I was chatting with a friend today about the idea of Going Back. Back to a place you’ve visited before, back to a place you really loved in the past hoping that it will redeliver the magic you found the first time round. It was a pertinent conversation, as we both found ourselves back in a place we had visited, individually, over a decade prior. This month, I’m working and living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a city I first discovered as a backpacker on my first big world adventure. I found the south islands of Thailand to be overhyped, over-trafficked, and too full of package tourists showing scant regard or respect for their hosts. Chiang Mai, by contrast, was relaxed and peaceful, bursting with authentic Thai hospitality, and exotic golden temples, tall mountains and bustling markets. Better than another overcrowded beach any day. I connected with a dozen other backpackers from around the world and we quickly formed a wonderful group, continuing onwards together into Laos. And so, when it came time to choose somewhere in Asia to live and work for 6 weeks after our great big Australian adventure, Chiang Mai felt like a no-brainer. It was time to go back.
Much has changed. Chiang Mai is busier and more expensive. Travel writers like myself have raved about it so much that there’s little surprise every house in the moat-surrounded Old Town is either a guesthouse, a restaurant, a tour operator, or massage parlour. The classic $3 Thai Massage is now $10, the classic $2 beer can be as much as $8 in a bar, there are so many more cars on the road, the air pollution February to April is among the worst in the world. With cheap rent, great food and high speed internet – certainly faster and more reliable than anything I encountered in Australia – it’s little surprise that thousands of digital nomads live here too. As someone who can work with nothing other than a laptop and a stable internet connection, that includes me, at least for a short while.
We found an Air Bnb in a neighbourhood to the south of Old Town, in a dusty road surrounded by Thai and Burmese. Every day, we wave to the old lady stitching clothing for the market (she ran downstairs one day to give Raquel and Gali some handmade clothes). We yell “Sawatdee!” to the waving ladies at the authentic Thai eatery on the corner, and take Raquel on Thursdays for her private Muay Thai class on the main street (they love her to bits!) After the first 2 weeks, locals realized we were not transient tourists, embraced us, and I cannot emphasis how lovely it is to be living here as opposed to travelling. Of course, the kids come with plenty of challenges too, but we knew that going in.
And so, this will forever be my new cherished memory of Chiang Mai, a new layer of paint over my previous romanticised memory of solo backpacking. Ask me about Chiang Mai, and I will tell you about the convenience of Grab Taxis and exploring temples with my daughter seated in the bicycle basket of our communal Mobike rental. I will tell you about the crowded Saturday night market where you need a few visits to discover everything, or exploring the Ginger Farm, and the innovative Art in Paradise, the Elephant Poo Poo Paper Park, the Tube Trek Water Park, and other exceptionally kid-friendly activities. No more bars and parties. No more dreadful Chang beer hangovers. No more chance romantic encounters. There are also no more cooking classes or elephant sanctuaries, which I covered during my second visit while filming an episode of Word Travels. Much like the amazing Pixar flick Inside Out, those memory balls have been stored, and new memory balls have taken their place. This is the price of Going Back.
Too often we hope to recapture something special we felt the first time round, a folly that always accompanies any attempt to relive the past. Things change, places change, we change. Better, perhaps, to try something new and appreciate what was. Or revisit a place knowing full well and with eyes wide open that in the process, you’ll probably be erasing its previous experience. I was telling my friend that, during the filming of my TV show, I had the opportunity to go just about anywhere. I revisited several countries – Bolivia, New Zealand, Thailand, Nicaragua – because I knew particular adventures I had discovered as a backpacker would make great TV episodes. Little did I know that by repeating those adventures I was in fact robbing myself of what made them so special in the first place – the fact that they were new and different. Some places and activities really should stay once-in-a-lifetime. Instead I should have used the opportunity to visit new countries and discover new adventures. Another regret, like everyone else, I have a few. That concludes my rant about Going Back. Travelling with my family and embarking on new life adventures, it’s better instead to just enjoy the process of Moving Forward.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.