This is a collection of stories I wrote while living for one year in southern Thailand. It was a passion project intended to sharpen my writing, break away from the ordinary travel diary, and imbue my readers with a fearless desire to get out and experience the world. ✦
FIFTY FEET IN THE AIR above the old man's little hut in the jungle, spanned between a giant limestone tower and a mountainous pile of jagged boulders, was an ancient tightrope made of steel — a skywalk.
If I was ever feeling brave, all I had to do was show up and present the old man with an offering of some kind — fruit, flowers, coffee, beer, whatever — and I would be granted a walk in the sky.
It wasn’t long before I was introduced to the old man. Our first meeting was short, but long enough to learn three things about him: He smokes ganja like an Indian witch doctor, loves jamming out to "Oye Como Va" by Santana, and ascends rock like a fish swimming downstream — quickly, elegantly, effortlessly. He was one of the most gifted rock climbers I had ever seen.
I also learned his name: Pi Din. And he learned mine.
“My name is Michael.”“Me-kol.”“No, no. Listen… Michael.”“My-ikul.”
I looked around and pointed to the first thing I saw.
“Tree. You can call me Tree.”“Tree! Haha! OK!”
One week later I returned to Pi Din. It was a hot and sticky Saturday afternoon. All morning I had been wrapped in an air-conditioned bubble made of televisions, smartphones, computers, couch cushions and pillows — that dark place we often crawl inside to insulate ourselves from the pains of everyday life. I needed to get out.
When I arrived at the foot of the cliff, Pi Din was shoveling dirt and bat shit from the mouth of a small cave. He was shirtless, barefoot, wearing torn-up blue jeans, a silver Buddhist amulet around his neck and a faded sarong around his waist. The veins in his arms and hands protruded like wrinkles in a bed spread. His skin appeared cooked and shriveled by wind, water and sun — almost sixty years of it.
I called out to him: “Hello Pi Din!”
Pi Din poked his head out of the cave and flashed a big, heartwarming smile.
“Tree! Hello my friend!”
The smell of burning charcoal and damp jungle swirled around the hot, soupy air. His two black dogs inspected me from a distance, not yet trusting my strange white skin. Black ants swarmed the wet sand underneath my flip-flops.
He threw his arm around my shoulder, asked: “Have you eaten yet?”
His jungle house is squeezed against a hundred-foot tall limestone cliff — a craggy lump of pale yellow rock blanketed by a vertical jungle of trees, vines and red-orange flowers glowing in the sun. A painted sign out front reads Thung Song Rock Climbing Club.
The house was hand-built entirely by Pi Din. Huge trees harvested less than twenty feet away act as supporting beams. Rusty corrugated sheets of aluminum guard against the wind and rain. Rock-solid tree vines wrap the house in a kind of box-shaped basket, like a giant bird's nest with railings, stairs and jacket hooks.
The inside is adorned with climbing memorabilia from his youth — retired climbing shoes, carabiners, ropes, dusty photo albums from his days as a climbing guide on Railay Beach. A gold-framed image of Buddha, circled by clay pots and sticks of incense. A sea turtle shell wedged into a split log. A beat-up guitar dangling from an old nail. A pile of shelled coconuts. A jar of brown and yellow tea leaves.
Pi Din chopped open a big coconut and handed it to me. “Drink,” he said.
In conversation between two people who don’t share a common language, both speakers’ brains devolve to the level of cavemen. Logical, complete sentences are replaced by hilarious sound effects and pantomimes. Mutual understanding is communicated by laughter and hand-clapping. And of course, many things aren’t communicated at all — indeed, most attempts to communicate fall flat and die.
Whenever the conversation stalled, Pi Din reached out and placed in my hand strange fruit from his garden, a Willy Wonka Land of exotic fruits and spices. One large fruit he harvested without even standing up — all he had to do was stick a ten-foot long fishing net out the window, into the tree canopy, and yank one of the bright yellow-orange balls off a branch.
