At a time when there's nothing to do; when rain pours relentlessly, the electricity is out for the whole village and there’s three hours to wait for the connecting bus - I'm feeling some déjà vu. I've done this before I swear; somewhere, some time ago, some place very similar.
What isn't similar is the differences that I now see - like a fog that has somehow cleared - and from the rest of my travels throughout Asia, the initial excitement and sense of adventure has been replaced by pure cynicism. It's to be expected - my journey has come full circle, finishing where I began and knowing now what I do, the Rose-tinted glasses have faded to transparent: Thailand is arguably worse than China.
From the perspective of a travel-hardened survivor of The China Train Battles - the legendary stuff of legend™ - I can see through the smiles; the infinite supposed friendliness that is said to exude from the locals. In China they simply fuck you, here they fuck you with love; it's possibly even more contemptuous.
The Chinese influence here is clear; I now understand how the Kingdom of Thailand once ebbed on, in to the great rice paddy field to the North and how some provinces (such as Guangxi), actually have a local language very similar to Thai (minus the polite kha and khap). The similarities don't end there, unfortunately. The Thai love of Baht seems equally as strong as the Chinese love of Kuai (slang for Yuan), with bumped prices not just for some things, but absolutely every single item for sale. Try bartering and see how the smiles come a little more forced now, and it's easy to see the results of the riots earlier this year. Couple these two things together with an overall increase in prices (due to less visiting tourists - well, bar the ubiquitous paired female Germans and a rising number of affluent Chinese, made rich from exploiting their fellow countrymen), and they're victims of their own stupidity. Someone seriously needs to teach the Thais some basic economics. Drop the price and they will come; stop the scams and they will spend more. Receiving smaller portions than the locals, charged more than the usual price, receiving the lower-grade stock – visit Thailand and these things can be yours too! The mentality is akin to their Chinese cousins; stubborn, reluctant to change and just as much of an unwelcome hindrance.
To the South and North I travel once more, picking out missed spots and places of interest that now only barely pass as worthwhile. Temples, Temples everywhere are the cultural highlight of course, though it's such a disgustingly wasteful use of funds benefiting so few, that I feel more inclined to put my feet up on a beach, then donate by proxy entrance fee. Lazy, sedentary monks grow fat and stroll around markets on their mobile phones (some with the latest iPhone unbelievably), whilst the streets are filled with beggars; it’s enough to make anyone with any remote kind of sensibility despise religion with every ounce of their being. The bartering is no longer fun and I've also experienced a great deal more occasions where I've needed to argue the toss on sudden inexplicable hikes in prices, untold hidden charges or question why I’m quoted double for the "same same". Still, it's old hat to me now, and I really don’t mind walking away or standing fast.
As was the case before, the North shines brightly (strange considering the population is largely of Chinese heritage); eclipsing the cynicism of tourist-laden and farang-despising middle and South. It’s still cheap here - incredibly reasonable in fact - and the warm smiles of all welcome us once more as we drive around on our rented 150cc. To any random Market and how does a pound for 5 beautifully ripe Mangoes sound, or thirty pence for an entire Watermelon. As luck would have it the festival of Loi Krathong coincides with our visit; the many thousands of lanterns floating high above make for such a romantic setting it’s impossible to feel anything but contentment here. My cynicism is stirred from temporary slumber all too soon, however, as I see the homeless and physically impaired littering the streets; whilst the tens of thousands of revellers willingly part with money buying these paper-wasters. Whilst picturesque, I’m sure the Baht could be better spent helping others rather than themselves; thanks once more to religion for ensuring profit margins maintain top priority.
Dreams of mundane normality have plagued me over the last several weeks; the thought of cold, wet and dark London could hardly fill me with any more gloom. Coach transit with "lao wai" and "farang", and the accents of chav England, stoopid-ass American and crass Aussies burden my ears once more. Their brown oversized clumsy frames and narrow-minded, uneducated stupidity of Asian culture or way of life make me cringe much like a particularly bad epileptic fit. All they will ever know of Thailand (and most likely the whole continent), will be: Chang beer, Pad Thai, Temples and GoGo dancers. Some may stretch to butchering hello or thank you in Thai, pronounced phonetically of course, though most will revert to the predictable English-in-increased-volume technique. Oh how I long to hide under a veil that both disguises and distinguishes me from my fellow – ergh - country men.
