A Village in the Jungle and a Wee Skirmish-ette

February 22, 1955

Dear Dad & Russ,

Well, here’s this week’s letter home that I didn’t have time to write yesterday. Weekends are always lots of fun, especially when one can fly up to the Kingdom of Laos, but coming back to work on Mondays is equally always a bit of a shock. Frankly, by the time 5:30 rolled around last night, I didn’t particularly care if I ever saw another typewriter as long as I live – we were that busy!!

As I sit here typing this letter, Howie and another fellow are engaged in a rousing game of Scrabble. Every so often the ask me how to spell words, etc. And there is an Army Major squatting in the middle of the office floor all surrounded by sectional maps of Cambodia, trying to make one map out of twenty! I’ve never seen such people for maps as these Army folks. The whole office is filled with maps with little pins and things stuck into them.

Here’s news. I think I’ve told you before that I have lost quite a bit of weight since coming over here. Of course the scales here are all in kilos so I can’t really tell how much weight I’ve lost, but today, just for fun, I took some measurements with a piece of string and then measured the string with an inch-ruler. Here’s the results: Chest 36″, Waist 28″, Hips 37″. The waist is the thing that really got me. No more pot! I think I was somewhere around 32″ or 34″ when I left Ottawa!! However, as I said before, I certainly could afford to lose a bit of weight. I still eat as well as ever, so it must be the heat that is causing the current deflation.

Well, last Saturday morning Howie and I too off for Vientiane. The plane arrived in Vientiane at just about 1 p.m. and we were met by some of our Canadian Army personnel in a white jeep. We arrived at the NCO’s mess just in time for lunch, which was delicious and a nice change from “la Taverne”. After lunch we just sat around and talked for a while, then took a grand tour of Vientiane (on foot – only takes about an hour to walk around the whole town). Vientiane has been called “an overgrown village” and that’s exactly what it is. Actually, it’s still part of the jungle!!

Some Canadians and Aigle Azure, the local airline

Some Canadians and Aigle Azure, the local airline

The majority of buildings in Vientiane are merely bamboo huts. There are a few wooden-frame buildings and about half a dozen stone buildings. As a matter of fact, the Canadian Delegation office is just a wooden-frame building with interior walls made of woven bamboo painted bright yellow!! (Vientiane, by the way, is pronounced Vee-en-tsee-en). The building is built way up on high concrete piles to keep it above water wen the Monsoons arrive. There is even a little bridge that runs from the building right over to the road! Most of the roads are unpaved dirt trails, over which pass dozens of ox-drawn carts with big wooden wheels. Judging by the number of Laotians sleeping in front of shops, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are just as lazy as the Cambodians – if that’s possible!!

An oxcart in use in Phnom Penh

An oxcart in use in Phnom Penh

Vientiane gets its water from the mighty Mekong River that originates up in Tibet. However, at this time of year (no rain for months) the mighty Mekong is about 2 feet deep and just as wide! As a matter of fact it is nothing but a big, deep sand valley and a person can walk right across it to the jungle on the other side. That jungle on the other side is the northern boundary of Siam!! We poked around in many, many little shops and quaint Buddhist pagodas during our walk. I couldn’t get over the way this town, the capital of the Kingdom of Laos, is just part of the jungle!Howie and I had a room at the “Bungalow”. All hotels, no matter how large or small they may be, are called “Bungalows” here in Indochina. The Vientiane Bungalow is the only hotel in the whole country of Laos! Our window faced out onto a road that ran along the side of the “Bungalow” and directly on the other side of that road Vientiane ended! That’s right, nothing but jungle just across the road from our hotel. Electrical power in Vientiane is supplied by a wood-burning generator. There is supposed to be a Laotian on duty to keep the fire going at all times, but, as is characteristic of the Laotian people, he sleeps most of the time. Consequently, the fire and the lights go out!! All rooms are supplied with Coleman lamps or candles to meet such emergencies. Three such emergencies occurred during our one afternoon in Vientiane!! What a country!!

From left to right: Cambodian, Lao, Vietnamese

The dress of the Laotian women is quite beautiful. They all wear “sampots” or sarongs made of colourful material. Around the hem of these sarongs are embroidered designs in either silver or gold thread. And the way they wear their hair is quite distinctive and attractive. Their hair is pulled straight back and done up in a bun on top of their heads. Around this bun is either a string of pearls or a thin silver chain. If you’ll get out my album and look at the new 100 piastre note I sent you, you can see this hair-do on the girl in the centre of the bill. They all also wear gold or silver chain belts around their waists.

