So, it’s 1994. We have just landed in Thailand, amid the chaos of Bangkok traffic, pollution, and humidity thick as golden syrup, heavy as a winter duvet. I have never been to South East Asia before. I am overwhelmed by the noise, the smell, the heat, the sights. It’s a sensual overload for which I wasn’t prepared.
Traffic here is as bad as we were warned – worse. A far cry from the orderly, symmetrical streets of Adelaide. I have yet to be involved in a real Bangkok traffic jam, though I’ve been regaled with many unlikely tales of beer stocked in the boot to lighten the mood of a three-hour car journey to travel a measly three kilometres. (Little could I know that a year later I would be sitting behind the steering wheel, knee deep in mopeds at a gridlocked crossroads, trying to breastfeed my bellowing baby, while my gobsmacked guest sits anxiously by my side, waiting to change gears on the off chance we ever start to move.)
I am in wide-eyed awe of the driving here: kamikaze motorbikes dodge and weave between battered old taxis, scoot up onto the footpaths, unfastened helmets perched atop their heads like storks nests; gloating new BMWs and Jags, the shiny toys of the rich kids, play dodgems with millimetres to spare; tuk-tuks duck round buses that snort out black smoke like angry dragons; swaying elephants lumber down the inside lane, their poor padded feet scorched by the burning asphalt. Rules? To hell with those. I am advised to keep my eyes forward, let the guy behind worry about my rear.
(This blinkered approach, I will soon learn, is the only way to drive safely through the streets of this mad city. In these early days, cocooned in an air-conditioned car with a practised local driver at the wheel, removed from the immediacy of smog and cloying heat, it is like watching a life-sized video game through the window. Soon enough I will come to know the joys of zipping round the city in the back of a tuk-tuk, always a hair’s breadth from being tumbled into the gutter, a couple of pounds of rusty metal and a lawn mower engine all that lies between us and certain death.)
I long for the icy wind-tunnel that is the passage at my parent’s house in the winter. Ironically, it is only now, immersed in air conditioning 24-hours a day, that my daughter and I have heavy colds.
It is the rainy season here and the rain comes like clockwork. An hour-long deluge at 3pm that floods the roads and fills the drains to overflowing, while the sky puts on a fireworks display of thunder and lightning. Maids struggle home with their bags on their heads, wading down the back lanes through filthy, waist-high water, armloads of electric cables looping heavily from teetering poles, dipping down to meet the rising tide. I anticipate disaster when the two finally collide, but so far, so good. Every storm dislodges a few more paving stones on the rough-and-ready footpaths. On Sukuhumvit, an elderly blind man trips and falls on the uneven sidewalk, and I am the only one to rush forward and lift him up, attempt to tend to the deep graze on his shin. He waves me away and sits on the step, wailing. I return his stick and he hobbles off, still wailing. No one takes a scrap of notice. A pile of bricks against the wall would suggest someone started on repairs, but lost interest. Thai time is like Fiji time, it seems. No rush. Hasta manana, or better still, hasta la vista. (In modern Aussie parlance. ‘Laters.’)
There is poverty here, patently obvious, in-your-face, poverty, that squats by the side of the road, staring through dull eyes, in sharp contrast to the rising middle class, the dazzling wealth at the top of the tree. Strolling through the bright new shopping malls, overflowing with replicas of every American clothing store, Asian supermarket, tourist trap and popular chain food restaurant, it is easy to turn a blind eye for a moment or two. Put one foot out into the street and it slaps you in the face like a wet flannel. A one-armed beggar, a clutch of grubby children in ill-assorted t-shirts scavenging for food, a makeshift stall selling heaven-knows-what cheap eats to tuk-tuk drivers. Rusting petrol cans are recycled as rubbish bins that are overflowing, mostly with cigarette stubs. A murky klong (canal) swirls with first world detritus (plastic bags and plastic bottles, a slick of oil) as a noisy longboat roars past, making waves against rickety bamboo jetties where scrawny old men in loincloths throw a line to whatever three headed fish they can catch in this polluted stream. The waft of a smelly drain or a filthy klong makes my nose pucker. A herd of screeching, skeletal feral cats with bent tails rummage in the bins, or lounge like Nero on the ubiquitous scaffolding, licking grimy paws.
Street cleaners sweep up the leaves into neat piles, as the whirling plastic bags wrap around their ankles. Building materials are stacked haphazardly around copious building sites. Concrete dust layers every surface with a thick skin, as huge, five-star hotels go up apace, squeezed between the precariously balanced, corrugated iron dwellings of the neighbouring slums. Café tables steal across the pavements, wrapped in garish pink plastic tablecloths, set with thin paper napkins, plastic cups, tin spoons and forks, melamine plates. And surprise! The food they serve in these squalid surroundings is really tasty.
Most of the women I pass are immaculate, neatly arrayed in pressed blouses, stockings and polished shoes, their hair shiny-clean, in tight, neat buns or slick ponytails. All pause to throw a smile or stroke the white-blonde hair of my small daughter. Further downtown, where sex shops and brothels abound, it is the kathoeys that make the most fuss. It is a while before I realize that these flamboyant, sexy women in heavy makeup and high heels clustering round us, cooing and clucking, stroking and giggling, are actually lady-boys. As beautiful and fine-boned as their female counterparts, the only give-away is a slightly enlarged Adam’s apple or a tenor voice. But they are gentle, friendly and kind, and we feel perfectly safe with these glamorous girls. Unlike the coachloads of Korean tourists who descend like locusts on my blond baby and her pink trike. It is the only time I have seen my husband visibly angry, as he wades through, trying to reach us, rescue us from a rising tide of flashing cameras, pinching fingers. (It made an impression, even on our tiny two-year-old, who has ever since looked unfavourably upon zoos, and she quickly develops a throaty growl, like a cornered lion cub.)
Now, she preens beneath the eyes of these handsome young kathoeys, showing off her new trainers, the latest trend for toddlers. A happy distraction when we go shopping, they also prove a blessing. Squeaking at every step, flashing lights and sparkling with sequins, they have proved a vital necessity in a crowded department store, where she is prone to dive under clothing racks when overwhelmed by all the people, and I can only locate her by the irritating squawk of her disco shoes.
Shopping here is challenging, even without the constant hide-and-seek with a toddler. Surprisingly little English is spoken – given the volume of international tourists – and my Thai language skills consist of Sawadee-kha, Khap-khun-kha and counting to ten. Our grocery bill is huge. Imported goods are heavily taxed and I have no idea about local products, even local fruit and veg. It is my first time in South East Asia. I am so ignorant. It would be terrifying if I didn’t find it all so fascinating. Broccoli and lettuces are bonsai-sized and ruinously expensive. I walk up and down the aisles trying to pluck up the courage to take something – anything – off the shelves. (Soon I will become familiar with the putrid Durian, forbidden to darken the doors of many hotels, and it’s engorged cousin the prickly jackfruit; the dragon fruit with its glorious thick red coat; the rambutan with its feathery spikes, the plump, aubergine-coloured mangosteens and the armadillo-like custard apple with the soft, melt-in-the-mouth centre.) In relief, I discover the elfin bananas, the sunset pink pomelo, like a sweet grapefruit, and the nutty pink papaya with the texture of avocado that I recognize from hotel breakfasts.
Such a strange new world.