#LP Memories

After Lonely Planet announced some major internal restructuring last week, my friend Celeste Brash created a the #lpmemories hash-tag on Twitter that ended up going viral. It led to a lot of international press, including my first time being “tweeted” in the New Yorker and a lot of blog posts about the good old days back at Lonely Planet.

In the spirit of the moment, I thought I’d share an advice piece I wrote for new authors, back when Lonely Planet was still owned by Tony & Maureen Wheeler – it was published internally between 2005 and 2009, but is no longer applicable today. So read it with this in mind, for today it is only relevant if you’re looking for a taste of nostalgia about the way the guidebook publishing world used to operate. A way no longer possible in our up-to-the-minute updated online world, which I am now a part of myself.

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-Elephant Crossing, South Africa

***Advice to Lonely Planet New Authors – Published Internally on the Lonely Planet FTP site between 2005 and 2009***

The backpack was heavy and I was jetlagged, hungover and exhausted. I’d been driving around the neighborhood for 20 minutes trying to find the hostel. More than anything I just wanted to sleep. I’d been up for more days than I could count. I’d flown from Denver to Pittsburgh to London where the staff at Lonely Planet had poured more alcohol than I usually consume in a month down my throat in two nights at a new authors conference. Then I’d hopped on a plane to Jo’burg where I’d picked up a rental car. I was on the road for LP for the first time, updating the South Africa, Botswana and Namibia chapters for Africa on a shoestring. I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to do, but now my biggest problem was negotiating Jo’burg traffic. The book was full of warnings about the city, what neighborhoods I was supposed to stay out of, car jacking numbers, and all sorts of other horrors. By itself this was daunting, but throw in driving on the wrong side of the road (when you’re jetlagged, hungover and exhausted) and it’s enough to turn a sane person crazy. I managed to get myself on the wrong highway, said fuck it “I’ll do Pretoria first” (a city about 30 minutes drive away), and now was searching for a hostel. The hostel wasn’t in the book, but the brief (whatever that was, still hadn’t quite grasped it) said something about adding new places (it also said something about good value brothels and lots of drinking), so I’d seen a brochure for this place and thought why not. I finally managed to find it and park and get the backpack and my equally exhausted best friend, who agreed to travel to Africa with me, out of the car and through the gate. We knocked on the door and were met by a rather menacing man.

“How much for a dorm bed?” I asked politely.

He took one look at me, glaring. And to this day I have no idea how he knew this about me because I’d been in the country for less than an hour, and only checked out one other place that I’d passed trying to find his hostel, but he said:

“Are you with Lonely Planet?”

“Actually, I am. I said smiling. I’m updating –,” I never made it any further. The man started screaming at me. He grabbed me by the backpack with one hand, grabbed my friend with the other and practically pulled us down the steps across the yard and out the front gate.

 “Get out, get out,” he shouted. “You are not welcome here.”

 Flabbergasted my friend and I got into the little Fiat.

 “What the hell was that about?” she asked.

“Beats me,” I said. “I thought everyone loved Lonely Planet. I mean people said it was better to stay undercover because you wouldn’t get harassed as much by hostel and hotel managers, but I thought they meant harassed because these folks wanted to be in the book.”

“Not this guy,” she replied.

An hour later we were at another hostel, packs stored in our room, drinking Castle Lagers on the front porch with the owners. I hadn’t mentioned anything about Lonely Planet, but after enough Castles I decided to try again, the owners seemed so nice, and I already knew I liked their place a lot. Plus, I was feeling really lost. I had no clue how I was supposed to update a guidebook. The entire thing seemed daunting and exhausting. I’d been thrown out of a place already, was this really what I signed up for? I was sure I was going to fail, that somehow I’d have to come up with thousands of dollars to pay LP back after I produced a sub par book. The sheer distances I had to travel and the number of places I had to check out seemed impossible. So tentatively I told the owners about my new employer.

They were overjoyed.

“Lonely Planet authors always stay here,” John said. “We show them around the city. We’ll help you with your map if you want. I can drive so you don’t have to try to figure that out and then we can stop at all the places if you need to.”

What an angel. Maybe this would be okay. So I told him about the nasty hostel owner. He laughed.

