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Tuesday, May 29, 2001

GREEN BERET FOR A DAY

Thai bases offer a taste of military life


By JIM ALGIE

LOP BURI, Thailand -- Where else in the world can a tourist be a soldier for a day or two, shoot off an M-16, jump from a parachute tower, climb rocks, ford streams and hike through the jungle?

The military museum at Lop Buri displays equipment used in the region's wars.

These are but a few of the martial activities that tourists can participate in at Thai military bases all over the country.

Our two days of very basic training began at the base in Lop Buri, 154 km north of Bangkok, which is the second biggest in Thailand. Thirty-five temporary recruits (men, women and teenagers) from all over Asia and the West, wearing khaki vests and black baseball caps emblazoned with the winged logo of the Royal Thai Army Airborne, gathered in a clearing for a demonstration on how to catch poisonous snakes.

Hair rose and women gasped as a Thai officer showed us how to trap a writhing cobra by putting his boot down on the serpent's head. Then he picked it up by the tail. The snake-handling lecture was in Thai, but a sergeant was on hand to provide the Westerners with a running translation in English.

As we hiked down a dirt road nearby, surrounded by palm trees, we saw a 10-meter-high jumble of rocks off to our left. Suddenly, a mortar shell exploded and soldiers started yelling. Were we under attack?

Everyone looked up to see two Thai soldiers standing on the peak. Yelling and grunting, a rope tied around his waist, one of them abseiled down the rock face in leaps and bounds.

"Boot camp" courses at Thai military bases such as Lop Buri let visitors fire assault rifles and practice jumps from the parachute training tower (below).

It was a demonstration. Another soldier showed us how to rope ourselves up, attaching the rope to the clip on our belts. Wearing gloves and motorcycle helmets, we then practiced walking backward, our ropes tied around the trunks of trees. After that, some of us were ready to take the blind plunge into thin air.

If becoming a soldier means learning to conquer your fears and trust the men in your unit completely, this was a great way to learn. Rock climbing is a potentially dangerous thrill-sport, but the Thai military took good care of us, and nobody suffered anything worse than a few scraped knees, some heart palpitations and an excessive dose of adrenaline. If you don't feel like participating in any of the activities, however, there are no nasty sergeants with machine-gun tongues forcing you to do them.

After a 10-minute ride across a nearby lake in a big rubber dinghy, we hiked through the jungle to a shooting range. There, one of the soldiers, wearing a red beret and black shades, showed us how to load, aim and fire an M-16. Each of us was then given five bullets and a pair of earplugs. While we loaded our guns, the soldiers knelt down beside us to give shooting tips and to ensure that no latent psychopaths were allowed to go ballistic.

Shooting an M-16 is a powerful kick. As one young Australian said, "It feels a bit like playing God. You can see what Chairman Mao meant when he said, 'Power comes from the barrel of a gun.' " At the same time, it was a bit frightening to realize how gunning someone down on the battlefield could be so easy and so impersonal.

Nonetheless, I don't think the Green Berets will be recruiting me any time soon; all of my shots went wide of the target. In marked contrast, the young Thai woman beside me, who smiled each time she squeezed the trigger, could probably freelance as a hit-woman. Each of her bullets pierced the paper heart of the enemy soldier.

As the night cloaked the sky in a deep indigo and the jungle in shadowy black, the weekend soldiers sat on chairs in a clearing, watching another sergeant from the Airborne show us what kind of leaves are edible and which vines contain water.

While they grilled feral pigs and rice packed in a piece of bamboo on a makeshift barbecue, the soldiers demonstrated how to broil fish when you're nowhere near a microwave. Inside a square metal tin, they stood the fish upright in a circle. Another soldier then put the top on it and burlap bags around the whole tin, before setting the sacks on fire. Ten minutes later, when the sacks were blackened rags, he removed the lid like a magician and -- presto! -- the fish was perfectly broiled.

For our open-air feast that night, we sat cross-legged on mats, in the usual Thai style, and ate a huge communal meal of barbecued pork, broiled fish, rice and tom yam goong (a chili-laden soup with shrimp and lemon grass). There were slices of sweet mangoes and guavas for dessert.

After bedding us down for the night in two-person tents, the soldiers woke us up the next morning at the military hour of 6 a.m.

The highlight of Day Two was a three-hour trek through some lush jungle in a wildlife sanctuary. We marched along the trunk of a huge uprooted tree, crossed streams on slippery stepping stones, waded through knee-deep water in a cave, climbed up ropes beside gushing waterfalls and soldiered on to a well-earned break beside a lagoon of aquamarine water so clean the Thai military men drank from it with cupped palms.

Considering the fact that some of these paratroopers are decorated veterans who fought alongside the Australians and Americans in Vietnam, it was surprising that they were so boyish and friendly. One of the older guys, for instance, kept swinging past us on vines, laughing and shouting, "I am Tarzan."

In a way, though, this friendliness is very much in the tradition of the Thai military. During World War I, Thailand sent several thousand troops to Europe to bolster the Allied forces. Although their bravery on the battlefield was legendary, so was their compassion. After too Germany was defeated, the Thai troops were sent to help round up soldiers who hadn't surrendered yet. Soon, the German renegades said they would only give themselves up to the Thais because they were so humane.

On the second night, a local professor, who teaches the soldiers about astronomy and meteorology, set up a telescope in the clearing beside our tents. It was a perfect night for stargazing, the forest and clearing tinted silver by a mother-of-pearl moon.

The scariest part of the weekend was the jump from an 11-meter-high parachute tower. Even the high-flying members of the Thai Airborne go to pray at a nearby shrine to Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of the Hindu faith, before they do a jump.

After paying our respects to the deity, we listened to a lecture and watched some demonstrations on how to put on the parachute and on how to jump, keeping your elbows by your hips and your forearms straight out in front of you.

I had some second, third and even seventh and eighth thoughts about the jump -- most of them revolving around death, pain and wheelchairs -- but I wasn't going to let a 13-year-old Singaporean girl make me look like a total wimp, now was I?

I scaled the wooden tower, the straps of the 'chute harness molesting my groin, and waited for my turn. Five of the lines were operational, which meant that five rookie parachutists could jump at a time, one after the other. A Thai soldier connected the cable to my vest.

After an excruciating wait, I was first in line. Someone tapped me on the back and yelled, "Go!" With my stomach doing somersaults, I leapt, keeping my eyes on the distant trees. After free-falling for what seemed like an eternity, the cable snapped tight and I flew down the line, grinning at the distant mountains.

That afternoon we visited the Military Museum. Then, in a special ceremony, a high-ranking officer pinned the insignia of the Royal Thai Airborne to our shirts.

For 2,500 baht (about 7,000 yen), which includes meals and accommodation, it's a thrilling and inexpensive way to "get your wings" -- and you don't even have to clean any latrines.

For more information on visiting a Thai military base, call Reuangsaeng Sripaoraya at the Tourism Authority of Thailand at (66) (2) 694-1222, ext. 1542. From Bangkok, buses depart for Lopburi from the new Northern Bus Terminal every 20 minutes between 5:30 a.m. and 8.30 p.m. The three-hour ride costs 80 baht (about 240 yen) for an air-conditioned bus. For a slightly lower fare, you can catch a train heading north from Hualamphong Station. Trains depart every hour from 4:20 a.m. In Chiang Mai, tourists can participate in many of the same activities, as well as mountain biking, at the base for the 2nd Special Forces Division.


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