Here’s what happened to me upon immediately crossing the Laos / Thailand border:
In compliance with my fellowship’s guidelines and to alleviate fretful family I entered an internet café to email the news of my crossing the border into Thailand. After ten minutes at the computer desk a rat the size of a nearly-fully grown cat that had been chilling under my feet (unbeknownst to me) decided then was an a-ok time to leave. I did too; to grab a meal. At the street side café outside I had an incredible Thai “spicy salad”, and afterwards the owner proposed a …well I am sure the culinary services is a very old proffession, but he made clear that an even older one was likewise available. Upon leaving the street-side stand I almost was blindsided on my bicycle from a man (holding a pick-axe) riding an elephant that stepped out from behind a parked semi. Welcome to Thailand.
I wasn’t really sure of what I expected or hoped from Thailand, other than good food. My purpose of visiting was to be a (hopefully) educational and leisurely transit from Laos to Cambodia taking full advantage of the presence of a Vietnam embassy in Bangkok, where I could get a visa to enter the country. Due to the only available means from the rat-infested, brothel of a border town to Bangkok was a night train, I wasn’t able to get to the Vietnam embassy before it closed for the weekend.
Figuring a “forced” weekend in Thailand wasn’t allll that bad of a thing, I resigned myself to a five minute google search for “great” “beach” “Thailand.” Three minutes in I thought I found the perfect spot. To me at that time it was like God had cartographically placed a burning bush, a signpost telling me exactly where I should go after missing the Vietnam embassy by a few short hours: the island of Phuket. Which to me, read as“Phuket, I’m going to the beach.”
I think if there is one concept I already subconsciously knew but crystallized while in Thailand is the difference between travel and vacation. And frankly, at the time this idea of a vacation really appealed to me. While I have been traveling for ten months and have had a lot of really rewarding and joyful experiences, they’ve come with a fair number of trying and exhausting moments here and there that, in aggregate, made the idea of laying on a sunny beach for a weekend with no purpose sound heavenly.
Phuket is a damn touristy place, at least along the coast. It’s a large island, 40 km long, and 15 wide, with some of the most famous destination beaches in the world. I arrived there at the tail-end of the low season for tourism, but over a month before the rains were supposed to come. What ended up happening was more biblically akin to God speaking to Noah than one of those passages where God recommends great getaway destinations. In the 3 days I was there we received 50 inches of rain. That’s as tall as parking meter. And guess what? The region normally receives 1 to 3 inches of rain in all of March. That’s 16 times more rain in three days that I was there than what they get normally in the entire month. The cosmically entertaining thing about this whole fiasco is that all the tourists were in the dark about the coming floods. It wasn’t on any of the international news pages when I was first there, no one spoke of it, and either to not scare away the few people left, or out of a pragmatic “what can you do, it’s rain?” none of the locals let on it was anything other than unseasonably early and heavy rainfall.
The upshot of the torrential downpour and the ensuing substantial flooding was almost no one wanted to be on the island. Go figure. So, I got these great beaches all to myself, because people don’t like swimming in the rain, presumably so they don’t get wet. The downside was that I narrowly avoided having to be evacuated by the Thai navy.
In a stroke of good fortune I avoided being stranded there for a good number of additional days, by opting to escape the island –just by luck, it still wasn’t on any of the major news sources I compulsively read daily– when a few hours latter would have been all but impossible. Most of the roads on the island were already flooded beyond any measure of safe driving, so to get from where I was living to the central bus station I had to do a near 40 km bicycle sprint, in the pouring rain, of course. And my rain jacket had ceased long ago to be waterproof.
The bus (the last one off the island) I came to call the “Water Torture Bus”, because the roof leaked a slow bead of water over my seat, and every 20 to 40 seconds a droplet of cold water would hit me in the face. Not so bad for the first hour or two, but six hours in it gets tiring, especially as I was soaking wet, the air-conditioner was on full-blast, and when the bus swerved to avoid a car passing too close to a man walking with an elephant my camera shattered (yes, the one I bought three days earlier in Bangkok to replace the one I drowned in Laos).
