Some questions just never get old.
This question came in almost eleven years ago from a reader. Rolf’s answer is as applicable today as it was over a decade ago. Do you wonder if it’s still safe to travel?
I got an interesting question from a woman in Texas. The gist of it was this: With all the news of war and anti-Americanism abroad, is it still OK for Americans to go vagabonding?
This is what I told her:
“The short answer is: Yes, it’s still safe for Americans to go vagabonding. Despite the impression you might get from the news media, the world is still an inviting place for travelers of all stripes — now as much as ever. You’d never guess this from watching the evening news, of course, but travel allows you to see the world a way that traditional news media never will. If you need a little encouragement in this regard, just check out traveler message boards at BootsnAll or Lonely Planet. Listen to dispatches from Americans abroad (including a recent one from France by humorist David Sedaris on public radio). Email your friends traveling overseas and ask how they’re faring. Without exception — from Egypt to China to Peru — the refrain I’ve heard (and seen — I’m in Thailand right now) has been this: people around the world may vehemently dislike George Bush’s bellicosity and/or American foreign policy, but they invariably treat Americans with respect and humanity.
“The only catch here is that you, as a thoughtful American traveler, must return that respect. Even if you collect George Bush memorabilia and derive your self-esteem from American foreign policy, your job as a traveler isn’t to argue and pontificate, but listen to what people overseas are saying (this goes for anti-war liberals as much as pro-war conservatives). Ask questions. Learn. Grow. You might go into a country worried about how you are perceived as an American (as I was a couple years ago in Syria and Palestine), but you will invariably come out with new and encouraging perspectives. That is one of the charms of travel.
“Admittedly, there is no such thing as risk-free travel. Guidebooks warn against crooked cops in Mexico, bad roads in Mozambique, and aggressive monkeys in Myanmar. Various websites, such as the U.S. State Department Travel Warnings (which you should definitely peruse when researching your travels), detail hazards in countries worldwide. But keep in mind that even these are worst-case scenarios. Statistically, you are no more likely to come into harm traveling overseas than you are walking across your hometown. Be careful on the road, but not paranoid. Engage local people and travel in such a way that you benefit local economies. And, as much as anything, exercise your humility as you walk through the world — a strategy sure to win hearts and minds everywhere.”
What are your thoughts? How would you answer the question?
Perhaps the evenings are what captivate me the most, when the heart of the island basks in the falling light. People hurry home from work on their motorbikes, picking up food from the market on their way. No tourists can be seen, save by the hostels and Western style bars, but they are few surrounding the Thai haunts that I like to frequent.
Every night my daughter and I take a walk from our home in Phuket Town to a local café we have become accustomed to frequenting on a daily basis. Our walk is filled with magical stops where she points out a house shrine or perhaps a stone dragon outside an internet café. We say hello to the chickens and other birds we find on our path, as well as some fish that swim in the flower pot outside the bank. We savour the simple, magic filled moments that are what make Phuket special to me.
Perhaps I have blinders on but here in the heart of the dragon, you won’t find throngs of tourists like in Patong or Kata. You find authentic Thai food and no fancy hotel style cocktails. Sure you will see some souvenir shops selling knick knacks and Baba influenced clothing that the random backpacker or lost farang look at, but that’s about it. Those of us expats who live here are the odd ones that have lost much of our original culture and do our best to avoid being treated like a clueless tourist. We know our neighbors and where the best places are to eat. We do our best to learn Thai, as bad as our pronunciation may be.
And most of us don’t like Patong whatsoever.
I completely understand why the well traveled soul dislikes Phuket as they equate it with Patong, the Disneyland of the island. Even Chalong is becoming oversaturated with foreigners, as are Rawai and Naiharn. But even in the apparently tourist heavy parts you can still find Thais, many of whom commute to Phuket Town to work and shop.
Here’s the deal: Phuket has a unique culture and in order to experience this Thai and Chinese influenced spirit, you simply leave the tourist traps and go to other places, such as Jui Tui Shrine or Saphan Hin. Instead of going to a farang bar, copy the Thais by buying a few Leos and heading to the park or Chalong Pier to sit by the water and watch the late night fishing while listening to Thai rock blaring from someone’s phone. Sabai Sabai to the max.
Instead of going to Starbucks, maybe head to the infamous Kopi De Phuket for a coffee and tea fusion popular with the locals. Maybe seeing a bunch of drunk people super soaker eachother is also not your cup of tea ( I won’t judge you) so instead check out the Vegetarian Festival in October. You’ll love the ceremonies and come home sober.
