I was an existential insomniac. My life sucked.
I felt rudderless—floating on a cloud of familiarity, predictability, and numb routine. Everything was on autopilot. Every day was a sustained state like I was sleeping on a flight—just existing, moving forward, but not ever being in a place of substance. The quality of my consciousness was boring my existence. I was doing too many things at once, but nothing felt important. Everything was in a foggy haze. I needed a victory to shake things up. Time for a change.
“Far better is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure…than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt
I was waiting on inspiration like most people wait for a bus. My first idea was, “I should take a vacation”, but realized that a concierge or bartender wouldn’t solve any of my problems. Taking a vacation is like taking recreational drugs, it’s just an enjoyably brief escape from reality. Beach chairs, buffets, and fruity cocktails are the path of least resistance en route to tranquility. It would’ve been too easy. I needed more. Travel as opposed to vacationing on the other hand, is meant to challenge you.
I decided to backpack through Thailand. Why Thailand? It looked like a fun place to go. Why backpacking? The liberating thought of traveling to a distant land with all my possessions carried on my back made my toes curl. Trimming the fat, travelling light, and moving freely was the best way to separate my mind from distractions. My overarching goal was to focus on experiencing simplicity instead of complexity.
I made a mental list of things I wanted to achieve. It wasn’t so much about the things I wanted to see or do. More so, I had an idea of things in my own psyche that I wanted to confront. I went in with the attitude that I’m going to experience things that I will never experience again. So, it was important to be in the moment and not in front of a camera phone. And experience life through a lens of mortality and not novelty.
“Journey’s are the midwives of thought.” ~ Alain De Botton
DAYS 1-4: BANGKOK
It was a long 25 hours of travel. I made it to the opposite side of the globe in one piece thanks to a steady cocktail of gravol, muscle relaxers, and white wine. I made it off the plane just in time for my sedation to morph into impatience. I strapped on my 70L pack, picked up a SIM card, and headed straight for the heart of Bangkok.
Within an hour of landing, I cabbed into the city, dropped my bag at my guesthouse, and hit the streets. I was starving and looking for anything other than congee or instant noodles. My street was narrow and dark. A canopy of trees covered the street with interspersed lamp posts running towards a 7-Eleven glowing in the distance. I walked down the dark street determined to eat something at the first vendor I found.
Not too far away I stopped at a vendor that set up shop outside of a massage parlour. The mobile food cart was busy with people waiting to order and sitting down nearby at a handful of plastic patio tables and chairs. The cook was a slim, grey-haired woman wearing a yellow apron. She worked fastidiously between chopping ingredients, stirring pots and tidying her mis en place. I waited in line for a minute or two, eagerly anticipating my first meal. All I heard was the crackling of hot oil, the chopping of vegetables, and the subtle hum from the street lights hanging overhead.
She had no menu. I didn’t know most of the ingredients she was cooking with, so I pointed to the people sitting down at the plastic patio tables next to us and said, “I’ll have what they’re having.” She nodded in agreement, opened a cooler on the ground beside her, gave me a big frosty bottle of Chang, and gestured for me to go sit down. Then she went to work.
Noodles with fried cabbage and chicken. Served in a white styrofoam take-out container. One of the locals eating beside me grabbed my beer, opened it with his keys, smiled, then handed it back to me. These were my kind of people.
As I ate, I realized how happy I felt. It was past midnight. I was alone in a strange country thousands of miles away from home. The only possessions I had were my flip-flops, a t-shirt, shorts, and a pocketful of Baht. It was me, the cook, and 5-10 strangers. We drank beer, ate delicious food, and spoke different languages. That moment encapsulated everything I’ve come to love about travelling.
The first thing I noticed as I walked outside the next morning was a massive looping bird nest of electrical wires hanging twenty feet above the street. It was so disorderly and massive in size that it made me feel anxious. If my uncle who was an electrician saw it, he would have had an aneurysm and keeled over and died. It didn’t look…safe.