“Climbing?” Pi Din asked, and pointed to the cliff above. To this proposition I reacted the same way a dog reacts to “Wanna go for a walk?”
And without saying another word, Pi Din had his climbing gear over his shoulders.
Forty feet above the ground, with burning forearms and torn fingertips, I hoisted myself up and over a sharp lip. Gusts of wind kicked up dust and cooled the hot sweat on my face. Here at the top was a little Buddhist shrine carved into a shallow cave, overlooking a vast field of grass and distant foggy lumps of jungle.
Pi Din was shouting something from below. I didn’t understand.
He began climbing up to me without a rope or even so much as a pair of climbing shoes. Had he lost his mind? A fall from this height would paralyze a man — or worse.
He reached the top, saw terror in my eyes, and laughed it off like a true Thai:
“Mai bpen rai.” (Don’t worry.)
As I sat there, gazing into the southern horizon, Pi Din sifted sand through his fingers. He pulled out a little orange chunk, no bigger than a grape, and handed it to me.
“What is it?” I asked him.
He doused the orange chunk in water, washed off the dried mud. I had a closer look.
Fossilized amber. A tiny black ant, suspended in time — tens of thousands of years old.
“Welcome,” Pi Din said. “You are family.”
Pi Din turned around and began tidying up his little shrine. He sang Buddhist prayers — a beautiful sound that all at once makes one feel grounded on Earth and as big as the Cosmos. The sun fell beneath the clouds. Frogs and crickets began their nightly symphony.
Again I looked at the fossilized amber.
Like the ant suspended in time, so too would be this moment. ✦
I had been on the beach for nearly an hour when the gangs of young backpackers began shuffling in to watch the sunset. Tonight’s sunset here in Krabi, Thailand was going to be something special — one of those sunsets you never forget.
The backpackers laid out straw mats, cracked open beers and whipped out their iPhones. They mounted cameras on tripods, filmed panoramic Snapchats and snapped selfies with a GoPro stick. They gazed out into the Andaman Sea, watching the big orange ball dip below the first shelf of pink and blue clouds, meditating on a single thought: What will be my Instagram caption?
I also meditated on a single thought: Are these people really experiencing this sunset, right here and right now? What’s more important — keeping this sunset to myself, or viewing it through a screen and sharing it with a few hundred people who’ll glance at it for two seconds, hit a like button, and then forget about it forever?
When we travel, we use social media to share our experiences with the world. We use it to keep in touch with our lives back home. And some day, when we’re old bags of wrinkled skin and brittle bone, confined happily to the armchair-adventures within our books and television shows, we will dig through the digital attic space of our social media archives to remember our past.
But when social media is a part of everything we do — every strange food we eat, every crazy local we encounter, every sunset we watch — we travel less for ourselves, and more for everyone else.
The sun sank beneath the ocean. The backpackers snapped their last photos, finished their beers and bellied back up to the bar. They forgot the sunset.
I will remember it forever. ✦
IN ALL OF US there are two fears that are constantly fighting each other: one, the fear of scary, risky, unfamiliar unknowns; and two, the fear of getting too comfortable in one place and missing out on a life well-spent.
It is the fight between our need for safety, security and familiar things and our want for new, exciting experiences worthy of telling our grandchildren—the nine-to-five desk job in the city versus the nine-to-whatever job in paradise, the shiny new briefcase versus the dirty old backpack, the low buzz of repetitive weekends at the bars versus the constant, electrifying adrenaline high of adventure in strange new lands.
Three months before I graduated college I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Not many of my friends did either. The fight between fears was crashing around loudly inside my head. Should I move to the city and begin a career... Or should I buy a plane ticket, fly to the other end of the world, and see what it’s all about?
I bought the ticket.
It’s been almost three months since I moved to Thailand. I haven’t been this happy since I was just a wide-eyed little kid who got away with eating pillowcases full of candy and pooping his pants at the zoo. In many ways, I have become that kid again… I am completely taken in by the magic of the world; I live in a constant state of surprise, fascination and curiosity; and I am learning things about myself that only new experiences and challenges can provide.
