The first time I visited Thailand was in 2008, age 19, when I spent four and a half blissful weeks on Ton Sai beach, climbing, swimming and watching my new friends smoke a truly astonishing amount of weed before breakfast. The extent of my 'traveling' was a one day motorcycle trip to some hot springs, and a day touring around the Krabi markets. The only people I encountered were other climbers. Returning to ‘the land of smiles’ (as it has nauseatingly been dubbed) for the second time, I experienced the amazing diversity of people who desire, for one reason or another, for whatever length of time and on whatever budget, two remove themselves from the comforts of home and put themselves out into the world.
Traveling in South East Asia was once much dirtier, cheaper, less convenient, and less established than it is today, and it seems to be a point of pride amongst backpackers to speak wistfully of their desire to experience that rustic authenticity denied to them by the last forty odd years of cheerful western commercialism. Note, that I say backpackers, not tourists. Labeling all travelers 'tourists' will make you about as popular as lumping Canadians in with North Americans. Or Australians and New Zealanders. Or English and Irish. They take great pride in distinguishing themselves, but when it comes down to it, the differences are unremarkable. Backpackers bemoan that a place is "too touristic", unbearably "inauthentic", and long to stumble upon those undiscovered, untainted, untouched areas...as long as Lonely Planet says they're worth a visit. Backpackers are the hipsters of the global community, wearing their torn, hand-made-in-India tunics and carrying worn backpacks, wide eyed and earnest, traveling vast distances to “get off the beaten path”, only to find themselves in the company of other backpackers.
Don't get me wrong. It's tremendous fun. But it's also more than a little funny.
I must hasten to add that I'm as guilty as anyone of this vagrant snobbery (although my desire to avoid tours and resorts is usually motivated more by frugality than integrity). So far my travels in Asia have followed a very well marked route, advised by my peers and my trusty Lonely Planet guide. Along the way, I've noticed what a melting pot (excuse the tired expression) South East Asia is. Like South and Central America, there is a clearly marked Gringo Trail, yet there is no single demographic who follow its course.
Bangkok was everything I thought it would be, and more. That scene in the beginning of the movie "The Beach": the distortion, the noise, the colours, the lights, the crush of weaving, shouting, laughing people, was the same scene that welcomed us when we arrived in Khao San road. We had thought that Kathmandu was hectic, but it was nothing compared to the hedonism of "the gateway to Asia" on a Friday night. Or, as we discovered, any night.
Khao San road is a street given over entirely to backpackers, to stalls selling singlets and shorts emblazoned with beer logos; to cheap cocktails served in buckets that cause you to go temporarily blind; to massage parlours and beauty treatments involving skin-eating fish; to tuktuk drivers hassling bleary-eyed victims of the harsh morning humidity, and a myriad of street vendors selling fruit shakes and Pad Thai for one dollar.
After a month of relative abstinence, high in the Himalayas, Hilda and I dived into the milling throng, eager to get nice and drunk and make new friends. We accomplished both tasks admirably, and Hilda spent the entire next day in bed, groaning and exclaiming at intervals "but I NEVER get hangovers!" I was fine. Fine, that is, until around four o clock, when my hangover struck with ruthless precision, in the hottest part of the day, just as Hilda had decided she was well enough to emerge and do something fun. I've said it before, and I'll most likely live to say it again: I'm never drinking fifty cent liquor mixed with red bull and coke from a child's sand bucket at one in the morning with a bunch of strangers, EVER again!
On Monday morning we boarded a mini van with about eight other tourists (all French - we discovered quickly that the French are in the vast majority here and in Cambodia) and, in some significant discomfort, made our way across the border into Cambodia to the town of Siem Reap, a place which transpired to have almost nothing to do with Cambodia whatsoever. Siem Reap's claim to tourism fame is the massive temple complex of Angkor Wat (wiki notes: built from the twelfth century onwards, initially Hindu but gradually adapted for Buddhist use, and containing, according to a Western visitor in the sixteenth century, "all the refinements the human genius can conceive of").
