The couple above is standing at a street corner in Chiang Mai, Thailand and doing a very sensible thing: looking at a Lonely Planet guidebook to figure out where exactly they are so that they will know which way to go. But the pages of Herman Melville's Moby Dick may sometimes provide guidance as well, though of a different sort. “It is not down in any map," Melville writes, "true places never are."
As a traveler who writes, you’re intimately acquainted with the way drudgery can become adventure, or at least a story, when looked at in the rearview mirror. Even in your most anxious, stir-crazy moments, you know that one day, back on the far side of Earth, the event you’re experiencing now will somehow seem more spectacular, or at least valuable and defining.
But as a writer who travels, there are other things you see in the rearview mirror, things now well beyond reach because time, and perhaps distance, has carried you too far. You see lost youth, a fading innocence. You see decisions that at the time seemed noble (and probably were) but which now merely leave you silent, staring into the mirror. You see the future for what it became—the past—and suddenly you wish, at least in some moments, to speak and act differently. You wish that the thing in the mirror was ahead of you, but it is not.
In the rearview mirror even idealism looks dangerous, a Titanic launched and sent full steam ahead. You understand well the ship’s design and the confidence with which it departed, but now you also know the iceberg through which history, or at least you, will interpret its voyage. In the rearview mirror you see that life is hard, harder than you ever expected.
But the journey, you remember, is not yet over. You’re not crushed and broken 12,600 feet under the Atlantic, nor are you forever stranded in some emergency lane while the world speeds by at 70mph. And this is why, having pulled off the road and given that rearview mirror a good long look, you will eventually turn your eyes back to the road, and then, slowly but surely, you will pull your vehicle back into the forward-moving stream.
Finally, having removed your hat to better feel the breeze of movement and hope, you will look for a place to hang it. You will choose, at least for a little while, the rearview mirror.
If you’ve ever backpacked in Southeast Asia or have undertaken casual research into the global party scene, you’re familiar with Thailand’s Full Moon Party. Whenever that lunar ball is all lit up in the heavens, alcohol and travelers wash ashore on Ko Phangan, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. Even well into the evening, vehicle headlights bear witness to the masses streaming down the steep mountain road from other parts of the island. Out to sea boat lights stretch like planes lining up at O'Hare, ferrying the anxious pilgrims from Ko Samui and the mainland. From the east and west they come: prostitutes, undercover cops, sexual predators, Russians, Thais, Europeans, and on and on and on. By midnight a stretch of sand a few hundred meters wide will fill with thousands of revelers.
And so it was that while reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, my mind fell back for a moment to the sights and sounds of Ko Phangan. I'm aware that Conrad is speaking here about the upper reaches of the Congo. Yet I couldn’t help but think, even if a little in jest, of the Full Moon Party:
The earth seemed unearthly. We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there—there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman. It would come slowly to one. They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity—like yours—the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly, yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of their being a meaning in it which you—you so remote from the night of first ages—could comprehend.”
When on the road with my camera, sometimes for months at a time, I often go to bed with the distinct feeling that I receive more than I give. I am a travel photographer, which means I spend my days asking things of people. I ask for their permission, their time, their image. I ask them to overcome their shyness, or to act like I’m not there. I ask to be let into their lives for a moment, even though I will soon be gone.
Not everyone says yes to my requests, but very many do. I’m most touched by those for whom “yes” is a stretch, who prefer not to be the subject of a camera’s attention but who, even more, wish to grant a photographer’s request. They very clearly are giving to me. They also are among the reasons why, when I’m in a place for several days, I try to stop by a photo store and develop a few prints just before I leave. I then retrace my steps from previous days, stopping at shops and stalls and homes where I know I can find the people who allowed me to photograph them—people such as the woman above, who works at an optometrist shop in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.
“The act of giving initiates relationships and even friendships,” writes Anthony Gittins in his book Bread for the Journey. “Not to give is not to be in relationship.”
