A friend of mine in Thailand is an excellent writer. He doesn’t keep a blog but instead sends out monthly emails that are well composed. I thought I would post his last one because it echoes many of the sentiments I feel about travelling.
Matt Wilkins is a Chicago area native with a successful career in technology and customer service. He arrived in Khanom just a few weeks after I did and we have shared many adventures in Thailand.
Matt goes home today, me in a month, but the strings are already pulling and his piece of writing I thought should be shared on the eve of his departure from Thailand. Enjoy and as they say in Thailand, “Bon Voyage” Matt!
It is now April. This means that the whole time I’ve been saying “Damn, I don’t have to leave this paradise until April…” has finally come full circle to bite me in the ass. I now have less than two weeks left in Khanom and a few days left in Bangkok. You have no idea how much that sucks. Really, you have no idea.
I say this because it has dawned on me lately just how fortunate I am to be here for this long. It’s not that I have avoided the “real world” for so long, nor is it because I haven’t actually punched a time clock or really been asked to do much of anything that remotely comes close to being described as stressful or taxing. It isn’t because the coldest I’ve been has been my own fault in setting an air conditioner too low. And it’s not because the biggest concern on my mind has been a choice of whether to drink beer or whiskey. Although I have had many great luxuries in being here for as long as I have, it still turns out, near the end that time, once seen as my best friend out here, has grown to be my worst enemy. All along, I thought I had time on my side. Time was my buddy, my pal, a true friend that assured me that nearly half a calendar would fade away before I had any genuine reality to deal with. And now my old friend time is bending me over and having a go at me real savage-like. Reminiscent of a prison shower scene; that’s about the closest thing I can compare it to. Simply put, my time is almost up.
And despite my bitching and moaning about my imminent departure, I cannot help but be extremely thankful for all of it. I would recommend a trip like mine to anyone, but I cannot unfortunately recommend any way to pull it off and still have something to return to after all is said and done. Not many jobs allow a five month vacation. No one with a family could even fathom such a concept. And unfortunately most people young enough to go cannot afford such a long trip. I realize this isn’t something that most people can do and yet I’m near the end of doing it.
In all my time here the one thing I think I’ve really been able to learn is that you cannot really get to know much about a place outside of landmarks and/or attractions until you settle in and really take a hard look at your surroundings. You need time to take it all in, to process it before looking at it again with slightly more educated eyes, and yet again and again and again before you really know what it is you are seeing. And to really get a feel for the people you need to observe them in the life they live, not just the service industry that you encounter them in as a tourist. In a two week vacation to a truly foreign land, you can expect to know exactly, oh I don’t know, let’s say, just about nothing. Yes, you will know almost nothing about a place after a couple weeks. Maybe some facts and figures and even some language or where to go for the best food. But in the grand scheme of things you will really know jack shit. Unfortunately, most people don’t go away for more than a week or two each year, and hardly ever in one chunk of time. The whole truth of the matter is that is really sad. By those standards, you would have to vacation the same place for about five years to really know much about it.
Somehow I got lucky. I wasn’t tied to any career, didn’t have to worry about being passed up for a promotion. While these are things people desire, and I also desire as well, it wasn’t in the cards for me. I had a good job, but also had a cool boss that agreed to take me back after being gone for about the same amount of time that I had worked there. I wasn’t tied to any lease or mortgage. Perhaps at my age I should be, but fortunately I am not. So many of these things that people see as being hallmarks of success, posterity, and even social status were absent from my life. And for once in my life, that turned out to be a good thing. Add those circumstances to having an incredibly generous friend that opened his home (a literal palace on the sea in paradise) and his life to me for an incredibly long time, and the decision of what to do becomes really clear. So I skipped town for almost half a year.
In the first month I was here I got my bearings. The second month I settled in. It wasn’t until the third month that I really got into the swing of life here and could know a little more of what to expect in the way of what was happening around me. It takes a good while to start to lose the feeling of a complete stranger, a tourist. Each day you hear something new that just rips your mind apart. In a week or twos time you hear just enough to make you think that all these people live backwards. And when you’re a tourist, you just go home and tell all your friends about all the crazy foreigners doing their crazy shit in that crazy country. I’ve done it every time I went somewhere different. But it’s when you see it in practice day after day that you really see that although it’s foreign to you, it nonetheless works. They don’t do things differently to spite us or because they haven’t learned better, it’s because it works for them. If you look closely, think about it, actually learn, it can make all the difference.
