Ask any traveler what they remember about a country and invariably it’s their first impressions that remain the most vivid. Undoubtedly, this is due to a heightening of the senses. The smells, tastes, colors and language are all registered with a freshness, simply because they are foreign. Depending on the degree of the cultural shock, the traveler’s mouth can spend more time open than shut. Not in speech, but amazement.
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But, over time, the excitement wanes, those mental photo negatives become faded and the owner of them often becomes jaded. A natural consequence of experience.
Arriving at midnight in this country, my first impression was not simply of the numbers of cars on the road but at how badly they were being driven. Heading into the city, my auntie passed another one in flames, lying mortally wounded by the side of the highway – as though it had torched itself in protest.
I was also acutely aware of my own insignificance as I began to grasp the sheer size of Bangkok. There are no official numbers of how many people live here, because at least two million come and go according to what’s happening down on the farm. Once the rice is in, there’s zip to do but watch it grow. Despite that, a population estimate of eleven million wouldn’t be far out.
Even the first exchange of a new country is usually formed by the traveler before arrival. For many, England evokes images of old castle, red telephone boxes and eccentric ladies in tweed skirts and sensible shoes pottering about in cottage gardens and waving to the postman.
Spare us, perlease. It is not that these things can’t be found, it’s just that they are no longer a true reflection of Britain – any more than the Reichstag is a mirror of Germany, or the Taj Mahal is of India.
Yet Thailand should not decline its own reflection. All that the country holds dear is still here. But behind the saffron and the smile there is a different reality at work. It can and often does, take the newcomer by surprised. Indeed, strangers who come here seem stunned on arrival and comatosed (is there such a word?) on departure.
Before leaving London. A travel agent neglected to mention to a visitor that his planned visit to Bangkok would coincide with the wet season. A week after his arrival, his parents received an urgent telegram: “STREET FULL OF WATER STOP PLEASE ADVISE STOP”. His father replied, “THEN SWIM YOU PRAT STOP”.
A Thai’s image of England may be the one of a landed gentry living in large country houses. But the reality is more of a stranded gentry whose sheltered lifestyle comes in the shape of a cardboard.
All that's in my mind, is those words we never say but always hear falling between the cracks.