It will be rare that I post a completely bland snapshot to this photoblog, as I am now. Had I known that I might one day display this picture so publicly, I’d have taken a moment to compose the thing. But I took it in a rush, thinking that later in the day I would simply download it to my computer (for enlarged viewing), type up the text (which I'd then store in a Word document in case I might one day find a use for it in a story), and then I’d either delete the photo or file it into some dark recess. I'm sorry the picture's ugly.
But in recently coming across the photo again I decided to post it here--largely because it says something commendable about the people in charge of the Bangkok Mass Transit System. I love how they very clearly explain what the problem was, acknowledge the domino effect the mishap on train #24 had on others down the line, and then apologize for the inconvenience some may have experienced. That’s classy. And to add to the class, they posted the sign in both Thai and English (for all of us foreigners who can’t read a lick of Thai).
The BTSC folks, of course, did something not only classy but also civil and healthy. It's good to say "sorry" when something you do, even if unintentional, affects other folks. I suspect that had the narrator in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men been moseying through this Bangkok skytrain station and laid eyes on the posted apology, he would’ve nodded his approval. Here’s what he says in the book:
My daddy always told me to just do the best you knew how and tell the truth. He said there was nothing to set a man’s mind at ease like wakin up in the morning and not havin to decide who you were. And if you done somethin wrong just stand up and say you done it and say you’re sorry and get on with it. Dont haul stuff around with you. I guess all that sounds pretty simple today. Even to me. All the more reason to think about it.
In Bangkok I have normally stayed in the vicinity of Khao San Road, where backpackers by the thousands congregate in hotels and restaurants. Because of all its glitz and commercialism, and because of its foreign hordes, some speak disparagingly about the place. But I have yet to tire of a neighborhood where one can walk up and down a street and see people from literally scores of countries all in one spot. There aren’t many places quite like Khao San.
One of Khao San’s beauties is that, if one wants to get away from the throngs (and one probably will), a five-minute walk will accomplish this. Some seek refuge in Wat Chana Songhkram, the Buddhist temple complex at one end of the road. Here, while barefoot and sitting on the floor as the ear takes in the monks’ evening chant, the stress of urban crowds and smog dissipates.
But perhaps my favorite respite is Santichaiprakan Park. Located beside the Chao Phraya River, here you can slurp yogurt at dawn as Thais, more industrious than you at this hour, do aerobics (the yogurt comes from a nearby 7-Eleven). And then in the afternoon when school lets out, students come to the park to do homework or just hangout. A modest handful of foreigners are scattered about too, their noses in books, their cameras pointed at river barges, or their bodies stretched out in the grass and their eyes closed. It’s a wonderful location to people watch.
The photo above was taken one afternoon in the park and shows a child who took great joy in simply running back and forth in front of the water fountains. While he certainly wasn’t thinking of this line from Kathleen Norris’ book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, it’s not a bad one for us adults to ponder:
There is a vast difference between blindly running away from old ‘nothings,’ and running with mature awareness toward something new.
There are no icebergs in the Gulf of Thailand, but at any given moment there is, in this and many other seas, someone thinking about the Titanic—or at least about Leonardo Dicaprio.
I almost didn’t take this photograph. For most of three hours I had been lying on a bench on deck, seeking out that elusive position where a severely herniated disc wouldn’t make me wish there were icebergs in the Gulf of Thailand. On top of my physical pain, there was the psychological terror of knowing I still had 20 hours before I reached Bangkok – 20 hours of ship, bus, and train, some of that with 75 pounds of cargo hanging from my shoulders. Only the day before did I come out of a 17-hour gala of agony in which it felt like a herd of elephants had collapsed on my lower back. The possibility of returning to that state somewhere between here and Bangkok was all too real.
I was alone on this portion of deck except for two German university students on a three-week holiday to Thailand. Feeling eight times their age (and almost eight times my own) as I navigated my bad back on the bench, we didn’t engage each other that much. But when the girls turned giddy as they conspired in German to reenact the Titanic bow scene, I eased myself into an upright position and grabbed my camera. The bow was off limits to passengers—I don’t think the girls knew this—and I thought the expression on their faces would be priceless when the captain roared out the window from the bridge above us.
