Mukdahan - My Story

The history of my Mukdahan love affair. 

It was 1968 and I was twenty years old when I received my orders to report for duty in Mukdahan Thailand. Yes, after 1 ½ years stationed in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan I volunteered for duty in South East Asia. It didn't take long before I got my assignment. I was happy it was Thailand and not Vietnam although I did not know anything about Mukdahan or for that matter very little about Thailand. We did not have internet (or even computers) to do research back then so the only information I had was a letter of welcome from someone at the radar site telling me it was a small radar site in a small village on the banks of the Mekong River. 

After a 30 day leave at home with my parents in Royal Oak Michigan I boarded a plane first for Texas for a week of special training and then to San Francisco where I spent a couple days before reporting to Travis Air Force Base on December 22nd. The Air Force used commercial aircraft to transport us (they leased the entire plane) but we were delayed for several days and did not depart until Christmas Eve. After a stop in Ankorage Alaska to refuel we crossed the internation dateline and it became Christmas day. Another refueling stop in Japan and then on to Bangkok where we landed very late Christmas Night. So I spent Christmas day 1968 in an airplane. We had a couple of days in a leased hotel in Bangkok before catching a military plane to a large Air Force Base in Nakhon Phanom. I had met a career sergeant on the flight to Thailand who was also going to Mukdahan so I had a travel companion. After a night in transit barracks we took a large 6 x 6 military truck to Mukdahan. It was about 60 miles down a very dusty bumpy road. He outranked me so he rode inside while I rode in the open back with the supplies they had picked up and a couple of other guys. Along the way people were running out to the road to wave at us. At first I thought they were throwing kisses but quickly learned from another rider who had been in Mukdahan for several months that they were asking for us to throw them cigarettes. Lesson number one. Some of the teenage girls did not have tops on and I began to fall in love with Thailand. That would never happen now in Thailand but at that time in Isaan it was not that uncommon in the rural villages. 

When we pulled into the radar site I was covered in red dirt. My hair, my face, my clothes were all red dust from the trip so once I was assigned to my hootch it was time for a shower. It was a large communal shower in the middle of the hootch's with gas on demand heaters. We never ran out of hot water which was nice. 

For the next seven months I stayed in Mukdahan either on the site or renting a house for a couple months in town. I did have one ten day trip to the Philippines for additional technical training. That was great because we flew over Vietnam so I got $60 combat pay for that month (a lot of money back then). I fixed ground to air radios used to direct the bombing missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail which ran from North Vietnam through Laos and the into South Vietnam. It was the major supply route for the North Vietnamese to move troops and supplies to the war zone. Our mission was to stop them from succeeding. The trail ran close enough to our location that I could lay on my bunk and feel the ground shaking from the bombings. I would often monitor the radios when I was in the radio shack (one of few air conditioned buildings) and hear our controllers talking to the pilots. Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 while I was in Mukdahan and we were confined to the base on high alert for three days. When we finally could go off base we saw that a lot of the villagers were wearing black arm bands in honor of Ho Chi Minh. Turns out a lot of the villagers were Vietnamese heritage and that reminded us we could never assume we were safe. In fact, I was trained to fire a machine gun and use a grenade launcher attached to an M16 rifle. Our guards were all Thai soldiers and we would back them up if we were attacked. 

Then one afternoon after I had worked all night my sergeant came into my hootch and woke me up. He told me to pack my bags because I was leaving in the morning to go to Monkey Mountain Vietnam. I told him that was not a funny joke and he informed me he wasn't joking. so I spent two months in Vietnam before returning to the site in Mukdahan. Then after being in S.E. Asia for 11 months I got orders to return to the states a month early because Nixon was winding down the war. Because I only had five months left of my four years they allowed me to leave active duty early. So in November of 1969 I flew from Bangkok to San Fransisco where I became a civilian again and flew home just before my 22nd birthday. 

I knew I would never forget the wonderful Thai people and the little village of Mukdahan and even then vowed that i would return someday. 

