Alone in an alien world.
“This is the end my beautiful friend,
The end of our elaborate plan,
The end of everything that stands,
I’ll never look into your eyes again…”
Today I can’t quite remember with certainly but I think it must have been sometime in the early afternoon when the Air Vietnam Boeing 727 hit the tarmac and then slowly began to taxi towards the main building of Bangkok Airport. Like many airports of its day and age, it was a simple looking building, more akin to a glorified hangar than the modern glass and steel structures full of buzz and shops of our present age.
Nor did this particular plane have anything in common with the British Airways plane still painted in BOAC leverage, KLM, SAS or Lufthansa planes parked in the vicinity disgorging tourists tired from their long journey, yet full of excitement for their first taste of the orient and all looking forward to what Thailand had to offer. In contrast, our plane was more like a reflection of where it had originated from – chaos.
I wondered about my co-passengers; some, still wearing olive drab fatigues, laden with cameras stuck out as journalists. Others may have been embassy or consular personnel; a number of them were South Vietnamese soldiers, most, however, were women and children, refugees of all colours and all accents, speaking Vietnamese, French, and of course brash American voices. It took a long time for people to begin moving, mainly because most of the luggage and personal belongings cluttered the inside of the cabin instead of the nearly empty hold.
Finally, people began to slowly move towards the terminal building, dragging their heavy suitcases and duffle bags – or nothing at all. Inside they joined the lines for immigration and mingle with ordinary tourists who had no understanding whatsoever what had hit them, nor did the Thai officials. There were crying women and screaming kids; Vietnamese soldiers and foreigners alike began unceremoniously to dump M16 rifles, M1 carbines, pistols, revolvers, ammo belts, helmets and flak jackets onto a heap and within no time it became pandemonium. Immigration officers and airport police alike panicked, not knowing how to separate soldiers and heavily armed Westerners from ordinary tourists watching the surrealistic scene with wide open-eyes and probably wondering if they had landed in the wrong airport.
Westerners were separated from Vietnamese, screened and eventually issued with a visa. At last, we got through and suddenly I found myself in the arrival hall. Together with a Swedish air hostess accompanied by her mother and an English couple with kids, we climbed aboard a minibus and began our journey towards Bangkok and the Siam Intercontinental Hotel, an oasis of peace and tranquillity situated in the confines of a deer park sheltered from the incessant buzz of the city. The children – a boy dressed in shorts and an impeccable little shirt, and a little girl with blond hair wearing an equally impeccable little dress – could not keep their eyes off my person and my camouflage fatigues, my jungle boots still covered in red dust and my flak jacket. People didn’t dare to ask questions; I was a Martian who had just landed on planet Earth and one never knows with Martians… according to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, they could be hostile. More likely, however, the Black Tiger emblem on my sleeve with the ominous word “Vietnam” written just above would have told them all they needed to know.
The first thing that struck me was the explosion of colour. Colours were everywhere: on houses, on the numerous Buddhist shrines, on vehicles, trucks and on tuk-tuks. There were flowers of all colours and smiling faces, happy faces, faces that betrayed no fear. Arriving in the hotel, for me for the second time, here too, the high-ceilinged, wood-panelled hall was adorned with an abundance of orchids and flowers of all sorts.
Thai waitresses and check-in personnel put their hands together and bowed as if I were the King himself. I really was a Martian who had just left his barren and ravaged planet behind and I really had just landed on Earth. The Swedish girl, who was well used to the real world, then gave me a nod and with a gentle smile said something like, “It’s alright, give her your I.D., she’ll get you a nice room.”
A little later there was a knock on my door and a Thai girl wearing an expensive-looking silk sarong presented me with a bowl of exotic fresh fruits of all kinds and smells; she smiled and bowed and then she was gone. Standing there in my luxury room with its silk curtains, still wearing my South Vietnamese Ranger fatigues, I looked out into the lush and well-manicured garden and I began to notice the silence; there were no screaming people, no artillery shells flying over on their way to who knows where, no automatic weapons clattering, distant or close by. Just silence, discomforting and scary silence. . . I was alone in an alien world.