But the better picture, I think, is the one I’m posting here. Taken three seconds before the captain got the bridge window open to commence his roar, I love how it seems to capture the feeling of youth, freedom, and lightheartedness. It was a fleeting moment in time that will never be repeated.
By the end of the week they would be back in university, and the week after that I would be on an operating table in Bangkok. A year has passed since then, and I imagine their Thailand experience, like my pain, now feels pretty distant. As the wise narrator in Wendell Berry’s book Hannah Coulter says as she looks back on her life:
You think you will never forget any of this, you will remember it always just the way it was. But you can’t remember it the way it was. To know it, you have to be living in the presence of it right as it is happening. It can return only by surprise. Speaking of these things tells you that there are no words for them that are equal to them or that can restore them to your mind.
And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence.
Hat Yai is known as southern Thailand's transportation hub and sex capital. But too few know it has the West Side Saloon, where bar tenders and waitstaff are dressed in cowboy gear, serving jovial customers -- mostly Malaysians who've hopped across the border for a short holiday -- as a band plays the likes of Dolly Parton, the Carpenters, and the Cranberries. In my journeys through Southeast Asia in recent years, I've stopped here four times, thankful for the taste of home. For a guy from Appalachia (as much as he’s from anyplace), there's nothing like hearing a Thai band sing John Denver’s classic after months on the road:
Country roads take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia mountain momma
Take me home country roads
All my memories gather round her
Miner's lady stranger to blue water
Dark and dusty painted on the sky
Misty taste of moonshine teardrops in my eyes
To my amazement and joy, several Malay tourists were able to mouth the words as the band sang. Who cares that none of us were from West Virginia – we all knew the beauty of roads that take us home.
In a story by Wendell Berry entitled “Making it Home,” there is the following line:“And now, though he walked strongly enough along the road, he was still newborn from his death, and inside himself he was tender and a little afraid.”Berry was writing about a man returning home from the carnage of World War I, but the words well describe any experience in which a person has peered closely into his or her own fragility.
This photo was taken on one of many steep grades on Ko Phangan, a Thai island home to the famous (at least in the backpacker world) Full Moon Party.It is also home to hundreds of motorbike accidents each year.
The day after taking this picture on a good portion of road, I went against the advice of my guesthouse manager, the lady at the massage shop, and the local hair stylist, venturing down the infamous road to Thong Nai Pan.For the full story click HERE, but suffice it to say that half an hour into my journey I flew headfirst into the jungle.
In the end, scratched and with a sprained ankle, I made it to the beautiful bay at the end of the road to Thong Nai Pan.The water was so quiet, the beach nearly empty.As I walked along the water’s edge I felt the beauty but also the fragility of life.I thought of how there are experiences in addition to motorbike accidents – a shocking turn in a relationship, the loss of a home, the news of one’s failing health – that can leave us tender and a little afraid. Like the road to Thong Nai Pan, life can feel steep and rutted.
Precious few travelers venture to the Thai town of Pattani these days.
Located in Thailand’s deep south near the border with Malaysia, Pattani was the site of a major Japanese landing in the first days of World War II; from here they pushed down the Malay Peninsula to capture Singapore.More recently (since 2004) the small town has been a focal point in an insurgency which has claimed, on average, two to three lives per day.The motives for the violence are complex, but a significant factor is the discrimination local Muslims feel they receive under the Thai government.Thailand is an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation, but the four provinces in Thailand’s deep south are predominately Muslim.
In the days surrounding my own visit in September 2007, several passengers on a bus were shot, a military truck was hit by a roadside bomb, a teacher and farmer were gunned down, and a judicial official was assassinated.But as in other conflict zones, life goes on in the midst of the uncertainty.On an afternoon walk through the town, I came across these two smiling Thai soldiers heading out on patrol.I was struck by their facial expressions…and their mode of transport.