I don’t remember too much about the flights to Bangkok. I remember we flew via Melbourne and had to sit in the terminal for a few hours, taking photos of our travel buddy, Lamby, marvelling at the A380s, and eating a box chocolates we’d been given at some point in our final weeks in Auckland. The first time we left.
After an early, early morning, a nervously, excitedly, deep sleep-less night, and the prospect of a long flight still ahead, the lack of a direct flight was more an inconvenience; an enforced detour and delay to the final beginning of our ‘big adventure’.
I remember watching a biography, in Thai, with inconsistent subtitles, about Pumpuang Duangjan, a famous singer of luktung, which is considered traditional Thai country music. I made a note of her name, so I could learn more about her later (as I said previously: once a researcher, always a researcher!). And I remember the air hosts coming through often with hot towels. Oh, and I had a Bloody Mary; my first. Well…when stepping right outside of your comfort Rome!
What is, however, firmly and permanently imprinted on my memory, not just in my visual memory, but rather in the vaults of other senses, is arriving into Bangkok: flying in over a vast, dark and steamy city, lights twinkling in the tropical heat as far as the horizon. It could well be an invention of the mind, but I’ve always felt like the thickness of dense tropical heat charges darkness in a way that makes light refract off it in a particular way, gives off a particular energy.
If it is an invention of the mind, it’s a lovely invention, bringing into being a particular feeling of uncertain excitement, of the very nature of time changing. Even the heated darkness of Fiji, a place I have visited a few times now, still seems to me to contain this same energy. It probably is an invention, but it brings forth an honest feeling I am more than happy to continue wallowing in.
I can remember every sensation of that first night: having to take a bus from the plane to the terminal, which gave us our first exposure to not just the heat but the smell of the heat; negotiating the MRT west from the airport to Phaya Thai station (not difficult, and gave us our first exposure to signs informing us to give up our seats for elderly people, pregnant women and monks, and warning us against travelling with or consuming the infamously stinky durian); and then hailing down a taxi to our accommodation, close enough to walk easily to but not be annoyed by the tourist Mecca of Khaosan Road.
The heat, feeling the heat, for the first time, is both zapping but providing of a strange kind of comfort. Air that is much colder than the body’s stable 37C has a funny way of making you feel separate from it; you and the air around you exist as distinct sets of atoms. By contrast, when the air around is closer to your body temperature, it’s almost like your skin becomes a porous border and melts ever so slightly into the heat, the heat in response melting into you. You and the heat become intertwined; you lean into the heat, rather than feeling yourself rub up against coolness.
I’d read that you might have to be very insistent with your taxi driver, to make him – it’s always a him – turn on the (legally-required) meter. I don’t know, maybe we got one of the good guys. Another possible invention of my mind is that you cannot hide your newness when arriving into a new location; something in your face, in the way that you walk, gives you away immediately, whether struggling with a backpack or not, and thus making you ripe for unsolicited information and ‘help’ (aka scams).
Either way, we got in, he asked us if we wanted to use the meter, it cost about $3, and the breeze coming in the window was again charged with that particular energy, heavy with that particular smell, pushing against a too forceful forward momentum.
Samsen Sam Place, where we stayed for our first five nights, is located just north of a canal that separates its guests from Bangkok’s main tourist area; although, such is the perennial popularity of this early South-East Asia tourism powerhouse, that a certain degree of tourism creep seemed to be spreading outwards, like a tourism Sahara, enveloping most if not all in its wake into the industry’s gravitational pull.
Located down a soi, a small side street that runs off a more main thoroughfare, it was strangely quiet, almost unsettlingly so. It was as if you stepped across a void as you turned off the traffic-heavy main road, where buildings are slightly camouflaged with ropes of electrical wires. It was like stepping into noise cancelling headphones; we were now walking down a thoroughly middle-class suburban Bangkok street.
I remember waking up in the middle of that first night, needing to go to the toilets, which were located in shared facilities outside and down the hallway. It was about 3am; the aircon was buzzing coolly in the darkness, its chilly air recharging our heat-zapped and tired internal batteries. Even going to the toilet was an experience of the new: again the heat, the smell of the heat, and in the distance, the sounds of a city still not at rest being carried through the tropical air.
