Of course, traveling alone, one meets many people along the way.
On the backpacker circuit most of these are better described as encounters. In tuk-tuks, minivans, restaurants, ferries, guest houses, the conversation is always pretty much the same: "Where are you from?", "Where have you been?", Where are you going?","How long have you been traveling?", and "How much time left before you return home?"
These conversations are useful because we share specific, real time information about conditions, accommodations and costs. Although I read travel guides and use the internet when I have access, this has been the most immediately valuable source of information along the way and I have changed direction more than once in response to someone's praise or condemnation of a particular destination. But they end, frequently in mid-sentence, as each destination is reached. Some passengers disembark and others climb aboard. We wish one another good travels amid shuffling of backpacks and duffels, wave goodbye, and find ourselves alone or in new company. And the conversation begins again.... "Where are you from?....."
Then there are a few people one meets and knows friendship will last a lifetime - in our hearts even if we never meet again, and a rare couple who change direction and travel a short distance along the road with you. These are genuine treasure! There is a lovely Englishwoman who made me change my mind about Bangkok and joined me for a wild ride through Cambodia, an American designer with whom I spent only a single evening and a day in Luang Prabang and yet we became friends, sharing our travels through email, the young Polish First Mate aboard Ever Charming who made me coffee every morning at dawn: we shared our thoughts on life, politics, culture and philosophy as we watched the sunrise and, on one amazing morning, full-moonset, over the Pacific ocean, the lovely women from Romania and Germany I met in Sanctuary who I can't wait to visit....
And in Thailand, for a brief moment, I am family....
The conductor wakes me and I climb down from my second tier berth on the overnight train going from Thanaleng Station, Laos to Bangkok. My cabin mate came aboard after I went to sleep so we have not met, and she is probably as disgruntled when I wake her on my way out as I was when she came in.
It is well before dawn, about 4 am, and I have arrived in Ayutthaya. There are a couple of songtaews and their drivers in the almost-deserted rail station, but I am not really ready to head off into the dark looking for my hotel so I walk across the road to where there is a local woman making breakfast at a street stand. I ask her for coffee -- by now I have become addicted to Nescafe -- sit down on a rickety bench nearby, amid crumbled concrete, trash, and dirt, to watch the local morning begin. The taxi drivers and other workers are sitting on low plastic chairs, drinking tea and eating soup. A Buddhist monk comes by with his bowl....
As the sky begins to lighten, I cross back to the station, show my hotel reservation voucher to a driver and ask if he knows the way. There is the usual consultation between drivers as they speak back and forth for a few minutes in Thai while I watch and wait. Eventually, one driver nods at me and smiles, "Baan Sabaidee! Yes!" I ask if he knows the way. He nods again -- I am always a little skeptical after watching these discussions, but he is enthusiastic, so we agree on price, I let him throw my duffel into the back, climb in behind it, and we are off.
My hotel is a few kilometers away from the station and just outside of town - it is a little eerie to be alone in the back of a songtaew driving away from the city -- still, I reach the hotel before sunrise. There is no one at the reception, but the driver - true to his word is familiar with this place. He walks to the house next door and knocks. A sleepy young woman comes to the door and crosses to the hotel. It may be before 6 am, and I may have awakened her, but she is immediately warm and welcoming. She registers me quickly and then she, and another woman who has appeared, insist on lifting my very heavy duffel and carry it, giggling together, up two flights of stairs and down a tiled hallway where geckoes run over the white washed walls. They open the door, turn on the air conditioner, show me the room, ask if it's okay and if I need anything. I don' t need anything but some sleep so I thank them and still giggling (is it me.....?), they disappear. I slide into cool white sheets and fall asleep.
When I wake a couple of hours later, I make my way to the breakfast room where they have stopped serving, but no worries, they are only too happy to find someone to cook for me. I sit on the patio overlooking a small farm and lotus pond while they serve me delicious coffee and eggs with rice and chili sauce. An older Thai man comes to sit with me and asks me about my travels, He introduces himself as Opa, father of Yui, the woman who runs the hotel.
