last updated Sunday June 21, 2009
new home ~ about ~ blog ~ all my own work ~ sa4qe ~ grocer of despair ~ ~ france ~ shop ~ archives ~
In November 2001 I visited Thailand for the first time to marry Koy, whom I'd met working at a Thai restaurant near my home in south-west London a year previously. The wedding promised to be a traditional Thai ceremony at Koy's family home in the southern city of Songkhla, but we visited Bangkok for a few days first, and later Ayudhaya. The following is an account of those two weeks.
Monday 5th November
Spend most of the day running around trying to get everything packed and sorted out at the last minute. We've been compiling a home movie of our life in London to show K’s family, and to finish it off, with the minicab for Heathrow minutes away, I film the flat, with K at her desk frantically typing emails, and she films me playing a bit of blues guitar. Keen as I am to impress my creative aspirations on her family, who hardly know me from Adam, I also decide to bring a magazine featuring some of my published poems. The cab's horn sounds outside and I grab the first one that comes to hand.
The 12-hour flight with Thai Airways is on schedule, and is much more comfortable than I’d expected. Don’t get much sleep, though.
Tuesday 6th November
Arrive about 5pm local time as the sun is starting to set, and collected from the airport by one of K’s old university friends, a delightful and completely miniature girl called Nan. With a high voice, tiny skirt, fast and sexy walk and shiny handbag carried in the crook of her elbow, she reminds me of a Flintstones animation. She explains in broken English that she obtained an MA from a London university about a year ago, but when I ask her what she does for a living, she laughs and says, “I’m unemployed!” I ask her what she wants to do. “Lose weight and find a good boyfriend!” comes the reply.
The weather is steamy and sticky, the streets of Bangkok bizarre, noisy, smoky, chaotic, the traffic intransigent. One driver is taking advantage of the snail’s pace by brushing his teeth as he crawls along in his bashed-up jeep. Every so often along the road crowds of young students, all dressed in a uniform of white shirts and black skirts and trousers, wait patiently for buses.
The landscape is strange and variable, an unnerving mixture of concrete, steel and glass and tropical trees. A series of mysterious-looking concrete arches turn out to be the supports for an overground metro line which was started years ago and ran out of funding before it could be finished.
I fall asleep for a while and when I awake we’re in a road that looks like all the others, with street food vendors, tuk-tuks running around, telegraph wires everywhere and the ubiquitous palm trees. We turn a corner and looming up surreally in front of us is a huge, magnificent hotel called the Grand Tower. I can’t believe this is where we’re staying – it’s the first time in my life I’ve had my cases taken to my room by a porter, less so one in a near-military uniform. The foyer is high and sumptuous, which makes it all the more surreal when we find the floor that our room is on turns out to be undergoing some construction work, with yards of wires hanging out of the ceiling cavities like a scene from Alien. Our room itself is lovely though – a king-size double bed, ensuite bathroom, balcony overlooking the city, cable TV, air conditioning and a fridge stocked with drinks.
Nan goes and comes back and takes us out to dinner with Uan, another of Koy’s old friends. She also speaks English and is a very friendly, chatty person. Her name literally means “fat”, which seems unfair to me but she doesn’t appear to mind. Like Nan, she also turns out to have obtained a degree from abroad – the US in her case – and is also unemployed at the moment. Her ambition is to open up a “cookie café”. She produces a small plastic bag full of miniature biscuits she made earlier and shares them around gleefully; they’re really good.
We’re eating in an open-plan restaurant area high up in a huge shopping centre. In addition to the normal fragrant rice that I'm used to, there’s also an odd-looking variation; it tastes good but is very chewy. It seems to be rice that’s been undercooked or just cooked plain badly. I ask K what it is and she says it’s sticky rice, and this is how it’s supposed to look and taste. One of the main dishes is a type of sausage, which is spicy and delicious. The menu has English translations of the dishes, one of which comes out as “viscera salad”.
We walk around the enormous and impressive shopping centre. Large parts of it are open-plan, so you can be walking freely and seamlessly between pots and pans, elephant ornaments, fridges and silk scarves. It seems about the size of two Harrodses and is open until 10pm. The girls go off and look for some wedding jewellery for K which I’m not allowed to be involved in, leaving me to wander around on my own. I sneakily buy her a wedding present of some Jean-Paul Gaultier perfume from an enthusiastic assistant, who with his colleagues go to enormous lengths to gift-wrap the bottle in a red satin bag. I have no idea how much it costs because my mind is too mashed by jetlag to work out the exchange rate.
Nan takes us back to the hotel where we crash out immediately.
