Following the Plan through Southeast Asia, Part 1

Cambodian Temple

This is a 2014 interview with a man who went to Southeast Asia looking for something. In this first part he’s on the road in India, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. In the second part he returns to the Philippines. Thanks to Joe for the photos.

Joe’s Story

T Cambodian Temple

In 2001 I was living in an apartment in Amsterdam when friends told me about their traveling experiences, meditating in ashrams in India and wats in Thailand. At that point in my life I was earning good money as a contractor, I had a nice car, and my house in the UK was rented out. But I had a deep sense of wanting to get in touch with myself. Apart from a few typical package holidays in Europe and a three-week trip to Thailand, I hadn’t done any travel abroad. I was thinking about Southeast Asia.

I said, “I can’t travel because I have a contract and a job and a house.”

They said, “You can if you really want to, although it will take a bit of organizing.”

I started making preparations so I could put my important stuff in storage, sell my car, finish my contracts and go. Then my mum had a minor heart attack, so the trip was delayed for a year. When I set off I was in good shape, and I’d been gym training regularly. I’d been told to take as little as possible because I’d have to carry it. So in March 2002 I’d got my life down to one 35-liter backpack with an extra eight-liter pocket. I had a round-the-world ticket, a package deal with Virgin Airlines, Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines—all really good airlines—so I could take as many flights as I wanted as long as I kept moving east and got back to my point of origin within a year.

My first flight was from Manchester to India. From there I was going to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Los Angeles and back to the UK. The first night I took a train from London to Manchester, and I kept thinking, “This is it.”

The first two nights in India I was using the privilege card points I’d saved up from a hotel chain —so two nights in the Holiday Inn, a five-star hotel, in a resort area near the beach, where there were six and even seven-star hotels. From the airport in Mumbai to the hotel I saw people sleeping in the middle of the road and cows wandering around on the highway. I’d never seen anything like it, either the abject poverty or the luxurious, six and seven-star hotels.

The plan was to get over the jet lag and then go backpacking. Since I’d earned good money over the years, my idea was to keep a credit card in my back pocket so if it got too rough I could check into a nice hotel. But I did plan to hang out with backpackers and do what they were doing. I loved India, particularly not knowing what was around the corner. It was one surprise after another; people were always smiling and had a sense of playfulness about them, although things were not always good. After six weeks, I realized that my 35-liter backpack wasn’t big enough, so I asked my sister to DHL me my 70-liter backpack. I sent the little one back, even though I felt I was cheating a bit.

After Mumbai the next stop was Goa, where I knew there were ashrams, but also parties. I found all these western, modern-day hippies who were doing all the drugs that were available and having hill-top, full-moon parties. During my first week I washed the pair of really expensive trekking shoes I’d bought in Holland and put them outside my cottage to dry. I was so green that the next day I couldn’t understand why they were gone. I started to learn some valuable lessons.

I traveled all through Goa, down to Kerela, where I made friends with a local guy who owned a hotel and was planning to study in Europe. Then I came down with amebiasis—a parasite like dysentery, which I must have gotten from something in the water or in the food. In the space of two weeks I lost about ten kilos (twenty-two pounds). In photos I looked skinny. I was not eating properly, drinking a lot of alcohol and partying. I read the books I’d brought on the Dali Lama and all sorts of things that I thought were spiritual. Although I didn’t actually get into anything spiritual, I did spend quite a lot of the time out of my head, partying and waking up on beaches.

Then I flew to Thailand and met up with a contracting friend who was there for the 2002 World Cup. I put the backpacking on hold for two weeks, checked into a nice hotel and went out to clubs with my friend and pretended to watch some football. I got into all sorts of scrapes.

I got robbed one night. Actually, there was a real good Samaritan, an Australian guy who’d seen it all happening and who waited for the police to come and went with me to the station. He spoke Thai because he’d lived there a long time and had a Thai wife. He was translating. It didn’t help that I’d had quite a few drinks that night and didn’t really know what was going on. I was a bit wound up, but he told me to stay cool and calm. In the police station the police officer invited a camera crew to film me and the culprits who’d robbed me. I had cameras waved in my face, and I think the results were transmitted live on television. The police took one of the perpetrators into a back room and beat the crap out of him.

