I had originally said I wouldn’t come, when my friend told me she was going to Thailand. Then I said yes. Then I said no again. As she was booking her tickets I made a spur of the moment decision and said yes – an act of foolishness that left me light-headed. What had I done? Me, in Thailand?
‘Make sure you pack leech socks,’ was the advice from a work colleague. I told him I would.
I met Kaylene at Heathrow. I’m a nervous flyer, but, after years of pills, I’ve learnt that the only way to deal with anxiety is exposure therapy, after reading on a mug with a picture of John Wayne on it that courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.
As we boarded I told myself over and over I’d have to fly every day for 26,000 years before my number came up. There were sweaty palms on take-off, but I had to admit I was beginning to feel just a little bit excited.
‘Scrabble?’ said Kaylene, as I accidentally ordered a quadruple whiskey.
Thirteen hours later and it was Bangkok a go-go. After collecting our bags we made our way to the taxis, where a cabbie pretended to know where he was taking us as we jumped into the back of his amphibian-green car. I reached behind for the seatbelt, finding none. No seatbelt !?! Okay. I can deal with that, I reasoned. When in Bangkok…
Kaylene was staying with her friend, for the first leg of our trip, while I’d booked into a hotel which had a piano in the lobby that played all by itself. I said goodbye to Kaylene, before collapsing into bed for a pre-dinner snooze.
When they arrived later to pick me up, Paul was wearing shorts and a tan, Kaylene a knotted shirt. They laughed at me when I asked if I’d need a cardie ‘in case it gets chilly later…’
We stepped out of the air-con bubble of the hotel into an air so hot and thick I panicked, thinking I might have a smog-induced asthma attack. But my lungs quickly adapted, developed gills as we navigated the crowded pavements of Convent Street.
Everything smelt good. Everything smelt of food. We stopped at an insalubrious looking café that opened out onto the street, sliding into a table covered with a plastic tablecloth before perusing the laminated book that was the menu. In the end Paul ordered a selection for us, in perfect Thai. When the food arrived, we were unsure how to proceed.
‘Wadge the sticky rice to soak up the sauces,’ said Paul, ‘And don’t be shy’.
We also learnt that the spoon is the main eating implement, and Thais think it’s funny the way ‘farange’s’ (Westerners) noses run when they eat spicy food: How they must laugh at us, us sweating, snotting, fork-eaters…
The next morning K picked me up and we wandered to the station down the back-streets of Silom. The roads were a tangle of overhead wires; tuk tuks and scooters weaving through the traffic. We stopped to admire spirit houses, or stray cats, or the occasional psychedelic mural. Young and old were eating breakfast on small pavement tables tucked against walls spattered with bougainvillea.
Paul had told us that all you need to cross the road is your nerve and a ‘magic hand’, and to never cross in front of a bus. We put this into practice, praying not to get squished.
On disembarking the deliciously cool sky-train we took time to ogle a skyscraper – a honeycomb of abandoned balconies rising from palms to cloud – before heading to the ferry. We’d been advised to get the commuter, not the tourist boat at Chao Praya, but we gave up trying to find it in the throng, settling in with the other faranges and soaking up a riverscape of golden wats and brand-spanking theme-hotels.
It was almost noon when we got off the boat. I’d been dreading the midday rays: If you’ve ever seen frog-spawn left out in the sun, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what would happens to me should the same happen. But I needn’t have worried, because pop open an umbrella to use as a parasol in Thailand, and no-one will bat an eyelid. I’ve always yearned to do this at home, but refrained from fear of someone shouting at me
‘It ain’t raining luv!’
At the Grand Palace, we donned regulation shirts to cover our disrespectful shoulders, and entered…
Roof scales shimmered, demons snarled and bejewelled buildings bedazzled as we ignored the no photos rule. We shucked off our sandals and entered a room where we sat in front of a tiny emerald man.
‘You mustn’t point your feet at the Buddha,’ K reminded me (or anyone else, for that matter). I tucked them under my bum. I’d forgotten how feet were ten-toed weapons of offence.
The next day was Ayutthaya – the old capital. We almost didn’t make it, when I had a melt down after collecting our transport: clunky, creaky bikes that weighed as much as a baby chang that we’d mistakenly hired on the wrong side of the river. I thought I wouldn’t have the balls to ride it the short distance to the safety of the pink brick roads that leads to the ancient city, and the beefin’ heat wasn’t helping. But after focussing on a cockroach to distract myself from tears, I dragged myself together and literally got back on the saddle. I’m glad I did. There is no better way to spend a day than cycling round ruins, breeze in your hair, discoveries round every bend: a Buddha’s head in a tree, dream-green lakes, toppling beehive towers… 3pm we were done in. We dismounted, and pushed our bikes along a dusty path. Myna birds were chattering, telling us no doubt to stop being dim, and get out the sun (you knows its hot, when you see dogs digging pits for themselves). I had an instinct to drink coconut water, so we bought some. We sat down and, hugging the cool, green orb to my breast, I sucked its contents through a straw, feeling its salty-sweet blood mingle with mine. Ahhhhh.
