In Kanachanaburi, Thailand

Travel Lesson : Go with the flow

In a belch of black smoke, my first local bus rattled out of the busy station. And to tell the truth, I had no idea where I was going…

I had arrived in Bangkok only three days before Chinese New Year in 2006. The city was mad (even more so than usual) in frantic preparation and anticipation. I stepped out of my guesthouse into a whirl of Khao San Road insanity and stumbled down the road rubbing my jetlagged eyes.

This was my first trip out of the U.S. and I was a stranger in a stranger land. I was alone, tired, and frankly wondering what the hell I had just gotten myself into. All those months of preparation which included selling my house, my belongings, and quitting my job of eight years had led down to this very moment…and I wasn’t happy.

I heard through various forums and travel sites that Bangkok was an amazing place to be for Chinese New Year. There was to be a big celebration, lots of photo opportunities in the streets, and traveler bragging rights galore for years to come. There was just one small problem…

It didn’t feel right!

I spent a miserable day floundering around Bangkok, suspicious of everything and everyone trying to get a hand on my precious travel funds. I halfheartedly snapped pictures of some landmarks and temples which I haven’t looked at since. As a newbie traveler I was overwhelmed and stressed, I secretly wished that I had the power to forward the clock three days to Chinese New Year and get out of the bloody city to someplace less hectic.

It felt like I was a roulette ball bouncing around the wheel with everyone shouting at me from all sides…then suddenly when all hope seemed lost, the wheel stopped turning. The doom lifted and I found my groove. A bold new mantra filled my head:

This is MY trip!

Standing in a dirty street on day two in Bangkok that little epiphany shaped my vagabonding, future trips, and life to come. It felt as if the shackles and tethers of years had just slid off and rattled to the asphalt below. I was so accustomed to living for other people and meeting my peer’s expectations that this was a new feeling entirely. Hell, I was almost floating.

It seems so simple as you sit here reading, but peeling away the layers of social grime and listening to your heart in the raw is tougher than you would think.

In one fatal moment, I realized that I did not owe my friends, my forum mates, my travel journal, my camera, or even myself anything. I was the one that had meticulously saved to get here, no one was funding my way.  It did not matter if I saw Chinese New Year in Bangkok or sat alone in a tiny village — all that really mattered was that I was happy at the end of the day.

With a smile on my face, I got up the next day and hovered down to the local bus station where there was a map in Thai hanging on the wall.  My Lonely Planet was for “Islands and Beaches” and didn’t cover much of anything outside of Bangkok.  I picked the town of “Kanchanaburi” only because I had heard of the River Kwai and saw that it was close. Plus, the name had a nice roll.  My ticket cost less than US $3.

Three hours later and I climbed off the bus into a very charming little town and ended at one of my favorite guest houses even today, the Jolly Frog. It sat directly on the famous River Kwai and had a gorgeous garden. It was also filled with wonderful people that I still call friends. For a week we trekked to waterfalls, swam in hidden pools, sat with unrestrained tigers in a temple, and had the time of our lives.

Waterfall Kanchanaburi Thailand

I almost felt sorry for those travelers that were sucking down exhaust fumes in Bangkok and pushing their way through the masses just three hours away. In Kanchanaburi, I found my footing, got over my jet lag, and even learned some Thai language and culture. I left there a new man with my chi aligned and ready to tackle whatever Asia could throw at me.  Had I not listened to my true inner voice, I would have missed the entire experience — and for what…some photos and firecrackers?

As a bonus, Kanchanaburi actually had a Chinese New Year’s celebration as well…sure it wasn’t as big as Bangkok’s, but it was a big party and more importantly — I was smiling!

Since January 2006, I have returned to Bangkok several times and actually love embracing the madness, I’m a new convert…but I will never forget the lesson I learned on that new trip, the feeling of authentic freedom, and what it feels like to only answer to myself.

Do yourself a favor on future journeys and listen to your gut.

Never forget that this is your trip, your life shaping experience. Unless you are a travel journalist, don’t feel responsible to a Flickr group, a blog, or your travel peers…just go with the flow! Your heart knows best.