In Vietnam I met Louis, a really cool French guy and traveled for a while with him. We went to Cambodia together. I then left Louis and went on to Laos alone. In Laos I was backpacking, and for 50 cents a night I was staying in tiny, dimly-lit nipper huts on the side of the Mekong River. I went off on two three-or-four day treks up into the hills. On the first trek there were four of us: the local guide, a Uruguayan guy, a girl from Israel, and myself. After two days we came to a hill village where we saw a lad running around playing with his friends, but limping and wearing a really dirty, triangular neckerchief tied around his ankle. When we took it off we saw a huge gash which had obviously gone septic. Kio, his name was. I squeezed his toes, and he couldn’t feel anything. We concluded that if he didn’t get treatment for it soon, antibiotics or something, it was probably going to become gangrenous and maybe he would lose his foot or even worse. We asked the guide if we could take this lad back down to maybe the nearest field hospital, which he told us was about a day’s walking. The lad didn’t want to go, he said he was fine, but you could see he wasn’t. In the end he agreed. His parents let us take him, but they couldn’t come because they had to go harvest rice the next day. It took us about a day to get down to the valley, where there was a field hospital, which was staffed two or three days a week. They did have antibiotics. The three of us came up with about $20 to get this kid what he needed. Straightaway the nurse hooked up an IV. It felt like we’d done something worthwhile. The guide said the people in the village we talking about what we did. We stayed there for three days. Some of Kio’s cousins came down to fetch him, and last we knew he was making a good recovery. I kept his contact details. He’d be in his mid-20s now and probably has a family. It would be nice to go back one day and see him.

On the second hill trek, I was with the same Uruguayan guy and a different local guide who kept saying, “Yeah, this way, this way.” We were convinced he didn’t have a clue where we were. We walked for hours and hours through the jungle, and there were leeches attaching themselves to us. Seriously, we thought we were going to be lost in the jungle in Laos. The guide was showing us animal crap on the ground and telling us that it was tiger poop, that a tiger had passed through not long before! It felt like a real adventure. We stayed with locals in hill tribe villages and sampled the local Lao-Lao, which is rice whiskey.

When I went back to Thailand, I got the name of a wat that I was going to visit to practice Buddhist meditation, but I never quite got there. I thought I’d gone in search of myself, but I was really just running away from myself.

In October, my sister’s fortieth birthday was coming up, so I thought I’d just get a quick return flight back to the UK and surprise her! It just seemed like a good idea at the time. Without telling anyone in my family, I booked a return [round-trip] ticket from Bangkok to Holland, had a couple of days with my friends, caught up with some other stuff, took the boat to England and got a taxi from the ferry. I was two minutes from my mom and dad’s place when a car crashed into the back of the taxi and gave me a little whiplash. I got out, put my backpack on and went marching up the road and round the corner and just rang the doorbell. My mom nearly had another heart attack to see me standing at the door!

“What are you doing back? You’re not meant to be back until March!”

“Well, I just thought I’d come back for Sophie’s birthday. But you can’t tell her, it’s a surprise!”

A few days later I went down to the pub where Sophie was celebrating with her friends. She was absolutely gob-smacked.

Back in Thailand, I was emailing with Louis (the French guy I had traveled within Cambodia and Vietnam), about my next stop, which was Indonesia. The first of the Bali bombs had gone off in Kuta, where all those tourists got blown up in a restaurant. I’d missed it by two weeks. I’d been planning on going to Kuta, so the news of the bombing was like an advisory not to go to Indonesia.

Louis said, “Well, maybe you should try the Philippines instead.”

“Really, why the Philippines?”

“It’s a really good place, like Indonesia but easier because they all speak English, and the girls are pretty, and everything’s cheap there as well.”

“Okay, why not? Something different, give it a go.”

