After my adventures in Indonesia with Teddy and the boys as outlined in my last post, I flew away to Singapore on June 26, 1973. I still had two months before I had to be in London so there was time for more exploring of myself – and of as much of Southeast Asia as I could fit in. Given that the Vietnam War was still going on nearby, Saigon, Hanoi and Phnom Penh could not be on my “to do” list. But plenty of other places were left to discover.
Singapore and Short Hair
To get into Singapore (unlike Indonesia), I didn’t need a visa ahead of time – just a Commonwealth passport. But what you did need was short hair. The socialist and puritanical government of Lee Kuan Yew (who was in power from 1959 – when Singapore became independent from the British – to 1990) did not welcome long-haired and sandalled hippies into his city-state where we could corrupt minds and badly influence their youth. Tales of hair being cut by guards at the borders were well-known amongst us backpackers. I had decided (reluctantly) to cut my longish hair in Sydney to avoid trouble and it paid off as I was let in.
This ban certainly reinforced the image of Singapore as being very disciplined and strict and apparently the ban wasn’t fully lifted until the 1990s.
Despite its puritanical side, Singapore felt very cosmopolitan to me, with its many ethnic groups and languages, varied food choices, tall modern architecture, along with leftover British colonial bits. English was widely spoken, making it easier than Indonesia had been for me where I had struggled at times to be understood.
And then there was Bugis Street. After unpacking at the 10-beds-to-a-room Youth Hostel, I met up with Benny Gui, a friend of a friend who took me to a gay bar, although a better term for it might have been “semi-gay bar” because it was quite mixed – gay and straight, locals and tourists. Le Bistro, with its entrance down an alley, was comfortably full with all of us checking each other out.
“Let’s leave here”, Benny said after a few drinks. “Now that it’s past midnight, I need to take you somewhere quite unique.”
“OK. Lead the way”, I said with gratitude. I loved being shown around and not have to fiddle with maps and guidebooks to sort out where to go in a new city.
Benny took me to Bugis Street, an (in)famous area in the centre of town, full of what were then called transsexuals and crossdressers. They sashayed up and down the street while we sat at tables outside drinking, eating and watching the show. Some were sex workers. Others were there to just, well, sashay.
“Are all the guys here watching this show gay?”, I queried. “They don’t look it”.
“They’re mostly soldiers on a break from fighting in Vietnam. The Americans call it ‘R&R’ or Rest and Recuperation. They’re here to let off steam.”
I wondered if “letting off steam” could mean harassing the gays. The atmosphere was fun, but tinged with potential danger, I felt, to us “real gays”, especially as the alcohol consumption went up. But we, and certainly the trans people, survived and I enthusiastically soaked it all in.
To me it was somewhat ironic that we hippies had to cut our hair to get in the country but Bugis Street could have this undisciplined free-for-all drag and sex show, including whiffs of marijuana smoke. I have subsequently learned that this seedy area was torn down in the 80s and turned into a shopping area so nothing of that atmosphere exists now. Not dissimilar to what happened to Times Square in NYC around the same time.
After touring the temples, museums and parks during the day and before heading to Bugis Street at night, I was quite fascinated to see “pop-up” restaurants appear in parking lots as the sun went down. Stalls with cheap, varied and delicious local food appeared tempting us with their various smells and textures. Tables and chairs were set up on the parking lots for us to eat at. All new to me. And very practical in this high density city.
In the Singapore Youth Hostel, I met a Huw Williams and what I remember about him was that he was tall, handsome, Welsh and straight – and easy-going as he didn’t mind sharing a double bed with a gay guy in the cheap places we stayed in together. He even knew the name of a gay bar in London that he suggested I go to when I got there – The Champion in Notting Hill. He took the time to write a detailed description of how to find the pub in my handy notebook. Thanks to him, I did go to that bar when I first arrived in London and got my first taste of British men and their pints of bitter.
By the way, I hope you’re impressed I still have this notebook almost 50 years later. Weird, I know.
Getting to Bangkok
Huw and I were both happy to have a travelling companion as we uncomfortably bussed, ferried and trained slowly for two days up the east, less travelled, coast of Malaysia and Thailand to reach our destination – Bangkok. Along the way, we had to cross some flooded rivers by a primitive ferry.
Once we arrived in hot and clammy Bangkok, we expected to go to a Youth Hostel, but, at the last minute, someone suggested the Malaysia Hotel. It was low cost ($3.30/night, my diary reminds me) AND it had air-conditioning and a pool. Luxury. Apparently it had been a major hotel for American soldiers on R & R and, as the war was winding down, they weren’t coming in the same numbers, so the hotel went after the hippie trade instead.