Finally that became a reality this week. I had real doubts about going because I knew Mukdahan had grown up. They built a freedom bridge across the Mekong River which opened up trade to the East and helped Mukdahan boom. The bridge opened in January 2007. Of course I now had the benefit of things like Google Earth and the internet to look at Mukdahan before going there. However it had changed so much that I could not find where the radar site had been located. I figured it was turned into a housing development or retail shops. I knew I would be sad if I could not find the places that were so familiar to me in 1969 and played a large roll in my life during a critical time in my development. 

Mukdahan Forty Four Years Later

When we pulled into Mukdahan I couldn't believe my eyes. This was no longer a "village". This is a full fledged city. Lots of new buildings, paved roads everywhere and streets that weren't dreamed of when I was there in 1969. Gone were the three wheel bicycle taxis that we took to get around when we didn't feel like walking. It used to cost 5 baht (25 cents) to have the somloe driver peddle us into town from the site. Of course it was an easy walk but in the heat we welcomed the somloes. They would park their "taxis" outside the base and wait for us. Many slept in their somloes. Needless to say we got to know them well and they knew us. They called me Smitty which was my nickname back then. Sometimes we would pay them extra and have races to see who could get to town first. During the big water festival in April we would load buckets of water in the somloes and ride through town throwing water on everyone and they returned the favor. It was great fun. 

I had really hoped there were still be a few around but we didn't see a single one. I have seen a few in Udon Thani and really wanted to ride in one in Mukdahan. 

My first goal was to find where the radar site was. When we got into Mukdahan and checked into the hotel we walked to a restaurant along the river. On the way back to the hotel Phai stopped and asked a few older people if they remembered the radar site but they did not. Of course the younger people who worked in the hotel had already told us they knew nothing about a radar site. Then after dinner we decided to go to the night market. Son in law wanted to drive in the truck but I told him I had read on the internet that parking is very difficult and I would rather pay for a somloe. They are the big motorized three wheelers now. The hotel had told us that it should cost 20 baht. The somloe driver said it is 20 baht for one person but because there were three of us it would be sixty baht. I said no way. It does not cost triple to take three people. I said I would pay 40 baht. He said no so I said to Phai, let's go find another somloe. Well, he suddenly agreed and we climbed in. 

That brought on miracle number one. On the way to the night market an old lady flagged him down and he stopped and picked her up. After she got in and was sitting with us I told Phai to ask her about the radar site. Well, she knew exactly where it had been and told Phai that it was right by the night market. I started to get excited. We got to the market and as we walked Phai pointed and said the lady had told her the site was over that way. We walked to the end of the street and started back up the other side and when we got to the spot Phai had pointed to I walked past past a food vendor and some people eating at tables and up to a stone fence. There, directly ahead of me was a large field where the radar site had been. The feelings that washed over me were incredible. The memories flooded my brain. Then I heard the women who were cooking talking about me. Phai explained to them what I was doing and then Phai told me excitedly that the women remembered the radar site and the Americans. Wow, now I was really excited. They main cook said she was two years old when the site was closed (I was there until a week before it shut down). She told Phai she didn't know any of the Thai people that worked on the site but her house was right across from the site. I thanked her and wished I had brought my iPad with me to show her some pictures. Then as we started walking away I remembered that Phai probably had those photos on her iPhone thanks to PhotoStream. Sure enough there they were. We went back and showed her a couple of photos and she was really excited. She said to wait, she wanted to see more but people kept coming and she had to keep cooking. Phai told her we could come back tomorrow at 4pm when the market opened before she got busy and she was smiling from ear to ear. 

The next day we drove around town, visited the tall Mukdahan Tower south of the city, a temple with about 100 resident monkeys, had lunch on the riverfront and then parked at the hotel again. An older gentleman was in the garage and talked to Phai. I didn't know at the time he and his wife own the hotel. I had showed his wife the photos earlier in the lobby and she really appreciated it but didn't know anything about the site. However, her husband is older than her and Phai told him my story. Well, he remembered the site and the Americans. I had my iPad and showed him the photos. He saw the one taken from the tailor shop and when I spread my fingers on the screen to enlarge the photo he read the sign on the front of one of the shops and said "That is Bangkok Bank" now. Since Phai had spotted the bank earlier she know where it was. In another photo he recognized the sign outside a temple and told us it was right across from immigration which is a large building now but was a little shack on the river before. I told him I remember it well. 

