East Meets West: In Thailand With Vietnam Vets | Robin Sparks

East Meets West: In Thailand With Vietnam Vets

“I’ll be in the third jungle, second rice paddy to the left.” Bob told his ex-wife when he left Michigan for Thailand last year.

“And that’s pretty close to where I ended up,” the Vietnam Vet tells me as we drive through northeastern Thailand in his king cab Toyota pickup truck listening to Dolly Parton wailing “The Rockin’ Years”. Bob says he’d rather meet Dolly in person than any American president. Who was his favorite president? I ask. “Nixon,” Bob says. “He brought us home with what little honor we had left.”

Bob is one of over 200 “gentlemen of a certain age” who have settled in the shadow of a former U.S. Air Force Base in Udonthani, Thailand.

Bob and his best friend Bert, who is along for the ride, speak a language riddled with words like Charley’s, Lead-sleds, and F-14’s. Bert tells me his job in the war was loading bombs and Bob says his was detonating the ones that didn’t work.

“That must have been nerve-wracking work,” I say. “Let’s put it this way,” Bob says, “There are old explosives men and there are bold explosives men, but there are no old, bold explosives men.”

I am in Udonthani, Thailand to attend the wedding of Bob and Phun. I met the couple seven months earlier on Sukhumvit, Soi 3 in Bangkok at an open-air bar. Bob told me over a beer, “They shipped me home from the war when my girlfriend was seven months pregnant. I’ve been in Thailand searching for my kid – he’d be 35 this year. I haven’t found either of them yet, but I found Phun and we’re gettin’ married next Valentines Day.”

That was the beginning of a friendship between Bob, Phun, and me. And it was the moment I first saw Thailand in a new light – as a country where planeloads of broken hearted, misplaced men, come to find love and sometimes find a new home in the process.

Seven months later, Bob picks me up at the Udonthani airport, where I have arrived for the wedding. He talks me out of my hotel room and into staying with he and Phun.

“I pay $125 a month to rent this house and that’s too much,” Bob says about their comfortable 3-bedroom stucco home. The neighborhood is made up of similar looking houses with red tile roofs, in which similar gentlemen live with their Asian partners. Bob pours me a whisky and we sit at the dining room table under a photo of the king of Thailand. Bob comments, ” Today it was 32 below in Michigan and 90 above here. I’d rather take my clothes off any day than keep puttin’ em on. Yep, this is Thailand.”

Thirty-two years ago Bob tells me, there were only 15,000 people living in Udonthani.

Today 330,000 people live here -Laotians, Chinese, and Westerners in addition to Thais. “Martin” from England lives in a village 30 miles south of Undonthani. He says “Some of us have discovered that here a small pension supports a reasonable standard of living. We say  ‘It’s better to be old and poor in Udon than in the western world’. I can vouch for it,” he adds. ” I live in luxury in a great big house and garden; I would have to live frugally in England and put up with inclement weather.” He and his wife have built a bungalow for renting out to visitors to the area. (See email address at end of article)

I ask Bob what a typical day is like for him in Udonthani. ” I got nothing to do, and all day to do it in,” he jokes. “But if I get bored I build crutches for children.”

He’s talking about Project Crutch, a non-profit organization his VFW buddy, Forrest Williams organized in 1999. The men have built walkers and crutches out of PVC pipes for over 7,000 crippled children.

“We’re going to the crippled children’s home in Khan Kaen next week to deliver 30 more.” (See information at end of article about how to donate to this project.)

By 6AM the next morning, seven members of Phun’s family have arrived for the wedding after an all-night bus trip from Chiang Rai.

They squat in a circle on bamboo mats on Bob and Phun’s kitchen floor (the dining table and chairs go unused) eating sticky rice and lahp neua.

At 10:10 AM Bob pops open the first Chang of the day and offers me one. “No thanks,” I say. “I like to stay alert until at least noon.” He tells me that Chang means elephant in Thai, “and this beer kicks like an elephant too.”

A fighter jet screams overhead and we stop talking until we can hear each other again. “Is that normal?” I ask Bob who is looking up, “Yea, ain’t it nice?” He says. He tells me it’s an Alpha jet, sold to the Thai military by the Germans.

