Archive for the ‘feeling’ Category

The Gateway

Location: Khao San Road, Bangkok
Soundtrack: Hardcore house trance

Coming back to Khao San is an appropriate end to a trip, as well as a fitting place to start.

It’s a place of beginnings and endings, a gateway from one world into the next. It envelops you in gaudy neon advertising, shouts at you with the latest dance tunes, spins you around with touts and tuk-tuks and street food. You’re slammed with a sensory overload that is uniquely Khao San.

But all of that is a gloss over the surface, a veneer rubbed on to give the impression that this is what Thailand is. But scratch at it – travel away from Khao San, Ko Samui, and Phuket – and you’ll see the real Thailand underneath. A land full of amazing people and stunning scenery, mixing ancient history and modern experiences together into an intoxicating elixir.

It makes sense, then, that Khao San is a fitting final counterpoint to your Thai experience. Sit at any one of the plentiful bars or cafes along the street, and just watch the wide eyed backpackers fresh off the plane stumble through the gateway and into the adventure that awaits them. You know it’s going to be an adventure – after all, you’ve just finished yours.

And you take with you your memories, and your learnings from the road. In my case, I took the clarity I’d been seeking, and had finally found in Pai.

Harold Stephens, writing for Thai Airways, summed the road up well:

So what is Khao San Road?  It’s a street, or a road, that is true. But it’s more than that. Khao San is about people. It’s a place where not all dreams may come true but at least those people who go there dared to dream. For the young travellers, it’s a place they will remember all their lives. For the young Thais, it’s meeting these crazy foreigners and perhaps even imitating them, for one night at least.

Then the time arrives.

You pay your bill. You pick up your bags. You take one last glance around at the veneer of Khao San, and behind it – your Thailand.

You promise you’ll be back, and know that you mean it.

Then you straighten up, and walk towards the gateway that the backpackers are coming through to start their adventure.

And without hesitating, you step back through the gateway and start your own journey home.

 

What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.
~ T.S. Eliot (1888 – 1965)

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Solo

Location: The World
Soundtrack: Whatever keeps you rockin’.

I’ve never been a solo traveller.

I’ve always traveled with at least one other person.

I was a bit apprehensive about traveling on my own, simply because I’d never done it before. But what point travel, if not to have entirely foreign experiences?

Beach, yo. Image not mine: courtesy of Angela7Dreams at Flickr

My new Spanish compadre Kim and I had a drink late yesterday afternoon. In the middle of the conversation he stopped and looked at me for moment. Then in his Spanglish he said “You look so relaxed, man. At the Jazz bar last night, here today: you are relaxed, yes?”

I grinned. “Sure am.”

And he’s right. I feel like jelly some days, just relaxing. I’m doing what I want to do, at a pace that I’m comfortable with, with the only pressure being a flight I have to catch from Bangkok on the 8th of January at midnight.

I want to eat? I’ll go eat.

Drink beer and read a book for three hours? Done.

Sit on the internet for two hours and write blog posts? Easy.

It’s freedom and choice that I find relaxing.

If this were a longer trip, I think I’d get lonely and really miss companionship.

But I know it’s a short trip, and I’m an active traveller. I don’t like sitting around passively and waiting for things to happen: I’ll make them happen if I want them to.

My favourite part about traveling solo, though, is embodied in this quote:

What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do – especially in other people’s minds. When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.
~ William Least Heat-Moon

You meet people and you talk with them at face value. There’s no baggage, no history. Only an accent tells you where the person is from.

The rest is up to you to decide whether you like this person in front of you, right now, as they are: not as who they remember themselves to be, or as who the people around them treat them. In some ways, that’s the most powerful form of freedom you can have: freedom from history.

Still, there’s a lot to be said about old friends. Just maybe not while you’re on the road.

Halfway through my trip, with 6 days left to go, I can safely say that I’m comfortable traveling solo.

The Additional

Location: Pai
Soundtrack: Girl Talk

As a dedicated intrepid travel blogger, it’s my duty to get both sides of the picture.

So instead of heading to Mae Hong Son on New Years Day, I decided to stay in Pai an extra day.

Please feel free to replace “decided” with “I-forgot-to-book-my-bus-to-Mae-Hong-Son-and-they-were-all-full-so-I-didn’t-get-to-go-#fail“.

I was surprised by the difference in vibe that Pai had after only one day. The majority of the Thais left on New Years Day – as their ranks thinned, the foreigners hidden amongst the throng started emerging, blinking into the sunlight as they stepped out from their caves.

At the same time as the awesome Thais were leaving, the tour buses of Thai package tourists from Bangkok started arriving.

They swarmed off, over the bamboo bridges and into their huts for the night, then swarmed back into the streets. I was at my favourite little spot by the river watching them settle in, and I was slightly disturbed by their behaviour.

I asked one of the wait staff about it. She shook her head. “It’s all changed now. It was relaxed and chilled. Now the tourists come.”

There are moments in time that just can’t be repeated. New Years Eve in Pai was one of them, just like my first time in Vang Vieng and Christmas on Ko Tao in 2006.

So I have a distorted view of each destination, because of the unique way that I experienced each of them the first time through.

But that’s ok, because just like history is written by the victors, a destination is coloured by the experiences of those that are there at a given time.

Pai’s vibe may change with the people in it, but the essence of the town will always remain: relaxing, quiet, and dignified.

The next time I need to escape the rat race for a few weeks, I’m renting a house in Pai and moving in.

Update: I’m heading to Chiang Mai this afternoon, and will be absorbed with elephants for the next two days. But I’ve got a post on solo travel scheduled for tomorrow to give ya’ll a bit of love.

If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.
~ James Michener (1907-1997)

The Day

Location: Pai
Soundtrack: Fireworks

Dignity.

It’s the only word I could come up with that describes what I experienced last night.

The night sky was full of floating khom loi or sky lanterns/balloons. They often represent the fears and worries of a person floating away – it’s like refreshing your spirit at the end of 2010 as the calender shifts to 2011.

Sky lanterns, and lots of them!Image not mine: courtesy of Takeaway from Wikipedia

The best thing about these balloons, though, is that the larger they are, the more people you need to help you launch it. And you can’t launch one on your own. Read into that what you will about our new years resolutions, which are often made privately.

There was a dignity and a restraint to the celebrations. Children ran around in delight, proud parents watching on. Teens and adults weren’t stumbling around in drug or booze induced hazes.

As I walked the streets, the sudden bursts of pops, fizzes, and sparkles from hand-launched fireworks echoed through the night. The few foreigners I saw had a look of annoyed reservation on their faces. They were promised “the Khao San of the north”. There were a few bars out of town that lived up to the party hype, but they were few and far between.

Instead, we were all part of a dignified celebration of the end of 2010.

I’ll always treasure the memory of standing by the river, leaning against a fence, and looking up at all the sky lanterns as they floated across the stars.

It’s my idyll of how a New Year (or Countdown?) festival should be celebrated.

It wasn’t a gala party in a giant hall filled with strangers.

It was an event to be shared with your loved ones and family, and a time for personal reflection on the past year and resolution about the year ahead.

You might be able to tell that it had a profound effect on me. That’s because it was a turning point in my journey – watching the lanterns and listening to the fireworks, I finally found the clarity I’d been looking for. All it took was a festival in the mountains of Thailand to get me there.

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul.
~ G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

The Eve

Location: Pai
Soundtrack: The breeze in the trees, the running of the water

I woke up on New Years Eve morning and stretched in my little bungalow by the river. I hadn’t prebooked a place – I’d tried, but everywhere was booked out, so I gambled on finding a place when I got there. Lying on the mattress on the raised bamboo floor, looking up at the mosquito netting, I stuck my hands behind my head and listened to the early morning noises outside and the quiet flow of the river.

I was finally starting to unwind from 2010, just as 2011 approached.

At breakfast at Pai Country House, I watched as the town slowly filled with more and more Thai as the morning rolled on. The Thais came on scooters carrying backpacks and tents to camp beside the river, or with their family 4WDs and sedans packed to the brim with luggage. I felt like, in a way, I’d intruded on their secret oasis.

But then I likened it to a German backpacker turning up at Maroochydore at New Years – I’m not an intruder, I’m just another face in a rather large crowd of holidaymakers. Sure, my face is a bit different, and I was stopped twice by people who wanted a photo with a 6 foot redheaded white dude wearing purple shorts and mismatched blue and yellow socks (it was laundry day!). But I wasn’t intruding on anything private.

My choice for breakfast was also where I found the expat enclave, and they were taking a different view to what was happening in their town.

One old Dutch guy bemoaned loudly “I’ve been here 12 years, and it’s never been like this,” he said, gesturing at the traffic choking the main street. “I’m thinking about leaving.”

He passed an article over to two French expats sitting at the table beside mine. “You want to cheer yourself up? An article on Pai.” It was by Anchalee Kongrut in the Bangkok Post, and you can read it here.

To Pai or Not To Pai
For many, Pai is the latest case of cultural and environmental decadence and negative gentrification. Antique shops have been converted into beer bars and shops selling T-shirts bearing the word “Pai”. Investors from Bangkok have rushed into town and opened either cheap guesthouses or boutique hotels if not chic coffee houses, Italian restaurants or herbal spa retreats. Ethnic villagers are no longer living cultural heritages, but are fast becoming eye-catching exotic subjects for Facebook photos.

As much as Ms. Kongrut paints a picture of a changed Pai than the one from her past, it’s not an overly negative picture.

I love it here, so it’s easy to imagine that I’m not the only one. But I’m not a Pai local. So when your quiet little town gets invaded every year, and the invaders keep increasing in number, what happens? Over time they’ll keep leaving bits of themselves and their culture behind – a few new tourist-oriented businesses, an increase in guesthouses, a few more market stalls selling more trinkets and souvenirs, another coffee shop or juice bar. The banana pancake trail effect.

Each year, the path to Pai gets easier for people to follow, and they’re welcomed with open arms by local business for the influx of easy capital they bring. It’s nothing new; it happens to small awesome places the world over, time and time again.

Ms. Kongrut sums it up well: “To Pai or not to Pai is still a question to be asked. But it is time for another question, not about the place or the impact of tourism. Places change, for better or for worse, or both. And so do we.”

The question of whether or not to visit Pai is redundant – of course you’re going to visit Pai. It’s a wonderful place. The question is really whether or not you’re comfortable with the changes that make it an easier place to visit.

As the sun started going down, the town reached capacity. Every now and then I saw a foreign face flash among the crowd, then vanish again. This was definitely not going to be a Western New Year: this was going to be a completely Thai celebration.

So many markets!

We are not the same persons this year as last; nor are those we love. It is a happy chance if we, changing, continue to love a changed person.
~ W. Somerset Maugham, (1874-1965)

The Quest

Location: Chiang Mai
Soundtrack: Ke$ha

At the heart of every good journey is a quest.

It may be to see something famous, or to experience a culture or their food, or to see an old friend.

Quests also have goals. I’m on the hunt for something here in Thailand – and it’s not what you might think.

Thailand for me has always been a transition place: a place that I come to when I’m transitioning between one life phase and the next.

On this transition, I’m not looking for enlightment or a rare mystical photo of a hidden city – I’m just looking for a bit of clarity.

So, after travelling for the better part of Boxing Day, I found myself in Chiang Mai at my hotel, the Centara Duangtawan, at sunset.

Even though I  was finally here, it didn’t feel like I was in Thailand. It felt like I was still trying to arrive.

I showered the travel grime off, and went to find some food at the night market. I talk about it in my first video blog: Chiang Mai Night Market, Food Avenue.

After dinner I went a-wanderin’, to try to convince myself that I really was in Thailand. I walked in on a Countdown festival, which is the Thai way of celebrating New Years. Their New Year isn’t until April, believe it or not.

The stage is set, the die is cast!

I happily sought out some famous Thai sausages, full of meaty gingery chilli goodness. And they were everything I’d been dreaming of – so good! You’ve got to have them when you come to Thailand.

I then stumbled into yet another random event: the regular Sunday Walking Market where the city shuts down a few streets and folks just go walking through looking for bargains. Thailand love their markets…

Just keep walking, people.

I still felt displaced, but it was slowly dawning on me that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.

When I was here a few years ago, the same friend that features in my vlog and I went and had a beery session at Pirate’s Cove. I realised it was just around the corner from the walking market. I went to find it again in a whim of nostalgia.

I didn’t feel i was in Thailand until I spoke to Lee, the new owner of Pirate’s Cove. Mid-40s, goatee’d and running his bar in a loose shirt, pants and sandals, he’s your typical American ex-pat who left their rat race to settle somewhere foreign and quiet. An intelligent and friendly guy, he reminded me of why I was here: adventure.

And suddenly it clicked: I was in Thailand. I was drinking Chang. A tuk tuk just tore past the bar. The croaking wooden frog ladies were just outside.

I was back.

The Journey, Conclusion

Previously: The Journey, Part One | The Journey, Part Two

I knuckled down one night and did my research.

I decided that I wanted to do another Thai cooking class, so I settled on Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai. Gorgeous website, and a celebrity chef? Yes please. Booked.

I skimmed Thorn Tree forums and found out about an overnight stay at an Elephant Camp for AUD$120. The first time I saw an elephant in the wild, it was 7am and I was wandering back to my hut in a north Thailand mountain village after visting the loo. I stretched, looked at the top of the hill, and standing right beside a tree silhoutted against the rising sun was an elephant. That moment will stay with me forever. So of course I want to stay overnight with some elephants! Booked.

I was going to be in Thailand for New Years Eve, so I wanted to find somewhere up north to have a bit of a party. Pai came up as the right place – so I’ll be heading there.

But I also heard that Mae Hong Son was pretty awesome for scenery and day treks, and formed part of the Mae Hong Son Loop. Definitely needed to see that. Add to the itinerary.

And then I promised my mum I’d buy her a “blingy watch”. So I needed to go shopping in Bangkok, and what better place than the MBK Centre in Siam Square. So that’s on there.

I fly out of Thailand at midnight on 8th January. It wouldn’t be a trip to Bangkok without a visit to Khao San Road and maybe I will finally, after years of hope, get the chance to eat deep fried grasshoppers. That’s my final stop.

There you go. That’s a trip organised.

Parts of my accommodation are being graciously provided by my hosts, so there’s that taken care of.

I visited a travel doctor – someone who specialises in overseas adventures – to get my jabs and pick up an Emergency Medical Kit. If I eat something that disagrees with me, I’ve now got the medicine to save my dignity and laundry costs.

I dropped into a discount luggage warehouse in West End and picked up an awesome bag under 48cm that I can use for both international and domestic carry on.

Visa? I’m an Australian citizen – under 30 days stay in Thailand, I don’t need a Visa. Tick.

Insurance? I Googled travel insurance and came up with World Nomads. Another quick Google came up with a discount code, so I could save 10%. Easy stuff. Tick.

Money? I’ve been saving more than I need for a trip to the United States. With the bulk of the accommodation covered by my hosts, I had some breathing space. I dipped into my savings. Tick.

So: am I ready?

You’d better believe it.

If you go looking for Adventure, you usually find as much of it as you can manage.  And it often happens that when you think it is ahead, it comes on you unexpectedly from behind.
– Gildor the Elf , J.R.R. Tolkien, early draft of The Lord of the Rings.