Escaping from the horrors of the copious amounts chocolate of the Australian Easter, my family and I flew off to a strange, new experience in Thailand. Depressingly, but inevitably, my first impression of the dazzling country was the airport. In stark contrast to the fuzzy striped carpet and rows of bright shops in the Melbourne and Sydney airports, Bangkok International Airport was just plastic. Plastic covered the walls, plastic floors, plastic chairs, and the super air-conditioned air even smelled of plastic. I am almost glad to walk into the wall of garbage tinged humidity that greets us as the automatic doors open.
Lunch the next day creates a craving in me that has not left. Sitting in cracked, ageing plastic chairs beside a four-lane, roaring Bangkok highway, we are served a delicious meal. I don’t know what I am eating but the smells of the chilli and meaty flavours of the broth make my mouth water as they overwhelm the diesel fumes of the highway. It is impossible to ask for the recipe, as none of the Thais who made my delicious meal speak English and my appalling Thai extends to “hello,” “please” and “thankyou”. Yet even the language barrier couldn’t hide the beauty of the Thais, their friendliness and their wicked sense of humour. They would say things in the best ways possible, with no unkindness, just jokes.
Our guide Chayan, who was nicknamed Nick (get it?) for the American tourists, picks us up from our hotel at nine the next morning. As he shows us his vibrant, buzzing city, he plays games with us. His favourite is ‘spot the lady-boys’ as he had proclaimed it. He teases us yelling ‘Oh look lady-boy, lady-boy!’ as we travel through gaudy nightclubs.
The following day we climb into the artic conditions common to all Thai buses and public buildings. As we rumble past in our heavily air-conditioned bus, the balloons and water fights of Song Kran, the Thai New Year celebration, billow around us. As I smile and wave to the crowds on the sidewalk, I notice people parting as a mass of saffron approaches through the sea of other colours. Chayan sways up the bus isle and tells me in his smiling voice that the monks are not allowed to be splashed by the citywide water fights, as they serenely amble down the grimy streets. Standing on one corner is an ancient, wizened and slightly grumpy looking monk with grey tufts of hair on his mostly shaved head. I stare at him with fascination, and grinning he blows a huge pink bubble with the gum he had been slowly chomping on. I am slowly discovering much of Thailand is like this, it is beautiful and wise, but above all has great sense of humour.
Patpong Road is Bangkok’s equivalent of King’s Cross – shocking and otherworldly to unsuspecting visitors. Pushing through the chaotic crowd, I giggle at the twisted references to Western culture that were the strip show names (“Pussy Galore”). Through the crowds I see a grinning man approach and put his arm around me like I was an old friend.
“Do you want to be in my show?” he asks me in broken English and waves his hand in the general direction of a neon gilded building showing glimpses of something to do with ping-pong balls. I gape at him and he renews his cheery smile, so I laugh, shake my head and carefully shrug his arm off to hurry away.
Escaping the bustle of Bangkok we have our first encounter with real Thai elephants. I discover even the elephants share the wisdom and humour of Thailand. We creep through the jungle up in the rainforest, away from the city bustle, riding huge Asian elephants. Riding an elephant is rather like riding a gigantic horse; you sway from side to side as the coarse hair covering the rough hide brushes your skin. The elephants are extremely intelligent and pick their way noiselessly through the jungle, which they possessively caress with their trunks. One elephant decides to display the only flaw in the use of elephants for smuggling jade and opium across borders – he farts. The sudden loud noise, seemingly from nowhere, startles the people on the embankment below us and they look up and laugh along with us.
Dragging ourselves away from the elephants we continue our journey through Thailand. My favourite places on the road to Chang Mai are the temples, both modern and ancient. The flowering frangipani trees waft sweet aromas throughout the ruins of crumbling temples. There is strong spirituality surrounding the tumbling towers and the statues of Buddha. The statues, even though thieves have taken their heads, appear noble and strong. It is difficult to leave the calm of the temples.
Reaching northern Thailand, we wind further up the mountains in an open backed van, and brown-skinned, fast, slender children chase us. One small sweet-looking boy actually jumps onto the van, so I take his photo. With an expressionless face he holds out his hand and demands 10 baht (about 50 cents). We laugh, but the demand is tinged with sadness – the incursion on the mountain people’s lifestyle by money, television and artificial foods troubles and confuses me, I do not want them to lose the beauty of their home.
The city too has it’s share of inequality and exploitation. Guilt trails through my mind as I realise I take part in this exploitation. I gaze out across Bangkok’s lights glittering across the river, and notice a grand ship coming to dock on the far side. It is lit up by thousands of fairy lights and the luxury of the upper decks is reflected across the dirty water. As my gaze wanders down, closer to the water line, I notice those who are working in the kitchens of the ship – the fairy lights illuminating their dirty, cramped conditions. Yet the lights also clearly shows the women in that kitchen are laughing and smiling. So that was what I took home from the Thai’s – their unrestricted smiles in some of the most restricted places.