Thai cuisine may be synonymous with Bangkok street food ( and for good reasons) but you’ll still find reasonably priced, delectable Southern dishes in Phuket. I take pride in avoiding Western fast food restaurants ( which mind you are actually more expensive here than Thai food) and pick up something from the local Thai market, such as gang som pla or a quick khai jiaw doused with prik nam pla.
I’ve tried to leave Phuket a number of times, convincing myself that perhaps Bangkok or Krabi would be best for us. So far our moves have proven unsuccessful and we still remain proud Phuketians, savoring simplicity and avoiding the tourists while slowly but surely finding our place within this culture.
As we travel around the world, one of our most important goals is to connect with people and find out what common threads exist that bind humanity together. It is so very easy to categorize people and to explain away the worlds ills with generalizations and dinner table chats on politics.
But who are the individuals who inhabit our earth? Who are the people we talk about dismissively during those dinner table chats, sandwiched somewhere between the main course and dessert? How are they affected by the grander conflicts of our world? What do we have in common with them?
Does the key to changing our worst behaviors as a species lie solely in seeing people as individuals who are very much like us?
Recently, I had the honor of meeting a woman named “Katerina”, who chose to share her experiences during a very dark period in Guatemala history- a period many have categorized as genocide. Her experience is her own and her perspective is uniquely hers, though many suffered in a similar fashion.
The period in Guatemalan history Katerina talks about is very recent history. It was a period of brutality fueled by politics that affected the lives of every Mayan, every Guatemalan, at the time. Out of sheer panic over the possible spread of Communism, the US played a now well-known role in the events during this period, supporting a brutal regime and fueling anti-indigenous sentiment in the country. Guerrilla groups cropped up (some backed by Cuba) and, in their zeal to fight brutality from government backed groups, often tormented the local populace in their own right. The results were catastrophic with hundreds of thousands of people killed or “disappeared” and many more tortured and brutalized.
I was barely alive when this all took place but, as an American, I cannot help but feel remorse and utter helplessness over the horrific experiences Guatemalans were forced to endure due in part to my country’s politics.
Katerina said, in part:
“They would come in the night. They would burn buildings and start fights. No one had arms to protect themselves but they would still come. They would kill men, women, and children- they didn’t care. It didn’t matter if they were guerrillas or military, they were all the same.
My family was one of the lucky ones. There were police in disguise all over our village but my family had no one with the guerrillas so we escaped much of the problems. People where I lived were always afraid. The military was always demanding free food that we could not afford to give. They would rape our women; kill people as they went about their daily lives. My mother protected us fiercely and somehow, none of the females in my family was ever raped. The guerrillas were always causing problems and they were not much better than the military and police officials.”
Can you imagine what she is saying for a moment? Close your eyes and imagine strangers coming in the night and killing your child. Now imagine those strangers are dressed in the military uniform of your own country. Imagine that the greatest achievement you reach as a mother for over a decade was in protecting your girl children from being raped. Imagine, on top of all of this, that you have absolutely no idea what is going on.
“In Chichicastenango, there were military and guerrillas everywhere. No one knew where these people were from, they were strangers. The guerrillas dressed in the typical, local clothing of the Mayan people in Chichi and so the military was constantly coming after the Chichi people. But these guerrillas were not from Chichi, they were strangers who dressed like the Chichi people to fool the military. No one in Chichi knew who they were. It was very dangerous for the local people.
In the time of the guerrillas, there were still a few foreigners coming in and out of Guatemala. A friend used to drive these foreigners from Guatemala City to the Panajachel area. Along the highway between Guatemala City and Pana, you can often see sacks filled with crops, lining the side of the road, waiting for pick-up. One time when this friend was driving these foreigners, there was a stretch of road that had sacks upon sacks but there was not one single person around. The foreigners asked the driver what was in those sacks because there were just so many and the driver told them it was likely potatoes.
They dropped these foreigners off in Panajachel and turned around to head back to the city. On their return, they noticed the sacks were still there. They went on for what seemed like kilometers. The driver’s helper convinced the driver to pull over and see what was in those sacks. There were just too many and there was still not one single person in sight. When the driver pulled over, he opened the bags and discovered the heads of indigenous people stuffed into those sacks. Who knows what happened to the rest of the bodies of those people.