We walk down the street to Bert and Yen’s house.s

Bert met Yen when he was first based in Udonthani 30 years ago. They’ve been married ever since and have lived all over the world including the United States and Saudi Arabia. Their son lives in the United States with his wife and child. Yen
says she misses them but she’s too afraid to visit them in America this year. “Too much war there now,” she says.

In Yen’s western-style kitchen loaded with modern appliances, the women sit in a circle on the floor preparing food for the wedding reception. Bert says to his wife, “Honey, why don’t you use that slicer I bought you?” Yen just shakes her head and continues lopping off symmetric slices of tomato into a bowl with a carving knife. I join the women on the floor. Phun spoons some potato salad in a bowl for me to sample. They all sit back to watch my reaction. I say that it’s the best potato salad I’ve ever tasted and mean it. A local Chinese caterer will cater the other half of the menu Bob says. “Why no Thai food?” I ask him. “We’re having Chinese. Thai. Chinese. It’s all the same,” he says.

By 6PM that evening, the men are gathered outside in the soft heat of the evening, empty beer bottles are stacking up – Bob says they’re giving the Chang a test run before the reception tomorrow. The men laugh together and share old war stories and tales of ex-wives. Doug is a soft-spoken southerner from South Carolina, and there is Ken, a former FAA executive who looks like the doll of the same name, except for the shock of silver hair on his head, and Tom from Yorkshire, the one the guys tease because he speaks “weird English”, and Bartle, the tall, soft-spoken Swede who tells me he was single for 10 years after the death of his wife, and he figured no woman would want him; until he discovered Thailand, and fell for the first woman he met here.

Ken says, “I’m a true American. I love America, but damn it, I don’t want to live there my whole life.” After his second divorce in America he tells me, he moved first to Australia then to Thailand. “I like the weather and the people here and after I met a Thai woman, I called my three kids and said, ‘Guess what, I’m not coming home.’ They raised holy hell. ‘I have my life and you have your life’, I told them.” (He spends half the year in Thailand and half in the U.S.) “I made two women rich and I’m not about to do that again. American women just want a man for security.”

Thai women don’t,” I ask?

“Well sure they do, but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper here.”

I join the women who are sitting across the street on a raised bamboo platform gossiping animatedly in rapid-fire Thai. Acham (teacher) Nit, introduces the old woman sitting next to her as her mother. “Where does she live?” I ask. Acham Nit tells me in her halting, but excellent English, that in Thailand, when a parent is old, they live with their children. “My mother lives with me,” she said. The ladies ask me to find good American men for the two young single women there tonight. “My mother say you look like Thai people,” Acham Nit says to me. “Thai people smile a lot – You smile a lot.” I guess it’s true. I can’t seem to wipe this smile off my face.

The Wedding

The next morning by 8 AM, The caterers are setting up the tables, chairs, and bandstand for the post-wedding block party. Two elder women from the neighborhood and Yen are draping white strings on the branches of a traditional Thai wedding tree, called Bah-Si-Su-Kwa. It’s shaped like our Christmas tree, but intricately woven into shape with individually folded banana leaves and jasmine flowers.

At 9AM, the village women “kidnap” Bob and along with the village elder, escort him to the house where his bride waits. Before Bob is allowed to enter his own house, he has to pony up 300 baht and allow the village elder to pour holy water on his white athletic socks.

Phun waits in her peach colored traditional silk Thai dress. Her freshly made-up face is flawless and exotic, like an Asian doll. The village elder (who I will call ‘priest’ ) leads the bride and groom into the living room followed by the guests. Even Bo, the temple dog, slinks in for the ceremony. The priest places attached wreaths on the heads of the bride and groom, and the Buddhist marriage ceremony officially begins.

The priest chants, sprinkles holy water, leads the couple in prayer, and chants some more. He stands them facing the guests and he says something in Thai, which I’m guessing, from the whoops of the Thai guests, means “I now pronounce you man and wife.”

Western men with pretty Asian wives wait in line to bless Bob and Phun and to hand them envelopes containing money.  Each guest ties a string around the bride and groom’s wrists, giving a whole new meaning to “tying the knot.”
Bob’s best man, Thomas, the longest-term foreigner in Udonthani, says, “Bob, you have chosen a fine woman in Phun. I wish you the greatest luck in the world, I hope you have a long and enjoyable life and may all your checks arrive on time.”

Bob says, “Thanks Brother. I’m gonna need’em after this.”