So why Thailand? I’m twenty-three years old, fresh out of college with a fancy piece of paper hanging on my bedroom wall that says I’m a Bachelor of Journalism or something… Why not put that to good use?
I wanted to become a better person—a more compassionate, patient, responsible, fearless, open-minded, hopeful, happy citizen of the world—and this I would achieve by forcing myself outside my comfort zone and into unfamiliar territory, into a culture totally unlike my own, surrounded by people who think and talk differently than I do.
I wanted to help push the world in the right direction—and this I would achieve by teaching English.
Before I came to Thailand, my whole life I had been surrounded by mostly midwestern Americans, ate mostly midwestern American food and drank mostly midwestern American beer, thought mostly midwestern American things… I was, mostly, a midwestern American.
One month later I was a changed person. I had gained more than just a certification to teach. I gained a new, exhilarating confidence. I gained new perspectives and a deep respect for the awesome glory of the world around me. I gained life-long friends.
And I’m still changing every single day.
For two months I’ve been teaching English to high schoolers in a small southern town called Thung Song. Everything about the town is totally, magnificently authentic. If I wake up early enough in the morning and open my bedroom window, I can hear beautiful Buddhist chants floating down on a cool breeze from a temple silhouetted on the horizon. The rush-hour traffic on the road outside my house consists of smiley teenagers zipping by on motor scooters, curious dogs, fidgety little roosters and giant bulls being herded from one patch of muddy grass to another.
The locals have shattered my once long-held belief that Minnesotans are the friendliest people on the planet.
Several times throughout the school day I am hit with intense bursts of gratitude and peace. My students and co-workers have accepted me as their own. They appreciate me and respect me. They want to be my friend. Walking through the hallways, I smile and laugh and give out so many high-fives it damn-near hurts my face and hands.
Three months ago my family and I said our goodbyes at the airport. I hugged them, threw on my backpack and blew a teary-eyed kiss from behind the rows of conveyor belts and body scanners.
I started walking. To where was I walking, and why? A better me, a better life, a better world? Yes—but the paths we walk and the destinations for which we are bound cannot be seen. I was walking with that mantra humming somewhere in the back of my mind—a better me, a better life, a better world—but there was one thing burning white hot in my heart, driving me faster and further than any pretty-sounding noble idea can do; and that is the desire to go—the desire to get off your ass, throw yourself into the winds of the world, and make memories you’re proud of—GO! All we can do is just go.
And that’s exactly what I did. ✦
I jumped off an old wooden boat and landed up to my knees in crystal-blue water. The sun was just beginning to fall behind the enormous cliff to my left, casting a trippy, yellow-ish shadow over the entire beach.
The driver of the old wooden boat smiled, waved goodbye and disappeared around the corner of the cliff. The loud rattle of the engine grew fainter and fainter… Until all I could hear was the gurgle of tiny waves stumbling onto the beach, the strange song of unfamiliar birds and the rustling of palm trees in the wind.
The only thing I knew about Ton Sai Beach was what a stoned German named Neil told me the night before on the nearby island of Phi Phi Don… “You must go to Sabai Sabai Bar, my friend Loop lives upstairs and smokes very good weed! Please tell him I say hello!”
So I set off in search of Loop. I had a message to deliver, but I also figured he might know a thing or two about this mysterious beach I was on or that he might even have a place for me to crash.
After spending two nights on Phi Phi… a beautiful but crowded hive of hedonists, high-maintenance Westerners, loud techno music, shitty pizza and burgers and painfully expensive beer… Ton Sai felt like The Promised Land.
There are no big shiny high-rise resorts. There are no masses of sunbathing tourists. There are no franchise restaurants, no burgers or pizza, no jetskis buzzing around like mosquitoes, no hustlers wandering the beach hunting for fools with fat wallets.
There’s really not much of anything. Just a small beach, a few humble little restaurants, a handful of hippie hang-out spots and some bungalows tucked away in the jungle.
