So, after eighteen months of globe-trotting, taking in three continents and many more countries, now en route to Taiwan, I find myself back in Suratthani. My home for over a year, I grew to love this sleepy, unpretentious little town more than I could have imagined and damn, it’s good to be back. For the past week and a half I’ve been intending to write this post but I’ve been lulled into inaction by the soporific blend of comfort and sensory massage which has welcomed me home.
Every one of my senses has been treated since leaving the cold, grey shores of the People’s Republic Of Scotia and returning to the Land Of Smiles. My vision was the first to be assaulted – from the second I disembarked in Bangkok there were explosions of colour all around me. No more monochrome skies and dull sandstone architecture, now it was all vibrant hues drenching me wherever I cast my gaze. From the fruit stalls to the pink taxis, from extravagant displays adorning Siam Paragon to the ubiquitous advertising banners draped over every storefront, it was like walking through a rainbow. The sky sealed the deal for me, an intensely blue canopy covering Thailand and keeping it safe from the outside world, such a unique, perfect, pure shade it’s almost an eighth colour in itself.
Almost simultaneously I noticed the auditory transition, the aggressive bludgeoning of my native tongue (Scots, that is) slyly replaced by the rapid-fire tonality of Thai. The language which confounded me when I first hit these shores in 2009 now sounds so welcoming, so pleasantly familiar, that I’m angry at myself for not keeping up with my own burgeoning linguistic skills. And of course there’s the music – the endless K-pop derivatives and blasphemous lounge-jazz classic rock covers which managed to worm their way into my heart. Yes I complain about the music here but there’s nonetheless something strangely comforting about singing along to a slice of pop cheese when you don’t even understand the lyrics, let alone know if you’re even making the right noises.
Taste and smell, so closely linked, received their treatments at the same time, passing the first street-food vendor I met. Words can’t describe the wonder of real Thai cooking – by which I mean Thai food cooked in Thailand using authentic, fresh Thai ingredients. The smells have me salivating instantly, indescribable aromas which set my stomach to rumble mode – and set my eyes to watering depending on the amount and species of chili used. I’ve been choosing my meals carefully, making sure to revisit my old haunts and favourite dishes while I have the chance – my daily staple of khao krapraw muu kai dao from the bridge restaurant, larb muu, muu daa deaw and khao niaw from the isan place on Donnok and, of course, my post-weights-session reward of Crack Chicken ™ on Karunrat. I hear Taiwan plays host to even tastier Chinese food than you find in China itself but it’s got a lot to live up to for someone coming from this culinary paradise.
The tactile difference in being here can be at times more subtle but also much more dramatic than the other senses. On leaving the airport I felt myself wrapped in two comfort blankets, both of which I’d dearly missed during a three-month Winter sojourn in Scotland, Canada and the Mid-West. Namely, the glorious, constant, life-affirming heat, and the ever-present humidity which can be the bane of new arrivals but which is missed the instant you enter drier climes.
It’s more than meteorological though, and more than just physical feelings. It’s the inner feelings that make all the difference, that confirm the rightness of my choice to make this land my home for a year and to return as soon as I had the chance. They don’t call this the Land Of Smiles for nothing. After a sleeper train from Bangkok to Surat and a bus from the station into town I donned my bulging rucksack and made the short walk along Donnok to my former home. I don’t exaggerate in the slightest when I say that almost every single shopkeeper on that road greeted me with smiles, laughter and exclamations of “You’re back!”, “Where you go?”, “Not seen you long time!”. People I’d not exchanged more than a few words with over the course of a year suddenly treated me like a long-lost son after just a few months absence. Returning to see actual friends, farang and Thai alike, was even more welcoming – night-long chats with Joy, Alex telling me I have to come and drink outside his shop every night, catching up with former colleagues, it’s been non-stop in an exhausting but thoroughly wonderful way.
Even the simplest of things – suddenly having three or four weeks in one place, allowing me to join a gym for a non-extortionate period of time – has made a world of difference to my outlook. After three months of sedentary living, over-eating, nicotine and alcohol I was putting on weight, feeling lethargic and occasionally threatening to lapse back into old ways of thinking, dark ways I’d left behind a long time ago. No more though, I’m back at my old gym, slowly getting my body back into some semblance of shape, just ran my first 10km in god-knows how long and feeling on top of the world for it.
I can’t say this loudly or often enough. Forget spending money on bullshit hippy new-age medicines and the like – frickin’ homeopathy, astrology, whatever – ditch all the self-help books, untangle yourself from whatever web of responsibilities you’ve been weaving for yourself since you left school and get moving. Get to Thailand, or Vietnam, or Ghana, or Chile, or wherever calls you the loudest. Treat your senses, your body, your spirit/soul if you believe in such things – treat them to change, to a new world, to refreshing experiences. Revive them, revitalise them (dammit, I sound like a shampoo commercial now) before they start to decay beyond repair.
Choose life. Choose freedom. Choose travel. Choose sipping ice coffees in the jungle just minutes from your home while telling your friends back home what they’re missing in the Land Of Smiles…