The shimmering palaces were showing off, bidding me a fond farewell, perhaps sensing that I might not soon return to this ‘city of angels.’ As the river boat cruised along Bangkok’s murky Chao Phrya River, magnificent wats dazzled in the humid evening air. It was the last day of my visit and surely this was an architectural parade – a parade of ornate, timeless treasures. It transported me back to the beginning of it all.
A world away from the small Canadian town of my childhood, I marvelled silently that Bangkok is entwined with some of my life’s defining moments.
My first visit here as a wide-eyed twenty-one year old was my first to the Far East. Here, I fell in love with everything Asian; exotic palm trees, sensual orchids, pungent aromas of street side kitchens pervading the sultry air that corkscrewed my wayward hair. Yet, nothing hinted that a few short years later, I would embark on a lifelong adventure of travelling and living overseas.
I couldn’t have known that one day I’d live just a short flight away in India, but I’m sure the thought would have thrilled me. This rich and varied world had long staked a claim on my wanderlust soul.
As a teenager in our small home, the living room’s burnt-orange, shag carpet was a comfortable place to lounge — to leaf through National Geographic magazines and hefty encyclopaedias that fuelled my imagination. Often I would have waited, not-so-patiently, for the next volume to arrive. Long before the internet, we received these treasured books on a monthly instalment plan… a long wait for ‘T’ to read about Tibet or Thailand!
When I was seventeen, a high school trip to Italy introduced me to that world and conspired to change the course of my life. More precisely, it was Michelangelo’s statue of David that was the true culprit. When I stood in awe, in front of his imposing marbled presence in Florence, it ignited something deep inside. I wanted that beauty, that history and the rich cultures of the world to be part of my future. I was captivated.
After college, my first step was a move to the ‘big city’. With my ’77 Camaro stuffed to capacity, I drove out of town late one Sunday morning, through a landscape of honey-hued wheat and yellow canola fields, the Rockies framing the vista. Three hours north, shimmering in the August haze, the skyscrapers of downtown Calgary came into view. I had arrived to… well, the rest of my life.
With a job already secured, my mom had arranged for me to live with the daughter of a friend of hers. They had curled together for some 25 years and surely we would also get along? That first image of Carol’s apartment is etched in memory. Cushions from faraway Asian on the sofa, Lonely Planet travel guides on a pretty wicker shelf, backpack stowed away in a corner. Carol was my good fortune – not only was she a traveller, she was also a jewellery and clothes importer. And her buying trips were to none other than Bangkok. Naturally, it wasn’t long before I eagerly accompanied her on one of these excursions.
Now, thirty years on, Carol and I were here again. Still an importer, she visits yearly for buying trips and earlier this year before the launch of Monday Morning Emails, I decided to meet her in Bangkok. It was a quick jaunt from Bangalore and knowing she was there was too much to resist. We were excited to peek into our past and rekindle a little of our youthful wonder of old Siam.
In the ’80’s, Thailand and Nepal were a must on the backpacking route… today it’s more often Vietnam and Cambodia. Carol and I both knew that much of Bangkok had been transformed, propelled forward and wrapped in modernity. An efficient metro now traverses the city, skimming past gleaming high-rise buildings and gorgeous shopping malls. We wandered through them in animated conversation but, by the third day, I pleaded that I needed to see ‘real’ Bangkok. The Bangkok of royal palaces and temples, of back-packers’ alleys and cheap elephant-print harem pants, of roadside phad thai stalls, of long-tail river taxis and three-wheeled tuk-tuks. And yes, even of our old ‘haunt’ the Royal Hotel.
So we made our way to a river taxi halt along a klong. The klang, klang of a metal spatula on a family-sized wok rang out from a humble diner on the water-side station. The waft of sizzling noodles mingled with the diesel fumes of the river boats. Yes, this was the Bangkok of old.
’Board, board,” a conductor rushed us onto the longboat as it skimmed the gangplank in a momentary whistle-stop. At once we were gliding through narrow canals. Humble homes perched on stilts. Rickety walkways joined close-knit communities. Sarongs hung to dry. Songbirds chirped from dainty bamboo cages. Potted orchids and frangipanis splashed colour against aged wooden framed homes. Modern-day Bangkok was gone in a flash, happily left behind in the wash of our boat’s propellor.
As the waves splashed over the edge of the long wooden boat, Carol and I smiled knowingly. Weaving through canals and along the river is how Thais traditionally travelled. From the King to the common person, these waterways are the true heart, the essence of the city.
We hopped off and ventured to a wat, into temple grounds, tiled and cooling, to architecture calming and spectacular; hues of green and red, and glittering gold. The temple was quiet, save for a saffron-robed Buddhist monk offering a homily against a murmuring backdrop of dreamlike incantations. My senses are awakened and charmed, I embraced the temple’s ambiance as a cherished friend.
