No month in the long and happy life of long-term American expat Dr. Dick Graham can have more meaning or poignancy than the present one. Fifty years ago, in September 1969, Dick first arrived in Thailand as a young US Army dentist at the height of the military conflict in nearby Vietnam. This month also sees Dick closing the dental practice he’s run for the past 43 years at the sprawling JUSMAG (Joint US Military Advisory Group) compound on Bangkok’s Sathorn Road. He won’t forget this September for a long while.
Celebrating that half century of living in Thailand will be surely mingled with some sadness that the shutters have come down on a business that has faithfully served the American community for so long.
But this easy-going American is taking it all in his stride. “I’m looking forward to spending vacation time in the US, travelling the world and playing a lot more golf,” he says while clearing out his office and dental equipment to make way for its new tenants. “I have plenty of happy memories to keep me going.”
Born in Nebraska and schooled in Wyoming, Dick graduated from University Nebraska School of Dentistry in 1969. A month later, he signed up for the US Army for duty in Vietnam. But the Army had other ideas and sent him here instead. Initially he was stationed in Korat's 31st Field Hospital, but was soon transferred to Camp Samae San next to Utapao Air Force Base. Three months later he became the dentist for the 809th Engineers in Sakon Nakhon.
After a brief period back in the US, Dick was reassigned back to Thailand to work alongside 30 doctors and nine dentists at the US Army’s Fifth Field Hospital, known today as the Sukhumvit Hospital in Bangkok.
In June 1974, he left the military but remained at the hospital as a civilian dentist. Two years later, America’s military presence in Thailand was winding down and it looked as though Dick would be heading back home.
As a private contractor for the US Army, the clinic was open initially for military personnel, then later expanded to include US Embassy staff, family members, and retirees.
“My patients have included every US Ambassador serving in Thailand since 1973,” says Dick proudly. Many other senior American diplomats have also received exemplary dental work in the clinic.
Working in Bangkok also allowed him to travel to all parts of Asia, including eleven trips to his then favorite destination, Nepal. Besides accompanying a wildlife biologist/friend into Chitwan Park to radiocollar various large animals such as sloth bear, gaur, and tigers, he went on various treks in the Himalayas, and in 1998 he spent two weeks trekking to the base camp of Mt. Everest. This remains the most difficult trek he ever undertook, primarily because of the elevation and inclement weather.
Dick’s memories of his time in Thailand are wide and varied. They include numerous upcountry travels to northern Thailand in the late 1970s, often by motorcycle, visiting the hill tribe people along the remote border areas with Burma, and getting to know some of the village headmen who controlled the poppy harvests. Trekking across the border into Burma at various times, he photographed the complete poppy harvest, from which opium (and ultimately heroin) is produced.
These areas were tightly controlled by the various opium warlords and access was very limited. “You could tell which villages were involved in the drug trade by the quality of the houses, roads, and vehicles," remembers Dick.
His travel companions often included famous Bangkok-based journalists John McBeth, David Hatcher and Rodney Tasker among others – who were making a name for themselves reporting on the region’s political and military upheavals at that time.
This same group, together with famed Australian combat cameraman Neil Davis who was killed in Bangkok in 1985 while filming a minor Thai coup attempt, would convene in Bangkok at either the Foreign Correspondents Club at the Dusit Thani or the Grand Prix bar in Patpong run by Mick Menard.
Another of Dick’s favorite hang-outs was the Mississippi Queen and was even recruited as an extra during the filming there of the famous bar scene in the movie ‘The Deer Hunter.’
"The director told us to order whatever we wanted while they were setting up the scene, so we did. Without our realizing it and drinking free beer, they filmed the scene, which made it appear more natural – and you can spot us very briefly in the movie,” he says.
Like so many of his era, Dick no longer visits Patpong. “In the past it was used by locals – these days it’s for tourists.”
His interest in Pattaya has similarly waned. “I used to live in a small bungalow complex on Walking Street back in the 1969-70 era. It was a small unpaved road, and by eight or nine in the evening, the place was in darkness.” Waterskiing and scuba diving were our main activities then."
As a keen photographer, Dick has a unique collection of photos he took during the people’s uprising in 1973 in Bangkok which saw the overthrow of Thailand’s military government.Adorning the walls of his clinic and now slightly discolored through age, they capture the imminent violence about to be unleashed on civilian crowds. Because of their extreme rarity, the photos are often sought after by historians.
Years later, Dick had a close-up view of the 2010 political protests in Bangkok because his condo is located opposite Lumpini Park and he was able to watch as the military move in to push the protesters out.
So, a long overdue retirement now looms. Dick, who looks at least a decade younger than his 76 years, is aware that he’s losing some regular friends and connections at JUSMAG and the US embassy, but reckons he’ll find enough to keep him busy and, depending on the everchanging immigration rules, maintain his links with Thailand.
He is keenly aware that Thailand has changed immensely in the 50 years he has been here. In the north the poppy fields are gone, while bridges and roads have opened up previously inaccessible areas.
Pattaya has gone from being a small sleepy fishing village to a sprawling tourist mecca. And Bangkok is now a modern city with skyscrapers, huge shopping malls, and an ever-evolving mass transit system - certainly not the Thailand he came to in 1969.
Apart from golf – Dick is a member of Thai Country Club – and that trip to the US to see his sister in Nebraska, he plans to revisit Africa, a part of the world he has come to enjoy in recent years. Enjoy your retirement, Dick.
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