I am writing this section from the bedroom I had left behind 3 1/2 months ago. Safe to say that this is a particularly weird experience what with my last post having been published from the Northern regions of Thailand. There are a lot of travellers, including many of my new-found friends, still out there, and I hope that this will provide some insight as to what the return home can be like.
It will be better to fill in the gap between now and where I left off, not only for a sense of completion, but for the sake of my memory which is currently being challenged by jet-lag.
So after a few cheap Changs from 7-Eleven, I headed out to town with the aim of finding my way to the advertised 'Half-Moon Party'. The problem was that I had absolutely no clue how to get there. I knew where it was, but based on my previous experiences at these events, my last-remaining sensibility told me that there was no way I was going to motorbike it. Unless I wanted to leave it stranded anyway.
Fortunately, after some aimless walking around, I found a congregation of around 50 people hanging around behind some pick-up truck. Had I not been in Asia for so long, I would have been surprised. However it was once I watched around 30 of the group somehow scramble onto the back of the thing and speed off into the distance, that I knew I was in the right place.
|"Hi mate, could I have a 34-seater taxi please?"|
Coincidentally, just before I was to become another drunken load, I had a very fond reunion with some old friends and I knew it was going to be a good night. As for the night itself ; Well for reasons best left un-typed, the actual party remains an unexplained void, however once consciousness had settled in I found myself wandering a very misty pathway home, laughing my head off. I was also covered in mud. Quite the atmosphere though.
The next day, I was hungover as hell (I had gotten in at 6 AM) and pretty much did nothing but drive around a bit until I found a very scenic view, laid flat on the bike-seat with my legs over the handlebars, and fell asleep. After what must have been two hours, I had the pleasure of waking up to some American tourist shout, "HEY TAKE A PICTURE OF THAT GUY!" (me); whilst a Thai farmer bailed hay in the distance. As for the photo, I decided to create an illusion of maintaining my sleep rather than making the idiot scream louder by scaring her.
|An example of the views Pai has to offer. Sometimes it is so peaceful that the only noise that penetrates the ambience is the quiet buzz of a motorcycle in the distance. I noticed you could trace its whereabouts by its glint as it reflected the sun.|
Whilst I suffered in my lazy haziness, my travel companions had simultaneously booked our travel back down from Pai to Chiang Mai and then Bangkok, and upon finding out about this, I realised that it was vital I grab a good night's sleep for my opinion of 'sleeper buses' (FFS) meant that I might die of exhaustion.
I was completely wrong! Turns out I, and pretty much every other person on board, tempted fate with a potential bout of hypothermia after the bus driver decided to generously switch the air-con on overdrive. As soon as we stopped off for dinner (at 1:30 AM 0_0), the bus driver had the pleasure of me leading our mutiny with;
Me: "Can you turn down that F***ING aircon?"
The driver nods sheepishly.
Driver: "Twen-y mini-"
Me: "No. NOW!"
We continued the journey in warmth. God bless those that may have passed away shortly afterwards.
During the journey, my ex-tour leader/guardian angel had called and informed me that she was in Bangkok and had a cheap room with a spare bed. So, having arrived for the third time in the capital, I wandered straight past the bemused reception staff, tiptoed past the sleeping Shell and fell asleep almost immediately – was a tad surreal. I needed the rest though, for I planned to make the journey to Kanchanaburi, being the history geek that I am, to visit the infamous bridge over the Kwai river.
[HISTORY LESSON FOR THOSE THAT DO NOT KNOW]
During the Second World War, the Empire of Japan, having blitzed its way throughout Asia, needed a link to transport materiele from Thailand to Burma. Having signed a co-operation treaty with Thailand and thus receiving no resistance, the Japanese agreed that in order to build the railway across such impossible terrain, it needed the labour of ‘volunteers’ or POWs. Conditions were so brutal that, according to some historians, around 200,000 men, Allied and local, perished during the construction. And perhaps of most resonance; It is said that for every sleeper that was laid on the track, a man died.
