Thailand: Idealism and Reestablishing the Travel Bug

While strolling around a village about 45 minutes outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, my wife Rebecca and I got inevitably lost amongst the dry rice fields, the occasional passing motorbike, and dogs popping out of every other driveway to inspect each flourish of activity. The landmarks on our hand drawn, photocopied map–phone booths, wood carvings, fish pond–provided little guidance.

But there was no reason to worry, as our overall experience in Thailand confirmed what many people had told us: the Thai people are almost otherworldly with their hospitable and friendly nature, putting most Americans to shame in this department.

Within minutes of standing at a junction that was supposed to have four turns, instead of three, two cars stopped by, asking in halting English if we needed help. No, we’re fine, I said, determined that my normally sound sense of direction would prevail. It didn’t, and after about ten more minutes pondering where to go under the shade of some banana trees on the side of the road, we flagged down the next person we saw.

The man on the motorbike didn’t stop speaking an incomprehensible blend of Thai and English, but he determination to return us our rustic guest house was clear, so we meandered around the local villages, two unlikely passengers clinging on to each other while balancing on the scooter.

The list of firsts and memorable experiences from our two-week long honeymoon expedition is lengthy, but writing about travel is tough. How can I encapsulate a trip that will provide us with a lifetime of joyous memories? Should I review places  like street food vendors (eat the Khao Soi  noodle dish in Thanin Market, Chiang Mai),  guest houses, and temples? Should I try and convince others to travel to Southeast Asia?

For me, reading The Telling Room by Michael Paterniti provided a spark. In the book, the author embarks on a personal quest to uncover the story behind one of the world’s greatest cheeses, produced in a tiny village in the Castile region of Spain. He meets Ambrosio, the cheesemaker, and becomes entranced by his powerful personality and the village’s ancient way of life. Paterniti eventually moves his family to Guzman, Spain, in order to fully unravel a compelling mystery of the cheese’s rise and fall, but the tale ends up being about more than curds and whey–the writer reflects and finds his place in the world. It’s a delightful read, a tale of idealism, adventure, and local food customs.

More than once in Thailand, Rebecca and I imagined packing up and moving abroad. How could we not choose to live in such a hospitable, enchanting, affordable place? When would be a good time for us to pack up and leave the United States for a stint in Thailand or another place? Rebecca imagined being home with a child (one that doesn’t exist yet) while I worked as an English teacher.

Certain travel experiences undoubtedly unearth a sense of idealism and adventure, providing visitors to new places the sense the grass is greener. I couldn’t help but feel this at certain times in Thailand.

We ate many delicious meals for about 30 Baht, or one dollar, took advantage of public transit that cost between 10 cents! for a train ride to five dollars for a two hour van taxi, and I possibly overdosed on cheap massages. We saw thousands of Thai lanterns lazily rise and dance in the sky over Chiang Mai on New Year’s Eve. The only sign of aggression or discord from any native was a man in the village who slapped his dog after it barked at us; everyone else we encountered seemingly smiled or assisted us in some way. Heck, even most of the animals were friendly.

But after we began considering the possibility of living in such a different place, we realized we’d probably never learn much more than how to say hello, thank you, and where is the bathroom? in such a challenging language.  And it’s so far from our home in Kentucky and families in New Hampshire. We even got tired of eating delicious coconut, lemongrass, chili, and lime infused flavors by the end of the trip. (But if I had to only eat one type of food the rest of my life, Thai would be high on the list.)

“What am I doing here?” Paterniti finally writes in The Telling Room after realizing he’d never feel truly at home in Guzman. “It hadn’t occurred to me to try and tame the “madness” of American life rather than tame it, to bring the lessons of Castile back to American life.” I reread those words while sitting on the porch of a hut at the village guest house, and I shared his words with Rebecca.  We wondered aloud about what insights or behaviors we might bring back with us to the United States.

I’m probably continuing to idealize, but being in Thailand provided a great reminder that the American way of life–striving, attempting to make more money to buy more things and bigger homes, to accept 40 hour-plus workweeks as unbending–isn’t the only paradigm out there. Being in a place where Christianity isn’t the dominant religious was eye-opening, too. What affect does Buddism have on a place where, for the most part, people seem so accepting and calm (recent political riots, notwithstanding).

We’re now back in Kentucky, braving the frigid temperatures, readjusting back to our busier lives. But our travel bug is solidly reestablished, as is the possibility that someday, somehow, we could choose to live abroad. It was entirely refreshing to visit a place so different and yet so great in so many ways. The world may be shrinking in some ways due to digital technology, but there are still countless places out there where we’re reminded and challenged–wherever we come from–that there is more than one way to live our lives.

How about you?  How you you write about travel?  What eye-opening moments have you had in domestic or foreign places? When you travel, what do you seek?  Relaxation?  Adventure?  Escape?  Experiencing different cultures?  Thanks for chiming in.

14 thoughts on “Thailand: Idealism and Reestablishing the Travel Bug

  1. Paul,

    My husband and I travelled over our Christmas break as well (although more for vacation and less for cultural immersion), so I know exactly that jump-start you get from taking a plane far away from the daily “normal” of life. Its exhausting, exhilarating, and definitely inspiring.

