The Ice Man’s Daughter (Thailand, 2004)

A flash of saffron catches my eye. A man, coffee-brown in white shirt and tan trousers, is throwing a bolt of cloth backhanded, high towards the giant bronze Buddha. Above the heat, the incense and the chanting around us, hands reach out and catch it. The men carry the cloth behind the great statue glowing in the light of massed candles. The saffron reappears from behind the Buddha’s shoulder, and is draped downwards, unrolling slowly.

Cameras flash and people shuffle forward and back in the crowds at the bronze statue’s feet.

It’s alien. No. I’m alien. Of the five of us, only Lisa has seen this before. We four – father, mother, sister, brother – can only absorb the colours, the sounds and the smells with a feeling of astonishment. I look at Lisa. Three months she’s been here. Teaching English in a local school. She’s watching her mother. Enjoying showing us a new world. Thailand. Not beaches. Not nightlife in Bangkok. But life in her town in the Land of Smiles. The place she’s been calling home.

Around the side of the Buddha, the crowd thins, and the heat seems less intense. Kneeling on the floor, women and children shake sticks in a small pot until one of them rattles to the floor.

“What are they doing?” I ask Lisa. The others come closer to listen. Lisa is our ‘local guide’.

“The sticks have numbers. You pay twenty baht to that lady there, and tell her the number of the stick you’ve shaken out. She’ll give you a piece of paper with your fortune written on it.”

I have a feeling of wonder. I’ve no reference point for this. I’ve travelled. I’ve been to Australia, and around Europe. But that’s no help. Two days I’ve been here, and I have no understanding of what’s going on around me. I love it.

“Can I do that?” Suzie asks.

“Yes, of course.”

Richard kneels down alongside her. They shake and shake until a stick falls.  They have the same number. The same fortune. I give them twenty baht each for the temple, and they come away with a small piece of paper telling their identical fortunes. We can’t read it. There’s no English here.

Lisa looks at her watch. “Later,” she says, “I want you to meet the Ice Man’s daughter.”

“Who is the Ice Man?”

“He sells ice.”


“And his daughter speaks to me when I go to the internet café.”

I am an alien.

* * *

Outside the temple are stalls. Endless stalls, in yet another market. They sell meat on sticks, and bags of unknown foods in bright yellows, greens and pinks, and ‘genuine’ Gucchi sunglasses for the tourists. Only 500 baht.

“How much is that?”

“About £7.50, but we can barter.”

A young woman catches my eye. She’s small, with bright eyes and a smile. Everyone smiles here.

Lisa says to her, “How much for two?” She’s holding two pairs of sunglasses, ‘genuine’ Gucchi and ‘genuine’ Chanel.

“Eight hundred baht.”

“Four hundred?”

A little shake of the head. “Six hundred.”

“OK,” and Lisa is passing one pair to Suzie, while Claire looks through the Thai notes in her purse.

Richard eyes a t-shirt on another stall, a design the locals wear. ‘SAME SAME’ it says on the front. ‘BUT DIFFERENT’ on the back. He buys a dragon in the end, saffron yellow print on a bright red t-shirt. He’s too shy to exchange his football shirt for the new one, and a man walks past us, glances at Richard, and shouts “Liverpool”. He has a huge grin.

We head back to our tuk-tuk, and our driver comes out of the tree’s shade. He’s little, with a knowing smile. We had negotiated two hours of his time. For 300 baht.

The tuk-tuk is too small for five of us. It’s like a scooter at the front, with a tiny wagon hanging off the back, holding seats enough for four. We squeeze in, and he laughs, before starting the noisy little engine. Diesel fumes rise around us until he jerks us into the traffic, pulling between taxis. No signals. No seat belts. We giggle and hang on.

* * *

The restaurant is cooler, and we ease gratefully into seats. The heat and humidity are getting to us. We order fruit smoothies – banana, pineapple and mango – and they disappear very quickly.

The menu is in Thai and English. This is a tourist street. Young people from Europe and Australia. T-shirts and shorts. A film is on the big television above us. Hollywood, with the sound turned down.

“Say ‘not spicy’ when you order,” Lisa says. She’s brown now. Not the darker shade of Thailand, but the liquid honey of England. “Papaya salad is good.”

