Bangkok is smoke, Samui is steam. Flying into the airport was like flying into Jurassic Park. Even as we arrived, a cloudburst yammered on the tarmac, and the airport sprouted with gigantic, alien plants I’d never seen before, spines folded back on themselves like Escher prints. Samui has mountains in its interior, all pasted in dense jungle, crisscrossed with broken roads and coconut plantations. The coast is a ring road of shacks, tourist bars and holiday resorts. We stayed on the north-eastern tip of the island in an apartment overlooking the sea. On our first day, we saw Brahminy kites cruising above directly above us, hanging on the breezes, terrifying the coast. Tiny tailor birds perched on palm fronds beside the balcony, and myna birds hung upside-down from the rafters while we drank our beers and watched the sea.
I’m not very good at relaxing. Even the things I do for fun – writing, climbing, drinking with my friend Banks – are bruising, high-impact activities. So it was strange to have so much enforced time away from home, away from work, away from my computer. I even felt a little edgy during the first few days, but soon drifted into a gentle routine of swimming, reading, telling stories, and writing. The writing in particular was vital time for me. I sat with my pen and notebook and spent a few hours every day battering out what The Hollows is about.
Each night, we went to eat in local restaurants or hooked up with with friends. We’d gone to Samui in particular because our pals Helen and Michael were getting married on the beach. We spent a few days either side of the celebration with their excellent Australian mates – really good people. On the way back from their wonderful wedding, we were driven by the craziest taxi driver I’ve ever met. He laughed without pause for the entire twenty minute ride. He had a photo of his son on the dashboard.
‘What’s your boy called?’ I said.
‘His name is Mr. iPhone,’ said the driver, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. ‘England is cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold!’
Ang Thong marine park is an extraordinary place. After a stomach-churning ninety minute boat ride to the first of the two islands we were allowed to visit, we climbed lethally steep stairs to a viewpoint, overlooking a hidden lagoon on one side and the marine park archipelago on the other. With a little help, Dora counted off every one of the hundred and fifty steps, chanting all the way. Having climbed down to the lagoon, we told her about pirates and mermaids and the giant fish that eats little girls who don’t listen to their mummies and daddies about not swimming in the water because that’s what the sign says, poppet.
On the second island we visited, we stood no more than two metres away from wild monkeys. They sat at head height in scrubby trees above the flat white sand, eating figs. They weren’t even slightly interested in us. We watched them for a long time before they disappeared into the jungle. In the trees behind them, set back from the beach, was a shrine. Dolphin skulls, monkey skulls. Shrines everywhere.
The sea had blown up by the time we had to leave. We’d taken seasickness tablets, and Dora promptly passed out on me, but there were people screaming as this horrible damned tub of a boat skidded and crashed and shuddered in the waves. There were three Irish women on the boat – a mother and two daughters, I think – and they started singing in Gaelic, sweet and soft as nursery rhymes. I don’t know if it helped the shrieking Finnish lady, but it helped me. I believed them to be songs of sailors’ wives, praying for the safe return of their men from stormy seas. They might have been pop songs, I guess, but hopefully I’ll never know.
On our third-to-last day, we had the truly bittersweet experience of taking a Samui tour. Every island tour offers elephant and monkey shows. You can’t do it without. So we went, agreeing that we simply weren’t going to take part in the animal shows.
The first part of the trip was a visit to some extraordinary floating temples. We’d driven past them in tuk-tuks a dozen times without knowing they were even there, these gigantic statues of Buddha. That was special. I have no religious faith, but I respect and enjoy the measured spectacle of religious achievement – of cathedrals, of temples, of such conviction. Wandering amongst the statues in the fire of early morning – the first of the day’s tourists, joined only by the temple dogs – was awe-inspiring in the true sense of the word.
The elephant show was next on the itinerary. We were swept along with the crowd, and ended up watching it. There were two elephants. They were brought from different parts of the compound. As soon as they met, they touched trunks, then their handlers finagled them into jigs, into standing on their hind legs, their fore legs. One kicked footballs. One of them was bleeding from the skull. A string of cheery, gormless volunteers came down from the crowd, and the elephants placed a foot on their backs. One elephant pretended to give a honeymoon massage, rubbing a man’s penis with her trunk. We felt humiliated for her. What was worse was realising that at least the show was something to do. Immediately afterwards, the elephants were chained up again – far apart – and each began a heartbreaking, relentless, moronic swaying. One elephant waved her head for a minute or so, then lifted her trunk, as though she’d heard something – and resumed her swaying. I watched her repeat this for twenty minutes. The other did an imbecile dance, lifting her left foreleg, waggling it in the air, replacing it, lifting it, replacing it, lifting it. It was depressing beyond measure.
We explained to Dora that the elephants were unhappy. She was at first puzzled, then very upset. When we came to the monkey show, the first thing anyone heard was Dora, asking why the sad monkey had a chain around his neck.
‘Jesus Christ,’ said the Australian lady beside us, ‘if a three-year-old can see it, what’s wrong with the rest of them?’
