‘Would I fall in love all over again?’

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

died sev­eral months ear­lier. King Bhu­mi­bol Adulyadej had been the coun­try’s longest­serv­ing monarch, on the throne for 70 years and deeply loved. Think back to the na­tional geyser of emo­tion af­ter the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, mul­ti­ply that by 10 and you’re be­gin­ning to get close to how the Thais feel about him.

Bangkok has changed dra­mat­i­cally in 30 years. It was al­ways hec­tic with tuk-tuks and peo­ple rush­ing in ev­ery di­rec­tion, but now it feels like the set of Blade Run­ner. It’s a dystopian crush of chok­ing traf­fic, neon ad­ver­tis­ing hoard­ings, thick skeins of loop­ing elec­tric wires over­head, tow­er­ing sky­scrapers with an­cient wooden houses crammed in be­tween with air con units hang­ing lop­sid­edly off the walls.

For­tu­nately, our ho­tel was a bliss­ful oa­sis of peace, with lush gar­dens along the side of the river, where you could en­joy the breeze and a cock­tail while watch­ing the long-tail boats shoot rooster tails of spray out the back as they rushed past, or the slow, stately rice barges, as long as foot­ball fields, and each car­ry­ing 2,000 tons of rice, strain through the choppy wa­ter. The food in the restau­rant took me straight back – peanut, lime, chilli, galan­gal, toasted co­conut and lob­ster wrapped in a be­tel leaf. It was like a shot of in­tense flavour straight to the brain.

Our guide to Bangkok was the en­thu­si­as­tic and good-na­tured Gop, who shep­herded us around just a few of the city’s 500 wats (Bud­dhist tem­ples) all with pitched, brightly tiled roofs with up­turned points at ei­ther end and enough gold within to make the Catholic church look Pres­by­te­rian. In Wat Pho, a 46m-long re­clin­ing Bud­dha cov­ered in gold leaf looks as it’s been squeezed into the build­ing. Wat Traimit is home to a solid-gold Bud­dha weigh­ing more than five tons. The se­cu­rity is neg­li­gi­ble con­sid­er­ing it was last val­ued at £45mil­lion. But then how could you ever steal it?

My chil­dren were as awestruck by the tem­ples as I first was. But then we headed to the daddy of them all, the com­pound of the Royal Palace. Thirty years ago my bud­get didn’t stretch to a visit here and I’ve been kick­ing my­self ever since. Snaking a good mile round the block to the en­trance was a queue of Thais dressed in black, there to pay their re­spects to their beloved king, who was ly­ing in state. Gop told us she had been to see the king at rest no less than six times al­ready, and planned to take a week off for his fu­neral be­cause she would be too up­set to go to work.

The Royal Palace is the Ver­sailles of the Ori­ent, a stage set of gleam­ing spires and daz­zling, jewel-en­crusted tem­ples. It is an­cient Thai­land at its most mys­ti­cal, ma­rooned in the trap­pings of mod­ern cities ev­ery­where, a haze of traf­fic fumes, blar­ing horns and huge groups of Chi­nese tourists try­ing to pre­serve their pal­lor un­der um­brel­las.

I man­aged to show my fam­ily the Bangkok I re­mem­bered as we took a boat along the quiet canals and back wa­ters off the bustling Chao Phraya river; past wooden houses tee­ter­ing above the wa­ter on rick­ety stilts, women stok­ing woks on char­coal burn­ers on lace­work bal­conies hang­ing out pre­car­i­ously over the wa­ter, watched by un­blink­ing mon­i­tor lizards bask­ing in storm drains. We strolled through the flower mar­ket open 24/7 with new mounds of jas­mine and rose petals ar­riv­ing ev­ery few min­utes. I showed the chil­dren the ar­ray of alien herbs and veg­eta­bles at the gro­cery mar­ket, with shop­pers pick­ing through dozens of va­ri­eties of ruby-red radishes, aro­matic stalks and leaves, knob­bly roots and huge piles of gar­lic. And I feasted on the thing I’d been long­ing to eat since I was last here: mango and sticky rice wrapped in ba­nana leaf. It has the mag­i­cal com­bi­na­tion of sweet and salty, sharp and unc­tu­ous that you only find here. It was as won­der­ful as I re­mem­bered. The kids wouldn’t touch it.

Three days was enough for me in Bangkok all those years ago, and it was no dif­fer­ent now. It’s like liv­ing in the mosh pit of the nois­i­est rock con­cert with the best acts and the most spec­tac­u­lar light show. To re­cover from our sen­sory over­load, we headed south to the is­land of Koh Sa­mui. Last time, I ar­rived by boat, as there was no air­port, and I stayed in a hut on the beach, as there were no ho­tels. I wasn’t seek­ing to recre­ate that par­tic­u­lar idyll and was very happy to get on a plane and turn up at our beach­side ho­tel on the north-east coast of the is­land.

What was once a sleepy par­adise in the Gulf of Thai­land for un­washed back­pack­ers with lit­tle money but lots of time has meta­mor­phosed into an al­to­gether sleeker and more af­flu­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. The road­side vil­lages have grown, book­ended with stylish ho­tels

Wat Traimit, be­low; Fiona on the beach, left; a flower mar­ket, above left

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