Yui, I will find, is something special. In her early thirties, she has a young daughter who is the daughter of the hotel owner. This is not unusual in Thailand. Many of the men have multiple 'wives'. And for women this is accepted practice. They have few options and the protection of a wealthy man can keep them out of poverty. Yui is intelligent and friendly, and the Baan Sabaidee inn is unusually welcoming and well run. Over the next few days, we will become more than friends.
On my first evening here, Yui invites me to come out with her and Lauren, another guest of the hotel. Lauren is a Australian woman in her thirties, gorgeous, and never stops talking in her heavy Queensland accent. I cannot make out about a quarter of what she says so I have to concentrate and rely on context, but everything that comes from her mouth is pure joy. One of her favorite expressions is "nothing but goodness" and she uses it to describe people, places, experiences, and most of all food. I can't understand how she manages to be so slender because I have never watched someone eat so much.
Yui takes us in her SUV to see some ruins and then to the local night market for food. She drops us at one end and she says she will meet us on the other side to take us back to the inn. We find a stand among the crowded stalls where there are large fresh fishes stuffed with herbs, coated in rock salt and still roasting on spits. The smell is divine! We ask for two -- the vendors laugh when they hear we want more than one, but they package and offer them to us along with huge bags full of noodles, cabbage, herbs and sauces. It appears we have purchased two of something intended to feed several people! This doesn't deter Lauren from stopping at more stands along the way for fresh fruit and sweets; pomelos, watermelons, coconut custard, sticky rice with banana, mango and coconut wrapped in banana leaves. She is the Pied Piper of food and I follow her willingly.
When we reach the car, we are carrying enough bags of food for an army. So we invite Yui and her family to eat with us. We sit on the patio, under the stars eating and drinking ice cold beer. Although Yui and her family (the giggling girls are her aunt and sister) speak only limited English, we all talk and laugh together while they show us how to eat the things we have brought. The fish is white, flaky and incredibly moist. It is the best thing I have eaten in months. I learn the Thai words for delicious....and full!
For the next few days, Yui takes us everywhere in the city. We go to markets, museums: one evening she takes us to the river and negotiates with the boatman for an evening cruise. He drops us off and waits while we walk among the ruins and watch the sun set. Then we go to a restaurant on the banks of the river. In the entry there is a tank of fresh caught river prawns. In minutes they are grilled and we are devouring them with hot sauce and more cold beer. Yui scolds us for not eating the heads so we give them all to her.
Yui is a rock star in the city. She has no money, and her family lives at the hotel with her. But this doesn't stop her from having an enormous heart and living her life in the service of others. She has a lovely daughter - Sabaidee - who almost never leaves her arms - even when she is driving! All over Asia one sees this: children sitting between their mothers and the steering wheel while they drive - no seat belts in sight, or riding 3-4 deep on motor scooters... It makes me so nervous I have to look away and say a prayer for innocents.
During the floods in Thailand last fall, Ayutthaya was one of the places hardest hit. Everywhere, on the ancient ruins and modern buildings, you can see the watermark 6-8 feet above ground level. Contaminated water became a serious health threat in the city so Yui negotiated for credit to purchase a mobile water purification unit in a trailer. Then she offered free, clean water to everyone in the community. She is paying for it slowly, from her pocket and through donations. When we visit local restaurants, some of them give her money they have collected to help. We do not share enough common language to exchange more than simple information, but I have fallen completely in love with this woman.
When Yui is busy elsewhere, Lauren and I rent motorbikes and tour the ruins. Every time we pass a market, Lauren buys more food...we eat everything we see, many things that we have never seen or tried before.
My final day in Ayutthaya, Lauren and Yui insist on taking me to the train. Opa wants to come along too: he has developed a crush and taken to appearing whenever I am outside of my room, calling me 'Miss Universe': the entire family is teasing me and laughing about it.
On the way to the train, Yui insists we visit the reclining Buddha, it must be 50 meters long - by far the largest I have ever seen- so we are almost late for the train. As we pull up to the station the train is pulling in: Opa takes my duffel while I buy a ticket. They all dash across the tracks to the train with me and my departure is a blur of hugs, kisses and a few tears.
When I look out the window they are all standing on the track, still waving as the train pulls away.....