Zerky in Bangkok

Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Temple of the Emerald Buddha

March 23, 1968
Bangkok, Thailand

From JoAnne’s diary. It simply never occurred to us that Bangkok might be hotter than Calcutta. We quickly found the nearest air-conditioned hotel, which turned out to be full of GIs on R & R from Vietnam. Virtually every single one of them is accompanied by his own Thai bar girl, all of which, like the GIs themselves, look like teen-agers. Our hotel’s Western-style bar and restaurant has beer for $1.00 a bottle, hamburgers 75 cents, and a barbershop, Turkish bath, girlie magazine stand and a nightclub featuring “tea-dancing,” whatever that is. Everything here has been designed to separate a man from his money in the shortest possible time.

I feel sorry for the GIs here. On the juke box last night someone was playing “500 Miles from Home,” “Oh I Want to Go Home” and “When you Come to San Francisco be Sure and Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair.” Several GIs told us exactly how many days it had been since they had been in the States, and how many more it would be until they returned.

Zerk has been a big hit in his jeans, and the hotel staff has been lovely towards him. During the past two days they have given him two apples, two bananas and a little Koala bear. They give him something whenever he goes into the lobby, but then again I suppose one doesn’t encounter many children while working in a whorehouse. Besides its resident hookers, our hotel also has a resident adjutant stork, two doves, and a Buddhist shrine. Still, this can’t be Bangkok—we’ve got to get out of this damn hotel!

March 24, 1968. Last Sunday we visited the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and its several huge monasteries painted pink, blue and green, and also the Emerald Buddha chapel, which is guarded by two one story high demons. Around the courtyard are illustrations from the Ramayana, and inside there were priests pouring holy water over statues of cows. We saw lots of joss sticks and lotus offerings, too, and a couple of stone lions covered with gold leaf.

Zerky at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Zerky at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha

The Emerald Buddha

The Emerald Buddha

This afternoon we went to the Phra Mane ground to watch the people flying kites. On our way there, we came across an open air market where Zerky and I got to look at some birds and some animals. We saw everything from fledgling vultures to baby bunnies to puppies, monkeys, parrots and fish. Afterwards we drank pop and watched all the kites. One had a fifteen-foot-long red tail, and another was bright red with a multi-colored owl on it. We also saw two big star-shaped kites that took a son, a father, and a grandfather to launch. Bill likes the Benares kite-flying technique better because he says the Indian kites are more maneuverable. On our way back, we bought a bottle of Mekong, a smooth, sweetish whisky that is supposed to have aphrodisiac qualities. Zerky found a baby lizard on the floor of our room this morning, which he confidently dropped into my hand.

March 29, 1968. Yesterday we went to see some Siamese dancers at a clip joint hotel. Bad dancers, good costumes. Zerky watched the entire show without getting restless and especially enjoyed the bright colors and the elaborate headdresses. But he did not like the demon at all.

Hearing that we were from San Francisco, a young Thai girl approached us on the street, wanting to know all about hippies. She told us that the Thais don’t like them very much because they are dirty. But she kind of thinks they are OK and was very interested in the Summer of Love. We suspect she is thinking of running away to become a hippie, too, like the flood of runaway teenagers into San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park that we have been reading about in the English language newspaper here in Bangkok. Another cat attacked Tarzan.

We have not seen any beggars or people sleeping in the streets of Bangkok, but we do have two uninvited guests in our room, Leslie and Lester the lizards.

March 25, 1968, Bangkok, Thailand. Dear Zerky, when we arrived in Thailand, stepping out of the plane was like stepping into a blast furnace. I have never before experienced such heat and humidity. We quickly booked a room in the nearest air-conditioned hotel, the Hotel Parliament. This is quite a place, what with its three hundred rooms, ninety percent of which are occupied by American GIs on furlough from Vietnam, and by their “dates,” young Thai bar girls who are available at the bar downstairs. The Hotel Parliament’s restaurant specializes in such exotic dishes as hamburgers, southern-fried chicken, ham and eggs, milkshakes and Coke. Its jukebox takes US coins only. Everywhere we go in this part of town the streets are packed with GIs and their bar girls. Servicing the American troops appears to be Bangkok’s number one industry.

