Spots of Time

November 25, 2003

The Last Tourist In Thailand

At some point in their journeys, most travelers feel the urge to “get off the beaten path.”

In some this urge is little more than a vague notion – an unspoken item on their mental “to do” list before they return home. In others, this is a deep yearning – a badge of honor to demonstrate that they were more than a tourist in a place – that they had somehow transcended the surface layer of touristy activities and gotten in touch with the “real” (insert country here) and her “real” people.

For still others, this urge develops quietly and slowly, subconsciously, after one too many VIP bus trips in the exclusive company of other travelers. The realization that being taken, in air-conditioned comfort, from one guesthouse to an interesting site to another guesthouse, with the occasional roadside bathroom break, is not reality – in any part of the world.

In Alex Garland’s novel, “The Beach” a group of backpackers journey to a remote Thai island in search of this paradise utopia. Funny enough, this island utopia the travelers find is full of nothing but other travelers - not one local person in the bunch. And yet, in their minds, the journey is a success. This tale exemplifies what I believe many travelers want when they say they want to get “off the beaten path.”

What they really mean is they want a place that is still new enough to tourism that the people are friendly and unaffected – but also manage to speak a little English. They want a place that lacks Internet, but still has electricity and maybe hot water. They want a few cheap guesthouses and restaurants, some local brew, and an eclectic mix of travelers with whom to spend long nights discussing the world’s problems. Oh, and ideally it should be a picturesque village near a nice mountain or beach, if you don’t mind.

Truly being off the beaten path is HARD. It is being in a place where no one else looks like you – no one. It is the realization that all communication must be done with gestures and the odd word picked up from a phrasebook – and even then there will be misunderstanding. It means regularly ordering one thing and getting something else – but not having any idea how to rectify the matter. It means not having anyone to talk – unless YOU learn the local language.

I have never really been off the beaten path. Sure, I’ve been to places that are less frequented by tourists – places that felt remote and exotic. But even so, there was always another traveler or two or ten to ease the burden of communication – someone you could turn to and wink and say, “what the hell do you suppose that meant?” and laugh as you both realize you have no clue.

Only once have I experienced an inkling of what it must be like to get off the beaten path – and in the most unlikely of places. The funny thing is, I wasn’t even looking for it. I just needed a 30-day visa for Laos and was going to the closest place I could find it – Khon Kaen, Thailand.

Khon Kaen, located in the northeastern part of Thailand, is a modern Thai city – the fourth largest in the country, to be exact. There is the expected traffic and tall buildings, shopping malls and hotels, movie theatres and Internet access. Not at all what one might picture when thinking of an “off the beaten path” local.

But, Khon Kaen, though large and modern, does not have the usual requirements to make it an international tourist destination. There are no special monuments or sacred temples, no nearby hill tribes, no beaches, and no mountains. It is basically Indianapolis, Indiana. A nice place to live and grow up, but for people from other countries, it wouldn’t exactly make the Top 10 list. As such, there is no need to cater to an international audience.

Walking around Khon Kaen was like being the last tourist in Thailand. For several days, I saw no other white people. My hotel was filled with Asian business travelers, there were no restaurants geared toward western foreigners, and asking for directions once I left the hotel lobby was a game of charades in which I was a deaf mute.

I spent a week in Khon Kaen, waiting for my visa. I ate dinner alone every night at the same street stand located outside a 7/11 convenience store, and ate breakfast every morning at the crowded restaurant across the street from my hotel. By the end of the day my brain hurt from trying to communicate, and my savior came in the form of satellite television in my room. Embarrassed as I am to admit this, I spent nearly every evening tucked away in my room watching HBO or STARS while munching on some exotic fruit I had purchased at the local fruit stand.

Faced with being somewhat off the beaten track, I suppose I failed. I should have made more of an effort to meet people, to talk to the locals. But where should I have gone?

Karaoke bars comprised the majority of nightlife around my hotel, and the intentions of a lone American girl crossing the threshold would have certainly been misunderstood. And, as I am not the type to go to a bar alone in a land where I speak the language, doing that in a place where I was not guaranteed of understanding was too scary of a proposition.

And, while I spent my days chatting with locals at food stands and in shops, there is only so much that you can say when you can only remember about 10 Thai phrases and have a hard time comprehending all but the most basic of answers.

