Saturday, July 20, 2013

Diplomatic Life: A Tale of Khao Soi and Kings

Moat surround Chiang Mai town -- Chiang Mai, T...
Moat surround Chiang Mai town -- Chiang Mai, Thailand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the summer of 1988, after completing six months of Thai language training, I reported for duty as administrative officer at the consulate general in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I’d been in Thailand during the Vietnam War, but never in the north. Needless to say, it was quite different than I’d expected from my previous experience. The language and local dialect is different, the food is different, and while the people look the same as Thai anywhere else in the country, they have a different outlook on life – or so I observed.

The post was in the old royal palace compound of the last King of Chiang Mai. We rented it from the Thai government for a pittance. It was beautiful, but when I arrived, a little run down. We lived in a specially built housing compound on the opposite side of town, near the airport, in houses that were vaguely Spanish in design.

Even though my job title was administrative officer, my duties were varied. I was effectively the number two officer in a three-officer post (we had a secretary when I arrived, but the CG never used her, so when we were inspected, the OIG recommended the position be abolished and the embassy converted it into a political officer slot for themselves), handled American citizen services, refugee affairs, and narcotics – including crop substitution and drug suppression. Along with the four (later three) State Department people (me, the CG, a vice consul, and secretary), we had a large communications section, a PAO section (USIA was still independent at that time), a DEA contingent, and an Air Force seismic detachment.

I was busy from day one. The wall around the compound was in danger of collapse in sections, so I had to restore it, and the old wooden flag pole in front of the CG’s residence was dry rotted on the inside, so it had to be replaced. I also discovered that our little APO (army post office) annex involved a local employee picking up the mail bag at the airport, bringing it to the consulate and leaving it open in the middle of the floor in an empty room behind the local secretary’s desk. No one seemed to care that this was not only a pretty slipshod way to handle the US mail, but was a violation of federal law. I had a contractor build mail boxes and insert them in the wall of that room, and from that point on, the mail was sorted and put into boxes for each employee or agency – boxes that were locked and only accessible to me and the owner. You might think people would be grateful, but I took weeks of grief for changing what had become a comfortable routine for them. People don’t like change, even when it’s essential and for their benefit.

The first CG when I arrived didn’t like doing public engagements, so I was sent out to do a lot of meetings with local organizations, briefed visiting student groups, and went to the airport with the official greeting parties whenever the royal family came from Bangkok to stay at their northern royal residence. That way I got to know members of the royal family and the provincial government, and at times the local media was confused as to who the real CG was because it was almost always me seen in public. It got worse when the new CG arrived. He didn’t do briefings or airport meetings, so all visitors (including congressional delegations) fell into my lap.

I hired a contractor to run the Narcotics Assistance Unit (NAU) at the consulate – the husband of my consular assistant – and worked with him on the crop substitution programs. One of the things we did was conduct our own assessment of opium crop yields, which showed that the CIA estimates were off the mark by a significant amount. In order to do our assessment, I had to learn how to harvest opium. One of my favorite photos is one of me in a semi-military uniform, scraping opium from a poppy.

We weren’t too far from the embassy, but we might as well have been on the far side of the Moon for all the attention paid most of the time. A few hour flight, it was a day by train or car from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, and people from the embassy didn’t come often – except the narcotics and refugee folk. So, whenever anything happened up north, they just dropped it on us. Like the time there’d been a news report in the US that the Lao government had used chemical agents (yellow rain) against Hmong in western Laos. Since that part of Laos was adjacent to our consular district, we were asked to check it out. I traveled north, got a driver in a border town to take me a short distance into Laos in one of the areas where the border is not guarded or even checked, and found out that what people thought was ‘yellow rain’ toxic chemical agent was actually just a yellow smoke grenade. Back then, we did what we had to do.

At one point during my tour, Chiang Mai was the venue for the Williamsburg Conference, and former secretary of state William Rogers was a keynote speaker. I met him at the airport and took him to his hotel. I received a pass to attend all sessions of the conference, which was neat. This was later parleyed into my being a speaker at the conference when it was held in Cambodia and I was US ambassador there. Things have a way of coming full circle.

The most memorable part of my tour in Chiang Mai, though, had little to do with diplomacy. A movie production company was doing location shooting for Air America, starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downy, Jr., and they’d chosen Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son in the north as the locations. After they arrived, one of the assistant directors, who happened to be a dual US-Israeli citizen, died. I was on the Chiang Mai set almost every day for a week before they started shooting, doing the death certificate, inventorying his property, and arranging to have his remains shipped to Israel per his family’s wishes. I was around so much, the producer and another person (whose name and title I forget now) suggested I sign on as an extra. The CG and the embassy approved as long as it didn’t interfere with my official duty, and since they were shooting at night in Chiang Mai, it didn’t. So, I ended up in most of the bar scenes in the movie.

When they wrapped shooting in Chiang Mai, and prepared to go to Mae Hong Son for the airfield and flight operations center scenes, they asked me to go along. Again, the embassy approved, but I had to take annual leave. Shooting in Mae Hong Son was a week, and I wound up not only in most of the flight briefing scenes, but was cast in a small speaking role near the end of the film with Gibson and Downy, when Gibson’s character rents a plane to move his supply of contraband weapons. In post-production they dubbed someone else’s voice, but it didn’t matter, because it was my face, and I got paid Hollywood scale for the scene – in addition to the daily rate as an extra. My slightly more than 15 minutes of fame. My kids still like to trot out the DVD to impress their friends.

My second favorite memory is a rustic restaurant across the river from the consulate that served the best khao soi, curried noodle soup, in the world. The owner was reported to have once worked for the royal family. I never proved nor disproved that, but I do know his khao soi was fit for a king.

During our time at Chiang Mai, our children, David and Denise, attended a British boarding school in Singapore. So, we traveled to Singapore often, and saw a lot of other parts of Asia as well, including Sri Lanka and Australia.

My tour in northern Thailand ended a few months after the first Gulf War started, a day I’ll always remember because it is the day the Thai army overthrew the prime minister and took over the government. Funny thing about that; a newspaper reporter friend of one of my local employees in Chiang Mai alerted us to the coup and we knew about it about three hours before the embassy in Bangkok was aware of it, even though the events were taking place at the airport there. I’m not sure the people in the embassy were too happy to have me call from Chiang Mai to inform them of things taking place under their noses. At least I let them be the ones to notify Washington.

If you think diplomatic life is one long, boring round of cocktail receptions, I give you Chiang Mai to illustrate that it isn’t.  Until next time, your humble servant.

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