A root-tangled dirt road lined with torches led from the beach to a small strip of cleared jungle. Here was what seemed to be a little Utopian community built by a tribe of island castaways… Huts made of bamboo and straw, rope swings dangling from palm branches, wooden rowboats retired into cozy lounges and sand-floored Rastafarian bars.
I walked into the first bar I saw.
The air smelled like old wood and incense. Reggae music played from dusty speakers underneath a bamboo shelf. Warm, golden candle light flickered across smiling faces… Dread-locked hippies passing around a spliff, a Brit playing pool, a lounging Indonesian tripping balls on a magic mushroom milkshake (sold at the bar for a few bucks!) and a rowdy group of new friends cheering each other on as they attempted to drink beer while walking a tightrope.
I bought a beer and joined in on the drunken tightroping.
Later on a few new friends and I made our way to Sabai Sabai Bar. I found Loop. Sure enough, there he was… Living upstairs, and high as hell.
I ended the night at the Chill Out Bar. A big group of travelers from all over the world—two Frenchmen, one Swede, one German, the pool-playing Brit, an Italian and a beautiful Spanish girl—all sat on pillows on a big wooden platform lit only by candles. We drank beer and shared stories for hours and hours.
Life was how it ought to be.
The next morning I jumped back into the old wooden boat, bound for home. Before it disappeared behind the cliff, I turned around and caught one final glimpse.
I knew it wouldn’t be the last time I saw Ton Sai Beach. ✦
An entire nation of sixty-seven million people wakes up one April morning and all together ceases to give a damn if they are rich, poor, old, young, happy or sad.
They load up their water guns, fill up their buckets, put on their tacky Hawaiian shirts and walk out the door, leaving all their inhibitions behind.
They become children again.
It’s called Songkran, Year 2558—the Thai New Year—and it is The Biggest Water Fight In The Universe.
For a few days—in some places, a whole week—every block of street and every bar, restaurant or public space is completely taken over by people whose only mission is to soak you to the bone and smear your face with strange, colorful paste.
As you weave in and out of the backstreets, giant buckets of icy-cold water are dumped on you with absolutely no warning. You can walk up to a total stranger, splash their face point-blank and get nothing in return but a retaliatory splash and a heart-overflowing laugh.
Smiling and dancing old ladies shoot you in the eyes with water guns too heavy for them to hold. Pig-tailed little girls machine-gun passerbys with a water hose, Rambo style. Pickup trucks packed with drunken teenagers cruise around blasting hip-hop, soaking anyone who looks a little too dry. And no one is safe from the water… even police officers and military men are subject to a good drenching, and no matter how hard they try to suffocate their smiles or laughter, it always bubbles out full and unrestrained.
Everyone is laughing and smiling.
The dancing is everywhere, and it never stops. Massive foam parties pop up in random back alleys and pavilions. Dance clubs are flooded by inches of water and beer, but still the partygoers stomp their feet and swing around their wet hair to an irresistible beat.
The air is electric, the love is unconditional, the happiness is profound.
As it always is in Thailand. ✦
The Khao San Road feels like a fever dream.
A whole constellation of neon signs glow and pulse wherever there’s usable space. Techno music blares from every bar and hostel window. Backpackers from all over the world dance in the streets with local wildchilds and ladyboys. Absinthe is sold by the bucket. You can get the best massage of your life for five dollars, then walk another ten feet and eat a giant black scorpion skewered on a stick. Little clothing and jewelry stands sell trash that Johnny Depp would call treasure. Strange men approach you, smacking their lips together—making a pop-pop! pop-pop! sound—offering to take you down a dark alley to see a “ping pong show.”
This is a show in which prostitutes shoot ping pong balls out of their vaginas.
Fake IDs, passports, social security cards, degrees and legal documents are sold right out in the open, and the cops, whenever they’re around—which is almost never, apparently—just don’t give a shit.
And that is the motto by which the Khao San Road exists: Who Gives A Shit, Let’s Just Have Fun.
Bangkok is a total overload of the senses. It’s like running through a dark hallway while getting tazered at unpredictable intervals by an electric cattle-prod, getting high off the shock, and then desperately wanting more.
