Reflections on South East Asia

After my stressful trip back to Bangkok, I spent my last days in Thailand with Rathana, just chilling out and doing relatively normal things – going out for dinner, having a few drinks at a sky bar, watching a movie, doing a bit of shopping and chilling by the pool. When I think about it, it’s those little things that I really enjoyed about my time abroad. While it is fine to be a big ol’ tourist and gush over temples and beaches and resorts and all that jazz, I love the feeling of spending time just being in a foreign city and really living there, doing all the regular stuff as well as all the typical holiday things. I haven’t really figured out what I want to do with my life when, God forbid, this incredible journey comes to an end, but I must say that I’ve really developed a taste for living abroad. That issue is a can of worms in itself, though, and for now I just want to reflect on some things I’ve noticed, lessons I’ve learnt, and the life I’ve experienced during my time in South East Asia.

***

One thing that I was expecting, yet still deeply shocked by, was the prevalence of poverty in these countries. It broke my heart to see so many children in the streets, whether it was the boy in Saigon performing gruesome tricks such as breathing fire, chewing hot coals and eating razor blades, then approaching the crowds of beer-drinking tourists for a donation, or the little girl following me through the temples of Angkor Wat desperately trying to sell me five fridge magnets for a dollar, or the little girl carrying her baby brother, standing next to my table at a cafe in Siem Reap pleading, “Please, I don’t want money, I just want food.” It makes you want to run to the ATM and empty your accounts into their starving little hands, but I’ve been warned by so many about the poverty traps that evolve from giving these kids money, encouraging the very behaviour that keeps them on the streets and out of school. Back in Ho Chi Minh City, Allistair told me he sometimes gave them a little bit of money, but made them promise that they would get off the streets and use the money to go to school. Yet I wonder how many kids actually listen to his advice, and how many just see it as another reason to continue with their begging.

Other people suggest that sitting them down and actually buying them a meal is a thousand times better than giving them money could ever be. However, I had a rather unpleasant experience in restaurant in Phnom Penh when it came to offering food. I had ordered pizza and a beer, and was sitting on a table facing out into the street, catching up on some blog posts and sending a few emails home on my iPad. Cambodia is full of people selling things on the street, whether its sunglasses, books, bracelets or marijuana, but it always tugs your heart strings a little to see children working on the streets like that. So when a little girl failed to interest me in the bracelets she was selling and her eyes fell hungrily onto the pizza in front of me, I finally caved in. “Sure,” I said with a smile, “I’m probably not gonna eat the whole thing anyway.” I pushed the plate slightly in her direction, and she leant over and lifted a cheesy triangle out and took a bite. What I hadn’t anticipated, however, were her three smaller companions all wanting their own pieces of my pizza too. “Oh, ah… Sure, take two,” I mumbled mostly to myself, because the little boy hadn’t waited for my permission to take a piece. I still wanted to have some of the pizza myself, so after that I pulled the plate back towards myself and took a bite out of one of the remaining pieces. Another little boy stood staring at me expectantly.

“Can’t you guys share?” I asked, motioning to the second piece that the first little boy had taken. I realise how awful and selfish that sounded, but I was trying to strike a balance between enjoying the food I’d ordered for myself and helping these little kids out. Yet they seemed so angry when I refused to give them any more of my pizza. “Look what you have, you have so much!” they yelled, pointing at my iPad and my beer. I’d have felt a little more guilty if they hadn’t started to harass me so much, with one of the boys sneaking around into the restaurant and behind my chair. I pulled my backpack close under my legs, huddling over my table, and I felt like someone with a bag of hot chips who had just been discovered by a flock of seagulls. The boy got so bold as to reach over and touch my iPad – I’m not sure if he was hoping to achieve anything, perhaps disturb the file I was working on, or simply just annoy me. He failed in the former, but definitely succeeded in the later. I’m not proud to admit it, but after that I ended up losing my temper and swearing at them, in an attempt to scare them off. Yet the girl, who seemed to be the leader of the small group, only came back with a greater fury, spitting my curse words back at me. I was in shock – how did what I thought was a simple gesture of kindness turn so bitter so quickly? The ordeal finally ended when the restaurant owner came out and had a word with the kids in their local tongue, and I relocated to a table further inside the restaurant. It had been a prime example of biting the hand that feeds, and I hate to admit that those children ruined it for all the others – I couldn’t bring myself to donate to any more street children, be it food, money, or anything else, because I was afraid of it escalating into another nasty situation.

***

To revisit a topic from a previous blog, I found the notion of love and relationships to be quite peculiar in South East Asia. As Anna had pointed out to me earlier on in my trip, their definition of love is something very different to our Western ideals of romance.There is a huge emphasis on tradition and family, which is a whole topic worthy of analysis in itself, but in this culture it’s probably similar to what we would call “living the dream” back at home – a white picket fence, happy marriage, two point five kids and an SUV parked in the driveway. Yet in Western culture, it’s becoming increasingly more common to break from the mould and live the life you want to live, not the life that’s expected of you.

That trend hasn’t caught on in Asia. One of the conversations I had with my host while I was Couchsurfing in Vietnam was about relationships. “I really want a boyfriend,” he had told me. “I want to start a family. I know I have my studies to finish, but I really want to start my life now.” When I suggested that there was more to life than relationships and family – or rather, one didn’t need to start a family to feel complete – he practically scoffed at the idea. I told him about several of my previous boyfriends where the topic of children had been discussed – not specially about us having them, but our individual views on the idea – and how every time I had been sure that I had a lot more life to experience before I was ready to settle down, let alone have a baby or start a family. But for him, all he could hear was the ticking of his biological clock. Being gay is one thing, and I was glad that while he wasn’t out, at least my host himself accepted his homosexuality. Yet for him the idea of disappointing his family, and not doing all he could to support and foster those basic traditional values, was a worse crime than loving a man would ever be.

And as my journey continued I saw this theme continue. Any local Asian boy was never just interested in a playful flirt or casual fun. It seemed as though they were all on a similar mission as my Couchsurfing host – to find the love of their life, to cherish and treasure and protect and look after. Which is an admirable quality – God knows it’s one I struggle with – but I can’t ignore the fact that they seem to be rushing through life without appreciating being young. I scoff and roll my eyes at the Westerners I know who are married at age 20, almost exclusively for religious reasons, and I would be quick to do the same again now if it weren’t for my realisation that its so ingrained into the culture, insofar that any other way of life just seems ludicrous.

