Sarah Coles

1. THAILAND: Mooching Around

Just catch someone’s eye, even a passing motor cyclist, and they smile.  Westerners scowl.    This may be partly the weather, weeks of cold rain freezing faces into disappointment.


We fly from Heathrow.  The relief of getting in the plane and sitting down.  The man in front of me has biceps tattooed with a glaring skull.  The plane bumpily trundles along, trying to get up speed, it’s not going to make it then miraculously it rises and we are off.  By night we are flying over the snowy mountains of Asia, and at a dawn of khaki and rose we are over Burma, with dazzling gold domes and veined rivers running through sandy bars and islands to the sea.


IMG_0861We get a taxi to the Riverside Hotel at Ayutthaya, the only unfriendly hotel in Thailand, but it doesn’t matter, it’s clean but crummy with a fab view of the green river and the wat (temple) next door and ramshackle buildings, and barges pulled by tugs bearing we think rice and coal and more.  We eat at the pontoon next door, B pleased we are the only Europeans.  Water hyacinths, scourge of Asia but beautiful, float past, and below are spotty tiger fish, their tails translucent and their eyes rimmed yellow, which love having bits of food flung down.  I lean over, and one spouts a jet of water into my face.  I am soaked!  Another jet.  More!  Throw me more!  How do they manage this?


Sleep.  Sleep.  The magpie robin sings.  Mynahs.  Swifts cut the air over the river.  The brainfever bird screams louder and louder, and I think of the English in India, hearing this crescendo rising with their fever, the last thing they hear before death.  The zebra dove is small with blue eyes – there are competitions to see who owns the one with the most beautiful voice.  Birds are often in cages, like the sparrows at the temples, where we can buy them in tiny woven cages and set them free to ‘gain merit’ – though the birds would prefer not to be caught in the first places.  Caged mynahs look at their cousins, ‘what have we done to deserve this?  Why can we never fly?’


Wonderful recycled teak floor at the rickety ferry café.   The excitement of going over on the little ferry, every time.   Everywhere telephone and electricity wires in a loopy tangle as they madly reach from pole to pole.


Such good street food!  Like banana fritters sprinkled with sesame seed.  The population sits outside, sitting on tiny stools.  Wok cookery, so fresh.


By train to Phitsanulok.  Stations have gardens, often rock gardens with succulents, or with an altar to King Bhumibol who has quasi god status.  Sadly he looks down at us.  He’s ill, and everyone wonders what will happen when his ne’er-do-well son succeeds him.  The train travels for hours through this flat watery fenland.  The old cities had moats, straight, symmetrical – simpler than walls.  There’re still there but the modern cities sprawl way beyond.

IMG_1505Monks are privileged.  At one station (Chiang Mai) they have their own area with carved benches.  Two monks scowl while we buy our tickets – I think we are supposed to give them precedence.  In one train a notice says in Thai and English, RESERVED FOR MONKS, DISABLED, SENIOR CITIZENS, but the last category does not include women – we are speedily ushered into the adjoining section.


Pailyn Hotel – a business hotel, and so there’s the obligatory karaoke with female singer and man at amplified piano – but just B and me in the dining room.  Poor things.


Foundry busy making Buddhas and other statues – by lost wax method which at last I understand.  (Thrilled at this).  You model your Buddha in clay.  Then you make a cast of him.  Now turn the cast upside down.  Then you line the cast as thinly or thickly as you like with wax.  Then you fill the remaining cavity with some firm cement rubble.  Then IMG_1086through the cast you drive bronze tubes to the layer of wax.  You carry this to the furnace, and place it upside.  The wax dribbles out in the heat, leaving a thin Buddha shaped layer between the cast and the cement.  You now pour molten bronze through the tubes into this space which becomes filled with bronze.  You take your Buddha out of the furnace and let him cool.  You hack off the cast, and the sticking out tubes, and the cement rubble within.  You finish him off, placing him the right way up, polish him, and hey, he’s fit to adorn your temple.


Herbal centre, and a massage from a woman who pulls my limbs then gently pounds me with a ball of rags dipped in hot water.    Afterwards she gives me a hug.  Feel fine, not that I didn’t before.  Buy miniscule cough pills and face cream.


Thailand’s colours are pink and pastels.  There’s a heck of a lot of kitsch. For clothes, buses, bedspreads, loads of things.  Towns in this dry season are dusty.  Locking knobs in cars are faceted glass.


IMG_0994Plants – how I love the size of leaves. In the tropics there’s nothing miniscule.  Huge harts tongue ferns, and spreading fan leaves – I’d have an oriental garden of leaves alone, big and bold with none of our furtive tiny foliage.  Teak trees at this time of year are almost leafless – they wait for the rains to leaf.  Their leaves crackle on the ground, huge, plate size. Ants in columns climb climbing up trunks, and down, and across the ground to other trunks.  Great swathes of heliconia FullSizeRenderhang down in colours which at home would look garish but here in the dazzling light are just right.  Canna llies in ditches.  Lotuses on ponds, pink, and blue.  The cannonball tree has flowers with hairy mouths and a IMG_1463delicate scent.