Anyway, perhaps unsurprisingly, I left much later than planned and made the two-hour journey from the most confusing bus terminal towards my destination. And I was not disappointed.
Kanchanaburi is actually lovely. Some would argue the bridge itself is a bit of a disappointment, but then again, it is a bridge. Furthermore, not only is the river particularly scenic, the nearby war cemeteries are so well maintained to the point of being respectfully stunning, and the museums are very informative.
|Obstructing an oncoming train in the name of vanity.|
Having returned from my blast to the past, I arrived just in time to pick up a tailored shirt that I had completely forgotten I ordered. Weirdly enough, I'm typing this now with the knowledge that some of you at home have already seen me wearing such a number. Now, for those of you that don't know, just like in Hoi An of Vietnam, tailors litter the Rambutri area of Bangkok everywhere. In fact there are so many that I would gladly put money on the impossibility of an adult male not getting harrassed by one of these 'entrepeneurs'. Humourously enough, for just the price of at least 3000 Baht, you can obtain a a prime 'Armani' number, or even that tux that Daniel Craig wears in Casino Royale.
SAME SAME ... but different.
To be fair, I was pretty happy with the quality, and for 600 Baht (12 pounds) it was hard to complain. However, the best advice I can give to any of you potential customers is that when they insist on making 57 more items, they will not swallow the word 'NO!' easily.
This being my real penultimate night, not just in Thailand but for my entire trip, it would have been ashame to have not indulged in the adult playground that is Bangkok....
I have just realised what an image that sentence just created. For the record, I did NOT ever hire a prostitute, succumb to the seduction of ladyboys... or go to another ping pong show.
I was particularly smooth that night, for having been introduced to a new Thai acquaintance, I began with, “ARE YOU 100% THAI!? ‘CAUSE YOU LOOK EXOTIC.”
Additionally, and only by sheer coincidence as only you ever would travelling, not only did I bump into half the people I had spent time with on the South Thailands, but I also ran into none other than one of the Hanoi Backpackers girls, Jen. Had I not been in a drunken stupor at ths point, I may have come across a bit more shocked at the situation. Furthermore, I was approached by a vaguely familiar face with, "Excuse me. This may sound a bit forward. But were you by any chance one of the Anchormen from Vietnam?"
As for the rest of the evening; According to my Canadian brother Ben, I reluctantly ended up at Patpong, the red light district, with the hope of finding a Spicy Disco. Then, when we realised we were the only farang in a series of dark alleys, we ran straight back to the taxi for which I later went missing on Khao San Road. Fortunately, I ended up back at my room without waking Shell, and woke up to the worst hangover in the world. You know those ones where rolling over feels like a momentous feat, let alone having to pack your bags?
That’s another thing. One of the worst habits I acquired when travelling was that it did not matter how long I would be staying in accommodation, one night or five, I would somehow manage to unpack everything and fling the items all over the place. It could be worse. Better than coming back addicted to Valium.
The following day, and for me, officially my last, was bittersweet for it was one of goodbyes, but also unexpected reunions. Sadly, it was potentially the last time I would see my ThaIntro buddies Shell and Tom - at least in travelling mode. However, after spending a couple of hours wandering the streets of Bangkok, slushies in hand, watching Buddhist monks and potential scam-artists approach me from the distance, I began to reflect on my trip. Whilst focusing on Malaysia, I began to wonder where my companions from Melaka were in the world. Yet my wandering mind came to a swift halt for I heard my name being faintly called in the distance. Against all odds and by bizarre coincidence, it was Tako - the Dutchman from my hostel in Melaka. Out of every country, city, street and thoughtful moment, we managed to meet once again. Swapping so many stories was to be a tough task, but we managed to do so over a short beverage. Short, for he was to catch a bus to the South.