***

Which I guess is only the tip of the iceberg that is the essential difference in culture. I know it sounds obvious, and I’ve read dozens of books on the subject during my sociology degree, but it really took being and living in these places to comprehend the enormous differences in culture. ‘They do things differently in Asia’ is such an incredible understatement. It’s not just a different way of doing things, it’s a different way of thinking things – a different state of mind. You especially notice it when you run into other Westerners, and they seem just as confused as you do about some of those things.

Because the list is endless. I’ve had waiters who don’t understand the concept of tipping, and will actually refuse to take your money. I’ve bought items at a third of their original marked price, all because I didn’t seem interested at the beginning – the shopkeeper literally haggled herself down. As a white person I feel as though I’ve been both the receiver of special treatment and the target of multiple scams, all based on the idea that anyone from the Western world is insanely rich. Which, comparatively, most of us are. It’s a slightly uneasy feeling when it comes to haggling over an amount which literally converts into a couple of dollars back home. In Australia, I would have written it off as a couple of dollars, nothing major. Being in South East Asia almost had the reverse effect on me – in a place where the currency goes a lot further, we seem to want to make every cent count. Yet when we’re shaving a couple of dollars of the price that we’re paying, most of us don’t think about the money that the local seller is not getting, and how much more that money might mean to them than it means to us.

***

Cultural differences aside, I’ve had an amazing beginning to this year-long journey. I’ve been molested by monks and monkeys, run through the crowded streets of Thailand with super soakers, been moved to tears by the histories of Vietnam and Cambodia, won a game of Trivial Pursuits in the suburbs of Saigon, fallen off a motorbike in the middle of Phnom Penh, crammed myself into multiple night buses, and drunk an excessive amount of beer. Just to name a few things.

Saying farewell to South East Asia at Suvarnabhumi Airport BKK.

Saying farewell to South East Asia at Suvarnabhumi Airport BKK.

As I board my plane to Beijing, I definitely feel a sense of accomplishment. I’ve only been travelling for six weeks, and a lot of people would say that that isn’t a long time at all. Which it isn’t – perhaps about a seventh of my journey in total. But I’ve seen so many places and met so many people that it definitely feels as though its been a long time. In the monotonous routine of life, six weeks can pass in the blink of an eye, so I feel confident that I’ve made the most of every second I’ve been away, experiencing the highs and the lows, the good and the bad, the wild and the crazy and the awe-inspiring. Yet the truth is that I rushed through South East Asia. There’s still a handful of other countries I would loved to have visited had I had more time, and definitely scores of new and exciting things to see when I eventually return.

But now the next stage of my adventure is calling me, along with what I’m sure – and actually hope – are a host of crazy new stories to be told.

Borderline Insanity

This short anecdote will double as a warning for anyone who might be making a similar journey in the future: when travelling between Cambodia and Thailand, do not – I repeat, do not – book a bus ticket. Catch taxis, tuk tuks, trains, rent a car – anything but try to book a bus ticket. There are probably some services that operate smoothly and according to plan, but after the mess that I walked away from on my journey back to Bangkok from Siem Reap, it is certainly not a gamble I would ever be willing to make again.

***

So far in my journey, I had been happy fairly happy with the night bus services I’d caught. Krabi to Bangkok was a comfortable coach with reclining chairs, Saigon to Chau Doc was a little cramped but I had still had my own private space, and my Sihanoukville to Siem Reap journey had bed-seat hybrids that allowed your legs to stretch out completely flat, and even had free WIFI on the bus. I booked a ticket with that same company from Siem Reap to Bangkok, hoping to kill two birds (transport and accommodation) with one stone, and getting a similar satisfactory service. After waiting around since my check out at noon, wandering the the town and visiting the museum, I was picked up at 2am (yes, that’s a 14 hour wait) by a shuttle bus to take to me where the main bus was leaving from.

Scheduled departure time was 2:30am. No buses showed up until 3:00. Then we watched as a group of Khmer men unloaded three motorcycles from the cargo bins below. Myself and the other two tourist, a young German guy and an older man from Washington DC, shot each other uneasy looks as we were told this was our bus to Bangkok. They took our bags and I climbed on board. It was not a sleeper bus. Most of the seats were already full, and the majority of them were filled not by tourists, but rowdy local Khmer men. They had loud conversations over the top of my head while I was trying to sleep. The bus driver played music that was essentially a loop of cheesy instrumental music that belonged in a pornographic sound track. The whole bus smelt of bodily gases and other sickening scents. As I thought back to the slogan on the anti-piracy ads on my old VHS tapes, I certainly wasn’t getting what I had paid for.

***

At some point, through the stench and the racket, I suppose I managed to catch a little bit of sleep – after 15 hours of being awake it was bound to happen eventually, no matter the circumstances. It wouldn’t have been any more than half an hour though, and at around 6 o’clock, after just under three hours of transit, the bus jerked to a stop. It was dawn outside, and slowly and but surely all the Khmer men stood up and shuffled off the bus. I figured that we had reached the border, and would be required to alight so we could have our passports checked and stamped. “You get out here now”, said one of the bus company workers to me and my two other Western companions. “Another bus take you to the border.” As I climbed down the steps and out into the bus station, I watched the Khmer men who had been on my bus all climb into the back of a ute, which sped off down the road and into the dust. It was obvious that rather than put us on a chartered bus, the company had decided the throw their few clients on any old bus that was heading in the right direction, and deal with the rest once we got to the Thai-Cambodian border.

We met a bunch of British girls who had just climbed off another bus who were also heading to Bangkok. After being sent on a small wild goose chase, crossing the road several times in an attempt to find someone who knew what the hell was going on, we were ushered onto a bus – I was disgruntled, though not surprised, to find myself on the very same bus I had alighted from only moments before. We were only on board for a couple of minutes though, before the bus pulled up directly outside the border crossing. “You cross border now,” said the bus company guy, as he took our tickets and stuck little yellow stickers to the front of our shirts. “Crossing take one hour. Someone will meet you on other side. Sticker is your ticket now.” I was mortified, but there was nothing else I could do, so as a sleepy pack of tourists we climbed off the bus and made our way to the border crossing.