The price to pay for this luxury, though, was being made to feel guilty by some other backpackers who were staying in places that only cost $2/night. No AC, of course, but they were the more authentic backpackers because they were following the rule that you had to pay the absolute minimum price for any service or product you needed. I wanted to be authentic but I also wanted a pool.
On a related point, I also felt somewhat guilty for not attempting to get to London entirely overland from Singapore to London, as many of the backpackers I met had done – or were doing, during this period. To be honest, I wasn’t brave enough for that but I often ran into travellers who were nearing the end of their 11,000 km overland travels from Europe to southeast Asia and I did envy them. Can you imagine doing that “Hippie Trail” now – through Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria to Turkey and beyond? They were lucky to have done it when it was possible – and cheap.
Exploring Bangkok in the Day
During the days, Huw and I visited many sites in Bangkok including a Snake Farm, the Weekend Market, the National Museum and many Buddhist Temples. We had a chance to see Thai Boxing, but I assertively declared it was too expensive, so we missed that.
At the Reclining Buddha Temple, I was excited to find that we arrived at the right time to see the initiation rites ceremony for young boys at the beginning of their three month stay with the monks in that temple – a common practice for all Thai boys. Their hair and eyebrows were shaved indicating their move from the secular to the spiritual world. Proud parents are in the background.
Exploring Patpong at Night
For me, the evenings were again spent searching out whatever gay life I could find – without Huw who presumably found his own entertainment. Using a map in my notebook that I’d sketched using information I’d received from some wise informant, I found the Siamese and Tulip Bars and each evening I was there, I found, respectively, Bob, Chatri and Terry. Good dancing and fun times in the small, smokey and cramped spaces. I still have a matchbook from one of the bars – “Discotheque for Him”.
This area was called Patpong and I see that my notebook included the phrase “Patpong = King’s Cross” reminding me that this was the area in Bangkok that was similar to the entertainment and slightly seedy district of Sydney called King’s Cross. Somewhat similar to Singapore’s Bugis Street, it welcomed tourists, expats and locals. We again were rubbing shoulders with straight military men on R & R but, again, there was a level of acceptance for us gays in this free for all area.
Bridge on the River Kwai
Having been strongly impacted by this powerful 1957 film, I wanted to see the real thing and we took a long day trip from Bangkok to the Bridge on the River Kwai site and its very impactful Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. Almost 7000 POW’s were buried there – all of whom had died building the Burma Railway and this bridge. The photos I took at the site were too poor to share so you get this instead.
In my diary, I note that this was the halfway point of my four month trip. Up to now, I had spent US$430 which I calculated to be US$7.17/day. Not bad. I note that I have US$720 left, apparently. You are remembering, aren’t you, that we tourists have to carry all our money around with us as we travel – in the form of those American Express Travellers Cheques and local cash – with each country having different currencies? And no credit or bank cards.
We all knew stories of people losing their travellers cheques who had to take days of work to get the money back from American Express. You could do it, but it wasn’t easy. And cashing cheques was a pain too with lineups at banks and ID checks. You never wanted to take out too much cash for fear of losing it. But you also didn’t want to have to go back to the bank each day to get more cash.
Despite calculating that I had enough money to see me through this trip, the next day I note that “I can’t take the train to Chiang Mai because it doesn’t have 3rd Class”. So I took an overnight bus instead. Not sure that was a wise choice.
I was so careful with money that I kept track of the cost of transportation which, 50 years later, also helped me reconstruct the details of this trip.
North to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
Saying goodbye to Huw and crowded and hot Bangkok, I hooked up with a Dave who, for some reason, I can’t remember anything about, and we headed north together.
The first stop was Chiang Mai – much cooler, lush, green and less intense than Bangkok and a welcome relief. Dave and I rented bikes and climbed high to get to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep with its gorgeous views and out to Wat Phra That Hariphunchai in a nearby village with its golden stupa (spire).
After Chiang Mai, we then headed even further north where fewer backpackers went. My goal, given my lifelong obsession with borders, was to get to Thailand’s northern border with Burma. We started by taking a bus to Fang, a mini-bus to ThaTon, and then got on a longboat with locals to travel up the Kok river to Chiang Rai.
Longboat on the River Kok
This ride turned out to be a highlight of my trip. For four hours we sat with a dozen others in a longboat propelled along by a small outboard motor. I have no idea what they made of us foreigners taking up space in their boat but it was all friendly.
