On Losing Yourself While Traveling

I hadn’t originally planned to go to Koh Lanta during my two-week trek through Thailand, but my decision was heavily influenced by the fact that I made the mistake of visiting Phuket.

Don’t get me wrong—the beaches there are beautiful, as is everywhere in the south of Thailand. And sure it’s very tourist-y, but so is Chiang Mai, so why be so hypocritical about it? It’s tough to say what exactly about it sat the wrong way with me, but I believe it was strongly linked to the type of tourists one finds in Phuket as compared to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai felt like the global epicenter of zen young people chilling with each other, and while I’m not absurdly zen at least I’m young and could pretend to blend in once I bought some elephant merch and let my hair be all wild and free. But Phuket felt like the center of fat sunburned middle-aged Russians who have no interest in actually being in Thailand. I found it difficult in Phuket to find either other tourists in their 20s or Thai food, and since Thai food is pretty much the best food, Phuket was a no from me.

But Koh Lanta was undoubtedly the strangest leg of my trip, and I blame it on the quirkiness of my hostel. It was built haphazardly with creaking pieces of wood above the water, with a prime view of all the boats coming in and out at the pier. The walls were decked out with all kinds of abstract art, and a few large hammocks in view of the ocean provided a spot to dream the day away. It was also what some might call “rustic”—there was no hot water, no flush toilets, and an overabundance of mosquitoes. But that simply added to the feeling of being far away from everything, as well as the feeling that none of it really mattered after all.

The hostel was so peaceful that it barely seemed worth it to leave and see the rest of the island. So I became obstinately unmotivated. For the most part, I sat around doing pure nothing, apart from having lazy conversations with my bunk mates (which was everyone, because the dorm had 18 beds). Our normal schedule involved sitting in hammocks looking out at the ocean for hours on end, only getting up to get another beer or eat dinner. The things I ended up seeing in Koh Lanta were the street the hostel was on, one beach, and the ferry pier where I both arrived and left. My memories of the place exist in about a 100-foot radius, with the rest of the island left as a big question mark.

My personality type is interesting because I’ve learned over time that much of it depends on context. In many situations I can be diligent, competitive, and determined, ready to make a real impact on the world around me. Alternatively, I can be lazy and apathetic, opting to ignore my responsibilities, choosing to care about nothing at all rather than pin my hopes high on things I’ll probably never get anyways. I had discovered at the beginning of my trip that Hong Kong brings out the former qualities in me, the qualities I love about myself—my passion, and drive, and vitality—and now I was discovering that Koh Lanta brought out the less fun bits, the aimlessness, the uncertainty, the fear of commitment, these seemingly contradictory traits which are still a very real part of who I am.

The others at the hostel may have helped to highlight these qualities because they were travelers of the directionless variety themselves. They were mainly the type of wanderers who have been out on the road for months if not years, the type who have some intense stories to tell, the type who are pretty rough around the edges. I was here on a two-week vacation—these people were running from breakups, addictions, unemployment (most of them didn’t have real jobs), or just plain fear of mediocrity. We became close over the few nights I hung around in Koh Lanta, staying up late with nothing but candlelight and talking over our deepest fears and worst memories.

As I saw on the island, there is a part of me that will always be an aimless wanderer, with only the fragility of external circumstance tying me to who I really am. But maybe that’s not just me; maybe it’s everyone, and maybe I shouldn’t separate myself from others so much anyways. In a lot of ways travel makes you stop caring so much about who you are and who “they” are. In a place like Koh Lanta, you just exist, letting your preconceptions fall into the ocean and be cast out with the tides.

My identity became blurrier the longer I stayed there, as I began to lose myself in the peace and stillness of the place. If I hadn’t already bought a ferry ticket to go to Krabi a few days later, I’m not entirely positive I would have even made it out. Maybe I would have opted to let my identity fade away entirely, existing in the present with no past or future.

Luckily, by the end of my brief stay in Krabi I had recovered enough fragments of myself to recall the rest of my existence, and I set on home to Shenzhen to continue my status quo life, pulled along by a thread of insincere certainty.

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Chilling in Chiang Mai

My first night in Chiang Mai, like all good nights out in the city, began at the night market. The weekend night markets in Chiang Mai were a sight to behold, with vendors lining the streets for what must have been miles, selling crafts, trinkets, and so much flowing elephant clothing. The backpackers like me passed right by the goods, and went for the real treasures—the alcoves with all the street food, vendors making sizzling pots of Pad Thai right in front of you, or seasoning and grilling skewers of meat, or mixing together fresh fruit smoothies for less money than you’d believe. You could sit out under the open night air and eat to your heart’s content, surrounded by tourists who’d flown the world over to do the same.

