As my long-awaited trip to Thailand drew near in the fall of 2008, political unrest began brewing. Traveling solo for the first time was pretty scary on its own without adding any more challenges! I decided to throw myself fully into this adventure after being assured the country was still incredibly safe.
There were minimal signs of conflict when I arrived in Bangkok. It was an immense relief although I wondered if there really was something to be concerned about that I just wasn’t seeing or if it was simply overactive media reporting.
I traveled throughout the country over the next several weeks enjoying the incredible beauty of Thailand while keeping up with news reports. The animosity between the two political parties began to build and increase, although the protests remained non-violent.
My plan was to fly to Siem Reap, Cambodia to visit the legendary Angkor Wat after exploring Thailand. Unfortunately, by the time I returned to Bangkok, the political conflict had escalated. Protesters had taken over the downtown government offices and the airport. There were no flights in or out of Bangkok and riot police encircled the government offices.
I was thankful the protests were peaceful but decided to head south for a few days to see if the tensions would ease. I didn’t want to be caught in the middle of things if they escalated further.
I hung out on the beaches near Ban Phe before heading east to the gem center of Thailand, Chanthaburi, where I experienced the frenetic chaos of gem trading.
I toyed with the idea of catching a bus from Chanthaburi up through Cambodia to Siem Reap since the airport was still under siege. Several travelers who made the journey strongly discouraged me from making the 15 hour bus trip on rugged roads. I was incredibly disappointed as I’d dreamed of seeing Angkor Wat.
My thoughts turned to Koh Chang, a beautiful island in southeast Thailand. I arrived on Koh Chang on the last ferry of the night, hot, sweaty and tired. My backpack seemed heavier than it had in weeks. I stopped at the first guesthouse only to find it full. The second was no different. Nor was the third nor fourth nor fifth.
I became increasingly frustrated, hungry and hot. The heat and humidity were overwhelming and I simply didn’t know what to do.
I stumbled to yet another guesthouse, dropped my pack and burst into tears, asking if I could sleep on their beach for the night. It must have taken nearly everything they had not to burst out laughing at this poor, bedraggled farang!
Instead, one of the people who worked there showed incredible compassion and understanding. He assured me everything would be okay and he’d help me find somewhere to stay. I couldn’t help but laugh when he told me his nickname was Happy! It was absolutely perfect!
He motioned me to the back of his motorbike and I hopped on without giving it a second thought. Our search took us to a small guesthouse tucked into a hillside residential area. My savior on the motorbike waited while I dropped off my backpack and then gave me a ride to the restaurant where he worked. Once I’d eaten, cooled off and relaxed a bit, he deposited me at my doorstep for the night. I’d never been treated so kindly by someone I didn’t know.
I stayed an entire week on Koh Chang waiting for the airport to reopen. A small group of us hung out together during that time – Happy, the locals who worked with him, an Englishman who lived there part-time with his Thai partner and very insightful guy from Switzerland.
We learned a lot about each other, our different cultures, struggles, families and ways of life. I found myself hoping the airport wouldn’t reopen anytime soon. My time on Koh Chang was an eye-opening experience that changed me in many ways.
What felt like obstacles being thrown into my path along the way instead led to an unexpected opportunity to connect more deeply with myself and the people around me. While I don’t recommend political strife as a way to create great experiences, it allowed me amazing opportunities I may not have experienced otherwise.
Indeed, these weren’t obstacles. They were life-enriching opportunities.
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