Needless to say, I did not win the Independent on Sunday’s travel writing competition. Not even the shortlist. Boo. But, it was as expected! I was fully aware that my first attempts at a writing competition were unlikely to bare fruit, but it would have been nice! Obviously.
So, thank you to all those who voted for my piece on the Bradt Travel Guides Website (no, I wasn’t on the People’s Choice shortlist either, although according to the search filter, I think I was seventh?) and for anyone who hasn’t read my entry, you now have the option to do so by reading on.
For anyone who would like to read the actual winner, please click through to the author’s blog, GoodAsGold. Marie Kreft’s site also has a very useful and intriguing tool: a Story Ideas Engine. Might be having a play with that later!
But for now, my first attempts at travel writing . . . .
It’s true what they say – all other senses heighten when one is lost, or in this case, denied. My eyes are closed. My back is firmly placed against the porcelain mosaic behind me. I know it’s a mosaic because I can feel every crack and detail through my sodden shirt. I can feel every bead of sweat trickle down my spine sending a fresh ripple of shivers with each one. It builds on my brow too.
As with every other day in Bangkok, I could attribute this to the humidity that has kept me awake. I could also attribute it to the satisfying gurgle of Tom Yum that I had for lunch or the stray piece of spicy basil leaf stuck in my molar. It is also, understandably, going to have something to do with the stone steps we have just clambered up in a most undignified manner; needing both hands to pull my weight up what cannot seriously be described as stairs – each one a minor mountain. But, I suspect, the salty trickle now running along my nose has more to do with fear. I hate heights. That dizzying sickness swells my stomach again and I squeeze my eyes tighter to hold back the lurch.
We stand on Wat Arun, The Temple of the Dawn, its namesake, Aruna being the Indian God of Dawn. It stands proud on the Thonburi side of the city and as the guide book suggested, is terribly impressive – at least it was from the ground. I can hear, as vividly as the ceramic colours, floods of Thai visitors ascending to this platform with ease and without fear. Their love for their own culture is intoxicating – a lesson we English often seem to miss along our paths. But even with my jelly legs threatening to buckle beneath me, I understand why.
Carefully, I raise my head and dare to open my eyes directly upwards – looking along the length of the prang in a curious upside down fashion. The sky is a magnificent blue, so clear and lustrous. I feel like I could fall deep into it – if not for the demon guardian above me, mocking me for my cowardice. Their toothy snarls and regal garb line the whole ledge above, bravely holding up the top two tiers of the Buddhist Temple while I stagnate. I just thank God, of any religion, that tourists are no longer admitted to the upper levels of this 100m high colossus. No one seems to know the true height; in fact, variations have been quoted to me anywhere from 67m to 104m. Numbers don’t matter anymore; this is quite far enough, thank you all the same.
It is beautiful. A serenity begins to flow through me as I look upwards to what appears to be a three headed elephant proffering a tranquil smile. The 19th century architects have indeed left an impressive memorial to their work – and to their forward thinking. Who knew that Rama II would have been a forerunner of environmental philosophy? I’m not sure he would see it that way though, recycling porcelain ballast from the Chinese trading ships was just a cheap and reliable option. I like that; it makes me feel slightly more secure. It is dependable – as the dawn itself.
I still can’t look outwards though, not yet. I imagine the tower and its four smaller companions as the mountain it represents, Mount Meru – the centre of the Buddhist universe. In its Godly realm, the mythical perfection of Meru is thousands of miles high and I am once again thankful for the ‘modest’ Earthly representation. This home of the God’s, this mountain of spirituality, is thought to show the true centre of enlightenment and the ornately decorated images of the Buddha cement this idea in my mind. His travels, like the figures wandering towards the summit, clarify something in my head.
As I stand here at the centre of this religious universe, the world literally at its feet, I understand so much more of the land I have seen; the shanty towns, the brightness, the festivities, the simple joys of life; the simple pleasures of oneness with family and God. I am not a religious person – far from it – but here amongst the hustle and bustle, amongst the humid heat and the truly bizarre, I can feel it – sense it. Despite the brutal history of it’s past, of all our pasts, there is truth and beauty and belief. There is peace.
A familiar hand peals my own from the old ballast. I look out, for the first time, across the murky waters of the Chao Phraya River to the incredible Bangkok skyline. Anything is possible. The World is at my feet.