Bangkok’s day and night markets are one of the purest and most intense cultural cattle-prod shocks in the whole city.
South of the Khao San is an enormous field, sort of like an Olympic race track, with an odd-looking building in the center. The building is a decrepit, old stone box, maybe three times the size of a football field, and looks like something you’d see in a movie about the apocalyptic future where mankind has been wiped from the planet by robots. Sheets of plastic and metal and moss hang from all sides.
Underneath the building is an impossible labyrinth of hallways and shops divided loosely into zones like food, clothing, jewelry, art, pets, and so on.
As you make your way further into the market, you get the feeling like you’re venturing deeper and deeper into the bowels of the Earth. Compasses stop working. GPS devices display the error message: “What the f*** is going on?”
Everything is sold here. Everything. Wherever you happen to turn your head someone is selling something shockingly disgusting or weird, something you’ve never seen before. Things like rare endangered snakes and turtles, giant buckets of squirming maggots, fluffy dogs the size of a full-grown black bear, wooden penises said to bring good fortune when carried (would you lug around a dick made of wood in your pocket?), and anything else you could ever possibly want or not want.
The market is a place to find oddities of every kind, but it is also a place where beggars come to beg.
A toothless old man, missing an arm and leg and wearing ragged, torn-up clothes, crawls around on his stomach over the filthy concrete floor gesturing for people to put money in his dog food bowl.
This sort of soul-shattering sight is an everyday occurrence on the streets of Bangkok.
But Bangkok is still beautiful. ✦
Today I’m leaving my little corner of the world, where I have lived for all twenty-three years of my life. I’m leaving behind everything that is familiar and comfortable for something new, exciting and totally unexpected:
It’s funny, because if anyone had told me six months ago that one day I’d be teaching English to a bunch of little Thai kids on the other end of the world, I would have laughed in their face. The initial idea to go to Thailand wasn’t even mine.
And now here I am, hours away from making a blind leap into the feared unknown… into a country whose language I can’t speak, whose people I don’t know, whose places I’ve only read about in pocket guidebooks… All of this uncertainty, yet I’ve never been so excited about anything in my life.
Here’s a brief rundown of what I’ll be doing:
For the first month I’ll be taking a teaching certification course in Hua Hin, a relatively tame resort town on the Gulf of Thailand (tame compared to infamous backpacker hotspots like Pattaya or Phuket, places I’ll eventually see.)
After the course is finished I’ll be placed into a teaching job, where I’ll remain for a year. I could end up teaching anywhere in the country. Right now my sights are set on Chiang Mai, a mountainous northern city often thought to be the mecca of ancient Thai culture.
With me in Hua Hin will be around a hundred other twenty-somethings from Europe, South Africa, Australia, Canada and America. We’ll be spread out between two or three small hotels, all within a short distance of each other and the ocean… Sort of like freshman year, minus the Tuesday afternoon beer bongs and total absence of all responsibility.
Teaching English in another country is a rare privilege to not only see and experience other parts of the world, but to have a lasting, positive impact on it. I don’t intend to screw that up.
After the school year is over, who knows. I might move back to the US, I might not. I might travel around for a while, I might go teach somewhere else. Time will tell.
The website you’re reading this on right now is where I’ll be sharing stories and photos on a weekly basis. And let’s get one thing straight: this will not be a “travel blog.”
This website is made for you; but for me, it’s a tool to keep the dust off my writing hand. This means I’m going to leave out all the mundane me-myself-and-I bullshit and go beyond telling you about the everyday stuff like what I had for dinner or how hot the weather is. I want to give you something you might be moved by, or, at the very least, something informative.
Basically: this will not be a diary. This will be a place for good stories containing ego-less observations on culture, society, people and whatever else.
Leaving all of you good people is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I love you. I’ll miss the hell out of you. Hold down the fort while I’m gone. Stay young, stay hungry, and always remember that great things happen just beyond the edge of your comfort zone. ✦