IMG_0988IMG_0942By bus to New Sukhotai.  On the windscreen is toy panda whose stomach is a clock, and portraits of the king and various holy men.  Then into a jolting songthaew with an open back and benches, to Old Sukhotai.  There, we get to the Rough Guide recommended Orchid Hibiscus guest house, and have a thatched chalet, I love it, pool, frangipani petals on paths as if tossed for a wedding, vanda orchids bound to trees, lizard orchids, birds abound, paths inlaid with pressed leaves, and inside a lacy tissue holder,  decorated pottery basin, ethnic cushions and towels twisted into elephants on the bed.  But Bob hates it, he hates the self conscious folksiness, he IMG_0990imagines mosquitoes and creepy crawlies on the dark walls, and finds only westerners among the other guests, and it’s a trek to the historic park.  And he loathes the aviaries.  So after a couple of nights we move to the grander Pailyn hotel, on the bus route to the park, cheaper, conventional, pool, large white walled room, IMG_1043and the only others are Thai businessmen, children on a school visit and the like.  B is happy.  One day a Thai American with her ditto husband stops to talk.  She has not been to Thailand for thirty years, she says, and is a casino manageress at Las Vegas. She smells of talcum powder and is very bejewelled.  American ebullience and Thai charm meet, and she hugs me.  The assumption of immediate intimacy. We’ve been pals for decades.


IMG_0947We spend days here, visiting temples in the historic park, getting a songthaew out to one and then walking back.  By now it’s so hot in the afternoons it’s impossible to walk, so after lunch, a siesta for both and a few lengths of the pool for me.


We waste two days.  We travel to Si Satchanalai historic park, but it’s too large and we can’t get around just by walking, and we don’t bike any longer (my balance is poor, I’m getting a wobble board when home), and we need to be in a place with a songthaew or tuk tuk three wheeler or taxi.  We stay at a grim motel, and next day by bus, after waiting for ages,  to Uttaradit station.  We then wait for more hours.  The delayed Bangkok Sprinter staggers in, and we arrive in the dark at Lampang.  Temples, buildings, a river, and the Akhamsiri guest house IMG_1185has lovely room, and rain chains instead of drain pipes to guide the rain down.  Garden.


FullSizeRender (10)Then Chiang Mai, the Diamond Riverside hotel, beside a brothel with the masseuses arriving on motor bikes in the afternoon.  It’s a large city but we like it – the old centre within the squared moat, the night market for eating, the wats, the river.  To a woodland monastery, Wat Umong, and to the wat high up on Doi Suthep.  I have a day at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School, with two American and two Malay women and one Korean man, and two Malay women.  We are driven to the country house of a TV chef and given lessons by one of his staff who is keen to start up his own school.  Loved that day, and will do a Thai meal with cashews when home, even if I’m unlikely to turn carrots into trees and tomatoes into roses.


Queen Sirikit’s garden, some miles away in the mountains, it’s like walking under a aquarium of banana leaves.


FullSizeRender (15)And train to Phrae, another square ancient town.  Woodcarving is the speciality, and grander houses have lacy fronts.  Thailand is into carving wood rather than shaping stone – not surprising given the terrain.  One day to Thailand’s ‘grand canyon’, well it isn’t but we like being in the country, we like the temple, the canals, the villages.  By lunchtime we’re back, and The Times is on our iPads, so siesta and – for me –  into the pool, minimum ten lengths.


FullSizeRender (18)The recycling!  A brilliant mobile made from pink and silver drinks cans slashed down their sides so that when pressed so they swell into lanterns.  Tyres into refuse bins.  Large cans into dust pans.


Finally train back to Ayutthaya – the barges on the river, and the waitresses at the pontoon greeting us like old friends, and then to dear old Bangkok, which is hot hot hot and steamy, but fine because we are in the cushy Evergreen Hotel and it has a perfect pool and I wish I were there this moment.  We go to Jim Thompson’s shop with its teak panelling and silks, and have lunch.  The clothes are good, but mostly too dressy.  In late afternoon to Lumpini Park, where people run, or in groups exercise to music and instructions from a loudspeaker – B adores all this, keeps urging me to join.  Then, suddenly, at 6 pm, the national anthem plays, and everyone – runners, sitters now standing, B, me, exercisers –  freeze like Grandmother’s Footsteps.  Then it’s over and life resumes.  B is moved, even wipes an eye.  Then he says, perversely, Hitler would have had this.  Earlier at Ayutthaya station when the anthem played at 8 am we all stood – except for the monks!


FullSizeRender (22)FullSizeRender (11)IMG_0812IMG_1515IMG_1518So, some of the people.  The station master who – like all guards and station masters –  lifted our cases from the ground level platform into the train.  The waitresses.  The gardener with his mini parasol hat on a basketwork frame.  The girls working on a IMG_1514FullSizeRender (13)FullSizeRender (16)FullSizeRender (17)IMG_1055IMG_0873IMG_0753building site.  The Taiwanese air hostesses at the Evergreen Hotel, Bangkok – there were about fifteen of these cloned beauty queens.  The women at a Phrae temple sewing money into banners to hang from the ceiling.  A little girl at a restaurant.  Nuns at the Chiang Mai woodland monastery.  Shaven headed and white robed, they have none of the privileges of monks.  They burst into smiles once the photo was taken.  A waiter at a Chiang Mai ‘German’ restaurant creating a peony out of a paper napkin (he went on to make a lotus).  A street masseuse.  The girl at the opticians who took such trouble to supply reading glasses.  A man making grasshoppers from leaves.  A woman selling cooked eggs.  A boy balancing bottles.  The ferrywoman on the river at Ayutthaya.  A man with tattooed legs.  A street sweeper.  A motor cyclist.  Girls on a building site.  Woman mixing cement at a station.  Waitresses, at Sukhothai and at Chiang Mai night market.

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