I never really wanted to go to Thailand.
Any country with snigger-inducing place names like Phuket, Phi-Phi and Bangkok really has no choice but to declare itself a magnet for sleazy sex tourists. On the other hand, there’s no point being prudish when it’s pretty, it’s reasonably cheap and it’s a doddle to reach with direct flights from SA. Besides, I thought, maybe I’ll learn some new tricks.
What I found was a land of enormous contrasts. That’s such a cliché, but Thailand is rightly notorious for its barely-dressed beauties selling themselves outside brothels wedged between silk stills and noodle sellers. Yet in poor peasant villages the farmers still eke out a living using oxen to pull their ploughs.
Somewhere in between is the heart-rending sight of countless war graves near the haunted tracks of the death railway, immortalised as the Bridge Over the River Kwai. I never saw the movie where Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins pretend to be brave as their soldiers died from exhausting toil in steaming jungles. But I’ve followed the track, looked down pensively from the bridges, walked among regimented rows of graves, and seen reconstructed dormitories where prisoners of war died slowly from malaria or gangrene.
I’ve caught the train that blows a melancholy whistle as it hoves into view, curling around a magnificent mountain on a viaduct built by hand. After disturbing the ghosts of 7 000 allied soldiers, some just 19 years old, and 80 000 Asian labourers who died building the railway you need a bit of light relief.
That means Bangkok; a crazy place of hectic traffic, karaoke bars, gigantic night markets selling trinkets and tack, and gaudy temples. The Grand Palace is even more gaudy than the markets, as its dozens of buildings each vie to be more ornate than the last.
A floating market just outside Bangkok is worth a visit, to get punted around on longboats while you barter for parasols and stinky durian fruit.
If you’re after a bit more culture you can take in a show designed to display the traditional Thai way of life. I don’t recommend it. I got the giggles when the dancers were playing farmer boys leading the donkeys, and a whole row of us ended up snorting and suffocating as we listened to an excruciating tinny whine of a one-stringed instrument as the dancers posed and pouted.
Call me a cultural klutz, but if that’s the traditional lifestyle, no wonder all the young Thais are heading for the highlife of Bangkok.
Way up north in remote Chiang Mai I boarded an elephant for a lumbering journey down rivers and mountain paths. It was a wonderful experience, although I was a fraction miffed to be sitting on a wooden seat, rather than playing Jane the jungle girl by perching on its neck and tickling its ears with my feet.
The elephants have been trained to play football and paint pictures with their trunks, which feels rather demeaning, but if they weren’t entertaining tourists the elephants would have been killed and the land turned into rice paddies, our guide told us. So I paid my cash, patted the cute babies and asked Buddha to grant them a kind keeper.
On the food front I was discovering deliciously cheap lunches of black bean breads and green bean pastries. Suppers were noodles and rice, heaps of vegetables and various meaty bits of often-indefinable origin.
Thai food is a bit like the whole country on a plate, really. A blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar, lots of bits you like, some bits you can do without, but all well worth sampling.