Conjuring Thailand

The story that I’m writing takes place in Bangkok, and I’ve been trying to conjure up the place from my California desk.

I’ve been to Thailand twice, once for a job when I was 25 (or was it 26?) and once for a vacation, about a year and a half ago. Both times, I have not felt I have been able to get enough. I left with a thirst for the place, and while there, I wasn’t able to quench that thirst no matter how much I wandered and tried to take it all in. I have wished, on and off, to be able to live there.

Thailand is a place where I have been most daring with my travels — or at least it felt daring, compared to, say, a backpacking trip in Europe, or traveling across Korea by bus, or taking a road trip around the northern tip of Honshu, Japan.

Thailand is the only place where I’ve yielded to my guidebook when it suggested hitching a ride (in fact, it was the only way to get where I was going … no public transport). In Thailand I’ve always felt the bold travel would be rewarded: As a result of hitching with a nice farmer up a mountain outside of Chiang Mai, I got to see the Thai queen and her motorcade. What awed me was not the queen so much, but the way that all vehicles pulled to the side of the road, though it was a narrow and curvy one, and everyone, including the farmer, got out to bow long and low to her car as it passed. The whole thing seemed choreographed, and the devotion — obligation? — was natural and unrushed, perfect, as if the queen drove by every day.

In Thailand I have twice been in vehicles when the phrase “speeding through the night” came into my head while I gripped an armrest or door. I have ridden in the backs of pickups despite the little voice in my head that whispered not to (that was the public transport, in that case). Once, at night, Billy and I were the only passengers, and the risk blew through the jungle and cooled our faces while the truck soared through the dark.

But here, as in my story, I am having trouble describing Thailand itself. I can only summon experience: Desserts of cool, sweetened coconut milk and ice sprinkled with ruby red fruits I could not label. The press of crowds in markets that sold everything, from monkeys to fried quail eggs to antique chests from Burma. The piles of tiny red and green chilis waiting to be dropped into curries and ground pork and soups. The polluted air, the exhaust of mopeds and tuk-tuks, the barking mufflers. Monks, robed in draped orange fabric, walking barefoot in the early mornings to collect alms. Young girls holding the hands of male tourists who’ve paid them to do so. Young boys holding the hands of male tourists who’ve paid them to do so. The delicate fireworks of the orchids that grow everywhere. The air, heavy with humidity. Hours in Bangkok traffic watching from a taxi as mopeds speed past, ignore the lights. Geckos that scream from ceilings; cats and dogs, dirty and asleep in the hot sun. Waves slapping canal walls. The most ornate and serene temples that I have ever seen. The peaceful expressions of thousands of Buddhas. And old woman on the side of the road, selling baby turtles, for luck. An elephant, his haunches painted with red marks, sauntering down the median strip of a busy highway, led by a young boy.

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6 thoughts on “Conjuring Thailand

  1. The photo helps, doesn’t it? And therein lies the challenge with writing. A picture is worth…

    I read what you write about the senses: food, people, monkeys. What was going on with you? Travel is as much about being in a place as it is about what took you there. Is it ever as easy as picking out a place, or did you go because…

  2. Yup! I am gathering you are writing a fiction story here, and then you can just make stuff up, and see it through the lens of the character/s. It doesn’t have to be EXACTLY as it was, so long as you communicate the essence, through details and sensations. The story can totally be character-focused, and the world can be seen through their eyes.

    But yes, if your’e writing a nonfiction piece, you have a duty to the physical place at hand…and then you ought to remember what you can.

  3. I’m not sure about that. Whether fiction or non, the story should provide a sense of interiority to the protagonist, no? I think the details you are able to conjure will go a long way as they are woven into the story of the character who happens to be in Thailand, and that character might be you or might be fictional.

  4. ybonesy: I agree–yes, the story should provide a “sens of interiority to the protagonist.” What I am saying is that the details don’t have to be exact, just from the POV of the protagonist.

    In fiction, you have more leeway. In nonfiction, I imagine you won’t have as much leeway.

    I think we are trying to say similar things, though it’s hard to get that across in the format of comments.

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