I decided to attempt to compile my entire Southeast Asia adventure into a single mega-post. It’s a long one, and comes across as a bragging session (which it is of course) so consider yourself warned.
[This post was much better with photos but they were removed due to host problems]
On Jan 23 I left the U.S. (for the first time) with a one-way ticket to Bangkok. I had no real plan, no dates to keep, and I was about as green as a newbie backpacker can be at surviving abroad. Over the next few months I experienced some of the best and worst times of my life. I never expected!
I fell in love with my very first country, and I firmly believe my heart is buried under some white sand somewhere on one of the islands I hopped around.
I traveled almost all over: east, west, north, and south for more than three months. The Thai people with their jai dee smiles will always be on my mind. I started in Bangkok like everyone else but escaped to the peaceful Kanchanaburi on the River Kwai. I then hit three islands in the Gulf of Thailand and attended the infamous Full Moon Party and then a Half Moon Party on Koh Phangan. Imagine 15,000 people dancing in a rave on the beach, some wearing nothing but body paint, sharing sweat (among other things), and grinding barefooted in the sand until the sun muscles its way up, making people too hot to dance. The FMP is an experience, to say the least.
I even took a class and learned how to spin the fire torch, which got me lots of mostly positive attention when I traveled over the next month, carrying it in my hands. I then got introduced to scuba diving as do a lot of others on the little island of Koh Tao. I liked it so much I went for my PADI Openwater certification. There on the island, early in the morning, I swam out 200 meters from the shore in cloudy water and snorkeled with almost a dozen six-foot-long, blacktip reef sharks, with no boat or land to hop up on. I will never forget it!
I did night dives with hunting barracudas, which are equally docile, and giant sting rays. On Koh Samui, the third island in the group, I was walking up the stairs in a jungle temple early in the morning alone when I nearly stepped on a bright green bamboo viper that simply looked at me, tasted the air, then climbed the steps beside me all the way to the giant Buddha statue. We parted friends (thank God).
I then crossed over to the west coast of Thailand, to the famous Krabi and Railay where I did some world-class rock climbing and deepwater solo scrambling on the sea cliffs. Despite one nasty little slip, I left unscathed, for the most part, and made my way to the Andaman Sea where I hopped around the islands for weeks.
On Koh Phi Phi, the island most devastated by the tsunami last year, I got my PADI Advanced scuba certification along with deep and shipwreck certification. I dived with banded sea snakes (the most poisonous snake in the world), gentle leopard sharks, and even more dangerous Dutch people.
I had a nearly-disastrous dive diving a shipwreck there in deep water, with nitrogen narcosis making me crazy, and a bad BCD making life difficult inside the wreck. Night after night, we would party all night on the beach, watch the fireshows, then drag ourselves out to dive the next morning. On the island of Koh Lanta, I swam inside a dark sea cave and explored for hours until the tide forced me out. The next day, I hired a horse from a local guy and spent all morning riding (or learning how to anyway) on the beach alone.
I left a part of myself on those islands in the Andaman.
With my Thai visa pretty much burned up, I decided to avoid overstaying by going north into Laos. I crossed the border into Vientiane and was greeted by communist policemen and AK47s everywhere. This was my first visit as an American to a communist country, and it proved very interesting. Guess what? I didn’t get immediately imprisoned.
Instead, in Vientiane (the capital of Laos) I got my worst case of food poisoning from the street food, possibly a BBQ bat on a stick. As I lie in my tiny $3 guest house room alone, shaking with fever, terrible thoughts were going through my head. I was alone, knew no one in this country, and neither my family nor government knew where I was. I barely beat the sickness, and in three days, regained enough strength to take a very winding and dodgey bus ride across the mountains to Vang Vieng.
Tiny Vang Vieng, built on an old French airstrip, will forever be the “Laos” to me. There, I hired a mountain bike and rode through the mountains with a map, made a friend, and explored an underwater cave, hot springs, and even a wild cave that was at the top of my spelunking abilities. We could have gotten lost inside very easily.
I sampled roasted bat on a stick (tastes a little like rat) and learned to trek while keeping an eye out for landmines which are still sadly everywhere in Laos. I reluctantly left and took a bus farther north to Luang Prabang, one of the last major stops before China. The old French city on a river turned out to be quite charming, and I spent time with the Buddhist monks there in one of the famous temples.
After a week of city luxuries, I chose to take the infamous fast boat out of Laos, down the Mekong River, and back into Thailand. Words can barely describe how loud, uncomfortable, and dangerous these tiny boats are. The normal journey on a “slow boat” takes two days, but these madmen make the journey in only eight hours, skipping over the deadly whirlpools on the river at 50 MPH. You actually get issued a crash helmet, if that is any indication! To make things more interesting, we left the day after a massive rainstorm, so the river was angry and not in a mood to be toyed with. I survived the ride, and despite a sore bum, was standing back in Thailand the next day.
Thailand (Part 2)
I fought the cravings to return to my beloved islands and decided to spend the next month exploring the north of Thailand. I started by hiring a motorcycle in Chiang Mai and riding all the way to Mae Hong Son, a small town in the farthest northwest corner near Myanmar/Burma. I basically taught myself how to handle a bike along the way.
