Fiona Bruce returns to Thailand after 30 years â" can she fall in love all over again?
Should you ever revisit the past? Should you go back to somewhere you loved more than thirty years ago and risk shattering the dream? I backpacked around Thailand when I was a university student and have wanted to return ever since.
Then I stayed in basic guesthouses or A-frame huts on beaches, showers were saucepans dipped into oil drums full of rainwater and poured over my head. My budget was Â£3 a day and that had to cover food, accommodation and travel. Thailand was a revelation to me; the landscapes, the culture, the food and the people.
After decades of procrastination I decided to return but this ti me with my husband and two teenage children, Sam and Mia. With the internet making even the most exotic places seem familiar, now that you can find a Thai restaurant in most towns, would they experience the same culture shock I did? Would I fall in love all over again?
The first thing that hit me as I walked down the plane steps at Bangkok airport was the air - like a hot wet cloth laid over my face. I suddenly remembered the sensation of the humidity weighing on my skin, pressing into every crease and fold, beading my forehead with sweat. As we headed into the city, traffic snarled up in the morning rush hour, we had plenty of time to gaze at huge billboards lining the road, plastered on the sides of low buildings and skyscrapers, all showing images of the king who had died several months earlier. King Bhumipol Adulyadej had been the countryâs longest serving monarch, on the throne for seventy years and deeply loved. Think back to the national geyser of emotion at Dianaâ s death, multiply that by ten and youâre beginning to get close to how the Thais feel about him. When I was last in Thailand, I remember the bus I was travelling on came to a stop, all the passengers got out and stood stock still as the national anthem was played on loudspeakers to celebrate the same kingâs birthday.
Bangkok has changed dramatically in thirty years. It was always hectic with tuk tuks and people rushing in every direction but now it feels like the set of Bladerunner. Itâs a dystopian crush of choking traffic, neon advertising hoardings, thick skeins of looping electric wires overhead, towering skyscrapers with ancient wooden houses crammed in between with air con units hanging lopsidedly off the walls.< p>Fortunately, our hotel was a blissful oasis of peace with lush gardens along the side of the river where you could enjoy the breeze and a cocktail while watching the longtailed boats shoot rooster tails of spray out the back as they rushed past or the slow, stately rice barges, as long as a football field and carrying two thousand tonnes of rice, strain effortfully through the choppy water. The food in the restaurant took me straight back - peanut, lime, chilli, galangal, toasted coconut and lobster wrapped in a betel leaf. It was like a shot of intense flavour straight to the brain.
Our guide to Bangkok was the enthusiastic and good natured Gop who shepherded us around just a few of the cityâs five hundred wats or Buddhist temples, all with pitched, brightly-tiled roofs with upturned points at either end and enough gold within to make the Catholic church look presbyterian.
In Wat Pho, a mammoth forty six metre long reclining Buddha covered in gold leaf looks as itâs been squeezed into the building. Wat Traimit is home to a solid gold Buddha weighing over five tonnes. The security is negligible considering it was last valued at forty five million pounds. But then how could you ever steal it? My children were as awe struck by the temples as I first was. But then we headed to the daddy of them all, the compound of the Royal Palace.
Thirty years ago my budget didnât stretch to a visit here and Iâve been kicking myself ever since for missing it. Snaking a good mile round the block to the entrance was a queue of Thais dressed in black come to pay their respects to their beloved King who was lying in state. Gop told us she had been to see the king at rest no less than six times already and planned to take a week off for his funeral because she would be too upset to go to work. The Royal Palace is the Versailles of the orient, a stage set of gleaming spires and dazzling, jewel encrusted temples. It is ancient Thailand at its most mystical, marooned in the trappings of modern cities everywhere, a haze of traffic fumes, blaring horns and huge groups of Chinese tourists trying to preserve their pallor under umbrellas.
I managed to show the family the Bangkok I remembered as we took a boat along the quiet canals and back waters off the bustling Chaopraya river; past traditional wooden houses teetering above the waterline on rickety stilts, women stoking woks on charcoal burners on lacework balconies hanging out precariously over the water, watched by unblinking monitor lizards basking in storm drains.
