Photojournalism War Stories
Dirck Halstead 


BANGKOK   December 5, 1996

The night after the wonderful cigar dinner in Bangkok, I wandered into one of my favorite restaurants not far from the Oriental hotel.

For many years I have been going to Himali Cha Cha, a tiny Indian restaurant that is hidden at the end of a side street behind what used to be one of the most frequented massage parlors frequented by photo journalists during the Vietnam war.

I knew that it was run by a former British Army "batman" for Lord Mountbatten in the 1940s, who had then wound up leaving the army in and going into the foreign service, serving as a cook for Indian ambassadors abroad. He eventually wound up his last posting in Laos, where he opened a small restaurant that became a favorite of the diplomatic and press communities.

During the Vietnam war, as it began to spill over into Cambodia and Laos, one of his clients was a young journalist, John Everingham who besides being a photographer covering South east Asia for magazines such as NEWSWEEK, also reported for the BBC, NBC and the Far Eastern Economic Review.

As Vietnam was collapsing, Cha Cha, fearful of what would happen to him, was reassured by Everingham, that if the worst happened, he would help him to open a restaurant somewhere. After the collapse in Vietnam, Everingham managed to stay on in Laos, as one of the few western newsmen allowed to report from the country, and fell in love with a beautiful young Laotian woman, as Everingham puts it , " I was young and crazy in love."

However, the Communists were getting more and more displeased with Everingham's reports, and one night in 1978 they came and threw him in jail.

He was then thrown out of the country with just the shirt on his back.

His girl-friend, 22 year old Keo Sira, frantically tried to find him, but it was too late.

For the next months, Keo tried everything to contact Everingham, who had wound up across the river in Thailand. Through friends they managed to contact each other, and Everingham promised her that somehow he would get her out.

"I knew that in Laos, if you wanted to get somebody out, you had to do something really different... I kept staring across the river, at Vientiane, but it could have been the Berlin Wall".

Then he realized the obvious, that the best way to rescue Keo was to swim across the river and bring her back with him.

"I was a strong swimmer and a good diver, so I just thought, well, I'll go right across the middle."

For the next three months he made four attempts to swim underwater to Vietiane using scuba gear. Because of the strong currents, he had to enter the river from Thailand several miles above Vientiane and fight to make it across.

Word had been passed to Keo to be ready every time Everingham made an attempt.

Finally it was agreed that she would be waiting on a sandbar that stuck out into the river.

Everingham, swimming blind in the dirty water, fighting the currents, just looking up every few hundred yards wound up making the sandbar where Keo was waiting, just as two young soldiers came up to her, and started to a make a pass. Everingham could see the grenades on their belts.

Several days later, he tried again...this time the currents swept him 800 yards past the rendezvous point.. Keo could see him being swept past, and cried in despair.

Finally, at the last chance before the monsoons made the river impossible to cross, Everingham made one last try. This time, Keo was waiting, and together, sharing his mouthpiece, they swam back to Thailand.

Several months later Everingham's old friend Cha Cha made it to Bangkok. True to his promise, John went to the bank and got a loan to start the restaurant.

Today, John Everingham is a successful publisher of glossy magazines for the Thai hotel and tourist industry, and takes most of the photographs for his magazine himself.

However, if you happen by a small Indian restaurant on New Road in Bangkok, you may well find John telling his stories of love and war.