THE TIMES – December 02, 2005
Ginny Dougary

When Ginny Dougary decided to visit Bangkok with her teenage son, the only question was, who would be looking after whom?

bangkok

The last time I was in Bangkok was in my late twenties, 20 years ago. My husband, Bruce, organised a trip which included Bangkok, but also took us beyond and into the remote hill tribes of the Golden Triangle. Transport and accommodation was a log raft built by our guide from Chiang Rai up the Mekong river, in which the villagers fished, pissed and washed.

As dusk fell, delicious smells would rise from the end of the raft – the signal that Ann-Ann was preparing supper: coriander, lemon grass, limes, chillies and garlic, sweet coconut, something shrimpy and fermented, the sizzle of duck or beef, rice steaming in a pot. We ate well in Bangkok, too – filling up on food bought from the many stallholders, skewers of meat and bags of noodles with dipping sauce. As instructed by our guidebooks, we avoided the tempting displays of cut fruit – pineapple, ruby melon, quarters of orange which you longed to suck in that billowing heat.

Last year I returned to Bangkok with our 16-year-old son, Tom. Two years ago, our younger son, Darcy, went on a week-long fishing holiday in Holland with Bruce, and the three males in my family have taken to going on skiing holidays without me, since falling on my bottom on freezing snow is not my idea of a good time.

So this trip was a chance for me to spend some time on my own with one of the children. I wasn’t apprehensive about whether we would get on: Tom’s Kevin-phase of teenagedom was shortlived, and I find him bright, funny, stimulating and generally good company. He also has adventurous tastes, particularly when it comes to food, so I knew he would be a fun travelling companion.

My only vague anxiety was who exactly would be looking after whom. We both have an appalling sense of direction – would this make the aimless wandering around strange streets, one of the pleasures of straying from the tourist path, a nerve-racking nightmare?

For his part, Tom was slightly worried that he might get bored of my company and hanker after people his own age. But, mostly, we were both incredibly excited to be going somewhere so faraway and exotic and culturally rich, as well as being lucky enough to stay at the Oriental; as Tom gleefully read out from our guidebook: “one of the best hotels in the world”.

The first shock when we arrived was the heat. The second was the very evident signs of boom-and-bust – the flourishing economy of the early Nineties, giving rise to the term “tuppies” (Thai yuppies), and its dramatic collapse at the end of the decade – as we drove into the city on a giant highway that didn’t exist when I was last there.

In Tom’s notes, scribbled under duress and abandoned by day three, he observed: “huge amounts of advertisements (gigantic billboards) + modern towers, looking futuristic”. I observed that Kate Moss is a goddess in the sky here as everywhere else in the world.

The Oriental was just about as perfect as a hotel can be. We were installed in the turquoise, green and gold Noël Coward suite in the famous Writers’ Wing. (Tom’s notes: “camp, opulent, expensive, decadent”.) Snooze then stroll in the backstreets around the hotel, where we are struck by the contrast between our neighbours’ digs and our own. Tom notes: “Discomfort looking into people’s homes, washing lines, etc.”

Most of the rooms are dark and cheerless and seem to have no furniture. Children and elderly folk sitting on the pavement playing some sort of board game. We stumble across a wonderful old building with shuttered windows and columns. I was told that many families were squatting there but soon won’t be, as some developer is planning to turn it into a boutique hotel or luxury flats.

Tom has his first fitting for his first-ever suit at the tailor recommended by the hotel – navy cashmere pinstripes with a dandyish red silk lining, five buttons on the cuffs. Can’t remember whether or not that was the requisite number dictated by the late Sir Hardy Amies, the undisputed authority on such matters. A swim in the lovely pool. We share a fruit cocktail with straws jutting out of a coconut. Followed by a buffet of amazing deliciousness and variety. Tom picks the most outré dessert of caramelised shallot and egg yolks rolled in coconut. That’s my boy, I think, and then: gosh, isn’t he like his father.