I surface at about 8am to an unlikely vision of K, traditionally a late sleeper, who has already risen, bathed, dressed and been out, and is now sitting in the armchair by the billowing net curtain reading a paper and eating a chocolate wafer snack. Gradually I get myself together and we have breakfast from a huge buffet – stir-fry chicken and prawn dishes rubbing shoulders with distinctly western-looking eggs, sausages and toast. Most of the other guests are Japanese, and in corners of the room TV sets are showing a Japanese cable television show with items about a tea ceremony and a New York make-up artist. One of the Japanese guys, a squat character in shorts with a blue paisley handkerchief tied on his head, stands up from his meal, gives a belch which vibrates the room, lights a cigarette and walks out languidly.
Before we go outside I slap on vats of suntan lotion. It’s very high-factor so I look even whiter, thinner and more English than I normally do. We take a cab (very cheap and air-conditioned) to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. I have never imagined structures like these, let alone seen anything like them before. The pagodas and temples are all covered with thousands of tiny coloured tiles like huge three-dimensional mosaics. The Emerald Buddha himself is beautiful, a very small statue in the middle of an enormous room. He has been given a little gold jacket to wear, as the “cool” season has just started (or so they tell me – I’m wilting). All around the outside of the temples and pagodas are tiny bells gently sounding in the breeze. K later tells me these are a reference to the bodhi or bo tree under which the Buddha sat and found enlightenment; real bodhi trees have hard leaves which also give a “tinkling” sound when they’re blown by the wind.
Afterwards we head to Wat Pho, wandering around some markets near the river on the way. The river has just flooded one of the markets, but everyone’s carrying on as best they can with sandbags and river water everywhere. The streets are full of monks, Buddha images for sale, three-wheeled tuk-tuks and food vendors. Shops alternate almost at random with temples and houses, many of which are put-me-up homes with corrugated iron roofs. One of the more bizarre items for sale on the street stalls are sets of false teeth – both whole upper and lower rows as well as individual molars and incisors. There are also some distressing sights – lots of stray dogs and beggars shamelessly trading off disabilities and deformities; some have little more obviously wrong with them than a missing toe or two, while one young lad sitting up in the middle of the pavement looking very bored has his transparent catheter bag on full display. Suddenly there’s a strange noise, which seems unusual even in a city full of strange noises, and I turn to see a woman walking around with what seems to be a mobile karaoke machine strapped to her body, singing along to backing tapes through a microphone. K tells me she’s a blind busker who’s been around a long time.
The Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho is staggering, although it’s a shame that there’s lots of scaffolding in front of him at the time of our visit, so we can only really get a good view of him by standing at his feet and looking along his enormous body. He certainly looks serene. His feet themselves are possibly the most beautiful bit of the statue: not just the dozens of curious “auspicious symbols” inlaid in mother-of-pearl, but the perfect circular whorls on the toes – as K explains, symbolic of his perfection.
I choose a quiet, romantic spot in one of the courtyards to kiss K, but she stops me, which feels inauspicious. “You can’t do that here,” she says, “it’s a temple!” Oh well, when in Rome and all that.
We go back to the hotel and take a rest, and in the evening head out for dinner with Nan again – or at least that’s what we’re told. It turns out to be a fantastic surprise party in a fabulous open-air restaurant with about fifteen of K’s friends. They all speak English to varying degrees and several of those near me are fluent. Apart from one other husband, I'm the only man. The tables and chairs are in the style of rough-hewn tree-trunks, while from the ceiling are hanging long strips of brightly patterned materials, and there’s a little fishing boat in “dry dock” by the door. Never in my life have I seen either so much food or so many different dishes at one table. At one end of our long centre table is a group of musicians sitting cross-legged playing acoustic northeast-Thai folk songs on a variety of exotic instruments. I'm in heaven, and K is also delighted to see her friends again for the first time in two years, so it's a very happy evening.
Because none of them can make it down south to the wedding, K's friends overwhelm us now with wedding presents, including a hand-stitched picture of a sweet old couple with the legend EVERLASTING LOVE, and some table linen from the Jim Thompson silk shop. Thompson was the first westerner to come to Thailand to export its excellent silk, making a huge amount of money in the process. He lived in a magnificent house in the north of Thailand which is now open as a museum. Thompson met a mysterious end – from what I can gather, he went out for a walk into the jungle one evening and never came back.
The meal over, the musicians suddenly get down from their podium and line up behind K and I, and a special presentation is made to us of a fabulous cake. I stand up and, forgetting myself, shake hands with the musicians instead of giving them the wai – technically a slip of etiquette, but everyone laughs and the musicians seem to enjoy it. K and I cut the cake in hands-joined tradition and pass out the slices to everyone for pudding.
