Not necessarily the best meal I've had in Thailand, but my favourite, is a plate of pad thai from a street stall in Chiang Mai that's been operating ever since my first visit 10 years ago. Once most of the shops on Tha Pae Road, the main drag, have closed, the chef and her bevy of helpers appear with a large trolley, out of which come folding tables and metal stools, a simple clay stove and all the other cooking paraphernalia. She begins her cookery performance under a single white light bulb dangling from a long lead - who knows where the electricity supply comes from - working the wok quickly and effortlessly, with the flames licking up towards her face. And what is pad thai? For those who haven't tasted it, it's the national dish (the name just means "Thai fry"), a very more-ish combination of noodles, egg, lemon juice, fish sauce, chilli powder, sugar, preserved turnip, peanuts, dried shrimp, beansprouts and spring onions, thrown and stirred together in 30 seconds flat. The trick is in the noodles, which are parboiled and doused in a secret recipe of oil and spices.
My first research trip to Thailand involved motorbiking along the remote north-western border with Burma, an area known for smuggling and random acts of banditry, and especially hairy at that time when skirmishes between the Burmese army and Karen freedom fighters were spilling over on to Thai territory. For inspiration (and consolation) I was reading What am I Doing Here, a collection of short stories by Bruce Chatwin, in which he describes, somewhat smugly, coming through an African coup and being the only foreign correspondent with any money, which he had hidden in his dirty laundry. What was good enough for Bruce, I decided, was good enough for me, dropping my traveller's cheques and sterling notes into a rancid sock - and promptly forgetting about them. Five days later, I ran out of Thai money, but not before I'd taken the opportunity to drop off my laundry bag for a service wash ...
One of the most compelling destinations in Thailand is the Xanadu-like retreat of Wat Phu Tok in the isolated north-eastern corner of the country. Here, jutting steeply out of a plain by the Mek- hong River are two sandstone outcrops, one of which has been transformed into a meditation temple. Fifty or so monks have built their huts high on perches above the breathtaking red cliffs, linked by horizontal white wooden walkways, to give the temple seven levels representing the seven stages of enlightenment. The walkways are not for the fainthearted, but it's worth persevering to experience an echo of Buddhist heaven in the Himalayan forests.
My first day of researching The Rough Guide to Thailand and I've missed out on reserving a second-class air-conditioned couchette, with full meal service, on the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I settle myself on to the slatted wooden seats of third class on the daytime train and prepare myself for 13 hours of downtime, my only consolation being the prospect of planning my research in the north. The Thais around me smile and chat, and kids run around my feet, curious about this gawky, blond alien. At each station neatly decorated with pungent frangipani, hawkers pile onto the train, offering trays of skewered fish balls, sticky rice pudding and deep-fried crickets. Every time I pull another piece of clothing out of my rucksack to insert between the hard seat and my soft Western bottom, gales of laughter break across the carriage. By the time the train trundles up into the cool of the northern mountains, I'm relaxed and feel I've got a handle on the country again and what I'm doing here.
Every time I go to Ko Tao, the remotest island of the Samui archipelago, three hours in a leaky wooden tub from Ko Pha Ngan, a storm blows up. The only protection against seasickness I've found useful is staring at the horizon and reciting over and over the names of the England team, with Sir Alf Ramsey's revolutionary 4-4-2 formation, that won the 1966 World Cup.