The garish t-shirts were everywhere. They sported an amateurish “Bike for Dad” logo in both Thai and English on a weak yellow shirt highlighted with uncomplimentary deep sky blue sleeves. Men and women, young and old, wore the identical tees. It was a river of sickly yellow flowing on the streets, the elevated trains, and the ferries. Vendors sold them on every block from impromptu tables or storefront racks. It wasn’t exactly the look I expected to see in Bangkok. What sports team or charity could possibly generate this much support?
It turns out that Dad is the King! No, that’s not a slogan. The people he rules often call the King of Thailand Dad. He retains enormous power and popularity despite military coups that add generals to the mix and concerns about human rights abuses. The King’s birthday, December 5, is a major national holiday, and everyone celebrates—this year the yellow and blue t-shirts were part of a mass bike riding event which drew half a million participants around the country. Temporary shrines had been set up outside schools and office buildings: bright yellow banners (yellow is the King’s color) surrounded a large photo of him in oversized 1970s-style spectacles sitting sedately on what can only be called a throne (he is a king after all). Since the King turned 88 in 2015, and he’s in ill-health, the picture is not recent, showing him in his prime. The King hadn’t been seen in public in the months coming up to his birthday, which lent an unreal air to the celebratory tone.
If I were still in Thailand, I wouldn’t write all that. It wouldn’t just be bad manners, but specifically against the law. The condition of the King can’t be discussed openly anywhere in the country, because the world’s longest-serving monarch is protected against critical comments by one of the world’s toughest lese-majeste laws: up to fifteen years in prison for each count of insulting the King. If you were reading The International New York Times, you’d see huge white blank spaces where the local publisher of the newspaper deleted articles considered offensive. In an unprecedented crackdown, a man was arrested for calling the King’s dog a bitch. While walking to the train, I commented on the dorky glasses in the photo, causing my hostess to quickly remind me we don’t talk about the King in public, and never say anything that might seem critical. Politics aside, the holiday had the city in a good mood. Families picnicked in the parks, restaurants brimmed with patrons, and at night, fireworks filled the sky.
I was surprised to find myself in Thailand, and perhaps even more surprised by how much I liked it. The only other time I had been in Southeast Asia was my very first overseas trip, back in 1980, to the Philippines. For some reason I can’t explain even to myself, I’ve never had the hankering for travel in that part of the world, even though I’d heard and read about fabulous experiences other travelers had in this sector of the globe. When I started this fantastic journey over a year ago, it wasn’t even on the bottom of my list of potential destinations.
So, how did I get end up there, you might be wondering? It’s because of my Travel Rule Number One: if somebody who lives in a different country (or region, state, city) invites you to visit, go. You can be a tourist anywhere, anytime. But you can only be a guest if you’re invited. I love experiencing a place through the eyes of a local, or an expat who has become a local, and usually gain a deeper understanding of its politics, geography, lifestyles, and food than if I’m just passing through and sightseeing. In fact, I went to the Philippines because a friend was living there for a while—and it triggered my lifelong love of travel. I was also in Thailand because of an invitation.
Four months earlier, while trekking in the Mustang Region of Nepal (see my August 2015 post), I met Gretchen, an American expat business owner who has lived in Asia for 25 years, the last fifteen in Bangkok. During long hours of walking, camping, and drinking together, we became friends. When Gretchen graciously invited me to join her for the holidays at her beach house in Phuket (an island at the southern tip of Thailand that draws tourists from around the world to its famous beaches), well, what else could I do but follow Rule Number One and go?
Bangkok bustled and sprawled as expected, but quiet pockets tickled my senses. At the flower museum, a spectacular parade of hanging orchids welcomed visitors to a hidden garden in the middle of the city, the fragrance lingering in the air. The exotically-seasoned food delighted my picky taste buds and I hereby declare it to be the best food of all the countries I’ve traveled to (although Spain’s is a very close second). Hour-long foot massages transported me to a tactile world beyond sight and sound. At the massive Reclining Buddha, a major tourist attraction, barefoot visitors (shoes in tote bags provided at the door) shuffled past with a calm and quiet reverence.
