Heathrow hotels charge upwards of £60 per night. That's equivalent to staying five or six nights at hotels in Thailand. No contest. An uncomfortable night on the free but inadequate benches of Terminal 3. Cold metal, multiple armrests, too little comfort, zero sleep. The Etihad tickets had been amazingly cheap. I assumed this meant that the planes would be empty. Boarding at 8am for the 7-hour flight, no spare seats, no room to sleep. Muslims returning to Abu Dhabi for the holy month of Ramadan. Two hours in transit at Abu Dhabi's new airport before boarding the 6-hour onwards flight to Bangkok. Again, no spare seats, no room to sleep. Muslims escaping Abu Dhabi for the holy month of Ramadan.
Bangkok; hot, humid and wonderfully vulgar. Hannah's first visit to South-East Asia, a culture shock of some magnitude. All personal space is abandoned at Suvarnabhuni Airport, a taxi to Sukhumvit Road, kind offers of golf, massages, tailored suits and precious gems all politely declined. The Guest House, £12 for two rooms. Fifth floor, no lift. Hannah gets a room with balcony and a wonderful view over Bangkok. Next door, I get the buildings two giant watertanks and the promise of a reasonably priced night of sleeplessness. The prospect of a 7-hour bus journey to Khon Kaen is unpopular. I revisit the purveyor of forged air tickets on Sukhumvit Soi 4. It's closed. Wednesday 12th of August, the beginning of the grouse season in Britain, the Queen's birthday in Thailand. A public holiday.
North of Bangkok, we arrive in Khon Kaen. The vast and inexpensive hotel, always empty, always welcoming. A conference for H1N1, the threat from the swine flu pandemic has followed us into Asia. The hotel is full, all hotels in Khon Kaen are full, bad timing, poor planning. I consider the prospect of sleeping at 'The Village'. No great problem for me but a hardship too far for a teenage town dweller with an addiction to all things electrical. I smile and I beg, they find us two rooms. The first proper nights sleep, pressed cotton sheets and cool air conditioning. Hannah will need it, and so will I.
The huge silver pick-up truck bumps across unpaved roads that weave between flooded paddy fields surrounded by lush green trees. It's growing season in Thailand. Entire families work as teams in the fields. Bent double for hours on end beneath wide brimmed hats and a blazing sun, not an inch of flesh exposed. The rice is planted by hand. it grows lush and thick before before transplanted into flooded fields where it flourishes until harvest. These are hardy people, Isaan people. Their long eared, long faced cows are more sensible. They shelter beneath the broad leaves of the banana trees as they watch their masters toil. Eventually, we arrive in the second village, the home of Tassaneeya's family, a village still without a name. As Hannah climbs out of the truck, a small crowd of children gathers. The adults, more reserved than their offspring, stand back and observe us from a distance. I was not the first European that the villagers had seen, but for most of them, I was the first that they had met. Now Hannah was something completely different, a giant European girl, a first for everybody. I could hear the chatter of the adults in the background and the giggling of the children closer to us. They wanted to reach out and touch Hannah, perhaps to see if she was real. It was quite surreal, possibly a once in a lifetime experience for her.
The village seemed to be quieter than usual, none of the older generation were outside to greet us. A fast exchange in too fast Thai. Tassaneeya then explains their absence. The village elders are 'making merit' at the Temple. They will be spending the night there, paying their respects to Tassaneeya's Grandfather and the senior monk who both recently passed away. We too should go to the Temple, and we did. But, I'll try to convince Hannah to describe exactly what happened next.