Skip to content

A swing through Isaan

Isaan, or northeastern Thailand, is easily my favorite part of the country. I could explain why by saying superficial things like “the people are friendly, the food is spicy and the scenery is spectacular”, but one can only truly know what I mean by smelling a rice field at dusk, joining a group of locals for whiskey and soda after dark, and tasting a bite of those spicy salads for oneself. The next best thing, I suppose, is seeing pictures that capture just a hint of the wacky charm Isaan is famous for. So, here you go:

Uneasy frogs in Surin's central market.

Uneasy frogs in Surin’s central market.

Rice, a way of life, Mukdahan.

Rice, a way of life, Mukdahan.

Rot-pan-tuk in Phimai

Rot-pan-tuk in Phimai

Laap bla (spicy Isaan style fish salad) at Wine Wild Why Restaurant in Mukdahan.

Laap bla (spicy Isaan style fish salad) at Wine Wild Why Restaurant in Mukdahan.

Solitary elephant in Surin province.

Solitary elephant in Surin province.

Sundown in an Ubon rice field.

Sundown in an Ubon rice field.

Not rushing in Phimai.

Not rushing in Phimai.

Celebrating Chinese new year in Khorat.

Celebrating Chinese new year in Khorat.

Typical Mukdahan street scene.

Typical Mukdahan street scene.

Friction

“Friction: The action of one surface or object rubbing against another.” – Google

A passive-aggressive sigh from the person waiting in line behind another who for whatever reason takes a little longer than normal — that’s friction born of selfishness.

The self-righteous sentiments of those who argue that guns should be more difficult to acquire so as to stop ‘crazy people’, and of their counterparts who argue that guns should be easier to acquire so as to protect against ‘crazy people’ — in both cases — that’s friction intensified by ignorance.

When molten rock boils and churns beneath the earth until — snap – a violent volcano shakes the land — that’s friction unleashed by conditions.

When pressure, frustration, anger and despair boil and churn in a human being until — snap – a violent shooting shakes the land — that’s friction unleashed by conditions.

A warmhearted sigh from the person in line behind another who for whatever reason takes a little longer than normal — that’s friction quelled by selflessness.

When two opposing sides ‘put down their guns’ and seek collective answers to the shadowy questions beyond what’s in front of them — that’s friction humbled by wisdom.

When plants and critters return decades after an eruption and life is breathed back into a once desolate landscape — that’s friction cooled by conditions.

When everyone has a chance to laugh, it’s not all taken so seriously, encouragement and understanding flow, and when people are kind to one another — that’s friction extinguished by conditions.

Ko Kradan’s Wally Sanger

As promised, I’m going to start running some of the posts I wrote for the Thailand blog at Travelfish.org over the last year that fit into the Bodhidharma’s Eyes fold. And what better place to start than at the beginning? This was the very first piece of published writing that I was ever paid for, and I think the first paragraph in particular sets the tone for this whole crazy journey I’ve undertaken. (You can check out the original here, which was edited by Samantha Brown and published on November 10, 2011).

Ever notice how avid world travellers — and especially sailors — seem to see the world a little differently than most? They don’t lock up their home and go on vacation, they part with their possessions and set forth on a journey. They don’t see the world as a big, scary, insurmountable planet but a perfectly accessible playground. They don’t have a plan and an itinerary; they have a thirst and a vision.

At Paradise Lost Resort on the tiny and idyllic island of Ko Kradan off Thailand’s southwest coast, I spent a few hours chatting with one such visionary world traveller: 71-year-old Wally Sanger.

Wally, in his element at Paradise Lost

Wally, in his element at Paradise Lost.

Originally from Hawaii, Wally grew up sailing from island to island while encountering diverse people, so he felt right at home when he first came to Southeast Asia in the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1980 at the age of 40, however, that he set out for good to sail the world, and more than 30 years later he’s yet to return to Hawaii or anywhere else in his native United States.