It was hard to be hating my life too much though in seeing the heart of the flooding we were somehow still able to travel through. I mean, it’s tough to bitch about being wet and with a broken camera when you see people’s entire livelihoods’ under water. Between this bus and the next that eventually carried me to Bangkok I passed entire houses under water, except for the very peaks of their eaves. At one point there were people in dugout canoes in the driving lane next to us. It was only because of the sheer size of the bus we were able to get out at all.
It was a double-decker tourist bus, but even with all that tonnage, there were a few iffy moments where you could feel the current of the roadway pushing the wheels with the 4+ feet of water on the roadway.
Frankly, I didn’t like Phuket. The lack of luck is only a part of the picture, but rather the heart of the touristy crap really nagged at me. Westerners were coming here and getting everything they liked and wanted from back at home without actually experiencing, let alone enjoying the warm n’ welcoming local culture. To me, that’s the difference between traveling and vacationing.
I don’t mean to sound like I am speaking from a high-horse here, and to proscribe to go backpacking around the world and rarely do laundry, but I just think its really important when visiting a place to come away with more than just pictures of beaches, but to also enjoy the gold that is the joy of cultural exploration, and in the process expand your understanding of the world.
Likewise, I think its really important to try to be a benign visitor to a foreign country, and to not through your economic choices encourage a place you value to become a cheap and crass, commercialized generic spot that is the same in Florida as it is in Mexico, and any other beach destination. To me, this type of international travel is like those who hen-pick out the watermelon and blueberries out of fruit salads; you’re missing out seriously and the consequences of your actions make the end product less-desirable for us all.
I don’t mean either to be suggesting that the sole purpose of relaxation is anything to shake a stick at. After all, that’s why I came to Phuket. I think it’s an important thing to do, but also to not let it prevent you from appreciating how cool and wonderful, beautiful, and interesting people are throughout the world. The few days I was on Phuket made it crystal for me that while you can have been to someplace, the degree to which you’ve experienced it is a spectrum, and not a simple stamp in your passport.
I’ll probably say this a hundred times more, but traveling with my folding bicycle has been a godsend. After living in areas in China where it would be more than a week before I’d see another white person, suddenly finding myself in the Orlando of Thailand was too much of a values-shock for me. The folding bicycle though was great, in that it allowed me to get to some of the more remote beaches, and, even better, to explore inland and to see what life is like for the people who actually live there. In short, it got me out’a Orlando. The anecdotes may seem trivial, but just experiences like buying a really great piece of grilled street-meat, and my tipping the guy out of appreciation resulted in him wanting to share his gratitude with me for my kindness and small conversation by forcing an ear of corn into my hands. Or, when the torrential rain became too torrential, I would find the people of Phuket always, without a thought, ready to invite me into their homes, and out of the rain. Often to eat boiled peanuts. Conversations were simple, but the kindness was appreciated, and I think you don’t get this type of non-jaded generosity in touristy meccas, like where I was lodged only a few miles away.
Here’s what vacationing in a foreign culture is like without trying to appreciate the local feel: It’s like you going to a fancy restaurant and ordering chicken nuggets off the kids’ menu. You’ve gone through the effort of coming here and you’ll have paid for it anyways, so why not take full advantage of what there is to appreciate before you? Plus, you’ll feel more nourished. To me, that’s traveling versus a vacation, and in telling someone you’ve been on vacation versus “out traveling” implies more hardship, but also some greater purpose; something more akin to a journey of discovery and challenge than a period of simple indulgence. And so while a lot of the bull I went through in Thailand I don’t really ever want to go through again, I’ve also been through it, and while I can’t yet process the value in the experience explicitly, I’m glad I was there and for whatever unperceivable ways it has benefited me. And heck, the food really was good.
They say half of cooking is presentation. Exploded frogs for sale. Saw these for sale at a market on the outskirts of Bangkok.