“Everything will be alright in the end, if things are not alright then it is not yet the end” – John Lennon
This is a quote that I believe to be true in life and especially when backpacking throughout many parts of the world. Your travel plans will go out the window, you will run late, your bus will break down, your luggage will go missing, you will get your wallet, money & clothes stolen while skinny dipping at night in Laos.
Things will go wrong again and again yet in the end you will arrive at your destination, you’ll take a tuk tuk instead of a bus, you’ll get new luggage or you will be left with just enough clothes so you’re not completely naked when you arrive back at your hostel.
You will be frustrated, annoyed, angry and even upset while it happens, yet in the end you will be left with one of your favourite travel stories to tell for years to come.
I have had many disastrous yet amusing stories while travelling where everything worked out in the end, a few can be found at the end of this article but I wanted to tell one experience I had that is not horrible or hilarious but typical of traveling around South East Asia.
I asked the lady at the bus stop whether the bus went to “Ang Thong” the town I was trying to get to, she nodded her head and said “Chai” (Yes), I did this twice more to make sure she understood and twice more she confirmed this was the right bus.
I asked three times as it’s an unwritten part of culture in many parts of Asia that it’s impolite to say “no” or “I don’t know”, it’s better to give the wrong answer trying to be helpful then not try to be helpful so I wanted to make sure I was understood correctly.
I got on the bus and as the bus is moving the lady comes along the bus to collect money for tickets, she asks me where I am going and I tell her “Ang Thong”, she looks at me in shock and says in Thai “Mai Chai Ang Thong, Mai Dai” which roughly translates to “No, you can’t go to Ang Thong, you are on the wrong bus, this bus doesn’t go to Ang Thong at all, in fact, it doesn’t go anywhere near where you want to go”. Thai people summarises sentences very well.
It’s very rude to lose your temper or show anger in Thailand so I try with my calmest face and broken Thai and English to say “really? but we had this conversation, I asked you three times and you said yes”, this comes out as something like “pom pud khun Ang Thong Mai, khun pud Chai” or “I speak you Ang Thong no?, you speak yes”.
I was so angry and trying not to show it so I figured I would just get off the bus, walk back to the bus stop and get the right bus but she wouldn’t let me off the bus. She blocked my exit saying “Mai Chai, Mai Dai” or “no, you can’t”, I offered her money and said I’d get off by using hand signals yet still she refused to let me off.
I was now being held hostage on a bus in Thailand and I didn’t know where it was going or why they wouldn’t let me off. The ticket collector speaks to someone on the bus and a middle aged lady asks me in English “where you want to go?” I reply “Ang Thong” to which she tells me as though I didn’t realise it already “no, this bus not go to Ang Thong, this is wrong bus”. That is the extent of her English ability and I have used up the best of my Thai, so I return to standing in the middle of the bus to nowhere as a hostage.
Another person on the bus hands me their phone and I assume they are given it to me to make a phone call, obviously now they want me to call to ask for my ransom to be released from the bus I assume. I refuse and show them my phone, then they come closer and put the phone to my ear and I hear a young woman say “hello, where are you going?”, again I reply “Ang Thong” and to suprise I am told “you are on the wrong bus, the bus doesn’t go to Ang Thong”, I quickly reply “I know, please tell them to let me off the bus and I will walk”. I hand the phone back to the person, who listens, then speaks and hands it back to me “No, it’s too dark and too far, it’s too dangerous for you to walk, there is an old lady on the bus, go with her”.
I plead to be let off the bus, telling them I will walk and it will be fine, I am told repeatedly how dangerous it is, it’s dark, I will get lost, go with the old lady. I give the phone back and the old lady stands up and waves for me to follow her, we get off the bus at the side of the road in the dark and I follow her down a small dark unpaved road to a tiny house. She opens the door and I am a confronted with a very fat Thai man wearing only a towel around his legs as though he just got out of the shower, the room is tiny and half of the room is a table of hundreds of small Buddha statues, the other half is occupied by the large half naked Thai man who offers me some water & food.
I hardly speak Thai and they don’t speak any English yet I think we are both thinking this is awkward in both our languages. I stand there in silence half looking at the Buddha statues, half making sure the fat naked man doesn’t get too close to me. I don’t know how long I am there for, each second seems like an hour, finally the lady gestures me outside and there is a young man on a scooter, he gestures with his arm for me to get on and asks “bai nai” or “where to?” I say for the hundredth time that journey “Ang Thong”, obviously this doesn’t help much as it’s an entire town and not a location, I remember the Thai word for school and say “Satri Ang Thong” as my apartment is near the school, he nods and away we go.
He drops me right outside the school near my apartment and when I go to offer him money he refuses, I offer again and he again refuses, I thank him in Thai and he drives off. It then dawns on me that this entire time everyone on the bus had been worried about me and wanted to make sure I got home safely. I was a foreigner who didn’t speak the language and yet strangers had treated me like family not for any reward or money but just because it was the right thing to do. I wondered how they would be treated if they were in that same situation in Australia or an English speaking country, that situation may have been very different in another country for me or anyone else.
I felt more at home in Thailand than I did in Australia, strangers treated me like a friend, a relative or at least a distant cousin they didn’t have a lot in common with but still cared about me and wanted me to be alright.
In Australia and the western world we focus on the differences and find ways to exclude people or treat them badly, different skin colour, different religion, they don’t speak the language, don’t wear the same clothes, don’t like the same music or sports team, we separate everyone into sub-groups and subcultures, find reasons to hate them and have problems with drunkenness, violence and crime.
I arrived home safely and everything was alright in the end, travel is often difficult but the experiences that go wrong or you hate at the time will be the ones that open your eyes, change you for the better or at the very least you will remember them and have a laugh as you retell them to your friends.