I first went backpacking solo in December 2002, departing from London. I arrived in Bangkok on a three day stopover before continuing to my final destination of Australia. At the time, I thought I would be away for six months, a year at most. That was nearly five years ago. I never went home.
I still remember the sense of almost complete terror that I felt when I first arrived, on my own, at Bangkok’s Khao San Road. It sounds overwrought because I was overwrought. Although numerous friends had told me about Khao San, nothing prepared me for its neon and noise assault on the senses, the endless bars, street sellers, hawkers and other tourists, all trying to pretend they’d gone native 2 days off the plane. There’s no 50/50 with Khao San – either you enjoy its thumping bass beats whilst you guzzle beer besides the street or peruse the authentic ethnic trinkets imported from China, or you go and find something else to do, because for all its legendary status, Khao San is nothing but an outside mall. That first night, it felt not only overwhelming, but also slightly sinister – the humid, shirt-sticking heat, the smells and cooking steam of the noodle stands hanging over the street, the sound systems all playing Eminem at 11, and the jostle of endless faces, Thai, English, Israeli, Swedish, German, American, Canadian, Indian… everywhere I looked, everyone seemed to be hooked in, to know what they were doing, to be enjoying themselves. And I was standing there witless with a backpack, wholly unsure of where to go and feeling distinctly, unpleasantly, alone.
There are times where I like being alone, where I value and even fight for my solitude so I can just enjoy my own thoughts or even not having to bother having any thoughts. This was not one of those times. I stumbled up the road and found the hotel I’d prebooked, the Sawadee Hotel Bangkok Inn. It was fine, the rooms overpriced but OK, but by now extreme paranoia had set in. That night, I was actually scared to leave the room for fear of leaving my laptop there, because my room’s window didn’t lock and there was a walkway underneath. I was already imagining hordes of ninjas deftly making their way across the roof. Hiding the laptop wasn’t good enough because They would find it immediately. They would be well practised in shaking down hotel rooms for foriegners’ valuables. It was obvious what was happening. I was Getting The Fear. So that night, I made only one brief sortie to the 7-11 on Khao San Road. I told myself to get a grip and calm down. Everything was fine, you’re just a bit shaken up by the flight and being in a new place, it’s all going to be alright…
And then the sky exploded.
Thousands of lights screamed and died in the night sky, the sharp cracks of gunfire accompanying them as hundreds of people seemed to appear out of nowhere. So my addled brain percieved it. In reality, it was something entirely benevolent – a huge firework celebration for the King’s Birthday, the world’s longest serving monarch to whom all Thais are fiercely loyal. I gave a weak smile to no-one at my stupidity. It was nice of them to celebrate my arrival.
Once I’d scurried back to my room, my dinner consisted of…I can’t remember what, but if it came from 7-11 you can guarantee it wasn’t authentically Thai. That was all I managed that evening. Everything else and indeed, everyone else, was out to get me, so best leave it alone to sleep off the jet lag with a belly full of Pringles…
It makes me embarrassed to recall all this now, but that night was the definition of culture shock for me. I felt almost panicky and only safe in my room. It took a considerable effort of will to emerge from the room the next day, taking a walk down to the Grand Palace. I told myself that it would do me good to have a walk, but basically, I was scared of talking to any of the Thai tuk-tuk drivers. My self-confidence was scuttling along the floor looking for a hole into which it could disappear. And – what was I thinking? – the laptop came with me. I lugged that fucker through 35 degree heat all the way down to the Grand Palace, a good 20 minute walk, just in case the ninjas made a lightning attack on my room in my absence.
It takes something as spectacular as the Grand Palace to wrench your mind away from obsessing about ridiculous things and elevate back up into some sort of intelligent thought. Wandering around the breath-taking buildings with their glorious cascading roofs and glittering spires, (Somerset Maugham once said they were so fantastical they looked “as if they shouldn’t exist”), the Fear began to ebb. It was seeing the Reclining Buddha that finally gave me a sense of, if not serenity, then a definite calming sense of awe. This huge statue, too big to fully capture in one photograph, lies in its own chamber within the palace, depicting the smiling Buddha lying back. It seems almost comical in one way – his smile is like that of someone who’s just enjoyed a cracking joke. And it’s the smile of Someone Who Knows. It really is more than art or decoration – it’s something that’s completely captivating to look at, baffling – “how the hell did they make that?” – and ultimately starts off something in your mind, an intellectual rather than just visual stimulation. Photos can never do it justice, not only through lack of perspective but because they can’t capture the Buddha’s sense of presence. I’ve seen a lot of statues of Buddha since but none of them have the presence that the Reclining Buddha emanates. Which is quite eerie for someone as emphatically non-spiritualist as myself.
Looking at historical things, buildings, museums, churches, I am often left feeling a bit saddened about how indifferent I feel about what it is that I’m looking at. I wish this church or that tapestry grabbed my imagination, spiked my senses, got me fascinated and intrigued about it. But it rarely happens. The Reclining Buddha did all those and also helped me get back into a more normal frame of mind that this travelling business really could be alright if by 2pm on a Thursday you could wind up encountering a mindblowing personification of the Buddha – without having even paused for lunch. And indeed, even in my darkest moments over the following months of travelling, there was a continual refrain that came to my lips: “Still, it beats working for Vodafone”.