Birds called from the web of girders inside the airport. The taxi ride into the city gave us billboards as long as sports fields, shanty towns on roadsides, golden Buddhas measuring every hundred metres of motorway. Bangkok itself was a sprawling, smoky, humid assault on the senses. Our hotel, crisp and air-conditioned, perched beside a lurid grey canal. The surface rippled constantly with the motions of a million tiny fish, while white and orange carp lazed at the surface, ghosts in the murk. A minute’s walk in either direction led to shanties of plastic sheets and corrugated iron. We wandered the neighbourhood. There was a temple on the other side of the block. There were temples everywhere. A minute away, a shop sold pictures of the king, four or five metres high, in ornate gilt frames. Thais are the friendliest people I’ve ever met, though Dora definitely helped us through the city. Her hair is such an unusual colour that people stopped us in the street to say hello, sawatdee ka, sawatdee ka. Mopeds use pavements like roads. Pedestrians take their chances in every crossing. We ate in open kitchens off the street, the smells of onions and ginger and drains all mingling into one rich fug. We met a man selling pad thai from a street cart. It was the best pad thai we’d ever eaten. He was the fourth generation of his family to sell pad thai on the streets of Bangkok, and he’d been doing it for forty years. Beside him, his mother, the third generation, a walnut of a woman, grinned and bowed as we devoured the noodles, sawatdee ka, sawatdee ka.
A young man with grey hair followed us from the hotel to the boat pier, stopping when we stopped. When we reached the river, we watched a metre-long monitor lizard slip into the water. We took the express boat from Banglumpo to Ko Wat, crowded in with tourists and Thais. The helmsman and the skipper communicated over the engine roar with a code of shrieking whistles. Egrets bobbed on rafts of vegetation and polystyrene. We spent the day marvelling at the cloisters of golden Buddhas, ate our first ever guava, and made friends with a Cambodian couple who crossed a park to take pictures of Dora. We dropped 108 coins in the 108 bowls that run alongside the reclining Buddha.
We walked back through Banglumpo markets. A man sold insects on skewers from a food cart – locusts, spiders, shiny black scorpions. The sign on his cart said photos cost 10 baht. I bet he makes more from photos than from food. A few stalls down from him, a beggar called out, baht, baht, baht, baht. He had long legs, though very thin, and long arms, but his torso was little bigger than his head. I watched a thickset American study him for minutes, then cross the road to give him several folded notes. The beggar said nothing, zipped the money into a small purse, and rattled his cup again. Baht, baht, baht, baht. The American scowled and walked away. The beggar’s face was at the height of the car exhausts. When they passed, he studied himself in the fleeting, warped reflection. Then he rattled his cup.
We picked up a flyer for a vegetarian cafe called Mango. It was some of the finest food I’ve ever eaten, fierce with ginger and sopped up with crispy dumplings. It was so good I wanted to hug the owner, Doo. He told us about his farm in the mountains, where they grow all their own food – everything they use comes from the farm. Four hip backpackers, wrapped up in finding themselves, complained that there wasn’t enough potato in their curry. Doo apologised, and they didn’t even acknowledge him. When we left, he was off to one side. He was sculpting, with his studio open onto the restaurant. He was making a beautiful goddamn elephant, and it was as perfect as his food.
Entire neighbourhoods built on stilts, thriving in the shadow of the underpass. Herons fishing from the bamboo rafts that trap sewage on the river. Duk-duk drivers hawking on the ground when we turned them down. Monks taking selfies. A tree surgeon, five metres up, without a harness, one foot on a stump and the other on a telegraph cable, leaning up to cut the branch above his head. Skinny cats, their tails lost to traffic. School kids chasing us to say hello to Dora. Families of five on mopeds. The rangy man who followed us, always ten paces behind, stopping when we stopped.
Jet lag kills me. When I first went to Australia, I didn’t sleep at all for two days, then slept almost continually for a week. In Bangkok, I kept waking in the night, and lying awake while cats yowled in alleyways and the roads hummed with mopeds. I thought I had a handle on Charlie Hebdo, until I saw some French language news on the television. They ran through some of the cartoons drawn in response. They showed one of Asterix and Obelix, simply bowing, and I burst into tears.
Bangkok is a riot of sight and sound and colour and taste and especially smell. Acrid exhaust fumes, the sharp twist of boiling oil, honey frangipani, frying garlic. The people who watched us, morose, from their open front rooms, then burst into smiles when they saw my daughter. It has been a truly extraordinary experience. I’ve never known anything like it. We wish we were staying longer.
Next stop, Koh Samui.