“Your editors didn’t tell you?” he said.

“Tell me what?”

“About the lawsuit. That man is in a lawsuit with Lonely Planet over the company’s name. It’s quite nasty and he’s spent a fortune so I can see why he didn’t want you at his door.”

No one had told me. No one had told me much of anything before I left. Welcome to the world of freelance writing. If you’re anything like me you probably came to work at LP from a “real job,” one of those nine-to-five gigs where someone is always telling you what to do. At the time you hate it. I mean you’re not an idiot right, so why should some editor always be trying to tell you exactly how to write your article? But when you get on the road for the first time suddenly all those instructions seem like a very cozy security blanket and you start to long for them.

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-Ko Phagnan, Thailand

The mourning period doesn’t last for long. A few days into your trip things start to fall into place. You get a rhythm going and you just sort of float along. Ten hotels, 15 restaurants, five sights, check, check, check. The thrill of the freedom travel writing gives you gets into your bloodstream and intoxicates you in a way you never expected. Which is why we trudge on. Why we leave our boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands, wives, families and friends for months at a time, why we travel to godforsaken corners of the earth, why we wake up at 5am to catch a chicken bus overflowing with ripe smelling people to travel 10 hours on a rutted road to end up at the end of the planet. Why we work for so little money. To me, travel writing is addictive. It’s better than any drug. There’s a certain thrill, that more than a year and seven books after I started, I still get when a CE sends me an email and says:

 “Are you interested in going to Thailand in July?”

Even though the timing is bad, even though my boyfriend is threatening to leave me if I take off for another two months, I know I can’t turn the job down. I mean who would give up a trip to Thailand for some mundane job in a cubicle? Once you start, it’s very hard to quit.

Writing for LP is a balancing act. It’s an emotional roller coaster. There will be good days and there will be very bad ones. There will be times when everything seems so overwhelming you are ready to just lie down in the snow in some tiny little town in Switzerland and contemplate not turning your book in and becoming a goat herder. But then you’ll remember the time you jumped out of an airplane in Namibia. When you fell through the air and soared like a bird. You’ll remember the time you got to spend a night pub-crawling or a day sitting on a picture perfect beach with palm trees and trade winds and you’ll remember that you get paid to do that, other people pay thousands of dollars to see the places you are seeing and you are getting paid to see them. And that’s when you realize how great it all is and how you don’t ever want to go back to the “real world.”

I guess that’s the most important advice I can give new authors. Don’t take yourself to seriously. Sure, people will tell you it’s a job, jaded authors may even yell at you and say you’re agreeing to work for pennies and don’t you realize this is serious? Of course you do, and of course it is. LP is a job. You do it for money, but it’s also a fabulous life experience. So work hard during the day, research thoroughly, but take some time for yourself too, to appreciate where you are and what you’re doing. I find when I do this I get a lot less frustrated and produce a lot better product. If you’re happy about where you’re traveling, if you’re enjoying yourself, this will show through in your writing, provide you with that color and flair LP is so obsessed with.

I have no recollection of applying to be a Lonely Planet author. I must have, because in Sept. 2002 someone at LP emailed me to say “Congratulations you’ve been short listed from more than 1,000 applicants as having potential to write for Lonely Planet.”

It almost never happened. The email header looked like junk mail and I was about to delete it. I clicked read at the last second, thinking it might be some kind of promotional thing for my favorite travel guides. I guess I must have applied the previous June. That’s when, desperate, I applied for every single journalism job opening I was remotely qualified for. The only reply I received was from LP. When I got the email I had about $3 left in my bank account and was pretty much at the end of my financial rope. I’d quit my job as a reporter covering homicides and rock stars at a mid-sized Colorado daily shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. At the time everyone thought I was nuts to give up a decent paying full-time gig at a time when companies were laying people off left and right. But I’d been saving for two years and I wanted to see the world. So my best friend and I took off for Asia, Africa and Europe. Four months later I returned with a book full of photos, a head full of memories and an empty bank account. Sure enough the job market had dried up and things looked dismal.