Only to discover that the check point itself didn’t open until 7 o’clock, which was still almost an hour away. When I had booked the ticket, I had been given an estimated time of arrival in Bangkok of about 9:30am. I had already long ago given up on that hope, but with every passing minute I became more and more unsure of how I was actually going to get to Bangkok at all. After an hour of waiting, plus another hour to go through both departures in Cambodia and arrivals in Thailand, I finally found myself on the other side of the border. It was far from a feeling of relief though – it was a terrifying moment, plagued with doubt and the endless possibilities of the next unpleasant surprise they would spring upon us.

The busy border crossing just after opening.

The busy border crossing just after opening.

As I trudged through the crowd of pilgrims, I heard a shout and saw a wave of hands. “Yellow sticker! Yellow sticker over here!” For all that had not gone accordingly to plan this morning, being greeted in Thailand was like clockwork. I had been sticking with the man from Washington, so we made our way over to the waving man, where we were asked to sit on plastic chairs and wait for the rest of the travellers with yellow stickers. Once they arrived, we were taken to a small travel agent just a few minutes away, where we were informed we would be catching a minibus all the way to Bangkok. It certainly wasn’t a sleeper, but I figured it would get us there faster than a regular bus, so I felt a little better about that. However, when the bus arrived 15 minutes later, the agents face sported a look of concern as one by one, we piled into the bus. I was at the end of the line with my American companion, and as he scanned down his line of clients, he agent called out, “Who is relaxed? You relaxed, yeah? Time is no problem?” It seemed no one had taken into account the space needed for all of our luggage, and we weren’t all going to fit on this bus. Washington and I took two for the team, with the agent assuring us it would only be a half hour wait for the next bus.

***

An hour and a half later, the tiny travel agency was beginning to fill up with people, mostly locals this time, and I grew uneasy at the thought that they would try and squeeze all of us onto the next bus. Washington and I were given priority, since we had forfeited our places on the last bus, so I can’t say for sure if there was anyone who didn’t make the cut. It was 10 o’clock by the time we finally boarded our bus and continued our journey towards Bangkok. However, we hadn’t been travelling long before our bus was pulled over by the police. All the exchanges were in Thai, and no one offered any explanation, but we were sitting there for another solid half an hour while the police made phone calls and wrote on bits of paper, which I can only assume was a ticket of some sort – perhaps our driver was speeding? In all honesty, at this point I was beyond caring. We were still hours away from Bangkok and I hadn’t had a proper sleep in about 24 hours.

The journey back to the city went up without a hitch, other than the minibus stopping every now and then and the driver having short, disjointed conversations with some of the other passengers, and dropping them at various points around the city.

However, when it came to dropping me and Washington off, things became a little more difficult. We finally reached the city of Bangkok, but I had yet to see any familiar landmarks in order to gain my bearings. “Where are we?” I called out to the driver. I got no reply, and it was only then that I realised that while the travel agent assured us we would be dropped in the middle of the city, this driver spoke hardly any English, so could not tell us where we were or where we were going. So you can imagine my frustration when, after driving through the streets of Bangkok for nearly two hours, we didn’t seem to be anywhere near the familiar the city centre. It didn’t help that it was now well into the afternoon, and we were caught in the gridlock of peak hour traffic. I even got my map out and motioned the driver to show me where we were, but he gave it a blank, vacant stare that filled me with horror – the idea that our driver didn’t even know where we were was too much to bear. I’d now been more or less awake for 27 hours, and 15 of them had been in transit. I wanted to scream, and yell and swear at the driver, at the incompetence of both him and the agent and the whole mess of an ordeal that had been my journey back to Bangkok. I was exhausted and furious, but I knew that getting mad would achieve absolutely nothing, so I resigned to my fate and crawled to the back of the minibus to lie down along the back seats, since by now Washington and I were the only passengers left.

Eventually I saw a landmark that I recognised, Victory Monument, which was actually the drop off point we had agreed upon with the travel agent in the beginning. So I guess the driver had known where he was going all along. All the same, I scrambled out of that minibus and onto the streets of Bangkok as fast as my tired little legs could carry me. I never thought I would have been so happy to be back on the streets of Bangkok, but after being at the mercy of the minibus driver for so many hours it was a glorious feeling to know exactly where I was, and have control over my own direction and movements.

***

I made it back home to Bangkok in the end, but it definitely hadn’t needed to be such an ordeal. I’m not saying that all bus trips will be like that, but when you’re booking for a route as disjointed and unpredictable as Siem Reap to Bangkok, or probably anything that involves that border crossing, there’s a lot of wiggle room for transit companies to shove you in wherever you fit and make a great profit on the sleeper ticket that you thought you were purchasing. Thankfully most of my travels for the next few months will be exclusively on trains, because the couple of weeks I spent travelling back to Bangkok from Siagon had seen me on enough buses to last me for quite some time.

Riding Solo

After four weeks on the road, it’s safe to say I’ve seen quite a bit and had some new worldly experiences. However, something I never expected was that travelling by myself would play such a crucial part in the way that my journey unfolded. At the time of planning all I envisioned was complete, unbridled freedom. While that still might be true, travelling alone isn’t without its drawbacks, a few of which I am slowly learning to navigate.

***

Perhaps the first time the realities of traveling solo really hit me was when I was waiting for my train south to Krabi, sitting at a table on the elevated café level of Hua Lamphong Railway Station in Bangkok. All around me, I saw so many travellers in pairs: whether they were partners or friends, or sometimes even groups of three or four, almost everybody had somebody. And that started to make me feel a little lonely.

And I don’t necessarily mean the ‘longing for human contact’ kind of loneliness. It’s the practical advantages of having a travelling partner that I really began to notice when I was finally by myself. For example, I had an hour and a half wait at the train station. There was no table service in the area I was sitting in – if I wanted to order food, I would have to pick up my bags and take them to the counter with me. If I wanted to go to the bathroom… well, I couldn’t. Unless I either hiked in there with all my bags or left them out in the open when I went, completely unattended.

Luckily I didn’t need to use the bathroom, but it just made me realise how much easier some things are when you have a traveling partner. Initially I was quite drawn the freedom of being able to do exactly what I wanted and travelling whenever I wanted, but when you’re making these grandiose plans, those little details are often the first thing you lose sight of. They say that solo travelling can be much cheaper, but even that freedom still comes with a different kind of cost.

