Our correspondent travels from Hong Kong to Bangkok through a bruised land of incomparable beauty, seeing an Asia most of us only dream about
Offerings at a Buddhist temple in Vietnam
I am probably a type-A personality by nature, but I wanted to take the slow road to Bangkok. It was one of those journeys you do to remind yourself that there is still a world out there, a world unconcerned with you, or your job. I wanted to see the part of the world you normally fly over.
Hong Kong was where I started. Leaving the steps of Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, I went to see life as the other half – the other 99 per cent – live. Hong Kong amused me. This was the Chinese city made by the British; the commercial centre with no flat ground for building a warehouse. I found myself walking up steep lanes running with water. People were pulling sacks of ducks on trolleys. It seemed to me that Hong Kong Island was about to sink under the weight of its own city. I’d never seen a skyline so modern, so strange.
Angkor, when I got there, smelt of dry grass and tree roots. Its sun was like an ancient god. I could have stayed there forever
I walked for hours, breathing sea-spray and rice. In a market I sat by bubbling cauldrons, under a fan that creaked with soot. There were cats around me, and a caged parrot that spoke Cantonese. I drank a glass of cold soymilk while tanned men in shorts and vests watched in silence.
The crabs in tanks, the bespectacled pharmacists, the flabby-leaved creeping plants: all the trappings of the land where East meets West. It was exactly what I wanted, exactly what I needed.
Mui Ne beach, about 100 miles east of Ho Chi Minh City
But I also had to keep moving. This was how my mind worked. I couldn’t stop. So I bought a ticket and flew to Vietnam. And on the road from the airport into Hanoi, looking at the elegant, thin façades of the country houses, the bicycles, the conical hats, the ox-drawn ploughs and the paddy fields of legend, I knew I was doing the right thing.
In the capital I spotted a statue of Lenin, off Dien Bien Phu Street: he looked out of place, under the palm trees. I didn’t understand politics, and I wondered what the Americans had been fighting here for. Moscow might have been covered in snow, but old Hanoi, it seemed to me, was barely touched by autumn. Locals wore light jackets and hats and sat by braziers after dark, and watched leaves drift down over their lakes.
After a few days I got a train south to Ho Chi Minh City. This journey was supposed to take days – or was it weeks? – but I wasn’t bothered. I went to sleep in a rumbling compartment and awoke the next morning at dawn, to the sight of peaks rising through mist. Peasants were at work in green paddy fields hemmed in by cliffs. They stood and watched me pass. I waved, without knowing why. Just before Hué, a pretty Vietnamese girl on the train told me we were passing the old demilitarised zone (DMZ line), which once divided North and South Vietnam. ‘Lots of bomb-craters,’ she said, in a casual voice, pointing. The sea opened up below us, blue-grey and slowly heaving.
A fast boat took me up the river, crossing half of the country in a few hours, taking me past swimming children and straw huts on stilts
On the third day I reached Ho Chi Minh City at dawn, as the sun was rising through the mist. I saw a bright and colourful city, an old city, an elegant city: the city my parents had called Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. Great old trees ran down the boulevards. And while Hanoi had had its seasonal chill, here by the southern Mekong there was only heat.
At seven, the traffic started. It felt as though someone had switched it on. People rode their motor scooters the way they had ridden their bicycles. City workers, housewives, dudes, executives, students, party animals, professors, gangsters: they skipped red lights, cut corners, mounted pavements. I could have joined them in their daily bustle – except that I couldn’t have. I was still on the move, aiming for Thailand. Over there, out west. That was where I had to go.
And Cambodia, when I thought about it, sounded like a wild place. After reaching Phnom Penh, I sat in my room overlooking the river at dusk. Rain was beating on a corrugated iron roof. Spires in the skyline cut the air like knives. From the street below came the sounds of cooking and laughter.
I left for Angkor in the morning. A fast boat took me up the river, crossing half of the country in a few hours, taking me past swimming children and straw huts on stilts. Angkor, when I got there, smelt of dry grass and tree roots; its sun was like an ancient god.
Buddhist monks at Angkor Wat
You could wander these jungles forever. I was inside the skeleton of a city that had once teemed with monks and princes and stone-workers and cooks and soldiers and servants and courtesans and wrestlers and chess-players and masseurs and poets and artists. Now I just saw giant trees, and dry leaves, and stones, and a few monks, carrying saffron umbrellas.
I spoke to an old Khmer who had survived everything. ‘You can’t kill a monk,’ he laughed. ‘You can shoot them, and they don’t feel it. The Khmer Rouge tried to get rid of them. But they are still here.’
Sunset caught me alone at Bayon temple, with the jungle encroaching. I ran through its tangled corridors, stained by moss, lichen and soot. In one of the towers above my head, a snake was doing battle with a pullulating mass of bats; I glimpsed its white tail flash in and out of view.
Outside, in the dusk, the cicadas rang out like jangling bells. From overgrown stones, faces looked down on me; the faces of Buddha, they had said, or of an ancient Khmer king.
I started thinking of Hindu myths, where the primeval catastrophe story involved not flood, but fire. And in the last light of day, looked out over red walls and green ponds, half-choked by grass and duck-weed. Tendrils dangled from above, and the whoopings and cacklings of the jungle were filling my head.
Traders at a floating market, Bangkok
Angkor was like a drug. I could have stayed for ever, shuffling through the leaves of the forest. But it wouldn’t do to stop. I was moving on and moving on. The next morning, I forced myself out of bed and boarded a bus for Bangkok. I sat at the back, in silence, surrounded by strangers: a Swedish nurse, German college students, an American teacher, an Australian lawyer. Now we were all going the same way.
And when we got to Bangkok, a day later, freeways of oil-black tarmac were funnelling traffic in and out of the city. Planes circled overhead, vast buildings shone resplendent through the mist by the Chao Phraya river. Inside all this, I hoped that Bangkok was waiting for me: I was looking for crowded alleyways where women sold silk by the yard and old men counted money in dark shophouses.
Maybe I could stay a while, I told myself. I hadn’t yet thought about going home. As I walked through the doors of The Oriental, into the Grand Old Lady of Bangkok, the real world in between receded, as if it were a dream.