To land the job of your dreams, out-of-the-blue, is one of those things you never expect to happen, but when it does you find yourself extremely happy and grateful and ready to take whatever shit is thrown at you. Lonely Planet was going through some major transitions that year. A lot of people had been laid off, the company was changing the look of its books, and the author list-serve was full of disgruntled mumblings and finger pointing. Moments after I mailed off my Africa contract I got a call from an editor at the Denver Post, where I’d been freelancing, offering me a full-time job. I turned it down, but questioned my decision. Did I really want to try to make it at LP, where there are never any guarantees? Was I absolutely nuts to turn down a very good job at a very good newspaper?

Not for a second. I can’t say that Lonely Planet is all wine and roses. There will be days when you question what you are doing. Days when you want to throw the guidebook down and say forget it, but overall, for me at least, the good has outweighed the bad. I’ve written seven books in the last year and a half. I head to Thailand next.

ImageWith a kangaroo in Australia.

So you’re heading out for the first time. Scared yet? I was. If possible try to get your first assignment on an area you actually know. If you already know what restaurants and bars are good in a certain city, it’s going to make researching that city a pleasant experience. As this is not always possible, if you do find yourself researching a place you’ve never been before, try to start with a smallish town – one without a map and without too many places to check out. This will help you get the hang of things. I never identify myself in restaurants, bars or at sights. In some countries I find it is easier to identify yourself in hotels, as many places look at you strangely and give you a hard time about checking out rooms. Same goes for activities, it’s sometimes faster to get the information if you don’t have to listen to the whole selling spiel. Really this varies place to place, and it may be best to not identify yourself at first and see how it goes. Other travelers often prove to be invaluable sources of information. They may have stayed at a new place you don’t know about, or eaten at one of the restaurants in your book. The downside of identifying yourself is you will likely be bombarded with hundreds of questions (and feel a bit like a celebrity). But it’s usually worth answering the customary “how can I work for LP. What a great job,” questions in exchange for the information. They’re the ones buying the books, so they’re input is generally worth the extra time it costs to extract.

After the first assignment you’ll get a better feel for how long it takes you to research. For my first book I split my research/writing time equally, and was happy I did. The going is slow at first, but you’ll soon get the hang of quickly glancing at menus for price ranges and food types, of adding new key items to maps and figuring out what’s new in town. Tourist offices are great sources of information, and it helps to identify yourself at these. Ask if there are any new restaurants, bars and hotels you should know about, this will save you a lot of time just wandering around town. I usually try to find the city’s main drag first, and wander down it to get a feel of the area for my introduction before heading off to actually check out places. When you’re taking notes it helps to write your descriptions down as you’re checking the place out. I read the reviews before I head into a hotel, but after checking out the hotel I write a 30 word review right into my notebook, so when I get home if I want to change the previous text it’s right there.

Well, I’m sure you’re real tired of reading this now, so I’ll sign off. Good luck. Have fun out there, try not to get to jaded to fast, and remember at the end of the day Lonely Planet doesn’t owe you anything, you don’t actually work for them, you work for yourself. So like any business person you want to make your product the best it can be, if you do this, I have no doubt you will have a long and happy relationship with Lonely Planet.

It’s so hot in Denver today, I’m wishing I was back here…

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DSC03411 DSC03348 DSC03338 DSC03336 DSC03335 DSC03331 DSC03322 DSC03320 DSC03379It's so hot in Denver today, I'm wishing I was back here...

The view from my private plunge pool overlooking the Caribbean Sea at the newly opened Trident Hotel, part of the boutique Geejam Collection outside Port Antonio on Jamaica’s undiscovered south coast. If you’re looking for the perfect off the beaten-path-honeymoon destination, look no further. I loved it here. From rafting to jumping off waterfalls, there is plenty to do outside, and come evening Trident & Geejam both offer delicious Jamaican and fusion cooking – from European to Sushi – plus live music (both owners are music producers and plenty of musicians pass through).

Losing my Southbound Train Virginity – Bangkok to Surat Thani, Feb 2002

I had two main reasons for choosing the top berth on the overnight train to Surat Thani. The first was that it was cheaper. The second was that if I was on the top bunk it would be harder for roaming bands of thieves to steal my backpack while I was sleeping. Of course by cheaper I mean, it was about 60 baht cheaper. Sixty baht is about a buck-and-a-half, which in the scope of things, or not even in the scope of things, is not a whole lot, in fact it’s a pittance. L being so much more sensible than me, and not worried about the extra $1.50, chose the bottom bunk.