Why would anyone do this? It was political. It was always political. We had no freedom of expression. We were stuck in the middle of violence that wasn’t ours. It’s always the same but now the problems we see are different. There are really no more guerrillas now but extortion is a very real problem these days. But it’s always political.”
Why would anyone do this? How could they do this to fellow human beings? Simple. They stopped thinking of Katerina and her community as human. The perpetrators created a political problem, a threatening philosophy that happened to wear indigenous Mayan clothing. Katerina and her community became “collateral damage”. Today that political problem wears a turban and has a beard. Collateral damage still exists and lately, it seems to exist far too often at Middle Eastern weddings full of children and families.
I wonder sometimes what clothing our political problem will wear tomorrow? Who knows.
“The guerrillas and the military were all the same to us. They all wanted something, they all did bad things. The military would tell us we had to have documents [identification] an then the guerrillas would come and tell us “no documents!” They were always fighting. They decimated us financially. We are still struggling to support our families after all the fighting. We work harder to earn [the equivalent of] one dollar. Kids to take care of, no land, no work. When you live like this, you end up with no love for life.”
When you sit sit across the table from a woman like Katerina, sharing a warm empanada, and listening to her story, it is hard to view her, or her community, as anything but human. They are not a political talking point, they represent no ideology. Katerina, her family, and her friends are people. People who woke up one day to torture, rape, violence, murder, kidnappings, and abuse around every corner.
Travel brought me to Katerina’s table and her face is the face I will always imagine when I here the words “those people” fall off the lips of someone discussing politics at a dinner party. Those people have names, faces, feelings, and terrifying fears because of political ideologies. We create enemies, reasons to wage war, and imaginary barriers that divide humanity into “us” and “them”.
But there is no “us” and “them”. The very concept is an illusion.
Katerina is, at her core, absolutely no different than me. There is nothing at all stopping the horrors she faced from showing up on my doorstep tomorrow….. or yours.
Travel creates space for clarity. It pulls away the curtain of political ideologies and forces us to think for ourselves instead of internalizing the agenda of our next “leader”.
It creates the space to see our own hypocrisy and to see the simple facts in those situations we make far too complex, in a never ending search for justification.
Travel forces us to look “them” in the eye to see if our justifications, political talking points, philosophies, and biases hold up.
It creates the conditions where a citizen of, arguably, the most powerful country (currently) on earth can sit across the table from a descendant of one of the most powerful civilizations in history and discuss the very simple fact that there is absolutely no difference between human beings- no matter what corner of the earth they call home or what period of history their society inhabits.
When our common humanity is illuminated and we accept that there is no “us” and “them”, it becomes impossible to ignore the “collateral damage” anymore.
“Me, I am lucky. I like my work. I work everyday between my two jobs and I get one day off every 15 days. I don’t drink, not at all, for 9 years. My kids, my spouse, and my family are more important to me. But what about the others? They work in ways they weren’t meant to for money they do not care about. The kids are forgetting our culture. They drink to feel better. What about them?
We still have problems after what happened.”
Yes. We certainly do.
$60-75/day including nearly all organic meals, outdoor adventures and lodging for three people. A single person or even couple could probably get away with around half of that by eating at local restaurants or finding a way to cook some meals.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
I hesitate to call it strange, but it was really interesting to see the cultivation of betle nut all around us. Intensely arduous work with some sort of pole tool is needed to harvest the nuts from the top of the tree. Seemingly every home had betle nut drying in various stages in the yard, from the just picked bright orange to the fully dried dull gray.
Once they got to the optimal point, entire families would sit around and remove the nut from the husk. The husks were then burned in piles in various locations throughout the yards and the nuts bagged in large sacks. It was truly a family affair.
Describe a typical day:
Waking up in a bed surrounded by a mosquito net to the sound of a small river nearby. Flipping open the laptop to do some work.
Later, we head up to the restaurant, where we have the option of Western or Thai food, all of which is organic and local. We engage in conversations about life and travel with other guests or volunteers.
We then head out to explore the area, maybe visit a school, hike to a waterfall, or take a bamboo raft down the Paksong River.
We come back in the evening and do some homeschooling and work, maybe at the lodge, maybe in our room, maybe in a random spot by the river. We maybe take a yoga class or mandala drawing workshop.
We head up to the lodge for dinner where we eat a buffet style meal of fresh Thai food with our new friends and talk and listen, hearing accents mostly from all over Europe. Some evenings people get out their instruments to play music and sing.
We head back down to the room, where the daily ritual of teeth brushing and bedtime reading ensues.