We strolled through the flower market open twenty four seven with new mounds of jasmine and rose petals arriving every few min utes, piled high in baskets tied onto the back of spluttering mopeds. I showed the children the array of alien herbs and vegetables on offer at the grocery market, with local shoppers picking through dozens of varieties of ruby red radishes, aromatic stalks and leaves, knobbly roots and huge piles of garlic. And I feasted on the one thing Iâd been longing to eat since I was last in Thailand â" mango and sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf. It has the magical combination of sweet and salty, sharp and unctuous that you only find here. It was just as wonderful as I remembered. The kids wouldnât touch it.
Three days was enough for me in Bangkok all those years ago, and it was no different now. Itâs like living in the mosh pit of the noisiest rock concert with the best acts and the most spectacular light show. To recover from our sensory overload, we headed south to the island of Koh Samui.
Last time I arrived by boat as there was no airport and I stayed in a hut on the beach as there were no hotels. I wasnât seeking to recreate that particular idyll and was very happy to get on a plane and turn up at our beachside hotel on the northeast coast of the island. What had once been a sleepy paradise in the south China sea for unwashed backpackers with little money but lots of time has metamorphosed into an altogether sleeker and more affluent experience.
The roadside villages have grown, bookended with stylish hotels that wouldnât look out of place in New York. Amidst the markets full of fresh fish, mini marts, tailors claiming to be Armani or Boss, open air cafes with plastic chairs and tables, massage parlours (one with a sign proclaiming âno sex, no happy ending!â ) are swanky restaurants where you can eat in l uxurious comfort on the beach with the sand between your toes. I was glad to see the food stalls where fiery thai curries or banana pancakes are cooked by the roadside are still doing a roaring trade. Many Thais donât cook at home; breakfast, lunch and dinner are all the same, they are all served hot and it is often cheaper to eat out. The stalls were just as good as I remembered and I introduced the children to red pork pulled so fine it turns into delicious fluff, giant barbecued prawns with thai basil and red chili followed by juicy mangosteens and hairy rambutans.
This time on Koh Samui I could afford to enjoy more of what the island has to offer. We went snorkelling in the national marine park where limesto ne boulders thrust out of the depths of the south China sea, some as small as upended cars, others big enough to be islands in their own right, topped with dense jungle, home to snakes and lizards, cicadas chirruping in noisy chorus and delicate old ladyâs slipper orchids waving from rocky crevices. The unearthly seascape was even more breathtaking beneath the waves where we swam among shoals of fish, darting in unison in one direction then the next like silvered arrows. We ventured into caverns lit with an eerie glow from holes in the rock above where brown brain coral grew among filigree lace white fronds and next to large pink funnel shaped corals with soft gaping mouths.
When we werenât exploring the island we simply enjoyed beach life much as I did as a carefree twenty year old; swam in the bath-warm jade sea, lounged in the shade of palm trees on bone white sand, watched the sun set the horizon alight as it sank in the sky. Our hotel was built in traditional Thai s tyle with bright silks set against dark teak and each room had a vast panoramic view of the sea and a terrace from which to enjoy it.
To step back to the Thailand of my backpacker days took half an hour and a short trip across the sea to the island of Koh Phangan. Itâs famous â" or notorious - for full moon parties attended by thousands of foreign ravers. But thanks to our hotelâs motorboat, we could speed beyond the party beach to peaceful little coves with small wooden huts built into the rock and linked by winding boardwalks. These were the kind of places Iâd once stayed in and I was thrilled to find they still existed.
I tried to persuade the children of the charm of island living with just the sea, sun, sand and books for entertainment. One basic but delicious beach cafÃ© for all meals, no mains electricity and definitely no internet connection. And that is where I lost them. No internet? For the whole holiday? I looked at this unspoilt island and rea lised you can never really go back. I might have longed to recreate the carefree experience of my youth but I now realised I didnât want it either. Iâve become too soft, too used to luxuries like an en-suite bathroom, air con, clean sheets and breakfast in bed if I fancy it. How could Thailand be the same when Iâm no longer the same person? I needed to see this magical country all over again through new eyes and thanks to my children, I did. Now I can appreciate it for what it has become and I will be back to discover it all over again.
Fiona Bruce travelled with Scott Dunn (020 8682 5060; scottdunn.com) which organises tailor-made trips to Thailand and other exotic destinations. An itinerary similar to Fionaâs, including three nights at Peninsula Bangkok and eight nights at Belmond Napasai, international and domestic flights, and private ground transfers costs from Â£2,250 per person.Source: Google News Thailand | Netizen 24 Thailand