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Thai time travel

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Duncan Forgan rediscovers nostalgic memories amidst the energetic buzz of Bangkok’s streets


With its gilded temples, sci-fi skyline and heady melange of sights, sounds and smells, Bangkok couldn’t be any more vivid, distinctive and impressive. Perhaps that’s why I remember that first encounter so clearly, almost 20 years after first touching down in Thailand’s famously frenetic capital.

The city provided an instant thrill. From the first powerful blast of enveloping humidity through the airport’s sliding doors, to the taxi ride that hurtled me Blade Runner-style along an elevated highway through a forest of lurid neon billboards to a canal-side guesthouse, I was hooked. After adjusting to the intense heat, I picked my way through hidden neighborhoods, caught my breath on languid ferry rides along the Chao Phraya River and filled up on cheap street food delights such as gai yang (grilled chicken) and som tam (spicy papaya salad).

During that initial two-month stint in Thailand, I piloted motorbikes around the striking emerald-green northern valleys, read piles of books in an artfully placed hammock by the banks of the Mekong River and showed off some creaky dance moves at pulsing beach parties around
the Kingdom.

I live in Bangkok now, half a lifetime later, and although my tastes have changed, my ardor remains undimmed. At once chaotic, confusing, and magical, the inexhaustible capital continues to spellbind. Here, old merges seamlessly with new, spiritual is balanced with the earthly and the sacred is on first-name terms with the profane.

Although it retains the innate exoticism that entranced me all those years ago, Bangkok has added a few strings to its bow in recent times. Days spent in glitzy malls and restaurants graduate to adult entertainment and pulsing nightclubs. A mellower, more spiritual side, characterized by ornate temples and palaces, canals and arty culture provides a counterbalance to the city’s brasher aspects.

Living here, I can explore easily and cheaply. Last month, I ventured to Koh Phayam — an idyllic island near the Burmese border on Thailand’s southern Andaman coast. With no roads and little development, it’s the ideal place to do nothing. As the last rays of light drained from the day, I gazed, hypnotized, as a lozenge-shaped sun dropped into the ocean. Thailand may have changed, but its fundamental allure remains blissfully constant.

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