My mother’s 70th birthday present from the rest of the family: a two-week, keep-your-hand-in-your-pocket holiday to Thailand and Cambodia. And going with her would not be my Dad (long-haul flight terror) but me – her travel writer son who just can’t get enough of Southeast Asia. The perfect trip, right? So why was it that when I told friends about it the general reaction was ‘lovely idea, but two weeks is an awfully long time’?
Mam and I have a terrific bond, but we don’t know each other particularly well. We haven’t lived in the same country for more than 20 years, so there’s plenty about her I didn’t know. Like what kind of traveller was she? The active explorer type or the sit-and-soak-it-in kind? What’s more, she’s 70 – what did I know about travelling with a septuagenarian?
I found out soon enough. On our first day in Bangkok, we walked for most of the morning before ambling back through Chinatown to our hotel, the Shangri-La. I noticed that Mam was limping slightly, but when I asked her if she was tired she shook her head, smiled and urged us onward. Back in the hotel, she admitted that her leg was a little sore but that she didn’t want to hold me back. What’s the old joke? How does an Irish mother change a lightbulb? “Ah don’t mind me. You go out and enjoy yourselves; I’ll just sit here in the dark.”
The answer was to combine activity with relaxation, and in Thailand, that means a massage. Over the two weeks Mam tried them all: she had her muscles kneaded and pummelled by masseuses at the nationwide network of massage shops operated by the blind; she tested the luxury of the classic Thai spa (her top vote went to the simply magnificent Chi Spa at the Shangri La Hotel in Bangkok); and even put her body on the line at the massage school in Chiang Mai’s women’s prison, part of an outreach programme for soon-to-be-released prisoners. There were no boundaries in the pursuit of muscular bliss.
After a few days in Bangkok we struck north for the wonderful Anantara Resort in the Golden Triangle, the jungle-clad, mountainous axis of Thailand, Burma and Laos, which meet at a fork in the mighty Mekong River. Broad and brown from mud, it's not especially beautiful here, but there was something about where we were that really caught both of our imaginations. Mam had first heard of it in the early days of the Vietnam War, and as we boarded a longboat she imagined the horrors of the American bombings. "Do you think it happened this far up?" she asked, hoping to be paddling through an important part of recent world history. I didn't want to break the spell. I told her I didn't know.
In the evenings, we talked a lot. The initial awkwardness soon gave way to Mam talking about her own life. She told me about her father, who had developed encephalitis when she was 12 and lapsed into an increasingly vegetative state before dying seven years later; of how his illness affected her family and cast a huge cloud over all of her teenage years. Then, for a moment, silence. “My father was a very adventurous man,” she said finally. “He would have loved all of this. As would my mother…I think I inherited their spirit.”
In Chiang Mai, we got up at 5.30am to take part in the alms giving ceremony at a local Buddhist temple. The monks, lined up along the road, thanked us for the alms – a cup of water and rice wrapped in banana leaf – with a prayer for our well-being and health. Then we poured water at the roots of a nearby tree, careful to give thought to the recently departed. Mam’s favourite aunt had died just weeks before, but when I asked her later if that’s who she was thinking of she shook her head. “My mother,” she said. “Always my mother.”
For as long as I can remember Mam has wanted to visit the temples of Angkor, so the last leg of our trip took us across the border into Cambodia – just a short flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap. We spent two days exploring the vast network of temples and other ruins – Mam particularly enjoyed tapping into her inner Lara Croft as she clambered about the root-covered ruins of Ta Prohm. “I will remember this trip for the rest of my life,” she declared over dinner on our last night. “It’s everything I had hoped for, but not at all what I had expected. I had no idea that Thailand has everything,” she said while tucking into her mango sticky rice pudding. “It’s got so much culture, so many interesting cities, beautiful countryside…everything! They should publicise that more!” She paused for a second. “Maybe backpackers know all about the diversity in Thailand, but I didn’t.” The next morning, as we waited for our airport-bound taxi, she looked wistfully at the city waking up outside, turned to me and announced that she would definitely be back.
Where to Stay…
…in Bangkok: Shangri-La Hotel (www.shangri-la.com) On the Chao Phraya River, this luxury business hotel has great views, great rooms and one of the best spas in the world, the Chi.
…in Chiang Mai: Tamarind Village (www.tamarindvillage.com) A Lanna-style boutique hotel built around a 200-year-old tamarind tree right in the heart of the old city
…in Golden Triangle: Anantara Resort & Spa (www.anantara.com) A luxurious resort designed in Northern Thai style with the world’s best infinity pool
…in Siem Reap: Park Hyatt (siemreap.park.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html) An example of contemporary minimalism and traditional Khmer design.