The sunshine made my narrow street tell a very different story during the daytime. The lady and her food cart were gone. The 7-Eleven no longer glowed in the distance. The street was lined with hostels and brothels as far as I could see. All I could hear were moped engines and cooing pigeons. All I could smell was burning incense and the hot garbage water that was running alongside the curb.
I walked all day. After visiting temples, markets, and food carts, I came to the realization that Bangkok is everything. It’s a place where you can get anything at any time of the day. The entire city constantly pulsates with life.
The next three days were a sweaty blur of 100% humidity, city buses, horking, tuktuks, temples, pad thai #1, Koh San Road, red curry, roasted duck, pad thai #2, 7-Eleven air conditioning, soft-shell crab, rooftop patios, mango smoothies, pad thai #3, sky train rides, Tom Yum Kung, Chang and watching ladyboys do their thing in the Nana District. My iPhone told me that I walked over 50 miles in three days.
After four days in Bangkok, every piece of clothing I owned was soaking wet. Time to move on. After a breakfast of deep-fried pork, rice, and lettuce with a Thai-style coffee on the side, I took the train to the airport and bought a $44 plane ticket to Chiang Mai.
DAYS 5-8: CHIANG MAI
Chiang Mai is the name of both a northern Thai province and its capital city. It’s kind of like New York, New York—Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai. It was a very different type of city than Bangkok. There was more sky and less traffic. Sidewalks were smaller and interactions felt more intimate.
In Chiang Mai, life happened when the sun went down. Nocturnal vendors lined the streets to sell food, clothing, jewelry, and cheesy tourist trinkets. White people from around the world flooded the streets. The Night Market was an all-you-can-eat sensory buffet. Colours were brighter, sweet smells lingered longer, eyes grew tastebuds, and hands grazed everything like fingertips skipping across a chainlink fence.
Beer was cheap. Rice and noodles were cheaper. All of a sudden, decision making became really, really easy. There was absolutely no need to plan anything. It was the perfect time to just be. Example, I found a very good fried rice place off of the main strip. While I was sitting down on the roadside enjoying my fried rice, I tried Nam Pla Prik for the first time. It was so incredibly delicious that I seriously contemplated whether it was the best meal of my life.
As I was walking through the night market amidst all the other white people, I noticed some excited locals walking fast and peeling down side streets and alleyways. I was curious, so I followed them. Their excitement was contagious. I felt like I needed to brace myself for some unknown entity and at times I caught myself holding my breathe. We walked through more alleys and down smaller streets until the white people disappeared. We merged into a crowd of locals standing outside of an old building that looked like an airplane hangar. The locals were holding beers in one hand and a handful of loose white tickets in the other. I approached the hangar and was struck by a darting spotlight and then heard music that sounded like, for a lack of better terms, snake charming music. As locals moved out of my way I noticed the posters lining the streets—this was a Muay Thai arena. Without a second thought, I bought a ticket, grabbed some beers and sat down in a rickety white lawn chair three rows back from the ring.
Industrial spotlights hung over the ring and baked the canvas with yellow light. The ring was surrounded by six rows of the type of white plastic patio chairs that everybody’s parents once owned. Everything became louder when the first fight began. The music, the shouting gamblers, the audience, and the clinking of beer bottles all accumulated into a final roar pitch when the first fighters were announced and the bell rang to start the fight.
The ceremonial aspect of Muay Thai is beautiful. I loved all of it—the dancing, the costumes, the music, the ritual—all incredible. It was hypnotizing to watch. I remember forgetting that I was holding a beer until the bottles sweaty perspiration began to run over my hand like wax down a candle.
There were ten fights in total on the card. Both men and women. Both equally violent. I’ll never forget the sound of the first leg kick—a whipping bone colliding with a THWACK! against the other fighter’s gut. My muscles tensed up with every exchange. Every body-strike echoed in my own chest cavity. I held my breath and half crouched over my seat as each fighter launched their attacks.
The excitement of each fight was accentuated by the the collective oohs and ahhs shouted by the audience after each blow. As the fight card went on, the sound of bone on bone combat became less shocking to me. After time, the hot lights above the ring started to bake the fresh sweat and blood beading off of each fighter. The hangar began to smell like cigarette smoke and hot sex. There was nothing sexy about the fights. However, the entire Muah Thai experience felt incredibly primal.