At first the train seemed all right. It pulled out of the station just as the sun was sinking low in the sky, and Lani and I settled into our seats, which had yet to be pulled out into beds, ordered two Chang beers in a can, and made small talk with the British boys sitting next to us.

“Where are you going?” they asked.

“Koh Samui and then Koh Phagnan,” I said.

“You should skip Koh Samui,” the blonde boy said. “It’s old news. Even Koh Phagnan is getting old.”

Thinking he was just talking like a wanna-be pretentious backpacker, I smiled, nodded my head, and said we’d think about his suggestion. I was still determined to go to Koh Samui, one because our boat ticket was already taking us there, and two because I was sort of convinced that it wasn’t all that played out and people just said it was because they had read the backpacker mantra turned Leonardo DiCaprio disaster, the Beach by Alex Garland, which sort of reads like a Lonely Planet guide to Thailand. Garland didn’t have much love for Koh Samui (or the Lonely Planet for that matter). The Lonely Planet still had much love for Koh Samui, and I was trusting them for the time being.

“We’re thinking of skipping Koh Phagnan and just heading straight to Koh Tao,” the blonde boy continued. “That’s where it’s at. That place is still real.”

“I thought non of Thailand was ‘real’ anymore,” I counter sarcastically. I hate people that talk negatively about countries they are traveling in just to try to sound cool and “backpackerly.” “I mean for real you have to go to Laos or ‘Nam right?”

“Yeah man that’s right,” the blonde boys companion said. He’s a chubby, badly sunburned brunette. “You know we’re not staying in Thailand that long. Just enough to get a tan, then we’re heading to other parts of Asia.”

Right.

The funny thing is Lani and I run into these same boys more than a week later on Hat Rin beach in Koh Phagnan. They’re wandering aimlessly between huts and spot us.

“The girls from the train,” they say.

“Oh hi,” L says.

“You never made it to Koh Tao?” I ask.

The boys look confused.

“Why go there?,” the blonde one says, “when the weed is so good here?”

“Yeah man, we’ve been stoned all day all night since we got here,” his friend says grinning. “You guys want to smoke.”

We shake our heads, no thanks.

Anyway, back to the train. Tired of the inane conversation, I turn to my new book. Having dumped half of the “essential reading material” in Hong Kong, I have now purchased a new set of books at a second hand shop in Bangkok.

As soon as I crawl up into my top-bunk I realize I should have spent the extra $1.50. The bunks have curtains to separate you from your other second class sleeping companions, but apparently the lights in second class stay on all night, and the curtains do zilch to block out the florescent light directly above my bunk. There is also no air-conditioning, and no fans. Lani has kept the window open, but the window is next to her bunk and her bunk manages to keep any cool breezes from filtering up to my high berth. So it’s stifling hot, and brilliantly bright. I try to stay positive. I put on my discman and tell myself that in just eight hours this train ride will be over and in about 15 hours I am going to be sitting on a beautiful white beach staring into the gulf of Thailand and sipping a yummy tropical concoction served out of a coconut. That, and the pillow over my eyes, works for a little while until my legs start to itch.

I take off my earphones and listen for the offending mosquito. Except for the quiet laughter echoing from three or four bunks down, the train is silent. There is no unmistakable buzz of a mosquito. Okay, I think, it bit me and moved on. I tune back into my music and scratch my legs, but now my arms are itching too, and come to think of it so is my back and my butt and even my chest. I squirm around, not sure what is going on. I sit up, but I still feel like I am being eaten alive. It’s not very comfortable. I get up, walk to the bathroom, take a piss, and then lean against the door of the train, which is left open. I breathe in Thailand. I’m still itchy, but I don’t feel like I’m in the process of being bitten anymore. I stumble back to my bunk. L’s sleeping soundly, snoring lightly. I crawl back in and try to sleep, and the invisible army of bed bugs begins their offensive again. The bed bugs bit all night long. I roll around, curse, try to think nice thoughts, but it doesn’t do any good. I sleep fitfully and wake up when a small Thai man comes screaming through the train compartment saying “Up, everyone up, we’re almost at the station.” I jump up. It’s 5:30 in the morning. My head is pounding, my eyes are full of sleep and I feel like shit. Nevertheless, sure that the train is about to stop and if I don’t get off I’m going to be stuck going to Malaysia, I start cramming my stuff into my pack and screaming to L to get a move on it. Lani slowly gets out of the bed, peers up at me and says “what?” sleepily.

