Tales From the Road: Southeast asia
A selection of short stories from my travels to Southeast Asia in November 2017.
Guiding a band aid off of soft fleshy skin is an act of will. Prickly pain for a hot second, but once the sticky batter is torn free from flesh, the stinging subsides and you begin the final stage of healing. Purchasing a multi-city roundtrip ticket to Asia with 6 flights and 3 destinations felt eerily like the band aid scenario. There was a little wincing as I clicked 'confirm' and entered my payment info, but soon I would realize that my underlying fear of commitment would begin to heal itself once exposed. Tough callouses would replace a delicate pink wound and this would prepare me to start living a little more honestly and with a little less doubt.
I tucked my flight itinerary neatly away into my day-planner and sat at my desk for the months building up to the departure with a perma-grin on my face. Having the thought of Southeast Asia, compartmentalized in my brain among social engagements, work, and errands, was all I needed to keep this train chugging forward. It was the bait that I needed to get me through each day as I distanced myself from a job that left me feeling hungrier at the end of each week.
Somehow, over time, there was a jury in my head that overruled my desire to fly feet first into the things that scared me and excited me the most. International travel has always called to me and I guess this lust for the unknown was replaced with self-doubt. I needed a swift kick to get going. My push to even consider booking a trip like this is because of my lovely childhood friend, Laura. She lives two hours away in colorful San Diego, and is a rapture of energy and exuberance. The past couple of years we have spent our Thanksgiving holiday together as the rest of our family jubilates in Boulder, CO. It is a bittersweet time for us as we are distant from family, so she decided that we needed to start our own celebration along the palm-fringed community of Pacific Beach. We spent hours cooking whatever foods accommodated my current diet and experimental cleanse I was on and she was always game. We would Face-time with our tipsy friends and family back home as we did our own dance in Laura’s charming studio apartment amongst sizzling vegan stuffing and goblets of red wine.
In 2017 Laura moved abroad. I call it a world-tour of sorts, a trip that started last June and continues as I write this now. She is working full time (American hours) as a travel nurse recruiter, traveling to a new country each month for a year with a program called WY_CO. If you think a country a month doesn't already sound like a dream, she always fits in a roundup of weekend trips like a jet-set to Singapore or Bosnia. She does this because she can and she is the kind of girl who makes Beyonce-grade Lemonade out of sweet, sweet lemons. When Laura told me where she would be for the tryptophan-fueled holiday last year, she insisted I join her. She casually told me to just book the flight and meet her there. What was the problem, she asked. Her tone so nonchalant I began to imagine a world where maybe it really wasn’t that big of a deal.
The plan was originally to take a solo trip through northern Thailand and then meet Laura in Hanoi, Vietnam in time for the holiday. In announcing the plan to my aunt Jeanne and cousin Benny who reside a few hours south in Orange County, they had a look in their eyes of immediate intrigue. They glanced at each other and Jeanne said, "why don't we go to Thailand?" In my head I thought, "who needs Hawaii when you have Thailand, the cheaper and more exotic sister to the Big Island?" For a split-hair of a second, I thought this might be an influx on my plan, but it was overshadowed with excitement at the prospects of sharing an international trip abroad with my family that I have grown very close with over the last couple of years. It was settled, this trip abroad was connecting me to my most favorite people in a way that I could have never imagined.
November 10, Veterans Day.
LAX to Chiang Mai with a stop in Ghanzhou, China
Ain't it lovely when you write something down one day, a destination of your dreams—say Thailand—and when you look around, you realize you have arrived. These moments are ravishingly and uniquely yours. To be honest, I have less anxiety when I don’t know what to expect, when the situation is murky in the creative mind, then I have no choice but to find presence in the now. For example, not knowing the language in a Southeast Asian country is somewhat overwhelming but more than that it makes me laugh as I give it up to my future self who will have to navigate the moment as it arrives. I ponder how I will convey the messages to get what I need. Will I have to play Pictionary with taxi drivers and act out my questions with full-bodied motions, embarrassing both myself and the unfortunate recipient? I don't mind not knowing right now, but at one point I am sure the frustration and reality of my unpreparedness will hit hard. Let's see what I will do with that. Go against the frustration and pull a Noah Levine, sitting with the panic and clumsiness of being a privileged foreigner? After all it is temporary, isn't it? Take away the ego and you are left with a yolky heart who is high on vulnerability and willing to be moved, shaken, stirred.
