The Travel Agenda
I’m normally a pretty good planner. When I travel, I like to have a skeleton plan of what I want to see, the area I want to stay, places I’d like to eat. When my friend and I decided to travel for two and a half months throughout southeast Asia, we only had a flight schedule. We flew to Bali first, spent two weeks on the island, flew to Bangkok, a month later we flew out of Bankok with a week long stop in Hong Kong and then back to sunny southern California. I bought a book, read a bunch of travel articles, and had a pretty good idea of which big cities to go to and islands to explore.
I've always loved travelling, ever since I was 12 years old and we went on a family trip to Europe. I remember seeing the Pantheon in Rome, the Duomo in Florence and the countryside in Hungary. I was so fascinated and intrigued with how each and every culture is unique, the way people approach life, and how beliefs are expressed. I loved trying new food, exploring local streets and seeing a culture’s artistic expression.
Since I have lived in Rome and London, and traveled extensively within the continent, but I had never been to Asia, South America or Africa. I love travel for the adventure, the thrill of exploring, it makes me feel free and inspired. I knew southeast Asia was going to be a different beast than Europe and I couldn't have been more excited. I was extremely anxious, excited and ready to embark on our journey. This two and a half month trip represented our last bit of freedom before starting a Master’s program in London and beginning a career in the "real" world.
After landing in Bangkok we went to the southern Thai islands, made our way to Siem Reap, took an overnight bus to Ho Chi Minh, then flew to Ha Noi, took a pit stop in Luang Prabang and ended in Chiang Mai. During our time in the Thai islands we met a Canadian couple. They had been travelling in Thailand for about a month and were taking a much longer trip than us. They highly recommended we go to a small town in the mountains outside of Chiang Mai called Pai. I had never heard of Pai, never read about it in my travel books or in any articles online. As we continued our travels more and more backpackers kept bringing up this little town, describing it as a hippie haven, we continued to be intrigued and decided to tack it on to our list of places to visit.
Once landing in Chiang Mai, we found a bus that would take us to Pai and after three hours along a windy, jungle road, only to look out of the window at green foliage rushing by, we arrived in Pai. We were in the middle of the Mae Hong Son province, a mountainous area in Northern Thailand, sparsely populated, ethnically diverse, and home to various hill tribes.
Walking off the bus I felt like I walked back in time. Everyone was wearing tie dye shirts, bell bottom jeans, dreadlocks covered every skull and piercings were a more common than not. The buildings lining the streets were made with wood and had simple roofs covering what seemed like unstable structures. There were locals selling leather goods, colorful gemstone jewelry, street corn, Thai beer and original artwork. As we walked down the main strip towards our hostel outside of town (which cost 3 USD per night) I felt like I had been transported to another time, and I was definitely in another place. It didn’t feel like 2014, the locals didn’t care or know about the norms of society back in the United States or even in Bangkok for that matter. They were happy selling their craft in town and meeting travelers who passed through, I imagined many locals were travelers that never left. The main road was lined with jungle, fierce and green creating a masterful back drop to the town’s tie dyed inhabitants. As we turned the corner leaving the crowd behind, the sun had began to set. Three in a row we walked about another mile and a half to come to our hostel in the middle of rice paddies that were kissed with golden tips from the setting sun.
The hostel was made up of farmer huts with bamboo leaf roofs and no doors. There was a mosquito net above every bed and hammocks hung in the common area. When we arrived there was a group of young travelers playing music in the on the second story of the main structure. We were shown to our room and then wandered up to where the music was coming from. We drank Chiang beer, laid in hammocks and chatted with fellow travelers about where they had been and where they were going.
As we laid in the hammocks, I remember being in a daze. I was tired, rocking back and forth under the warm yellow lights hanging from the leafy roof. I realized that everyone surrounding me was searching for the same thing, and in this moment we had found it. The feeling of content and belonging, yet in a strange and foreign place. We had ended up in a place we never meant to find. Our planned trip had derailed and brought us to this amazing, unique town that we would have otherwise never known to go to or even known existed. This is what I travel for, not for the quintessential experience that anyone can buy into, but the chance that I'll end up somewhere I never expected, for the thrill that comes with going with the flow, or latching on to exploring a new place you've encountered by accident, for the longing to see and experience a part of the world that not many others will. You can prepare all you want for a trip, but the reality is, if you come with an open mind you can leave with a new sense of freedom.