After our daughter falls asleep, my wife and I will talk until the symphony of frogs, geckos, insects and the river sends us to sleep.
Describe an interesting conversation you had with a local:
Probably the most memorable conversation I had was with some local boys. We first met them at their school when we visited for a few hours. We learned from them the very basics about their lives at home and school.
We were completely charmed by their excitement when, a few days later, they found us at a festival. They hugged us and flashed enormous smiles.
We sat around and talked a little more but with a very limited ability to communicate, we were all happy to just sit and share food and drinks with one another.
What do you like about where you are? Dislike?
I like that it’s peaceful, that I somehow feel at home, that there is great company, that the town isn’t overrun with tourists, that seemingly everyone smiles at us and that it is so stunningly beautiful. I honestly can’t think of one thing I disliked during our two weeks there.
Describe a challenge you faced:
Getting to and navigating through the local hospital so that my wife could get one of her series of rabies shots, which she needed because of a monkey bite.
What new lesson did you learn?
I wouldn’t say that I learned this lesson, but instead that I was reminded of one I already knew, which is that when I disconnect from the internet I am generally happier and more at peace. Being at the eco-lodge allowed me to disconnect from the computer for all purposes other than work and reminded me of this valuable yet often-forgotten lesson.
We’re headed to Chiang Mai, Thailand for some city living.
I have a confession to make: I’m falling in love with Anthony Bourdain.
After twelve years without a television to share my life with I discovered his shows when we were wandering in New Zealand. The food. The locations. His sass. I was smitten. Then, I began to read, you know he’s a writer, don’t you? Swoon. He writes about food. He writes about travel. He will awaken your lust for both:
The journey is part of the experience – an expression of the seriousness of one’s intent. One doesn’t take the A train to Mecca.
— Anthony Bourdain
“I wanted adventures. I wanted to go up the Nung river to the heart of darkness in Cambodia. I wanted to ride out into a desert on camelback, sand and dunes in every direction, eat whole roasted lamb with my fingers. I wanted to kick snow off my boots in a Mafiya nightclub in Russia. I wanted to play with automatic weapons in Phnom Penh, recapture the past in a small oyster village in France, step into a seedy neon-lit pulqueria in rural Mexico. I wanted to run roadblocks in the middle of the night, blowing past angry militia with a handful of hurled Marlboro packs, experience fear, excitement, wonder. I wanted kicks – the kind of melodramatic thrills and chills I’d yearned for since childhood, the kind of adventure I’d found as a little boy in the pages of my Tintin comic books. I wanted to see the world – and I wanted the world to be just like the movies”
― Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody.”
“Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”
― Anthony Bourdain
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
― Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach
“It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after,you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and whats happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there- with your eyes open- and lived to see it.”
― Anthony Bourdain, The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones
“Tourists, I could now better understand, were not some lesser species. Like all travelers, they had earned their right to travel as they wished, and if that meant organized tours and checklist sightseeing, who was I to tell them they were wrong? Travel did not always have to be hard or deep. It could even be easy and fun, and even I could do it, guiltlessly.”
–Matt Gross, The Turk Who Loved Apples (2013)
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Quote: “Don’t wait for the perfect time to see the world. It may not come.”
I can’t believe it’s been eleven years since Rolf’s first book, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel was published.
I remember picking up my first copy, thumbing through, and thinking, “This guy… this guy has nailed it.”
I wasn’t a new traveler, having been raised by gypsy parents, but that book grabbed my by the nomadic heart strings and reminded me of all of the best things about life and the world. Subsequently, I bought Vagabonding by the case and gave it away to young friends, old travelers and as freebies on our website, on my own dime. The message matters that much to me.
Surprisingly, I didn’t discover this website until I was invited to write for it. It was like coming home. My people are here. I’ve continued to write weekly for the same reason that I continue to buy and give away the book: because the message matters and, philosophically, there’s no better match for me in the travel world.
Rolf’s invitation to take over as Managing Editor of the site caught me off guard. We talked for a few weeks about what that would entail and the very big project of overhauling the treasure trove of content that’s been slowly accumulating for over a decade and creating something that will continue to be a hub of resources and community for the adventurous souls of the world. I’m really excited about the project. I’ve got lots of ideas.
There are going to be some big changes. But before I dive in and shake things up around here, I wanted to give you, the reader, a chance to weigh in.
Would you be willing to take a minute and help us make Vagabonding better, for everyone?
