The bus dropped me off on the side of the street in a small town not that far north of Bangkok. A pick-up truck pulled up and asked if I was, “Nathan.” He grabbed my bag, threw it on the flatbed, and told me to jump on. Strange, given there was nobody sitting in the passenger seat up front.
We hurtled down the highway as I held onto my hat and my seat. It was hard to breathe as the wind pummeled my face, it felt like being punched repeatedly with no way to fight back.
I had come to this part of Thailand to visit Khao Yai National Park. I wanted to see wildlife, get away from the city, and get lost in nature.
I dropped my bags in my new luxurious accommodation. It had old stained green lino floors, a sagging ceiling with a fan in the middle of it. A bed I was sure was made out of concrete and a bathroom that had no hot water. The food, however, deserved a Michelin star.
My fellow travellers and I congregated out the front in the dining area. I looked around, wondering what their stories were. There was a couple sitting at my table speaking a European language that I thought was German. There were two older French couples making a bit of a racket but obviously loving travel life in their retirement. An older tech looking dude who was absorbed by his laptop and phone. There was also a young woman dressed in all black, sitting with perfect posture, glasses, and both ears covered in piercings.
We were segregated into 3 groups. The old, the families with kids, and the younguns. Our group consisted of a couple of couples and the rest were solo travellers. A good mix of European, British, American, and little ole lonely me, from a place called New Zealand.
The first day of the tour was spent as one big happy family. We visited a cave — climbing down into the darkness of the earth, stumbling over rocks we couldn’t see, and banging heads on rocks above. We also visited a bat cave at sunset as they awoke to find their supper for the day, it was like the scene at the end of Batman Begins. It was an amazing sight, surprisingly, they also made an amazing sound.
At the end of the day, we stopped by a swimming hole for a night swim. I was the first to dive in and much to my surprise, the cool fresh water sucked the wind out of my lungs. I swam to the edge of the natural pool where there was a little waterfall. The current would push you against the wall and hold you up so you could float there underneath the trees with the sound of the water crashing behind you.
Everyone else started to join and jump in. They would swim down towards me and say, “Hi.” It was the first time this tour that I didn’t have a camera in my hand. Instead of looking for what to shoot I noticed the people around me. I talked to them and I got to know them just a little bit. I had been too caught up with trying to capture everything and not paying attention to the potential friendships that could be made with my fellow tourers.
It’s all too easy for me to get caught up in trying to capture the things around me, forgetting to take it all in and share the moment with those who are near. It’s something I knew I needed to be better about. I didn’t want to forever be hiding behind a camera. I had decided to do less documenting and more living in the moment.
The next morning, we headed up the windy road into the park. Stopping every now and then for monkeys that had decided sitting in the middle of the road was a good idea. When we made it to the lookout point we all got out to take pictures of the view. Our guide had a telescope with him to spot birds and other wildlife around the park. He had spotted a hornbill sitting high in a tree. We all gathered taking turns to look at it up close.
From there we headed to our hiking spot for the day. Winding through the jungle over fallen trees, crossing small streams and stopping frequently to watch the birds in the air and the critters of the forest floor. It was quiet, nothing but the sound of wind and the birds, as well as the footsteps of the group in front of me.
As usual, I hung at the back of the pack. Feeling shy and insignificant, battling with my own self-doubts and anxieties. I guess in a way this trip was about facing these fears. About breaking the safety barriers I put up that have held me back in many of the relationships in my life. I just didn’t know it yet.
One of the best things about travelling is all the people you meet. The other travellers, the tour guides, the locals. The downside of travelling is that these people come and go so quickly.
When you meet someone new on the road who is also travelling the chances that you’ll have something in common, something to bond over, are higher than if you met someone on the streets in your hometown. It makes these fleeting relationships feel deeper than they probably are. The connections feel like they could easily become lifelong relationships in a day spent with this new person. But then you have to say goodbye.
Our one and a half day tour had come to an end. Our small group dwindled from 8 down to 3 by the time we arrived back at our luxury accommodation. I personally had struggled to find my way back to the social traveller life. I felt like I had failed to properly get to know these great people. It had been a while since I had been surrounded by strangers. I got stuck in my own anxiety loops, thinking I had nothing to offer the conversation, when actually, I was genuinely interested in everyone’s story.
This tour in Khao Yai was one that I know I will always remember fondly. Later in the year, as time will tell, it would hold a lot more weight in my heart. That is a story for another day. This was the first tour of many that I’d take over the year. It was a great introduction to what this year was about. To meet great people, to make memories, to have a blast.
Goodbyes on the road suck. The traveller life is one of fleeting relationships but relationships that go deeper, faster, than what we probably normally would be comfortable with at home. I don’t know what it is about the travel life, but people seem to drop their guard faster and be a lot more vulnerable when you’re away from the safety and familiarity of home.
These chance friendships with people from all over the world are something I would come to love about travelling. As I spent more time on the road, I learned how to be less of an anxious person and enjoy the time with the people I was fortunate to cross paths with.
When I left home I had anticipated that my favourite part of the travel life would be the daily creative pursuits. As it turned out the people I met would become my fondest memories.
As the Maori proverb goes, “He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata” translated, “What is the most important thing in the world? The people, the people, the people.”
Next Week: A Christmas Bite