So Phai said "do you want to for a walk and see the where the bank is?". It only took me two seconds to agree. It was about 5 blocks from the hotel to the bank but as soon as we got close the feelings of seeing history returned. I stood right where the tailor shop was across from the bank and pointed out to Phai that right across the street was a restaurant I ate Kow Pad at all the time. Right up the street was a store that sold black cowboy hats we all used to wear. I told her the story about how I went in and he quoted me a price. I walked across the street to another shop and he was one baht less. I went back to the first shop and he cut it another baht. Well I made 6 trips back and forth across the street until I got a price that was lower than anyone else ion the radar site had paid. I don't think the shopkeeper made any money on the transaction but they enjoyed the entertainment value the crazy falang had provided. 

We then walked down the street to where the immigration office is on the river and sure enough the temple that was very dilapidated in 1969 was rebuilt and in much better shape now. Below you will find photos of before and after for those locations. 

Now it was time to return to the night market. This time I brought my iPad. When cook saw us coming she got the biggest smile on her face. I sat at a table with the three ladies gathered around me to see the photos. Well, they went crazy. It brought back memories for them too. Then in a photo of some of the Thai women that worked on the site they got excited. They recognized one of the women. They had me zoom in on her face. They told us she had died a number of years ago but they so appreciated seeing her photos as a young woman. I also showed them photos of a small waterfall and swimming hole I  used to go to and they pointed to where it used to be. They told Phai several people had died there a number of years back due to fast flowing water so it had been shut down and you could no longer find it due to construction. I was excited anyway because as soon as they pointed I knew that was the correct direction I used to go to get there. 

During our first walk we had also found a temple I had photographed in 1969. Back then it was on the outskirt of the city and it was just the temple with nothing around it. Now it is a huge facility with many buildings and a lot of ornamentation added to the temple I had photographed but the facade of the temple is still the same. 

Me at age 21. I had no idea what life would bring me in the future and no regrets about the last 44 years.

This was taken from a helicopter. Not by me but I always treasured this photo a friend gave me 44 years ago. 

I was able to grab this from Google Earth. Obviously I did not have access to a helicopter to duplicate the angle in the photo above this one.

The tailor shop where I spent a lot of time. The owners daughter spoke great english.

Looking east up the street from the river.

Almost the exact same view today.

Next time we go we will ask every old person if they know any of these girls.

This is one of the fighter pilots. He wanted to visit us and thank us for our guidance during his missions.

This stream no longer exists.

A photo I took 44 years ago with color slide film.

That same temple today.

A closer view.

It sure was an erie feeling standing there.

I could only guess at where my hootch was.

Thank goodness I never had to go in one.

When I was ill I had to navigate these sidewalks to get to the central bathroom.

We were always worried about the Vietnamese wanting to take out the radar tower.

This was a better way to get to Mukdahan from our support base than the back of a truck.

One of the Thai Guards.

I couldn't find any water buffalo in Mukdahan now. They were everywhere 44 years ago.  This is just outside our barbed wire. I used to have watch where I walked because their poop was the size of a large pizza and the same shape. 

A small Air America plane that was shot at in Laos made it to us and crashed. The pilot was okay and we removed all identification from the plane. 

Playing baseball on the field outside the barbed wire. 

I used to travel to remote villages and help the medic give free medical care. Here he is getting ready to pull her tooth.

I was hoping to find one these and ride in it. The Thai kid is was one of my favorite drivers.

I took this in front of the house I rented. The women really reacted to this photo. I told the three women that I think all the water buffalo got eaten and they said I was right. When I was here 44 years ago I did have water buffalo steak. A bit tough but not too bad. 

The women I showed the photos to laughed at this. This photo was taken in 1969. I didn't tell them they still fish like this in our village.

This is the woman that lived across from the radar site when she was two years old. She was a delightful person and told Phai she wishes she had a falang husband like Phai does.

The three woman take a break from cooking to pose for me. 

When I first stood by them I bent down to their height and they really laughed. They were very grateful to me for showing them the photos from so long ago. The Radar site was located in the field on the other side of that fence.

Aug 30, 2013

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