I had always dreamt of seeing India, so my eyes stayed glued to the window as our aircraft touched down on the New Delhi runway on a hot Saturday afternoon of October 1959. I hadn’t slept in two days, but was determined to miss nothing as we rolled toward a sprawling terminal just visible through wavering lines of heat.
Three days earlier I had arrived in the Philippines after a 2,000-mile flight from Tokyo via Okinawa and Taiwan. Knowing that I would be leaving again in the morning I had headed for the main gate of Clark Air Base to see something I had always wanted to see: Corregidor — and perhaps a bit of Manilla. On Friday morning, tired but happy after only 20 minutes spent dozing in a cab, I had dragged myself aboard a sleek Navy Super Constellation, which flew the Embassy Run across Southeast Asia. I wanted to sleep, but the sight of vast jungles below, cut by bright threads of water and interlaced by bays filled with small craft, kept me awake.
Having refueled in Vietnam, we landed for an overnight stop in Bangkok. As tired as I was, I was not about to miss the chance to see the Venice of the Orient. Besides, I had a letter in my pocket, an introduction written by a Buddhist priest in Kyoto who had taken a liking to me when he found me fast asleep in one corner of his temple. The Buddhist temple in Bangkok that I wanted to see was officially closed, but my Japanese friend had assured me that his letter would get me in to see a sight hidden from human eyes for more than two centuries and rediscovered only five years earlier.
It stands to reason that when the French arrived in Indochina, and began carrying off everything portable, some Buddhist priests had decided to plaster over a golden statue to make it less of a target. A few years before the afternoon I landed in Bangkok, its true nature had been revealed by the bright gleam of gold showing through a crack in the by-then ancient plaster. I wanted to see that wondrous Golden Buddha, now uncovered, so off I went, letter in hand, out into the busy streets of Bangkok.
My hardest job was convincing a cab driver that I was not in need of a dive filled with bar girls. “Temple nah open!” he told me over and over as we traveled increasingly rundown streets and lanes. “Nah open! Waste time! Betta find girl. Have fun.”
Later, as he sped off, I began to think he just might be right. Pounding on the heavily carved wooden doors of the temple as the sun galloped toward the horizon did no good. I gave it up, went around one side of the temple, found a 10-foot high stuccoed wall blocking my way, went around to the other side and found another of the same, and was about to give it up when a wizened old Thai with a very large smile popped out of a tiny side door.
“Nah open,” he told me. “Come back one year.”
I dug out my letter, opened it, and showed it to him. He took it, turned it every which way except up, eyed me, shrugged, and disappeared inside. A heavy latch clicked. Half an hour went by. The tropical night fell with startling swiftness. Realizing I was in a not too savory part of a strange oriental city, I wondered how in blazes I was going to find my way back to some semblance of civilization.
I turned to go, but the heavy latch clicked behind me. The old man hustled me inside, ushered me down a series of tunnel-like passages, and left me standing before a middle-aged Thai who looked up and said, “Why, Mister Garrett. Welcome at last! We’ve been expecting you.”
Ten minutes later I stood open mouthed before the largest golden statue on this planet, trying to believe that anything so beautiful could actually exist. Though seated, the image of Buddha was 10 feet high, five tons of solid gold glowing with a life of its own by the flicker of candles lighting a darkened chamber.
I spent an hour in that silent chamber — one of the best hours of my life — contemplating the depth of belief that had enabled human hands to create such magnificence. Then, having politely left me alone with the Buddha, my new friend returned. When he found that I had to fly out in the morning without seeing Bangkok he decided he should show me the town.
And show it he did. A Thai scientist of some sort, he took me on a whirlwind round of a city of canals laden with the scents and sounds and colors of the Orient. We ended the night with a meal on a floating restaurant. At 5 a.m. I passed through the gate of the small American compound and was about to pour my weary bones into bed when someone tapped on the door and said, “Bus leaves for the airport in 10 minutes.”
“I’ll sleep on the plane,” I told myself as I got ready.
What fools these mortals be, Johnny.
And wait till you hear the rest of the story.