“Travel, travel and never come back. Travel, travel further than night and day.”
A short phrase from the haunting song from François (song here). A friend who is on her first long trip has mentioned the urges to go home; I’ve reached that point in my travels where I don’t really want to go home, since if I’m honest I don’t know where or what ‘home’ is anymore. It’s a social construct, that’s all. Same ol’ same ol’. A place to do the washing.
At this point after another return to base I feel the same emotions as I return to a life more ordinary. I’m still in a different time zone to everyone else, as having been GMT +7 hours for the last few weeks, I’m still waking at 1:00am ready for breakfast. The routine of strolling down the road to the little street-side café to eat eggs and rice and watch everyone else rushing off to work is missing. As sordid as they can appear to be, the back streets of Bangkok exhibit a certain fascination that seems currently entirely missing. From the street girls calling out “kaa” (Sawadee kaa – hello!) to passing men, to the small family groups cooking on charcoal stoves on the pavement, there is an energy that characterises every city’s life which is present at all hours of the day and night. Energy; that’s what is missing at the moment. And the eternal fascination of the changing milieu as the streams of locals and tourists mingle.
But adventures are not (for me at least) found in the city. Cities are places of transit. I keep coming back to Auden’s ‘Crossroads’ quote (and I’ve used it too many times in the past year as I’ve arrived at far too many unexpected crossroads)
So at all quays and crossroads: who can tell,
O places of decision and farewell,
To what dishonour all adventure leads
The strange thing is that over the last few years I’ve been working on Government contracts, and a city has been home for a couple of weeks, and I’ve wandered the back streets and explored the alleyways. Usually against people’s advice, but I don’t carry vast amounts of cash or credit cards. You see a different life here; sometimes the baseline of people surviving, of living fairly close to the edge. This is a real world, not some exotic dance troupe pulled in to entertain the tourists. Occasionally I get the offer of a coffee, of something to eat. And I always stop since it’s rude to refuse hospitality. Most people are good, honest and hard working and the offer is usually part of their generosity. Never avoid local people wherever you find them. The advantage of being with, and working with local people is that many of them have opened their hearts and homes, and once the day job is done I’ve then been able to visit them and their families on one of my eclectic journeys. To be inside a culture looking out is far better than the experience of being a tourist rushing through the places and not really connecting with anything.
My planned journey from Bangkok to Ban Rak Thai on the Myanmar border was a mixture of many things, and since it was a repeat of last year’s trip, it wasn’t really an adventure. Unless I met a minibus head on, on a bend, the chance of return was reasonably certain. Was it just another destination? Sort of, but I wanted to be there again and to find the silence once more. There is little chance of silence in my life anymore, except when I’m out on the moto. Mediation at 130kph probably isn’t a good thing. But was I a traveller or a passenger? I was thinking of all this and remembered a quote of H.W. “Bill” Tilman’s I had used on the Adventure Tourism module I wrote in 1999.
Instead of saying I travelled to Shanghai by air, I would prefer to say I was carried there; for it seems to me time to draw a hard and fast line between travellers and passengers before the word ‘traveller’ loses its romantic flavour. A journey of many thousands of miles by air and bus, such as that which I undertook to Urumchi, without the least physical effort on my part and with a despicably small increase of knowledge as a result, can hardly be called travelling. To my mind the distinguishing marks of a traveller are that he exerts himself and that he moves slowly. Indeed, this must be so by definition; for to travel is defined as to pass from point to point in a deliberate and systematic manner; while the qualification that he must exert himself was recognised by those most potent, grave, and reverend signiors who drew up our admirable licensing laws, when they defined the bona fide traveller (with whom we are concerned) as one entitled to call for refreshment on Sunday at public houses by having walked three miles. (Tilman, 1951;668)
The journey from base to Bangkok was by way of the airline Etihad. It was a means of getting from here to there, and as least an enjoyable experience as I can describe any flight these days. A mass transportation experience, but at least they were on time and didn’t chuck me off unlike the Easy-jet people last year. Not that I’m bitter. After a week’s work promoting the excellence of the Raj’s education systems to South-East Asian college Principals (and credit to my colleague for apologising for the mess Britain left the colonies in) I headed off to Chiangmai courtesy of Air Asia. I slept through the “chicken sausage in a cream bun” experience, waking just as we commenced our descent. The taxi from the airport was reasonable, the driver knew where to go and the people at the Britannia had sorted out the mess I had made of the booking (two rooms for one night, rather than one room for two nights). All that was left to do was to confirm the booking for the moto at Tony’s Big Bikes and all was well. It was, and so I decided it was Chang Time. When is it not Chang Time in Thailand? When it’s the Buddha’s birthday!
There had been little physical effort up to now apart from tapping a keypad in far away Britannica and everything had popped into place. However, I was passing in a deliberate and systematic manner, so hopefully met Tilman’s approval so far.
I picked the moto up after a resounding breakfast and set off onto Mun Mueang Rd and worked my way through the traffic onto Highway (Hwy) 107. I filled with gas and carried on going until I overshot the next breakfast stop before the road turns off onto Hwy 1096. After farting about and doing the required hair-loosing u-turn on the two lane, I managed a second breakfast. Replete, I turned off onto Hwy 1096, and at the first set of traffic lights which had been red for some time, I was astounded to watch a truck go barrelling through the red light at about 50kph. I got that on camera as well. Gradually the traffic dropped away and things assumed a different pace. So did I and looking at the GoPro footage I was running at about 70-80kph for most of the time. Well there wasn’t any rush at all.
Once you leave the towns and their environs you witness the endless rhythm of life and labouring alongside nature in the planting and harvesting of crops. What fascinated me were the workers in the fields planting rice, their backs bent under the conical hats so typical of South-east Asia. They were predominately older workers and mostly women. The work seems to continue every day and the night is for family, for friends and for sleeping. There seems a balance in the countryside that appears missing elsewhere. Guess it looks like that from the seat of a moto; however you get the smells, and many more people in the fields will wave to the moto than they will to the cars hurtling past in air-con dark-screened solitude.
So back to this “Travel, travel and never come back” stuff. I can only refer to the example set by Bill Tilman, who at 80 years of age volunteered as crew on the En Avant, a converted steel tug which disappeared between Rio de Janeiro and the Falklands in 1977. Sailing off into the sunset beats the journey to the nursing home and having to decant a lifetime of things into a few boxes.
On a happier note, I often end a trip with a song in my head that captures it all somehow. This time there was a lad in the hotel who played to the empty tables most nights. But oh, was he good. I’ll cut that video soon, too. His best night’s performance was playing Santana’s Smooth – for those of you who forgot, here it is
Tilman, H.W., 1951, China to Chitral, in The Seven Mountain Travel Books (1983), Diadem Books Ltd, London.