***

When I was on the beach at Ao Nuang beach at Krabi, I had no choice but to leave my bag unattended. It probably probably says something more about my paranoia or anxiety that I pretty much backed into the ocean, facing the beach, so that I could keep an eye on my belongings. But you loosen up eventually, for better or worse, and in the end you just have to calculate the risk and do your best to enjoy whatever it is you’re doing. And I did, eventually. Train stations are very different settings to beaches, and there was just the right amount of people present on the sand for me to feel more comfortable about walking away from my bag – enough people to be witnesses to a theft, but not enough for a thief to be lost in the crowd.

When I was at Rai Leh, I was able to ask Sam and Sarah to watch my bag while I went into the ocean. But eventually they wanted to swim as well, so we all just had to leave our bags in a cluster on the beach and keep an eye on them every now and then. Although again, maybe that’s my paranoia talking. As we walked out of the warm Thai water, Sarah peered out onto the vast expanse of sand and asked “Where are our bags?” We’d floated a little way down the beach, but I was immediately able to point out the location of our belongings. Seems not everyone is so highly strung as me when it comes to the location of their valuables.

***

Then there is the freedom of travelling solo – both a blessing and a curse. For starters, I know that had I not been travelling alone, I probably wouldn’t be on this mammoth nine month journey. Most people don’t have the time, or have too many commitments to take such a long term vacation from their real lives. But I did, so I set out with the intention of not letting anyone get in the way of doing exactly what I wanted to do.

But I felt it was impossible to plan an entire nine month holiday completely in advance, so I left a lot of the fine details up to chance and circumstance. Booking hostels and overland transport as I go, seeing wherever the wind takes me – it sounds like the ultimate travellers dream. I know for a fact I wouldn’t have done half the things I’ve done so far if I’d brought a travelling companion from home – beers with the British boys in Thailand, Couchsurfing in the Vietnamese slums, being sexually harassed by a monk, or even the SCUBA diving tour that I booked myself into on a last minute whim.

Then there’s even the freedom to do nothing. Those days or nights when you’re just too exhausted, and all you want to do is sit in the hostel and read a book or make a Skype call. You don’t have to make excuses to anyone or apologise for not going out and having fun. I accept the reality that out of my 275 days of travel, not every single one is going to be jam-packed with activities.

Yet this does run the risk of complacency. In a brand new city with so much to explore, after a few a days you can easily become overwhelmed. With a travelling partner, you always have someone else’s energy to bounce off and keep ideas coming, always planning something to keep the ball rolling. By yourself, it’s easy to feel at a loss, and waste days trying to decide what to do. I thought that hostels would help with this – it certainly did while I was in Krabi – but of the three nights I’ve spent in my hostel at Ho Chi Minh City, for two of them I’ve been one of two people staying in a 9 bedroom dorm. The other guy hardly speaks, and has spent the entirely of his time in the room editing videos and photos on his laptop. So it’s really up to me, and me alone, to get out there and explore this big city.

River Tour on the Mekong Delta - you get used to taking tourist selfies when travelling on your own

River Tour on the Mekong Delta – you get used to taking tourist selfies when travelling on your own

***

Being alone gives you a lot of time to think, which is also a problem. You end up thinking about home, and things and people that you miss in that state of loneliness, when you know you should be out there having fun and exploring the world. But I hope that writing about this will be cathartic in some way, so I might be able to let go of these difficulties in travelling solo and to fully appreciate the experiences that I’m having.

The weekends coming up, so I’ll probably hit the nightclubs and use alcohol as a social lubricant and find some new people to hang out with. No matter where you are in the world, some things never change.

Happy New Year! Songkran Water Festival

The end of my time in Thailand was rapidly approaching. It had only been three weeks since I first departed from Sydney, yet already I had experienced so much, seen some incredible things, and met some amazing new people. Yet there was one final event I was to attend in my final weekend in Bangkok – the Theravada Buddhist New Year festival celebrations, better known by its traditional name, Songkran.

Songkran is celebrated throughout South East Asia in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. It’s traditional origins as a water festival come from a practice where the younger generation pours water on the hands and feet of the older generations, symbolic of a recognition of the knowledge and wisdom of their elders, and as a sign of respect. While I’m sure these traditional values are still upheld, the modern translation of Songkran is a huge water fight, where major roads in the city are closed off and people flood into the streets with hoses, buckets, water pistols and super soakers, and anybody on the streets becomes fair game for a hearty drenching. All throughout my time in Bangkok, people would repeatedly ask me, “Wait, when are you leaving? Are you gonna be here for Songkran?” Truth be told, the timing was a complete coincidence, but my flight out of Thailand was to be on the Monday after this wet and wild long weekend. As the weeks passed by I saw many of the corner shops stocking up and selling small waterproof pouches for money and valuables, and water guns of virtually every shape and size, and I began to think I was underestimating the significance of this festival.

“The whole city basically turns into a mosh pit”, Brendon had told me. “The Saturday afternoon of Songkran, this road will just be completely full of people. You’ll barely be able to move.” We were in a taxi going down Silom Road, and I peered out the window. The traffic was a blurry rush of taxis and tuk-tuks, cars and buses, the blaring of horns all around us. This was a major road in this area of Bangkok, and it was then that it really hit me that Songkran meant business.

***

As fate would have it, Silom Road was to be the destination of my very first Songkran. Nervous, excited, and not knowing what to expect, I set out with Rathana and his friends and caught the BTS to Sala Daeng. When we exited the platform and descended the steps down to Silom, I realised that Brendon’s description had not been an exaggeration in the slightest.

Silom Road packed with people celebrating Songkran.

Silom Road packed with people celebrating Songkran.

The road was packed. In place of the regular traffic was a steady flow of humans, almost like herds of cattle, being pushed along the street by the momentum of the crowd. Every man, woman and child was armed with a water pistol of some description. As we merged into the congregation, I could already feel the splashes of water coming from basically every direction. It was basically a free for all – I shot a random passerby with my super soaker, and he immediately whirled around and returned fire. But it was the normal thing to do – people were expecting to get wet, so no one seemed to get upset or annoyed. I’d been a little terrified at the though of entering such a massive crowd in a relatively unfamiliar city, but the whole vibe of the festival was one of complete, unabashed fun, indulging in the simple pleasures of a mass water fight in the streets. Even when I was copping a water pistol to the face, nothing could wipe the enormous, goofy grin off my face.