My week taught me a lot about my own expectations of traveling – and what made it nice and comfortable and what made it hard and uncomfortable. Had I just had one other person with me in Khon Kaen, my experience there would have been much, much different. But then, I don’t think I would have learned nearly as much - about myself and about my needs as a traveler.

Getting off the beaten path is sometimes harder than it appears – and sometimes much easier. For those who think it requires an 8-hour ride in the back of a pick-up truck on dirt roads to some quaint, remote mountain village that some other traveler or a guide book has raved about, think again.

For those who really want to give it a try – here is my advice. Find a place in your guidebook that has nothing special for tourists. No pristine beaches, no hill tribe populations, no “fabulous” guesthouses, and no towering monuments of any kind. The kind of place described as “without much of anything to keep a visitor overnight” or “there is no reason to stay here more than a few hours.” Go there and stay for a while.

Then talk to me again about “getting off the beaten path.”

November 18, 2003

The Year in Review

The passing of time is relative. A year in the life of new mother can go by in the blink of an eye, while a year in the life of a school child dreaming of summer vacation can drag on for decades. One day crawls forward on four legs, while another day races by on two. Some people spend their time looking to the future, while others console themselves with the past.

At 23 I planned a two month trip to South America - a very long time in the eyes of a neophyte traveler. Yet once I arrived, I met people traveling for 6 months, 8 months, 12 months. The concept amazed me, it confused me - and eventually, it consumed me. Four months later I returned home, my eyes having been opened to a new world.

One year ago this past Sunday, I left the United States bound for Australia and beyond. I had more luggage than I could carry on my own, a meticulously outlined timeline of the upcoming year complete with Plan A and Plan B country options (including seasonal weather patterns, political stability and festival schedule), and somewhere, buried really deep - the knowledge that I could go home at any time.

One year later, I find myself in Laos. The most important item I carry with me is the knowledge that I can still go home at any time. I have one backpack of personal items which, while still heavy, I can carry myself. My timeline has been revised and updated so many times that it no longer exists on paper - replaced with a general idea of future travel plans based on factors such as culture, experience and, to a much lesser extent weather (I still hope to maintain the semblance of an endless summer).

There have been sad and lonely times. Times when an email from a friend meant more to me than my passport. Times when I would have given almost anything to talk to someone who had known me for more than just a few hours or a few days. Times when I wondered what the hell I was doing so far away from the world and people I knew and loved.

But, there have also been many more amazing and wonderful times. Times when I was drunk on the power of nature. Times when I saw my life as a storybook. Times when I felt like a child, seeing the world through new eyes. Times when I knew, without a doubt, that I was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time - at marvelled at how I had arrived there.

As one friend kindly reminded me during a blue moment, the course of a year for any person is filled with highs and lows, ups and downs. Just because one is travelling, does not mean that their life is immune to this reality. And throughout the past year of my life I can confirm that this is true. For while my geographic location changed more frequently than that of the average person, the realities of human existance and the entire range of human emotions were always with me.

And, so too were they with my friends and loved ones. During this past year three of my friends had babies, while five of them lost a parent. Five of my friends became engaged, and three of them celebrated one year wedding anniversaries. Couples got together and others broke apart. Friends moved into new apartments, big cities, and different countries. Quickly for some and slowly for others, the year came full circle, just as it has for me.

Traveling is said to change people, and maybe that is true. My hair is longer, my skin is more brown, and there might be an extra wrinkle or two on my face. But more than that I can not say. My life for the past year has been lived in a sort of vacumn. Without a past, each person who meets me sees me to be the person I lay out in front of them. I no longer have a history of previous behaviour and past experiences. There are no more of the assumptions that come with being an older sister, a motherless daughter, or a first-generation American. I am just Melanie, another traveler on another journey.

So I start year two with a confession about my journey. I do not know 100% where I am going, what exactly I will be doing when I get there, or when I will be back. This confession scares some of you, as it scares me. It is contrary to my past organized planning behavior, and truth be told there are still moments when I lay awake creating Plan A's and Plan B's.

But I have come to believe that a person will know in her heart when her journey has come to an end - when it has come full circle - and it is time to go home. Not a calendar circle, not a geographic circle, but a circle of experiences that added together, makes a whole.

I'm just not quite there yet.

