Carrie Ching is developing a storytelling series about journalists called Off The Record. To introduce the series to CJR readers, we asked her to write her own OTR story. Learn more about her work at carrieching.com and follow her on Twitter @carrieching.
In 2004, Frontline/World sent me to Thailand to interview expat Vietnam vets about the upcoming US presidential election. I had an appointment with a vet I’d contacted by email in Pattaya, a coastal city that is a bumpy three-hour bus ride from Bangkok; it also is a notorious sex-tourism hotspot, a known hangout for foreign pedophiles. I was traveling with a girlfriend and a lot of expensive video gear; neither of us had been to Thailand before.
As the bus exited the highway, we hit standstill traffic. A truck full of teenagers pulled up and began pelting the bus windows with white paste and spraying it with water. I anxiously asked another passenger what was going on. All I got was a knowing smile and the word “Songkran.”
Songkran, the Thai New Year, is a multi-day festival in April. The white paste is supposed to be a gentle blessing; the water symbolizes renewal. But add gallons of booze, a pharmacy of drugs, hundreds of Thai prostitutes, some rowdy American sailors, and a gang of dirty old men, and you have the monstrous concoction that is Songkran, Pattaya-style.
We reached our stop, a random gas station, two hours late. A drunken mob filled the sidewalks and spilled into the streets. I called the vet. We were a 10-minute walk from his place. Techno music pounded from speakers on every corner, where Thais danced frantically. Scattered among the locals were older American and European men, and young US soldiers with crew cuts. I had the uneasy sense that we were the only foreign women for miles. Being half-Chinese, I could have passed, but my friend is blonde with blue eyes. Thai women in Lycra skirts sprayed us with hoses; men with wild eyes smeared that white paste on our faces and hair. I clutched my camera bag and we ran.
It was getting dark when we found the vet’s apartment. He was standing calmly on the sidewalk in a clean, flowered shirt. We looked like stray cats that had gone through the spin cycle with a bag of flour. In the lobby of his building, older white men accompanied by very young Thai girls and boys streamed between the elevators and the front door. Some were headed out for a night on the strip, others were headed in for . . . I tried not to think about it.
The vet led us to a small, fluorescent-lit studio where two young Asian women perched on the sofa. I set up my camera and conducted the interview in as professional a manner as I could. Here I was, on the rowdiest night in the raunchiest town in Thailand, and we were talking about . . . John Kerry’s military record?
After we finished, the vet offered to take us out. My friend and I looked at each other. Spend the night in Pattaya? No thanks. We hired a taxi to drive us the nearly 100 miles back to Bangkok.