Here’s what I told my daughter about Thailand.
It smells of jasmine, I said. Dreamily.
Mom, she said, three months later when we met at her uncle’s expat compound in Bangkok, it smells of poop.
Poop and jasmine. It took awhile to process that. I’m embarrassed at how long it took. Then I got it. She was young and backpacking on a budget, a tiny almost imperceptible one, a minute percentage of ours.
She was staying in places that charged seven dollars a night for two, with toilets that didn’t flush unless you convinced them with a bucket of water swimming with relocated tadpoles. Places so rustic, they required hand-to-hand combat to unseat the eight-legged hairy beasts that felt more at home than any transient backpackers ever could.
We were staying at the Mandarin Oriental on the Chao Phraya River because Conrad, Maugham, Greene and Le Carre had written there. The air smelt of jasmine, yes it did. Jasmine and fresh sliced tropical fruit, and clean too, the light, clear fragrance of pristine.
Mom, the place is pretty decrepit, actually. Lots of poverty, stray dogs, desperate traders and people intent on separating you from your paltry cash.
Really? Where I went everyone wore elegant traditional dress and flowers in their hair. They put their palms together and bowed. They smiled a lot and waited on us. We’d never been so spoilt.
That’s right mom, the whole place feels blasted, spoilt.
Hmmm. A travel commercial flashes before my closed eyes. Welcome to Thailand, place of poop and jasmine.
My daughter stayed in a bungalow on the ocean where inside and outside were not as distinct as you might want in a place that comes alive with bugs that bite come sundown. Approximate walls, approximate floors but a great view of the ocean. They ate from street stalls and couldn’t afford the beer to wash everything into a benign blur to be remembered fondly through space and time.
We ate spectacular fruit cut into a frenzy of creative shapes at tables on the beach with our feet in the warm sand, surrounded by the sweet, limpid smiles of island spirits clad in muted silk.
Twenty years ago we backpacked around Europe, slept on grass mats on the floor of the Venice Central Station. Awoke at dawn to the sharp rap of stilettos as suit-clad women boarded trains for the mainland. Slept in nylon sleeping bags on the cheap, windswept decks of ferries afloat on the deep indigo ink of the Mediterranean. Slept in third class cabins on overnight trains from Rome to Athens. Ate in markets, corner delis, streets and squares all over the continent. Shared a packet of chips and a beer at a table in a dark, crowded pub on the Thames as a rare, special treat.
We’d never backpacked in Asia. By the time we discovered this vast, enticing region of the globe our backpacking days were pretty much over. Enter jasmine.
And now back to my daughter and the prevalence of poop. I’m learning to look enigmatic, to keep my mouth shut. To not even pretend to cross this great, yawning gap between her Thailand and mine. Just to listen and nod and know that, sadly, I cannot know what a backpackers Thailand begins to be.
I’ve also lost the haughty, disdainful look that goes with: “what’s the matter with you? Don’t you recognize paradise when you see it?”