Music? Cake? Buddha? Friends? I couldn’t think of a better welcome to a country than this.
Thursday 8th November
We spend the morning in another large western-style shopping-centre sorting out various things ahead of travelling to the south, including Koy's sin sot jewellery, an important detail of the wedding. We have lunch in a Japanese restaurant where the food is delivered to the table raw and then boiled in an electric wok-type appliance in front of you. I get up to go to the loo but there isn’t one inside the restaurant; I have to go out into the shopping centre and follow a maze of signs. There is no charge for using the toilets but if you want loo roll, you have to buy a little box of tissues from a vending machine for a few baht before you go into the cubicle. The toilets are crowded, for some reason mostly with blokes in uniform and guys practically having a bath at the sinks.
In the afternoon we take a one-hour flight to Hat-Yai, about 900km south. The plane is narrow-bodied and we both feel a bit queasy. I find it best not to look out the window, so you can’t tell when the plane is banking; if you find your own centre of gravity and there’s not much turbulence, you can fool yourself into thinking you’re not travelling at all.
Hat-Yai airport is small and by the time we arrive it is nearly dark and pouring with rain, which feels a disappointment after the sunshine of Bangkok. It’s no less warm, however. We are picked up by Koy's brother-in-law Mai, a man of dark good looks somewhere in his forties. The journey to Songkhla is about an hour. Mai speaks no English and he and K have a lot to catch up on, so I nod off for a while. Such is the variety of the scenery that when we finally arrive at Koy’s house, I have no idea we’re in a residential street, but suddenly there are large, welcoming houses looming out of what, at 7pm, seems to an Englishman a premature darkness for this heat. Excited dogs are calmed at red iron gates, axel foliage bends over my head, crickets and frogs sing and bray. The front yard is large and lit by a strip light from beneath a striped awning over the porch. I wai and shake hands with K’s father Pipat, a formal and amazingly fit man in his seventies with dark skin and thick-rimmed glasses, and her mother Sujin, a softly-spoken woman of lighter complexion, about the same age and a near-permanent peaceful smile. “Pipat”, I am told, means “development”, while “Sujin” means “good imagination”. (“Koy” means “little finger”; I have no idea what I'm going to say if anyone asks what “Richard” means.)
I am led into the front room, also lit by a single fluorescent strip light. All the floors are tiled. The main sitting room has some smart cabinets full of family pictures, ornate bowls, coin collections, elephant ornaments. I am given a chair in front of a large TV set on a trolley and sit there for a while feeling sticky, disorientated, jetlagged, fascinated. On the TV a bullet sears into someone’s body, spraying blood all over a clean white shirt; it turns out to be an advert for a brand of washing powder. Prominent around the front door are large portraits of King Bhumibol, both alone and with his mother, and his daughter the princess. Half of the wall behind the TV is hung with a pretty curtain for the wedding ceremony on Saturday, and there are other strange ceremonial items around. I go to the toilet where a tiny pink lizard, a jinjok, scuttles across the wall. I wash my hands in what appears to be an all-in-one bathroom, with a wash basin in one corner and a shower in the other and no curtain or cubicle in between. There is only one tap in the wash basin and an upside-down metal pot. I don’t know what it’s for but ignore it, assuming it’s to stop insects from crawling up into the house through the drains.
We sit out in the back yard where the dinner is cooked in a huge pot at what resembles a large camping gas stove, and eat fresh local fish, pork, pineapple and boiled rice to a background of a dark night and the wildtrack of mating insects. None of K's family speaks any English at all, but when Pipat pours himself a glass of warm water, waving away the bottle from the fridge, I seem to understand that he's saying he can't drink that cold water because it gives him stomach cramp.
Later we walk a few minutes down the road to Koy's sister's house where I will spend the next couple of nights deferentially sleeping alone. Her sister Noo ("mouse") and her husband Yi have two sons, Kong (7) and Koko (5); they are shy and funny. The grown-ups try to get them to greet me in English and tell me their names, but despite apparently practicing this for my arrival, they both clam up, and there is much laughter. The house is smaller than Koy's parents', and even though it seems better-appointed, there is no hot running water. I take a much-needed shower which is cold but the weather's so warm I hardly notice it. Everybody comes up to show me my room, complete with air conditioning operated with a handy remote control. The little lads don’t want to leave, but it’s getting late and they're hustled out. I have a double bed all to myself. Having ensured everything is OK, with a single kiss K is gone.
For a full account of the actual wedding with photos go to http://mysite.wanadoo-members.co.uk/cooperweddings/index.html
You may also be interested in Stephen Miles's All My Own Work, which is set partly in Thailand.