By Watt Miller
Editor’s Note: We are happy to present an exciting series of six 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.
A blast of hot, humid air greeted us as we got off the plane in Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, and the starting point of what I called the Great Journey, a one-month expedition to Indochina in January.
Bangkok is a megacity that assaults your senses. Vibrant, crowded, polluted, beautiful, incessant activity, it’s home to more than eight million people, from the superrich to dirt poor beggars and homeless.
Walk the streets and you’ll be overwhelmed by hordes of people, cars, buses, trucks, motor scooters and motorcycles and the ubiquitous tuk-tuk, a motorcycle attached to a covered wagon contraption. At best it’s orderly chaos, at worst perdition.
Towering high-rises are home to international banks, corporations and brand-name consumer products reeking of opulence. Sharing sidewalk space are vendors offering everything from street food such as grilled chicken, snake, frog legs and raw cow livers and kidneys to exotic fruits like mangosteen, durian, rambutan, dragon fruit as well as the more common varieties of mango, papaya and finger bananas, and clothing of all colors, shapes and sizes. And, of course, knockoff jewelry brands from Rolex watches to Cartier gold rings.
Joining me on this journey was Duke Hall, an old friend and Johnson City resident. We grew up in Johnson City in the 1950s and 1960s and lived near each other in the Gump Addition. How this trip to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Hong Kong came about was due in part to our shared interests and experiences in Southeast Asia. Duke was a Marine in the Vietnam War and I worked as a foreign correspondent in Hong Kong, India and Japan for 11 years starting in the mid-1970s.
After publishing my first novel, Dreams of Cherry Blossoms, in 2019 which is set in Japan right before the end of World War Two and the first year of the U.S. occupation, I decided to write a sequel of sorts. The setting would be Laos during the American “secret war” in the 1960s. In discussing this with Duke I learned he, too, had an interest in Laos and the secret war.
Our lodging for a one-night stay in Bangkok was the Villa Mungkala, a small, quaint, hotel down a narrow alley offering solace from the city’s cacophony of ear-splitting noise. A smiling Thai woman greeted us at the door and introduced herself as the manager. An assistant appeared, offering two glasses of cold fresh pineapple juice. Our host explained we could find the Wat Mahathat, or Temple of the Great Relic, and the immense Grand Palace complex a short walk away.
Bangkok offers a myriad of activities, everything from numerous Buddhist temples, museums, parks, cooking classes, lessons in martial arts, shopping, including the eponymous Thai silk, designer brand clothes and local village designs. And, some of the best and most expensive restaurants in Asia as well as inexpensive eateries offering delicious Thai food and street vendors grilling spicy chicken, pork, fish, beef and vegetables.
We had a train to catch so we set out on foot on the one full day we had to explore and set course for the Chao Phraya River in hopes of hiring a boat to encounter the city’s famed floating markets.
We checked the city map and headed out on what we were sure was the most direct route to the river. We walked and walked and walked but weren’t getting any closer to our destination. And it was getting hotter by the minute.
Finally, we put our heads together and agreed we should ask. We spotted a half dozen or so tuk-tuks parked along the sidewalk, their drivers lounging around, smoking and chatting among themselves. We pointed to the map where we wanted to be and they laughed.
“Wrong way,” one said, laughing loudly. “You way over here.” He pointed on the map.
We weren’t even close to the river. Somehow we had walked in the opposite direction of where we wanted to be.
Being hot, tired and thirsty, we agreed to take a tuk-tuk. After a hair-raising ride zigzagging in and out of the chaotic traffic, arrived at one of the numerous piers along the river.
We quickly negotiated a price for renting what’s called a long-tailed boat for a two-hour tour of the river and floating market. These brightly painted wooden vessels are about 20-feet long and four-feet wide in the middle. The bow rises to a sharp point and there’s a canopy stretching the length of the boat to protect riders from the sun. The name derives from the huge motor in the stern with a propeller shaft about 10-feet long or so. At high speed it creates a spectacular rooster tail.
After a short time, our boat driver veered to the left and entered a wide canal offering calmer waters and fewer boats. We noticed to our right a woman in a flat bottom boat paddling toward us. Our driver cut the engine and the woman pulled up alongside of us. Her boat was loaded with handicraft clothing such as scarfs, hats, cloth bags with elephant and water buffalo designs on the sides as well as small carved wooden elephants, turtles and Buddhas.
I paid a dollar or so for a wooden elephant and waved good-bye and we were on our way.
We soon came to an unexpected stop. Blocking our way was a massive metal gate appearing to be some sort of lock. Other boats formed a line behind us.
Looking at the rocky shoreline I was startled to see a huge lizard swimming toward us. I shouted to Duke to look at this monster. Just as suddenly as it appeared the lizard turned and headed to the shore.
Later, I did a Google search and discovered that we had encountered a water monitor lizard which can grow to be nearly seven feet long and weigh up to 110 pounds. In appearances, they look like something out of a horror movie with their forked tongues, sharp teeth and claws, scaly skin and long tails, in addition to producing a loud hissing sound. They’re very common in Bangkok’s waterways and throughout Southeast Asia.
I was glad to be on our way. I’d seen enough of this reptile.
By the time we arrived at a floating market the hustle and bustle had diminished quite a lot. But numerous vendors in small boats and along docks stretching on both sides of the canal were hawking their wares, everything from fruits and vegetables, grilled fish and chicken to clothes and handicrafts. And providing entertainment was a band playing music with traditional Thai instruments.
Our overnight train going to the north country was scheduled to depart Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station at 6:10 p.m. We arrived an hour early in order to get our bearings and ensure we boarded the right train. The station was teeming with people of all ages loaded down with luggage and packages.
I had booked a two-person first-class sleeping compartment for the very reasonable fee of $69.57 each. A plush seat ran the length of one side of our compartment. Early in the evening, an attendant pulled down the upper part of the two-tier bed and made it up with starched white sheets, a pillow and blanket. He then did the same to the lower level. On the opposite side was a small sink. A western-style toilet and shower were at one end of the corridor.
Our number 9 train pulled out of the station right on time. A large window provided us with an excellent view as the train slowly rolled through the city. As we gained speed and entered the city’s outskirts, high-rises gave way to rundown apartment buildings and shanties. Barefoot children played dangerously close to the tracks. At one point we passed a guy sleeping in a hammock strung between two trees within arm’s reach of our train. He was totally zonked out. We figured he either was dead or passed out from drinking too much Mekong whiskey.
We were off! Our Grand Journey fully underway. Our two main destinations lay ahead – Laos and Cambodia. But first a trip on the Mekong River.