In sharp contrast to the city, Gretchen’s Phuket beach house (a short one and a half hour flight from Bangkok, but an eleven hour drive) sat on a quiet stretch of the northwest Mai Khao beach. It was tailor-made for relaxation with a million-dollar view of the Andaman Sea just beyond the infinity pool, and glass walls that slid away for complete indoor/outdoor living. Ocean breezes tempered the heat and humidity that had seemed so oppressive in the city. Tall pine trees hid other buildings and sea morning-glory vines blanketed the path from house to beach. It was easy to fall into a leisurely routine of long morning walks on the six-mile long sand strip, coffee on the patio, reading and writing through a day interrupted only by a swim, then sundowners as the tangerine sun melted into the sea, leaving a wake of magenta clouds heavy on the horizon.
After a week in Bangkok, my trip was unexpectedly interrupted by a quick trip to Pennsylvania in mid-December to help with a family health issue. When I returned to the tropical heat of Phuket after a dose of US winter, I felt especially privileged. There was plenty of time to meditate on my year of travel as I walked on the beach, waves lapping at my feet, or enjoyed the amazing ocean views from my patio perch. Looking back, 2015 was a charmed year: biking in New Zealand, eating pierogies in Poland, kayaking waterfalls in Croatia, walking the streets of Lo Manthang, seeing Mount Everest, drinking wine in Portugal, enjoying flamenco in Spain, bargaining for rugs in the souk of Marrakech, and watching New Year’s Eve fireworks on the beach in Phuket. Even the things that weren’t so much fun at the time make good memories and stories, such as the dozens of hours waiting in the Kathmandu airport, the reminders of the recent cruel war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the dreary Communist cities and towns of Bulgaria, the incomparably intense humidity of the Romanian Danube Delta, the scary haircut in Vienna, and the bland buffet tourist food in Bhutan.
I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of places to see in the world or experiences to have. I also know that scratching a lot of surfaces is only one approach; it is equally exciting to dig deeply into one country, culture, lifestyle, or community—and perhaps not even venture far from home. Many people tell me they wish they could do what I’m doing. Others say that being on the road for so long would be hell. Neither is right or wrong, better or worse. I think it’s all about attitude and awareness. You are missing something either way and experiencing something else.
Websites and magazines are rife with lists ranging from 5 Best Burgers in Boston to the New York Times 52 Places to Visit in 2016. Forget about those lists. Pick a place that you’ve dreamt about and go there—but not only to the standard tourist attraction or the ‘top’ restaurant on a list, but perhaps instead to the place the guy on the bar stool next to you says has the best sunsets and crab cakes ever. Or, visit your local farmer’s market and talk to the vendors with the same curiosity you would if visiting a market in Bangkok and marveling at the exoticism of it all.
People say travel opens your eyes, broadens your perspective, and helps you appreciate what you have. It certainly does all of those things for me. But travel is no different from life. You can be a self-absorbed tourist and not see a thing. Or, you can stay close to home and, with a little effort and awareness, be an open-minded citizen of the world, viewing your neighbors and community with a fresh eye and a beginner’s mind.
So what’s in store for me in 2016? My house is rented until July, so I’ll continue to be homeless at least until then. I haven’t decided whether to move back into the house, keep traveling, or sell it and settle somewhere else. In fact, I really haven’t even thought about it much. The right decision will come to me at the right time.
I’m writing this post from Australia, closing the loop since it was the first place I landed on January 1, 2015. From here, I’ve got an opportunity to go on safari in Kenya—another new country for me. Then, it’s back to the Rocky Mountains to quench my insatiable thirst for powder skiing. After that? I don’t know. If you have a suggestion—or an invitation–I’d love to hear it.