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The next stop on that first night was a rooftop bar overlooking the walls of the old city. To get to the top of the bar, you had to go into a shady, shabby building, and climb about four rickety flights of stairs. At one point all shoes were removed and left in a massive heap sprawling halfway across the floor. After removing both your shoes and your inhibitions about protecting your stuff, you could head up to the top floor and see the bar in all its glory, a dark room lit by a few colorful lanterns, open to the night air, walls sprawled over with graffiti, with everyone either drinking or smoking something or other. There were no chairs here, just cushions on the floor, and a few tiny tables on which to rest your drinks. As the night went on the floor filled with dancers streaked with glow-in-the-dark paint, waving their dreadlocks around like travel badges of honor.

When I first rolled up to Chiang Mai, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. The impression may have been due to my unconventional method of entering the city. See, I’d just taken the overnight train from Bangkok, which after a two-hour delay or so at boarding time had finally arrived in Chiang Mai the next morning. Taxis from the train station were being obnoxious and telling me they couldn’t bring me exactly to my hostel—just nearby—and I wasn’t sure at that point how big the city was (it’s not very big, but how was I to know? I don’t prepare for these things).

I went to the information guy for help, and he just shrugged and said, “Why don’t you walk? It’s only about an hour.” So I hefted my large backpack onto my shoulders and traipsed into the old city on foot, already beginning to sweat in the hot Thai sun.

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The road into Chiang Mai

Walking into Chiang Mai did feel really legitimate. It involved taking a bridge over a moat and then eventually approaching the ancient city walls surrounding the core of the place, which had been standing for centuries and looked like it. There also had just been a parade for the flower festival that’d been going on, and the ground was sprinkled with confetti. So it lent me the illusion that I was an ancient wanderer, entering a new city with a warm welcome.

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Despite the pretty picture my mind was painting I still arrived at the hostel sweaty and worn-out, with just about no clean clothes left after my first several days in Hong Kong and Bangkok where I had done no laundry at all. Once I’d showered and changed, though, Chiang Mai became easy and fun to explore.

On my first day in the city I found the flower festival, most of which was tucked in one corner of the old city. All the floats from the parade earlier that day (which I’d apparently just missed) were out for display on the road, decorated with vibrantly colored flowers in all shades. Scenes depicted Buddhas, dragons, and praise for the King (Thai people do not mess around about the king). The floats were all really beautiful, and after the flowers was about a mile-long stretch of all the street food anyone could ever want, even more beautiful to me than the flowers.

My other favorite part of Chiang Mai was all the Buddhist temples lying around the city, which tended to be free and open to tourists. There are a lot of cool little places that are worth checking out, with ancient Buddhas and murals and jeweled decorations. Other than that, the highlight of Chiang Mai is definitely the relaxed vibe, the other travelers, and the quietly exhilarating nights out.

Chiang Mai was a place where people took the idea of backpacking pretty seriously. I think I saw more people within the city limits with dreadlocks than I have seen throughout my entire life combined. It’s like about 50% of the travelers there got their travel inspiration from a hippie’s Pinterest board which insisted wearing long, flowing clothing was the key to a successful backpacking trip. Not gonna lie, it totally helps you feel legit. But you can also get the real backpacking deal in jean shorts, I promise.

The city totally embraced that hippie vibe, though. I saw a French guy ask a street vendor for no meat on his Pad Thai and she asked if he wanted no egg too. Any Asian city that works to cater to vegans has seen its fair share of backpackers, but that wasn’t exactly a drawback for my first solo backpacking trip. From the street food everywhere, to the cheap, cheap clothes, to the overabundance of massage places and ice cream stands (best appreciated back to back) it is definitely catered to tourists, but it’s far enough away that you can still feel like a real traveler.

I did a few planned activities in Chiang Mai, including taking a cooking class and viewing a Muay Thai fight. But the rest of the time was pretty relaxed, and nothing there feels hurried or stressed. It just feels easy, and peaceful, and safe.

I think honestly feeling that way set a dangerous precedent for me, because now I’m just like, “alright, let’s take on a difficult country, like Laos, or Chad, or maybe like, Afghanistan.”

Or maybe I’ll just do Vietnam like everyone else I met in Chiang Mai…

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Moat outside the city of Chiang Mai

 

 

One Country, Two Futures

There is something captivating to me about places which can take cataclysmic cultural shifts and absorb them into the place that’s already there, and I believe that most of the best things in this world were formed from a few great ideas colliding. This is one of the reasons America has been so successful—we integrate new notions as part of our own. The falafel carts on the streets of New York City are as vital to its identity as Broadway, and if you understand this, then you can understand how Hong Kong exists today as a living, breathing integration of all the best of both China and the West.