“Many of the greatest travel books of the late 20th century were about epic journeys, often by young men, conveying the raw intoxication of travel during a moment in life when time is endless, and deadlines and commitments are non-existent; when experience is all you hope to achieve and when the world is laid out before you like a map.”
–William Dalrymple, “Home truths on abroad,” The Guardian, September 18, 2009
Southeast Asia is has long been a standard on the backpacking circuit and you’ll be hard pressed to find a country that doesn’t have it’s share of well worn boot tracks between hostels and suggested highlights. Laos is no exception. It is, perhaps, less traversed than Thailand and Vietnam, which sandwich it’s long narrow countryside between them, but it’s far from untouched. If you flip through your Frommer’s Southeast Asia you’ll find lots of recommendations for the ballooning north of the country, but the further south you go, the thinner the segments in the books.
To me, this is a good sign; anytime the guidebooks haven’t made a region a priority, it’s an indicator that there are still adventures to be had and some off the beaten path discoveries to be made.
If you’re headed to Laos, by all means, hit the northern highlights, but if you’re interested in seeing a less-trodden Laos, getting completely away from English speaking tour guides, and seeing some things most of your buddies on the backpacking circuit haven’t, may I suggest a self-guided tour down the Mekong River?
Pakse is a river town, about five hours south of Savannakhet, which is where you’ll have either arrived by bus from Vietnam, Thailand or the north of Laos. It’s a fair sized place that is fun to wander. The river walks are especially nice. There are a couple of good wats. Pakse is a great place to just wander, people watch and get a window into urban Laotian life. You’ll find the people open and friendly and you won’t have any trouble finding authentic local food!
Treat yourself in Pakse and stay at the hotel that is the refurbished palace of the last prince of Laos. The hotel is very nice by Laotian standards, but not spectacular. It’s fun to wander the grounds and explore the long hallways of the open air building. Be sure to wind your way all the way to the top of the building and go into the little ballroom perched at the apex. It has a spectacular painted round ceiling with characters from Laotian mythology running around the edge of the room.
Public river boats used to be the only way to travel to the south of Laos when the roads were disreputable and buses unreliable at best. Depending on the time of year you’re there, you may find the public boats running. During monsoon they run sporadically at best and often not at all as people have traded the inexpensive buses for boats on a swollen river. If there are no public boats running, you can still hire a private boat (look for some other travelers who are wanting to do the same, and make arrangements to head down the Mekong. You’ll see signs around town for boatmen, or, head to one of the docks and ask around.
It’s a beautiful couple of hours down the brown-green Mekong river, surrounded by walls of jungle, punctuated by little groupings fishing families on the shore. Naked children swimming, women washing clothes, men in boats fishing, or collecting the floating drift wood in their long reed shaped barks provide plenty of visual interest as you chug south. It’s easy to imagine how life has unfolded for generations on this great river, largely untouched by the wars that raged in the surrounding countries, an economy built around and dependent on the river.
Champasak isn’t even a one horse town. There are a handful of guest houses. If you need internet, the only choice is Inthira, it’s the nicest place in town, but there are other choices. You’re here to see the Wat Phou complex about 10 km from town. You’ll need to hire a tuk-tuk to get there, or rent bicycles if you’re energetic. It’s a good hike and a steep climb when you get to the ruins, but the view from the top is spectacular. If you’re headed to Angkor Wat, later in your trip when you get to Cambodia, these ruins are a great set to see first, as they were built by a similar people group.
From Champasak head downstream. You won’t have trouble arranging a boat for the next leg of your journey from in town.
There are several islands in southern Laos, where the Mekong widens before it tips over the falls into Cambodia, approximately 4000, in all. Many of them are tiny and uninhabited, but there are a few that are home to small communities and make excellent places to kick back for a few days, slow down, and catch a glimpse of rural life in Laos at it’s own pace.
Don Khong is one of our favourites. You’ll find several guesthouses in the main part of town, a lovely old wat, and bicycles for hire along the waterfront street. Rent a bike and ride the flat island. You can do it all in a day, or you can break it up into two loops, the northern half of the island being the longer loop and the southern half the shorter. Expect to see water buffalo wallowing up to their armpits in wet fields, families tending rice paddies and children selling things roadside. Everyone waves and says, “Hello!” If you’re lucky, you might even get invited into the field to help transplant the new rice plants, or walk behind the big, rattling rice cultivator with a farmer.
Spend a few days. Slow your pace. Open your eyes. Meet the mighty Mekong where she wanders.