acrylic on canvas
As we drew closer to big city civilization the traffic and energy grew more intense. We had left the sleepy towns behind, the idyllic time spent as beach bums amongst the friendly fisherman and villagers; and slowly we were absorbed into the artificial neon world, the well rehearsed chaos, the cacophony of industry, the buzz of money, in the belly of the beast. Bangkok.
The Grace Hotel or Gracies as the groundfloor venue was affectionately called, was a large cocktail bar with a sixties décor still hanging around. On most nights it was usually brimming over with American serviceman on leave from the Vietnam war, which wasn’t that far away as the crow flies. There were also a small minority of Australian servicemen, various businessmen, tourists of all persuasions and of course the main attraction, dozens of sexy girls who worked as bar dancers wearing bikinis and high heels with little numbered plastic discs pinned to their outfit. Or they worked as hostesses, wearing more clothing and plying drinks on customers but ultimately offering the same services.
These girls flocked in from the country villages in the hope of making money from the farangs, the foreigners. They often had a child or two already, and sent their hard earned money back to their village to assist their families.
This was Bangkok at the crest of the Vietnam war and the bright lights of the clubs and bars seemed to go on forever, with servicemen spilling out everywhere, in uniform or in civvies. Either way they were recognizable and to be avoided as much as possible. Bangkok was the R+R capital, the closest, quickest, safest ,fly-in fly -out pleasurezone available to the neighbouring war.
Most on leave revellers were drunk, high, or both, or on their way to getting there. There were sad drunks, and angry drunks, crazy psycho types, those that were dazed and confused, and a few conservative geeky looking types who hung in groups having coffee. Bible-belters likely. But mostly it was full tilt boogie, go hard, get smashed, get laid, and go home.These were endless wild nights fuelled by the American taxpayers dollar. A lot of supercharged testosterone seeking to blow off steam in any way possible before regrouping and flown back to the reality of the military machinations and frontline camps in the dark jungles of Vietnam.
Gracies was the hotspot, the appetizer, the rendezvous, where you met your crew and kicked off the night. From there they would move on to the adjoining Hideaway Club, or the Pigalle, Safari, Executive, and a classic for the time, the Superstar. As the night progressed, the action got heavier and more hardcore in the smaller backstreet bars and clubs as they morphed into the red light areas. Most things were available, a variety of sex novelty attractions, all the clichés imaginable and more. The crowd and traffic noise, a heady mix by itself; disco music, rocknroll, blues, jazz and syrupy Thai pop music all swirling around together in the night air.
I was a twenty two year old fine arts student, a little out of his league perhaps but swimming with the current, going with the flow, learning a thing or two along the way. Bangkok at this time was quite apocalyptic in a hedonistic way. It was some kind of Sodom and Gomorrah with all the furious energy of a tropical monsoon.
Now I was leaving the city behind, and as the coach jostled its way through traffic on the exit ramps, lanes and highways, I began to amuse myself looking at billboards. There were occassional handpainted canvas banners and movie billboards draped from the sides of buildings and overpasses. The paintings were remarkably skilfull in their garish colours, not unlike Pop art. I admired the scale and impact of these, and recalled how billboards and their painters were the cornerstone of pop art in their handpainted zenith in the American 50’s and 60’s.They had a dazzling immediacy, a rawness and naievety about them, unlike our slick corporate campaigns, these weren’t hamstrung by social values, morals or taste. What you saw was what you got – buckets of painted blood, lurid violence, and fluorescent sex.
Slumped against the window gazing out as we hit the outskirts and the city profile started to melt away, I began to notice an increasing military presence. As we headed north there were Thai soldiers on duty mingling in night markets, at major intersections, and guarding public buildings. Along the highway itself were convoys of army trucks parked on the sides or moving through the traffic, full of seated soldiers with weapons at the ready, all junglegreens and webbing. They all had the same serious looks on the faces, as though they had serious places to go and serious things to do. With Vietnam just next door running the length of the country, and its civil war starting to fall apart and collapse in on itself, Thailand was obviously in a heightened state of vigilance.
(Bordertown)- There mustve been hundreds of soldiers here, seemingy on short term leave from across the border. What immediately stood out was that they were nearly all young African Americans.
It dawned on me what I was seeing closer to the Vietnam front, were the foot soldiers, the cattle, the cannon fodder. They were spilling down the streets, jostling past the coach, jeering and jivetalking, pushing and shoving, drunk and loaded. I gazed at the faces as they bustled by. There seemed to be two expressions only, wildeyed or numb. They seemed manic and revved up, half crazed even, or devoid of expression, with those blank soulless eyes, like something inside them had died. A heavy mix of war and drugs. These guys weren’t like the troops on R+R in Bangkok, all starchpressed and cleanshaven, bootpolished and smelling like the oil of a Califonian poppy.
These young soldiers were dragged in from outposts and perimeter patrol duties for a quick furlow, maybe a 24 hour turnaround. This was real frontline cannonfodder, still rough around the edges and still warzone wild. One or two nights of freedom in some semi-reality to blow off their load.They hadn’t adjusted and probably never would. One day in a bunker or patrolling the jungle, or digging latrines. The next day in a dimly lit brothel made of packing crates and cheap linoleum, or an outside disco bar high on Mekong whisky and heroin. All falling around in the mud and the stench and the beer like something from a cowboy movie.
The town and its jungle green rent-a-crowd had taken on a bizarre quality, like some strange filmset, a Thai spaghetti western.Then from out of the background as the coach slowly inched through the street crowds, amidst the maze of garish coloured lights, snaking through the crowd, I heard what was now becoming a familiar and haunting refrain. Only this time it had an eerie disjointed quality to it, the night had just gone to a surreal level as I heard “Everyone was Kung-fu fighting, those moves were fast as lightning, in fact it was a little bit frightening”.
Once again amongst the shadows and market stalls, country kids were kungfu-ing and kickboxing to the tune, oblivious to the heightened tension of a country surrounded by turmoil.
We finally arrived at Nong Khai in the red dust haze of early morning and given a fourteen day visa. With the steam rising off the jungle and a refreshing coolness in the morning air, we crossed the Mekong river into Laos, aboard a small chugging ferry at sunrise.
(excerpts from short story ‘Night Coach To Nong Khai’
by Bret Polok)