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Sunset on SE Asia

THAILAND | Friday, 10 January 2014 | Views [1575]

Six months ago I arrived in Bangkok to a culture for which I had no yardstick, no previous point of reference and for which I was unprepared. Arriving in The Land of Smiles to find none, and in fact finding more a feeling of hostility towards 'just another tourist'. Doubtless the impact would have been greatly softened were I not travelling solo.

Looking back at my floundering attempts to find my feet in those early days, I realise that at some point it got me down to the point where I seriously wondered how I would cope with the six months that were looming ahead of me. It seemed like a challenge that I had set outside of the perimeters of my capability. In fact it was only when I booked a month out to go to Perth that I began to feel it was more manageable. As the days passed in Pai I began to understand customs and snippets of the language as well as making friends, I almost began to regret my planning my escape route. They say you should be careful what you wish for and suddenly the option of flying anywhere was taken away by the arrival of two DVT blood clots in my lower leg. When the hospital cautioned me that they could be a symptom of an underlying cancer, I don't think I have ever felt so alone and bewildered as I did that morning in Bangkok. Shock eventually begins to wear off and then it is time to dig deep and force your brain to function clearly. The cyber support of a few close friends was an enormous strength and the kindness of strangers were rays of sunshine in some very cloudy times. It proved to be the start of a journey of healing and, as I trusted I would be guided to the right places, my journey took me to Penang for acupuncture and dietary supplements that lead to the disappearance of the clots and then into Bali where further acupuncture and spiritual healing allowed me to make profound changes from the inside out.

By the time I reached Cambodia, I felt I had focused on myself for long enough. If it is your inner empathy you are searching for then Cambodia will more than show you its depth. I have never been so deeply moved by the plight of one country. Arriving in Vietnam I was really shocked by the contrast between two neighbouring countries. A matter of miles separate Phnom Penh from Ho Chi Min City, and yet they are worlds apart. Two countries with their respective troubled pasts - how differently they have moved forward to the present day.

The aromas of Asia have really grown on me - from the incences to the fragrant foods and perfumed plants. Less pleasant are the traffic fumes and this is why it is so common to see face masks in use. There is a general level of courtesy and respect here that is lacking in so many countries these days. Standards of English varey widely but it is impossible to be affronted when addressed as sir instead of madam, particularly when the greeting comes with a broad smile. It seems to me that personal safety is as good as it gets anywhere, perhaps better. I have walked a good many miles on my own and never once felt unsafe.

It is difficult to determine whether it is a case of vanity or self-respect that keeps the locals with one eye in the mirror. I'm not sure why it is that Western women (and I wholly include myself here) dress in the comfortable hippie/Asia pants with a strappy T-shirt - so prevalent that it is almost like a uniform - with minimal make-up and time spent preening, while their Asian sisters wear Western clothes and usually look immaculate, perhaps in the hope of finding their own Pretty Woman type story ending. Certainly it is unlikely that a single Western woman is going to have her choice of Western men over here!

There are two things which I never quite manage to come to terms with here. Firstly, the pace at which people amble along, which is at complete odds with my somewhat determined marching style. And the tea! Aromatic water which seems even more pitiful following the copious amounts of the full-bodied Kenyan tea I unashamedly indulged in whilst there. Lipton Yellow and non dairy creamer - a definite non-starter for me.

My final flight before the journey back to the UK heads into a fiery sunset as Air Asia takes me Westward from the hectic, glittering sprawling city below me that is Ho Chi Min to the city that never sleeps, Bangkok. One night in Bangkok and tomorrow I will return to the UK, to start another chapter in my life. Not for one moment do I regret emptying my life of everything - coasting along trying to be someone I was not and living a life which did not suit me. I return to a fresh start, filled with a confidence that the achievements and adventures of a year on the road has brought me. Perhaps what I have done is not for everyone, but I will return with a real sense of identity, a pocketful of wonderful memories and not one single regret. To all the amazing people who have travelled with me, physically or in spirit, thank you for sharing the trip of a lifetime.

And so, a final supper in Bangkok, shared with a friend and a glass of wine to toast over fifty weeks of travelling. I barely manage two hours sleep and all too soon I am in the taxi joining Bangkok's morning rush hour. In reality, it is always rush hour here. The fourteen hour flight, extended by strong head winds, is pretty unremarkable in spite of the entertainment system crashing repeatedly despite the BA crew's best efforts to reboot the system.

The only emotion I can identify in this state of nothingness is inevitability. It was inevitable that this particular journey would end and I would return. What remains a mystery is the direction that life will take from here. I had perhaps expected some sort of 'Eureka moment' along the way. A friend said to me before I left that one should never look for a big pot of gold while travelling, instead enjoy the many small pots that will come your way. Sound advice indeed.

Tags: backpacking, bali, cambodia, healing, journey, penang, singapore, thailand, travelling, vietnam

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