A familiar patchwork of sky-scrappers and tiered temples whipped past outside the window. It had been a year and two months since I’d last been in Bangkok but the moment I stepped off the plane and into the sterile halls of Suvarnabhumi, I felt like I was home. I glanced down the skytrain corridor at the other red-eyed travellers: Chinese businessmen, baby-faced European backpackers, and the occasional Thai national coming home from vacation. An old man caught my gaze and asked if this was my first time in Bangkok. I shook my head, and gestured with two outstretch palms: Sib. A smile cracked his moon-shaped face and I remembered the paranoia of constantly glancing up at the Airport link map behind his head during my first ride into town, two years ago.
If you’d told me one week earlier that I’d be having Tom Yam soup and Chang by the weekend I wouldn’t have believed you. At the time I was hectically snapping away in my studio in downtown Victoria, preparing the last product shots from Four Horsemen’s FW14 season when I received the e-mail that shook up my life. Since returning from Peru in May, my expeditions had been on the back-burner. I’d begun to explore graduate programs in fields like engineering, medicine, and international relations. I wanted to expand upon my skills as a journalist in a way that allowed me to make tangible contributions to the communities I visited. To simply write about the problems I witnessed no longer felt like enough.
It was in the dying fire of a Vancouver Island summer that I decided to apply to the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Chemical Engineering. It seemed to offer the perfect marriage of degree caliber and global culture—all while allowing me to continue my adventure of living abroad. Weeks after penning an application, I return home from a two-day bike ride to find an acceptance letter for the March 2015 semester in my inbox. Within minutes of looking over the three-year proposed course-plan, my feet began to itch.
The plan was to visit spend October in Madagascar. Despite five years of on-and-off travel, the country’s sheer distance from anywhere I’d visited in the past had always made it the destination that got away. I did some research and discovered that rather than taking the traditional route through France, it would be cheaper to fly from Vancouver to Bangkok and then take Air Madagascar, the Island Nation’s seedy national carrier, direct from there. The allure of dropping in on a few friends in the Kingdom for the weekend sealed the deal. I began to fire off e-mails—was there a weekend that worked best?
Within a few minutes of clicking send, I received a message from my friend Porsche—I have an opportunity that I need help with, Jeff. Can you be here next by week?
That evening I broke it to my colleagues that I hoped to depart for two months, and much sooner than expected. I doubled my studio hours, they bent over backward to accommodate me, and within five days of my initial message I was up in the air, ready to help out one of the people that had introduced me to Thai hospitality, years ago.
When my plane hit the runway in early 2013, I hadn’t expected to make any life-altering friendships. Bangkok was simply the cheapest onward destination from Northern Sumatra—where I’d planned to spend January in search of orangutans. The Indonesian immigration authority required proof of exit; Thailand, with its lax tourism and immigration rules, made sense. One week before my departure, I logged into Couchsurfing and placed a request for local hosts. The following morning I received an invitation from an English camp leader, Porsche, who was treating his teachers to a camping retreat in Khao Yai National Park.
I caught a bus to Pak Chong with the intention of a refreshing weekend on the Khorat Plateau before heading south. Instead, I ended up shooting promotional images for Porsche’s camp the following week, subbing in for lessons on the final day when a teacher fell ill. Over the next two weeks I travelled with Porsche to Chiang Mai, then Pai, staying on his couch in Bangkok between trips. When I first left Canada, in late 2012, my plan was to throw myself at the less-familiar world—to stalk wildlife through virgin forests and to breath in the smoky incense of Buddhist temples. Here I was, hanging out in a two-bedroom apartment with a guy who dressed and acted like me, with the exception of a sharp Chiang Mai accent and a shock of bleached blond hair. Already my goals had come unfixed.
This wasn’t the travel romanticized by Paul Theroux, Pico Iyer, or even Chuck Thompson but it felt like an adventure in its own right. So, when I found out a university friend was working with an NGO next door in Cambodia, I decided my next stop would be to pay her a visit.
Porsche was waiting for me in the lobby of our rented condo. His hair, no longer blond, was held up in an earthy Hmong style wrap.
“You found it!” He snapped up the phone he’d had out on the table.
“As if this is my first time in Thailand!” I pulled him into a squeeze.
At lot had changed for Porsche in the year since I’d left. He’d moved back to Chiang Mai and restructured his business. Where he once ran weekend camps around the country he now preferred two-week intensives in one place. The particular camp I’d come out for was being run under contract for the Thai Lottery – it included two weeks in Bangkok, followed by a weekend at the same resort I’d previously taught at on the Khorat Plateau. I asked about the teachers I’d worked with then. One was running a business in Amsterdam with his twin brother. The other was trying to hack it as an animator. Jamie, the only teacher that had stayed in Thailand, had died of a brain tumor while I was in Peru last May.
Teaching, like travel, is an exercise in improvisation. It engages and exhausts you simultaneously; it takes a certain amount of pacing not to burn out. Although Porsche had never said it explicitly, we both knew the context of his call for help. I was the most experienced substitute he could find on short notice after someone pulled out of his high stakes gig.
“I’m so glad you came, Jeff,” Porsche said as we propped ourselves in plastic chairs beneath a red-and-white umbrellaed food cart.
A steaming plate of rice was placed in front of me, chicken and cucumber feathered along the top. “I’m just sorry it took me so long.”
A few months before I first arrived in South East Asia Norodom Sihanouk, the former King of Cambodia, had passed away at 89. The ceremony was tragic and beautiful but the aftermath politically tense. After weeks of cycling past armed military on her way to work, Sarah had decided it was time to take a break. Instead of Phnom Penh, we met in Luang Prabang where we shared bamboo rice on the banks of the Mekong alongside our ambitions of saving the world. Two weeks later, as we prepared to part ways in the Vientiane airport I received a message from a Swedish girl I’d spent a few days with in North Sumatra. Caro and I met later that evening on Khao San Road. Together we travelled east to Cambodia after all.
One morning in March, I slipped out of our Koh Rong bungalow. I watched a blood-orange sunrise and reflected on how different from my initial plan these past three months had gone. Although I’d grown close to all three of my travel partners, I felt that I needed to at least sample the solo trip I’d set up for myself before I could confidently shift gears with no regrets. I woke Caro for an early breakfast. Between sips of bitter black coffee I told her that I planned to catch the next boat out. My destination: Yangon.
The apartment Porsche arranged for us was a two bedroom overlooking Bangkok’s Sanam Pao district. My flatmate and fellow teacher, Josh, was a 20 year-old from South Africa who had been in Thailand for four months following a stint of volunteering in a Israel. He’d met Porsche while doing his TEFL training in Chiang Mai and since then had begun to work for him on weekends when he wasn’t occupied by his day job in Nakhon Pathon. This was his first time in Bangkok for longer than 24-hours and I took advantage of it to play tour guide and refresh myself with the Big Mango.
Much had changed since I’d caught my final flight out of Suvarnabhumi in 2013. In May 2014 a Coup D’Etat had rocked the country. A six-month political crisis ensued, complete with protests, riots, curfews, and widespread censorship. The shadow of the military take-over still hung heavy over the city. I no longer had to negotiate with taxi drivers and the ebbing of tourism had forced prices down. The effects of a rapidly growing middle class could be felt as well—the craft beer and slow-food dining trends that had been popular around the time I left Canada had exploded in Bangkok and were devouring the city from Thonglor out.
Many of my friends had moved on as well. Jason, a Canadian I’d stayed with one night was now working out of Kuala Lumpur. A mutual friend of ours, Ben, had followed his girlfriend to Paris.
One day, Josh and I were drinking Chiang on our complex’s roof when I shot an image of Bangkok’s iconic skyline and uploaded it to Facebook.
Immediately, I received a message from an old high school classmate: You’re in Bangkok, dude? I live here now. Let’s hang!
In March 2013, Myanmar was still haunted by its hermit past. I flew into Yangon, half expecting my cameras to be snatched up at the airport and spent one week virtually alone—gobbling up Shan noodles and snapping portraits, breaking only to join in on a game of sepak takraw with the topless teenagers that flooded the streets at night. On a bus to Bagan, I met a Hong Kong Chinese tourist and we shared the remainder of our trip, meeting up in the evenings but parting ways in the day. We were both on a similar journey with separate destinations and respected each other’s need to be alone.
The Lunar New Year grew closer as my visa crept toward its expiry date. My next destination would be where I watched the moon begin its cycle—symbolically it represented my chance to start anew. That night, inspiration leapt out at me from the water-stained pages of Salman Rushdi’s The Satanic Verses: the sub-continent! A conversation I’d had in Koh Rong about the one-horned rhinoceros of Chitwan National Park echoed the desires that had first brought me to Sumatra. And so, I decided to begin this chapter of my trip in Kathmandu, Nepal.
In the medieval-meets-spiritual labyrinth of Freak Stream I met a local Couchsurfer for momos. He invited me back to his parent’s building in Patan where he housed travellers in the rooms that weren’t being rented out.
That night, while watching the moon grow fat from the unfinished rooftop, I introduced myself to a backpacker and anthropology student from Peru.
I asked her why she’d come to Kathmandu of all places and she said she had found the city’s name scribbled on a napkin in a New York bar. Her friend had just overdosed on Heroin and she needed to get out.
I told her, I’d come here to see the wildlife. It was the orangutans of Northern Sumatra that first led me to Asia and my obsession with Africa, courtesy of the Lion King, had fuelled my addiction to travel long ago.
“Why do you travel?” I asked.
“I’m study anthropology, what do you think?” Nicola smiled. “I travel for the people.”
If my 2013 was a year defined by exploration; the theme of 2014 so far was reconnection. Exactly one year after meeting Nicola in Nepal, I received my Passion Passport grant to shoot portraits in Peru. We found ourselves beneath another moon, this time on the beaches of northern Piura. Now here I was, four months later, sitting on the lawns of Lumpini Park across from one of my oldest friends in Bangkok. All of this, simply because over the past four years I’d developed the habit of saying yes.
Sometimes I’m asked if I find it tough to grow so close to strangers. My best friends back home are some of my oldest—I’ve known one of them since I was five. I’ve often wondered about this shift in perspective myself. I used to chalk it up to the reality of the road: when you fill your life with so many variables—new languages, new currencies, new beds every night—you’re bound to latch on to the few things that feel consistent. If our paths cross more than once, you’re stuck.
Lately, however, I’m wondering if the answer is much simpler than that. We encounter dozens of compatible people every day but in ordinary life routine gets in the way. The possibility for connection had always out there, I just needed to make the time to dedicate to those I felt deserved a place in my life.
I spent my final weekend in Thailand on the beaches of Pattaya with Porsche and Josh. The day before I was due in Madagascar they dropped me off at the bus stop and four hours and a half-dozen skewers of spicy squid later I was back in Bangkok with a few hours to kill.
I picked up a free tourist map at the station, hoping to find something nearby to photograph. Wat Arun, Wat Saket, The Grand Palace—I chuckled out loud. I’d been here how many times without visiting any of them?
I made a note to myself to write Nicola that evening from the plane. I guess I travelled for people as well after all.
Let's start off by saying, I'm very sorry about falling so behind. If you're interested in filling in the blanks between Peru and Thailand (and anxious to peek ahead) you should check out my Instagram.
As for my trip to Madagascar, I'll be posting about that on here soon. But if you're totally impatient I've written about it already for Passion Passport and Spirited Pursuit.
I'm not the only one who's tried to hack it in BKK. Here's a new friend, Natalie, who I met during my most recent trip (which means I'll probably blog about her two years later!) She's done a far better job than I, albeit there's been a lot more blood involved as well. This is her blog.