An Early Amer­i­can Res­i­dent Re­lates His Ini­tial Im­pres­sions of Thai­land

Thai-American Business (T-AB) Magazine - - Contents - Writ­ten by: Al­bert Ly­man Reprinted from T- AB, Jan­uary- Fe­bru­ary 1984

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.

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