Except for maybe the flour. The were lots of people running around with buckets of (what I hope was) flour mixed with water, painting the faces of passers by with their hands. While I’m not afraid of getting a little dirty, some of the attackers weren’t as gentle with their application of the white paste, and a couple of times I got a stinging eyeful of floury finger. After that, I viciously defended my face, giving anyone who approached me with a bucket of flour a heaving dousing to the face from my super soaker.

We took to the streets with our own arsenal of water guns.

We took to the streets with our own arsenal of water guns.

The streets were wild. At various points there were what appeared to be fire trucks, or at least huge tanks of water with huge hoses attached. They rained down on the streets, and everyone cheered and screamed as we all got absolutely drenched. On the sides of the streets, people were selling more water guns, bottles of water for refills, beer and food, but their were joining in with the drenching just as much as the rest of the soggy mass of people.

We moved up and down through the packed street a couple of times before taking a turn down Silom Soi 4 – because obviously the gays really know how to throw a party. As we walked down the narrow street, people in the bars on either side assaulted us with an onslaught on water. We ran through, screaming and laughing, attempting to squirt them back. We ran into more of Rathana’s friends, and soon we were part of the mobs of people squirting water at the passers by, and engaging in water warfare with the groups on the other side of the street. While the only water refills available out on Silom Road came from bottles that we had to buy, the bars at Soi 4 had big buckets for us to refill our water guns, so the water fights continued long into the afternoon.

The water fights were raging in Silom Soi 4.

The water fights were raging in Silom Soi 4.

At one point there was a lull in the madness, and a parade emerged from the throng of people. Boys, and a few girls, in matching outfits and shiny black thigh-high high heeled boots marched down the strip, and they were showered with lots of cheering and even more water.

The parade marching down the drenched Soi 4.

The parade marching down the drenched Soi 4.

But after the procession passed, it was back to the water fight. As the sun begin to go down, some of us decided to leave Silom, go get dry and celebrate with dinner somewhere else. We ran back through the torrential rains that were the water guns of Soi 4 and back out onto the main road. If I’d thought that the streets were packed when I first arrived in the early afternoon, I really got the shock of my life on our return trip back to the BTS station. Earlier, we’d been able to move with relative ease in the mass of people, as long as we followed the flow of the crowd. However, now the flow of people had practically come to a standstill. Moving in either direction was difficult, and numerous times we found ourselves trapped, surrounded by either people who were going the wrong way, or walls, carts, and other stationary obstacles. There was a mild hysteria brewing in some of the crowd, as we were forced to move in the wrong directions, or simply stand still in a crush of people while waiting for the chance to move at all.

As the day progressed the crowd of people only grew bigger and bigger.

As the day progressed the crowd of people only grew bigger and bigger.

Deaths at these kind of festivals aren’t unheard of – tourists that got trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time, and other travelling horror stories. Luckily we all made it out alive, only slightly traumatised, and I commented to my companions that despite being an absolute logistical nightmare, the vibe and mood within the crowd of people never strayed from that of lighthearted fun and enjoyment. Had a similar thing happened at an Australian event, I have no doubt there would have been aggressive vibes, pushing and shoving, and inevitably break outs of violence and fights. So despite being packed into such a throng of people, and there not being any security guards or crowd control to speak of, I never at any point really felt unsafe.

***

Songkran traditionally lasts the whole weekend, but I needed to spend the Sunday getting my things together and finalising plans for my next destination. But I was also exhausted from the celebrating that I did do – the water festival was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and it’s always pretty amazing to see how another culture reinterprets historical events in their own fun modern ways. I had so much fun in my first Songkran, and somehow I have a feeling it’s not going to be my last.

Life’s a Beach

While Bangkok may be a glistening gem of a city, full of flashing lights, broken streets and chaotic, life-threatening traffic, the country of Thailand is home to a huge range of other travel destinations, particularly the beaches and islands that are scattered all around the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. My time spent in this mega city had been incredibly eye-opening, but once again that travelling itch was gnawing in the back of my mind, and I felt like I’d been stationary for too long. I needed to keep moving – to keep travelling – and so I decided to make the most of my time left in Thailand by making my way south to explore some of the coastal delights that the country has to offer. After a quick search through locations and hostels, I set my destination as the small coastal town of Krabi.

***

Sticking to my commitment to travel as cheaply as possible – and to also get the most “experience” out of my journeys, I booked a ticket on the overnight train from Bangkok. It was a 12 hour journey from there to a town called Surat Thani, from where I would travel via bus for a few more hours before finally reaching Krabi. Including delays and waiting time, it took me about 17 hours before I finally set foot in the hostel – a long time considering Krabi has an airport which is a one hour flight from Bangkok, but it was also remarkably cheaper. Getting the train also felt like an adventure itself – the staff working on board came down the aisles and set up the beds, and an hour into the journey I was curled up in my own private bunk, watching the countryside pass by under the cover of night. It was actually kind of fun – I felt a little bit like a child again, hiding in a cubby house or a fort made out of pillows. I admit that it may not have been the best sleep of my life, but it was adequate, and the option had the advantage of covering both transport and accommodation for the night, killing two birds with one stone. The morning of my arrival in Surat Thani was a confusing wild goose chase, with buses and vans taking me from place to place until I finally arrived at the hostel in Krabi. It was a little unnerving when you weren’t 100% sure where you were going, but sometimes you really have no choice but to go along with it and pray whoever is taking you wherever just knows where they’re going.

I soon learnt that I should probably put a bit more effort into my research in the future, as I made a startling discovery upon arriving in Krabi – the town itself doesn’t actually have any beaches. I was a little put out – gone were my fantasies of strolling down to the beach, with nothing but a towel and my ukulele, and strumming little ditties among the backdrop of paradise. But I hadn’t come through 17 hours of transit to sit and feel sorry for myself. After showering and changing out of my soiled traveling clothes, I enquired with the hostel staff and learnt of a “local bus” that could take me straight to one of the nearby beaches. So away I went, in the back of what was essentially a ute with a roofed cage mounted in the tray. I rode for about 20 minutes before we turned onto a long strip of road that ran parallel to a long beach called Ao Nang. I alighted and made my way down to the sand.