“Our stop is next. The conductor is getting everyone up.”

“What time is it?”

“Early, but hurry up we have to get off like NOW.”

L actually looks refreshed. She starts packing her bag.

“How did you sleep?” she asks.

“I didn’t. That fucking light stayed on all night and then there were bed-bugs. It was horrible. Next time we’re taking that bus.”

“I didn’t have any bed-bugs. I slept great,” L says. “I love trains. I just let the wheels lull me to sleep. It was wonderful. There was even a breeze.”

“I didn’t have a breeze,” I grumble.

“Well, I told you to get the bottom bunk, you wanted to save $1.50.”

I just glare at her. My legs are covered in itchy white spots and right now I feel like pummeling her. To make matters worse, our train is no where near the station, the Thai Railways employee simply wanted to put the bunks up! I had finally fallen somewhat asleep and I was awakened because the guy wanted to get his job over with, so he could probably go back to sleep. Fucking great.

Once the sun rises though, the night’s misery is quickly forgotten. I’m on a train in Thailand. That’s pretty damn cool. One night of sleeplessness seems totally insignificant now that I’m passing rivers shrouded in mist. The train stops for a moment and I watch as local children jump off a wooden dock into the gray waters. I snap pictures left and right. I rub the sleep from my eyes. My headache dissipates and I’m just happy to be alive, to be here, to be experiencing this. The train is leftover from the 50s, it’s all metal and torn cushions, but suddenly it’s wonderful. We must be at a local village because all of the sudden small Thai women come on board with giant plates of chicken, which they sell to the tourists for pennies. I eat chicken for breakfast, lick my sticky fingers, and even grin at the British boys. I can’t wait to get to the islands. I’m on the adventure of a lifetime and no stupid bed bug is going to get me down from now on. Well, from now on I’m going to pay the extra $2 for the bottom bunk.

Thailand The Beginning: First Introduction to Bangkok & The Khao Sahn Road

Bangkok, Thailand

Feb, 2002

The Khao Sahn Road gets into your bloodstream faster than slamming high-octane tequila shots in quick succession. And unlike tequila, your liver doesn’t filter it out the next day. Once you’ve experienced the Khao Sahn Road it will stay with your forever, embedding itself in your psyche the same way the stickiness of Thailand’s steamiest city infiltrates your body’s every pore.

The Khao Sahn Road in the most alive place I have ever been, and as addicting as heroin. It only takes a drop to hook you.

L and I arrive on a sweltering afternoon in early February, straight from chilly antiseptic Hong Kong into Bankok’s chaos. At first the Khao Sahn is overwhelming. An endless mumble-jumble of colors, smells and sounds. This one tiny road in the heart of Bangkok is the holy-land for backpackers, or at least a jumping off to some place better. A melange of vegetarian pad-thai noodle stands and vendors selling everything your heart could ever desire – sarongs, shoes, knock-off Oakleys, big amber rings, dubbed CDs, used books. Even love is for sale, or at least it’s illusion – twenty minutes in a dirty bed with a fourteen-year-old hooker. Crowded in among the stalls are endless rows of dirt cheap guesthouses, bars, restaurants, visa shops and travel agents selling adventures as far away as Paris or as close as Koh Samui. Hundreds upon hundreds of backpackers descend upon this street on a daily basis all year long. Some are dirty, others deeply tanned. They dress like ravers or hippies or preppies, and share the street with tuk-tuks and taxi-cabs and mini buses. This is a street for travelers, not tourists. There are no tourist class hotels here, no graying middle-aged last hurray vacationers, no screaming babies. The street is a living legend, and anyone who calls herself a backpacker on the Asia trail will at some point end up on this tiny, yet totally self-sustainable, stretch of pavement.

