Editorial: Roadtrip for the soul

Citylife’s editor takes a road trip to shake out some COVID cobwebs

By | Tue 6 Oct 2020

With borders closed, for many, cabin fever has set in.

I too have been feeling discombobulated and antsy with the recent physical and current psychological lockdown; even though life is, ostensibly, moving forward. The pall of uncertainty mingled with fear of the unknown has been exacerbated through my self-inflicted onslaught of media, all of which is, frankly, depressing.

As someone who has travelled fairly extensively throughout her life – my first plane ride was when I travelled to Jakarta from Bangkok at 20 days old – having been to nearly 50 countries, most repeatedly, just the idea of not being able to go anywhere right now has taken an emotional toll.

Just two months ago I received my spanking new black (I know it’s supposed to be dark blue, but it looks pretty damn black to me) UK passport. It sits here next to me on my desk – shiny and minty new – both seducing and mocking, as I spend my work days gazing at it and dreaming of holidays to come.

And so it was that when a friend of mine who was lucky enough to have bought the 2,999 baht AirAsia buffet a few months back (which meant that he could travel anywhere in Thailand for the rest of the year) invited me to join him in Loei, it took all of a glance at my passport before saying hell, yes.

He was to fly into Loei from Bangkok for just two nights and invited me to do the same from Chiang Mai. But as I said, I have been out of sorts recently, so I needed more than just a day and two nights away. A road trip it would be, I decided.

For most of you who have travelled Thailand’s roads extensively, this is no big deal…and probably barely worth the, ahem, paper, I am writing this on. But for me, I haven’t done a road trip in Thailand for over a decade…maybe more. You see, I had spent my childhood weekends being driven all across the then-ver remote and rural north. Mum and dad were historians and amateur archeologists and we went adventuring to places which were as wild as my childhood imagination.

Suffice to say, however, as a child and more so as I entered my teens, I was not always appreciative of being dragged to the most remote villages for weekend digs. As I sat by the side of a muddy hole, eating sticky rice and whatever, while watching mum and dad grin with excitement every time we dug up some gorgeous ceramic, memories of those weekends tended to blur into a less glamorous forgotten past. I remember my holidays in Europe (even though much of those were spent sitting in curators’ offices in some museum basement or another!) and other more fabulous adventures, but the simple pleasures of the regular drives into the wilds of the north, on the most part, had been left behind in a cobwebbed corner of my memory bank. Looking back, it was a major part of my life which gave me deep understanding and offered me unique insight and experiences into the Lanna rural life. But as a child, one doesn’t appreciate these things.

Well smack me silly. Because when I drove off in my trusted Honda Jazz, phone loaded with audio books and playlists (intermittent internet, so definitely a must-do) I had zero plans but to get to Loei airport to pick up my friend in 48 hours.

The trip, which ended up taking almost a week, mostly of me, alone, driving up and down remote country roads with no destination in mind, was cathartic. Stuck in the bubble of Chiang Mai’s good life for so long, it reminded me that my experiences were not just echoes of memories of a long lost past, but those of an un-ventured present.

First of all, our roads are wonderful. Signs are clear, roads of top quality, petrol, food, and friendly locals willing to not just point, but often take you, to your destinations a-plenty. There are well marked points of attractions – waterfalls, national parks and all sorts of amazing sights to be seen. I tried to avoid the highways when possible, preferring country roads lined with mesmerising vistas, bucolic villages, the occasional e-tan homemade truck trudging along, infused with character, and a great number of sunbathing dogs to slalom past. I stopped off for meals, not at anywhere an app recommended, but by stumbling and bumbling across a random restaurant, or by simply asking for a local recommendation. One time after I picked up my friend, we were driving along the Mekong in Nong Khai province when we were so hungry we decided to stop at the next restaurant. It turns out by chance that it was owned by a retired chef from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok who had decided to return home to live a quiet life. What a find! And thankfully we didn’t stop off at the dodgy looking grilled bits shack 100 metres before that!

And so it went. Driving around Muang Lap Lae in Uttaradit, wending my way around quiet wooden villages, startled by the vibrant green of the occasional paddy field. Stopping off at a temple on a bend of the mighty Mekong, gazing at the river while sitting under a Bodhi tree. Having a beer in a moonshine shack by a railway junction in Pitsanuloke, while watching the buzz of the city dim in a town that sleeps early. Insta-mocking the hipsters in Chiang Khan as we too took cute selfies against trendy backdrops. Driving up to the top of Phu Ruea, hopping onto a songtaew then trekking to the viewpoint for a fabulous view of Loei…only to find myself gazing out from inside a grey moist cloud. Watching ten men fix the beleaguered Jazz’s undercarriage following some off-road madness in a grotty garage of a small town – for 60 whopping baht. Howling opera (obnoxiously and awfully) as I gleefully crested hills and dipped deep into valleys, hair turning intro dreadlocks and an inane grin permanently plastered on my face. Simply stopping off for a one-woman-picnic at an abandoned and lonely rice shack in Phrae, far from the maddening crowd, snacking on some dried squid I’d picked up and gazing into the green for a few blissful hours.

For those of you who have been sensible enough to have taken multiple road trips across Thailand, I excuse you for rolling your eyes right now. But while there is nothing new to any of my discoveries, they are new to me.

I was living my childhood. This was the Thailand I grew up in. Memories of long drives and pleas to my parents to reach our destinations have matured into joyful moments of explorations, with me taking every turn that appealed…as long as it didn’t head home. Just yet.

The trip pretty much cost me in petrol. The food was all ridiculously cheap, as was the perfectly acceptable accommodation I found each twilight. There was enough to interest me that it took me two full days to get to Loei and even longer to return home. More, had I more time.

What a fantastic way to get out of the city. Remind ourselves that the social construct that has been defined by the two-centuries long Rattanakosin’s Bangkok is not the Thailand the vast majority of its people live. Emotionally break free, head to the unknown…while knowing how safe and friendly it all is.

It was truly a road trip for the soul.