#9 Thailand: Same same, but different

“We don’t know where we come from. From the moment we are born, we have to struggle to survive, and when we die, it’s all over. We never know where or when we die, and we don’t know either where we go after we die. We go through life like blind men…”

Chart Korbjitt, The Judgement

The songthaew (shared taxi) ride to the bus station in Krabi put me in a really good mood. The driver was all smiles and friendliness and as always, there were all kinds of people on board, as most Thais use them. Some passengers were smart and fashionable, others wearing scruffy sarongs and scarves.

There was a serene-looking woman with a metal plate of chicken and rice on her head and a man cradling his sleeping son in his arms, the little boy’s face peaceful and trusting. A cheeky boy with enormous eyes and a cute gap-toothed smile went shy when I smiled back, and peered at me from behind his mother’s shoulder, pulling at her blouse and burying his face in her chest. When I got off at the main bus station, the driver even apologised for slamming on his brakes and nearly crashing.

I was heading to Satun, further south and close to the border with Malaysia but several hours later, it became clear that there were no more buses that day, and it had been arranged that I was to stay with one of the women who worked at the bus station. I protested, but as she couldn’t understand me anyway, and I didn’t know what else to do, I soon gave in. We went to her house, which had a bus parked outside: her husband was the driver. We sat outside in the dusk as what seemed like the whole village came to stare and laugh (though not unkindly) at the hapless farang (foreigner). I pulled out my indispensable dictionary to help with communication for a while and then my new friend (unfortunately I don’t have a note of her name) and I went to drink a Coke.

Back at her house, she insisted I wash and change into my sarong and then I looked at their family photos, admired their pet singing bird in a cage and gazed curiously at the house itself. It was an incongruous mix, with a very modern TV, rush sleeping mats on the floor, uneven walls, electricity. Responding in kind to her ceremonious showing of their family albums I took out a photo of myself with my sister, which she asked to keep. Then I got my camera out and we took lots of pictures of my friend, myself and her family in various combinations and locations: sitting on the bed, on the floor, in front of their motorbike … Time for dinner, with curry and rice eaten sitting cross-legged on the floor and then a flurry of snacks – things wrapped up in leaves – kept emerging from plastic bags. The TV went on and we watched a Thai soap opera, fascinating even though I couldn’t understand a word. I didn’t sleep much, huddled on my mat on the floor with the cat curled behind my knees most of the night, but it was incredible to be there. I couldn’t believe how kind they all were, how they’d welcomed me into their home. They didn’t know me, they couldn’t speak to me properly and yet they put me up, fed me, entertained me. As I dozed fitfully, I reflected that I couldn’t imagine a British bus driver doing the same for a Thai tourist!

It had taken me over 24 hours to get to Thailand, nearly two months earlier. In many ways, I was grateful for the delay as while I’d been waiting for the moment of my departure and was excited, I was also terrified, emotionally on edge and acutely conscious that I was leaving everyone and everything I knew behind. The landing in Moscow was spectacular: it was late afternoon, dim, dull and grey with the snow-carpeted landscape standing out starkly against the sky. The next landing was in Tashkent. It was -7°C and we had to mince our way across an ice-coated runway to a drab brown waiting room. At Delhi, I disembarked blearily, emerging from yet another broken doze. Then, finally, I was being disgorged into Bangkok airport, my nerves becoming even more jagged as I saw the terrorist warnings. It was January 1991, the Gulf War was on and I was beginning my backpacking trip around South East Asia, the first time I’d travelled alone.

To stir up some recollections to help me write this post, I’ve been reading the travel journal I kept. Some it is cringe-worthy and I spend a lot of time writing about saving money to eke out my traveller’s cheques, living up to the image of ‘real travellers’, buses and food. Backpacking does tend to involve a lot of time on long-distance buses, in my experience (on my sabbatical trip to South America, I calculated I’d spent 244 hours, or 21 days, on buses). And while I am still a big foodie, I hope I’ve left some of the other characteristics behind! The journal did revive some long-forgotten memories though, including the unexpected stopover described above.

