Pam from Spunkygirl Monologues gives us insight into her backpacking experience in Thailand. Pam stopped in Bangkok, and instead of doing the ‘tourist-thang,’ she slowed down a bit and connected with some local refugees, learning lessons and making memories that will no doubt last a lifetime.
In the past, travel has always been about seeing new things, learning about new cultures, struggling to get enough sleep at a hostel and hanging out with new travel friends. If a city or town didn’t appeal to me within the first few hours, I’d pack my bags and move on the next day. I didn’t delve deeper. I didn’t ask locals for recommendations. I assumed the city or town was lame and moved on.
As time passes, my travel style evolves. I’ve learned to savour a country/city/town. I’ve learned to appreciate the locals and ask for their help, and I’ve learned to open my eyes and see beyond the hostels, parties and tourist hot spots. Travelling with open eyes is an experience like no other.
“I wouldn’t spend more than three days in Bangkok. It’s crowded and dirty. Not really worth your time.”
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve read this advice. I’m ashamed to say that I almost followed it.
I agreed to house/cat-sit for three weeks in Bangkok last fall. That’s a long time –when you’re use to moving around & exploring new places every 3-4 days. With so much time on my hands, I reached out to friends for volunteer recommendations. Perhaps there was an orphanage I could help out, or a program for street kids. I could spend a few hours a day interacting with local kids and try to give back to the community. Either way, I could use up some of my free time and have some fun. As it turns out, my assumptions wee bit off base. Sure, I helped out at a program for street kids and we did have a lot of fun, but that’s not all. I also spent a great deal of time with refugees living in Bangkok.
They’ve come to Thailand because it’s easy to get a visa. However, once they are there, they slowly realize that things are not as easy. Families are living in studio apartments, struggling to pay rent and buy food. Applying for refugee status with the UN is a long process, longer than they anticipated when they first came up with the plan to flee to Thailand. I met families who eat one or twice a week. I met children who love school, but due to their circumstances, they can only go one day a week. I sat on the only bed in their apartments and listened to their stories. I struggled to keep my composure.
As a backpacker I’m familiar with living off a small amount of money and travelling light. I know the feeling of dread when I realize I’ve overspent and need to cut back for a few days so I can be comfortable again. It’s a common backpacker’s plight. I have to say though, after spending time with refugees and street kids, I feel completely ridiculous. Their struggles are a hundred times more challenging, yet, they don’t let it break their spirit. They find the small joys in their lives and hold on to them. They don’t have the money to support their family, but they give whatever they do have to others. I’ve sat down for a meal, thinking I was eating with the family, only to discover that I was the only one to eat while 6 pairs of eyes watched me. I’ve drank soda pop after watching a Mother give the only money she had to her small boy and sent him to the store to buy it. I’ve sat on the only bed in a home, while everyone else stood or sat on the floor. My head told me I shouldn’t be doing these things, but my heart reminded me that this was their way of thanking me for visiting them in their home.
Hopping into a taxi and travelling to refugee homes seemed easy and made total sense. However, to the families I visited, I actually took and take and paid money to drive all the way out to their home because I wanted to see them!
Money is necessary for survival, but it’s not the only necessity. Family, joy, kindness and love are just as important. Spending time with refugees taught me that family, joy, kindness and love are more valuable than money. They taught me to open my eyes, to slow down and to see beyond the misconceptions.