I spent 36 hours in Bangkok and it seemed to me just like the Jakarta of my childhood, that dense crowded lost world. Our flight was three hours late and I had missed the shared minibus from the airport. A series of people gave me courteously conflicting advice. You must go to Gate 3. Go to 5. Go to Gate 10 and ask there. I asked the ladies at the Tourist Welcome counter, one of whom was fanning herself while she scrolled her cellphone. The other lady looked up from her block of pink and yellow carbon receipts which she was carefully stamping with the up to date telephone number, using a ruler and a rubber stamp. Their desk seemed to be crowded with technologies which I passionately collected as a child and which I miss. Ink pads, erasers, her fan which folded into a long stripe of feathers.
Somebody called somebody, who called somebody, who would find the driver and call us back. A man approached the desk at length and said, very kindly, our transfer driver is not here: let me find you a taxi. He gave careful instructions to the taxi driver and to me. “You must pay the toll booth.” Okay, I said. The driver slipped under his seatbelt, which lay against the seat already done up. We passed a truck decorated with gleaming silver ornaments like folded snowflakes cut out of tin, every panel of its side bars was painted joyously by hand. As I reached for my camera the skies opened, and down came that thundering tropical rain.
I had forgotten. Those high-pitched tiled rooves, the canals lined with palms. I’d forgotten the rain, how everything is saturated within a few seconds. Those open-back, cage-backed little trucks with two long plank benches like for carrying troops. I saw giant billboards empty, made from countless sheets of rusted tin each nailed on individually. I saw lily pads in ponds, little green ditches like streams; the business-like gates unclimbable at every official building. We passed six tiny thatched huts under a corrugated iron roof. We drove in unmeant formation with fellow taxis, some of them bright yellow and lime green, some a deep hot nail varnish pink. Green vines ran up the poles and along the wires. A multi-storey car park was festooned with vines at every floor. Hard up against its sheer grey concrete wall was a row of bamboo houses. Huge swags of wires, as thick as a person’s torso. Little gods with golden wings flying on signs atop very plain buildings.
At the airport, queuing for passport control, I had avidly read the signs. Buddha is Not for Decoration: Respect Makes Sense! A lady with pearlescent complexion of which she was clearly proud turned her swanlike neck to camera, sharing the secret of her make-up brand: Snail White, the Best White. But I had a secret in turn, which was: the world’s most flawless white is found in the frangipani flower, peerless until it is dropped or touched, when it withers to brown instantly.
After a while the swarm of rising buildings that is Bangkok drowned in rain. The high rise became invisible. Clustered at ground level, mango trees, bananas. The rain dropped in visible layers of grey bead curtains, like washing hung on the line. We passed a building with 16 air conditioning units piled above its front entrance, like shields, and passed under an overpass where dozens of mopeds sheltered to wait out the storm. I saw trees growing out of buildings everywhere they had worked a crevice. Everything was only an island among trees, like German towns seen from the air.
“How do I say, ‘thank you’, in Thai?” I asked my driver. “Ko-pung-ka,” he said carefully, and when I repeated it, and then said “Thank you – kopungka” he laughed with delight. “Oh ho ho!”
He told me, “You kopungka – I kopungkat.” We were laughing with joy. Yet a day later on my minibus ride to the airport I discovered the toll cost is actually 50 Baht, not the 100 he had solemnly charged me at each stop. I’d forgotten that people can rip you off so lovingly. I’d forgotten those long-ago familiar silver signs, each letter clad in silver facing only half of them have peeled away and are now just stained wood. The last thing I saw before we left the freeway was a tiny handmade treehouse open hut, on stilts, directly under a giant blank billboard among treetops as though the city had simply sprung up around it, or like a jungle vine it had simply reseeded. Windows and whole balconies were enclosed in cages. Avocado green concrete building and green sky. Clouds that boiled like surf.
Venice of the East, they call it. I left my room and went down the fire escape and was immediately in the smell of Asia, a smell of tempest and rotting trash and food. Coming out the back entrance of my bland hotel I walked up to the low hedge shielding the impossibly blue pool from the brown river, which slopped and choked with astonishing things: the whole head of a palm tree. Semi-circles of funeral flowers, large slabs of wood. Turning in at a perilously narrow concrete path that ran alongside the giant machinery of a weir, I was instantly out of the Westernised globe and back in what seems to me the real world: the places where people live, and work.
Feeling my way and always ready to dip my head, I prowled villages of tiny laneways lined with stacks of buckets and bins. Sprawling heaps of cut bamboo lay wedged alongside roadways and splayed between buildings. Awnings and stalls. More sheets of rain. Milky brown puddles and ingenious paving. A brooding pasture of banana groves fenced in between a fern-lapped village path and a multi-storey car park crowned with dishes. Cats prowling everywhere or sleeping on piles of newspaper and sacking, their tails broken in a way I suppose people find beautiful. Wonderful birds trapped in tiny cages. I took a boat to Wat Pho and walked around it for half an hour before I ventured in. I stepped into an old pasar, which I suppose is the Indonesianised version of what we call a bazaar, and wanted never to leave. Green things stood drowning, festooned with green things. The ferry ran on stinking oil and was laced only very briefly against pier after pier by the insouciant boatman who whistled an elaborate series of instructions to the skipper, unseen overhead. I found complex tangles of tree roots which had become shrines, and a pomegranate collared with blue ribbon that hung in long elegant whorls, to bring fruitfulness. I peered over the concrete fences that were topped with broken glass the way ours at home used to be. A man I had spoken to in the alleyway came walking out over his flat roof. He saw me gazing spellbound into the village of his garden. “Would you like to come in and see?” I said, “Can you tell me – how do I say hello, in Thai, please.” For with thank you and hello, one can pass a glorious thirty-six hours, one can feast on a street stall and watch an old lady with a seamed smile threading rubber bands into a beautiful garland. I drank in everything. My feet were wet and my calves splashed with mud. I took seven hundred photographs on the Sunday and seven hundred more on the Monday, I bought very little and ate a lot. Everything seemed to me natural and true and real. Into the past, into enchantment, into childhood, into piety and reverence and irreverence and glee: the land where shopkeepers sleep behind their counters and people dangle their personal toiletries from a hook on a wall, from the bough of a tree. From the age of twelve torn away from these rich roots I had always, always longed to go back and now I had come home.