Chapter 1 – The Grand Plan
L has spent months reading guide books to Thailand, to Vietnam, to Laos and Cambodia, cross checking information with websites and making colour coded lists on Excel. She has bought travel insurance and booked appointments with doctors and dentists. She has signed up for Motorcycle Compulsory Basic Training (or How to Ride a Moped without Killing Yourself), and stood in long Christmas post-office queues to obtain International Driving Permits. She has also bought sufficient quantities of toiletries for every eventuality, to last the full three months, in case there are no shops in South East Asia.
D: So how do the visas work?
L: To which country?
D: All of them. Any of them.
L: Umm… I can’t remember.
D: Will we need malaria tablets?
L: Err… I’m not sure.
D: Will my mobile phone work?
D: Over there.
L: I don’t know.
D: Do we need local currency or can we use dollars? What shape are the plug sockets? Will there be ice-cream?
L: I’d better check.
D: How hot will it be? Shall I pack a jumper?
L: It depends.
D: On what?
L: On where we go. There are four whole countries, with cities and beaches and mountains and rivers and plains.
D: So where are we going?
D: When we go. For the three months. Where will we be?
L: Every day?
D: (generously) Well, not every day of course. Just in general. Most days.
L: I don’t know.
D: Oh. But we’re going next week.
L: I know. But there’s quite a lot of it, and I’ve read so much that I’ve forgotten most of it.
D: What’s that enormous pile of stuff?
L: That’s just going in our wash-bag. Actually into five wash-bags. For travelling and living and spares. And sun protection. And first aid.
D: Great. Umm…. So who’s going to be carrying all that?
L: Oh, there should be plenty of room in your rucksack.
D: Right. Is it time?
D: Time I showed an interest and got involved a bit?
L: Yes. I think maybe it’s time.
Chapter 2 – Just Like Business Class
L: I can’t believe you’re so mean. It’s a twelve hour flight!
D: Very funny. Assuming, just for the sake of argument, that we don’t win the lottery this week, you must agree that we are possibly – just possibly – better off not spending £2,000 on a Business Class upgrade just so that you can lie down for a few hours. Anyway, I don’t need to sleep – my time is too valuable – I’ve got to watch all the films.
L: Right. Done. I should get a good night’s kip.
D: Done? What have you done? How much have you spent?
L: Not much.
D: How much?
L: Sixty quid.
L: Between us.
D: On what?
L: A double bed in our own en-suite room.
D: On the plane?
L: For sixty quid? Hardly. In Abu Dhabi. I’ve booked flights with a nine hour overnight stop-over to break up the journey half way through. We’ll get a blissful 7 hours sleep in an airport hotel. It’ll be just like travelling Business Class!
D: Just like.
L: (At Heathrow Airport) Our flight is a bit delayed. As we’ve got time, I might just pop into Boots and buy some more shampoo. And body lotion. And mouthwash.
D: No. Just no. If you buy it, you carry it, everywhere we go, for the next three months.
L: Oh. That seems highly unreasonable, doesn’t it?
D: Does it?
L: Doesn’t it?
D: Does it.
L: Maybe we can manage without.
L: (At Abu Dhabi Airport) That didn’t go quite as planned, but we had a tremendously comfortable two hours sleep, didn’t we?
D: (Yawning) Tremendous.
L: I thought you didn’t need to sleep? Isn’t your time too valuable?
D: I’ve changed my mind. And two hours is worse than not sleeping at all. I need coffee. It’s an emergency.
Chapter 3 – Bangkok Bewilderment
D: (tapping his phone) Nice temperature. 27 degrees at 9pm.
L: Bangkok’s so clean!
D: We’ve only seen the airport.
L: And the metro.
They are standing on a gleaming underground platform. A train arrives. They are organised into lines by ferocious female station guards blowing whistles. The train doors open. The guards look threateningly at their neatly formed queues, daring anyone to move. Everyone obediently stands still. The guards check all the carriages for abandoned bags and other security threats, before once more launching into loud whistle blowing and impatient arm waving to herd the politely waiting passengers onto the train.
At the other end of the journey they walk for 15 minutes through the darkened city to their hotel. Traffic is light and the streets feel safe. A lurid pink golf-buggy with an enormous chrome exhaust pulls up beside them.
They shake their heads, declining, not knowing yet how these things work. They walk on to the hotel and leave their bags before heading out for something to eat.
Yaowarat Street is one of Bangkok’s main thoroughfares through Chinatown, and is busy and brightly lit with a profusion of neon signs. Taxis, buses and tuk-tuks trundle by, and mopeds weave amongst them. Street food carts block pavements and overflow into the street, and pedestrians stroll calmly, perusing the choices and effortlessly side-stepping the moving traffic.
D: Here’s your chance.
L: For what?
D: To try the street food. You’ve been telling everyone for months how much you were looking forward to it.
L: Yum! Absolutely!
They join the throngs, past the unfamiliar stench of the durian fruit displays, the pungent aromas of fermented fish, the stalls cooking up shrimp and fish and squid, the pots of steaming curry and soup bobbing with unidentifiable chunks of meat and vegetables, the unrefrigerated raw pork and chicken threaded onto skewers and cooked over hot flames, the clusters of child sized plastic tables and chairs, the buckets on the ground brimming with greasy water and used plates, the bags of food waste leaning up against lamp-posts, the litter and puddles in the gutter, the mingled smells of barbecues and diesel and fish-sauce and burnt sugar and drains and spices and hot rice and incense. It is their first hour in Asia. It is all a bit overwhelming.
L: Umm. Would you mind awfully if we did street food tomorrow instead?
They head meekly to a mini-market where they buy beer, and crisps, and shame-facedly, Pot Noodles, and return to their room. D opens two beers.
D: Chuck me a towel, can you? I’ve just knocked a full glass of beer onto the carpet.
L: Never mind. Have some crisps. Ha ha – look at the picture – maybe they’re octopus flavoured!
D: Hilarious. That’s the brand.
D: They’re octopus flavoured.
L stirs the Pot Noodles. A powerful waft of curry fills the room. They tuck in.
D: Blimey. That’s spicy!
L: Are you crying?
D: No! Of course not. Maybe just a little bit. Is it hot in here?
L: I’ll open the window.
L: (after a lot of fiddling and rattling) It’s locked shut so we can’t fall out. We’re on the 11th floor.
Far below, the river of lights and traffic and people still surges through Chinatown, as they give in to bewilderment, jetlag and lack of sleep , and go to bed, wrapped in a miasma of curry, octopus and beer-soaked pub carpets.