Updated: Jun 12, 2020
Now more than ever people seem to want to travel not for luxury or relaxation, but for adventure. People want novel experiences. They want to set off half-way across the world and explore “off-the-beaten path” destinations. They want to go off the grid only to return weeks later with stories of an epic adventure others can only dream of. And why shouldn’t they? After all, the best stories, the best experiences, are all had while putting yourself into situations you wouldn’t otherwise be in.
The thing is, this doesn’t necessarily mean having to choose isolated destinations or partaking in adrenaline pumping activities. It can be as simple as choosing to deviate from the traditional path in favour of exploring new avenues, even while in the usual places. Look at, for instance, Thailand. Now I know what you’re thinking. Thailand, the land of flip-flops and full moon parties, where, on certain islands, you can find more tourists than locals! But there is more to this enigmatic country than meets the eye, if you only just make the effort to look beyond the surface.
This was the focus of my recent backpacking trip to Thailand. I wanted to learn as much as possible about the real Thailand and the people who actually live there. As such, I decided to seek out socially conscious adventures, trying my best to travel ethically while avoiding the typical touristic, manufactured experiences in favour of the real deal.
First stop: Bangkok!
Embracing the chaos and complexity of the country, I was able to experience a Thailand that was vibrant and resilient, meeting people from all walks of life, not just my fellow backpackers.
Experiencing Khao San Road
Ask any backpacker returned from Thailand and they’ll tell you that you can’t leave Bangkok without experiencing Khao San Road! The bustling street packed with street vendors, tattoo shops, roadside pubs and mobs of mostly board-short-wearing young people having shots with their fellow backpackers, is iconic for its wild nightlife.
But while many of the Westerners I met on my first day in Bangkok planned to spend a night or 2 on Khao San Road and then move on north to Chiang Mai or south to the famous Thai Islands, I chose to stay a bit longer in the capital, opting instead to explore a less travelled area of the city: Klong Toey slum.
Khlong Toey Market
Khlong Toey is one of Bangkok’s largest low-income communities, home to more than 100,000 people. Walking through the narrow streets, I made my way to Khlong Toey Market, a fresh food market open all day, everyday. I was transfixed by the watery nature of the community, which many residents refer to as “Nakhon Khlong Toey”, or the City of Khlong Toey.
Entering the market was like an assault on my senses. There was the smell of fresh fish mingling with the scent of washing powder and mouth watering street food. On my way to buy some dragon fruit I passed a stalls selling everything from frogs and insects to fresh veggies and soup.
A short while later I left the market. As I wandered between the tiny tin-roofed homes, avoiding the trash lining the uneven path, it amazed me how happy and content the residents seemed to be, in contrast to their objectively grim surroundings. Children were playing, women were chatting and every space was being used to its fullest. Clothes were being dried on top of wooden shacks while old women were doing their best to sweep whatever small area they had access to.
My Local Encounter
As I passed through the intimate neighbourhood I was lucky enough to be approached by a young Thai man, eager to practice his English. During our conversation he explained to me that despite living there for decades, most residents still don’t own their own homes, many of which lie on top of stilts reaching out of polluted water, and how this leaves them vulnerable to the whims of landowners and those who seek to gentrify the area without a care for the people who have been living there for generations. It was a truly eye-opening experience listening to him talk about this issue. I could see that he was truly passionate about it and I was grateful to have the opportunity to grow my understanding and exchange ideas with someone who was so different from me, and yet also the same.
I left that afternoon captivated by the slum and its residents, especially the cheerful, smiling children. I wanted to do something to make a positive impact on the people living there. Luckily, I was able to do just that when I discovered the Sikha Asia Foundation.
The Sikha Asia Foundation – Providing Education for Thailand’s Underprivileged Communities
“Sikha” is the Sanskrit word for education, and the Sikha Asia Foundation’s main purpose is to support education for Thailand’s most underprivileged and marginalized communities, especially children. The Foundation works to provide training programs for teachers, librarians and underprivileged women seeking to enter the job market, as well as a number of different “projects” to better the communities they serve. These include the community library and mobile library projects, the scholarship project, the dormitory project, and the nursery school project. It’s a great organization and I encourage anyone who visits South East Asia to look them up!
The next day I returned to Klong Toey and stepped into the Sikha Asia Foundation’s headquarters. Here I spent an incredibly memorable afternoon volunteering with the organization and learning about the efforts they were undertaking to support the local children. After a tour and discussion with the staff, I was led to the library where I would be meeting the children who were scheduled to visit. That afternoon, I led reading circles at the organization’s library, played games with the visiting children, and enjoyed some delicious McDonalds corn pies (that’s right, corn-not apple-pies). It was an unforgettable experience, and one that I would never have had the opportunity to immerse myself in had I chosen to avoid the Klong Toey slum.
Making My Travel Experiences Meaningful
Travel seems to be on everyone’s bucket list and yet so few get to truly experience it in a fully immersive, conscientious way. In a day and age where anyone can open up their laptops and search up videos on far-off lands, travel has become less about simple sight-seeing and more about gaining experiences that will last with you for a lifetime. It is about meeting people who will forever change your perspective and learning things about yourself that you’ll never forget.
But getting this kind of experience doesn’t require travelling to the least touristy place you can think of. Rather, all it really takes is the desire to do things a little differently, and the determination to leave a positive impact on the locale you visit.
Many people who come to Thailand spend most of their time photographing the temples, posing with golden Buddhas, and partying on the islands. And though I too am guilty of visiting my fair share of temples, the focus of my trip was quite different. I spent time walking through Bangkok’s Klong Toey slum, playing games with the children and learning first hand what life is like for the people of Klong Toey. I wandered through the bustling markets and ate fried scorpion on a stick...well, most of it anyway! I volunteered with a deserving organization and met some amazing people. And all I had to do was make the conscious decision to step awayfrom the well trodden tourist path and explore somewhere new, even in one of the most visited cities in the world.
I had the time of my life in Bangkok. I hope you do too!
For more information on how to volunteer with the Sikha Asia Foundation, visit their website: http://sikkha.or.th/en/projects/volunteer/
Hey! I’m Sangeethai, a Toronto based storyteller always on the look-out for the next adventure. If I had to choose three words to describe myself, they’d be: Student. Adventurer. Couch Potato. My interests include politics, security, law, communications, and, of course, travel! I’m competitive about almost everything, love deep discussions, and am an introvert at heart.