Bangkok, November 30, 2001
A bustling city of 6 million, Bangkok is the business center of Thailand. As such, many wealthy luminaries gather here to play, shop, relax ... and collect corkscrews? A long-time resident of the Oriental Hotel has decided to bring his two passions to downtown Bangkok: corkscrews and hot air balloons.
Alf Leif Erickson, a former Florida lawyer came up with the idea when he realized that there were no local chapters of the several corkscrew clubs he communes with in Europe and North America. "Bangkok needs a bit of a shake-up, and I do that very well," says Alf.
Indeed, shake things up he has. He has formed what he calls the "Patpong Corkscrew Club". Patpong is a district in Bangkok where everything from foot massages to a warm companion for the night can be found. "I like the people here," says Alf. "Colorful, charming and very tolerant of other cultures." Alf has put up a web site for the club, www.patpongcorkscrewclub.com. On the front page are photos of some of the members. No really.
Alf acquired the title to a local luxury hotel that was being built but was never completed. During construction some issues with the foundation caused the hotel to shift slightly, and construction was halted. The builders didn't have the funds necessary to rectify the situation, so they put the hotel on the market. In steps Alf. After a group of structural engineers had a go at the basement, modifications to the super-structure of the hotel were made and it was again deemed safe to continue construction.
Some devations from the original plans for the hotel have been made. For instance, the glassed-in rotunda on the roof originally slated to be a five star restaurant has been converted to a balloon launch. The dome and antenna were removed, and a ring was placed inside the restaurant to support the "envelope," as balloonists call it, until it is inflated. While in flight, the balloon is tracked using global positioning units and radios by a ground crew, who rendezvous at the landing site and haul the basket and deflated ballon back to the home base. The equipment is returned to the launch ring by a special freight elevator installed on that side of the hotel. Shown in the photo is "CB III," Alf's third balloon, featuring what he calls the "Screw Maids" and a corkscrew motif repeated around the circumference. One wonders what the locals make of it. Alf has plans for a fourth balloon to be launched from the new headquarters of the club in Bangkok. "We have to wait for specific wind conditions," explains Alf. "We can't land on a city street or in someone's backyard so we need enough wind to carry us to the outskirts of the city."
But that's not all - the PCC clubhouse boasts the world's largest corkscrew as a hood ornament. A giant solid brass corkscrew, measuring more than 60 feet long adorns the rooftop of this shrine to the grape-tasting-facilitator. It was airlifted there by a cargo helicopter commissioned to "put the cherry on top" as Alf puts it. "It really finishes things off. How else would people know where to find me?" He laughs. When asked if the brass adornment conceals any antennas or communications gear, he replies "No, but it sure drives the birds crazy. It's the biggest, shiniest thing around and they can't make off with it!" More laughter.
A private helipad uses up the last of the space on the roof, and Alf graciously offers me a ride to the airport. On the way, I ponder when and if he will bring his remaining passion to downtown Bangkok: elephant polo. Should prove to be an interesting story.
Jim Yeung-Kee - Affiliated Press