The Karen People
During the Vietnam War I was privileged to spend quite a little time flying out of Thailand. In so doing I developed a high regard for the Thai people. I judge them to be a very moral people. Their main faith is Buddhism and there are little shrines about wherever one looked. Young men practice as monks and standout in a crowd wearing their bright saffron robes. I found them to be a very clean people and honestly a handsome lot. Beautiful ladies abound.
One thing that struck me about the Thais is that they are a mechanically adept people somewhat parallel to the industrious Germans. When we built the many airbases in Thailand at the start of the Vietnam War it was the Thai workers that ran the machinery, laid the concrete and all the other things to make it happen. That hasn’t been our experience with many of our other allies around the world.
Being from McCook I had an in one long weekend we spent in Bangkok. I looked up Visuitra Panpackti who had been a student at McCook College and a good friend of my brother Tom. Visuit chose McCook College to study as there were no other Thai people here and so he was forced to learn English---actually the American idiom. After two years at McCook he went off to a larger school to finish his degree. All young Thai young men in Thailand have to serve two years in public service, mostly in the military however Visuit elected to serve with the Bangkok Police and he was at the time a detective.
Visuit and his pretty young wife, Chanya a graduate of Oxford University, took me on a night out on the town. We didn’t attend any of the usual bars frequented by GI’s oh no we went to an upscale night chub. A club with a live orchestra that played both Thai and American music. It was way better than Las Vegas. During the entire evening I never saw another round eye but I felt perfectly safe. We finished the night off with a bowl of Thai ice-cream a wonderful treat made with coconut milk. Definitely a night to remember and my only regret was that I was unable to share it with my young wife Ann.
The gastronomic experience in Thailand was quite something to remember. For the dining halls on base the Air Force contracted with native Thai cooks. Their attempts at following American recipes definitely met with little success. How can one mess up a hamburger? They did. Yet the sides such as fresh slices of huge radishes (daikon) and varieties of other Asian fruits and vegetables were a wonderful taste treat.
Eating off base in native Thai restaurants though was an adventure. Rice is their staple and they make it sticky so that one can eat it with chop sticks. The meat served may have been water buffalo. I particularly liked a vegetable and meat stew called Cao Pot. It was served family style in a large circular bowl that had a chimney up the middle with glowing charcoal to keep it hot. We in America also use the term hot to describe what the Mexicans call piquante another term for spicy. Oh yes the Thais love their food spicy and it takes a bit getting used to the heat. Their native beer Singha helped that process although there was little quality control for their brewing process and each bottle was an adventure.
When I returned home I introduced my wife to the delights of Thai food whenever we could find an authentic Thai restaurant in the United States. We walk into a Thai restaurant I give the traditional Thai greeting with praying hands, a bow and speak Saw wa dee cop. When present an ethnic Thai waitress, or cook, will ask if I have been to Thailand. Somehow we then get the best of service and they always want to visit about my experiences in their beloved country. We have found a wonderful restaurant on the eastern edge of Kearney where the owner was a native of the beautiful beach resort town Pattaya. It is in southern Thailand near the airbase UTapao from which we flew many missions. Typically she married an American GI, became an American citizen and now they operate the Suwannee Thai Cuisine at 1420 West 24th in Kearney. She proudly told me that her daughter is an Ensign in the Navy having graduated from the US Naval Academy.
This past weekend Grannie Annie and I were in Lincoln so sought out a Thai restaurant that we enjoy. It is the Saumi Thai & Chinese Restaurant and is part of the LNK Food Plaza near the Airport at 311 NW 12th Street. Started by a former GI from the guard base there we have particularly enjoyed their green curry entree. This time the menu was the same but under new ownership. The young pretty cashier/waitress was friendly and asked what degree of hot we desired from a scale of 1 to 5. Experience dictated a number 3 for my order of yellow curry but bright eyes said she’d send in a request for #10 following me speaking the traditional Thai thank you. Only kidding—it turned out just right hot to the taste but if it is your first time I’d suggest a 1 or a 2 spicy just might be a better choice to keep from burning your palette.
As we were enjoying our repast mama the cook came out to visit. Her English was impeccable but her Thai language skills seemed somewhat lacking even to this neophyte. She then told us that she was of the Karen People and that she had grown up in a refugee camp in Thailand. Her restaurant was under new management, the former owner had a stroke but no matter the culinary skill is yet of the highest standard. The whole place was impeccably clean and our hope is that it is a continued success.
A little research shows that there is a refugee camp in Thailand along the Burma border. The population of Karen people there is some 50,000 and the camp has been inexistence over 25 years. Schooling for their youth is of a high priority. Evidently the Burma, now Myanmar, government has a policy of extermination of their Karen and other non-Burmese ethnic groups. Their situation is much like the Kurds in Turkey that we see on our nightly news. For the Karen people it was either be killed when their villages were destroyed or exit the country. A large faction of the Karen people are Christian and many have been allowed to immigrate to the United States, Australia and a few other welcoming countries. So that is the background of the lady we were speaking with. I can only wish her and their five young children success as they assimilate into our society.
That is how I saw it.