If you’re going abroad simply to tan, find the nearest bar or restaurant then the message is simple: Stay At Home. If, on the other hand, you plan to visit and try to speak with locals, embracing a culture not your own and doing your best to understand and accept it; book the ticket now and get going. It’s not just Asia, the same applies to developed countries too.
So little has changed, then. I still feel far more at home and at ease in Asia, despite my complaints. I still feel little if any allegiance to my home country (or country of origin as I prefer to say, being a "child of mother earth"), and still wonder what path to take in life. But that's an impossible question to answer. What I can answer is - what have you learned?
It's been a truly interesting escape from daily-grind, and with much soul-searching, time for contemplation and deliberation over just about anything; almost certainly a worthwhile voyage of self-discovery. There are plenty of viable options other than 9-5 office work, repetitive menial tasks, career or money-chasing and of course - the most important thing for all women rapidly approaching 30 - babies. Most of which will grant a sense of fulfilment and well-being that I couldn't possibly have imagined before boarding Qantas QF2 at LHR almost a year ago, though sacrifice a lust for gold you must.
I have rediscovered a true passion for photography (despite my complaints of how digital has brought it to the masses), reaffirmed that running is almost as vital to my well-being as breathing, and discovered how little food is actually required to live healthily. Reading and writing (the latter arguably requiring some considerable spit and polish), are now deemed viable pastimes and come close to releasing the same endorphins as completing a half marathon - for me at least - for now. I’ve also learned more than I ever expected to of my own mother tongue; through conversations with English students and explaining the intricate lawlessness inherent in the new world-standard for communication. Following suit and repeating the same misunderstood word or phrase repeatedly, increasing in volume – as most English speakers do - is useless. Using different words and gestures makes things that much easier for those trying to comprehend and, believe it or not, far more fun. As a career-bound tech it's amazing how I've managed to survive with older generation kit - replacing it annually now seems positively wasteful. And finally one of the things I have missed most is my Roland Piano and stack of music books; it's a shame these things are not portable.
The art of conversation (especially in Asia), I’ve learned is more about any kind of banter - if required – rather than the so-called quality or interest that any given person brings to the table. It’s perfectly acceptable, for example, to ask the most basic questions and never considered embarrassing when doing so. This has almost felt like a revelation in many ways; pauses in conversation are never met with discomfort; more, it’s simply an accepted part of the human condition. Sat around a table, no one party is ever singled out or picked upon, deemed the odd one out or ignored. Take that same table and imagine strangers sitting down without asking permission, so as to eat in your company, and chances are you will be offered food or drink from the same unknown faces. It’s something that’s completely alien in the Western world and Asia is all the more rich for it.
My worldly possessions of the past year have consisted mainly of bare essentials, especially having had everything stolen. I'm now accustomed to my personal effects consisting only of what I carry, and having a permanent space for storage is now so alien it almost frightens me. Two bags are all I need; take away my photography and that number halves to become prime. The necessities will easily fit in to my 65+10 leaving space for plenty more; I can even run quite well with 12.8kg loaded on my waist (that's how you fit a rucksack correctly). My back and shoulders have developed a virtual immunity to most two-strapped burdens from my daybag, and I feel most comfortable when heavily loaded on back and front (valuables in the latter), much as the homeless must - it's all with you after all. I've become an expert in efficient usage of toilet paper, of soap and cleaning products and developed my own system for packing and "bit" location, so that the only things I've lost over the year are a pair of sunglasses and - strangely - every single hat I’ve ever purchased.
It's a way of life that has immense appeal; so much so that I have met couples that are professional travellers: One elderly pair having just recently passed their 20th anniversary away from home. It’s adjusted my outlook on possessions such that I long for a 52" 3D LCD and 5.1 THX-certified dust gatherers no more. Washing up by hand and cooking using a single pan and random ingredients have become good fun; it’s certainly a great way to exercise the social muscle when crashing in hostels. I appreciate luxury in a way I've never done before; having known such foulness that I dare not speak of it, and am more than happy to share any food, drink or anything else that someone may need. Generosity is such a large part of the travelling experience that it should be embraced wholeheartedly.
