Even half dazed and half dozing, right off the plane and hurling down on the freeway, every single detail was a sign that we had entered a new continent and were about to experience a totally different culture.
First, there was the humid heat, like stepping in a bathroom where someone just had a long hot shower. Then there was the relentless traffic, garrishly pink taxis, busses sporting garlands of flowers over their dashboard and scooters carrying families of four including the shopping and the dog, all of them darting in and out, with the same apparent death wish. Finally, there was a riot of new sights and smells that our jetlagged brains recorded in flashes of amazement.
We drove in between a dazzling mixture of brand new and crumbling old buildings all fighting for spaces and views along a lazy, curving river. We rushed past a multitude of tiny shops, ladden with goods doubling up as a home for three generations of the same family. We smelled délectable looking food served piping hot out of wheeled, portable kitchens josling for room on the roadside. We spotted mazes of narrow, busy streets hidding colourfull temples and night markets.
There is so much to be explored,so much to be tasted and discovered...Yep, exactly our cup of iced lemon tea.
We have been leading a double life since we arrived, thanks to Paul's childhood friend James who calls Thailand home.
The Ibis Hotel where we are staying in Bangkok sits right on the river. Our family room on the seventh floor offers a bunk bed, two TVs and an Xbox station to Maxim and Callum's utter delight, as well as a view on cool boats and concrete skyscrapers. At night, according to Maxim and Callum sitting by the window, it looked as if alien spaceships were gliding through a spaceport as the buildings and the boats turn their garlands of neon lights on. Here we live as tourists, curing our jetlag with long breakfasts and cool fruits smoothies by the pool overlooking the river. We do not cook, we do not clean, we do not queue, we shamelessly bask in lazy luxury, after two months of travelling on the rough in a tiny camper and before landing back into the real world of school and chores....there is lots of time to relax and keep homework on tracks, our only duty.
It all changes when James picks us up and open the curtain on the thai way of life. No matter where he takes us, we always have a priviledged look into a world normally hidden to tourists.
He took us to a quiet blue temple inside the belly of a gigantic three headed elephant, after walking through a massive dragon staircase covered in a colourful mosaic of recycled ceramics. It was one rich man's dream, who died before his mad project got finished. Today, people come here to pray. We lit up joysticks and got our fortune told (all good) and left in awe.
He took us to a seafood restaurant, with little huts sitting on a mangrove and linked by rickety bridges. There, we sat quietly on a mat in the red sunset and far away from the noise of the city. We watched smiling thais bring us steaming, delicious, strange dishes, walking over the dark water to our lonely hut.
He took us deep in the markets of Chinatown, and in that tight maze of goods of all sorts, there were still scooters from hell, zooming by with a death wish and with absolutly no regards for customers pancaking themselves against the shops.
He took us to his home, with its open balcony on the 27th floor, glups, for a typical spicy thai meal with his family, sitting on a mat on the floor (so much simpler and space saving than table and chairs). His one year old daughter, Chloe is educated the Thai way. She never has to cry, never falls asleep alone and eats on the go...eyes were opened wide when I told about high chairs, control crying and quiet corner...Thai children raised in this tender, gentle way grow up to become smiling, resilient adults...It made me wonder about our western toddler taming methods...
But among all the outings this week, two stood out more than the others and went straight to the memory box for different reasons.br>
One night, James's thai wife Ooh, took me grocery shopping after her work. In the western world, you jump in the car and go to a shopping centre where you push a trolley on gleaming floors. Here, you jump on a Tuk Tuk and go to a night market where you walk on wet concrete . A tuk Tuk is a typically thai contraption. It is half scooter, half two seater sofa, optimistically balanced on three wheels and usually driven by formula one hopefuls. As we approached, the driver gave me, the clueless farang, a speculative look, then wisely divided his price by three under Ooh's glare. She hardly had the time to warn me, too late, to mind my head, and to hang on, as the fragile Tuk Tuk hurled itself down the street among trucks, busses and scooters with a death wish. My life flashed forward for a second as we turn right into the oncoming traffic, zoomed down a tiny street and stopped abruptly into a world of noise and colours. French markets are clean and quiet, there are recognisable fruits and vegs, cheeses and dried sausages, flowers and souvenirs. Here, in the cheerfull sounds of thai pop, even the flowers looked alien. The only food I could identify was big boiled cow tongues. There was strange meats being fried, fragrant smelling soups served in plastic bags out of massive steaming vats, sweet desserts cooked in leaves or floating in little jars. I could not work out if I was looking at fruits or vegetable, insects or frogs, as we walked deeper and deeper from one puddle to the next. By the curious glances at me, I might even have been the first farang to have ever stepped in here. I could have stayed here for hours, all senses on recording mode, but the Tuk Tuk and its formula one like driver confronted busses and trucks again and against all hope brought us safely back, ladden with bags of delicious and strange treats. This will stay in my mind next time I do my grocery shopping in Perth.
One afternoon, as little Chloe was sick, James took me along to the children section at the local hospital. In The Western world,and expecially in Perth, hospitals are clean and quiet, you go in an impersonal waiting room and wait patiently on hard chairs with your sick bored child until an overworked doctor gives you the time of the day. James took us to what looked at first as the elegant entrance of a five stars hotel, with confortable looking leather lounges and massive stainless steel pillars. We walked past a mall like food court and shops and took a gleaming lift to the children section. I felt fierce envy as I took in the waiting room. On the side of the waiting room, there was a huge playroom, with big pillows, a Mac Donald like slide, a big screen TV and a computers corner. The doctor consulting rooms were shapped like little houses,,with their names on cute letter boxes, the waiting room had comfy sofas and miniature benches. All this was wasted on us as the doctor saw us within five minutes...and all this luxury was thanks to Ooh's work private insurance...this will haunt me next time I wait at the Perth children hospital...
We are packing up tomorrow to drive to Phu Noi, a place so tiny, and out of the beaten track, it does not even figure on most guide books. Its long beach sits by a jungle at the foot of a mountain and the house where we will stay for two weeks does have a pool but no wifi. According to James who is taking us there, it is paradise on earth...I will tell you all about it when we come back.