references


I had decided not to go to Thailand, for other major nations seemed more important than this small self-governing land. But as I was preparing my itinerary a famous newspaperman rushed up and cried, "My God! I just heard you were planning to skip Siam!"

I replied that I had other more important work to do and his face became mock-ashen. He grabbed me as the Ancient Mariner must have intercepted the wedding guests and said, "If you miss Siam you miss Asia. Siam is the sanctuary in a troubled world. Siam is the air-conditioned room in hell. The padded cell in the insane asylum. Siam is all things to all men and its girls are the most beautiful in the Orient. 

"Take the revolutions. In Siam they're very simple. The Army kicks the Navy out, and then the Navy kicks the Army out. The revolution is always finished by breakfast so that everybody can spend a full day in his new office. Practically nobody gets killed except army or navy men ...." 

I interrupted the torrent of words and said I hadn't come to Asia to make fun of quaint customs. The famous newspaperman dropped my arm and said, "Look, chum! Who's making fun of whom? I love that crazy land. I love any country which in an atomic age can be perfectly screwball. In Bangkok they have one of the world's most beautiful post offices. Very modern. Eight different post boxes for letters. City Mail. Air Mail. Up Country Mail. Up Country Air Mail. Europe. Asia. North America. Africa. Then at five o'clock a little old man with a cart comes along and empties each box into one big pile." 

I protested again that I wasn't in search of wacky yarns, but he said, "Damn it all, I'm not reciting these as ridiculous items. They prove that there's one nation left on earth that doesn't take itself too seriously. A Siamese friend of mine had been to Cambridge and decided there ought to be better Anglo-Siamese relations, so he translated 'Macbeth' into Siamese and put on a whing-ding performance. But no Siamese audience would tolerate a play without dancing, so when Lord and Lady Macbeth welcomed the king they were going to murder, there was a big dance, after which Mrs Macbeth sang 'Danny Boy'. I said to my friend that he had made some pretty substantial changes in the play, but he though William Shakespeare was big enough to take it."  I said I wasn't interested in such stories and that anyway I understood the name of the country was Thailand. "Don't you believe it!" he cried. " ... In 1941 when New Zealand declared war on Siam, which turned out to be a Japanese ally, the local government sent the declaration back to New Zealand and said they couldn't accept it. The name of the country was misspelled. So when it came time for a peace treaty they found none was necessary because Siam had never been at war with New Zealand." 

... 

"There's also the thieves' market where you go each morning to buy back what they stole from you the night before. They give you two quotations on a pair of stolen pants. Two dollars plain or three dollars with what was in the pockets. 

"The Siamese census was something special, too. The United Nations asked every country in the world to conduct a census in some year ending in 0. Well, the Siamese calendar ended in 0 in 1947, so they had a census. To do the job right they bought a whale of a lot of first-class IBM machines, the kind that handle the complete United States figures in about five weeks. 

"Half the year went by, a whole year, a year and a half and still no census report. They sent a special investigator down to the IBM room to find out what was wrong. There, at the end of the line, they had one Chinese girl with an abacus. She was checking the machines' figures and was fourteen months behind schedule. 

... 

Seven hours later the famous newspaperman said, "I'm sorry I kept you up so late. But I'd hate to see a friend of mine get so close to Siam and then miss it. I would rather be stationed there than any other country I know of. Please take my word and go to Siam." 

No friend ever gave a traveller better advice ... Siam is a joyous land. Bangkok is the Paris of Asia. Never in my life have I left a land with more regret ... Its business procedures break the hearts of American businessmen, I'm told, and absolutely no one keeps an appointment. But the nation has prospered under its own haphazard guidance for some 2,000 years. It is a gentle and wonderful place. 


- James A. Michener VOICES OF ASIA, 1952 
(the year The Atlanta was founded)