    I come from a family of travel-addicts. In fact, my sister has dedicated her life to supporting people who travel for education, as a lifestyle, or for service. Her website: http://www.thetravelingadvisor.com/ and she also is currently co-founder of a start-up company whose mission is to help teachers, students, and adventurers making their dreams come true: http://projecttravel.com/

    I also have a friend who travels as her lifestyle, writing books and a daily blog about the experiences of leaving America and making it work elsewhere. (http://gigigriffis.com/blog/)

    I share these resources because it can be helpful to prolong that travel mindset. Steeping yourself in the writing and thinking of those who value travel and live out its benefits and challenges on a daily basis can bring the idealism into the realms of reality.

    Loved the reflection! Look forward to seeing what else you have brought home in the way of insights and behaviors 🙂

      • Paul,

        I’ve thought about teaching abroad–but my husband is a teacher here who loves his very unique school and kids. I have traveled internationally since high school, but my dad has his own version of the bug and joined the air force before I was born. My sister and I were both subsequently born in the Philippines, and I had the privilege to return as a college student.

        I did a study abroad in Australia and two missions-related trips to Hungary in high school. Did a backpacking trip in Prague with two friends as a crazy 18 year old adventure. Have since traveled to Germany, Sweden, Israel, Jordan, and the Bahamas. Would LOVE to get back to Europe: Italy, Coatia, Spain. My husband and I make it a priority to travel domestically one year and internationally the next, but we have the luxury of summer as teachers and the luxury of finances as DINKs. 🙂

        What will be your next international adventure?

        ~Brianna Crowley

  2. I spent 22 days in Thailand in January 1994 — it might be yesterday so vivid are my memories. I didn’t have a single day I didn’t love and would like to return. Everything was perfect — taking the ferry up and down the Prao Chaya, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Ko Phi Phi. All of it.

    I die when I can’t travel often and off the North American continent — and it’s been five really long years since then. I lived in Mexico, France and England and have been to 37 countries so far, so I love travel beyond most material goods. The irony of freelancing is having all the time (in theory) to travel — but not the disposable income to really go far away for a long time, ideally 3-6 weeks. Hoping to get to England this year where I have people to stay with.

    • Caitlin,
      How developed was Thailand’s tourism infrastructure back in ’94?
      37 countries…wow! What has been your favorite?
      My wife and I are already scheming about the next trip, but she’s not as fortunate as I am when it comes to vacation days. It seems like many Americans prioritize work over everything else at the expense of being more global citizens. It’s remarkable to be able to hop on a plane and cross the globe.
      Thanks for stopping by–I know I’ve slowed down my Mindful Stew blogging:)

      • Very much so. We were really impressed with how easy, quick and affordable it was to fly internally. They seemed very organized for tourism.

        France, probably. Although Thailand is in the top five, for sure…Turkey, Peru, Sweden, Denmark…Kenya, Tanzania..all are so different.

        My husband, luckily, gets 5 weeks off a year, which is almost unheard in the States. It’s one major reason I am freelance — I don’t have to beg an employer for time off whenever I want to take it. We live too far away to easily explore and there is not a larger social culture that treats foreign travel and time off as important. They are!!

  3. So the nagging question that lingers……… how in the world did you manage to acquire the dapper blue ensemble at the elephant park? It sure looks like an elephant keeper’s get-up, Paul, was that a special “honeymoon-only package” opportunity? Thank you for this adventure and the accompanying thoughtful reflections, I am inspired, humbled, and thankful for this chance to travel vicariously along with you!!

    • Hey Wes,
      Thanks for leaving a comment. No, the get-up was standard issue, not a honeymoon package:) Look forward to sharing more about the trip when inspiration strikes again.

  4. I’m so glad to hear that you were thinking about these big questions AND soaking it all in!

    I LOVE your ending sentence: “there are still countless places out there where we’re reminded and challenged–wherever we come from–that there is more than one way to live our lives.” I have found these reminders in my own life by spending time with people that are different than me, and who have less structured lives such as chefs and yoga teachers!

    • Carolyn,
      Like I commented above, isn’t it a shame people work so much? I can’t imagine having only two weeks of vacation a year…if that were the case, I’d probably opt for cruises and other mega relaxing/pampering trips to take a break from the rat race. Do you have any trips planned?

  5. You know how I feel about the idea of picking up and moving to a foreign country where English and Christianity take a back seat to good food and cheap living…

    -Dave

  6. I have never regretted moving overseas. What I learn from the culture, the varying cultures of my students, and my teaching colleagues has been truly rewarding. If you need some links to get your search started let me know. 😉

  7. Your reflections on Thailand really do sound enticing. The best trips abroad are the ones that challenge our thinking and inspire change on our return. But what if you didn’t have to return? If you both dream of a simpler life abroad (even for a little while) do it! You will never be the same again. I’ve not been to Thailand yet, but considering I’ve never read a negative blog post yet about the “Land of Smiles” I think we may need to go and explore for ourselves. Luckily Australia is a lot closer than Kentucky!

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