It was early afternoon at this point, and I was faced with another problem that I hadn’t properly considered – low tide. The beaches in Thailand are particularly shallow, so when the tide goes out, it really goes out. I probably had to walk about half a kilometre before the water was even above my thighs. Since the water is so shallow, it also stays very warm. As I crouched down in the shallows to fully submerge my body, it felt more like I was taking a sandy, saltwater bath than a dip in the ocean. It was still quite pleasant, but not exactly the refreshing dip I had been expecting, or that I really needed in the sticky Thai humidity. Nevertheless, I was glad to be out of the city and washing away the rest of my worldly cares on a beach somewhere.

Ao Nang beach

Ao Nang beach

I had been told by a few travellers that he beaches down in this part of Thailand were some of the most beautiful in the world, with clear waters and pristine white sand. Yet as a made my trek through the waves breaking around my ankles and back go the shore to walk along the beach, I was quite shocked at what a found. All along the sand and in the wash along the shoreline, the beach was polluted with all kinds of litter. T-shirts wrapped in pieces of driftwood, lost shoes, beer bottles and other shards of broken glass, beer cans, plastic bags, water pistols and other toys – after closer inspection the sand along the beach resembled somewhat of a dumping ground. “Untouched” was a word I had heard used to describe these so-called pristine beaches. Maybe Ao Nag was an exception, or maybe that person hadn’t visited this area in a long time, but as the sun set on the otherwise beautiful seaside setting, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed in what I’d found. I climbed aboard the local bus and headed back to the hostel, making a determined promise to myself to continue my search for the pristine beaches tomorrow.

***

My trip to Krabi also marked the first time that I would be staying in a hostel. I’d heard some horror stories about stolen possessions and other traveling nightmares, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. After showering and changing I ran into a couple of guys in my room and introduced myself. We sat around chatting for a while – Jens was a traveller from Sweden and Sam was from London – and we ended up going down to the local night markets for some cheap Thai food dinner. Back in hostel room, we got chatting to a Moroccan traveller, a girl named Sarah. The four of us, complete strangers until that evening, made an unlikely group of friends, yet we ended up chilling out on one of the hostels balconies, drinking and smoking and just talking about our lives. It was at that moment that I really felt like a traveller – just an individual in a collection of wanderers, making our way through the world, whose paths intertwined for that one night, for that brief moment in time.

The quiet streets of Krabi Town at night

The quiet streets of Krabi Town at night

The next day, after trading tips among the hostel dorm room, Sarah, Sam and myself decided to catch a boat to a beach called Rai Leh. A pair of Norwegian girls had promised us beautiful beaches there, and I figured we could trust the word of someone who had visited the area just days before. And we were not disappointed – as the boat cruised in to anchor just off the beach, even the towering sheer limestone cliffs that filled the scenery around us were breathtaking. Sam said it looked like something out of Jurassic Park, and as a fan of the movie I most definitely agreed. This place was simultaneously beautiful, soothing, and awe-inspiring – this is what tropical paradise was supposed to look like. Rai Leh was a strip of land that had two beaches, with the eastern side acting as more of a port for the various boats bringing people in, so we made our way over to the western side which had been a little more developed for the tourist population. There were lots of bars and resorts just beyond the edge of the sand, so we had a few drinks before making our way into the water.

On the boat pulling into East Rai Leh.

On the boat pulling into East Rai Leh.

I soon discovered that the shallow beach at Ao Nang wasn’t a one-off thing. The water at West Rai Leh was a similar depth to begin with, and I had to walk out a long way before the water even came up to my chest. But when it did, the water became much cooler, and it was lovely swimming around, diving under the waves, and then kicking back and marvelling at the sweeping scenery that surrounded the beach. While the water wasn’t as deep as I would have preferred in a beach – or probably more accurately, what I was used to – it was definitely the visuals of the location that made it so appealing. The sand and water was also a lot clearer than Ao Nang, so I was satisfied to have finally founded these fabled, pristine beaches.

On the stunning shores of West Rai Leh.

On the stunning shores of West Rai Leh.

I also learnt a few travelling tips from Sarah that day. As we boarded the boat to take us to Rai Leh, she had brought along her large rucksack, while Sam and I only had our smaller backpacks. “You must never book more than one night in a hostel,” she said to us in a thick French accent, when we asked her why she had checked out and brought all her gear with her. “You never know where you might end up, or where you might want to stay. Krabi Town has no beaches! I do not want to spend another night there.” She had been travelling around the Thai islands for months now, and she had definitely mastered the tricks of the trade. And she was right, of course. When we got to Rai Leh, she sniffed out some budget accommodation – a mattress on the floor of a bamboo hut on the east side – and checked in straight away. “The beaches… This is where I want to be.” Sam and I still had our beds booked back at the hostel, so when it came time to get the last boat back to Krabi, as the sun set behind the clouds and turned the sky a glowing pink, we bid Sarah goodbye and good luck in her new home for the night.

The sun turning the sky a beautiful shade of pink on the boat ride home.

The sun turning the sky a beautiful shade of pink on the boat ride home.

***

My original plan had been to leave the next day, but I felt like my time in the beaches had come to a premature end. So after sniffing around some of the tourist information centres in the street, I booked a full day SCUBA diving tour for the following day, and secured my room at the hostel for one more night. I hit the hay early that night, to rise for an 8am pick up, in a car that took me back Ao Nang beach. From there, a boat took the group – the dive instructor and a pair of stern looking European men who spoke very little, and when they did, it was rarely in English – about 40 minutes out into the sea. We geared up, and soon we were descending into the deep blue.

I had completed my Open Water SCUBA Diving course when I was only 12 years old, on a family holiday in the Maldives. I had been diving periodically since then, but it had been about 4 or 5 years since my last dive. So I was a little nervous, but as I flipped over the edge of the bloat and plunged below the surface, it all came flooding back to me – unfortunately, like the sea water into my mask. But other than that, it was like riding a bike – some things you just never forget.

The first dive reached a depth of about sixteen metres. The visibility wasn’t the greatest, which meant the distance you could see through the water was limited, but it wasn’t awful, and we were still able to see all the marine life that was just teeming in the water around us. Schools of fish that looked like walls in front of us parted as we swam in their direction, and our guide pointed out some other less obvious creatures, such as sea horses clinging to the coral, or small stingrays that would gently hover above the surface, and then take off once we got too close. It really was like another world down there on the ocean floor, and I realised just how much I loved and missed SCUBA diving, as I marvelled at the marine alien world. I made a promise to myself at that very moment that I would make more time for diving in my life, and later went on to scope potential diving destinations on the rest of my year long world tour.