“I’ve been to just about every state, country, territory and island in the Pacific,” he recalls. After spending significant time in and around Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, he began to sail competitively, participating in races in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand. Wally then reached a crossroads. “Too much time on the open seas and you become your own worst enemy,” he says. So, about a dozen years ago, he began to poke around in Thailand’s Andaman Sea for some dry land.

But not too dry. Ko Kradan is just a sliver of an island, now inhabited by only a few resort owners, park rangers and wild dogs. There are no roads, just one of Thailand’s finest white sands beaches, and when Wally first arrived there was just one small resort occupying part of the beach. It was here he decided to drop anchor for good and begin clearing the small plot of land for Paradise Lost out of Kradan’s thick interior jungle. The process took no less than two years.

I ask whether people thought he was crazy. With a gruff chuckle he replies, “They still do. Hell, I still do.” Whatever people think, his resort now books up almost entirely during Thailand’s high season, with countless travellers returning year after year for Paradise Lost’s chilled out atmosphere, tastefully rustic bungalows and outstanding restaurant. More than that, perhaps, they come for Wally himself.

A basic thatched bungalow at Paradise Lost.

Our casual interview comes to a pause when a group of local Thais stop by to drop off some supplies for the resort. “Paw sawasdee krap (hello papa),” they say to Wally with palms together. With a grin I ask, “They call you papa, eh?” “Now, now,” he answers, “all Thais call older men ‘papa.’ It’s not special for me. It’s just the customary term that’s used, nothing more.” True as that may be, the respect these locals have for Wally is evident in their eyes and demeanor. Given his humble and kind disposition, it’s no surprise he’s treated like something of a gypsy saint.

The accommodation reflects the owner — simple, rustic, full of character.

Wally’s not the sort to force his views on anyone, but I do manage to reel in a few bits of his seasoned sailor’s wisdom. On nations and governments he reflects, “The more simple and grassroots a society the better… You don’t see children crying much and you don’t see emaciated people… Families take care of each other. The people just take care of their own.” He encourages people from all over the world to get out and travel, pointing out that, “You’ll learn a whole lot more by travelling than you ever will in a classroom.”

And in response to my request for some final words to live by, he first replies, “No, nothing like that… We just try to teach the kids to take care of each other.” He pauses. A subtle grin emerges from beneath his scratchy white beard and he says sharply, “It’s better to be a ‘has been’ than a ‘never will be.’ ”

It’s a tough job but …

Indeed, Wally has been around, and he’s seen what most can only dream of. He’s a reminder of what travel is all about: exploring the world and discovering one’s place within it. Don’t have to take my word for it, though. Next time you’re in Thailand head out to Ko Kradan and hang at Paradise Lost for a while. As long as Wally’s around, you’ll be met with a very warm welcome.

What do we really need?

Lately, I’ve been contemplating my tendency to overlook all of the wonderful things in my life and to instead torture myself by focusing on what I don’t have or what I’m not doing,

If I’m living in Thailand, I feel like I should be traveling on the back of a camel in some majestic corner of Africa that hardly anyone’s ever seen. If I’m meditating on the floor of my apartment, I feel as though I should be ordaining as a Buddhist monk. If I’m doing my best to be kind to people in my daily life, I feel as though I should be “saving the world” by starting some large-scale non-profit. If I’ve got a $20 bill in my pocket, it should be a $100. If I’ve got a decent little blog with a few followers, it should be something that touches the lives of thousands, something like this perhaps. If I’ve got something great, I always seem to overlook it, feeling as though I should have something better.

Sometimes it’s so important to take a step back and see those deeply rooted inclinations for what they ultimately are — craving. Usually we think of craving as that sense of wanting something tangible, like an ice cream cone, a girlfriend/boyfriend, or a longer vacation, but craving takes far more deeper and broader forms as well.

When I finally got around to reflecting on all that I should have, I began feeling not only selfish but also a bit silly. I have food in my belly, a roof over my head, a healthy body and mind, loving family and great friends, a job I enjoy, and so much more. So many in this world don’t even have one of those things, let alone all of them.

