When I was eighteen years old I decided on a whim one night to drive across the USA in a used Mazda MPV minivan I just bought. I could find only one friend crazy enough to join me. We had no map. No hotel reservations. We didn’t even have an exact destination. All I knew was we had to get from New Jersey to Florida. And if I stayed on Highway 95 long enough we’d eventually get there. Sixteen hours later we did. And we settled on a cheap motel in Orlando about fifteen minutes from the main strip.
The trip turned out to be one of the most memorable I’ve ever had. Save for the motel’s lone born-again converting us to Christianity, we did almost everything expected of two teenagers on a road trip.
Every year thereafter I took similar trips without plan: a New Year’s trip to Montreal, a midnight ice-fishing trip in a blizzard to New York State, and there was the time my friend and I bought a used canoe from a Pennsylvanian man out of his driveway and took it down the Delaware River after a rainstorm.
There is something to be said about the unplanned journey. Spontaneous trips give us a chance to experience life as it happens, not as we plan it to happen. The act of fleeing the comfortable for the uncomfortable is romantic.
My annual trips to Thailand were no different. For all but one out of the seven times I came here, I never made a single plan aside from buying a plane ticket. From the minute I got to Suvarnabhumi Airport I let each trip unfold without plan or preparation.
Leaving the airport, I’d look out from the inside of the taxi wondering what this trip would bring. What new people would I meet? What new places would I see? What new experiences would I have? All these questions and more would swirl through my mind as the golden spires pierced the horizon of Bangkok.
Every year I’d arrive unannounced at the Green Hotel, a run down hotel in the government district of the city. I never worried about vacancy. The hotel wasn’t much for tourists or even Thais to stay at long term. The only time I ever saw it fully booked was when the Red Shirts occupied the area in 2010. Either Thais who partied too hard to make it home or the old suit and tie looking for a place to spend a few hours with his young kik filled the hotel otherwise.
Aside from the sign outside hanging off some crude iron brackets, there was nothing green about the Green Hotel. Every room I ever stayed in was blue. Blue walls. Blue floor tiles. Blue ceilings. Dark blue. Depressing blue. But for what I considered my yearly sojourn it always sufficed. It was home for me in Thailand. I didn’t mind the rundown mattress or the misfits. It had hot water and air conditioning. And the location was perfect for me.
Sangmorakot Gym was just a few blocks away. The gym was my reason for coming to Thailand every year. And it made the Green Hotel look like a 5-star resort. Young fighters slept in the ring, under the ring, under the stairs, in a room with only 3 walls. The older fighters slept in a room above the gym.
The average person thought I was crazy to use all my vacation time in such drab conditions. But I loved it. Because every time I left I appreciated life a little bit more. When you see a young boy sleeping under a boxing ring and wake up everyday with a smile on his face, it’s difficult to return home to a house and BMW and a six-figure salary and complain about life.
Each trip was a journey. Each day an adventure. Each hour an experience. And each minute, whether filled with fun or broke with boredom, was an instance free from the constraints of life in America. Late into the nights I’d romanticize over the idea of living abroad.
But traveling and living in Thailand are two different experiences. If you told me this before 2014 I wouldn’t have understood it. But three years deep into my life in Thailand and I now understand. Living in Thailand isn’t bad. It’s just different.
I have no interest in staying at places like the Green Hotel anymore, the rundown guidepost that signified the start of each of my trips. And the muay thai gym. I now see it as the insufficient answer to the poverty that plagues Thailand. What I once saw as a place to learn something new about myself, I now see as the place where boys struggle on their own journeys, most of whom won’t escape the cycle of despair.
Life in Thailand doesn’t feel like a journey anymore. I have a family to worry about. I have daughters to raise. Bills to pay. Each day is a grind. The mundane day-to-day life is hardly the sojourn I once experienced.
And I miss the coming and going, the act of traveling with no plans and nothing to do. I miss the spontaneity that brought me closer to living in the moment. Because now I know all too well who I’ll see. What I’ll do. And what will happen next.
Featured image is by Mike Behnken (CC BY-ND 2.0 licence)