But I don’t say ‘not spicy’ because I’m ordering salad, and a first mouthful of the dressing brings tears. I eat as much as I can, mixed with the rice, and shame-faced leave the rest.

Richard fares best. He’s been given chopsticks for his noodles and chicken. The waitress is an older lady, short, in a tunic top with a beautiful skirt from waist to ankles. She smiles and shows Richard how to hold the chopsticks. And he copes. By the end, his plate is clean, and I’m pushing my salad around the plate. It doesn’t look any smaller.

* * *

At Lisa’s school the following day, the teachers greet us. Only the summer school is on, but we watch girls of twelve and thirteen practice their dancing. Thai New Year is coming.

Thirty of them twist gently to the music, their hands folding up and back, fingers at an angle I could never have achieved.

While we wait for the school minibus, Ratree reads Suzie and Richard’s fortunes from the temple. They will have no luck now. But they will in the future. Only, they must pick the right flower. I fold the fortune sheet into my wallet.

The minibus takes us down the road to a previous King’s summer palace. We are guests of the school, so there is no need for a ticket.

Two of the teachers are our guides, umbrellas shading them from the browning of the sun.

A hundred years ago, it seems, the King of Siam had travelled in Europe. And here was the result. Baroque and rococo palaces basking in the heat of a Thai summer. We take off our shoes to enter the coolness of the high rooms.

The king’s throne is gold, and jewelled, standing high above where supplicants would kneel. Elephants stand at its feet. Above is a pyramid of circular canopies. I count seven, and on either side of the throne, two sets of five.

“What are those?” I ask a young guide.

“They are umbrellas,” she says. She must be about twenty. Lisa had said that the guides are volunteers, here to practice their English, the passport to work. “The King has seven. The five are for the King’s ‘reputations’.”


She looks to the teachers for guidance.

One of them says, “Yes. The reputations stand on either side of the King.”

“Ah. ‘Representatives’.”

The teachers and young guide huddle, practicing the new word. It’s not easy when R and L are interchangeable. The three smile and nod, and we return across hot marble in the sunshine to find our shoes.

It’s so peaceful. Water plays across the grass to keep it green as England. Topiary elephants graze calmly on the lawn.

Outside the walls we walk towards the car park and our minibus. A café and shop beckon, with bottles of water in the chill cabinet and long Thai skirts to buy for Suzie and Claire. They choose pink and dark blue.

The minibus takes the teachers and ourselves to a restaurant by the river. There’s laughter and questions and talk. It’s great fun.

The food is wonderful. Tastes I have never encountered. Chicken and pork in rich spicy sauces, with noodle or rice dishes. And whole small fish, dried. The teachers giggle when I pick one up with my fingers and crunch it.

One of the teachers scrapes the almost-empty plates over the side into the water, and fish swarm. Richard does the same, and we lean on the wooden railing watching the water writhing with small stripy fish.

I’m feeling less alien. Or I was until I ask if they eat the fish in the river.

There’s a shocked, embarrassed laugh from most of our hosts. One of them says, “No. They are… pets.”

I’m an alien again. Lisa smiles at me indulgently. It’s only our third day.

* * *

We’ve met Lisa’s Thai family. They speak no English, the grandma and grandpa with their tiny granddaughter. The baby has just woken up and is shy of all these people, but finally cuddles Lisa. The last cuddle before Lisa comes back to England, and this becomes no longer home.

We climb back into the minibus and it heads back past the school towards town, drawing up opposite a shop. Lisa climbs through from the back and out the side door. I follow, and the heat and sun hit me.

From the shop comes a girl of Lisa’s age. They meet in the middle of the road, hugging, laughing.

I raise my camera and they grin at me.

‘SAME, SAME. BUT DIFFERENT’ the t-shirt had said. These two are different. Brown eyes and blue. Black hair and brown. Thai coffee skin and English honey skin.

But the lens shows me something I’d not seen. SAME SAME spark in their eyes. SAME SAME smile.

My finger depresses, and a gentle click captures the Ice Man’s daughter and my daughter. Faces together. Smiling.

This is a good place.