Written by Roger Allen
Emerging from a 13-hour flight straight into the teeming cauldron of Bangkok is an assault on the senses.
Mind you, the harsh edges are softened somewhat if you happen to be traveling with the wife of the editor on a first class Qantas airlines flight with a limo waiting outside the terminal to be whisked off to wherever.
In our case it was to the Bangkok Hilton – not the hotel but the notorious prison.
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My journey had started 18 hours earlier as I drove into the Daily Mirror HQ on Holborn Circus. In this pre-mobile phone age my beeper vibrated just as I was going round the Wandsworth one-way system. “Call office urgent”
I stopped at the next phone box. “Get to the office, pick up a wire machine you’re going to Bangkok,” was the command.
My only question – two actually – were: “Why, and who with?”
The reply to who surprised me. Noreen Taylor, the glamorous wife of the Daily Mirror editor Roy Greenslade was to be my blunt nib.
The answer to the why was: “Two young girls from Birmingham have been arrested at Bangkok airport carrying a suitcase full of cocaine.”
I’d expected one of the male hacks to have been sent on such an assignment, but Noreen was fine by me: she was a great journalist and the fact that she’d been dispatched meant we would be guaranteed great shows in the paper.
Most of the rival Fleet Street papers were on the same flight, one class back in business, among them The Sun, Express, Mail and Telegraph. It was a very big story.
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At the prison we were told that one of the girls, Karen Smith 16, was being held in a police station next door and the other, Patricia Carhill 15, was at a juvenile centre in the city centre.
Fleet Street’s finest descended on the near-by police station. As we arrived an open pick-up truck pulled in with two bodies lying in the back.
“Suicide” a policeman said with a shrug. Nice.
Noreen swung into action, among the throng of locals. She cut straight to the top officer and her good looks and Irish lilted voice got her an audience within minutes.
“We need to see the British girl Karen; we need to check she’s okay” she said with authority.
While the top cop went off to think about it we photographers prowled around the inside of the nick trying to work out how to see into the holding cells. Without any warning myself and cameraman were ushered into a disused office by a police officer.
“There, there” he said urgently pointing at the far wall. Above a battered bookcase was an opening with bars. I ran, jumped onto the top of the bookcase and looked through to see Karen Smith clinging onto bars in an office the other side of a corridor.
“Help me, help me, please help me,” she cried.
She was crouching down hanging on the bars weeping. I took a picture that would cover the front page of my paper the next day.
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Noreen had secured a chat with Karen Smith, I had taken the pictures all within five hours of touching down. The first court case was set for 10 days’ time. The only thing left to do was to discover the delights of Bangkok.
Well, there are many things to look at in the Thai capital. There is the Royal Palace, the floating market, all manner of religious buildings. We, as a group of photographers, chose none of them, we headed to the Patpong district where a street market hawking counterfeit watches and clothes sell like hot cakes. Our interest was drawn to the bars on either side of the streets.
Every bar you wander past you do a double take. There on a stage is a woman firing ping pong balls from her nether egions; there is live sex, snakes being used for various entertainments, images I never witnessed growing up in deepest Farnham.
Myself and my photographic chums settled at the Queens Castle bar which had its seats clustered around a boxing ring. In the ring two young lads were punching each other furiously, but nobody took any notice of them.
“Ullo big boy you want jig-jig? Cheap price.” Said a beautiful lady who had just landed on my lap.
“Not right now,” I answered.
All of us snappers had landed a girl. It seemed the protocol was buy the girl a drink then negotiate if you wanted to purchase her other services on offer.
I refused. No really! It was late, I’d not really slept since arriving so one last beer for the road then off to bed. Alone.
That was the plan anyway.
Suddenly we noticed that the boxing ring had been taken over a group of gorgeous girl keen on getting their clothes off. In the spirt of the occasion we caught bits of miniskirts, blouses, underwear that were being flung with abandon to the (mostly) male spectators.
Within seconds a bright green bra dropped onto the bar in front of me. Great I thought putting it on my head like a pilot’s headset. “Come in Tokyo, come in Tokyo” It seemed funny at the time and the girls laughed too.
But the giggling ceased when a piercing siren sounded. Suddenly the girls vaulted out of the ring leaving us photographers, wearing various bits of lurid underwear, to face the police squad raiding the bar.
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Names were taken, warning given, fingers wagged. After a telling off and a warning to be careful in a city like Bangkok, we sloped off to bed, trailing the lingerie of the departed girls behind us…..
There followed two more nights of fleshpot stalking before it became boring. Time, instead, to root out that for which Thailand is equally well known for – food.
My interest in food has always been with me – winkling out the off-the-beaten-track place, trying to find the best food on offer and definitely not being pushed into a tourist trap of blandness.
On one of my sorties I found The Himali Cha Cha Indian restaurant, it didn’t look like the other glitzy places around about; it was a bit rundown, a bit past its best.
Once inside the aromas from the kitchen wrapped around me like a blanket. It smelled like food heaven.
The Himali Cha Cha was opened in 1979 by the former chef to Earl Mountbatten. The owner sat at a small table by the bar reading the paper.
The menu was not vast, divided into meat, chicken, fish and veg.
I chose the spiced lentil soup followed by the mutton curry with lemon rice and naan bread. And afterwards, that same owner, for the price of a beer and the vague promise to get him into the Daily Mirror, gave me the recipe…..
After having an Indian, probably the best I’ve eaten outside India, the next day I went in search of the famous Thai street food. ne doesn’t have to go far – vendors sold their fresh cooked food almost anywhere there was space on the pavement.
The market I wandered along was a shouting, laughing vast row of cooking. Women worked over blazing gas-fired hobs with large pans of boiling oil plucking out rolls filled with meat or veg. Noodles with red roast pork, lines and lines of chicken, pork, beef satay with zesty dipping sauce, ivory white boiled chicken with jasmine rice, hot soups smelling of lemongrass…. it went on and on. At one block of stalls I noticed they hawked nothing but deep fried insects ranging from grasshoppers to spiders.
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In need of a beer and a plate of Thai food where I could sit out of the roasting heat, I wandered into a restaurant on the Yaowarat Road. The aircon did its job noisily, a group of Thais sat at a large round table picking at a vast array of bowls and I cast an eye the food. It looked just what I was searching for – sticky rice, colourful curries and lots of noodles.
With the first beer downed and the second on the go I took in the menu. In the beef section one thing jumped out at me, Rama’s Bath.
“What is this one?” I asked the waiter. “You like lots sir,” he said with a beaming smile. Rama’s bath it was, along with roast pork ribs with honey to start.
The ribs fell off the bone with the meat melting in your mouth, the mixture of sweet and sour was nothing I’d ever tasted before, it was divine.
Next up came Rama’s bath. It came in a deep round white bowl. The coconut infused dish looked very inviting, strips of beef lay in the coconut cream sauce, I ate it with plain boiled rice.