Later on in the evening, and still reeling from such an unlikely turn of events, I was THEN reunited with not only the lovely Dutch girls from the North, but Chloe who I had met on Kho Phangan, then Pai and now here. She introduced me to her incredibly interesting friend Dan, a Kiwi who was quite possibly the most worldly pre-30 year old I've met and we all danced our asses off into the early hours on the street of Khao San. We ended up getting caught in a street party, and the revellers who required R & R from the festivities could have their feet masaaaaaaaaaaaaged (Thai speak) on the side-lines.
|There are others, but my sweat was ridiculous.|
When I awoke, I knew it was time to go home. My head was pounding, my stomach was churning, and it appeared my lifestyle was catching up with me. It was somewhat of a shame, what with this being my last day, for I simply could not man up and visit the Siam waterpark I had insisted everyone join me in going to. Instead, all I could muster the energy to do was some souvenir shopping, packing, and drinking gallons of Yakult*. The positive of all of this was that my deterioating health had overriden any feelings of sadness or apprehension at returning home, and perhaps made the transition a little easier.
*For some odd reason, I thought this would heal me. It didn't work.
And so, a few more goodbyes to friends foreign and local, and most of all, a 'proper' farewell to my companion Ben, I specifically remember saying, "There's no easy way to do this. So see you in Vancouver", and closed the door. Not just on his room, but also my time as a backpacker in Thailand. My taxi, who I would be sharing with Katie and Dan, was due early the next morning, and it was time to sleep.
My impression of Thailand? The notion that 'South East Asia, especially Thailand, is a decompression chamber and thus everyone goes there' is true. But there are reasons for this. The country has something to offer absolutely anyone and as a result of this, you will see backpackers, holiday makers and pilgrims across the complete demographic spectrum. Likewise to Vietnam, Thailand is another nation of contradictions. Whilst the capital definitely paints a picture of a people who are at times hedonistic and perhaps a little too materialistic, there is not a place where adulation for their King appears to waver. Furthermore, whilst one may feel that the nation's economy seems dependent on foreign tourists and as such a lot of land has sold out to 7-Elevens, Subways and 'Irish Bars', this is still at odds with their spiritual and historical architecture and traditions. My respect soared when I saw how well-maintained the Kwai cemetery was after all these years. And my love for this 'Land of a Thousand Smiles' can perhaps be encapsulated by the moment I saw an eternally enlightened, robe-clad Buddhist monk, frowning in bewilderment at an ATM machine.
|"Ask me to recite the Om Mani Padme Hum chant and we'll have no problems. But my pin number!?"|
The Journey Home
Bearing in mind that this was the morning of 22nd December, a time when once again, mass panic was caused by that little white thing called snow (hushed just in case England's infrastructure hears and cannot cope), I was not so much dreading the thought of going home, but my thoughts were occupied by wondering whether or not I was actually going to make it home. Added to this, I was still contending with whatever the hell was in my stomach and as such I was not afforded the luxury of sentimental moaning.
At around 4 AM, I was awoken by none other than my mother, on the phone that is, whom, bless her soul, was already one step ahead in calling my airline to find the flght status. Unsurprisingly, my connection from Mumbai was not going ahead but Jet Airways said that I should still make my way to the airport to find an alternative. I was not in any physical or mental state to hang around in my boiling cell *ahem* hostel room, and so after compulsively checking and packing my backpack for the very last time, I checked out of the Wild Orchid Guesthouse. This was of course after I ran straight past the bewildered reception staff to throw up in the adjacent lavatory.
Having rendezvoused with Dan and Katie, and having had another in-depth 3 minute conversation with some random American girls as only a traveller would, my taxi arrived bang on time at 5 AM, and we pulled away towards my final foreign destination - Bangkok International. This was it. I was heading towards another aerodrome with more new friends in tow, but not with the intention of continuing the South East Asian journey. This time I was going with the intention of boarding a flight back home. It goes without writing that despite being ill, I was somewhat reluctant to be returning to a frost-bitten country.
The airport check-in, as you can imagine, was an absolute drama. I queued up with Dan (Katie was flying back to Vancouver) only to then be told that contrary to what my mother was informed, I should not fly to Mumbai.
Check-In Girl: You don't have a visa. If you get stranded, you would not be able to leave the airport.