A man lay asleep under a tree, his face scarred from bleach. Across from him a child made happy- noises. All was well.
I asked Paul why no one seemed to care much about road safety, or poverty. We were in a cab – the back window view entirely blocked by stuffed toys.
‘You have to remember there’s a strong belief in reincarnation here. Most Thais think, I’ve had a good life, and if I die I die. And they’re generally happy-go-lucky.’
Could that be true?
Earlier I’d had an exhilarating ride on the back of his scooter, clinging on for dear life. I still can’t work out how the Thai girls manage it side-saddle – must be something they learn from birth, like learning to bend their hands backwards.
Day four we visited The Golden Buddha – the world’s largest solid gold statue, which for years was covered in plaster, before some klutz dropped it, revealing the jackpot beneath. We’d had to run across a walkway of sun-soaked rubber to get to it, singing the bottoms of our feet in the process. As the cool marble soothing our soles, Buddha smiled at us, laughing a little, perhaps.
‘Thais have asbestos feet,’ said Paul, later.
As we were in the vicinity we went shopping in Sampeng Lane. I bought two presents for my baby niece – a painted crane, and a vest advertising Chang beer. I think she liked them.
Later on we compared heat rashes. Mine was worse than K’s, and I’d been slapping on the hydrocortisone.
‘Nah, what you need is cooling powder,’ said Dan. Dan was Kaylene’s brother, and lived in Thailand, in the South, (so he should know). He’d also recommended a potent green salve for mosquito bites that almost burnt a hole in the back of my knee.
‘I think it’s not meant for soft tissue,’ Dan said, as I yelped.
Dan and his girlfriend Nong would be travelling with us for the next leg of our hols.
First stop was Korat, and Phimai. Phimai is an Angkor Watt-style temple complex, a city bombed by time through which we wandered reverend as spirits – especially me, who’d been applying the Factor 50 like my life depended on it.
‘You are ‘Phi of Phimai’’, said Nong, meaning ‘Ghost of Phimai’.
Earlier on Dan had picked a ylang ylang flower and handed it to me. I’d gazed down at its five marble petals spiralling to white in my palm. It was like I’d never seen a flower before.
Day seven was Kao Yai, a place full of macaques, elephants and supersized vines: I never realised the jungle was so loud: Worse than a construction site with its buzz-saw cicadas and ripping screeches and the occasional mysterious timber crashings that cause you’re heart to pin-ball.
We were at a waterfall, when it happened. I slipped on some rocks and fell into a river. I thought it was only my pride that got injured but when we got back to the car and I took off my shoes, I saw the horrible truth:
A leech. On my foot.
Dan nonchalantly scraped if off. Blood bloomed from the wound, and I shoved on a plaster, before Googling leech-related diseases.
Day Eight saw us on the ferry to Koh Chang: ‘Elephant Island’. I was amazed we’d made it. A miracle, surely, to get this far alive. That night I tossed and turned. I had to get up in the night, and while I was sitting on the loo I saw a dark shadow scuttling out the gap in the tin roof of our hut. Back in bed I could hear things stomping across the roof, imagining an abominable jungle-man with red eyes and lizard skin, leaves for fur.
‘That wasn’t a gecko, that was a tuk-kae’ Dan said, over breakfast, when I told him what I’d seen, before proceeding to do a perfect imitation of the sound a tuk-kae makes by tapping his cheek with his finger before squeezing his throat.
‘Again!’ we demanded. ‘Again!’
Day nine we found the perfect spot on the beach which belonged to a dog with worn-out elbows whose mangy fur was the same colour as the leaves strewn across the sand. Although she was a flea-bag, Sandy seemed content enough. Nong gave her a piece of fried chicken at our picnic lunch which she dragged off to crunch, bones and all.
Later I sat and watched the three of them in the water.
I remembered us wave diving, and tried not to cry. I wished you could see me, I wish I could tell you that I was here. Perhaps that’s why I had come here, because I knew you’d been here, without me all those years ago. You’d sat at the same spot at PhiMai, I found out later. Was Nong right, was I just a ghost, haunting the places you’d been?
It got late and the sea turned black before a fireshow illuminated the dark.
A few more days of sun, massages, and seven-chilli som-tams and it was over.
We spent our eight-hour layover back in Bangkok, where we met Paul again. We lounged at a café near the Victory Monument drinking beer with ice and eating food with spoons like we’d been doing it all out lives – laughing and filling Paul in with all our adventures.
And when the plane touched down in Heathrow, and I gulped in the cool, crisp air of home, what did I feel? What Did I know?
That Thailand is a bag of wonders.
That I’m a tougher nut that I think.
That I wanted to do it all again.