Special Update: After nearly 1.5 years of anticipation, our 12 page feature spread in BHG’s Do It Yourself magazine is finally out!
Keep an eye out for the Winter 2015 edition on newsstands now. Or preview the digital edition here.
Now back to story time…
I descended into Bangkok on a Wednesday afternoon, thankful that I splurged on the extra $100 for a 45 minute flight instead of a ten hour bus ride from Siem Reap. It was a clear day and I was excited to be back in Thailand, meeting a couple of my friends from back home for a few days before heading to the Philippines.
The immigrations process was dreadfully long but familiar, a far cry from the sheer confusion I experienced for the first time three months ago. I stepped out onto the same curb, stood in the same taxi line, and felt much more confident knowing the drill this time around.
Finally, over two hours after landing, I arrived to my hostel just off Khao San Road (the largest backpacker hub in Southeast Asia) and met my friends whom I hadn’t seen since April. I had decided not to stay in this part of town when I began my journey to avoid the overwhelming party scene, but my friends were on vacation and wanted to experience it all… so here we were.
We walked the infamous street, sampling pad thai and scorpion on a stick, buying touristy $3 shorts and $1 earrings. If you want cute clothes at unbeatable prices, this is the place to be. I stocked up on Christmas gifts and got a SIM card for my phone at one of the many 7/11’s before returning to our hostel to get ready for the night.
The night on KSR was pretty much exactly what you’d expect. We met new friends at the hostel and went for dinner and drinks while enjoying some of the best people watching in the world. Then we found the highest rated rooftop bar in the city, caught a cab there and spent all of 20 minutes seeing how the other half lives while watching fireworks over the city.
The main reason I returned to Thailand was to visit an elephant sanctuary which I hadn’t had the chance to do back in Chiang Mai. I found a reputable place a couple hours outside of the city and booked a hotel room in the town of Kanchanburi.
My friends had never traveled before and unfortunately, Asia was not agreeing with their bodies. They became sick—one violently ill—walking around the street with barf bags as we tried to figure out how to get on the correct train. You’d think in the most touristy/visited part of SE Asia, transportation would be the easiest, but the opposite is true. The taxi drivers don’t speak any English, and when you tell them a (popular) location and show them the GPS on your phone, they look at you like you are crazy. It’s as if they’ve never seen a map before, and of course there are no maps in the cab for you to point to your destination. It took us several attempts to find one who knew where a major train station was, and we ended up at the wrong place. Two cabs later and we finally found it but missed our train, my poor friend still clutching her puke bag while we shuffled her around the city. Eventually we made it to a bus station and approximately five hours after leaving, we arrived in Kanchanburi.
There’s not much to say about Kanchanburi as we were only there one short evening (aside from this interesting cemetery we drove by…)
But don’t go there for the night life. The town consists of one small street with a few restaurants and even fewer people. It took us over two hours to get our dinner after one place forgot to put our order in and another took nearly an hour and gave us the wrong order. We ended up getting street food instead at 10pm and delivering soup to our sick friend who continued to throw up all night and into the morning.
Forty minutes northwest of town lies Elephants World, an elephant sanctuary for abused, sick and old elephants that have been rescued across the country. Many people visualize riding elephants when they think of Thailand, but all it takes is one quick Google search to learn how harmful it is to them and that it’s a real form of animal abuse. These are working elephants whose backs can’t handle the weight, and they’re forced into submission day after day by trainers, sometimes drugged and often kept in poor living conditions. I’ve seen unknowing tourists riding elephants many times on this trip and it always saddens and frustrates me to know that so many are unaware or just don’t care about this problem.
There are plenty of sanctuaries in the area and after researching, I chose Elephants World due to its close proximity to Bangkok and positive reviews. And what a special day it was. First we were assigned an elephant, Pan Aum, the oldest female in the group at 79 years old. We fed her squash and watermelon and corn and loved on her.
We went out into the field and picked ripe corn husks for their snacks, and chopped pumpkins and cooked sticky rice for the older elephants with no teeth.
We took them on walks and took photos as they participated in their favorite time of day—bath time. The two babies absolutely loved this part.
Lunch was a buffet of some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had. I ate two giant plates as we chatted with the volunteers about their lives and the elephants’. Then it was back to work, rolling our sticky rice into balls and hand feeding the eldest toothless elephants.
The day ended at the river, where the elephants were bathed as they played in the water. We were invited to help out, and the mahouts sat us on their necks (it can handle more weight and doesn’t hurt the elephants) and called out instructions as they rolled around and submerged us into the water (turns out the elephants speak Thai).
It was such a great experience and went by all too fast. My friends said that this was worth the trip to Asia alone, and that it would be the highlight of their visit here. We left with happy hearts, knowing we had the opportunity to help these giant mammals in some small way and contribute to their health and happiness while supporting a great cause.
After another long process of transferring between bus stations and vans and cabs, we were finally back in Bangkok five hours later, parked in the worst traffic I’ve ever seen. Eventually we exited the cab and ended up walking nearly a mile to our hostel, carrying 25kg of luggage on my back. As we were approaching our destination, the streets began to look familiar—and then it dawned on me—this was the same hostel I stayed in my first night here in Bangkok. The name had looked familiar but I didn’t realize why until now.
It’s hard to put into words the feeling I felt, standing in the exact same spot I first stood in three months ago. One of those events in life where time catches up with you in a serendipitous moment as if someone had just pressed pause. It wasn’t happy or sad, bad or good—just powerful. Bittersweet. Three months ago I had no idea what I was in for or how much my life was about to change. Part of me wants to go back and relive it all over again, these best few months of my life that will never happen again. But sometimes reflecting is even better than actually living it, and I am thankful to have these images and words to capture it all so I’ll never forget.
Saturday morning I said goodbye to my friends, checked out of my hostel and walked down the same street I first traveled down, confused and lost, sweaty and in search of a SIM card. Now I see the city with very different eyes, confidently walking with my bags filled to the brim with a new wardrobe and gifts, not worrying about losing my way or not being able to communicate with anyone. I’m stronger and braver, tanner and rougher around the edges with bruises, scars, bug bites and signs of aging sure to come, and probably some days taken out of my life, but all so worth it. It’s not about the days in your life but the life in your days, and I’ve lived more these past three months than in my past three years. Maybe six years, or even ten years. I came from an empty and lost place with nothing to lose, and while I still have no idea where I’m going and may just be a wanderer forever, my heart is full. If it all ends now for me, it was worth it.
These are the thoughts that repeated through my mind as I navigated Bangkok’s subway system like a pro, arriving to my terminal just in time… to find out my flight had been delayed for over seven hours. Fortunately, Kuwait Airlines put me up in a swanky hotel at no cost where I feasted on a buffet of sushi, fine French cheeses, oysters, macarons and chocolate mousse, caught up on work and dozed off in a plush air conditioned room before being chauffeured to my new flight. Coming from dirty, stuffy and noisy $5/night hostels to this is nothing short of heaven. The layover alone was worth the cost of the plane ticket. Kuwait Airlines, you are my new best friend.
I landed in Manila at 12:20am, which is where my next story begins. I know I’ve said I’ve fallen in love with places and people before… but this? These days were something else. I’m currently on a four hour bus ride back into Manila to catch a flight to Palawan this evening, where hopefully I’ll have some time to process and reflect on these past few days. I can’t wait to share this beautiful country—the amazing people of this country, with you. Coming soon.