Today, it is Cambodia's main tourist attraction, and as a result, Siem Reap has become a bizarre oasis of casinos, resorts, tuk tuks and 'westeraunts' serving food for delicate tourist stomachs. It was here that I first began to notice the diversity between my fellow travelers. Angkor Wat is, it seems, a must see on all Asian itineraries. In the four days we spent in Siem Reap (longer than intended, because poor Hilda had food poisoning) I made friends with a gang of European backpackers, winding their way through Thailand at their leisure, with very little money or time constraints, content to stay in one place until the booze ran out or they got bored.
Since Hilda had taken to her bed, I spent the three days with Tasmin, a lovely English girl who had quit her job and come to Thailand for a month. One day we sweet talked our way into one of the fancier resorts and lolled about in the pool to try and escape the heat. The pool, located as it was in a luxury resort, was not in fact very cold. We got talking with an Australian couple who were staying there, who told us about their journey so far through Vietnam, and their plans for the next two weeks, which included an earnest wish to finish their trip with a stay in "somewhere nice". "Because this place is a dump" I said, trying to keep a straight face. To his credit, the man looked sheepish. "Sorry, that must have sounded a bit precious". It was odd to think we were sharing the same tourist attractions as people who were on their resort get away.
Not five hours later, in the bar in down town Siem Reap, I encountered yet another breed of traveller; a self confessed "flash packer". I've never met a more contemptible individual in my life. Loud, stupid, brash and overwhelmingly self satisfied, utterly unaware of the disgust with which he was regarded by all in his path not suffering from severe brain damage.
"I've spent three thousand dollars in three weeks here" he boasted loudly, "it's just one big party, the bar dudes frigging love me ay." I resisted the urge to throw up, thinking of the man I had bought postcards from earlier that day on the street, both his arms missing from a landmine explosion, while this cocky shit was parading around with his over stuffed wallet. "Can I buy youse girls some drinks? It's just that the mafia are looking for me so I have to stay inside...probably best if I hang out with youse for the night."
Strike me dead if this is not verbatim.
Words failed me. Tasmin snorted. Christina, the other girl with us, laughed so hard her drink dribbled out of her nose. We didn't bother to make excuses, just a hasty exit.
After Hilda had sufficiently recovered and we had all been to see the temples (an amazing sight) we planned to return to Bangkok and catch a night bus north to a Chiang Mai. We were told that under any circumstances, the bus should get us across the border and back to the capital within eight hours.
We arrived at the border at eleven, the same as all the other tourist buses, and proceeded to stand in an unmoving line of sweaty tourists in the baking midday sun for two and a half hours. When the line eventually ground into motion, it took us a further hour to reach the front. The cause of the delay? The border officials were all on their lunch hour from midday to one. One hundred hot pissed off tourists waited in the sun while six government officials took a simultaneous hour off from stamping passports. When we arrived at the desks we were stamped and rushed through post haste, with no instructions or questions. Needless to say, we missed the night bus, and discovered that our options were to wait in Bangkok one more day, or to catch the night train, leaving in half an hour.
We sped to the station, bought the only remaining tickets, and boarded the train in third class. As we sat in the hard, square seats, and surveyed the hard, square carriage with its wheezing fans and dirty floor, a feeling of apprehension began to creep into my bones.
"What does it say our arrival time is on the ticket?"
When Hilda told me, I must confess, I may have reacted badly.
Fifteen hours. The train journey was going to take fifteen hours. I had no book, no music, no films. No pillow. No blanket. No space to stretch out. No food or water.
It took all of Hilda's considerable optimism to prevent me taking a flying leap back onto the platform and refusing to get back on the train.
"Just think of it as an adventure" she coaxed "this is how everyone travelled thirty years ago. This is how the locals travel. Can you see even one other backpacker here?"
She was right. A few carriages away, backpackers were dozing off in sleeper compartments, or curling up in second class reclining seats. In our carriage, a five year old Thai girl was making increasingly bold dashes down the aisle to gawp at Hilda's blonde hair, before giggling wildly and running back to her mother.