The Kok river took us through mountains where we came into contact with what were/are called the Hill Tribes – non-Buddhists of different ethnicities, who lived a marginal life in northern Thailand and adjacent countries. Generally facing discrimination, they engaged in subsistence agriculture and we were told they also made a living operating in the opium trade.
To the Border with Burma and into Laos
“Do you want to come with me to the border with Burma?”, I asked Dave.
“But it’s out of our way and it will take an extra day”, he retorted.
“But I love borders”, I replied.
Dave indulged me and from Chiang Rai we took a bus just to get to Mae Sae on the Burmese border so that I could say I got there. But we didn’t cross over as that would have required another visa and another currency.
Mission accomplished, the next day we took another bus along a narrow and bumpy road to get to another border – this time with Laos. I’m very excited.
We “check out” of Thailand at a small immigration stand, get on a little boat and float across the Mekong River to Laos and its border town of Ban Houei Sai (now written Huay Xai).
Another country meant another visa – and currency (the Kip). Here is the visa for Laos I got in Bangkok along with the entry stamp at Ban Houei Sai.
Air America, the Secret War and the CIA
You may know that, in 1973, Laos was engaged in a civil war. On one side was the Royal Lao Government (which controlled this border town, the Mekong River and the bigger cities in Laos such as Luang Prabang and Vientiane) and they were backed by the USA.
On the other side was the Pathet Lao. This was the anti-colonial armed nationalist communist movement who allied themselves with the Viet Cong in north Vietnam. The Pathet Lao occupied most of the countryside outside of the cities and, besides fighting for control of their own country, provided cover for the Vietcong along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. The Vietcong were fighting the Americans and South Vietnamese in Vietnam. Following?
Was it safe to be here? At the time, I was told it was “safe enough”and I have since learned that a ceasefire had been signed between the two sides earlier that year, so it probably was.
We had two choices at this point on how to go forward to explore Laos. One option was to take a bus from here to Luang Prabang but it would require going through Pathet Lao territory and would take 24 hours or more – and may not have been “safe enough”.
The other option was to fly directly to Luang Prabang on a civilian flight with Royal Air Lao. Faster but, of course, more expensive – $16.40, my diary tells me. Dave and I chose the latter option, big spenders as we were and preferring not to take too many risks.
As we were waiting to board the plane at Ban Houei Sai’s very small airport, I was very surprised to see a very large plane with “Air America” written on it. What is that doing here, I wondered? I didn’t dare take a photo, but wish I had.
I didn’t know it then, but Air America was a CIA run airline that supported the South Vietnamese in the war by undertaking covert actions in Vietnam and in Laos – the so-called “Secret War”. This government town was providing a “safe space” for CIA operations, it seems. And for us as well, I presume.
Our plane took us over the Pathet Lao-occupied countryside to the next closest government town of Luang Prabang. In case you were worried, in Luang Prabang we did eventually see those brave souls who chose the cheaper and longer bus route to get to Luang Prabang through Pathet Lao territory.
Luang Prabang was – and still is – a wonderfully calm and beautifully green city at the crossroads of the now larger Mekong and smaller Nan Khan rivers. The city was the Royal Capital of Laos until 1975 at which point the Pathet Lao took over the entire country, including this city, and abolished the monarchy. Not surprisingly, the Royal Palace takes up a prominent position in the town.
My strongest memory of the city was of saffron-robed monks from its dozens of large and small temples majestically roaming the streets in the early hours gathering alms from the locals and the tourists.
One of the city’s best known tourist sites were the Pak Ou caves full of thousands of Buddhist images placed there by local villagers over many centuries. The problem was that to visit them you had to take a boat up the Mekong River in an area controlled by the Pathet Lao forces.
How to get to the Caves? Well, you got a laissez-passer from the Pathet Lao office located in Luang Prabang and off you went. As you can see, relations must have been somewhat peaceful – at least during this period. But I felt both brave and scared as we headed to the caves by a rented boat. We were the only visitors and I’m still here to tell you that all went well.
A Return Visit in 2014
I hope you’ll indulge me a little detour here. In 2014, my husband and I visited Laos as part of a longer holiday in Southeast Asia. I made David visit some of the same spots I’d been to decades earlier, including Luang Prabang and these caves.
Back to 1973
It’s now July 18, 1973 and I have until the end of August to get through Thailand and Malaysia again to reach Singapore for my flight to London. I think we’ve all had enough for now so I’ll cover that period in my next post. You’ll find out about my encounter with Thailand’s legal system.
If any of you have had backpacking experiences from the 70s in Southeast Asia, I’d love to hear about them in the Comments. Please indulge me.