November 11, 2003

The Monks Are Coming

It was 5:30 a.m. and dark outside my window. Despite these obstacles, I got up, got dressed and with my roommate Edith, a French-Canadian traveler, left the guesthouse and walked toward the main street.

We were not alone. As 6 a.m. approached, a handful of bleary-eyed tourists with cameras in their hands began to line the street outside our guesthouse. Girls carrying baskets of flowers, fruit and rice wrapped in banana leaves rushed forward. "Give monk," they said eagerly, trying to sell their wares.

Across the street, neighborhood women were preparing themselves. Kneeling barefoot on woven mats and wearing white blouses, phaa nung (traditional sarong skirts), and phaa biang (traditional sashes) they waited, a container of sticky rice before them. In the distance the flash of cameras illuminated the dark morning light and we knew the monks were coming.

The town of Luang Prabang, nestled on the banks of the Mekong River is home to hundreds of Buddhist monks. Every morning the monks rise before dawn to receive alms from the local residents, a core component of the Buddhist tradition of the country.

Buddhism is the predominant religion in Laos, as in most of South East Asia. "Discovered" by Siddhartha Gautama, a 6th century Indian prince, it spread from his native India eastward in two main schools - the Theravada school and the Mahayana school. Theravada Buddhism found its way to Laos in the 13th and 14th century. Thought to be more traditional and a less corrupted form of original Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism is also practiced in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar.

The ultimate goal of Theravada Buddhism is "nibbana" (nirvana) which is effectively a release from the constant cycle of rebirth that is one of the core beliefs of Buddhism. Buddhists believe that activities undertaken in this life will affect them in their next life – for example, those practicing good deeds in this life will look forward to a better existence in their next life – while the opposite be true for those that practice evil deeds.

In reality, most Buddhists don’t actively reach for nibbana - but through acts of merit (feeding monks, giving donations to temples, and regular worship) hope for increasingly "better" rebirths and a reduction in the number of future lives. As attainment of nibbana requires the giving up of all earthly attachments, monks are thought to be closer to nibbana than lay people.

From around the corner they came - a seemingly endless line of clean shaven monks dressed in identical saffron and orange robes, walking barefoot toward the women and carrying plain black-lacquered bowls hanging in orange crocheted shoulder slings. Passing the women, each monk lifted the copper-colored lid to his alms bowl so that she could deposit a small ball of rice, careful not to touch the bowl or the monk in the process. The monks proceeded down the line quickly and efficiently - yet without the appearance of haste - a smooth continuous motion associated with habitual practice and routine action.

It is socially expected that every Lao Buddhist male become a monk for a period of time in his life – usually between finishing school and the start of his career or marriage. The usual time is 3 months, but many wear the robes for a shorter or longer period of time. Boys may enter the monk hood as novices, or samanera, from the age of 12 years old. A family gains much merit when a son takes the robes, and since schooling in Laos is only free for children to the age of 12, many boys from poor families become novices as a way of continuing their education. The samanera adhere to 10 main precepts or vows – prohibitions regarding stealing, lying, killing, intoxication, sexual involvement, eating after noon, listening to music or dancing, wearing perfumes or adornments of any kind, sleeping on high beds and accepting money for personal use. Once a novice becomes a monk (beginning at 20 years old), he must follow 227 precepts.

In 1975 the Lao Patriotic Front (LPF) took over the country, creating the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos official name). The party platform included rhetoric regarding the preservation and respect of the Buddhist religion, and as a result, many monks threw their support behind the communist government. However, once the LPF took power, they banned the teaching of Buddhism in primary school and forbid the people to make merit by giving food to monks. As a result, monks were forced to raise food and tend to animals in direct violation of their vows.

A year later, after must protest from the people, the government raised the ban – but only to allow donations of rice. This was not satisfactory to the lay people (who felt that little merit could be earned by simply providing rice) or to monks (who had to continue to raise their own food). By the end of the year the ban was lifted completely, with the government even supplying its own donation of rice. Today most Lao people give only rice during the morning alms, while temple volunteers cook other dishes for the monks when they return.

After the last wave of monks had received rice, the women packed up their bowls and mats and returned toward their homes. Edith and I, now fully awake, wandered around the rest of the town, catching glimpses of similar alms giving near other temples. By 6:30 a.m., however, the colorfully clad men and boys had disappeared back to their respective wats for morning meditation and the streets were temporarily deserted. Soon the streets would be overtaken with bicycles and motorbikes, street vendors and shopkeepers, tourists and locals - all milling and mixing together, going about their business. But not quite yet. Even without their physical presence, the quiet early morning still belonged to the monks.