After the first dive, we had a break in which I was able to do some snorkelling. This far out to sea, the water was clear and cool, and an absolute dream to swim through. The boat was anchored to a small limestone island jutting out from the sea, and as I swam around the perimeter I discovered a cuttlefish nestling in the safety of the rocks. The second dive was going to be in a cave – something I was a little nervous about, knowing some of the potential dangers. Armed with flashlights, we descending a second time, not just into the deep blue sea, but through the mouth of a cave below the limestone island, and into a black abyss. I experienced a strange sense of vertigo in the darkness of the cave. The ground can be rushing up to meet you one moment, and the next you’re bumping your head on the roof. It found it difficult to maintain a stable neutral buoyancy at the best of times, so trying to do so with no real idea of where I was proved a little stressful. I made a point of not losing sight of our guide though, not only because I knew he wouldn’t be lost, but also because he was pointing out some of the marine life with his torch. We saw a couple of nurse sharks, a few more stingrays and seahorses, plenty more fish, and a strange creature that looked like an octopus but had far too many legs, so I can only assume it was either a type of cave dwelling squid or jellyfish.

The island above the cave, and the surrounding blue water.

The island above the cave, and the surrounding blue water.

As I followed our guide in what appeared to be in upward direction, we moved through a small grotto before coming to a halt. When he shone his light at the walls around us, I saw about 5 or 6 lobsters at several points, all curiously climbing out of their hiding holes to get a better look at us. It was odd to see a lobster in the wild – the closest I’d ever really come was seeing them was in tanks at Chinese restaurants. We continued up through the grotto when, to my surprise, I broke the surface of the water. I pulled off my mask to look around to discover we’d found ourselves in a little pocket of air inside the cave, completely closed off from the outside world – the only way in was the way we’d come, through the sea. Sunlight was coming through from somewhere below, so the caves entrance wasn’t too far off, and the water lapped the edges of the rocks so that the cavern echoed around us. The light and the sounds and the serenity of the whole place made it strangely beautiful, despite being quite visually uninteresting. I’d been unable to bring my camera and so couldn’t photograph the cavern, but similar to the temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, being unable to take a photo made the experience feel that much more special – a little personal memory that was mine to keep and treasure.

(NB: I did take a few photos with my underwater camera while I was snorkelling, but until I have access to a computer with an SD card reader I’ll be unable to upload them.)

After we made our way back to the boat and then back to the shore, clouds began rolling in over the ocean and eventually a downpour of rain was released upon Krabi Town. The driver who took me back to my hostel said it was a good thing, and that it hadn’t rained there in about a month. I spent the rest of the evening with Jens, Sam, and a couple of other British guys, who introduced me to some of the local beers, the most notable being Chang. I’m not usually a big beer drinker. Maybe it’s because it was just cheaper and easier, or maybe it was the peer pressure of hanging out with four straight guys – I guess we’ll never know – but the local beer was much easier for me to stomach than any of the brews I’d tried back home in Sydney. Chang was supposed to be particularly potent though – and the next morning, after about 5 or 6 drinks and a round of beer pong, I can vouch for that supposition.

Changover.

Changover.

Getting out of bed with one of my highest ranking hangovers ever – dubbed a “Changover” by the boys – and getting out of the hostel by 11am check out time was not an easy task. The rest of my day was spent navigating various modes of transport in an attempt to get back to Bangkok. It took just as long as it did to get there, although since the overnight trains were all booked out due to the upcoming Songkran holiday, I had to catch a bus for the 12 hour stint of the journey. Overland travel can be long and tedious like that, but I eventually made it home to Bangkok in one very tired and worn out piece.

***

My trip to Krabi marked an important step for me on my gap year world tour. It was the first time I’d really gone out on my own for more than just a day. Finding a place to stay that wasn’t a friends house, organising and booking transport merely hours before it actually leaves for the destination, and making friends with the fellow travellers around me were all things that I’d been very keen to do since I’d set out on my journey. I was only heading back to Bangkok to celebrate Songkran and gather my things before heading off to Vietnam, an entire country where I truly don’t know anyone. I’d had a blast in my short time at Krabi, so now I was more excited than ever to travel to more new places and really live the life of a world wanderer.

Boys Boys Boys

Everyone told me that, while I was in Thailand, I had to go to a ping pong show. While I didn’t have a burning desire to see any vaginas, let alone tiny plastic balls popping out of them, I must admit I probably would have gone along for the sake of my curiosity. However, as fate would have it, the opportunity arose for me to attend what I can only really summarise as the “gay version” of a ping pong show: a live gay sex show. Not one to turn down the offer for such a unique experience, I went along with a group of people – all of whom wish to remain anonymous (I can’t imagine why?) – to witness what was sure to be an interesting performance, to say the least.

Neon signs of the red light district of Bangkok.

Neon signs of the red light district of Bangkok.

I don’t know what I’d had in mind, but I was a little surprised when I walked into the bar. It felt like a pretty normal club, although all the seats were in fixed rows facing towards the stage. Oh, and there was a rotation of slender Thai boys in their underwear moving slowing around the stage. They had numbered pins attached to the minimal clothing that they were wearing, so if you saw a boy you liked you could pick him out by number, by him a drink, chat to him and, if you so desired, take him home – it was basically a prostitute sushi train. The boys would smile at us occasionally, and I often found myself blushing and looking away to break the eye contact, not wanting to give any of them the wrong idea. I had come for to satisfy my curiosity with the show, but I was definitely not about to delve any further into the world of sex tourism. I felt some mixed emotions, watching the guys walk around the stage. I didn’t want to come in and impose my Western sympathy on a culture I didn’t fully understand, but I wondered how these guys had come to be in these situations, doing these kinds of things for, and with, complete strangers.

Then the actual show started. The stage cleared as the lights dimmed, and then slowly faded up to a guy sitting on a chair, centre stage, with a cowboy hat cocked over his face. I couldn’t help but laugh at the cliché, but as the music started up, and the strippers various garments of clothing came off, I couldn’t help but giggle like a little school girl, a combination of the several drinks I’d already consumed with the novelty of seeing my first ever live male strip show. Of course, I’d seen these kind of situations in films (no, not those films), and even though they’re weirdly similar… Well to be honest I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. I guess it looked like I was enjoying it so much – I won’t lie, I wasn’t hating it or anything – because the next thing I know the stripper is down on the seat in front of me, his crotch thrusting into my face, miming a pulling motion along his side seams.

