It is worthwhile to always know where you are going, and this is especially the case when travelling. I’m not suggesting you do something peculiar like making an itinerary or researching places to stay and see, I’m suggesting that you are aware of what you are letting yourself into. You can look at this from the point of view that you should at least have an inkling of the environment ahead, or have absolutely no comprehension of what to expect. I’m a fan of the latter.
I’ve done a bit of travel in my short amount of years on this earth, most it of it independently, and I think it would be an accurate enough to claim that I’ve never really known what was in front of me. When I first went to Korea in 2005 I had no idea what lay ahead. I glanced through a lonely planet and looked at a few pictures online. I had also heard that Koreans were known for liking a drink, which appealed to the gusto of my age at that time. But that was it, and so I tumbled headfirst into that country and nine years later I’m still tumbling, albeit with a little more composure.
I attach my successful acclimatisation to Korea to this blind dive I took. I think that I had such a lucky streak that I have considered this the best way to approach anything. I travelled down through China and into Laos and then Thailand all overland after my first contract in 2006. I followed this ‘we’ll work it out when we get there’ strategy to the letter, and while I had a great time, Herself back in Korea was none too keen on this randomised approach to independent travel.
In Chiang Mai now, I’m witnessing the second factor in this notion that we should be aware of what we are letting ourselves into. We chose Chiang Mai because we knew it was a big town, with plenty to see and a comfortable enough lifestyle for those who chose to live here. We don’t really have an income, but we’re staying in a small apartment complex with a swimming pool and in decent proximity to much of what we’d like to entertain ourselves with. Did I mention the weather is lovely?
So what of it? Well it’s Thailand, right, so what should you expect? I for one wasn’t one hundred per cent sure, but I’ve lived and travelled in Asia a fair amount since 2009, so I think it would take a good whack of Asia to really knock me off my feet. What we always expect is that Asia will be this different place, full of mysticism, spirtuality, tradition, and I dare say, inspiration.
When I first came to Korea I was definitely without mysticism, spirituality, tradition, and certainly inspiration. I couldn’t say now that I came looking for it either, but I know that I have certainly found them, that’s not to say that I actually care for all of them. Inspiration however has been a major factor in my life since I came to Korea, and it is without doubt one of the most important changes I believe to have experienced since I arrived here.
If you arrive in Asia, you can’t expect to find all these wonderful life changing moments waiting for you as you disembark. For anyone considering a journey east, I beg you to look at the demographics. The populations for many Asian countries dwarf western countries. There are obvious cases like China and India, but even without considering them Japan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia all have well over 100 million inhabitants, the combined population of the two Koreas is larger than that of Germany. While I’m talking about this you’ve got Vietnam and The Phillippines with over 90 million people, and even Thailand has a larger population than France. So what’s my point? When you have this many people living together, what do you expect? If you’re still thinking mysticism, spirituality, and tradition then perhaps you should stay where you are for the time being.
In reality, what you’re supposed to be expecting, in reality is urban squalor, poverty and wealth face to face with each other, pollution, commercialism, greed, violence, and invariably western influences. All of these are mixed in somewhere with all these things you expect, and you can find them, but expect to step over a few open sewers and drunks fighting in the street on your way to get to it.
While of course there is plenty of tradition in modern Asia, what makes it different and more complicated now is that it is not only western countries which are experiencing multicultural challenges. Religions mix in capital cities, rural people welcome city dwellers, developement changes long established patterns of life, and for the visitor familiarity is all to present. You will often here terms such as globalisation bandied about, and I suppose you can argue that this is a good example of it, whatever this is of course, but to accept this concept of globalisation now is to accept that it has always been a factor as long as humans have been living together, just on a smaller scale, it’s just a question of recognising how large your world actually is.
I suppose that is why we came to Chiang Mai for two months. It was of course an escape from the cold (albeit not that cold compared to the few people from Mongolia who are also here) but also to try something we’ve always talked about doing. We came without a plan, other than to be here, and we came to enjoy a time which may be our last opportunity to do so. There is nothing to discover here. There is no search for some kind of beauty or new sense of self. There is just a chance to be part of a greater world.
If we find inspiration here I suppose we are all the better for it. I prefer to look on this situation to see if we actually get more things done. Productivity is its own kind of inspiration and the mind works quicker and stronger when it is busy and active thinking with direction. A holiday or a change of location can help this, but getting stuck into your experiences is nothing but good food for inspiration. My point is, if you come looking to find it you won’t, but if you come just looking then you will probably find something, whether you expect it or not.
In the end, time will cure the ills brought on by your decisions.
Words and photographs © Conor O’Reilly January 2014. All rights reserved.