November 04, 2003

Literary Escapism In Paradise

My body was floating down the Mekong River, somewhere between the Laos border town of Huay Xai and my destination – the World Heritage protected town of Luang Prabang. Sitting on hard wooden benches in a slow boat whose cargo consisted primarily of cigarettes and tourists, we passed through lush green countryside, perfectly remote, with only the occasional bamboo village or working elephant pleasantly interrupting the tranquility of the scene.

My mind, unfortunately, was missing most of this. My mind was in the United States of America – circa 1860 - and jumping between Connecticut small towns and California farm country. I was reading Steinbeck's "East of Eden" and so engrossed in the lives of the Trasks and the Hamiltons that my seat mate had to nearly shove me overboard to point out the elephants.

I was not alone in my escapism. Toward the back of the boat, a group of three was simultaneously visiting Japan through "Memoirs of a Geisha." One of my travel companions was imagining India through tales found in "A Fine Balance" while the other was contemplating destiny in small town America in "A Prayer for Owen Meany." Next to them a British man of Indian decent was making the social rounds of 19th century London in "Vanity Fair," while the woman in front of me was questioning the once scandalous "Lady Chatterly's Lover" in today's society.

It may sound unbelievable to think that people lucky enough to be traveling in exotic and exciting locations would purposely remove themselves from the moment and "lose" themselves in another place and time - often decidedly more common place. But everywhere from Fijian beaches to Italian small towns, from the Andes mountains to the Mekong River, books are the faithful companions of the the holiday traveller.

Americans are frequently heard complaining that they simply don't have the time to read in their daily lives - work, family, and social life take up too much time. Instead, they play "catch up" during their vacations - reading everything from fluffy Danielle Steel romance novels to dry books on investing and financial security to classical literature they never got around to reading in school.

Used bookstores around the world include the usual beach reading paperbacks and past and current best sellers, but surprisingly common additions include Jane Austin, John Steinbeck, and Charles Dickens. I've also seen biographies of French prime ministers, wives of American presidents and corporate CEOs - side by side with the usual science fiction, romance and adventure. Holiday reading clearly isn't all fluff.

As American vacations are usually rushed two-week affairs, another common complaint is not having time to do more "education" reading prior to departure. The Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia are amazing - but even more so when you can see and understand the Hindu spiritual influence visible in the intricate carvings. Machu Picchu in Peru is majestic - but more so with the knowledge that it was never located or conquered by the Spanish.

The American couple traveling with me on the Mekong had planned their travel education better than I. In anticipation of their trip to Nepal and China, each had read "Video Nights in Kathmandu" by Pico Iyer (a collection of travel tales from China, Thailand, and Nepal) and "Arresting God in Kathmandu" by Samrat Upadhyay (a Nepali author writing about love and marriage in his homeland). Closer inspection of their boat books made me feel slightly better about my own unrelated reading material - one was reading a book set in India, the other, set in New Hampshire.

There are times when available literature on a local doesn't mesh with a reader's interest. Books about Laos, for example, are scarce unless you happen to read French or find exposes on covert American CIA activities compelling reading. And, choosing a book based solely on location without regard for personal interest can equal disaster - even when the best of intentions are taken to heart.

Several years ago, while traveling through South America, I chose "Origin of the Species" by Charles Darwin as my holiday reading. The Galapagos Islands were an intended stop, and boning up on the scientific theory inspired by the island seemed a worthy endeavor. I never made it past the first chapter. The book was scientific stream of conscious, overly detailed and the driest bit of reading I have ever picked up. I abandoned it in a guesthouse when no one would trade with me.

Lucky for me, my second book, "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, turned out to be a winner. Though as far from South American life and culture as you could get, the tale of the poor Russian student who snaps (read just a few months after my own university days had ended) was easy to identify with and, at 600+ pages, lasted me for weeks.

In an ideal world, my travel reading would include one topical narrative (historical, cultural or literary) about the country or region I was visiting - and one book just for me and just for fun. The truth is, no matter how idyllic and perfect your vacation surroundings, 10 hours on a plane, train or slow boat wears on both your body and your mind. A little distraction - related to your surroundings or not - is a welcome respite from the journey.