Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
Tel/Fax: (662) 237-3362
Mobile: (661) 925-7187
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December 10-11, 1999

Weekend Journal: A Greenhorn Earns Her Stripes Among Thailand's Red Berets

By Jennifer Gampell

The green lime balanced atop the spoon that Sergeant Yoothakan Srisuk holds in his mouth blends in nicely with the colors of his army-issue camouflage apparel. Seated on the rec room floor, the sergeant of the Special Forces Unit tilts his head and carefully maneuvers the fruit onto his civilian neighbor's waiting spoon. The lime continues its precarious journey along a line of 13 spoon-mouthed recruits until, just before reaching me, it falls from the spoon of a giggling greenhorn.

I thought spoon passing games were kids' stuff, yet here I am together with 34 other grownups at 8 p.m. on Day 1 of our three-day sortie with the Special Forces Unit (SFU) of the Royal Thai Army. Originally trained in the early 1950s by the notorious U.S. Army Green Berets, Thailand's SFU-known as the Red Berets-spent the 1960s and 70s helping the Americans battle communism in Southeast Asia. The recent dearth of regional guerilla-fighting opportunities, however, has left the Red Berets seriously underemployed. Looking to capitalize on their mystique and perhaps incidentally polish the Thai army's coup-tainted image, former army chief General Chetta Thanajaro came up with the idea of the adventure weekends in 1997. Since then, several hundred Thai tourists (and the occasional intrepid foreigner) have joined up.

Ever since rendezvousing at 13:00 hours on Friday in Lopburi, Thailand's "military city," our group of Rambo wannabes has been doing double time. First we're bussed from the town center to a wooded SFU training camp on the outskirts of town. Then we're subjected to rigorous bouts of standing to attention and at easing while a big SFU pooh bah delivers the welcome speech.

Each weekend warrior is issued two water bottles plus a confusing array of ancillary pouches, straps and hooks. Fortunately, 20 SFU personnel have been assigned to our 35-person unit to help us assemble our gear. Unlike the unsmiling marine cadets standing at perpetual attention in pristine white livery, the SFU men favor standard camouflage fatigues heavily accessorized with U.S. Army paraphernalia.

Rock climbing, shooting, suspension bridge walking and rafting are listed as the "military related activities" for Day 1. But in the first of several schedule changes, our group performed only two of these: rappelling and shooting. (Possessed by an unreasonable fear of descending a large rock face supported only by rope harnesses, one of us did not rappel.) Nothing instills respect for the rigors of jungle warfare like lying splayed out on your stomach with an extremely heavy American-made M16 assault rifle jammed into your shoulder. All I'd done was fire off a measly 10 bullets yet here I was covered in dirt with a nasty ringing in my right ear.

After crawling into an uncomfortable tent at 23:00 hours, I was not amused by the 5 a.m. reveille on Saturday morning. But we had places to go and things to do. A two-hour bus ride brought us to a remote wildlife sanctuary that doubles as a SFU training area. Breakfast was a simple meal of rice soup consumed while the head ranger gave a lecture on the flora and fauna we might encounter on our scheduled three-hour hike. He stressed the importance of conserving Thailand's rapidly dwindling forests and urged us to respect the environment. Lunch rations (in styrofoam containers loaded into plastic bags) were then distributed.

The day's carefully calibrated timetable soon began to fall apart. First, the vehicle transporting us to the starting point of the hike got stuck in the mud, leaving us to walk an extra kilometer. Next, the captain couldn't contact sanctuary headquarters about the broken down truck because his walkie talkie battery ran out. Finally, one of the three leaders decided to take his group on an extended uphill foray in search of exotic plant life.

Ultimately, we were four hours late leaving the wildlife sanctuary for our Saturday night campsite, a secluded spot next to a lovely lake. The upside of missing the late afternoon's scheduled lesson was that someone else ended up preparing our dinner! I may not have learned how to fill a piece of thick bamboo with uncooked rice and cook it over a bed of hot coals, but I did learn how to eat it!. Ditto the bamboo-skewered chicken and succulent grilled freshwater fish.

If the Red Berets spend their evenings at isolated encampents singing loudly until 11 p.m. to the accompaniment of bongo drums and a synthesizer, then indeed I had an authentic army experience. If not, I was kept awake for naught. Either way, I wasn't too unhappy on Sunday morning when, after a brief but scary demonstration of which snakes you definitely don't want to mess with, we headed back to SFU headquarters in Lopburi for the final episode of our military adventure.

Having behaved like a coward at Friday's rock climbing event, I vowed to be the first jumper out of the 34-foot tower. Outfitted in crash helmet and harness, I leapt from the five-story building, slid rapidly to the end of a sloping horizontal cable and dangled like a piece of laundry until unhooked. Who says the army doesn't built character!

In three rows we lined up to receive our diplomas. With a smile, Special Colonel Sittiporn Udomchat affixed the red SFU wings to the right strap of my leotard (oops, I should have worn sleeves). Women aren't allowed to shake his hand so I just nodded my appreciation. The pin is decorated with a three-headed elephant, symbol of the SFU, embroidered in silver thread. Hopefully I'll find something to wear it with.

Copyright 1999 Asian Wall Street Journal