To be honest, being the state I was in, I do not quite know how I lucked out as well as I did. But what I do know is that I met some wonderful fellow, potential passengers such as; The ones whom seemed to take perhaps a bit too keen interest in my stomach troubles by forcing Imodium down my throat; Or the guy who kept me informed about flight updates whilst I passed out on the airport floor, shirt open, with a Vietnamese rice-hat over my face. Furthermore, I must have done something right during this trip, because Buddha was definitely looking out for me in the Karma Capital of the world.
Those that know me will agree that I am notoriously late for everything. But for the first time on this adventure I actually showed up early (Thanks Katie). Before I knew it, having infuriated a certain Thai woman by changing my mind on four different flights and having resigned myself to spending Christmas in the Middle East, I was booked onto a guaranteed DIRECT flight to Heathrow with an airline I had never heard of. And so, escorted by the most uptight Chinese woman I have ever met, running I might add, I was sitting in a seat, watching some crap Julia Roberts film, with my journey finally coming to an end.
In 3 1/2 months I had lost myself in the sprawling metropolis of Hong Kong; I had dived the ocean's depths and trekked (sigh) the jungles of a very hospitable Malaysia; I had ridden the bumpiest and most chaotic roads of a not-so war torn Vietnam; and I had sunned myself and challenged my liver in every type of terrain offered by Thailand. And whilst every country offered vastly different experiences, one aspect remained a constant; And that was the ever-so-frequent meeting with the most stimulating, inspiring friends - foreign and local. People whom, for I am blessed to live in a modern world, I dearly miss but will be able to stay in contact with and follow their exploits with ease.
I have not written about the actual arrival home for it is a rather personal memory. But for those fond of adjectives, it can easily be described as; Freezing (I had dropped 40 degrees of celcius); And surreal.
However what I will close with is this; For those of you who are currently travelling or perhaps considering their first trip, prepare yourself for some reverse culture shock. It can manifest itself in different ways and there are countless articles on methods to prevent it. It must be said that I am lucky to have returned to a country that is somewhat politically stable and one that for all its faults, has lesser socio-economic disparity than other regions of the world. However, one thing I had never noticed up until now is just how unfriendly people are here. Unnecessarily so. Maybe it is just English culture, or saying that, the London area, but what I find difficult is despite all of our differences, why do we find it so hard to talk to each other? So a request; The next time you are riding the Tube and someone accidentally bumps into you, respond to their apology with a smile, not an icy glare.
There you have it, my fellow readers. It would have been impossible to discuss every bizarre experience I had on the road, for there are too many to count, and these posts are long enough as it is. However, what I hope this has offered you, and my future-self (Hello!), is a comprehensive overview of my first long-trip away. Actually, not an overview. Perhaps an inspiration to get out there in some form and have your eyes opened that little bit further.
I am not going to reaffirm the old cliche of; "Yeah, travelling will change your life man!"; For it is not for everyone and it is totally down to the individual traveller to embrace every aspect of the process. There are ecstatic times, but there are also frustrating moments. However, I guarantee that you will acquire perspective.
We live in a world where a hundred, or maybe even fifty years ago, trips like these would have been unthinkable for the average soul. Once upon a time, a voyage to the Far East would have taken months, whereas I crossed continents in half a day. So in conclusion; I am not going to preach to you as if my journey elevated me beyond the realms of wisdom and enlightenment - it didn't. But I will say this; If you have no ties, can afford it, and have even an inkling of a desire to do such a thing - close this browser, shut that guidebook and take that leap. You will be doing yourself a disservice if you do not.
Will I be doing it again soon?
A massive thank you to those of you who have taken the time to prowl through this extensive blog. You probably feel more tired now, than I did when I returned. From the views, I had no idea it would appeal as much as it did, and I will happily tell you more in person. As for those I met on the road, it was a pleasure meeting and sharing such experiences with you. Truly made me realise that you could be in the worst place on Earth, but still have a good time if the company is right. And for those still out there, wherever in the world they may be; Continue to live every day like its your last...
And always wear your Speedos.
The sun sets on this chapter. But that is all this is, a chapter. Come back for when my next adventure begins.