All that really interests me is where I'll be sleeping next and how to get there. Map reading (despite my reliance on GPS coordinates), and navigational awareness has become second nature. Long train journeys don't faze me, my ability to sleep in strange and often insect-infested dirty, stinky, feted places is now close to instinctive. And wearing the same underwear for four days having hiked, sweat and slept in it is no longer an issue. I’m also now a firm believer in exposing myself to as much dirt, bacteria and filth as possible – my immune system has never been stronger. Stuff the shrink-wrapped sterilised tasteless crap and give me a street-food vendor throwing herbs and spices in to a thirty year-old oil-encrusted pan anytime; oh it’ll taste so much better.
It's true what they say; travel does change you. And it can only be positive, but only if you choose to embrace the challenges and hardship that awaits and face it, rather than become that little Piggy that went to market, and ran "wee wee wee", all the way home at the first sign of trouble.
What stands out most, however, are a few things that I have mulled over in times of desperate boredom, where a coffee is stretched to fill a few hours or a connecting flight requires an inordinate amount of time to board. Most importantly is that overall and excluding clichéd differences, humans are invariably all cut from the same cloth. To this there is no doubt in my mind; we are all quite literally the same. Secondly is that they are all just as racist as each other. This point is important to me; the world is becoming pretty damn small, and in a bloody great hurry to get there. I have seen wonders of acceptance everywhere (in places I'd never expect), experienced racism on a daily basis for a sizeable chunk of my travels (much like any UK immigrant must have, though to a lesser degree I'm sure), seen the most random couplings imaginable and how the initial disparity at first glance is actually negligible. My first question to a new acquaintance is no longer asking where they’re from; or comparing their accent to mine, judging it on some false hierarchy that most decrepit older generation morons still cling to. I assume nothing until I know more of a person, rather than form an instantaneous opinion based on which part of the planet they were born. And it's all been eye-opening and strangely reaffirming, even the bad parts.
I return to the country in which I was born wiser, more experienced, understanding and maybe - just possibly - a little more fulfilled. It's been a privilege meeting the people I have, finding utterly random friendships in times of need and discussing things you wouldn’t dream of with your best friend of 20 years, and seeing so much diverse culture and natural beauty that your breath is literally taken away. And through it all, I only wish that it could have been done without such reliance on cheddar. Everybody should travel once in their life, not just spoiled-rotten graduates taking yet another hand-out from Mumsy and Daddy (I have encountered far too many of these for my liking), or middle-aged divorced women looking for some kind of rebirth (that stupid Julia Roberts film I point at you firmly). Education in a classroom simply cannot compare to the things I've discovered and experienced; it's either that or bring back national service to smack some bloody sense in to kids. Strange that most of Asia doesn't require such Draconian methods though isn't it?
And so, with the title of the last episode of one my favourite Sci-Fi series, "All good things…" must of course come to an end. I close with some random facts that I seem to have accumulated inadvertently, through all the tech I have lugged around the planet these last 12 months, and also a thought: Any spare time you may have, might be better spent learning Mandarin. In no particular order:
- Number of wireless networks joined: 112
- Total distance ran: 642.85 km
- Average distance per run: 10.71 km
- Maximum time spent procrastinating between exercising: 14 days
- Missed major city runs: Vientiene and Shanghai
- Total distance in rented vehicles: 8,468 km
- Number of days spent travelling: 336
- Number of photos taken: 11,849
- Average photos per day: 35 (that’s 330 rolls of film)
- Food poisoning occurrences: 3 (Laos, China and China)
- Number of flights taken: 17
- Total Long haul sleep managed: 2 hours (in 4 flights)
- Number of thefts: 1 (Vang Vieng)
- Amount donated to Temples: 0
- Occurrences of heat stroke: 1 (Bangkok, March)
- Time spent on trains: 364 hours
- Number of parcels sent to UK: 5
- Number of times I honestly missed home: 0
- Tourist traps knowingly fallen into: 7 (Thailand and mainly China)
- Weight gained: 2kg (I blame Las Vegas buffets for that one)
- Favourite Country: Japan
- Least favourite: Laos
- Longest length of stay in any one place: Bangkok, 3 weeks