Lopburi, each of us separately explained to the bearded stranger, was an army town. The US had had a big air and army base there during the Vietnam War, the Thai army’s special service units were trained on the base and many of the local kids join the army because there isn’t much else to do. 70% of the town’s families have people in the army.
The stranger was sitting by the river watching the old women fishing. Two poles stick out over the river, with a large net hanging down on four strings. The poles are lowered and, when they want to check if they’ve caught anything, one of the women climbs a counter-balancing ladder at the bank which raises the poles.
One after the other we approached him as he sat there.
*I have served for 33 years, and I am a master sergeant. I was cycling to the base to check my men were ready for the next day’s mission into Cambodia. When I found he was British I stayed with the bearded stranger for a while because the British SAS had trained me, though our instructors are now Russian. I wanted to be sure he felt safe.
*I showed him my veteran’s card. In the 1960s I went into Cambodia regularly with my dogs to track baddies and find mines. I drew complicated illustrations in the dust for him. Showing how we managed when there’s a curve in the track or road and your dog, ahead of you, sees a trip wire. Or doesn’t. I limp badly now and I stayed with the bearded stranger for a while because I am now on the staff of the tourist office and wanted to practice my English.
*I used to be a houseboy on the American base, and so I speak a little English. I often boast about being shot down behind enemy lines in Laos; a lie, as anyone in town will tell him. They will also tell him I am often drunk but perhaps he realised that from my insincere jollity and obsequious hand-clasping. I stayed with the bearded stranger until he gave me 4 baht to go away – enough for a whisky.