You can tell the new arrivals from those who’ve been “in-country” for a while. The new people are cleaner, they’re paler, better dressed. Their eyes still dart around in either terror or awe. They haven’t mastered how to gulp a big brown bottle of Singha fast enough that it doesn’t melt. They don’t have the laid-back beach lingo that lifers adopt after a few weeks, or months, or years playing in heaven down south.

You could spend weeks on the Khao Sahn Road and not even realize any time had gone by. Entire days passed shopping at the stalls, drinking beer and eating heaping plates of noodles for .25 cents. When I arrived, there was a rumor floating around that there’s a man whose been living on the Road for the last 20 years. The man’s nationality changes every time the story is told, sometimes he’s Swedish, other times American, but the heart of the tale stays the same. The guy’s visa ran out, and he couldn’t get out of Thailand without paying thousands upon thousands of bahts in fines, so he just stayed. One year a bunch of travelers pooled their money and, as the legend goes, gave the guy enough dough to pay the fines and get out, but instead of leaving he took the whole street out drinking. Of course no one ever meets this guy, but on the Khao Sahn Road getting sucked in isn’t a question of “if.” It’s inevitable.

L and I let the Khao Sahn Road seep under our skin that first night at a sidewalk bar squeezed between t-shirt and CD stalls. To the left leggy girls in dirty white tank-tops and skimpy sundresses leaf through endless booklets of bootlegged CDs, writing labels down on scraps of paper. To the right a group of stoned boys check out gray T-shirts with names of Thai beers scrawled across the front in an alphabet made up of symbols. The backpackers are out in droves, filling the sidewalk bars, pouring beer down their throats, and cramming thin brown noodles into their mouths with skinny wooden sticks. The food here is as spicy as the air.

The air is thick with heat, the green plastic chairs we sit in stick to our legs, already slick with sweat. I’m wearing as few clothes as possible, have only been outside for 20 minutes and already I’m dripping. It’s exhilarating though, maybe they put something in the air here, because it’s bristling with energy and anticipation of the night to come.

This is a street where anything goes. We’ve only been sipping our Singhas for 10 minutes when two Canadian boys sit down in the empty chairs at our table. Privacy doesn’t exist here, not in the paper-thin walls of the guesthouses nor at the cramped restaurant tables.

I peel the label off my beer. The booze is sweating so heavily it slides right off, and I pocket the slick rectangular paper for my journal. I’ve decided to collect beer labels on this trip, one per country. In the middle of the street a dread-locked couple is locking lips. I can see the girl’s nipples through her shirt. The guy looks drunk. But who isn’t here? If you’re not drunk on booze, your drunk on the languid air, so thick it wraps around you like a blanket.

“I’m S,” says a good-looking boy with shaggy blonde hair and deep brown eyes now sitting to my right. He extends his hand. Months later, back in Colorado, a friend will flip through my photo-album and tell me Scott looks exactly like one of the Backstreet Boys.

S points to his friend.

“This is J. We’re from Canada.”

“Really?” L says. “I can never tell the difference between Canadian and American accents.

The four of us make travelers small talk, standard questions. Where are you going, where have you been, for how long? The boys are messing around Asia for three or four months then heading to Australia to work for the rest of the year. They have a third friend with him.

“But he met some Swiss chick earlier,” Scott says. “I think they’re hooking up. I just hope we find him because he doesn’t have a key to the room.”

Everyone is hooking up here. On the street the dread-locked couple looks like they’re about to drop drawers right there and have sex in the middle of the asphalt. I doubt anyone would care. As I said, on the Khao Sahn Road, just about anything goes.

It doesn’t take long for the lively group one table over to order a plate full of bugs.

“No fucking way,” John says.

“Gross,” L chimes in, draining her beer and signaling the waiter over for another.

“I’ve eaten bugs before,” I say. “They’re a delicacy in Africa.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t eat the bug voluntarily,” L says. “You said it would have been rude to refuse the ants.”

“It would have,” I say, and pick at the edge of the checkered cloth that covers the grimy plastic table. “But that’s besides the point, I still gobbled them down.”

S is staring at a beefy guy shoveling some type of crispy critters down his throat. They look sort-of like beetles or roaches.

“I’d eat one,” he says.

“Well go get one boy, what are you waiting for?” I taunt.