After the fights I joined some expats, Elliott and Alin, for a drink at an English pub near by called the Red Lion. We traded stories and talked about the craziness we all just witnessed. Elliott was a ship builder from Liverpool. He came to Thailand to pursue the his final testing to become a certified scuba dive instructor. He was a tall, gangly guy with curly blond hair, glasses, and wore Birkenstock sandals on his feet and an SLR camera around his neck. Alin was noticeably younger than Elliott. She was a skinny Indian law student from Montreal who just graduated, so she treated herself to a post-post-secondary trip to Southeast Asia, which included Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. They both arrived solo, but found companionship (and dare I say romance) with each other.
We drank English Ale all night until the bartender told us to leave. It was hard to fall asleep that night. The room was spinning and my heart felt like it was beating on the outside of my ribcage.
The next day I went to see elephants in the wild. I knew how important elephants were to Thai culture and felt obligated to experience them without exploiting them.
It took a 1.5 hour ride in the bed of an old pickup truck to reach Elephant Jungle Santuary. It was a dangerous road to travel. During the entire ride we maneuvering over dusty drought-ridden potholed roads. At times we would be scaling mountain paths no bigger than the width of our truck. Looking into the pastoral fields and rice paddies hundreds of feet below was beautiful, but we were always one loose stone away from plummeting to our deaths. I was freaking out and gripped the roll bars of the truck bed with a terror grip. The ride north to the sanctuary alone could have easily been its own paid excursion.
After we unloaded from the truck, our group of fifteen hiked down a mountain and though a dry forest canopy of tall trees. We exited the cool shade of the forest when we arrived at a small village in a valley of rice paddies. We were given psychedelic neon coloured elephant-tourist tunics to wear and given multiple bushels of bananas. With bananas in hand, we walked into the jungle to meet our new friends.
The first time I saw an elephant in the wild was like the first time Dr. Grant saw dinosaurs at Jurassic Park. All my rational thinking was replaced by childlike happiness and wonder. It was like meeting your friends new puppy for the first time and turning into an excited three-year old that barely knows English.
There were four elephants; one adult female, one adult male, one juvenile female, and one baby female. Everyone loved the baby. I was off with one of the older adults, feeding her bananas and petting her thick, bristly skin. We were in our own little world. I couldn’t stop touching her trunk because it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before—so agile, yet powerful. She was exploring the possibility of eating my GoPro when I ran out of bananas to feed her.
Then the craziest thing happened.
Seconds after the Mahout (elephant keeper) handed me more bananas to feed the lady elephant, my entire body was smashed from behind without any warning. “What the fuck!” I launched forward ten feet before I had any chance of catching myself. I turned around and realized the massive force that struck me was the baby elephant. She tried to jack me for my bananas! I thought, “how can something so big and powerful be so quiet?” It didn’t make any sense. I looked over at the Mahout that gave me the bananas and he just shrugged his shoulders and gave me a look that said, “what did you expect?”
Elephants are a tricky force of nature. They embody a combination of both gentle grace and unearthly power. I compare the experience to my first time surfing. Looking out into the ocean as huge waves crashed to the shore looked glorious and pristine. But once I successfully climbed on top of my first wave, then lost my balance and tumbled head first into the wake, I felt the crushing force of the ocean pinning me to the sea floor as my body helplessly cartwheeled under the water.
I had a moment with one of the older elephants while we were swimming in the river after they took a mud bath. As I was climbing out of the river, I dropped my water bowl. Without hesitation, he reached into the water with his trunk, picked up the bowl, and handed it back to me. I was at a loss for words. I remember feeling so overcome with emotion that the only dumb-struck words that came out of my dabbling mouth was, “awww, thank you!”
They are without question the smartest animals I have ever encountered.
I assumed they would be clunky or unaware of their size—like a puppy. Not true. They are incredibly aware of everything. And freakiest of all…they’re quiet. You would think that an animal the size of an ambulance would make a little bit more noise. Nope. I found that out the hard way.