The next four days are a whirlwind of activity, interspersed with periods of pamperific bliss. We spend a couple of mornings at the Oriental’s own Thai cooking school – across the river near the gym – under the tutelage of San who, as Tom declares, is a most “charismatic chef”. We are encouraged to taste, sniff and touch leaves and spices and nothing we eat is like any Thai food I’ve tasted before: sticky rice sweetmeats scented with rose-candle smoke; little packages containing chopped garlic, chillies, nuts, tiny dried fish, ginger, kaffir lime skin, tamarind – the alchemy of sweet, sour and salty – which are like fireworks exploding in your mouth. And all the time we are entertained by San’s anecdotes and odd observations; at one point he starts waving at a fly: “Ah, that’s my pet. I call him Jeff, you know… Goldblum.”

One evening Tom, a keen jazzo (as is the King of Thailand himself, who writes his own pieces) jammed on the keyboards in Vanda’s restaurant and bar with a group of Thai musicians headed by Mr Ko Saxman, who kindly offered to take him on to his next gig from midnight to 4am. We elected instead to go to Sirocco, an al-fresco hotspot on the zillionth floor of a building a block or so away from the Oriental. This was very much the new Bangkok, full of whatever the latest word is for tuppies.

There is a massive Busby Berkeley-style staircase plunging down to a terrace, on which diners seem to be suspended in the twinkling neon sky, with only a waist-high sheet of glass to shield them from plunging into oblivion. A Jessye Normanesque woman sang from a circular platform, jutting out even higher above us, her kaftan billowing in the breeze. A sky bar flickered between different primary colours.

In our remaining time we took in Jim (Mr Thai Silk) Thompson’s house and the major wats – both Tom and me finding ourselves surprisingly moved by the Emerald Buddha, remote, glassed-in and inaccessible; perhaps because it is so small and yet there was something large about the solemn silence which fell on so many of us scruffy tourists sitting on the floor with our toes pointed punctiliously away, gazing on his beatific form.

Tuk-tuks, the three-wheel motorised health hazard, became my favoured mode of transport. This way you get to see all the street-level snapshots: children asleep on blankets as their parents sell their wares, busy eaters stuffing their faces with fragrant mouthfuls, the fresh flower-decked shrines on almost every corner, three generations of a family on a scooter.

Save the best for last, as Tom and Darcy always say. On our last day, the Oriental, anxious for us to avoid the disappointment of devoting hours getting to the floating markets – now apparently a totally phoney tourist-trap – arranged for us to do something infinitely more special. And for this, witnessing the look of entrancement on Tom’s face, as the secrets of Bangkok’s rivers and canals slowly revealed themselves, I hope I will always remember to be grateful.

After meeting our guide, Mr Tim, in the hotel lobby at 4.30am, we board a long-tail boat – a sort of exaggerated gondola, reminding us that Bangkok is known as the Venice of the East – and set off in the inky darkness. The silence and the movement through water is magical. As the hours go by, the water world gradually comes to life.

We see: stilted houses, one or two grand, but mostly modest – their decks smothered in pots of flowers iridescent in the half-light; girls and boys in school uniforms, standing in front of shrines; men washing in the river; women cleaning pans; two very young girls in uniforms rowing to school; an old lady in a straw hat in a boat full of vegetables for sale; T-shirts hanging up to dry (Tom reckons he spots one with the letters spelling Arsenal). Then the shaven-headed monks paddling up to the houses where they are presented with offerings of food – bowls of soup, curry, rice, fresh fruit, money. We make our own offerings and they look grave and uncomfortable when Mr Tim photographs them.

Still, it was a wonderful experience. We stopped off for breakfast at a riverside stall: tiny bananas, a hot soy milk drink with sweet red kidney beans and lotus seeds, into which we dunked a Thai version of the doughnuts the Spanish dip into their hot chocolate. On to a flower market with bunches and bunches of orchids; girls knotting together saffron marigolds which will be offered to Buddhas; my favourite dusky pink lotus flowers with their bright-green centres, beautiful furled and even more glorious unfurled… and then the sun and the dizziness and the lack of sleep began to take its toll.

On our first night back home in London, Tom and I regaled the rest of the family with our stories. On the table, I had placed a couple of the little buddhas you can buy anywhere in Bangkok for wildly differing sums of bahts; all of them cheap. There were dark lilies in a tiny vase and half-a-dozen candles; my own little shrine in homage to our holiday. Whatever else of our time there endures, Tom’s first suit is certainly wearing well.

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