There are probably many symbols I could use to represent this truth, but I think the best way is in the bark of the city’s ubiquitous banyan trees. I saw these trees everywhere, from the calmest corners of the parks to the busiest tourist streets in the city’s central districts. Banyan trees are epiphytes, or plants that can grow upon another plant for support. Contrary to parasites, they do not necessarily harm the host, but simply latch onto a tree which is already standing and reach spindly roots around its trunk and into the ground. The bark of the new can grow into the trunk of the old so thoroughly that it becomes indistinguishable from the original tree, causing two organisms to seamlessly become one.

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The Hong Kong History Museum provides a summary of the intricate cultural integration of the region. The museum has information about everything that’s ever happened in Hong Kong, from the dawn of humankind all the way up until the present. The groups of indigenous people who first settled there met long ago with Chinese mainland culture and absorbed many of their practices. This culture was in turn affected by the British occupation, which encouraged elements of Western culture to flourish under their century-long control of the territory. During the continued development of Hong Kong in more recent years the city globalized even further, integrating a booming abundance of multinational corporations and food and people from every nation. And now, ever since Hong Kong was handed back from the British in 1997 and is starting to come under greater control of the Chinese mainland, yet another layer of culture is settling on top of this complex, beautiful place. Thus far no cultural shift has entirely destroyed the Hong Kong that was there before; it has just been added to and improved upon, layer by layer.

The museum made it clear that the return of Hong Kong to China was the most important event of Hong Kong’s history, which is how I know it was funded by the Chinese government. The somewhat empty phrase “one country, two systems,” is cited as the means to a peaceful future between Hong Kong and the mainland, this idea that while Hong Kong is fully under the control of the central Chinese government now, it is also allowed more freedom and autonomy than is given to citizens on the mainland. Simply put, it is the open admission that the country is united legally, but not necessarily culturally or politically. Hong Kong and China have begun to wrestle a bit with finding out what exactly this policy means for each of them. It’s evidently something which can’t be boiled down to a simple phrase, and yet the problem generally lies in the fact that China cares more about having “one country,” while Hong Kong cares more about having “two systems.”

The very end of the Hong Kong History Museum, for now, is suspiciously blank, having not been updated with details since 1997. One day this will have to change, as “one country, two systems” actually has an expiration date—the year 2047, fifty years after the transfer was made, where China stops making the promise to keep the systems separate. What will happen at this time is unclear, but will likely come into focus in the next few decades.

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What will be the outcome of this policy? We can look to how banyan trees behave in nature for two possible conclusions. The first is the optimistic integration theory, the idea that in fact two non-homogeneous things can learn to coexist peacefully, even becoming one in the process. Hong Kong has already done this time and again, constantly integrating new facets of culture into its history, and may do it again yet. Hong Kong and China should, theoretically, be able to peacefully become more united without losing Hong Kong in the process.

However, banyan trees aren’t always peaceful parasites, and a second future is possible too. Sometimes the banyan starts off by growing peacefully, but then begins to exert too much pressure on the bark of the original tree. This can be so strong that it causes the tree inside to cave in as its life is choked out. The original tree then rots away to nothing. The banyan alone is left standing, completely hollow inside.

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Don’t Skip Macau

Before I visited Macau, I was under the impression that the only thing to do there was gamble. My impression couldn’t have been more wrong—Macau is a beautiful little corner of China which makes for an easy, relaxing day trip, and if you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth your time.

Macau (also spelled Macao) became a colony of Portugal in the mid-16th century. It remained under the country’s control until 1999, when it was returned to China. Like Hong Kong, Macau is a special administrative region of China, which means it operates with a high degree of autonomy as compared to most Chinese provinces. It means that the culture and architecture of the city is a blend between China and Europe, a combination which is obviously rare and unique.

The first major convenience of Macau is that it really does cater to tourists. Personally I arrived with little notion as to where I was going or what I wanted to see there, although being so unprepared when traveling is rare for me (okay, it’s more common than I’d like to admit…) I’d failed to consider a host of factors—that the two major languages spoken here are Portuguese and Cantonese and not necessarily English, that the ferry does not drop you off in the center of the city, that there is a different currency, that it is several degrees colder here than in Hong Kong, and so on.

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When I left the boat and found myself in the outskirts of Macau, I was hit with a flash of panic when I realized I had no idea where to go or what to do next. But after heading to the closest McDonald’s where I could get some saturated fat into my bloodstream ASAP (it helps me to relax, okay?) and checking out a map, I saw that it was quite easy to find where the central area of the city was, and an information booth pointed me onto the right bus for getting there. So it’s not so difficult, really, because the whole entry process is catered to tourists.