We played with a young toddler, on loan from his nanny. We laughed as we channeled our inner child. We reminisced.
And we were transported to simpler times – when there was little steel and glass beyond those walls, only the bustle and exuberance of 1980’s street scenes.
More poignant memories awaited at the iconic Royal Hotel. Carol and I walked the last few blocks along the wide boulevard that is Ratchadamnoen Avenue. Translating to ‘royal procession’, it was commissioned by King Chulalongkorn in 1897. It has the feel of a Champs-Elysees, grand and wide, designed for the pomp of royal parades.
When the Royal Hotel came into sight I was taken aback. Where it once looked so imposing and luxurious, its art-deco facade, although charming was surely diminished? I remembered it being so distinctive, so exotic. This hotel had been the first to welcome me to Asia, but now the scene that had played in my memory through the years was altered in an instant. I wondered if perhaps some things are best left to the treasured memory?
One of the last ‘old-style’ lodgings situated close to the Democracy monument, The Royal had been notorious as a shelter for political demonstrators and a first aid station during conflicts. But most of all, it was a haven for more discerning travellers and now as Carol and I perched across the avenue to take it all in, the change seems complete. It’s now on the mass tourist circuit.
We watched busloads of tourists stream in and out. In those halcyon days it was for travellers with a little money, perhaps a respite before the next low-budget sojourn. A few nights break from the backpackers alleys, the grubby sheets and the too-thin walls.
Once inside, the lobby looked forlorn. Where were those rapturous bouquets of orchids in their delicate Thai pottery. Where was the buzz of travellers sharing stories and jotting down notes? The imposing carved wooden desk was still there, where it had always been.
“I can still picture the young lady who worked there. It was the travel desk,” Carol said wistfully. I too remembered that our overnight bus trip to Surat Thani was booked here – and our stay at a beach hut in Koh Samui. In the days before internet, one used the travel desk and after a day out, your tickets would be waiting for you when you returned.
“Miss Carol, Miss Terry Anneee. Tickets ready. S a w a d e e k a,” I can almost hear her welcoming, lyrical voice.
The same wooden key drop is still at the front desk as is the post box from where we posted our letters home. In fact, it’s here that my love affair with stationary began. The hotel’s pretty purple letterhead enticed me to start collecting and I’ve done so ever since.
We peeked through the property noting the charming retro architectural features, a little Thai, a little European – all conspiring to its erstwhile grandness.
We ventured up the spiral staircase and outside to the swimming pool. This is where we would have luxuriated after a day of traipsing, sightseeing, and plying the city markets.
“Ah it was fun. It was amazing,” we both conceded with faraway gazes. Maybe it didn’t ‘sparkle’ quite as my memory had conjured, but the pool at the Royal is also where I spent the day, five years later, before I went to the airport to pick up my mother. I had not seen her for almost a year and I was thrilled to welcome her to Bangkok. At that point, a six month backpacking trip had elapsed and I was living in Japan. I was excited to confide to her that I was about to become engaged. Yes, for this is also where a certain young Scotsman had joined me to travel before that backpacking trip.
“Carol, this is where I was when he arrived,” I said, pointing to a lounger. “Just here I think.” Allowing a backward daydream of Bruce arriving, leather backpack thrown over his strong swimmer’s shoulders, I remembered that moment when he had indeed shown up to travel despite our relationship still rather ‘undefined’. A period of dating had ensued nine months previous. He had arrived in Calgary after having worked in Africa, his plan to travel through North America slightly derailed. Working and meeting that person that just might be the one of your dreams can do that – our young romance blossomed, yet my goal was still to travel.
I had been saving for years for this backpacking adventure. Then with the money finally in place, I had given up my job, my apartment and bought a one-way ticket to Asia. With my hopes and dreams stuffed into a 55 litre backpack, Bruce persisted.
“Can I meet you in Bangkok, travel with you for a few months?” he had asked a few months prior to me leaving.
I had said yes. It was meant to be for just two months – we’re still travelling today.
Carol and I bid farewell to the Royal, convinced it would be the last time we saw it. We wandered through back streets where simple, daily life was in full swing. Dogs lazed and recycling was collected. Foot massages were offered along the canal-side, animated conversations spiced the outdoor cafes. In these streets, the Thai smile was still given with warmth and ease, genuine and welcoming.
We tuk-tuked it to nearby Khao San Road. The backpacker’s haven has been spruced but still alive with the vibrant coming and going of travellers; seeking an adventure, an experience, maybe an escape from the ordinary… just as I had eagerly done.
Carol and I ordered a tall Singha. “Cheers! To the past, to the future, to friendship.” We clinked our glasses. We talked. We people watched. Wonderfully, some things never change.