Stepping off the plane alone in the summer of 1999 at Bangkok International Airport into the hot, humid air was not only surreal, but also foreign and new. In the distance, beyond the hot tarmac I looked at the palm trees and lush mountainsides in disbelief wondering how I got there. My intention was to be out of the United States during Y2K and wanted to be somewhere spiritual and scenic for the turn of the century. This was a huge milestone and it called for a huge international trip. My return plane ticket back to the U.S. was four months out and somehow I knew mystery and intrigue lay before me. So, I quickly mustered up the strength to walk down the gangplank and hailed a cab to the legendary Koh San Road, an international hub and melting pot of backpackers and Thai locals all getting high on life and the beautiful surroundings that Thailand offered.
My journey took me south to Malaysia catching the first overnight train to Penang Island just off the northern coast. But, after a few nights of club hopping, dancing and all night parties, I thought it best to turn around and take my time going through Thailand on my way to Laos. In the early morning hours watching the sun come up over the horizon, I jumped on a bus which resembled the Cartegena coach from the movie Romancing The Stone. Travel was tough in those days. I remember sitting on the back of motorcycles, in three-wheel Tuk Tuk Taxi’s, on the back of large military vehicles, in trains, buses, pick-up trucks and boats of all sizes. I traveled with my back-pack through the southern islands of Koh Tao, Koh Samui and Koh Phan Ngan for the legendary full-moon party. Then onto the northern mountain towns of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, amazing Pai, Mae Hong Song and the border town of Chiang Kong before crossing over into the exquisite and majestic country of Laos.
There's something really special about traveling down the Mekong River, a monster of a waterway separating Thailand and Laos with its dirty brown water and bright green banks. I left Chiong Kong, Thailand bound for Luang Probang on a 60 foot "slow boat", entirely made of wood, with only one level and ceilings so close you couldn’t fully stand up straight. On this day there were around thirty passengers, all of us from different countries. The wood plank that served as a cross-walk onto the boat was a damp 2x8, three feet from the water, wobbly and a pathetic excuse as a boat access. I watched in awe as a sixty-something German woman fell into the filthy water fully clothed wearing a medium sized rucksack on her back which became a giant sized sponge. The horror in everyone's eyes was so extreme even to the Thai locals all scurrying like cats trying to help the situation. But with amazement, this unbelievable woman emerged from the water happy to be on dry land and content that she didn’t get hurt. Looking around the boat mixed with westerners from multiple countries and several Thai villagers, I concluded that we "Farang" (foreigners) were simply along for a very, very long ride. From the roof of the boat which resembled a cement sidewalk 8 feet wide and made of tin, I watched tiny villages and breathtaking hillsides meander by me. That moment became one of those times that I had to pinch myself. I had achieved my goal of transporting myself to a foreign land and embracing everything that life threw at me.
Three cities later in northern Laos near the Chinese border, I became amazed once again playing frisbee in a small town with nine Laotian kids and a twenty-year old Israeli girl who I traveled with for two weeks. At any moment Clint Eastwood could have walked into town wearing chaps and smoking a wilted cigarette. The livestock walking thru the dirt streets right beside us consisted of chickens, pigs, cows, dogs, puppies and big obese water buffalo. The children playing with us were littered across the intersection, some on mounds of dirt, others in front of shops and food marts. My Israeli friend and I were in the street, part of the circle that we had created playing frisbee until the sun went down just over the mountain range behind us. When it was too dark to continue, I called everyone for a huddle-up, shook hands "high five" style and told them that we needed to go. Several days later, an Australian guy named Danielle and I hitch-hiked three hours to visit my new peace corp friend Tom, teaching English to a bunch of adult teachers in the school system. Tom and I met a month earlier and made a pact to meet for Thanksgiving in late November. Danielle & I caught a ride from a Thai local in the back of his pick-up through winding roads with the wind blowing and the sun setting. He dropped us off right in front of Tom's house and for some reason it seemed as if he knew "Tom-Son". Little did we know the driver would reappear the following day right out of a TV episode of the Simpsons where everyone reunites in the ending scene. In the morning Danielle and I went with Tom to teach English and became friendly with most of the students shouting in broken English "Where come from you?" and "If you’re hap-ree and you know it crap your hands". At the King's birthday celebration around eight that evening holding candles and honoring their leader, the gentleman who gave us a lift began speaking Thai on a loud microphone to the hundred or so locals who came out welcoming "our two guests from Australia and America who will be taking a photo with our very own Thai folk dancers". The next day we were invited to a Thai wedding filled with many of the students and individuals we took the photo with. From there I left Pai and filled my days with countless adventures too numerous to list, plus beautiful beach days and short trips to museums, temples, waterfalls, mountain towns and markets. I met my cousins Kees and Melissa for two weeks of fun in the sun who were on a year long honeymoon.
So many Thai and Laotian communities welcomed me into their homes with open arms and never ending compassion. I am truly grateful for the people I met, the sunsets I saw, the night markets we traveled to and the never ending temples we toured throughout the majestic historic towns and villages.