Pico Iyer: The trip that changed my life

Bangkok these days seems about as alien and exotic as its sister City of Angels across the ocean. Hollywood cop films are shot there, New York bars open their second branches on its back-streets and for many a kid just out of college in Seattle, the Khao San Road is as natural a first stop as once the Left Bank was, or North Beach. But in 1983, Thailand still seemed the far side of the universe. And to a boy of 26 who was spending his life in a little room in Rockefeller Center in New York, writing about places he’d never seen, it was an instant initiation into mystery and night-time and the limits of all the things he was so sure he knew.

Men came up to me outside the airport — and it was a dumpy airport then, worthy of an almost forgotten country — brandishing pictures of women in bikinis and rooms whose beds seemed to move like the heavens (now those pictures would be much more graphic — and available to a certain kind of visitor before he’d left home, on the Net). There was a smell of jasmine — of spices and gasoline and all of them mixed together — as I headed off in the dusk and clambered into a minivan for the long, long ride into the city. I’d never really set foot in a five-star hotel before when I deposited my luggage with a towering Sikh doorman at the Oriental Hotel and set off into the dark.

The neon was flashing evilly, and irresistibly then. A young woman was stringing her thin arms around me and cooing things in the universal language of desire (for what I represented, if not for me). A Filipino man in the basement of a four-star hotel was singing Grateful Dead ditties on request. No one had heard of Patpong then, or told me that the most alluring women in the street were men.The sound all night — I couldn’t sleep — of slamming doors and soft feet pattering down the (no-star) corridors. Calls at 1 a.m. from strangers with their coos again, sure that I was the only man for them. The tang of mint in every dish, and tall, cool glasses of watermelon juice that I couldn’t have described the day (the life) before in midtown Manhattan.

A Canadian took me under his wing, a wise old hand at 23, and already well on his way to becoming a part of the nether world that was the real world in the Bangkok night, ready to claim every unmoored newcomer. A train was about to set off for the cool spaces of the north. At night, when the tuk-tuk drivers revved up along the jampacked lanes, the smell of diesel and perfume intermingled, I found myself in alleyways where old-style neon blinked and relayed the promises of Suzy Wong.

It wasn’t Thailand, of course, that was beckoning me, but all the force of the things I couldn’t make out. Night was day and late September was summer and men were women who became men again at dawn. The characters around me on the signs (the streets) were strange, and the language so tonal I couldn’t tell a player from a prayer. There were mirrors everywhere, in bars, hotels and what they gave me back to me was a figure I couldn’t recognize. I hadn’t realized ’til that day that you travel to stumble into the unvisited corners of yourself.

I hadn’t realized ’til that day that you travel to stumble into the unvisited corners of yourself.

In Chiang Mai, two days later, I was walking — puffing, really — up a hill, through a landscape from the Vietnam I’d seen only on telecasts, and sitting in a circle in a village, opium in the air. The villagers were dancing, by the light of a candle, and I couldn’t tell if it was the dog they had just eaten or the drugs. Displacement in time had become displacement in space: nights in a hut, a German’s pupils all red, and then dawn with the sound of a rooster, and the preparations of a village anywhere nearby.

The next thing I knew I was in Burma — the rickety grandfather of the England I’d grown up in (a colonial son, of course, becomes master of the house as soon as his father moves on), sailing on Inle Lake, among opium warlords and guerrillas, wandering, dazed, among the 3000 temples of Pagan. A few days later I was in Hong Kong, on expenses (I hadn’t known the meaning of the word in grad school the year before), being entertained at a banquet by the Chinese billionaire who’d built Macao. The next day I was in Narita Airport near Tokyo, waiting for a plane back, and, stumbling into a temple in the little town near the terminal, coming upon an October scene — bright blue skies and a chill of autumn in the air — that told me that I should return to Japan, as I did, for life, it seems.

I’d traveled around India as a teenager, witnessing with a foreigner’s bewilderment a country that was meant to be, and clearly was not, my own. I’d spent two summers traipsing around Europe writing Let’s Go guidebooks, convinced that I was a doctoral student in foreignness and movement. I liked to think myself a man of the world in those days, the prerogative of innocence being that it cannot see to the limits of its knowledge. When young, we know we know it all, and never imagine that the stock of knowledge will only diminish, trickle out, as the years go on.

But Thailand, and all that followed, silenced me. I sat in a colleague’s house in an October downpour, the torrential rains turning the little soi into a running river (people rolling their trousers up to their knees to get across), and tapped out an article on, of all things, Vita Sackville-West, the sometime lover of Virginia Woolf. I’d taken the artifacts of Bloomsbury into the hills with me, and read them among the animists and the opium. Perhaps I was trying to hang onto the life I knew, measuring out the fluent cadences of Sissinghurst here in the wilderness off Sukhumvit.

A bowing secretary came into the room with a pot of tea (my colleague was in Vietnam). The garden in front of me was turning into a misty, tumultuous scene worthy of Maugham. The house my colleague lived in, the life he’d made for himself (a veteran of the war) was more spacious and extravagant than anything his or my bosses could contemplate in Westchester.

What you don’t know, will never know, will always be more involving than what you can explain: it is the fundamental principle of love and of religion.

I came back, after a fashion, from that trip, but it derailed me for good, and showed me the lure of the dark that lay outside the boxed room in which I wrote. What you don’t know, will never know, will always be more involving than what you can explain: it is the fundamental principle of love and of religion. And love and religion were some of what I thought about as I sat in the Time-Life library, paging through any report I could find of Burma, of Thailand, of Laos even, and Cambodia, where I’d never been. In the midst of the traffic outside my eleventh-floor apartment came the sound of something else, more haunting and fragile: a pipe across the fields, a new day in a very ancient place.

Romantic it sounds now, in the recollection. But it wasn’t a romance, because I went back to check on it six months later, and then returned again five months after that, and then took a six-month leave of absence to get thoroughly lost in Asia. I should have known, as I disappeared into Eighth Street, in search of Thai food, the pictures of the pagodas and jungles I’d seen enlarged and set on my office wall, that this was not mere flirtation. I hadn’t come back at all, and never would. The trips that change our lives are the ones where nothing specific happens, and one can remember, 27 years later, every day from September 23rd to October 23rd, 1983.

Pico Iyer has visited Thailand more than 40 times since his initial trip, but something of the mystery is still there for him. His most recent book is The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

[Photos: Flickr | Elisa*; Travlinman43; Irene2005]