Arrival: December 24, 1977
The Boeing 727 Nepal Airlines flight from Kathmandu had played like an accordion through the frigid Himalayas before the heavy aircraft plopped on the runway at Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport.
The stewardess opened the hatch. It was late morning in Bangkok, but the heat didn’t care, nor had it paid attention to this the “cool” season.
In the arrivals hall I thought all the Thai girls must be in disguise as airport personnel. Like a James Bond movie, they were all picture perfect. Dressed in orchid uniforms, their habit-forming smiles hinted at something more than just happiness. Perhaps I’d unravel that mystery during my visit.
Before leaving Kathmandu, I had forwarded my tool case and dilapidated suitcase back to home base at Am Consul Karachi, Pakistan via the diplomatic pouch. I brought only my passport, U.S. dollars, and a small duffel carry-on bag. I was told luggage and clothes were good buys in Bangkok.
The taxi driver hurried down the road from the airport to the city, but I wasn’t sure why. On both sides of the highway scarlet lotus blossoms floated atop water the color of milk chocolate. It had rained against the aircraft’s windows during our approach, but as I would soon learn, the tropical sun melted water with equal skill as ice cubes.
My cohort at Karachi, Al, had told me (after consulting with his Thai girlfriend) that the canals (called khlongs) were teeming with cobras. Sitting in the back seat, I parlayed Al’s “BKK Stuff” on a notepaper against my own to-do list. In the back of my mind I imagined the crazed taxi driver skidding off the highway into a pond laden with lotus vipers (what a way to get my name engraved on the State Department wall alongside diplomats killed in the line of duty).
The taxi driver glanced in the rearview apologetically after nearly running down a family of four on a little motorcycle. I guess my shocked expression caused him to slow down. He increased the cassette tape volume. A Thai songstress mimicked the harmonic reflection of the clash of color and sun bright in lotus blossoms, Thai temples, and numerous othe foreign sites we had passed that I had no clue about. My to-do list needed expanding.
The Erawan Hotel
When the driver drove up in front of the hotel I paid him in Thai Baht and made a quick exit. Al told me that the Erawan Hotel was near the embassy and not far from the action on Sukhumvit Road. I checked in amidst more Thai smiles that were in some ways overwhelming, like when perfection lacks blemishes for contrast.
I overslept a short nap. At two p.m. and hungry as a bear I asked about food to one of the girls at the reception desk. When she motioned toward the hotel coffee shop I told her that I wanted authentic Thai food, but she didn’t understand the word.
Her name was Nit or Nat or Nut (with a last name of about twenty letters). She asked, “You like hot and spicy?”
Al had warned me that Thai food was “super, super” hot, but I grew up in California with Mexican food. I could handle jalapeno peppers.
“Yes,” I replied.
The Thai restaurant Nit recommended was a short walk from the hotel, on Ploenchit Road. I soon learned that Thai was the spoken language in Bangkok, not English. After being seated at the Thai restaurant whose name I could not pronounce I did a lot of pointing at pictures on the wall to the waiter (I should have asked Nit how to tell him to go easy on the hot and spicy).
I was the only patron in the restaurant dimmed by dark wood that appeared to be teak. An air container that hung off the wall made a wheezing sound, gasping for air. At close to three p.m. in the afternoon I would later learn that the emptiness was not a good sign.
After I had nearly finished a locally brewed beer called Singha, an old Thai lady in the kitchen fired up a wok. After the second beer of high alcohol content I was no longer concerned about food, but suddenly the server, a Thai boy, arrived. The twelve year old delivered my lunch, smiled and left. Grandma in the kitchen gave her approval with a short nod.
Al was right. Boy was this hot and spicy food. At the same time the red curry dish and the fish covered with a sauce were tasty served over a bed of rice. The beer masked much of the heat, but I would soon suffer from the after effect of something more than just hot and spicy food.
When I returned to the hotel, the receptionist Nit’s smile receded when she saw me. “Are you okay?”
“I need to lay down a while.”
I spent that afternoon with my head drooped over the toilet. My gut ached severely and I had developed a fever.
Before the shift change downstairs Nit knocked on the door. By her look I figured I was in a bad way. In my delirium all I could think of was our Israeli driver Ben nicknamed Sgt. Pepper by S.Y. Agent Halliday during the Secretary Vance visit. The boisterous driver ate too many chili peppers to impress us Americans. Who had I impressed delving into that white-hot Thai food without giving it a second thought? I ended up in the same facility as Sgt. Pepper had—the local hospital.
Receptionist Nit and her fiancé checked me into Bumrungrad Hospital. I don’t remember much other than it wasn’t a Merry Christmas. When I came out of it a day or so later a Thai doctor stood next to my bed and said in perfect English, “We thought you had Hepatitis. Fortunately, it was a case of severe food poisoning along with extreme inflamed stomach—bad combination.”
Doctor Arun (whose surname name contained nineteen letters), it turned out, had spent two years in Washington, D.C. where he completed part of his medical training. When he saw my diplomatic passport he asked if they should contact the American embassy and I declined (Dr. Arun said I could leave tomorrow and warned me to stay away from hot and spicy Thai. He went so far as to write down some Thai food that I could safely order).
I was beginning to understand “Thai hospitality.” The next morning Nit and her fiancé arrived all smiles. Dr. Arun and the two nurses joined to say goodbye. I promised that I would tell everyone at the American embassy (well, the CRO, anyway) about how well I was treated here.
The next day I took Nit and her fiancé out to dinner at a famous restaurant in Bangkok specializing in duck. Nit ordered for me in the crowded restaurant of Thai smiles. The food wasn’t hot or spicy. It was absolutely delicious.
Yet another “lesson learned” on the road to the Middle East and now South East Asia:
Only eat in restaurants where several other customers are seated and beware of those tiny red peppers that the Thais affectionately called, “Piki-noos.”