We were the only two foreigners at the Chiang Rai bus station, having arrived on different public buses. The station was small, just a few buses in the open-air parking lot, a few stands selling food, the buses moving in an out. His backpack was light and fluffy, not the hefty, busting-at-its-seams pack that most backpackers carried, and he had a blank look on his face, and, most surprisingly, didn’t seem to be in any rush. I was just behind him when we were accosted by a hawker.
“You need rooms? I take you, for free,” said the middle-aged Thai man with thick, black hair, as he handed us a brochure, then stepped away. Unlike the hawkers I’d encountered in Chiang Mai or Bangkok, he wasn’t overly aggressive, and didn’t seem desperate.
I moved forward, now standing right next to the brown-haired backpacker. He was a few inches taller than I, wearing a plain red shirt and khakis, both of which were clean and fit him well. Through his glasses, I watched him look closely at the brochure.
“Right by river, good location. Come see, I take you, you only see, if good, you stay.” he said. He pointed at a drab, uncolored tuk-tuk waiting behind him.
“What do you think?” I asked him. My backpacker instinct told me that I should seek out other options, but the city center was a decent distance away, and I didn’t particularly feel like walking.
“Sure,” he replied. “Let’s see it.”
Together we got into the tuk-tuk, which, after a few minutes, rumbled on its way. Chiang Rai, from here, seemed unremarkable. The buildings concrete, the roads dusty, nothing distinct about it at all. The sky was gray, and there were a few trees on each side of the road. Soon we entered a parking lot.
The guesthouse looked like an American motel, a two-story, long building perpendicular to the main road, doors evenly spaced apart from each other, and a parking lot in front. You couldn’t see the river from here, obscured by trees, and their were few other buildings along the main road, but from the map in the brochure, it was smack dab in the center.
“I’m Nithin, by the way,” I said, reaching my hand out to the stranger.
“I’m Jan,” he said. We shook hands.
He was from Belgium. He was traveling alone, with no destination in mind, and he was nothing like the backpackers I’d met in Thailand so far.
“Come,” said the proprietor. A kid ran out of the building and led me to a room. It was very nice, clean, modern, with a ceiling fan and a comfortable bed.
“How much?” I asked.
“100 baht,” said the boy. Less than three dollars. It was the cheapest and nicest room I’d found in Thailand. There was no reason for me to say no.
After resting, I went to Jan’s room a few doors down.
“Hey, do you want to get dinner?” I asked.
“Sure, I am hungry,” he said.
Jan walked slowly, looking at each store, the street, with a calm patience that forced me to also see where I was. The quiet street, the potholed sidewalk, the small, quaint shops. I had been so eagerly trying to fit in, I hadn’t taken any time to actually observe Thailand.
We choose a nice restaurant with bamboo walls and small tables.
“I’m traveling for myself,” he said, “that’s why I’m alone.” He’d been in Southeast Asia for months, but he didn’t regale me with stories of his adventures, like most backpackers, trying to gain an upper hand as having the best experience. He didn’t need to, because he was truly traveling for himself.
“And you,” he asked, “why are you traveling?”
“I always hoped,” I said, stumbling, “that traveling could help me find my path.” My normal answer, “Why not?” suddenly didn’t work anymore. It was never the real reason anyway.
“And has it?”
Had it. I paused for a few seconds, thinking.
“In Nepal, I really felt connected. But here, in Thailand, it’s hard. So many backpackers, all drinking, partying.”
“I don’t talk with them,” he said. “Do as the locals do. I also don’t drink.” Not drinking. I envied him.
“I will try,” I said.
“Then, why did you come to Thailand?” he asked. Sitting across from me, Jan’s eyes pierced right through me and my facade. I felt disingenuous, trying too hard to be friendly, to be inquisitive, instead of just listening. His eyes were full of wisdom.
I thought deeply. To Andrew, the travel books I’d read in DC, movies like the Beach, Thailand had been a fantasy for me. That’s why I’d gone to Khao San Road, my own impressions, ideas, expectations about Thailand were proving impossible to meet. I was waiting for someone else to show me my dreams. Why couldn’t I be more like Jan, who was merely observing, and appreciating each experience for what it was.
“I really don’t know,” I said, “I think I need to reassess why I’m here.”
“Shall we walk,” he said after we finished the meal. I let Jan choose our path, a meandering view of Chiang Rai. For a while he was quiet, then he spoke.
“If you listen and see at the same time, you can focus on where you are.”
“Meditation?” I asked.
“No, I don’t need meditation. That is enough for me.”
I watched Jan’s eyes as we walked. At each stall, he paused, absorbing the gifts or souvenirs on display, before moving on. He did seem to be truly observing, without filtering, and seeing things that I wasn’t.
He turned to me. “You should just go to a random street and play with the children. Then you will see the real Thailand.”
“You do that?”
“Yes,” he said, walking straight, “I just go into a neighborhood, down an alley, and talk to people.”
“Do they speak English?” I asked.
“Language isn’t necessary for communication,” he said.
I thought of my last evening in Kathmandu, back in Happy House, in the storage room downstairs. I’d left several of my things, such as my writings and my souvenirs, there instead of bringing them to Dhulikhel, and I was packing them into my backpack, getting ready to fly to Thailand the next day.
“Hello,” I heard small voice behind me.
I turned around. There, standing in the doorway, was one of the kids of Happy House, a light-skinned, small child in his pajamas. I remembered him from the day they all arrived, he was the one who was often too shy to come out of his room, scared around us volunteers.
“Come, come,” he said, his face lighting up. I was the only volunteer there, even Naresh was gone, so the entire floor was quiet.
How could I say no? I was only half done, but my things, they would be fine.
We quietly crossed the hallway, nearly tiptoeing, as if the boy didn’t want anyone else to hear us. In the room were four bunk beds, and on each of them, a small, elementary school-aged boy in his pajamas.
“Hello, hello!” they all said to me in loud whispers. For the next half-hour I let go of the last of my fears and played with the boys. We took photos with my camera, talked about our families—the smallest boy telling me his baby cousin was so small, she could fit in his tiny lap—and laughed.
The shyest boy, the one who had invited me in, was so engaged, and I saw a piece of myself in him. When I was young, I too was scared of strangers; perhaps he had sensed that I understood his fears with that innate, child’s ability to read a person in ways that adults cannot.
It wasn’t parties I wanted, it was moments like that, where I felt connected to the people, to the world. Everything I had learned during this trip, from the lonely beginning in Italy, the unfulfilled desires of Spain, to the trials and joys of Eastern Europe, it was all coming together. Why was I pretending to be someone I wasn’t, to fit in with the backpackers at Spicy Thai, or in Bangkok? Pretending I was in Thailand just to meet girls, drinking more than I wanted to in order to have fun? It was time to be more honest with myself, to experience the world my own way, without judging or following others. Like Jan was doing. All I needed was the confidence to trust myself.
After dinner, Jan, seeking time for himself, went back to the guesthouse while I decided to walk around, explore, and think. As the sun set, I went to the Chiang Rai night market in the center of the town.
The night market was in a dark, enclosed area, with stalls selling Thai fast food and some arts and crafts. There were few foreigners here, giving the place a more relaxed feel. No one was hawking goods or selling me jungle treks. The food was cheap and good. I could observe from a distance, comfortably, as I had back in Turkey. In the center was a small stage with rotating cultural acts. Dances, skits, I sat with my satay, incredibly comfortable.
I watched the show, and instead of letting my mind wander, I focused on watching the dance and listening to the sounds around me. Jan was right.