The plane is coasting towards the ground, and when we break through the cloud cover I get my first look at Thailand. The patchwork fields feature long stripes of bright green, broken up by darker-coloured glass mirrors. I later learn that they are the rice paddies, flooded to allow the fields to grow.
It’s different to home. Lusher from a distance, less dry.
But I think, every country looks the same from the sky.
On the ground, I look at the whippet-thin children whose skulls are all toothy smiles, and I can’t help but compare them to the kids I see back home; begging their parents for chocolate bars and smearing their sticky fingers across iPad screens at the supermarket on a Saturday morning. I float through the chaotic, frantic mess of roads filled with tuk-tuks and mangled motorcycles, and think disdainfully of the ordered, glacial gridlock in my city.
I can feel myself romanticising the country already. I make myself stop.
We glide down a peaceful river at the Tah Kha floating markets, in a little rowboat. Us three tourists are all in neon-orange and hot-pink life jackets, looking faintly ridiculous. Our captain, directing the boat, looks faintly bored instead.
The water is completely opaque, a slime-green colour. It’s matte and flat, and there is no way to judge how deep it goes. Plastic bags, chip packets, discarded clothes and broken furniture line the sides of the river
Back home, I chase after 14-year-olds who chuck their McDonalds bags in the street and ask, ‘Did you accidentally drop this?’ I give dirty looks to people who drop cigarette butts on the pavement.
Here, I just watch it go by. A plastic bag bobs past our boat like a jellyfish.
We catch an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, and while the rest of the tour group is chatting and sharing stories about their jobs I watch the landscape change outside the window.
Train station, then cityscape, then outskirts of town. The ramshackle houses are piled right up to the train tracks, different heights and widths and colours. Walls are khaki, beige, orange-red, earthy. Roofs are dusty and rusting, corrugated iron squares collaged together where the material has been eaten through.
Stray dogs are more common than people. Trash lines the space between the train tracks and suburbia like a gate.
Blue, glowing television screens shine through open entrances and windows, and I wonder how nobody gets robbed despite not seeming to have doors for their doorways. I suppose if everybody has nothing but a TV, then TVs become a common commodity and not worth stealing. I suppose people might just be nicer here.
We walk up 309 steps to reach Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. At the base of the stairs are dragon heads, and their roiling snake-like bodies form the handrail up the stairs. Their skin is scaled, a mosaic of green metallic glass and glossy ceramics.
Outside the temple the smell of bouganvillias is heavy in the air, the small purple flowers tumbling down from lattices. A monk sits under the small amount of shade the vines provide, playing with his iPhone.
Like Russian dolls, we are here to see a religious construct inside the religion construct. The heart of the temple is a shining gold pagoda, almost too bright to look at under the hot sun.
Our tour guide takes us around the murals on the inside walls, explaining the history of buddhism in Thailand. I learn that followers of the religion have to follow five rules. Buddhist monks have to follow 227. Bhikkuni, Buddhist nuns, have additional rules; including subservience to monks.
Organised religion is, as organised religion does.
We have arrived in time for the monks’ afternoon prayer; tourists are allowed to stay and watch. The group of monks – there’s about twenty of them – circle the golden pagoda before walking single-file to settle in a room to chant. The young boys pinch and push each other instead of praying, not at all self-conscious about the intrusion of tourists on their daily rituals.
On my last day in Thailand I go temple-bashing, visiting every shrine I stumble across inside the walls of old Chiang Mai. I am dressed conservatively; I pay a foreigners fee at the bigger temples.
I walk for hours. The temples blur into one.
Each one is filled with gold buddahs, and varying sizes and girths. Worshippers make donations as they enter the temple, and make another donation at the alter. I guess that’s how shrines are built, and gods appeased.
At Wat Bupparam, I go for a walk outside, and discover a long, arching tunnel made out of vines and flowers, leading to a small garden. There’s no one else there, so I take a minute to worship the sunlight.
I try so hard to see the similarities between our cultures, that all I can see are the similarities.
Back home, people pollute. Our poor are homeless. We put down a million stray animals a year. Our churches still institutionally discriminate against women. We worhsip the wrong things.
I feel no more foreign here than I do at home. If anything, I like this country more.
I decide to let myself romanticise.
We fly out, and I try to see the details from the sky.
People are the first to go. Then cars, then houses, then entire suburbs. Then it’s just a land mass, like every other land mass.