There’s nothing to say to that.
After these miseries, we powered up and down gut-squeezing mountain roads in ferocious 4x4s. A Latvian girl we’d collected from a yoga retreat (‘I no eat, I no eat, I on detox, of course!’) had a shrieking meltdown when we went off-road, and demanded to be let out and abandoned in the middle of the jungle. ‘Faster, faster!’ yelled Dora. The Thai drivers adored her for that.
Orchids overgrowing in the road. Bamboo exploding skywards in thickets too dense for light. Coffee growing wild in the hills. Palm trees fifteen metres high, clustered with coconuts. The mummified monk. He claimed he knew he was about to die, so had the others build a glass case around him, and spent his last months meditating inside. That was forty years ago. The case was only opened to give him sunglasses after his eyes had desiccated. The heat, the haze. I dropped our camera in the river. We swam in a waterfall, against the current, with the setting sun glittering in the top few metres of the water and the rest of it falling into jungle gloom.
The hours before evening, when the heat had gone from the sun, and the wet fragrance of the jungle filled our lungs. Arguing with drivers, taking the tuk-tuk into town, decoding every menu for vegetarian options. The warmth of night envelops and cradles and doesn’t want to let you go.
We found a thousand shells on the beach, all their perfect whorls and spirals broken open by the sea. I found ten metres of rope, as thick as my wrist, and dragged it along the beach in an anaconda trail. I left it in a spiral. The plastic bottles that wash up in the foam, each encrusted with a hundred tiny mussels. I found a shark’s tooth and a sunhat.
Mosquitoes. The microcosm of expats. A wasp, longer than my finger, black as jet, trapped beneath a glass and rattling a fury.
‘Of course, I emigrated when they started letting just anyone into Britain,’ he said without irony. ‘I couldn’t handle it now.’
A butterfly, purple and white, the size of both palms together, shadow shapes on candlelit walls. The beaming Thai waitress, eight months’ pregnant, pointing a lost Westerner towards his friends. He didn’t give her so much as a look in acknowledgment.
‘The slitty-eyed gits,’ said another. ‘They’ve stitched me up again.’
Everywhere we went, the Thais continued to be the friendliest, most welcoming people we’d ever met. In one local restaurant, where they spoke no English and we communicated in gestures and smiles, they took Dora off to play. In another, they brought her nine peeled tangerines. She ate them in a state of grateful awe, watching the ceiling fan spin beneath the palm frond ceiling. Pat and Enjoy, the girls who ran the cafe where we ate our breakfast, took endless pictures of her running around the garden, leaping between stepping stones, a bundle of sweat and freckles. One morning, she spontaneously told us her first ever story.
We couldn’t escape the end. It gathered into the last days, mountains on a long-distance drive. Normally I sleep like a bag of bricks, but for some weird reason, on our last night on Samui, and then again at our stopover in Bangkok, I managed only two hours a night; and none at all on the 14-hour flight home. I was in something of a delirium by the time we actually made it back. In Heathrow, a drunk man had been stopped at Arrivals, and was howling at a security guard.
‘I’m a citizen of the UK! This never happened before we let people like you come in here!’
Welcome home. I can’t even use the word Great anymore. It was great meeting my dad in Manchester airport, though, and catching up with our families over the next days; then floating back to ground, restocking the fridge, washing our clothes, putting the suitcases away, putting the books back on the shelf.
I usually read relentlessly on holiday, but this time was different. The only book I really enjoyed was the incomparable Wolf Hall. I spent far more time with pen and paper, working on The Hollows. I’m not going to talk much about it, this time. I feel very much like I overextended myself in discussing the book prior to the Kate Mosse incident, and I’m not going to do that again, other than to say that I talked it through at great length with Mon, who is the most amazing reader I could ever ask for. I’m excited by what I have planned, and I’ve written the first 12,000 words in three days. In this respect, jet lag has been a friend to me; I’ve been waking at 5.30 in the morning, ready for my day, and writing before I go to work. I’ve always been envious of writers who wake early to write – it’s never worked for me before – but it’s working this time. I’m not going to set an alarm for it, but if my body keeps waking, I’ll keep writing. No matter how rough my day at college, there’s a little kernel in my heart that knows I’ve written something, anything – a hundred words, five hundred words. That burns inside me even if I’m too wasted to write at night.
So that was Thailand. Every travel, every trip, is an inherent contradiction, both coming and going. The xenophobic ex-pats were outnumbered a thousand times over by the honest, open smiles of friends and strangers; for every caged bird and poor demented elephant, there were Brahminy kites, indigo butterflies and geckos inside paper lanterns.
When I first left Britain, I was wired with stress, working too much, making myself ill. Thailand gave me the space to recover, to triangulate the things I want to do, and to spend time with the people who matter most to me. That’s what this life is about, if it’s about anything at all. Ultimately, I don’t feel like I’ve travelled very far, because distance is measured from home, and I took mine with me.