Prostitution, the CIA, the Vietnam War and Chinese immigration are all on display in a new museum dedicated to one of Bangkok's most famous red light nightlife zones, Patpong Road.
Alongside "Triple X," "fetish" and kinky cabaret exhibits are tamer displays highlighting David Bowie's 1983 visit to Bangkok, as well as other bits of pop culture, including a nod to "The Deer Hunter" -- a 1978 war drama starring Robert De Niro that included scenes reportedly shot in former Patpong bar Mississippi Queen.
But documenting Patpong's unofficial ties to the US Central Intelligence Agency's deadly activities in Laos during the US-Vietnam War in the 1960s until 1974 is the museum's most fascinating purpose.

War relics: The Patpong Museum's displays highlight the road's unofficial ties to the US Central Intelligence Agency's deadly activities in Laos during the US-Vietnam War in the 1960s until 1974. A Kalashnikov, also known as an AK-47, was the preferred assault rifle of communist troops in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam during their wars against America.

The 300-square-meter Patpong Museum, which opened in October, reveals why Americans fighting communists on battlefields flocked to Patpong for business, friendship and hedonistic trysts during the war.
It also shows how Patpong evolved over time to attract hundreds of thousands of tourists and expats, before most of the action moved across town to bars elsewhere in Bangkok -- namely Soi Cowboy and the Nana Entertainment Plaza.
The lesser known side of Patpong

The museum's founder and curator, Michael Messner, tells CNN Travel he founded the space to document and display the area's fascinating history up to the present day, and include the many details that no one knows have gone into creating such unusual facilities, businesses and venues.
"I'd say today everybody knows Patpong," says Messner. "But nobody really knows what Patpong is about. People associate it with a very narrow segment today, and it would be 'Patpong ping-pong,' something like this. And we'll get to ping-pong, we'll show that too, but there is so much more."

Messner is well placed to open such a venue. After managing a museum in Austria in the 1990s, he says he turned his attention to Bangkok's nightlife, investing in entertainment venues including some in Patpong.
From banana plantation to red light zone

Patpong Road's origins date back to a Chinese immigrant, Luang Patpongpanich, who purchased the land when it was a banana plantation.
The museum displays two heavy rice bags connected by a bamboo pole for visitors to lift, a way to experience the burden felt by laborers shouldering 35-kilogram loads.
During World War II, Patpongpanich's son Udom reportedly studied in America, where he joined Washington's newly created Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which eventually morphed into the CIA.
The OSS trained Udom to be a Seri Thai ("Free Thai") insurgent against Japan's occupation of Thailand, according to museum information, which is supported by a three-page story in Asia Magazine dated May 5, 1985 which includes an interview with Udom, and also in a 1996 obituary in London's Guardian newspaper.
But the war ended before he returned home.

The museum features a collection of popular American expat columnist Bernard Trink's reviews and photos, which appeared in Thailand's newspapers during the 1980s and 1990s. His writing focused on Bangkok's night spots and massage parlors, among other topics.
After Udom arrived in Bangkok, he transformed his family's land into Patpong Road and lined it with shop houses, which he rented to his OSS and CIA friends, Messner says.
"Mizu's Kitchen is the first food and beverage place in Patpong, run by a Japanese ex-soldier who was part of the occupational force but he liked it here so much that he wanted to stay," he reveals.
"The Foreign Correspondents' Club's first office or first meeting place was actually at Mizu's Kitchen. It just closed its doors this year, about three months ago, and we rescued the signage outside," Messner adds, gesturing at its weather-beaten sign.
Other Patpong tenants during those years, according to museum exhibits, included the US Information Service library and "a CIA safe house" above the Madrid Bar where, in later years, retired CIA officials reportedly drank and met buddies.
Alongside these bits of info, the museum displays photos of late CIA officer Jack Shirley taken in the Madrid Bar, which is still open.

Five ears, human ears, cut off and assembled on a chain so you could wear it on a necklace or something. These are made out of rubber," says the museum's founder and curator, Michael Messner, after describing the macabre behavior of CIA officer Tony Poe, who was known to frequent Patpong Road.

"Tenants also included IBM, Shell, and CAT -- Civil Air Transport -- a company owned 100% by the CIA," says Messner. "It's an airline that did covert operations throughout Asia from 1950 to 1959."
CAT became precursor to the CIA's proprietary Air America, known as "the world's most shot-at airline," especially in Laos while transporting troops, casualties, refugees, ammunition, rice and other supplies -- all part of the US covert war against communism.
Air America's Bangkok office was in the Air France building on Patpong until 1972.
At least 240 Air America pilots and crew members died from enemy fire, according to multiple reports.
A news clipping, displayed in the museum, quotes a US congressman's 1972 allegations that some pilots smuggled Lao opium for refinement into heroin for American pushers, which Air America pilots have denied. That account has been romanticized in movies and books -- which the CIA calls "a distorted view," blaming the image created by a 1990 film, "Air America."

Full article...