Backpacking at 16

In April 2009 I went backpacking across Thailand with my Mum and my 13 year old brother. This is what I remember.

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“Sawadee ka!” Mum says as she takes her 100 baht of change and places it safely in her backpack. I look over my shoulder as we walk out of the shop to see the two girls behind the counter giggling and pointing in our direction. Mum’s just said the Thai words for hello instead of thank you for the second time that day.

“Muuuuum you did it again!”

Andrew’s 13. He’s at that age where your mother and sister are the most embarrassing people in the world and there’s nothing worse than being stuck with them for 14 days in another country.

Mum’s totally oblivious to my brother’s complaint. She’s too busy looking at the map near the shop entrance and working out which waterfall we should go to first. We’re at Erawan National Park, an hour long bus ride out of Kanchanaburi. Seven levels of natural waterfalls stretch above us and there are locals everywhere. It’s the last day of Songkran, Thailand’s New Year celebration and families have taken advantage of the three-day public holiday and headed out of the muggy city.

***

Kanchanaburi is a two hour drive west of Bangkok, where a state of emergency was declared as our plane landed, two days ago. Tens of thousands of ­anti-government red shirt demonstrators took to the streets to protest as celebrations for Songkran began. As we got our stuff together to get off the plane, Mum explained the political conflict between the red and yellow shirts, and the growing civil unrest she’d read about in the days leading up to our flight.

During the taxi drive from the airport to our hostel, all we saw of the conflict was a line of armed troops blocking the entrance to Bangkok’s main tourist strip – Khao San Road. The next morning when we went out exploring, Mum asked a soldier for directions. He warned her there were violent protests outside a government building around the next corner. We took a taxi straight to Kanchanaburi that afternoon.

When we called home our family were beside themselves. On the news they’d been told of gunfire, Molotov cocktails and buses being set alight. Meanwhile we had seen nothing but the heavy soldier presence.

Despite everyone’s worry we were fine. Mum’s a savvy traveller. She knew what she was doing when she decided to take us backpacking in Asia before we were old enough to do it ourselves.

When I asked her what made her decide to do it she said, “I wanted my kids to grow up with an understanding and empathy for other cultures”.

And I’m so glad she did. It was the trip every teenager should have.

“I wanted my kids to grow up with an understanding and empathy for other cultures”

***

“I’ve got a camera!” Mum calls out, clutching it to the top of her head and laughing at us as we get drenched with buckets of water and our faces painted with chalky white paste.

We are back in Kanchanaburi for the afternoon, and Songkran is in full swing. Music booms out of speakers on the back of pickup trucks, filled to the brim with people and huge plastic barrels of water. Kids wielding water pistols giggle as they blast ice cold water in our direction. Motorbikes race past with three or four people on them, their drivers attempting to dodge the water that’s flying from all directions. The Thai woman next to me has a huge grin on her face as she hands me a bucket of water and points toward the nearest barrel, urging me to join in the fun. The water throwing is symbolic of cleansing all the misfortunes of the past year and welcoming in the New Year with a fresh start.

It’s one giant water fight.

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***

After Kanchanaburi we lugged our 15 kilo backpacks to the country’s ancient capital Sukhothai, where we cycled 70 square kilometres of 13th century ruins, then on to Chiang Mai in the mountainous far north.

We only joined two organised bus tours in the whole trip – day trips were necessary to fit everything in. Mum was petrified our mini bus driving out of Chiang Mai was going to fall off the edge of the cliff as we wound higher into the mountains to visit the elephants (Mum’s lifelong dream), trek to a hill tribe village and go rafting – with a 10 year old guide.

Chiang Mai was our favourite. Mum and I spent every evening wandering the vibrant night markets in search of bargains to take home. Andrew opted for Thai soapies without subtitles back at the guesthouse.

The last part of the trip was two sunny days relaxing on the beach in Ko Samet. To get to Ko Samet we got a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled, spluttering motorised vehicle that is open at the back and sides, and definitely the cutest form of public transport in Thailand) to the airport, a dodgy $50 plane flight to Bangkok, another tuk-tuk to the skyrail, which we caught across the city to meet the bus that took us to coastal Ban Phe.

In Ban Phe we boarded a rickety boat. Its engine sounded like it just made it across the deep blue expanse of water to Ko Samet, the same island Mum had visited on her trip through Asia in 1986.

***

“Seven forms of public transport in one day Mum. Can you believe it?” I ask.

I certainly can’t, I think to myself as I jump onto the back of the seventh – a pickup truck that does laps up and down the length of the island each day, stopping at the guesthouses dotted along the perimeter of the sandy white beaches.

“So we’re going to get off at the second one, then if it’s full we’ll keep walking and try the one around the other side of the next headland. It’s a bit more expensive,” Mum tells us, pointing to the accommodation list in her Lonely Planet guide. I wipe sweat off my forehead and search for my water bottle in my backpack. After two weeks in Asia, I’m still not used to the incredible humidity.

The sun starts to set and we finally find somewhere to sleep after trudging along the beach for two hours in search of an empty guesthouse.

After dumping our bags and taking a quick dip in the bath temperature water, we sit down on the beach to devour a steaming seafood curry. Food tastes so much better when you’re eating it with sand between your toes.

The dodgy accommodation and public transport blends into the background behind the incredibly kind people you meet and the breathtaking places you get to experience. It’s all part of travelling

***

Public transport was definitely one of the biggest learning curves of the trip (and there were lots).

When I asked Mum to summarise the trip in a few sentences she said: “I remember the sights, smells and tastes of a bustling Asian country. The travel adventures we had on that bus that had no toilet and the train to Sukhothai with the weird food”.

Andrew remembered the “Crazy bus ride to Chiang Mai where I kept falling asleep and then waking up and whacking my head on the window. And I couldn’t pee for 6 hours”.

Despite asking them at different times, they both remembered the bus trip we took on a 2nd class bus with no toilets or air conditioning.

Then there was accommodation. We knew which friends to take recommendations off the next time we travelled and who’s advice to steer clear of.

“The best experience would be that day we rode bikes around the temples in Sukhothai or when we were in the water fight in Kanchanaburi. The worst would be that cockroach going up the wall in the shitty hotel,” Andrew said.

The Jolly Frog Backpackers in Kanchanaburi was one such recommendation. The first room had bed bugs and cockroaches, and Andrew left me to deal with them while he bunked in Mum’s room for the night.

But you get used to the bugs, and to flushing toilets with buckets of water, because it’s cheaper to stay somewhere that doesn’t have a toilet that flushes itself. The dodgy accommodation and public transport blends into the background behind the incredibly kind people you meet and the breathtaking places you get to experience. It’s all part of travelling. And I worked that out before I even finished high school.

Thanks Mum.

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