June 20, 2014

Confessions of an Expat: Thailand on a Whim. ~ Emma Lesley Gould


In 2010 I moved from a comfortable Philadelphia suburb to Thailand.

The original plan was to stay for 6 months, “get some experience” and then return to real life. It’s 2014 and I’m still here. When I think of what my intentions were back then the words of a Scottish poet, Robert Burns, come to mind: “The best laid schemes o’ mice and men go oft awry.”

In the time leading up to my move many of my friends and family were curious about my reasons for picking Thailand as my destination, and what my life would be like there. Did I know anybody there? No. Did I know how to say anything in Thai? No. I wasn’t overly concerned with researching my new home-to-be either.

My mother bought me Lonely Planet’s latest edition on Thailand and I still have not read it. Lonely Planet is pretty much good for nothing, by the way, but that’s a rant for another time. I had no idea what Thailand was going to be like. I had no idea what the people or culture were going to be like. No idea what it would look like. No idea what it would smell like. And I was okay with that.

This may seem like a rash idea, especially when traveling alone to a foreign country for the first time, much less one that is on the opposite side of the globe. My mother, for example, wouldn’t so much as set foot in another state, much less another country without thoroughly researching all maps, locations and activities first. And my mother is an adventurous woman.

I simply prefer to experience new people and places without any expectations. Traveling alone is an excellent time to do this when you aren’t weighed down by the plans or expectations of others. You’re free to change your mind on a whim, take up a new-found friend’s offer to visit someplace you’ve never been before, and, just maybe, make major, life-changing decisions.

This tendency to enter entirely alien situations without any pre-formed expectations has  served me exceptionally well over the years. Expectations form a shell over your consciousness that distorts your true experience and serves as a shield that will deflect meaningful interaction with the environment around you. This is not to infer that you should delve into new situations without some pre-existing knowledge of what awaits you, rather enter each new territory with an awareness and openness for the unexpected, expected and everything in between.

Take everything that life throws at you in stride, and remember that you never know what’s waiting on the next horizon, so it’s not worth worrying about.

On my way to Thailand—a grueling 36 hour process—my sandals broke in the Tokyo airport. Lacking the local currency and not really seeing this as a problem (I walk around barefoot the majority of the time anyway) I was disinclined to purchase a new pair. I arrived in Bangkok with no shoes. After a befuddling taxi ride, I managed to find my way to a hostel that I had looked up on the internet, and had chosen because it was the cheapest one I could find. Some of you may cringe at the thought of a hotel room that costs $2.50 per night, but I have found that the cheaper joint the more interesting the company. People who are managing to travel the world on pennies frequent these places, and to do such a thing one must surely be creative.

The Overstay was a fennario for these people. Within its brightly graffitied walls is a community of some of the most talented artists and musicians, crusty ol’ x-pats, far-wandering travelers and ingenuitive wanderers I have ever met. It has become my home away from home when I’m in Bangkok.

My original plan (and there’s Robert Burns again) was to travel Thailand for a few weeks and then head down to it’s Southern-most city, Had Yai, to a job that I had arranged via the internet before my departure. After the first 48 hours of clearing the travel fluff from my brain and procuring some necessities, such as shoes, I began to talk with those around me, many of whom were far more familiar with the lay of the land than I.

To make a long story short, after a day spent with a seasoned travel-for-pennies hobo and master forger of all travel documents and tickets who had been bouncing around Southeast Asia and Europe for the past 15 years, I had two life changing realizations.

The first realization was that I was carrying around too much baggage. Physically.

Probably emotionally too, but that’s a subject I’m not going to tackle with this story.

Before leaving the States, I sold off and gave away everything I could bear to part with in my apartment. Everything else that I couldn’t bear to part with which wasn’t necessary to bring to Thailand was packed into storage containers and crammed into my mother’s basement (thank you Mom, I love you so much, and I promise one day that I’ll clear everything out of there!).

What I deemed necessary to bring to Thailand was shoved into two very large suitcases, one of which could fit a human body (not an exaggeration, I checked), which came to a grande total of 60+ kilos. That’s a lot of baggage for one little girl to drag around by herself. And so, I declared to be truly free I must travel lightly! And also I didn’t want to pay the $100 overweight baggage fee that AirAsia charges. So I purged 30 kilos of my life there in Bangkok.

I carried an entire suitcases worth of stuff into the common room of The Overstay and declared it a free-for-all. A flock of penny-pinching, budget travelers, who would rather duct tape the holes in their jeans than buy new ones, descended upon that suitcase like Thai lady-boys on the microphone at a karaoke bar. Grungy hippies and graffiti artists were soon decked out in my H&M dresses and True Religion jeans.

