Of all the places I’ve traveled, none has gotten under my skin more than Southeast Asia.
I first traveled to Thailand to work with an amazing group of people with what was, at the time, a startup nonprofit that matched travelers with locals for home stays. I stayed in Southeast Asia for two months, traveling and exploring as I worked, and I returned home changed.
Southeast Asia kinda does that to you. That is, if you let it. There’s something in the air, in the food, in the people, and in the countryside. Everything there was different than what I’d grown up with and what I’d known my whole life. Everything was cheaper. Most things were harder, less convenient. Several things were stranger. Many, many things were better.
I’ve been spellbound ever since. I don’t just remember Southeast Asia, I miss it. Nearly every day. I look up the price of tickets to Bangkok regularly; it makes me feel like going back is possible. And I know in my heart I will go back, again and again. Even now, as I’m writing this, I’m thinking, “I could go now…”
What is it about some places that burrows into your soul? That makes you feel like your life has a hole in it when you are away? What is this magic that calls a traveler back, time and again, to what feels like it could be, or should be or must be your home?
Though I price tickets to Bangkok, that’s mainly because it’s the gateway to the rest of Southeast Asia. If you go, a few days in the city will be sufficient. Chances are you’ll pass through Bangkok several times on your way to other parts of Thailand or other Southeast Asian countries if you’re on an extended trip, so you’ll have sufficient time there. Limit your trip to Bangkok alone and you’ll miss out.
But Bangkok is an excellent launch pad. From there you can catch a 10-hour overnight bus (with tassel-framed windows and a miniature bathroom near the luggage) to Chiang Mai, or a one-hour flight for about $30.
You can even continue on to the mountains, to the lovely town of Pai, on a van or bus that chugs uphill so slowly, its as if it is going to die at any moment. Or from Bangkok you can travel to Laos and catch a slow boat down the Mekong River.
Or, you can fly or bus and ferry to the tranquil beaches down south, where vendors in straw hats will carry grills over their shoulders and lovingly, skillfully prepare something out of this world just for you.
And if the Temples of Angkor in Cambodia call to you (and I hope they do), you can travel there by air, or bus and taxi on a painfully rustic road trip.
And you and thousands of other tourists can rise early and flock to Angkor Wat to see the sunrise. And you will know it is worth it.
While you’re stumbling around in what is tantamount to the strangeness of a fever dream, you may see people taking a pet monkey for a walk, or parading an elephant down the street. You’ll catch apsara dancers with their curling fingernails slashing the air slowly, hypnotically, as if spinning a web.
You can slurp coconut curries and feast on lemongrass and kaffir lime-laced sausages from the epic night market in Chiang Mai.
You can eat food so spicy you think you might spontaneously combust. And then, with surprise, you’ll find you like it. You crave it.
You’ll roll sticky rice between your fingers and dredge it through deadly sauces that stink of fish sauce, and you’ll go back for more, like an addict reaching for his next fix. You’ll point at pictures on menus that are not in English, and love what you ordered, and wonder if you’ll ever have it again.
You’ll find the street food is where it’s at: cheap, nourishing and unbeatable.
You’ll know to always take a bite first of the rice, as the heart of the meal. And you’ll wonder why, why, why there are people who go to the fast food places when the real stuff is cheaper and so much better.
You’ll meet travelers on the road, people who seem to have been in Southeast Asia for a long time, maybe too long. You’ll wonder if they’ll ever be able to claw themselves back to what’s real. People who won’t tell you their past, people who are either running from something, or coming home to something. You’ll meet travelers and become best friends for a day or two, marveling at how you ever got along without them…then never speak to them again.
You’ll bond with people over the scuffs and scrapes all of travelkind endures: the food poisoning, the bug bites, the jellyfish stings, the hard mattresses, the wrong turns, the bathrooms and the buckets of water near the “toilet” you are to clean yourself with. You’ll learn to hover over that in-ground toilet with tremendous accuracy. You’ll learn to live without toilet paper. You’ll learn that sanitation and cleanliness are all relative. Songkran will be your baptism.
You’ll toughen up. You’ll see that there are other ways to do things than what you’ve thought to be the only way your whole life. You’ll learn that nothing here works as it should, but chances are the guy down the street knows how to fix it. You’ll probably have a motorbike accident, and you’ll probably be just fine. You’ll learn why the nice looking ladies are waiting for you outside the bar. And you’ll learn that some of them aren’t ladies after all. You’ll hitch a ride from a garlic truck, or cling to the back of someone as they weave in and out of traffic on a motor scooter, and you’ll feel totally safe doing so.
You’ll find that $10 can go pretty far in getting you a trip in a tuk-tuk, a place to sleep, a great meal and a beer. You’ll find yourself spellbound by the chanting that streams from a wat into the night air and you’ll know what it feels like to be blessed by a monk in a buddhist temple. And you won’t fight the tears when he ties a string around your wrist and wishes you “good health, and long life.” You’ll bathe in hot springs or warm ocean bays and you’ll nap beneath mosquito nets.
You’ll learn what it is to treat people respectfully according to their culture. You’ll find that the traveler picks up the dinner tab and no one wants you to point at them with your feet. You’ll learn to wai. You’ll gratefully accept an invitation to dinner in someone’s home. You’ll learn to avert your eyes from the monks, if you are a woman. You’ll learn how to say please and thank you in the the local language.
You’ll learn the value of happiness in the face of having little, because you’ve seen it in their eyes: if you have happiness, you have everything.
You’ll take photos and you’ll feel like a thief. But you’ll be powerless to stop yourself because you must find a way to hold on to this moment.
You’ll learn to trust people again. You’ll learn to smile again. You’ll learn to forgive and look forward instead of looking back. You’ll learn that you are tougher than you thought you were. You’ll renew your trust in your own capability and street smarts. You’ll feel like a million bucks, and then you’ll drink SangSom cokes all night with your new friends at a karaoke bar and you’ll wake up feeling like pocket lint. But you’ll get a six dollar massage and a one dollar plate of pad thai and somehow all will be right with the world again.
You’ll feel how time stretches, elasticizes, as if to hold more details, details that in the rush of your regular every day life would slip through like tiny fish through a net. But here in Southeast Asia, they’ll catch. And you’ll take them home and spread them out on the table of your mind like photographs and sift through them like grains of sand, each wondrous and artful and fascinating in its own way. You’ll wonder why you ever, ever left, why you didn’t just miss that flight and hop in a tuk-tuk instead and speed back along the canals and down the alley to that place with no name and the bursting-with-pride owner who makes the really amazing, fiery laab. You’ll wonder why you didn’t just stay there, on that dirty plastic stool, amid the crush of people at the market, the sea of delicious and sweat-soaked and varied humanity, savoring with every taste bud of your being the essence of Southeast Asia.
And if you’re like me, you’ll spend the rest of your life scheming ways to go back.
I have a goal of one day opening a guest house in Chiang Mai, Thailand. BackpackMr has yet to come around on that, but I haven’t lost hope.
After all, I’ve been blessed by a monk.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to her clients.
Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.