My first reaction was mortified embarrassment, throwing my hands over my face, yet laughing hysterically at the situation. When I realised he wasn’t going anywhere, I reached up to where his short shorts were gyrating and pulled the front forward. I didn’t really think about it as I did it, but in retrospect I’m glad that he was wearing a G-string under those shorts, or I might have really copped a face full of surprise. Instead, I just continued my unabashed laughter – I don’t know if that was considered rude, but I guess it’s means I was being entertained one way or another – and threw the Velcro tear-away pants back onto the stage.

The stripped was just an appetiser – now began the real show. Again, I’m not sure what I was really expecting, but I had not envisioned any S&M displays when I walked through the doors of this bar. Two guys emerged from behind the stage curtain: one was naked except for a face mask, leash and collar, and the second was also completely naked, wielding a spanking paddle and furiously striking the first guy across the buttocks. Previously, I’ve had the pleasure of selling such kinky wares for a living, so I was familiar with their uses and purpose, but this was the first time I’d ever actually seen them in action. And despite all my theoretical knowledge of these practices, seeing them in the flesh was quite shocking. I jumped and squirmed a lot, letting out a gasp or shriek every now and then, but I was barely heard above the music.

The rest of the show was… well, I wouldn’t call it tame, but it shifted from the S&M theme and into something less frightening. One by one boys would come out on stage, completely naked and penises fully erect, and go through a similar display process from the beginning of the show, except now everything was on display. Some of them were also wearing condoms, which seemed strange because as far as I could see no one was having sex yet. That didn’t stop my from giggling in amusement – I felt like an annoying hens night in the middle of a gay bar, but I couldn’t keep a straight face as most of them came forward and bared all for us, shaking their manhoods in our general direction.

There were a few other acts – a transsexual doing a geisha-styled number, with a kimono just short enough for her member to poke beneath the folds of the gown, and a dance routine that actually involved little nudity and was surprising elegant and graceful – before the grand finale of the whole show. It almost snuck up on me by surprise – though it looked as though they were about to recreate a frat boy hazing scene, so I don’t really know why it surprised me. I was expecting some more S&M displays, maybe another kinky slap-around, when suddenly – BAM! There it was. I was watching a four man gang bang, live in the flesh. I could go into more detail, but I feel like I’ve already pushed the limits of graphic detail in this recount. All I will say is this: mid-intercourse handstands. It happened. It only lasted a few minutes though, and as soon as it had snuck up on me, the show was over.

The whole experience was bizarre. Not as bizarre as being molested by a Buddhist monk, but still very bizarre. I can’t say it’s something I’d ever do again, let alone the kind of thing I would visit on a regular basis, but I’m glad I saw it before leaving Bangkok. Besides, is a trip to Thailand really complete without a little bit of casual sex tourism?

Culture Lesson in Review: “Normal” Love

My first weekend in Bangkok felt like a throwback to my previous lifestyle in Sydney – you can take the boy from the party, but you can’t take the party from the boy.

Silom Soi 4 on a Saturday night.

Silom Soi 4 on a Saturday night.

Earlier in the week, Rathana had put me in touch with a few of his friends in Bangkok, and they had agreed to take me out and show me around while he was still in San Francisco. After dinner, and several jugs of margaritas, I found myself back at Silom Soi 4, though it was a Saturday night this time so the street was a little busier than last time I’d been there. The four guys I was with were all good friends, a couple of them having known each other for nearly as long as I’ve been alive, but they were fantastic company and welcomed me warmly into the group. Conversation was flowing fast and freely, and it usually does between such good friends, and I was privy to some hilarious, provocative, and thoughtful conversations. One in particular that I want to reflect on was a topic that was sparked when we spotted a peculiar couple on the other side of the street. One half of the couple was a young Thai boy with pretty, delicate features – I’m terrible with guessing, ages but I’d say somewhere in his mid- to late-twenties at the most. The other man was older… much, much older. I’m no stranger to age gaps in my relationships, but even I have to confess to feeling a little uncomfortable watching these two canoodle on the balcony of the bar.

Some cheeky remarks were made about the couple couple, and the discussion about such pairings being a common occurrence in the area turned to questions of why they occur in the first place. One of our group, who has only just recently moved to Bangkok himself, suggested that some of the younger local boys were almost driven to those types of relationships due to poverty, while the older Caucasian gentlemen use their wealth to effectively buy affection. In response to that suggestion, one of the guys – who we shall call ‘Anna’ – made a point that I personally had never really considered.

“The definition of love in their culture is very different from our Western ideas of what love is supposed to be. For them, love is about taking care of someone, or them taking care of you. I wouldn’t say that they’re driven to these relationships, or even that they’re being coerced, or that these men take advantage of them. It’s just how their culture defines love – they’re in love. Who are we to come in with our Western ideas about love and tell them what they have isn’t normal?”

I paraphrase, of course, but the idea really stuck with me. Even in a Western setting, I’ve had people question the integrity of my relationships with a number of previous boyfriends, whether it be due to ages or otherwise. And the more I thought about it, the more I agreed with Anna. As two consenting adults, these two men have a relationship. Are they in love? Who can say? We didn’t ask them –  I know plenty of people in our own Western society who are in loveless relationships, but seeming a little more “normal” helps them avoid much scrutiny at all. The idea that love means different things in different cultures was intriguing, and while I’m sure there’s a multitude of complexities regarding love and relationships in Thai culture that I have little to no idea about, I think the discussion reaffirmed a value in me that I’d temporarily forgotten – love doesn’t play by any set rules, and there’s no such thing as a “normal” relationship. That particular age gap may have given me the heebie-jeebies, but hey, if they’d said that they were in love, then that would have been good enough for me.

Dancing in a cage in a Bangkok club - don't ask me which one, because I can't for the life of me remember.

Dancing in a cage in a Bangkok club – don’t ask me which one, because I can’t for the life of me remember.

My period of deep reflection on such complex emotional processes didn’t last long, though. A few more margaritas later and I was ready to hit the dancefloor. I think that’s what I like about a good gay bar – you can be millions of miles away in a foreign city, surrounded by people that you’ve never met and probably never will, but when you’re shaking your stuff on a crowded dancefloor to a Britney Spears remix, it’s always going to feel like home.