DAYS 9-10: KRABI
Krabi is a quiet place. It doesn’t share the scale, sprawl or density of people like Bangkok or Chiang Mai. It’s a coastal town that is home to a large fishing community, and ferries taking people to and from the southern-most tropical islands. Krabi was my jump-off point to Koh Lanta.
A boardwalk separated Krabi Town from the rising and falling ocean tides. When the tide was low I could see crabs and mudskippers moving from pond to pond. Clams and oysters were spitting water out of holes in the mud, unknowingly letting a duo of elderly clam digger women know where to dig with their hand rakes. Stray dogs followed cawing swarms of sea birds along the beach to scavenge anything new that washed up with the tide.
Aside from the long boats ferrying tourists island to island, Krabi had a very blue collar vibe. Fishing boats of all shapes and sizes were docked on piers in every direction. Palm tree plantations dominated the landscape moving inland from the ocean. And nestled in between the fishing villages and plantations were chalky white mountain peaks shooting out of the jungle terrain.
The buildings along the waterfront were painted with murals of whale sharks, starfish, and manta rays. Every building was painted in cheery pastel colours that reminded me of seaside communities in the Caribbean and Atlantic Canada. Even the piers and fishing boats were painted sunshine yellow, rosy pink, and periwinkle blue.
There was a darkness to Krabi Town that underscored their colourful community. Buildings that were once five stories tall were now only three stories tall. Entire cinderblock walls were crumbled down to rubble, and recently painting murals looked like they’d been aged for years. The skeletal remains of wooden fishing boats appeared and disappeared as the tide came in and out. It was a devastating reminder how punishing the monsoon season can be to Thailand.
I had a day to kill in Krabi before my ferry to Koh Lanta, so I put on my ‘tourist hat’ and paid a long boat driver to ferry me to Railay Beach. The boat ride was slow and introspective. Any conversation was drowned out by the sound of the outboard motor, waves crashing against the haul, and loose bailing buckets tumbling around the leaky floor. There was nothing to do but watch the scenery. The fishing villages slowly changed into mangrove swamps, then the swamps changed into chalky white mountains rising and falling into the jungle landscape. The hum of the boat motor created a metronomic effect that in combination with the smell of hot wood and boat gas, put me into the mellowest state of consciousness. Every now and then a splash of seawater would hit my lips and the taste of salt would break my concentration.
Our boat was part of a convoy moving down a watery highway towards Railay Beach. As we got closer to port, there were hundreds of long boats docked at the piers and along the beach. The scale and vibrancy of the natural landscape was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It reminded me of the floating mountains from Avatar. My bubble of bliss was soon popped as I wandered inland to find that Railay Beach, although beautiful, is the Times Square of beaches. It was tourist central, commercialized, and full of Coca-Cola drinking, Under Armour-wearing, tattoo covered, and very loud…Americans.
The beauty of Railay Beach bordered on the sublime. I had a moment when I waded into the milky green waters of the bay and collapsed backwards into a dead-man’s float. My ears went underwater and I lost all sound. I could see the chalky mountain peaks and feel the sun penetrating my eyelids and cooking my chest. After floating a while with my eyes closed, I braced myself to stand up. I leaned my neck forward and expected a ‘back to reality’ moment with the sounds of party music, boat motors, and shouting tourists to fill the void. I stood up, water dripped down my face, and I heard nothing. I floated so far away from the beach that all I could hear was the waves hitting my back. I barely made out the figures on the beach. All I saw were the two giant mountains flanking each side of the beach. The entire landscape looked amplified. Everything that was happening felt so simple—I was swimming in chest-high water, while looking at a mountainous beachfront on a sunny day. All I could do was look and just be. I felt lonely, but it also felt very zen.
DAYS 11-14: KOH LANTA
It was Easter Sunday when I arrived to Koh Lanta. I ate a breakfast of spicy noodles, fried chicken, and pickled vegetables in Krabi before taking a long ride atop the deck of the ferry. I was one of a hundred backpackers catching a ride that day. I remember the top deck being a massive heap of 50-100L backpacks stacked on top of each other. The luckiest amongst us stayed on the top deck to tan in the sun and watch tropical islands rise and fall out of the ocean mist as we slowly passed by.
