My brain stopped working. I couldn’t think, couldn’t come up with the right words and couldn’t stop the room swaying. I was pickling in a hot bath, trying to stay awake and vaguely aware of conflicting feelings: the opportunity of a free ticket to Asia; depriving Stewart of his holiday due to my irresponsibility; lumbering Moona with a guardian just when he thought he could have a moment of freedom. These thoughts weren’t coming together, they were like different coloured liquids that weren’t mixing properly in a glass. I couldn’t speak and I couldn’t resist Stewart’s determination. Next thing I knew I was sitting in First Class, flying over Europe and wondering how on earth I had managed to get there.
– Where’s Stewart? asked my Mother when I met her in Bangkok Airport.
She had no idea that I was coming out to Thailand instead of Stewart. There were no emails or mobiles in those days. I was so excited by the turn of events that I didn’t notice if my Mother was upset at finding out that he hadn’t turned up. My explanation of what had happened the night before didn’t make a lot of sense, but it was the truth and I didn’t want to dwell on it. I wanted to explore Thailand, a country I knew absolutely nothing about.
My Mother had been told that the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok was the best hotel in the world and she was expecting Stewart to take her there, at least for a night. I’d talked to Stewart the night before about money:
– Have you got any money on you, Rupert?
– Er… no…
– No problem. I’ve got a fifty quid note you can have.
– Fifty quid. Is that enough?
– Do you have a credit card?
– Good. What’s the credit limit?
– A thousand pounds.
– Excellent. Spend it all. I’ll reimburse you. Give your Mother a good time.
A thousand pounds was a lot of cash in 1984. My Full Grant at university, for rent and living expenses, was £2,000 a year. I felt like a rich aristocrat who had the world at his feet; with these funds we could go anywhere. We spent our first night in the Oriental Hotel, which was impressive, but I kept wondering why it was considered the best hotel in the world.
I had never seen anywhere as crowded as Bangkok – a vast sprawl around a big dirty river that was full of little wooden boats, each one packed with exotic fruits and mysterious looking boxes. The sky was overcast and the air was humid and smelt of spices and petrol. It was so hot that we sweated continually. Each street was blocked with cars, each pavement was full of people hurrying along and I was glad to find that the Thais are a friendly people.
What do people do on holiday in Thailand? We found out that tourists’ head for the beach or the hills and because we were fabulously wealthy we did both. We flew south to an island called Phuket, a hilly paradise covered in forest, beaches and bulldozers. We hired a motorbike and a grass hut by the beach.
We soon realised that Thailand is riddled with prostitutes; not the middle-age toughs that used to patrol my street in Liverpool but young and enticing beauties. I was afraid of getting tangled up with them but they assumed my Mother, who was attractive and young looking, was my girlfriend and they left me alone. But when I was on my own these pushy young women would follow me and hustle like drug pushers.
I went to the beach-side disco one night, was given juice and spirits, got totally smashed and went into a blackout. I came to my senses in a shower with a young man washing my back. How the hell did I end up here? I realised what was going on and felt a stab of fear; I was being prepared for homosexual sex. In a panic I got dressed and hurried out past a group of young men who lay expectantly on mats.
Many of the prostitutes I had seen were transvestites. The best looking woman in the disco turned out to be a guy, which I found out by being in his powerful grip on the dance floor. Thailand had developed this type of economy because of the huge numbers of American soldiers who would come over the border to Rest and Recuperate from their pointless war in Vietnam. I was told that there were over one million prostitutes in Thailand and that sex plays an important part in their economy.
We got the bus back to Bangkok. The southern part of Thailand is a thin strip of land covered in forest and when passing through the thickest part of the forest the bus was stopped by a squad of heavily armed soldiers. They swarmed onto the bus and checked my passport and the ID cards of the locals. I was surprises to see that the soldiers were friendly and that I wasn’t terrified.
