Having just completed another Bangkok to Heathrow and back flight in the space of 48 hours I thought I’d share some of my views on this journey, both literal and figurative. For some reason the flight back this time gave me a chance to see our world from above in the kind of way that show “The World from Above” does in spectacular HD on the Discovery Channel.
Having done a single loop over the centre of London on a cloudless day and seen it all in a way that makes any future trips up the London Eye utterly redundant I found myself on a 747 back to Bangkok that was about a tenth full. In other words, I had row of seven seats free to choose from which was ideal for kipping a bit later on. However, it meant I could forgo my plane-weary habit of the aisle seat for extra legroom/washroom ease of access and look out the window for a change.
As we took off I quickly spied Windsor Castle, was able to track the tree-lined avenue back to Virginia Water Lake, track the A30 towards Junction 13 of the M25, follow it south as we headed to the south coast of England and see where it connected firstly with the M3, then the A3 at Junction 10. A scant two hundred metres took me to the Weybridge turn off and with growing excitement I tore over Weybridge, Byfleet, into West Byfleet, then saw, in all its glory, the McLaren HQ, the Seven Crossroads and finally…the house that the Diplomat and I lived in, the house that was Isla’s very first home. To see the area where I had spent so many years laid out perfectly, a living map rolling under the great wings of a Thai Airways passenger jet was amazing, fascinating and, alas, all too brief.
I could see the layout of land that is private to land-based life, land that is fenced off, those exasperating spots of greenery you itch to explore yet you have to navigate round them. Those fields and woods you really want cut through as you walk as the crow flies, as our pre-Industrial Revolution forebears did. There’s a fair few swimming pools and tennis courts. I have now verified that the terrible stench as you leave the M25 and join the M3 at Junction 12 is caused by a sewage plant – fairly new, unless the prevailing wind was to the north all this time. Then…I and my fellow aviators were gone from that place, banking into marshmallow cloud, drifting along on the cotton bundles that are pushed along by the wind. We emerged into a blue sky, bumping along in turbulence, having reached the coast of England, that rim of the great fish toilet bowl that masquerades as a thin strip of golden paradise, an unquantifiable shifting barrier of silica against the chill waters of the North Sea. We climbed again, felt the surge of the Rolls Royce engines, moved to 20,000ft, crossed into Belgium, skipped over The Netherlands and then into Germany with its dark forests matted below. Towns vanished past, ribbons of rivers fluttered, glistening for scant seconds as we raced East towards sunset and the night that so wanted to welcome us.
I fell asleep for two hours.
Awaking we were at 39000 feet and sailing serenely over Afghanistan. Above me the brilliance of a night sky without light pollution, the Greek constellations studded vivid jewels on a velvet cloth; below me a dark carpet of undulating hills, a matt grey, cast with a pallid hint of sand colour from a moon. My first view was a city vanishing behind us, the next for thirty minutes was a region where there was nothing to see. No roads, no towns…no life waving upwards that I could discern…just, every few minutes, one or two pinpricks of light in the folds and creases below. Romantic notions of solitary campfires came to mind in the haze of my darkened view; likely there were produced by a single generator. They were few indeed, each no closer to the other than ten, maybe fifteen miles; I could see nothing else save those unwavering points of light that mirrored the stars in the heavens above them. It was a landscape at once alien, exotic, startling, unhindered. No matter what strife humanity creates below, no matter what our generation has done in the name of our personal visions of peace, the foreign land below me was calm to see from the skies; it seemed untouched, unsullied, blanketed in a darkness as cathartic as when one wakes to gaze over a new snowfall. Up there, in the heavens, mankind was reduced to a solitary few fireflies, as though Prometheus had sped away with the dying sun and and left a few sparks to drift to the land below.
So too did I drift with the plane, drifted in fatigue, drifting looking at what the angels see when they come to peer at this flawed, flawless earth. I live surrounded by noise, habit in one metropolis or suburb after another, never quite finding the silence every introvert so depends on to breathe. Like the solitude of being underwater, the brilliant shifting watery glory of the oceans, so I found the skies the same. There was no one around me, and for those hours I was deaf to the world, yet drank in its immense vision.
The torn Middle East with its infinite words, thoughts, struggles, joys and darkness disappeared and we flew ever Eastwards. Below me spread the cloth of the sub continent of India. Mysterious, heavy in a perfume I could not smell, but blanketing the land in a spice of its own unique creation. If Alexander had seen what I saw I venture he would have stopped at the limits of Persia, refused to try and slice into the strands of the Gordian knot that is rich, expressive India. The plane jinked right, wanting to hug the Himalayas – I was tantalizingly close to Everest, but I cannot see it – yet forced to pass over Delhi and speed onwards Kolkata where the mesmeric lattice that is the delta of the polluted, revered Ganges lay like a net. The river was vast, a lit hum of activity, each tiny fracture it carved over the landscape like golden filigrees; filigrees lit by boats, by homes clinging to banks. This is a river that is not permitted to sleep. It pulsed with lights as I flew onwards, leaving it behind to cross the Bay of Bengal to the final hour spent crossing Myanmar, then over into Thailand proper. We descended over the vastness that is Bangkok. I could clearly see the broken regiments of urban planning. Boxes of urban order drawn on this plain have grown outside their neat parameters. Yet, for every square mile of houses bathed in light, there is a quilt of utter darkness over the same land. These dark patches are broken by the orange streams of the main roads, expressways. The landscape pulses with cars; it is like a giant computer network with data packages flashing along in a steady stream. A computer that adds processors daily, stores more and more in its vast memory.
Boeing tyres kissed the concrete, flaps strained to provide aero-braking coupled with both the friction of the brakes on the tyres and the roar of engines in reverse. We all helplessly strained forward as inertia kicked at us, our seat belts holding us until we came to a slow crawl.
I was off the plane. This time I have no hold luggage; the diplomatic passport means I get to bypass the queues at security. I emerge into the arrival area. It is not like Heathrow which is subconsciously designed to introduce people to their loved ones. Heathrow is a place that encourages greeting, reunion, a veritable gallery of Instagram, Facebook or Flickr moments. Heathrow is a place that is already immortalized in choral serenades for adverts, immortalized in film endings. Suvarnabhumi does not attempt to present us; it just shuffles us into a fog of taxi drivers, of mobile phone booths. Pausing doesn’t seem to be encouraged.
What I did see was a lot of young Thai women greeting their aging Western partners. There is a western cynical view, a pre-disposition to judge in a glance and ask ourselves under a single breath: “relationship or transaction?” We should be ashamed of ourselves for doing so, for presuming to judge something we are not part of. As I ambled out into the noise and furor of a major international airport, having had the privilege of flying in a bubble of “one” over most of the world, I find myself glancing around at these people and realizing that cynicism is so easy to indulge in and understanding a lot harder to learn. What did I really see there with all those people? Simple…
Just as it is everywhere else in the world when we arrive safely home to our families.
I came to Thailand ready to experience many things. I just didn’t realise that one of the best would be sitting in a plane and just listening with my eyes to what the world beneath me is so eager to say.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?