually lost in dreams or just plain drowsy. There was an Opium Den housed in a wooden building on New Road just across the klong from Yawarad Road, the main street of the Chinese business area. The place was within walking distance from my old office across street from the present General Post Office Building. Whenever I had foreign visitors here I usually took them on a sight- seeing jaunt to that Opium Den. The foreign visitors were greatly interested in the sights. I was told by Thai friends that opium smokers who indulged only lightly at irregular intervals felt that a slight use of opium was beneficial in sharpening their wits. However, the habitual opium smokers lost their appetites gradually and became very thin.
Those legalized Opium Dens were in existence for several years after my arrival. However, about the time Prime Minister Pibul Songkram was succeeded in power by General Sarit, the United Nations Offices in Thailand began urging the abolishment of legalized Opium Dens. After some strong persuasion he bowed to their pressure. Prior to their abolition I never heard of the word “heroin” which is derived from opium and I do not believe that heroin existed in Thailand prior to the abolition of the Opium Dens. Also in those early years I never heard the word “marijuana”. Cocaine as far as I knew was used only as an anesthetic by dentists. For several years after the closing of the Opium Dens in Thailand legalized Opium Dens continued in the Kingdom of Laos.
Now I shall turn to the foreign owned banks then in operation in Bangkok. All four of them had offices on the river front. They had been established in Thailand for a great number of years. There was the Banque de l’indochine whose office was on the river bank on the southern side of the large building housing the East Asiatic Company Ltd., which was then a Branch Office of the Head office in Copenhagen, Denmark. The banking hours then were from 9: 00 a. m. to 3: 00 p. m., but the Banque de l’indochine closed for lunchtime from noon until 2: 00 to 3: 00 p. m. The British banks that had branches in Bangkok were all located on the river bank on this side of the Chao Phya river. The Chartered Bank Ltd. premises occupied a generous portion of land fronting the river. That bank later moved to a location in the central business district. Their old site is now occupied by the new modern portion of the highrise wing of the Oriental Hotel.
The Mercantile Bank Ltd., then known as the Mercantile Bank of India, occupied a site alongside of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation which had an imposing structure located at the end of Siphya Road, then being called Hongkong Bank Lane. Their old sites on the river- side are now occupied by the new Royal Orchid Hotel.
In those far- gone days the British and French banks did not employ women bank tellers at their countries. It happened that when the bank of American, NT & SA, opened for business in 1950 or thereabouts they were the first foreign bank to utilize lady bank tellers. I forgot to mention that the Dutch had a bank Branch here in Bangkok, in their own structure located on New Road, the Bank was called the National Handelsbank. A few years later after my arrival here the National Handelsbank was acquired by an American Bank named the Chase- Manhattan Bank, N. A.
The Siam Commercial Bank Ltd., had its main office a few hundred yards north of the sites of the British Banks, having a large area and large building on the river bank. I believe it is the oldest Thai bank now operating and when they moved the Headquarters to the central business area of Bangkok, a Branch Office was maintained at the old site.
In my early years here the French Government was attempting to restore its control of the tree French Indo- China States, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. To do so, it brought into that area a large number of French Foreign Legion Troops. It happened that from time to time some members of the Foreign Legion would desert and flee into Thailand. It was realized by the Thai Government that if it returned those deserters to the French they would most likely be executed summarily. Consequently it became the practice of the Thai Government to arrange with one of the foreign Embassies here, that such an Embassy would house a group of the deserters on its grounds in a spare building. After a reasonable number had so gathered, then arrangements were made to fly those deserters back to Europe where those men could return to their native countries of origin.
When I initially arrived here I found only few isolated Americans engaged in business. They had arrived in Thailand immediately after the Japanese Military Forces had surrendered at the close of World War II. Some of these Americans had been
members of the OSS ( Office of Strategic Services) under the control of the wellknown American Intelligence Service Chief known as “Wild Bill Donovan”. Mr. Donovan was later named as one of the early post war American Ambassadors to Thailand.
There were perhaps six of those Americans who chose to remain in Thailand and commence business enterprises on their own account.
One of them was the legendary figure who created the Thai Silk industry, Jim Thompson. He was an architect by profession. He conceived the idea of teaching the Thai craftsmen to produce Thai silk in long rolls suitable for export to be made into Western type clothing. Also he taught the Thai craftsmen a modern method of dyeing. Furthermore he established a type of Thai Cooperative whose members produced Thai silk. Thereafter he introduced the Thai silk industry into the American market. He never became wealthy out of his endeavors but did bring prosperity to many Thai families, as well as several Laos personnages who were driven out of Laos during the French reoccupation of the three old French Indo- China States.
Another of those OSS Americans started the Bangkok Post newspaper as an afternoon periodical. After several years this American editor left Thailand, to be succeeded by a couple of other American editors. Later on the Bangkok Post under new ownership become a morning newspaper.
One became the editor of a couple of English language magazines relating to business matters, and he still resides in Bangkok. Another eventually went into the bakery business and one is presently engaged in a business brokerage enterprise.
The few other Americans here at the time of my arrival were the Manager of the Esso Standard Oil Company, the Manager of the Caltex Oil Company, and the Manager of the Pan American Airways Company. There were a good number of missionaries, both Protestant and Catholic.
When I first settled down in Bangkok no entry visas for Americans were required by Thai authorities. However in order to become a permanent resident of Thailand one was obliged to go through some procedures with various government offices. Originally I thought that the reason Americans did not require an Immigration entry visa to Thailand was because at the close of the war with Japan, the U. S. A. intervened with the British Government to tone down and reduce its reparations demands upon the Thai government for the destruction of British property and the interment of British citizens during the Japanese occupation. However I later learned that long ago, the U. S. A. under President Hoover had made an arrangement with Thailand for the waiver of immigration visas, this being in order to stimulate visitations by American tourists.
The aforegoing just about completes my early recollection of conditions in Thailand upon the occasion of my first settling down here. Needless to say the Thailand Government and its people have been very kind and generous to me.
Albert Lyman of Tilleke & Gibbins was one of the founding members of AMCHAM.