The moment I knew I was not in my homeland anymore was when I went to the bathroom. I would call it a squatty potty, but it is built into the floor, kind of like a bidet but you have to squat low to the ground and, no, you do not get a refreshing spray afterwards. And yes, people have missed the hole in the ground many times. I remain undecided on whether I like this or not.
I started reading Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale on the plane. The irony of reading this and being a young female traveling across the world to go exploring on my own terms couldn't be further from the protagonists life in the story. I think there is a reason I am reading this now. There is a gratitude I feel in my heart and I can't forget that the reason I am here is in part because of the sacrifice my grandparents made and all the other strangers who have made it possible for freedom of choice to be our right. Flying on Veteran’s Day is very special for me as I am the grand-daughter of two veterans and I am feeling the immensity of my opportunities. The fact that I can operate from a place of choice…is the ultimate luxury.
November 13, Chiang Mai
After over 18+ hours of travel, I have landed in the balmy, breathtaking country of Thailand. I have been camped out in my hotel room for the last 12 hours to sleep, do yoga, write, and study the rhythmic Thai tongue. A candle-lit yoga session helped me revel in the beginning of this journey and open up to my strengths, allowing my body to speak its truth on the bare teak floor of my room at La Naview @ Prasingh.
Now, I have emerged, harem pants and swollen strands of blonde hair. Everything has dew on it and I swear the colors are brighter, coated in a slick sweat pulling out the brightest notes of skin. Plastic heaps of trash and spice-fueled Pad Thai ripen under the sun. I am a bit anxious as I feel the pressure to do it all. But as my mother reiterated to me, being on Thai time means you take your watch off and flow. So, besides the excursions nailing me into a schedule, I hereby promise to walk with the locals, let my camera lead my curiosity, and don’t forget to BE.
During breakfast on the hotel terrace, I watch mopeds speeding by and red flat-bed trucks carrying locals and enthused travelers dodging school kids that direct each other across cacophonous streets. I am alone on my first day after ordering intoxicatingly sweet pancakes with chunks of pineapple and I decide to take to the streets where the rising sun sparkles between buildings, lighting up the varnish on motor bikes and the monks shiny bald heads. I was on my way to find a temple, I didn't care which one but I chose this hotel for being in the square, close to food, monasteries, and markets. As I walked, sweat was brewing at my brow and the sidewalk was so choppy I had to constantly be looking down as to not slip sideways into oncoming traffic. I took in every sense pleasure I could. I found my stride, hot but happy in that singular moment. I smiled bigger than I had all year. This acknowledgment of joy, this feeling of freedom, was the beginning of a shedding exterior trimmed with doubt. I let go of what was going to happen and I just lived for a second. It was beautiful. It was discovery. The simple joy from just being here was a breed of emotion all its own. From the moment I stepped onto the steaming asphalt of Chiang Mai, I was taken. Swept up with the hot breath of a city thick with tuk-tuks, Thai massage parlors, and transplants from every walk of life's fascinating pot of humans.
This is a place of spiritual contemplation with equal parts hot curry and curiosity. People don't come here to get lost, as I would learn quickly after taking a few missteps on my way back to the hotel. There was always someone there at each corner to point me in a new direction, not always the right one, but that was part of the discovery. I searched for my destination in the city square that bends from shops to homes at each corner and is teeming with barefoot monks where you least expect them. I had helpful nudges from strangers who would eventually guide me back to the hotel where my bus waited to take me to a local organic farm for a traditional Thai cooking class.
Your pen will probably die when you need it most. Always have a back-up
The Thai do not use maps or directions, you show them one and they will laugh but eventually point you in the general direction of your destination with a few hand gestures thrown in for good measure.
Always ask what kind of meat you are being served.
Sabai Sabai is their mantra—you will hear it wherever you go. It means 'same, same...but different'. It can be applied to anything from dining, to shopping, and as a reminder to go with the flow.
I made my way to a gold temple towering behind white gates and I awkwardly made my way to the front not sure of how to approach this spiritual arena. I removed my sandals and wrapped my gray scarf around my damp shoulders and I entered. This was to be the first of many temples and holy buildings I would make my way through on this trip.
City of smiles 🌛 Running wild with mopeds and vendors-catering to the cacophony of year round tourists-Chiang Mai is a blend of convenient offerings for thirsty travelers and spiritual landmarks where gold Buddha’s rest. I can see the lines of calm drawn at the entryways of every temple, where bombastic chatter subdues and the sporadic pace reverts to patient footsteps. One day in and I’m hooked on this place, I’ve never been so happy to walk through a culture and simply...witness.
Cát Bà Island