S returns a minute later, a very dead, very crispy bug in one hand. The bug’s species is still a mystery to me, and will remain so to this day, because before I even have time to snap the lens off my camera, S has popped the bug into his mouth and swallowed it whole. He chases it with his beer.

“Not bad,” he says. “Not bad at all.”

The bugs are only the beginning of the night.

From bugs and beer we move onto nightclubs. We find the hip-hop club after a Thai man hands us a white paper flyer. Inside it’s dark and smoky. We sit at a table in the back and listen to a South African DJ spin American hits. S and J tell us about their forays into Patpong – Bangkok’s sex district.

“It was nasty really,” S says. “All these girls just giving it away for practically nothing. I’m sure they all had AIDS.”

J isn’t so disgruntled. He talks about lap-dances until some other travelers join us and S brings back another round of beers.

The other travelers are an Australian couple. They’re going around-the-world too. They ask about our route.

“You’re doing all that in two months?” the guy looks shocked.

“It’s really more like two-and-a-half,” L says.

“We might extend it,” I say, embarrassed.  Cool backpackers do the world in a year. We must seem like wimps. Like we’re scared to stay away from home too long.

“You’ve got to leave three months, at least, for Asia,” the guy says. “Otherwise you only hit the shit holes like this road. This isn’t Asia. You’ve got to go deep man. Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam.”

“We’re going to do Vietnam,” I say. We’re not sure if we are, but it sounds good.

“North or South?”

“North,” L says confidently, like she knows the merits of both.

“Good choice,” the girl says.

And that’s the extent of our conversation, because an older white guy with stringy hair and a baseball cap has collapsed just a few feet away. He looks like he’s having some kind of a seizure. His arms are flailing all over the place, and his eyes are rolling back in his head.

The Australian guy jumps up. I’m tipsy and praying someone in here other than me has some kind of medical training, because I don’t think I can deal with another plane incident right now.

It’s over in just moments. The DJs is still spinning Will Smith. People are still dancing, and the Australian guy and a group of others are half carrying, half dragging the guy out the back door of the club.

“You’ve got to get them out before the police show up,” he says when he returns. “Not good for business.”

“What the hell was wrong with him?” I ask.

“Drug overdose, I suspect,” The Australian says. “Probably heroin.”

            My opinions are cemented — just about anything can, and does, happen if you spend a few hours on the Khao Sahn Road.

Lost in Backpacker Land: Researching Lonely Planet Thailand

 Khao Sahn Road, Bangkok Thailand

Wed. Aug 11, 2004

The nights are the hardest. The nights make my stomach lurch and turn. How I can feel so alone on one of the most crowded, frenetic, chaotic, tourist heavy stretches of pavement in the world I do not know. All I know is that somehow, despite the flashing neon signs and sidewalk bars and streets packed with farang, I still feel lost. Like I’m in some kind of parallel universe, where I can see everyone but no one can see me. I’m invisible amid the sweating masses in this backpacker holy land. I sit outside in the sticky glowing night, sipping a whiskey. I’ve only been in Thailand an hour, but already it feels like centuries.

It was nearing midnight when my plane landed, but the road leading out of the airport was still clogged. The taxi swerved around a tuk-tuk, sped up then slammed on the breaks before hitting a truck. When he regained control he swivelled around in his seat.

“Welcome to Bangkok.”

I smiled. My eyes dry; head foggy. Twenty-four hours of canned air, bad food, cramped seats and three different planes had landed me halfway across the globe in a strange city. I opened the window and stuck my head out. Hot air stung my eyes, my nose filled with strange smells – petrol fumes mixed with something else, cooking oil and burning meat? I clicked on my iPod; hit random play. We passed a giant, golden opulence against the dark sky. The view seemed fuzzy. I was tired, yet so awake. We flew around a corner, passed a McDonald’s. Strikingly beautiful women in short skirts and spiky heals strutted their good out front. Welcome to Anywhere in the World.