So I arrived in the Philippines in November 2002, a week after my thirty-sixth birthday. I landed at NAIA Airport in Manila with my faithful Lonely Planet Guide in hand. I’d read everything it said about getting ripped off by taxi drivers and decided that wasn’t going to happen to me. I walked out of the airport, got in a jeepney, a conveyance of a type I’d never even seen before [inexpensive public transportation originally made from US military jeeps]. I rode to an LRT [Light Rail Transit] station—to this day I don’t know where it was. I’d never in my life seen so many people queuing up a stairwell, and there I am with my 70-liter backpack. I got to the security desk where they were checking bags and giving passengers the mandatory pat-down. They wanted to look inside my backpack. I argued that there was no way I could start taking it apart with my whole life inside and all these people around. I was sweating and tired and had probably had a heavy night in Bangkok the night before I left. In the end I allowed them to poke around in the outer pockets with their wooden stick. Then I got the LRT to probably Taft and walked from Taft to Ermita.

Laos, Mekong River

I thought, “What on earth is this place?” Guards were standing in every doorway, with pump-action shotguns. Nowadays Ermita and Malate are okay compared to twelve years ago when there wasn’t as much development. It was pretty grungy. I was walking up Mabini Street, looking for a place to stay. All of a sudden a head popped out of a window and said with an English accent, “Where you off to, mate?”

“Looking for somewhere to stay.”

“Aw, right.” He told me where to have a try.

I said I’d come back and have a drink with him later that night. So I did. He was peeling potatoes, chopping up chips up and doing the short-order food in a dingy bar in Malate. While I was there I met a “guest relations officer,” a girl who worked there. I got on quite well with her. I persuaded her to come on a trip with me. We spent Christmas and New Year’s in the Philippines, basically two months of partying. Then I realized that, shit, I’d only got two and a half months left to fit in Australia, new Zealand, Fiji and LA. The new plan I came up with was to spend maybe six weeks in Australia, six weeks in New Zealand, skip Fiji altogether and just get a transit through LA. I’d fallen for this girl even though we hadn’t met in the best of places. I was determined to make it work.

I said, “I have to go to Australia and new Zealand and finish my trip because I can only go one way. But I will be back, probably by April or May. So wait for me.”

Lao Hill Village
Lao Temple

In Australia I hired a camper van and drove all the way up to the coast to Byron Bay and Airlie Beach and did some scuba diving, because I’d taken two diving courses in the Philippines. But after the Philippines I found Australia a bit boring. You drive for hours, and hours and nothing changes. New Zealand I liked. It was so much more compact. I did all the really crazy, high-adrenaline stuff. Sky diving. Bungee jumping at what was then the world’s highest bungee jump.

On a bus tour they said, “Whoever wants to do the bungee jump, you need to let us know now because it’s got to be booked in advance.” So I signed up for it, then spent the next week not sleeping or having bad dreams and cold sweats. Actually, I don’t like heights. But if I get an idea in my head and then I start to question whether or not I can go through with it, then I’m screwed because I’ve already entered into a contract with myself. I can’t have the feeling that I’m afraid of something.

It was like 143 meters over a gorge, like the Road Runner cartoon where Wily E. Coyote goes over a cliff and he’s falling and getting smaller and smaller, and then there’s a crack where he hits the bottom. It was like looking down one of these gorges, sheer rock on either side and a little streak at the bottom. A massive gondola was suspended on a cable across the gorge. To get to it you had to cross on a little cable car. The gondola had a glass floor so you could see the bottom of the gorge. Between the time you stepped off it into space to when the cord started to stretch was nine seconds of free-falling. It was horrifying. But I did it. I was really ecstatic at having overcome my fear.

A reader writes:

Loved it.

Another reader writes:

What a horror show he was at the time! I assume things get much better for him in part II.

A reader writes:

This blog is such an education – Paul Theroux, travel author, hasn’t got anything on you.

A reader writes:

Read it. You always make the story interesting, while keeping it true to the person’s narrative.