Thomas says to Phun, “Phun may you have a long and happy life and never stop loving Bob.  And would you please quit spending all his money so he has some left over for beer?”

“That’s the best blessing I’ve had today,” Bob says.

Tom says, “When I remove these wreaths, do not let your separation begin…Uh, Bob, I think it’s stuck in your glasses.” “Yea, I’m hooked in there,” Bob says.

“Remember, you have to keep these strings on your arm for three days,” Thomas reminds him.”

“It’ll probably be 3 days before I sober up.” Bob replies.

There are nervous titters from the westerners in the bedroom where the priest has led the couple to lie down together while he prays over them. “This is gettin’ better and better,” Bob says. And then it is over.

“Let’s party!” says the groom.

It is 10:30 AM and over 200 guests are seated at tables eating and drinking out in the street under the tents set up along the block between Bob and Bert’s houses. The band is playing Suzie Q, You’re Cheatin’ Heart, Love Me Tender…Already the men are two-stepping and swinging their partners around the dance floor.

A side-table is piled with barbecued ribs and chicken and potato salad. The Chinese caterers are replenishing individual tables with fresh fish, duck, noodles, and rice as fast as empty plates appear. Bob, sitting across the table from me, scrutinizes a fish ball, turning it over in his fingers. He pops it in his mouth, and shrugs. “Guess it won’t kill me,” he says.

I eat my potato salad with chopsticks.

The band switches to traditional Thai tunes. For hours Thai women take turns singing hauntingly, beautiful melodies into the mike, while the others swirl slowly on the stage, arms reaching high in the air, fingers curled back. It’s part hula, part barong – it’s Thai.

Phun pulls out a chair for me at the table where the elder women of the village are seated. A woman with the soft skin of an overripe peach looks me in the eyes and takes my hand. She wraps a string around my left wrist, ties a knot, and chants softly in Thai. Translation unnecessary – she is blessing me, wishing me happiness and good luck. Each woman around the table repeats the ritual until I have a thick bracelet of strings knotted around my left wrist. It is their way of connecting me to each of them and to their community. I am touched and I am crying.

A wedding in Thailand is a mating dance for all those who’ve not yet found a partner. I ask 85 year old Jack, a friend of Bob’s who has come all the way from Michigan for the ceremony, “Are you looking for a lady here?” “Yes,” he nods. “Do you have your eye on someone in particular?” “Yes, that one over there,” He points to Joy, who is at this moment leaning into the truck sized cooler digging out a
beer, her bottom pointed in our direction. “She turns my crank,” he says. Joy noticing his attention directed at her (never mind the 40 year age gap) comes over to top his glass with beer.

“You trying to get me drunk?” he asks. “You can get me drunk and take advantage of me.” Joy drags him off to the dance floor and he spins her around. He returns to his chair a bit out of breath but grinning from ear to ear.

Hours of eating, drinking, singing, dancing, and merriment later, Bob and Phun stand together at the mike and Bob says to the wedding guests:

” Thank y’all for comin’. It looks like we have about seven countries represented here today. I guess that means that there’s peace on earth after all. “

Bert, backed by the band, launches into, “Take me home country road, to the place where I belong, West Virginia, Mountain Mama, Udonthani, take me home, country road.”


The next afternoon, Phun’s family is packed and ready to return on the all night bus to Chiang Rai. We gather on Bob’s porch talking as best we can with our three words in common. Phun’s brother, Sinua, is smiling at me. I note his golden brown skin, Mt. Everest cheekbones, wide-spaced almond eyes, two rows of beautiful white teeth. Phun’s younger sister suddenly vacates the seat next to him, and I am stuffed into it. Here we go. They are leaving in an hour, so I figure there’s no harm in playing along. Phun says (through Bob) that she wants me to be her sister in law.

Bob says, “Now wouldn’t that be sumthin’ Robin if you was to come here for our wedding and you end up finding yourself a Thai husband?” “Yea, that would be something,” I say. As Sinua boards the bus he turns back and smiles at me one last time. I blow him a kiss and turn to get into Bob’s pickup truck which will take he and Phun home to start a new life together in Udonthani, Thailand, and me to the train station, which will take me to the Bangkok Airport, which will take me via plane to San Francisco. Good thing too, or the last line of this story might be, “I’m living on the Back Forty in Thailand with my new rice farmer husband. Wish you were here.”


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