A song was playing on my electronic device. I pumped the volume to hear above the traffic’s hum:

“Time flies – doesn’t seem a minute”

Isn’t that true? Wasn’t I just kissing my boyfriend goodbye in Denver an hour ago? No that was actually 48 hours ago. Or maybe it was 36 because at some point I crossed the international dateline and lost a chunk of time. That alone was disorienting. Now I’m still disoriented, and ABBA isn’t making it any better. There are thousands of songs on the iPod, how strange for One Night in Bangkok to come on now. It’s so appropriate, yet so random. I think the song is supposed to be about chess, but the lyrics have such melancholy overtones it takes little effort for them to evoke feelings of being disoriented and lost and alone in the middle of thousands.

The cabbie let me off on the Khao San Road. Blinding neon lights and pumping music, stalls selling cheap T-shirts and pirated CDs and fake IDs. There’s an Internet café on every corner.  The air is electric. Drunken girls hold tight to even drunker boys as they stumble down the street clutching Styrofoam plates of steaming noodles. Tiny sarongs, sunburned backs. Everyone’s with someone, everyone except me. Clipped English melted into lyrical Thai. I stumble through the melange, lyrics running through my head. I see the hotel up the road, but the 13-hour time difference has thrown off my internal clock. I am exhausted yet buzzing. The thought of tossing and turning, alone, in a strange bed is too depressing to comprehend. So I headed to this bar, looking out on all the action. Ordered the whiskey to calm my soul.

I can’t sit still. I stir the melting ice cubes around the sweaty glass with a shaky finger. My eyes dart left, then right. My feet tap. I’m edgy, full of nervous energy. The last time I was on this road I fell in love. Not with a human being, but with the road itself. It’s electricity. It’s vibrancy. I fell in love with the snippets conversations sliding off tongues the next table over. “Heading south… Going to party on the islands…. Yeah that’s where it’s going on… Five dollar massages mate, bungalows right on the beach for pennies… We’re in Thailand man. Asia. This is IT.”

Back then Thailand was the second stop on a round-the-world trip, my initiation to backpacking. I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, naïve innocence. I was going to be a citizen of the world and I was going to love it. I had a shiny new blue rucksack, my best friend and a stack of Lonely Planet guides. I was just starting to learn the traveller lingo. I’d only been gone a few weeks, but already I was sure travel was the ultimate drug, and I was hooked. Back then, I used to bullshit with other wandering types about dream jobs. Writing for Lonely Planet always came up. We would all stare at the mug shots in the front of the books and imagine what it would be like to travel for it living. There was no way it could ever be lonely. It seemed so glamorous, so exciting.

Now I’ve returned to Thailand. And this time it’s to “live the dream,” or at least write it for Lonely Planet. But it doesn’t seem quite so glamorous now. It seems daunting and scary and terrifyingly lonely. I pay for my drink and wander. A heavy-set balding man bumps into me. He’s screaming into his cell phone.

“Sorry, mate,” he says to me. Then into the phone: “I’m with my girlfriend … Well, we just met, but she’s my girlfriend now.”

He leers at the Thai girl next to him. Or is it a boy? She’s dressed like a girl, but the facial features are harsher, elongated and masculine.”You love me?’ she asks.

“Of course,” he replies.

I check into the hotel. Throw my bag on the bed. Lie down. I can’t sleep. The night is drawing me back to the street’s warm embrace. I feel lost in this fragrant foreign city. My eyes tear. I don’t want to be here. I step out of the room. Blinding florescent lights in the hallway, un-refrigerated air and stale tobacco smoke. The lyrics to that stupid song are still running through my head.

“You’ll find a god in every golden cloister
And if you’re lucky then the god’s a she
I can feel an angel sliding up to me”

The girl turns the corner. She smiles.

“Hi, I’m Caroline. Did you just get in?”

Relief. A friendly face and Australian accent, another girl that’s all alone.

“Yes,” I say.

“Fancy, a curry? I’m starving.

Dripping cold Singha beer and spicy green curry, easy traveller talk at an outdoor cafe. I start to feel better.

“One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can’t be too careful with your company
I can feel the devil walking next to me”

The line between despair and ecstasy is not easily drawn. The same way lyrics can deceive and blur, their meaning in constant flux depending on your state of mind. Sometimes all it takes is the company of a stranger and a bowl of curry, to figure out the devil isn’t walking next to you, to realize the middle of nowhere might only be in your head, and is easy to escape once you discover the key.

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