While I loved the golden spires and colourful roofs of the Royal Palace and Wat Phra Keo (Emerald Buddha) complex, and the whole site was gorgeous, so rich and intricate it seemed almost unreal, I didn’t really take to Bangkok at first. There was a haze of pollution hanging over everything, masses of blaring traffic and Khao San Road, the famous travellers’ haunt, seemed to me like an unattractive cross between Blackpool and Paris’s café society in a hot and humid climate. Yet by the time I’d been out exploring the rest of the country for a month or so, coming back to the capital felt familiar, almost like coming home. I felt exhilarated by the vibrant colours and smells, the hustle and bustle. I enjoyed shopping at the stalls in Khao San Road and bumping into lots of the people I’d met while travelling around.

Trekking through the hillsides in Chiang Mai province and staying in villages with indigenous hilltribes such as the Lisu, Karen, Lahu and Akha was fascinating, if sometimes uncomfortable. The beaches were undeniably beautiful. Lamui beach at Koh Samui was a lovely crescent of white sand, fringed with coconut palms and a salty aquamarine sea. Approaching Phra Nagn Bay by boat from Krabi was breathtaking as we chugged slowly closer to a pure golden strip of sand backed by towering cliffs and luxuriant greenery. The lazy beach life in the tropical sun was restfully beguiling. The enormous Buddha statues and elaborate temples were impressive and vibrant, though after I’d seen a few I became a little cavalier, writing in my journal that the famous Golden Buddha of Phitsanalouk ‘was just another Buddha, with hordes of Thais bowing and scraping and lighting incense sticks around it. The mother-of-pearl doors were quite nice though’. The markets were colourful and entertaining, for instance in Mae Sot I noted the stinking live fish and pigs’ heads with snouts upturned as though sniffing the pungent air.

Yet some of the best travel experiences are often the unexpected ones, far away from the biggest and best-known ‘sights’. While staying in the small village of Loei, in a sparsely-populated mountainous province in north east Thailand, I went down to take a morning dip in the muddy Maekhong River with Enya, a traveller I’d befriended. The landscape was searingly dry, quite beautiful in an arid, barren sort of way, with a sense of alluring intrigue added by the knowledge that Laos is right across the river. After our swim we started to cycle towards the nearby village of Chiang Kahn, but we hadn’t got far before we came across a group of women singing and dancing, carrying a leafless tree hung with money, crisps and empty Colgate boxes.

Before we knew it, we’d joined the procession, which led us to a temple area filled with an exuberant crowd. Here our group of women attempted to teach us Thai dancing and we were plied from all sides with rice wine, mekong whiskey and moonshine. We all circled the temple several times, with us the self-conscious centre of attention, and then were dragged off for lunch in one of the women’s houses. It was evening by the time we finally stopped parading and dancing, and cycled back to our guest house, exhausted. We discovered that it was a Buddhist celebration of the full moon and we felt extraordinarily lucky to catch it, and even more so to have been caught up in it! Later I sat and watched the orange moon being reflected in the Maekhong, with the lights of Vientiane winking across from me. A monk in a nearby temple started pounding a drum in a haunting exotic rhythm of deep reverberating thuds punctuated with soft after-taps. A special day, one of many that my first trip to Thailand gave me.

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Natural highlights: the beaches, the hills of northern Thailand, the Mekhong Delta and the Golden Triangle – this is a beautiful country

Cultural highlights: the Royal Palace complex in Bangkok; the Bridge on the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi, near the Thai border with Myanmar; hill trekking from Chiang Mai; the Golden Triangle (where Thailand, Laos and Burma meet); night markets

Food & drink highlights: Thai green curry, seafood; banana pancakes; fruit smoothies; mekong whisky



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