When I manage to give this rather ramshackle, ten-week holiday of mine a name, I tend to think of it as the Boat Trip. I’m travelling around some of the mainland countries of Southeast Asia without intending to cross the sea to those island-bedecked nations such as Indonesia or Malaysia, yet I still don’t seem to travel far without encountering a boat.
I have just come from one of the greatest of all possible boat trips, a two-day voyage down the Mekong from the Thailand-Laos border to Luang Prabang. That was a boat trip on a grand, symphonic scale, which I’ll attempt to describe later. My first boat was much more ordinary: the express ferry service in Bangkok.
It took me a while to latch on to this. Bangkok was my first stop, and I spent much of it in a state of confusion. How had I managed to take two six-hour flights, starting on Tuesday morning and separated by a two-hour wait in Muscat Airport in Oman, only to arrive at 6 am on Wednesday morning? Where was the sense in that? How was I meant to get around in this wet heat? And what were those things on kebab sticks in the night market?
Then as I began to adjust – leaving the curtains open to let the sunrise reset my body clock – I started to think that beneath the surface difference, the heat, the tangerine-cloaked monks, the sizzling street food, Bangkok was a big city like any other, with its own clockwork running to its own rhythm. As soon as I realised this I began to get an idea of how things worked, which led me to the express boat.
The first time I thought of using it I walked down from my lovely, homely hotel, past the flower market to the pier, where a dozen or so people were waiting. After looking in vain for any information in English I joined them. Every so often someone would buy a bag of crusts and chuck them into the river, and the surface would boil with large fish the size and colouring of pigeons. After a short while a boat arrived and I ventured towards it to enquire, only to be shooed off by a dozen hands before I’d even said where I wanted to go.
Then another boat came from the other direction, whistling frantically as it approached, as though it was the last boat out of town before an invading force arrived. The same dozen hands now beckoned me towards it. The boat seemed barely to stop at all, but more to slow down just enough to allow passengers to leap on and off. I jumped on, paid a negligible sum for a ticket and we zoomed off, zigzagging from one bank to the other.
After that trip I used the boat whenever I could. Once the skipper was in such a rush he managed to shoot past almost every stop, so that the crowded ferry jolted into reverse before anyone could get off; another time we roared away before the man whose job it was to blow the whistle was back on board, leaving him whistling with peevish force on the pier before we lurched back to pick him up.
Between trips I saw a massive reclining Buddha and a massive standing Buddha, hip cafés, rickety street food carts and shady, quiet back alleys, the sois. I got about in disco-lit tuk-tuks, sky trains and freezing air-conditioned taxis, but it was the express boat that helped me stitch it all together, and to leap in to the hectic, crowded, colourful flow of the city.