‘Would I fall in love all over again?’
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