The Overstay rabble never looked so good. I gotta say, it’s extremely liberating to just give stuff away like that. I thought maybe that I’d miss my things, or find myself wishing that I hadn’t parted with a certain item, but now I can’t even remember what I had and gave away. I’ve been honing my travel lightly skills ever since. When I returned home for the first time in 2 years I was carrying only a half filled backpacker’s sack.

The second realization I had was that my aforementioned plan concerning my life and job in Thailand was maybe not as sound as I first thought it was.

Apparently, Had Yai was no luxury destination. In fact, it was a semi-war zone; one of the few provinces in Thailand where the Muslim minority has taken to solving its unequal standing with the Buddhist government with guns and car bombs. Needless to say, I felt as though Had Yai was not where I wanted to start my new life.

So, Emma, you just found out that you’ve unwittingly lined up a new life and career in a war zone! What are you going to do next?!

I called up the school and quit the job I hadn’t even started yet. Great start to my new life in a totally foreign country. I knew I didn’t want to go to Had Yai, but I didn’t know where I wanted to go. The whole Had Yai thing had been oriented around the job, and so I figured the next logical step would be to find a job somewhere else.

I didn’t personally know anyone who lived in Thailand, at the time, but I did know people who knew people who did. I reached out to two people who lived in the South of Thailand; one lived and taught in Phuket, which is pronounced “Poo-ket” and not “Fuk-et” and is not “the most apathetic city in the world” as my friend, Pat Dougherty once put it.

The other friend-of-a-friend lived in Krabi. The friend-of-a-friend in Phuket did not get back to me, which may actually back up Mr. Dougherty’s theory, while the one who lived in Krabi did.

She gave me her phone number and told me to call her should I ever find myself in Krabi. At the same time, I was putting out feelers for jobs in Phuket and Krabi and had come up with a kinda-maybe possibility in Phuket and a definitely-sure possibility in Krabi.

So I weighed my odds, zipped up the one remaining suitcase I had and booked my passage to Krabi.

I arrived in Krabi under the mid-day, Southern-Thai sun and found myself standing on the side of a dusty road thinking maybe, just maybe I should have planned this out a little better. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know where I was. Didn’t know if I should walk left, right, forwards or backwards. So I whipped out my phone and called someone that I had never met before who I knew lived somewhere near to where I was, “Hi, this is Emma. Remember when you said I should call you if I ever found myself in Krabi? Well, I’m here.”

Georgia was the friend of an old boyfriend of mine from when I lived in Alaska. He’d connected me to her when he found out I was moving to Thailand, because she too had also moved to Thailand with her partner. Georgia turned out to be my guardian angel.

“Just stay put. I’ll be right there,” she told me.

She pulled up in a swirl of dust driving the most decrepit looking pickup truck I’ve ever seen, dreadlocks regally piled on top of her head, threw my bag in the back and told me not to worry about a thing.

Georgia, her partner and her adorable baby son, Kodiak were living on an out-of-the-way farm in a little community called Laem Po on the outskirts of Krabi. They set me up in a bungalow on the farm, fed me, showed me around Krabi, introduced me to the local ex-pat community and taught me how to ride a motorbike.

For the first few weeks that I was wide-eyed and reeling around the perimeters of my new life, Georgia and her family set me in the right direction and, ultimately, gave me a stable base to explore Thailand from.

motor bike

She showed me that when you least expect it, but when you most need it, a helping hand can be extended to you from the most unlikely candidates.

I have found this to be true again and again in some of the most remote corners of the Earth. I can never be grateful enough for the kindness that she showed me, a perfect stranger, and I try as often as I can to “pay it forward” to whomever I encounter in my travels. My virgin sojourn into Asia may have been a half-baked stratagem in which I flung myself in the the great unknown and hoped for the best, but I wouldn’t go back and change it for anything.

I believe that my “planless” and spontaneous wanderings have brought me to the place in life where I am at this moment, and I couldn’t be happier.

Initially, it is a bit of a soul-shaking experience to throw caution to the wind and set off without a concrete travel itinerary, but the road taught me to adapt fast, and I have become more and more adept at rolling with the punches and honing my dance steps to the impromptu, exotic and ever-changing beat of the traveling drum. There are times when life calls for more of a plan and forethought than other times, but as my very best friend once said, “Man plans and God laughs,” which was very Robert Burnsian of her.

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Apprentice Editor: Kimby Maxson/Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Wikimedia, KamrenB Photography/Flickr

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