Just as I had done when flying overhead, but now standing amongst it all, I spent some time wondering about the lives our paths were now intersecting with, the people whose movements were creating the noises being carried across the still night. Were people still working? Maybe they were catching a tuk-tuk home? Maybe they had already slept and were preparing for another day in the frenetic heave of a city whose rhythms are undoubtedly complex?
If those were my sensory responses to the first seven hours of our trip, I wondered what what lay ahead, and whether that intensity would carry for the rest of the trip? In truth, it does and it doesn’t; it waxes and it wanes. There are certain moments, passages of time even, that are firmly in the ‘cached’ memory, able to be recreated at a moment’s notice; the first whiff, sound, or sight of something that recalls its originator.
Travel is to be over-stimulated, though; to live in a(n almost) constant state of hyper-stimulation.
Each couple of days or so a new town, a new city, eventually a new country; new mountains, new rivers, new markets, new people, all with their own individual looks and feels, rhythms and eccentricities. New buses or trains to navigate, new scams to avoid, new norms to quickly adjust to, before readjusting to slightly readjusted norms shortly thereafter.
If air-conditioning was the recharging of zapped batteries, it is also became the reset button. It provided respite from the day’s heat and stimulation and, overnight, would magically re-calibrate the body’s internal dynamics, often fitfully at war with itself, and requiring a repeated triumph of determination over mental and physical exhaustion. Aircon provided a release valve, and its value was demonstrated most during periods spent without, where you did feel a certain sense of pressure building, like the growing clouds and electricity of a looming Monsoon, ready to crackerpault across a threatening sky.
It waxes and it wanes.
And it occurs to me that it’s perhaps (hyper)stimulation that is the real lure of tourism and of being a tourist; the combined energy of heat and chaos, humanity and commerce, the dance of life elsewhere lived. Tourism is the chase, the thrill of the chase. Location is of course important, what you are going to do, what you are going to see, and so on, but ultimately, it feels like travel and tourism gains and maintains its power and currency because of the chase, of tourists always trying to (re)live the thrill of stimulation.
The other source of power that I think is really telling is the notion of time, the length of the chase.
This is true of the shorter trips we have taken in the years since the ‘big trip’. Although amazing and stimulating in their own ways, they never quite contained the same sense of elongated sensory possibility; that singular sensation of waking each day and realising a seemingly endless landscape of time and space stretches out in front of you, in untold directions, simply awaiting your next pick-a-path and leap on to the next day’s forward momentum. But only if you want to.
This is undoubtedly the greatest luxury and privilege we hold, something we are only too aware we enjoy in immense amounts. Far far greater than the vast majority of the people we will walk amongst, share space with, whose lives I get the luxury of spending time pondering and thinking about.
I’m currently racing to finish the most fabulous book before we fly out tonight, Island People, by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. It’s part travelogue, part musical journey, part history, but overall a richly-rendered story of the Caribbean and its peoples, waves of historical and contemporary dynamics.
In many parts, tourism becomes a part of the narrative, of course, necessary but problematic, colonialism by another form. He ruminates on noted author Jamaica Kincaid’s thoughts about leave and return, about living vs. vacationing in the Caribbean, and quotes her telling words: “A tourist is an ugly human being”. You become an ugly person, he notes, because the very things you desire in the experience of your chosen destination is quite often the very things that the people who have to live there do not: heat and chaos, the frenetic and incessant, the cruelly relentless dance of life.
And, he suggests, if you bother to pay attention, to “look behind the playacting of those who depend on your presence here for a living”, you might find that you are, in fact, the sort of person who isn’t much very liked. Tourism is certainly a paradox; an unresolvable paradox really.
So, the question naturally turns to: what can we expect this time around?
Will that same sensation return tomorrow morning, as we fly into Colombo via Singapore, navigate our way out of the airport, into a taxi, and into the manic throng of another Asian city? Will there be old familiar ‘comforts’: the ropes of electrical wire, the smoggy buses, the beeping horns, the rushes of colour, the smells? Not just tropical heat, but hot wet air mixed with market produce adding its distinctive pungency. And, of course, the smell of food; street food and people eating together, collectively, unable to escape.
All those things that we (I?) desire, that we are chasing, but that perhaps those living in its everyday sometimes would like to get away from, as we have the luxury of doing whenever we feel sufficiently stimulated. After all, for us a new destination awaits; new buses, new mountains, new rhythms. On and on…