Adventure begins to Southeast Asia
By Watt Miller
Editor’s Note: We are happy to present an exciting series of five stories of two Johnson City natives who traveled to Southeast Asia countries this past January. Each week make the journey with them through four countries and off the beaten path as Watt researches Southeastern Asian customs and history for his next novel. All Photos courtesy of Watt and Duke.
That’s what I christened an extended trip to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Hong Kong Duke Hall and I made in January. We planned this excursion on our own – no travel agent, no tour group, no tour buses, no tour guide waving a blue flag.
Just what did we – two aging baby boomers, both in our early 70s – hope to accomplish? Had we lost our senses? What if we broke a hip, an arm or worse end up in a hospital with some deadly disease? And just what did our wives have to say about what could be argued was a Walter Mitty misadventure?
I came up with the idea after publishing my first novel (Dreams of Cherry Blossoms) in July of 2019. The story of the lovers Richard Jackson and Emiko Murakami left unanswered the question of their future. Would they reunite in the United States, get married and live happily ever after or would they never see each other again after Richard left Japan and returned home?
I decided to write a sequel of sorts that would at least tie up that loose end. The setting? The U.S. “secret war” in Laos during the 1960s. As a CIA operative, Richard would also conduct forays into Thailand, Cambodia and Hong Kong. I began organizing a course of action and that opened the way for Duke’s decision to join me.
I had visited Thailand several times during the 11 years I was based in Asia as a foreign correspondent. I was an editor and correspondent for United Press International in Hong Kong for five years. This was in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
When I first arrived in Hong Kong, I didn’t have a job. I only knew I wanted to continue working as a journalist. My first job in the profession was with what at the time was the Johnson City Press Chronicle where I was a general assignment reporter for a year and a half.
In Hong Kong I knocked on doors seeking interviews with the few English language publications. By sheer luck I was hired by United Press International which had its Asian headquarters in Hong Kong. The bureau manager who offered me a job as editor and correspondent was from Knoxville, Tennessee! Had it not been for that coincidence I doubt that I’d gotten the job.
Hong Kong was a great place for a journalist to be based. Major news stories were breaking all the time. Just to mention a few: tens of thousands of Vietnamese fleeing the new communist regime in Vietnam (the so-called Boat People), the rise to power of the “killing fields” Khmer Rouge government under the murderer Pol Pot in Cambodia and his subsequent overthrow by the Vietnamese invasion and the rise and fall of the Gang of Four in China.
After spending five years in Hong Kong and serving as UPI bureau chief in New Delhi, India for a year, I decided I needed a break so my wife Kimiko and I spent five and a half months traveling on the cheap in India and China. By cheap I mean hotel rooms for one to eight dollars a night, meals for a dollar or less and riding second and third class trains.
Once we tired of the vagabond life, we moved to Tokyo where I was hired as chief Asia correspondent for Cox Newspapers, the owner of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution among other newspapers. After five years, we returned to the States where I began a 25-year career as a writer and producer at CNN in Atlanta.
Duke’s initial Asia experience was at the behest of Marine Corps. He enlisted after one year of college and served with the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam in 1968. When he came home from Vietnam and got out of the Marines he probably thought he’d never go back. But go back he did, on his honeymoon with Kathy in 1995. They did the trip solo, visiting Saigon, Da Nang and Hue, among other places.
I decided to make a trip to Indochina in early summer of 2019 and began my research by reading several books on Laos. One was Back Fire, Secret War in Laos and Its Link to the War in Vietnam by Roger Warner. I suggested to Duke that he read it and that’s how we started talking about the U.S. secret war in Laos. He read the book, liked it and started sending me links to articles on the war, including the mysterious Lima Site 85. I had pretty much decided on an itinerary when out of the blue I asked Duke if he’d like to join me. Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting him to accept. After all, I would be away for at least a month.
Of the two of us, Duke is the elder statesman by a couple of years. We knew each other growing up in Johnson City but weren’t close friends although we both lived in the Gump Addition and knew a lot of the same people. It was only years later after Kimiko and I left Japan and returned to the States to live that Duke and I reconnected.
When I first mentioned my plan to Kimiko her startled response was, “You’re going to be gone a month!” She came around to the idea after I explained where I planned to go and why, what I hoped to accomplish and why I needed at least a month to do it.
As for Duke, I wasn’t sure, one, if he’d sign on or if Kathy would give the idea a thumbs up or thumbs down. Not only did he say he was excited about joining me but Kathy endorsed the trip wholeheartedly, telling Duke she thought the trip would be good for him and that he may never again have such an opportunity.
Once Kimiko and Kathy gave their support, I began filling in the pieces of the itinerary by deciding which airline to use and booking hotels and guesthouses. I was able to do it all on the internet with the exception of the plane reservations, which were made through a Japanese travel agency in New York Kimiko had used numerous times for her trips back to Kyoto.
The first part of our schedule was easy. We would fly to Chicago, have a brief layover and then fly on Cathay Pacific Airways nonstop to Hong Kong and following another short layover on to Bangkok.
After a short stay in the Thai capital, the real adventure would begin, with a two-day boat journey down the mighty Mekong River.
So far so good. Everything was going as planned – except for one significant hiccup.
After boarding our Cathay Pacific flight in Chicago, we were informed that there was going to be a detour to Japan!
Turned out a crewmember had called in sick. For reasons never fully explained, we would fly to Osaka to take on an entirely new crew. By the time we landed in Hong Kong it was too late to make our connecting flight to Bangkok. Cathay Pacific put us up in a Hong Kong airport hotel. We finally made it to Bangkok the next day. And that’s when our grand journey really kicked off!
Next week’s adventure takes Watt and Duke through Bangkok, Thailand and an overnight train ride headed to the mighty Mekong River.