The second major convenience of this city is that it is actually built for unprepared wanderings and discoveries and perhaps can be best enjoyed through such, so no real trip planning is necessary. There are 25 UNESCO world heritage sites scattered around Macau, and all of them could probably be walked to within a day. My trip lasted about four hours and I got halfway across the city. It is very walkable and there are signs everywhere in Chinese, Portuguese, and English pointing to all of the upcoming attractions. All you have to do is wander along, following the roads.IMG_4913 (2)

And the third awesome thing about Macau is that it is most definitely under-appreciated and under-traveled by many of its visitors, and apart from one central tourist district was almost entirely empty. I got to the central tourist area first to see a scattering of shops and a hill dominated by a massive abandoned church façade, which is admittedly quite impressive in person. The area was thick with throngs of tourists, almost entirely Chinese mainlanders, and contained designer shopping and these Portuguese egg pastries which were being sold every ten feet (justified, as they were delicious). The area also has an old fort, which has some great cannons around the edges, now pointing towards the giant casinos and hotels dotting the skyline. From up here there is also a pretty nice view of the skyline of Macau, which is incomparable to Hong Kong’s skyline (as is everywhere in the world I’ve been so far) but is worth a few pictures.

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To get to the rest of Macau, you have to go back down the hill with the church façade, and then just follow the signs into the rest of the city. This was the part where things started to get a bit strange. Although I was less than a ten-minute walk from the main tourist areas, there were almost no other tourists at the next attraction! The first place I went to was a public park, with wandering paths leading to some interesting sculptures and structures, and more views of the skyline which I actually preferred to the ones from the fort. But the only other people in the park were a few old Macanese men out for an afternoon stroll, who actually nodded and smiled to me because I was clearly the only foreigner there. I couldn’t understand why so few people had opted to venture further into the city, and trekked on to discover more hidden places.

Things continued in this manner for the next several hours. Each attraction I visited was nearly empty, and I felt like I was a lone traveler exploring an uncharted land. And there’s so much cool stuff to see! There are European-style churches scattered around on cobblestone streets, with small Buddhist temples just down the road. There are vibrant, hidden murals in back alleys. There are plazas and hills and fountains and gardens, and long, narrow streets covered in motorcycles and Chinese characters. There’s even an excellent example of Chinese architecture nestled in between the European streets, a large residence called Mandarin House, which at one point was the home of a famous Chinese author. Each of the attractions I saw was completely free, and almost completely empty. Apart from a few stragglers like myself, almost everyone outside of that main area was a local.

At the end of my trip I wanted to get back to the ferry port, and wasn’t sure how. But I was able to soon find a bus stop and asked a girl who was probably around my age if she spoke English. She understood a decent amount, and helped me figure out which bus to use. My language fears had been overstated—globalization has run its course, and even in autonomous provinces of China most young people now speak basic English.

I suppose the draw of the dazzling new casinos in this city has worked so powerfully that most backpackers would overlook Macau as a cool place to visit. As I mentioned, almost all of the other tourists I saw in the main area were Chinese (who, as I observed in Thailand, rarely backpack), and the only Western tourists I saw were tucked away in the area with all the casinos, fairly separate from the more historic district I’d been wandering around in. What seems to be happening in Macau is that Western tourists use it as a place to gamble, whereas Chinese tourists use it as a place to take selfies with a church façade (and also gamble). The rest of the city is open, unexplored, and tourist-ready.

So, in short, if you’re ever in Hong Kong, don’t skip Macau. It’s another interesting little facet of modern China and definitely deserves a look.

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Random Tips:

-Fun fact: Apparently the government of Macau has made hostels illegal. So if you’re not willing to shell out big money to stay at a huge casino, it’s best to head back to Hong Kong for the night. (Historic Macau is essentially a day trip anyways)

– If you’re coming from Hong Kong, don’t bother withdrawing MOP (Macau patacas). Almost every store I visited accepted Hong Kong dollars as well as MOP, and the exchange rate is 1:1. My MOP were basically as useful as Monopoly money.

– It was noticeably colder on Macau than on Hong Kong. Check the weather before you go.

– Your best bet for getting help in English will be asking younger people; older people may only speak Cantonese. The girl who helped me out was friendly and I’ve heard people from Macau in general are friendly towards foreigners because of their multicultural history.

– Bring good walking shoes. Blisters for days…

– But for real, go to Macau, and see everything. It’s a cool place.