My hotel was not far away from the pier where we landed. I chose a hotel instead of a hostel or guesthouse because I wanted to wind down and relax on the tail end of my travels. I didn’t stay at the Ritz Carlton; but my hotel was quiet, had air conditioned rooms, and an infinite pool overlooking the ocean.
Every morning I would go to the 7-Eleven at the bottom of the hill and get a canned iced coffee, yogurt drink, custard roll, and ham and cheese sandwich for breakfast. During the day I would scooter to different parts of the island, take off my flip-flops and walk random beaches. When it got too hot, I would roll all my things into my t-shirt, place them on the beach, and go swimming in the ocean. In the afternoon I would visit local markets to pick up fruit or do laundry. One day I spent some time at an animal shelter and walked two dogs named Wayne and Tammy.
The evenings were the best time. After the sun went down, I would go swimming in the infinite pool. I usually had the pool area to myself during that time, though I wasn’t always completely alone. If things got really quiet and I didn’t make too many movements, then a troop of monkeys would come down from the trees and joined me on the pool deck. They would tightrope walk the ledges of the hotel and one-by-one come down to drink from the pool. Any subtle movement I made spooked the monkeys and sent them screaming and running up into the trees.
As the sun fell closer to the ocean, I found myself hanging over the edge of the pool and staring into the horizon. Bats appeared flying overhead. As I floated, hundreds of them would swoop down and skim across the surface of the water to drink from the pool. After the sunset, I dried myself off and walked the neighbourhood beside the ocean, hopping from food stall to food stall, snacking on mangos and sticky rice, and looking for the best curry I could find.
Koh Lanta is one of the larger islands in the Andaman Sea. I chose this island because it was not as busy as Phuket or the the Phi Phi Islands. My favourite thing to do during the day was drive my scooter around the dusty two-lane highway that hugged the perimeter of the island. I wasn’t looking for anywhere to go in particular. It just felt good to have the wind on my face and the sun at my back. When I got low on fuel I would pick up an old rum bottle filled with gas from a food cart on the side of the highway. When I got deep into the jungle I stopped at a mountaintop restaurant that overlooked the ocean. I ordered mango and green tea ice cream and listened to the birds and monkeys making noise overhead.
No matter where I am in the world, driving a small engine vehicle will always make me happy.
After two weeks in Thailand, I spent my last night on the beach drinking beers and watching the sunset. Very cliche I know, but it needed to happen. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling around Thailand, it’s that simplicity brings me the most joy. Whether I’m riding a scooter beside the ocean or eating a bowl of rice at the market—simplicity agrees with me.
I flew home the next day. After 30 hours of travel I was back on the other side of the world where I’d started. I remember feeling inspired when I came home. My energy level was higher than normal and my new experiences crafted a new perspective in me that I felt could be held in my hands.
Soon after I returned home, I quit my job and moved to the east coast. It was a big move to make, but I was confident in my assessment that I needed to change my situation. The move caused a purge of all sorts. Physically, I got rid of a lot of overhead that I didn’t really need. Mentally, I cleared my mind and opened myself up to encounter new things. Emotionally, I took an audit of who and what really meant something to me. Spiritually, I closed a chapter on my life that could have continued, and entered a new chapter feeling humble and vulnerable, yet liberated. It was the same feeling I felt the moment I stepped out of the Bangkok airport for the first time.
I’m still a bit of an existential insomniac. I don’t think this will ever change. Now I try to live with less complexity and take on less mental weight. That’s what my experience in Thailand has taught me—keep things simple.
Wanderlust often creeps into my life and I think about Thailand, and also where I’ll go next. Peru? Belgium? Sri Lanka? When I reach a period of comfort and complacency, I’ll leave again to go charge the batteries and reset the operating system in a new place far away from what I know.
Travel changed the way I look at things. The act of accepting challenge, risk, and vulnerability brought new clarity to my life. My experience carrying a sweaty 70L backpack around Thailand for two weeks in the hot sun made me realize:
“A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” ~ John A. Shedd