What could be finer than riding an elephant up a jungle trail under the cool green mountains of northern Thailand? The elephants stretch out in a long line down the trail, their ears flapping and bodies swaying in the sun. Far below, a river crashes in a wild torrent through a jungle canyon. And the palm trees along the trail explode with the green fire of the sun. Im swept away by a vision beyond my wildest dreams.
Its just another day on Planet Backpacker, and one of the best, I might add. Theyre not all this good: sometimes youre covered with mosquito bites, wondering if youll contract Dengue fever (aka: bone-crushing fever), or stuck for 16 hours in a dismal airport lounge. Or scrambling around after midnight in a strange town and an unfriendly neighborhood, looking for a place to crash.
But thats the gig, and Ive gotten to know the backpacking brotherhood (and sisterhood) quite well in the past three months on my way around the world. Life on Planet Backpacker is a world with its own customs, capitals and highways.
Most backpackers are college-aged, with many taking a gap year off from school or celebrating the completion of their undergrad degrees before heading off to med school or to complete their masters. Some of the younger members of the tribe appear to be from well-to-do families, with their trips financed by the Bank of Mom & Daddy.
But there are also older professionals on the road -- people like me whove saved for years in order to see the world. Ive met lawyers, investment bankers, a gourmet chef and even a toxicologist -- with ages ranging from the 30s through the 60s -- whove abandoned their careers for six months or a year to see the world. Most say their stint isnt long enough to see all they could wish for. Travel is addicting.
Planet Backpacker has its own dress code: The women all seem to wear pedal pushers and tank tops of a solid color. You often see the ladies lugging the heaviest loads: a huge pack on their backs and a bursting daypack strapped out front. Often, their packs look bigger than their bodies -- full of more tank tops and pedal pushers, I suppose.
For men, standard garb is a pair of knee-length camo shorts and a t-shirt featuring the logo of the local beer for whatever country youre in at the moment. And of course, both men and women all wear flip-flops and bead necklaces from the miles of souvenir markets you encounter everywhere you go.
You used to have to be a bit of an Indiana Jones to bum around the world with a pack on your back, but no longer. Over the past 10 years, the travel industry has flexed its muscles, making remote trips as easy as banana pancakes. There are thousands of travel offices in Asia which can book anything from an elephant safari to a three-day trip to Cambodia or Laos in a matter of minutes. Want to ride a private overnight bus halfway across India? It will pick you up at your hotel. Want to go to Burma, floating down the Irriwaddy River on a bamboo raft? It is easily arranged...
And although Ive seen the Great Pyramid of Cheops, which was one of the Wonders of the World back in ancient times, nothing compares with the modern wonder of global telecommunications. For less than $2 I can call home from a convenience store in the smallest village in Asia and talk for 10 minutes. Or, keep in touch via the dozens of Internet cafes in every town from here to Dublin.
Occasionally, the real world intrudes, such as when I went to pick up a Very Important Person (my lovely wife, Jeannette) at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok and was shocked to bump into regular folks. What am I doing in this ridiculous outfit? I wondered. Why dont I get a decent haircut and wear some grown-up clothes and start acting my age? But thoughts like that always bring to mind Jim Morrisons great quote about our time on earth: No one here gets out alive. You may as well act out your fantasies, bub -- they wont last long.
Heres the latest on Planet Backpacker from up near the border of Burma:
-- Pickpockets are everywhere in Asia, and sure enough, I got hit. I was checking out a menu on a street corner one night when I felt something going through my shirt pocket. It was a baby elephant, trying to get at the orchid in my pocket which garnished a piña colada earlier in the evening. Yum-yum! Enjoy, little fella.
-- The Thai people love their massage and there are parlors everywhere -- even open-air venues on the street. After hoofing around all day, theres nothing better than a 30-minute foot massage -- a heavenly sensation for only $5.
-- Back to that elephant ride: Ours is the biggest tusker in the bunch and I call him Big Boy. Every 10 seconds he rears back his trunk and demands another banana. Ive brought two bunches because our guide says nothing makes an elephant crankier than when you mess with its food and water. Sometimes they go mad over such things and start stomping people. And when an elephant stomps you, he means business...
-- Jeannette and I are in Northern Thailand now in the city of Chiang Mai after a 500-mile train ride which went clickety-clack, bumpety-bump and rumbly-tumbly all night long, providing little in the way of sleep. Thailand is a country of good roads and freeways filled with new cars. And the airport, Skytrain and subway in Bangkok make America look like a third rate nation by contrast.
-- Chiang Mai offers some 300 Buddhist temples. The temples are like golden gingerbread castles, with a curlicue of red dragon spines along their ridges and psychedelic spires that are meant to impale any demons that happen to fall out of the sky. And each one has a golden, smiling Buddha inside.
Yet I think that if I see one more of these Buddha barns (or for that matter, any more dusty old churches or palaces), Ill go stark raving mad. But thats part
of the job description here on Planet Backpacker.