Today I’m turning over a new leaf — to acknowledge and be satisfied with what I am doing and what I do have rather than dwelling on what I don’t. It’s so simple, but honestly, it’s not easy.

What are the wonderful things in your life that you’ve taken for granted? What do you really need for happiness? I wonder, if you turn around and reflect for a moment, are most if not all of those things already present?

Up to northern Thailand

After finishing up in the Andaman Sea islands, I headed for the cooler air of Chiang Mai, Lampang and Lamphun in early December 2011. I soaked up spectacular temples, some of Asia’s most stunning flower gardens and villages nestled into the mountains. I even made time for a horse and carriage ride in the old town of Lamphun since, well, that’s just what you do there. Here’s a little taste of those tightly packed days.

Mountainside flowers at Doi Pui village, north of Chiang Mai.

Mountainside flowers at Doi Pui village, north of Chiang Mai.

Big monk, little monk; at Wat Doi Suthep north of Chiang Mai.

Big monk, little monk; at Wat Doi Suthep north of Chiang Mai.

The only way to see Lamphun.

The only way to see Lamphun.

Young monks beneath a Bodhi tree a Wat Hariphunchai outside Lamphun.

Young monks beneath a Bodhi tree a Wat Hariphunchai outside Lamphun.

Northern blossoms; at Phuphing Palace north of Chiang Mai.

Northern blossoms; at Phuphing Palace north of Chiang Mai.

Welcome to the Andaman Sea

Trang and Satun provinces on the Andaman coast in southern Thailand was my first assignment beginning in late October 2011. Ko Lipe, Ko Tarutao, Ko Adang, Ko Bulon Lae, Ko Kradan, Ko Libong, Ko Sukorn, Ko Muk, and Ko Ngai. Yes, I was (and am) a lucky guy. I’ll say two things about visiting the Andaman Sea islands of Thailand: 1.  It’s a good place to go if you like boats; and 2. I haven’t been all that many places, but these have to be some of the most beautiful on earth. Here’s a little taste of those first six weeks.

Haat Farang at Ko Muk; this was where I stayed while covering my very first island. Not too shabby.

Haat Farang at Ko Muk; this was where I stayed while covering my very first island. Not too shabby.

A lovely road on gorgeous yet modest Ko Sukorn.

Gorgeous yet modest Ko Sukorn.

If only I had a ball; Ko Bulon Lae.

If only I had a ball; Ko Bulon Lae.

Electric dugong in Trang town.

Electric dugong in Trang town.

Collecting water; Ko Tarutao.

Collecting water; Ko Tarutao.

Collecting sea treasures; Ko Bulon Lae.

Collecting sea treasures; Ko Bulon Lae.

Jungle canopy walk at Trang Botanical Gardens.

Jungle canopy walk at Trang Botanical Gardens.

Approaching Ko Kradan.

Approaching Ko Kradan.

Many seas.

Many seas.

Edible by sun down; Pakbara pier.

Edible by sun down; Pakbara pier.

Sleepy beach dogs; Ko Lipe.

Sleepy beach dogs; Ko Lipe.

One of the most cosmic beaches I've seen; on the way to Lipe. Anyone know what it's called?

One of the most stunning beaches I’ve seen; on the way to Lipe. Anyone know what it’s called?

Something angelic; Ko Bulon Lae.

Something angelic; Ko Bulon Lae.

What a year!

Well, it’s been almost exactly one year since I moved to Thailand indefinitely to work as a travel writer. I was able to recently come home for a short visit and finally found the time to reflect on everything I did between October 2011 and now. It’s been quite a ride — I’m going to start posting some of the photos I took and posts I wrote for Travelfish.org while hopefully throwing in a few little nuggets from my most recent travels. I’ve also outfitted the blog with a new, simpler theme, which I hope you like. For now, here’s a shot taken on the plane ride from New York to Bangkok almost exactly one year ago. I’ll be back in the air in a couple days, and I’ll be moving in one direction only: forward.

It was big changes for me, but the moon remained steady.

Thin air

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 70 other followers

%d bloggers like this: