Since my return home from Thailand, I’ve been frequently asked: “What was your favorite part?” Before I took the trip, I would have guessed the answer to be “the food” or “the temples” or “the natives” or “those gorgeous islands.” And if I made a small list of my favorite things about Thailand, those answers would certainly fill it. But I didn’t anticipate that my first response to that recurring question would end up being: “the backpackers.”
Backpackers are little worlds in themselves. They are both adventurous and introspective, engrossed in their senses and driven by their instincts. They come in all flavors: coupled and individual, inspired and wounded, eccentric and conservative, lax and particular—it’s all there. That’s why when you venture off with backpackers, you’re really exploring two landscapes: the one around you and the one beside you.
Chiang Mai: The Twins & The Hunt for Khoa Soi
On the way to Elephant Nature Park, I met Alex and Melissa, twins from Ottawa. When they first loaded into the van, I noticed that their English sounded a lot like mine. Thinking they were the first Americans I had met on the trip, I asked them: “Are y’all from The States?” They looked at each other mortified. This is when I learned that we Americans aren’t the most popular bunch beyond our borders (a lesson I learned over and over again).
Alex and Melissa were a a fun duo, full of energy and curiosity. After our excursion with the elephants, we agreed to meet for dinner at Dash, a restaurant with live music (and excellent spring rolls) tucked away at the end of a small street in the Old City. The twins were my first backpacker-friends.
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Remember Mitch and Rachael who I journeyed with to Doi Suthep? When we made it back to town, we scoped out another temple before agreeing that it was time to eat. “Have you tried khao soi?” asked Mitch. When I shook my head side to side, the two of them went wide-eyed. “You have to try khao soi.”
Khao soi is a concoction of ground chilies, greens, shallots, lime, and boiled noodles cooked in a yellow curry-coconut milk sauce with deep-fried egg noodles on top.
Can I get a hallelujah?
We spent twenty minutes walking, sharing details about each other’s hometowns, flicking sweat off our brows and scanning menus. I’m happy to report that when we finally found khao soi, it didn’t disappoint. Those crunchy noodles in that sweet and (mildly) spicy sauce was worthy of a knee-slap (sorry about that Mitch, hope I didn’t leave a mark).
Krabi Town: A Bottle of Bacardi
I wrote about the backpackers at Krabi Town in Hogwarts Goes to Railay Beach, but I couldn’t fit all the mischief in one post. Like the night that Manolo, Scott, and I stayed up in the lobby of Hogwarts burning through a bottle of rum. Every time I tried to call it quits, my Mexican compadre would point at the bottle and say, “We’re gonna finish this, Alabama, sit down.” Scott and I listened as Manolo described the phenomena that are Mexican weddings (and the week-long parties that ensue). We talked about God, New Zealand, our families. When we weren’t talking, we were laughing inconsolably (and probably keeping up the rest of the hostel). It was one of my favorite nights in Thailand.
Koh Tao: The Gents of Wales
During the snorkeling tour on Koh Tao, I hit it off with two blokes from Wales. I was amused by their thick accents, which were markedly distinct from the accents of Britons I had met along the way (the elongated vowels, the rolled “r”). Their size only added to the grandeur of their accents—they were two towering, broad-shouldered men, vikings when put next to anyone else on the boat.
When we arrived at the lookout, they invited me to explore more of the island with them. They took every chance they could to make their pitch for Wales—the waterfalls, the castles, the immense views—and offered me a place to stay if I ever make it to their neck of the woods.
What Backpackers Teach You
We Americans are conditioned to measure our lives by the accumulation of our possessions (house, vehicles, toys, tools, clothes). The more and nicer things we have, the better we’re doing (says the greater culture). It’s also true that the more we have, the tighter we tend to cling. We do something similar with relationships: we attach. When time and circumstance pull us away from people, we feel guilty or angry. We look for something (or someone) blame. The culprit of this attitude is the illusion of control—we think we can hold our fondest sources of experience in place. But transience is the nature of beauty. People change. Feelings change. Circumstance strikes. The sun goes down and the scenery goes black. Nothing is guaranteed to last and most things don’t.
Backpacking is a practice in impermanence. Having a hard time letting something go? Book a ticket. Stay in hostels. You will cultivate beautiful, deeply-felt friendships, create unforgettable memories, and (crazy as it sounds) feel something for others that’s akin to falling in love (or you might actually fall in love). And then you’ll let it go. Because that’s what backpackers do—they look out with wonder, they howl with joy, and then they move on. Most of them you’ll never meet again. It’s bittersweet, sure. But once you get used to it, you learn that surrender allows us to show up for our lives. To hold on is to hold out; to let in is to let go.
When I met Fabienne in Krabi Town, she felt familiar to me. I couldn’t tell why at first.
As soon as an idea popped into Fabienne’s mind, everybody knew it. Why? Because she made sure everybody knew it. What she lacked in height, she made up for in decibels. “Corey, LOOK, LOOK. We should go to that island!” And then: “LOOK at THAT!” she said, grabbing my arm and pointing to a tower of small rocks. “WE SHOULD MAKE ONE OF THOSE.”
I don’t think she really knew how excitable she was. It was just her, how she experienced the world. And that feeling of awe-induced abandon was infectious; it took everyone with it. When Fab reconnected with me in Koh Tao, the same thing happened. “COREY, there’s a GUITAR at my hostel. You should come play on the roof!” When we got to her hostel, I spent an hour helping her look for her wallet.
It occurred to me later, all at once, that Fabienne is my sister.
I’m not especially close to my sister. She’s a lot older than me, and our lives have taken us in very different directions. Sometimes we have a hard time relating to each other. But she moves with that same radiant, unfocused, open-mouthed wonder with which Fabienne moved. She laughs as loud, she gets just as excited, and puts people in situations far beyond their comfort zones (without any awareness that she’s doing it). Fabienne helped me see the qualities that make my sister so special, qualities that have been easy for me to take for granted.
I had a similar experience with Raht, a sixty-year-old Thai man who sat next to me on my flight into Bangkok. He reminded me of a deceased grandfather that I only got to meet a handful of times. He had the same restful eyes, the same steady smirk.
Sometimes I wonder if the world is full of different versions of the same people—my sister recast as a girl from Switzerland, my grandpa planted in a different culture. Maybe meeting people abroad can teach us how to love those versions we grew up with.
It makes me wonder how many MEs are out there, practicing different religions, navigating different cultures, sharing the same heart. In Thailand, there’s an expression often used at the markets by peddlers trying to convince foreigners to buy knock off merchandise: “Same, same, but different!” It fits us humans too, don’t you think?