We didn’t hang around in Bangkok. We got a modern sleeper train to the northern city of Chiang Mai. I was most impressed by the fact that our wagon had a shower, something I had never seen before on a train. We found a guide who took us trekking through the jungle of the Golden Triangle – a vast area covering parts of Thailand, Burma and Laos and said to be the world’s second biggest area of opium production. We would hear the odd explosion but none of the locals seemed even to notice them and I knew nothing about the struggles taking place between national armies, drug smugglers and liberation fighters hidden in the jungle.
We had been sold a Jungle Trek but the trees seemed rather thin and ordinary. There was no soundtrack of chattering monkeys, screaming parrots and the other sounds that accompany all televised presentations of the jungle. We could have been in France.
But when we reached the first village I realised we were in another world. I’d seen primitive villages in books and films but only at that moment did it strike me how attractive they are. Everything about these villages was magical: the surrounding forest, the lack of roads and modern communication, the simple houses and especially the half-naked people who were curious and so different from anyone I had ever come across. They would watch our every move with a patience I had never seen before, in a manner that felt unthreatening.
I was intrigued by these people and particularly by their feet. Because they never used shoes their feet were much stronger than ours, with well developed muscles around each toe. It was almost as if each of their toes had a personality, unlike our toes which are crushed into one ugly shape by constantly being trapped in tight shoes. Some of them had sores and fungus and I dispensed tiny amounts of anti-fungal cream that I happened to have in my bag for athlete’s foot. They seemed very grateful, word spread and soon there was a queue of people wanting a dab of cream.
The villagers’ houses were inspiring. A simple wooden frame would be covered with grass and leaves. Thin strips of split bamboo were used to make floors and these flexed every time you stepped on them – with bare feet of course; entering with muddy walking boots would have been criminal. The buffaloes lived downstairs, on the earth under the hut, and the family above. You could see, hear and smell the animals but it all seemed quite natural. They would invite us in and give us glasses of milky coloured alcohol, strange food and sometimes opium – which we smoked from pipes while lying on our sides – a narcotic that made the place seem like paradise.
They used tiny candles and I was really impressed that even the young children were aware of the risk of fire; as the candles guttered and burned out a small child would nimbly manoeuvre across the bamboo floor and, in a single movement, grab it and extinguish it. I was also impressed that my Mother entered into the spirit of all this like a young traveller; gone were the worries of publishing and running a big unruly family in Scotland. I had never seen her so relaxed.
Back in Bangkok the money was running low and my Mother was quite happy to stay in a cheap hotel. She had shared in my enthusiasm for the villages and encouraged me to visit somewhere else on the way home. My fear of travel had been replaced with a thirst for discovering Asia and a wonder for primitive lifestyles.
I changed my return ticket so that I could stop off in New Delhi and spend a month in India. The ticket didn’t cost much but I was down to my last hundred dollars and surely this wasn’t enough for a month in India? In Thailand I had spent over a thousand bucks in just two weeks but we ‘d been living well and India was said to be really cheap.
It turned out that a hundred dollars was more than enough to get round India in 1984. Everything seemed to cost a dollar or less: a delicious spicy meal from a street hawker, a bed in a cheap hostel or a train ticket to Agra, location of the Taj Mahal. I got a bus into the Himalayas, for not much more than a dollar, and ended up in Kashmir. The journey over those mountains was the most terrifying trip of my life and a useful opportunity to exorcise my fear. The bus was packed to the gunnels and just when I thought it can’t posibly get any fuller, it would stop and more people would push their way in. The noise — people yelling, and Indian music blasting through tinny speakers – was deafening but strangely inspiring. I held a place by the windscreen and the more full the bus got the more bodies pressed me up against the front windscreen. Eventually I was held there like an insect squashed against the glass, unable to move.
I had a bird’s-eye view of the Himalayas which were unfolding before us – wave after wave of high, black ridges. The road was narrow, twisted and steep. The black-bearded driver gunned the vehicle to its top speed until the engine screamed in protest. When he hurled his vehicle round the first sharp mountain corner the front end of the bus was momentarily suspended over open space. I caught a glimpse of a bottomless chasm, hundreds of feet deep – and I knew we were were all going to die. I closed my eyes and imagined the bus was already flying through open space and in less than a second we would hit the ground.