Well, after the walk we returned to the “Bungalow” and got cleaned up (we were covered in red dust) and then went over to the NCOs mess for dinner (equally delicious as lunch). After dinner we listened to the radio and just sat around and talked for a few hours, the, being quite tired from the afternoon jaunt, away we went to bed. Next morning, after breakfast, Howie and I were driven out to the airport to catch the plane for Phnom Penh. While waiting for the plane we sat down in the Airport Restaurant. Now this is a laugh!! All it was, was a bamboo lean-to, no floor and no windows!!! And before we could sit down, we had to chase away about two dozen chickens. Our boys up in Vientiane call this place the “Chicken Coop” for obvious reasons! So back we went to Phnom Penh. It was a real quiet weekend but a nice change and very interesting. Another entry for my memoirs.

I am now going to tell you about a bit of excitement we had right here in Phnom Penh last night. I don’t want you to go worrying about me now, Dad, ’cause actually last night’s incident was just a flash in the pan sort of thing. And besides, it might just very well reach the Ottawa papers and I want you to get a first-hand report of the incident before it gets blown up out of all proportions. Howie, Hap and I had gone to the movie at the American Ambassador’s home. Around ten o’clock we could hear gunfire, explosions and goodness knows what else coming from the direction of the big square in front of the Hotel de la Poste. We didn’t think much of it at the time – we just thought it was fireworks. However, on arriving back at the hotel we were just in time to see two big armoured cars leaving the square and hundreds of curious people beginning to accumulate. Two of our fellows who had not gone to the show with us were standing in the doorway of the hotel and here’s exactly what happened:

These two follows were sitting in front of the “Taverne” at about ten o’clock, when suddenly everyone started running for cover. They didn’t quite know what to make of the whole thing until a policeman came up and advised them to please step inside the doorway of the hotel as there was going to be a little war in square any minute. Being quite willing to oblige they retired to the doorway and waited to see what was going to happen. Moments later about 20 Cambodian soldiers came down the street toward the square. They took up positions behind trees, around corners of buildings and flat on the sidewalk. The object of their attack was the Police Headquarters on the opposite corner of the square from the Hotel de la Poste. It seems that the Army had a bit of a beef with the Police and this was their little way of straightening the score. Then the fun started. The Army opened fire on Police Headquarters with pistols, rifles, machine guns, grenades, and mortars. And the Police opened fire on the Army with the same. Of course, the Hotel de la Poste is guarded 24 hours a day by the Cambodian Police, but last night there were two guards instead of one. One of our fellows asked this new guard why he didn’t go out and help the Police, to which the guard replied, “Oh no, it’s me they’re after. You see, I’m the Chief of Police!!!” Well, that was just great!! Shortly after, however, the Chief borrowed some civilian clothes from one of the room boys at the hotel and quietly left via the back door. The whole thing lasted for about an hour, till finally those big armoured cars I mentioned before moved in and put a stop to the nonsense!!! Number of casualties: not one!! The damage was not too bad either, except for some bullet holes in walls and windows of the buildings surrounding the square (the Hotel de la Poste was spared) and a few places where the pavement was chewed up by grenades and mortars. Quite an exciting evening in the sleepy little Cambodian town of Phnom Penh!

The fabled Hotel de la Poste

The fabled Hotel de la Poste

Frankly, although there was no personal danger to any of our Canadians while they stayed inside the Hotel, I’m just as glad I went to the movies last night!! And today, of course, there’s a big investigation going on around the square which will probably last for weeks and weeks. Also today, half the town of Phnom Penh must have burned to the ground by the sound of the fire-reels that have been zooming by since early this morning. I think I told you about the way a fire spreads so very rapidly once it gets going in an area of straw huts. Well, today there was another of these fires on the airport road. I think it must be all over by now, ’cause the fire-reels haven’t gone by for about half an hour. Amazing country, this!!!

The Central Post Office

The Central Post Office

Well, here I am on page 3 again and I guess it’s just about time to tell you folks about THE NEWS!!! I shall be back in Canada again, probably next August or September!!! How’s that for a surprise??? Ottawa just wired us today, informing us that this posting will only be for one year at the most. However, as yet, this subject is still “Restricted”, so please, please don’t mention it to anyone whatsoever until I get the green light to inform everyone of the news. It’s all settle and confirmed and final, so break out the Yma Sumac records again!!! I know you’ll want to tell Aunt Clara and Uncle Russ about this, Dad, but please don’t breathe a word of it until I give you the go-ahead. I haven’t mentioned it to anyone other than you two, but just as soon as I am given the clearance I shall write you telling you so, then you can broadcast it over CBO if you want to! OK??? Believe me, I’m just as excited about it as I guess you are!!! Please save me gallons of hot water so that I can have millions of hot baths when I get home again, and it might be a good idea to buy a cow – half a year now with nary a drop of milk!!

That’s about if for now, folks. There shall only be one more letter before I take off for Siam, then I shall write you a book on my adventures in this fabled land. I guess I’ll be home a lot sooner than I figured now, and believe me, it sure will be wonderful!!

By for now,

love, Dave

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