The motorbike ride through the mountains of Northern Thailand was an adventure in itself. I had a map but no idea of what I was getting myself into. I ran out of petrol at one point and had to pay a farmer to give me some from the hand pump he used for his farm implements. I passed numerous forest fires burning out of control, sometimes on both sides and across the road. The asphalt was hot enough to melt my flip-flops if I lingered too long! The weather was so hot and dry, there was no hope to control the fires. Locals just let the jungle burn.
In Mae Hong Son, I explored the famous Karen longneck tribe villages (my advice: don’t!) and took part in a monk initiation festival with lots of colors and dancing. At night, I could hear mortar fire coming from the border with Burma. After a week there, I backtracked back down the dangerous mountain road, endured a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, and pushed my bike several kilometers into the small town of Pai, a cute little backpackers retreat.
Pai is the kind of place where you have to set an exit date or you will end up staying months…and some people do! They literally throw away their passports. I trekked to waterfalls in the jungle with no other humans around. I had the pleasure of riding an elephant to the river, then letting him toss me off like a toy into the muddy but cooling water.
I left Pai and rode an exhausted motorbike into Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand, just in time for the huge Songkran water festival. The best way to describe Songkran would be Mardis Gras meets the world’s largest water fight. I was not dry for at least a week, and spent all day dancing while dripping wet in the streets and sharing the craic with people from all over the world.
In Chiang Mai, I also did my first Bungee jump from 150 feet (50 meters), the most difficult two steps (off the platform) I have ever taken in my life. I was the first jumper during the Songkran holiday week, and the staff didn’t speak much English! Sadly, the fun in Chiang Mai was overcast by news of my favorite and closest uncle’s death at home. After receiving the news, I stood crying on a payphone in the street. Unfortunately, it would not be the last time I had to do this on my trip.
Rather than invest days crossing Thailand again, I took a short and cheap flight from Chiang Mai to Siem Reap, Cambodia. Unlike Thailand, which is rich compared to its neighbors, Siem Reap opened my eyes to the types of poverty and distress that some people are unfortunately born into on our planet. My heart went out to these people. There is no feeling like buying some bananas in the market, only to turn around and have a gathering of armless, legless, or blind landmine victims behind you begging for one. These beggars don’t ask for money like their American counterparts, they literally ask for a swallow of water from your water bottle or a the core of your finished apple. Heartbreaking.
Years of war, including the American-Vietnam War, and the Khmer Rouge have left these people desperate. I spent the week exploring Angkor Wat, one of the man-made wonders of the world. The 1,000-year-old temples are spread across hundreds of kilometers, and I managed to escape the tourists by going an hour by motorcycle to a remote village, then hiring a non-English speaking guide to help me avoid the numerous landmines through the jungle to explore one of the hidden temple sites. I was the only one there, and I felt like I was climbing around a museum or something. At my feet, were stone statues carved by the Khmer people over a thousand years ago and now they lay scattered around the jungle floor, forgotten and exposed to the elements. I didn’t dare touch one.
In one of the more popular temples, I was harassed by a Cambodian police officer, which are notoriously corrupt. I loved Cambodia, but constantly being pummeled by the poverty and the abundant sadness in the villages becomes taxing, so I caught a 16-hour bus ride over the worst imaginable roads and back into Thailand. Like so many backpackers, Thailand became my base.
Thailand (Part 3)
My original, loose plan had me flying from Bangkok to Melbourne, which is a fairly inexpensive flight and explains why there were so many Aussies in Thailand. Given the current situation of my family’s health, I decided to abort and fly home for a month or two to sort things out. I booked a flight to Orlando, Florida, to meet up with my family which was on holiday there.
To kill my last week in Thailand, like many travelers do on their way out, I visited the island of Koh Chang just a few hours south of Bangkok. The island was touristy as expected, but I did find a proper backpacker’s beach with decent prices and the occasional fire show. There on that island, just days before I was set to leave Thailand, my friend from Oslo (one of the nicest and most experienced travelers I met on this trip) was drugged in a bar and raped on the beach.
The next day, I listened helpless to her heartbreaking sobs as we did what we could to comfort her, then hired a longtail boat to take her off the island and back to Bangkok where she could fly home. The police proved completely useless, as expected, so I ended my Thailand experience by hunting day and night in all the beach bars and clubs for the guy who raped her. I had seen them together and could recognize his face.
For some reason, I think about this from time to time when someone jokingly gives me a hard time for “being on vacation for one year.” Backpacking travel is the most transformative thing that has happened to me in 31 years, but it isn’t always a vacation.
I left Bangkok in late May, and after a melancholy and very introspective 23-hour flight home, I landed in Orlando. I shared needed hugs and “welcome homes!” with my parents, sister, brother-in-law, niece, and nephew. We spent the next week in the epitome of American tourist hell (Disney World), but I couldn’t have been happier.
I fought through the jet lag, culture shock, and the urge to drive on the left side of the road, but had the time of my life doing so. The first time I started to remove my shoes before going into a restaurant, I knew that something inside of me had changed, for the good.
Also, I knew that after tasting the addictive essence of long-term solo travel, that I would not be able to stay still for long. I had barely been home three weeks before I was already booking tickets again and planning my next vagabonding trip.
My backpack was never unpacked.