Bangkok in the early hours is a hot, sticky place, the clammy air bonds clothing to skin like sheets of wet plastic. The gritty atmosphere leaves a thick, sooty film on everything. It’s as if the city is a two-pack-a-day set of lungs, hacking and spitting to get out of bed.
At 4:30am it all seems empty, even dead. Nothing stirs. The heavy, oppressive silence is pierced only occasionally by the rumbling of a passing truck or the quiet clucking of near-featherless hens strutting along empty streets. At this hour it doesn’t look like a city of 15 million.
I’ve just arrived. This is my first time in East Asia; it’s 1993 and the Thai capital is the jump off point from where I will make my way to Cambodia next door to observe and photograph the country’s historic upcoming elections.
The long flight from London has left me a little dazed and confused; and after a chaotic taxi ride from the airport, I’m looking forward to a shower and some kip time. But the hotel I’m billeted at isn’t open, and there is no sign of a night porter. A heavy chain with a large rusting padlock secures the bars of the front gate, while the tops of the once-white alabaster walls, cracked and greying now, are embedded with razor sharp shards of broken glass; it’s not five-star digs.
At this point my options are limited: wait out the remains of the night perched on an old orange crate or find a clear patch of pavement next to a wall and try for some sleep. I pick the former, simply because it’s too hot to sleep.
The corner I’ve chosen is at a crossroads. On one side of the street is what looks like a market in hibernation; on the other are houses and businesses stacked one on top of the other like a toddler’s attempt at building a castle out of blocks, but not really succeeding.
It’s still dark, the surrounding gloom is only just broken by a line of overworked streetlights, their non-stop flickering and buzzing giving the whole scene a film-noir feel, only in pale orange; I half expected a throng of zombies to amble out of the shadows. But as the dawn finally begins to peel back the night the streets slowly start to come alive.
Shutters on once-invisible shops clang and rumble open. The bitter scent of tea begins to permeate the air, while men wearing stained white singlets, paired with shiny football shorts and garish red plastic sandals emerge from tumble down houses to clean their teeth and spit into open drains.
Across from me a market shakes off the fog of sleep, the traders begin to pile colourful fruits and vegetables high in exquisite geometric displays; a daily competition, I imagine, to see who can create the ideal pyramid, like the Pharaohs of Egypt have popped up in modern Bangkok, this time however their construction is in bananas, coconuts, chilis and oranges rather than stone.
Three-wheeled Tuk-tuks, Thailand’s ubiquitous answer to the white van, only noisier and always blasting columns of black acrid smoke from their rusty tailpipes, both deliver and take goods away. These rickety little vehicles are the true backbone of Bangkok’s chaotic commercial life.
I’m deep in the haze of exhaustion now, the world around me has taken on a unique surrealism, as if I’m standing outside myself, watching me watch events unfold. After a few minutes of barely standing, fully loaded with too much gear, a voice rises above the cacophony. It takes me a second or two to pinpoint where it’s coming from, but looking down, I see an old woman who barely makes it up to my navel. She reminds me of a child at Halloween wearing an old person’s mask. She’s talking to me, but at this point Thai is the most foreign language I’ve ever come across. I look at her with a dumfounded stare, as if she is an alien, when it’s really me who is the alien.
She offers me a glass of a slightly milky looking liquid. I know I shouldn’t drink it – rule one of travelling in foreign lands: do not drink suspicious liquids offered by wizened old women – so I drink it. I’m going to regret this I say to myself; I’m going to be laid up in some run-down hotel, cosying up to a disgusting toilet for the next week while retching my insides out in more ways than I care to think about. But it was so good, a lime and soda concoction that cooled my insides. I finish it with a flourish.
She’s still there, staring at me and speaking in incomprehensible sentences and paragraphs. I can almost see speech bubbles forming above her head, like live-action animation from another planet. “What does she want,” I ask myself, while standing there looking dopey with an empty glass in my hand. Payment, of course, I realise. I give her a handful of crisp new Thai notes. A wide grin spreads across her wrinkled face, a row of cracked betel-stained teeth appears, set in a wall of mottled-pink gums that are far too big for her tiny mouth. Surely, she’s a character from a comic book. She then grabs the glass out of my hand and turns on her heals and toddles off; I suspect I’ve just paid her enough for a vat of that delicious cooling liquid.
By now my tiredness is hypnotic. I’m no longer part of this realm, just some amorphous being floating among the broken orange boxes and rotting vegetables; tuk-tuk drivers curse me as I unwittingly float into traffic, but I don’t care or even really notice.
Then at last I see a figure at the small side entrance to the hotel; first he’s just a shadow, then he comes into full focus. He too is wearing a stained singlet and carrying a toothbrush, but instead of red sandals his are brilliant blue. But I’m too tired to decipher any local sandal pecking order. I just want a shower and a bed. With his ablutions over he unlocks the metal gate. It cries with a horror-movie squeal as he drags it, almost in slow motion, across the full arc in front of the hotel until fully open.
I stare intently at him across the 30-metre divide between us, hoping he can read my mind, hoping he instinctively knows I need a bed and now. Our eyes lock, an unspoken message is sent and received, like two star-crossed lovers in a steamy 1940’s black and white movie located somewhere in occupied Europe, but he’s no Marlene Dietrich and I’m far from Dirk Bogarde. Still, with a slight nod of his head, almost imperceptible, I know he understands the situation. I’m deeply impressed by his instinct, his uncanny ability to understand the desperation I’m oozing. What humanity. I can almost feel the coolness of the shower and softness of the bed, I’m anticipating with relish a sleep so deep some would think I’ve passed into the next dominion. This simple man, like no other, has become a god-like figure to me; he’s stepped beyond being a mere mortal. I am in awe.
But then again, I am probably the only non-Thai person in at least a four kilometre radius, who happens to be up at silly o-clock, carrying too many bags and looking like he’s about to fall over from fatigue. And, after all, he does run a hotel and he needs to make a buck…