BANGKOK – When the US Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) most macabre paramilitary officer Tony “Poe” Poshepny demanded and received the hacked-off ears and heads of communists in Laos during the Vietnam War, no one likely predicted he would become an exhibit in a museum in Bangkok’s red-light zone.
The new Patpong Museum, on Patpong Road, also describes why US intelligence and military officers, airlines, IBM, and others rented buildings alongside sleazy bars packed with prostitutes, especially during the Vietnam War which ended in 1975.
“In 1957, we have the American Chamber of Commerce here. We have the US Information Service Library here. We have Shell Oil here. Pan Am, TWA,” the museum’s founder and curator Michael Messner said in an interview.
The CIA’s clandestine Air America secretly flew troops, casualties, refugees, ammunition, rice and other supplies in Laos and elsewhere and staffed an office here until 1972.
On display is a 1963 letter with an Air America logo from 3 Patpong Road informing a pilot’s parents that he vanished in Laos when communists shot down his plane.
Photos and memorabilia also document Patpong’s raunchy bar girls, including a museum-inspired machine mimicking a woman shooting ping-pong balls from her genitals. Photos of men and women recently enjoying bondage in a fetish club also appear.
Americans who helped finance Patpong Road comprise the most fascinating exhibits.
“When you see there is a [digital] go-go dancer coming alive here in the exhibition, and how that directly relates to the Vietnam War and all of that, people ask why is it happening in Patpong?” Messner said.
Historic exhibits portray a Chinese immigrant who purchased a banana plantation with profits from rice and cement and was awarded a royal Thai name, Luang Patpongpanich.
During World War II one of his sons, Udom, studied in the US where he was trained by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a US intelligence organization that became the Central Intelligence Agency.
Udom was supposed to join the Seri Thai (“Free Thai”) insurgency against Japan’s occupation of Thailand, but the war suddenly ended with the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
When Udom returned home, he upgraded the plantation and built two-story buildings which he rented to his American buddies, including from the OSS and CIA.
“Why was the CIA here in Bangkok? They were preparing to fight the communists” Messner said.
“That would be the Vietnam War. When the Vietnam War comes to an end, all these people were still here and they don’t want to go home, and they start businesses.
“Ex-military, ex-intelligence people, some of them chose to stay here and they started opening bars.”
In the Madrid Bar, still open today, CIA paramilitary officer Jack Shirley would sit on a reserved stool, regaling friends about how he helped train mercenary Hmong tribesmen in Laos in 1961 to fight Lao communists and invading North Vietnamese.
After retiring, Shirley died in Thailand in 2003. An exhibited photo shows him in the Madrid Bar drinking with the CIA’s infamous Poe.
The museum describes how Poe paid Hmong mercenaries to bring him enemy ears and heads to prove they killed communists.
“I threw two heads from an airplane, it was a Dornier plane,” Poe, laughing, told me in his San Francisco home in 2001 before he died in 2003.
“The heads landed right in that [Lao] bastard’s front door. We were flying at 100 feet.
“I had a bunch of heads in my hut and the blood was seeping through the floor. It was sticky. And [CIA officer] Bill Lair said, ‘Get rid of those goddamn heads’,” Poe said.
Poe angrily sent ears in a bag to then-US Ambassador G McMurtie Godley in Laos after being mocked as no threat to the enemy.
“You see cut-off [plastic] ears in a glass box, it kind of makes you understand that this was a real war,” Messner said, gesturing toward a display in the new museum.
“A photo of one of those Poe necklaces was given to me by a Thai patrol border force soldier in 2007,” said Tom Vater, co-author of the documentary film, “The Most Secret Place on Earth: America’s Covert War in Laos.”
“We used the image in the film to illustrate just how far beyond rhyme and reason the American war in Southeast Asia had become,” Vater said in an interview.
The museum also displays anti-communist comic books distributed to Thai students decades ago, when Thailand felt threatened by China’s Mao Zedong and North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh.
Today, Patpong Road features about 15 go-go bars with male and female strippers illicitly offering themselves to passersby, plus restaurants, live music, shops and a night bazaar, conveniently located in the heart of Bangkok.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978.