The merchants in this part of the city have found it a good marketing strategy to dress up their neighborhood in order to make it look and feel as much like America as possible. The Thai business community and the U.S. Army are in a marriage of convenience.

The standard of living in Bangkok seems higher than any place we have been since we were in Tehran. We even found an American-style supermarket with disposable diapers and little jars of baby food. I hope you will someday appreciate how much the success of this trip has depended on your diapers and baby food, we nearly cried when we saw them again, having been down to our last three packs of all those diapers we loaded up on in Athens. In order to make them last, we had taken to cutting them into twos, and then into threes.

We now have a problem. Without a car anymore, we have to get around on foot and by taxi, but it is much too hot here for us to walk very far and the taxi drivers all seem to be con men with sophisticated work habits honed by preying on the GIs. The result is that we have found ourselves spending far too much time in our room, watching American TV in front of the air conditioner. So you see, we are prisoners of the heat in a city with much to see. I am afraid we are missing most of it.

We finally got up the courage to leave our beloved air conditioner, and have moved into a Chinese hotel a few blocks from the Parliament. Our new room is half the size for half the price and came equipped with two pairs of sandals and two sarongs. As soon as we get back to our room, we get out of our damp sweaty street clothes and into our sarongs. This is the first time your father has ever worn a dress, but your mother says your father looks cute. So now your father says “sarongs are the only way to fly!” Besides our sarongs, our new room also has an air conditioner that works a lot better than the one at the Parliament because our room is much smaller.

We have managed to see a bit of Bangkok. Yesterday we went to see the most famous of the golden temples here, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. In spite of all the churches, mosques and temples we have seen on this trip, this one was perhaps the most beautiful of them all. It consists of a complex of several brilliantly colored pagodas covered with extensive mosaics made of colored glass and mother of pearl, and topped off with ornate gold roofs and spires. Gold is in abundance at this temple. The worshippers buy tiny squares of gold leaf at the door to be used as offerings by rubbing the gold leaf onto the stone gods inside the temple. Because this gold plating is being done constantly by the worshippers rather than by trained professionals, much of the leaf doesn’t adhere very well and when you walk through the temples you find loose bits and pieces of gold leaf tumbling along the floor in the wind. It is a memorable experience when you finally realize, belatedly, that you are walking quite literally in gold.

Yesterday, to escape the heat we all went to see an air-conditioned Hollywood movie, “Far From the Madding Crowd.” You were sound asleep in my arms, Zerky, as we went in, and we expected you to sleep through the film, but as soon as we sat down you woke up and stayed awake for the entire movie. This surprised us, but what surprised us even more, was that you very much enjoyed the movie. You chattered all the way through it even though, had you insisted on doing this in our own theatre back in San Francisco, we would have had to ask you either shut up or leave. You are just like your mother: every time an animal came on screen you got excited. This happened several times because the story was set on a farm. At one point when a crazed sheep dog stampeded a herd of sheep over a cliff, you buried your head in my shoulder and started to cry. Yes, Zerky, it was a very sad film but you stuck with it. How much you have changed in the last thirteen months since we left San Francisco. By now you have spent most of your life in an automobile. You are growing up and its time for a change.

Every night after dinner on the way home from a Thai restaurant, we have love it because you have been having the time of your life playing with a gang of kids on the sidewalk in front of our hotel. Once again, Asian children are intrigued with your blond hair and have been competing with each other for a chance to play with you. You are enjoying Bangkok much more than India, where caste restrictions all to often got in your way.

Poor Tarzan is having a rough time of it. Not only is the heat very hard on him (he is panting and sleeping a lot) but he also keeps finding himself being stalked by Siamese cats. For no reason at all, he has been attacked by them twice while we were walking outside on the streets, they come at him out of nowhere. Since we left San Francisco, Tarzan has tangled with dogs, goats, chickens, toads and monkeys, but never before by cats. These Siamese are really tough! Tarzan will be very happy to get away from here when we leave for Hong Kong tomorrow. Little does he know that they eat dogs in China.

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky

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