By Tom Holmes
Editors note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels
As I was falling asleep in the bed the porter had made up for me on the overnight train to Chiang Mai, I was feeling a little proud of myself.
After the Cambodian pastor had brought me to the bus in Phnom Penh, I had been on my own for two days. On the bus no one spoke English and I didn’t know a word of Cambodian. Communicating was like playing charades with a lot of hand motions and facial expressions.
For example, when you get to be my age—63—you have to pee a lot more often than when you were in your twenties. About two hours into the six hour bus ride, I didn’t feel like I could hold it any longer, so I got up out of my seat towards the front of the bus and was going to head towards the toilet.
When the guy next to the driver--who amounted to a kind of co-pilot--saw me, a questioning look came on his face, so I motioned towards the back of the bus. He nodded to say he understood and then proceeded to help me negotiate my way down the aisle while the bus was rocking and rolling down the road. [The highways in Cambodia are not up to the standards of American interstates.]
I carefully descended the narrow stairway leading to the lower level of the double decker bus and found myself in the midst of suitcases and shipping crates in the huge luggage compartment. I looked at the co-pilot who was still with me with a questioning look on my face, and he pointed to the other side of the bus. To get to where he was pointing, I had to get down on my hands and knees and crawl for eight feet to a little metal compartment which looked more like a small closet than a wash room.
What I found was a traditional southeast Asian toilet which is basically an enhanced hole in the floor which you straddle, squat and do your business. . .while the bus was jerking rather violently from side to side. The Laotian pastor who was a co-leader on the trip I had just finished referred to this activity as disco peeing.
Relieved, in more ways than one, that the disco session had ended I crawled back to the stairway and made my way back to the front of the bus. Wouldn’t you know it, but about twenty minutes later the bus pulled over to the side of the road, and most of the passengers got out, taking care of business al fresco. Some walked into the rice field a short way but others just peed right there on the side of the road.
I felt a surge of pride. “Anyone can pee on terra firma,” I thought, “but it takes a special talent to do it on a jerky roller coaster.” As the trip continued I felt proud that I made it to the border, got through customs, was able to communicate to the tuk tuk (a kind of three wheeled taxi) that I wanted lodging near the train station, got dinner and found a way to make it to the train on time the next morning—all on my own.
This is what I wanted. In the 42 days between the end of the mission trip I had just finished and the beginning of the conference I would be attending south of Bangkok at the end of January, I wanted to experience the challenge of being more or less on my own in a foreign culture. I wanted to bump up against something solid and see how I would respond.
Before I left for Thailand, I half jokingly told my friends that frequently during the 42 days my only travelling companions would be myself and God. . .and I wasn’t sure how I would get along with either one.
As I fell asleep in the swaying train car—definitely more gentle than the disco session on the bus—I felt like, at least for the first two days of my adventure, both travelling companions had come through for me. I had successfully made it from Phnom Penh to Bangkok and was on my way to Chiang Mai. I had encountered a Buddhist monk in ways that tourists seldom experience. The encounter had been a bit disorienting, but that’s exactly what I had been hoping for.
As I fell asleep I felt a paradoxical satisfaction that I had met a challenge on my own and that, at the same time, God had been taking care of me.