We slept. Somehow.
We arrived in Chiang Mai and took all of five seconds to decide that it was a medical necessity for us to have a room with a pool. Accommodation in the north is far cheaper than in Bangkok or the beaches in the South. We spent three days there, wandering down the night markets, sampling delicious and curious foods, buying far too many trinkets and generally enjoying ourselves. We hired motorcycles for a day and went in search of waterfalls and caves in the hills, escaping the crowds for a while at least. The highlight of the trip was definitely the cooking course we took, where we learned that ALL Thai recipes require sugar, fish sauce, chilli and oyster sauce. We had several four dollar massages. But we felt like we were just killing time.
I was itching to climb, and we were both running out of money, and patience. We decided to head south.
We had a truly spiffing time trying to coordinate ourselves in Bangkok, losing money, time, and gaining grey hairs in the process, but a couple of days later we made it to ton sai, saw the cliffs and the sand and jungle, and heaved a sigh of relief.
We met up with James, an English guy we had spent three hours in line with at the Cambodian border, and the next day met up with May, who I knew from Kalymnos. Her friends showed up, and we had quite the group happening. After five days, someone else showed up.
Ronnie had decided his tan needed replenishing, his Iist of countries visited that year was one short, and that we needed to add another continent to our crazy "how we met" story. At last count it was three, in case you were wondering. We had a blissful two weeks of climbing, exploring and generally winding down from a crazy year. Catching the tail end of the rainy season meant that everyone drifted into a routine of climbing early and then lazing around in the afternoon, making a drenching dash to the dusty, crowded, ill-lit restaurant to meet up for dinner every evening.
I couldn't believe I was coming home.
I didn't want it to end.
Hilda went home, much to my sorrow - I will always feel blessed to have known her, and astonished at the chance that brought us together. She is truly special.
Ronnie left the day before me, May the day after, and some stayed on for the next few months. I boarded the ferry on my last day, my head spinning with all the ways I felt different and new and old and alive and calm and open and optimistic and wistful and, to be honest, dreadfully hungover, all at the same time.
This is it, I thought. I get on that plane and this chapter is over.
But life had one more little surprise for me at the airport.
"You've overstayed your visa."
"Sorry? I thought I had thirty days?"
"I'm afraid not miss, the thirty day visa is for tourists entering through an airport: entering over a land border gives only fifteen days."
This was a small detail that, in the horrendous mess of the Cambodia border, the lunch hungry officials had neglected to point out. Yes, I realise that I should have checked. I silently berated myself for making assumptions, steeled myself and asked how much I owed.
Good thing I had budgeted for last minute emergencies.
There was just one problem.
The previous day, I had forgotten my PIN number, and had entered it into the machine incorrectly, causing my card to be blocked by the bank.
I had only about thirty dollars in cash on me.
Calling the bank illicited reassurances that all I need do was try my card in five minutes and the problem would be fixed. I did so. It wasn't. I called them again. Same response. Same result. I started to panic. My flight was due to leave in an hour, and I still wasn't checked in. Could the immigration office take credit card, since my pin wasn't working? Cash only. I proceeded to panic with more enthusiasm. Crying hysterically I went up to the last couple checking in for my flight and begged, trying to look simultaneously desperate and trustworthy.
To my utter astonishment and amazing good luck, they gave me the cash, and an hour later I was in the air.
Face red from crying, I must have looked a mess. I was seated next to three massive Tongan guys, who asked me kindly if I was ok. I told them my story, and they were impressed. Then I realised I had no money left for food, (it was a cheap flight, so food was a small fortune) and hadn't eaten all day. The guy next to me, who looked like he cracked heads open for a living, and must have been at least three times my size, handed me a huge serving of chicken teriyaki, refusing to listen to my protestations, saying he had already eaten. I thanked him, blew my nose, and settled in for the flight home.
Tourist or traveler, thrill-seeker or cocktail-sipper, it's the people you meet along the way, and the potential for them to open your eyes, that makes it all worth while.