Somehow we were still driving. We had survived although nobody but me seemed to notice our miraculous escape. And then the same thing happened at the next corner, and the next. The driver, who was obviously insane, showed no sign of slowing down. I had the same shock when oncoming trucks would hurtle down the road towards us, each one of which would be taking up more than half of the road – as was our bus – making an impact inevitable. But neither driver made any sign of slowing down and they would pass each other smoothly.
Gradually I realised that we weren’t going to die and this was just how they drive buses in that part of the world. The driver and the passengers showed no sign of fear so why should I? What would be the point of worrying? All I could do was get off the bus and walk but it was a cold, hostile environment out there and it was getting dark. On that journey I felt as if I was looking death in the face and I learned to accept it, to not fear it, and as soon as I did this I started to enjoy every moment.
The bus drove through the night and we would stop for short breaks now and again, at tea shops in the middle of nowhere. Rickety wooden beds were laid out on the road and huge kettles of tea were bubbling on charcoal fires. The next day we passed a small mountain town and the bus stopped. On the pavement opposite the bus was a man in a white jacket pulling at the teeth of another man in a chair. The man in white was presumably a dentist and he was pulling with all his strength. The man in the chair made no sound. Eventually the tooth came out and the dentist held it up triumphantly. The seated man bent forward and spat big gobs of blood into a white metal bowl that was placed between his feet. Half a dozen other men were seated in a semi-circle, looking on approvingly.
In Srinigar, the capital of Kashmir, I stayed in an old wooden houseboat on Dal Lake, where high cliffs seem to climb directly out of the water. I spent an evening with the houseboat-family, who stayed on a small wooden vessel behind the one I was in. Crossing from one to the other involved walking along thin planks suspended above the water. We sat on the wooden floor of a large room that had no furniture whatsoever, and the evening’s entertainment consisted of watching the smallest children play. The toddlers were responsible for the infants and the older kids were in charge of them. It all seemed to make perfect sense.
Many years later I realised that I had visited India during its curious period of economic isolation, a period that lasted from independence in 1947 until the early 1990s. Before getting entangled in globalism and becoming the back office for capitalism, India occupied an unusual position between the global blocks of Capitalism and Communism. They used to describe themselves as a Non-Aligned nation, along with Yugoslavia and a few other countries, and as Fabian Socialists who aspire to socialism without the hassle and violence of a revolution.
You could see small shops and individual businesses on every street – so they obviously weren’t Communist – but the leadership believed in Marxist ideals and western investors were kept out. The cars were ancient British models, and the roads were full of buses, bullocks, hand painted trucks, ancient British Enfield motorbikes and tiny home-made motorised trikes they called phut phuts.
It was the only non-Communist country that refused the Coca Cola Company the right to sell its fizzy drinks. I felt particularly close to India as my grandfather was born here, as were his parents. For hundreds of years my ancestors were soldiers in the British Army in India and I felt this gave me a special connection to the place. In a way I felt like I was coming home.
Getting back to Heathrow airport in London was one of the most depressing moments of my life. I was missing Asia as if I had left my lover behind and I didn’t want to be in this freezing, mechanized, impersonal, unfriendly hell. I saw a couple of tough English lads, bursting with pent-up aggression, standing at the entrance to the airport. They looked at me as if to say: Look at that hippy! He needs a good kicking! and it struck me how I had never felt fear like this during all my recent travels in Asia, where people are a lot poorer.
I was so badly underdressed – sandals and shorts and my ridiculous looking leather jacket — that I felt real humiliation. All I could afford was an undergound ticket to North London where I stood on the M1 motorway, held up a piece of cardboard that said Edinburgh and waited to get a lift home.
I had no idea that home could be so depressing. I was suffering from culture shock and talked about Asia continually, sharing my travel experiences with anyone who’d listen. Then my brother Gavin, who has always been honest to the point of brutality, said: Here he goes! Talking about Asia again. It struck me like a physical blow, a shock, a stab of shame, as I realised that perhaps not everyone wants to hear all about my travels! I learned something very useful that day: don’t talk to people about your travels unless they seem genuinely interested; and it soon became clear that most people are not.