I’ve seen things here that I may have never believed had I not seen them for myself. The little nuances that separate the eastern and western societies compound daily. The thing that now surprises me most is how I find it so hard to re-capture the amazement I first had upon arriving here. I no longer have that foreigner/tourist/homebody
outlook on everything and am no longer blown away by what I have come to see as a normal life. Instead, I now find it hard to believe that when I came here everyone appeared lethargic. It’s even harder to believe that now I see them as just fine and the people at home seem too wound up. It no longer amazes me that I drive past a monkey almost every day, what amazes me is that I don’t even notice it any more most days. More and more, it is me and my reactions that surprise me, not the foreign people, places or things that surround me.
And in the midst of catching myself in the middle of a re-organization of so much I know, want to know, and thought I knew, the one certainly that constantly lurks in the shadows of my other thoughts is the simple fact that it’s almost time to go home. And when I think about it, that really isn’t a bad thing.
I don’t want to leave the sand, the sea, the jungle, all of it. But most importantly, I don’t want any of it to leave me. What I have seen has opened my eyes to a different part of the world; not just different trees and animals, but a different way of life. I’ll be damned before I let any of it stray too far from my mind. Even if I only experience these five months away from Chicago for the next few years, the things I have seen will most certainly make life in Chicago that much better..
I didn’t just see different fruits and vegetables, I saw a basis for different thoughts and beliefs that I know people could learn from in the parts of the world that we consider more developed. With America’s self-percieved rise to the top of the world, we’ve developed great things as a nation. Yet we’ve also developed things like stress, the need for anti-depressants, and loneliness that no one should feel in a country of 300 million people.
So the real challenge is holding on to what I saw work and try to make it work for me somewhere else. To adapt the right way of thinking for a lifestyle in a country that so desperately needs an overhaul in that department will be tough, but I’m willing to try. Rather than strive so hard to win the rat race, I think I’m going to see how much fun I can have strolling through the maze. In the end we’re all going to die, why rush to get there? What’s the prize for dying the fastest? Is success really a bigger car on a longer driveway, or is it a mind clean of worry and bullshit? You have to decide for yourself in the end. After seeing what I have, that choice got a lot easier for me. Life in Thailand has been awesome, but I really think that life in America can be even better than I had hoped all just because I ever left it for a while and came back with a new set of eyes.
And so although I don’t like the idea of leaving Thailand too much, I also dont mind the thought of going home. It’s going to be strange. After living my whole life there, I can’t shake the notion that it will be a jarring experience to see how different home is from this place. I guess we’ll see.
In light of my short time here, I have been busy trying to get the most out of almost every minute. For the first time in my trip, I took a vacation. Not that I haven’t been on vacation in many ways all along, but I actually got away from Khanom and even my friends and went to the island of Koh Samui to sit by a pool and relax all day long. The pool overlooked the beach, the bar overlooked the pool, but I never once overlooked the bar. I even drank Guiness for the first time in months. The island is overcrowded with tourists and tourism related attractions, but the beach and pool was all I had any interest in and not a moment was wasted enjoying all of it.
To end my trip on yet another good note, we are going to Khao Sok national park to the biggest fresh water lake in Thailand. It actually exists because of a man-made dam, but the enhancement to the area it affects is truly awe-inspiring. We will be staying at a floating resort in the farthest corner of the lake. We chose this because of the larger number of wildlife spotted there. There are more elephants, monkeys, and even tigers than anywhere else around the lake. No cages, no guides, nothing but common sense and a little luck on your side. I already have the rabies shots, so if I see a tiger, I’m going after him. For three days we’ll swim, snorkel, and kayak through the lake in search of wildlife and incredible natural scenery. A friend who is going with described the beauty of this place simply as “The only place I have ever seen God,”. Although I immediately conjured up some Jesus mummy in my mind that would come after me, I later realized what my friend was talking about. I’d really like to just see a tiger, but in case God shows up I am bringing extra batteries for the camera. If I had a bible, I’d bring it in hopes of getting an autograph. I could only imagine what that would go for on Ebay. And hell yeah, I would sell it for sure.
In addition to this mini-safari, I also have Sangkron to look forward to. This is the annual water festival that rings in the Thai new year on April 13. I have to say that I have a particular fondness for this holiday. Mostly it is because it’s the date I chose to go home after (was told I must see this holiday if any) and it’s largely responsible for my extended duration of time here. I could only love it more if it fell in June. What it entails is three days of people driving around with huge barrels of water in their cars and trucks, water balloons, water pistols, and a complete soaking for anyone with amnesty for no one. Apparently this is the number one holiday for holiday related deaths in Thailand. My guess is that it’s hard to steer your motorbike with a blast of cold water to the face after a good eight or nine beers, but I’m sure it’s a combination of all sorts of stupidity. I am looking forward to it and have my Superman outfit all pressed and ready to go.
After Songkron, we are headed to Bangkok for a couple more days in the big city to do a little shopping on the way out and stop at the largest snake farm/museum in Thailand, then I’m heading home. Yes, it’s almost that time.