Hello Southeast Asia: When Travel Is a Mirror

Hello Southeast Asia

When Travel is a Mirror

By Kristen Blanton

I was a fearful child with a wild imagination. There was no limit to the disaster-scenarios I could conger in my fragile eight year old mind.

As I grew I realized my anxieties were a twisted gift – it would take extra guts to get on that plane (because it could crash and we would die) but once we landed I felt a sense of personal accomplishment (though it took no skill whatsoever for me to sit and look out the window). I was building the confidence I needed to go out into the world one plane, train and automobile at a time.  

These infinitesimal steps were the building blocks that got me to my life turning point when three years ago I decided to give up my very cush home and life to live on the road for five months and document America on film.

I went from the child who had a difficult time getting in a car to having see it all. Every crack, crevice, waterway, mountain range and every face of the American soil had to be seen, smelled and touched by my hands.

So when Eddie Bauer offered us (us being myself and my co-creator/boyfriend Matt) the trip of a lifetime, I use that term because their guidelines were a dream. We were to work and play and be alive in spirit and adventure –we had the open ended opportunity to create our own itinerary, to move freely through countries and place and they offered the unimaginable freedom to create our imagery the way we best saw fit without restrictions, deadlines or boundaries. We have never been given this kind of work freedom and we are indebted. Because here’s the thing, when you’re allowed to merge your work lens and your life lens, many parts of that functioning cog start to crystalize, and you become cognitive of the full human experience. At least, in my case I did.

When we arrived in Vietnam after 34 hours of travel I remember not knowing what day or really what time it was. That was ok with me, better than ok, actually, because the disorientation was necessary to experience this trip in full. I wanted, needed, a clean slate… to be a blank sheet of paper that would leave with inkblots, scribbles, and eloquent nonsense written in every margin and line after five weeks in Southeast Asia.

We spent our first two weeks in Vietnam. We chose a north to south coastal route with stops in Hanoi, Cat Ba Island, Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Min. Hanoi was all sound, color, thick air and street markets selling light bulbs and underwear.

The 6-hour ride to Cat Ba from taxi, to mini bus, to bus to boat to bus was worth every moment. As soon as we found a place to throw our bags we rented a scooter and drove the island for hours. I sat close behind Matt, my legs squeezed tight around his thighs, my trigger happen finger went nuts taking in every treasure at every turn. Over the next few days we explored the island by foot, scooter, wooden boat and kayak. We paddled through floating villages with satellite dishes on top of the houses and chickens running around on floating docks. We ate homemade shrimp rolls every night by the same family. I maybe cried a little from the overwhelming beauty and realization that I had shattered the glass ceiling on so many of my internal fears.

On November 14th we took a 13-hour sleeper train to Hue. An excerpt for my journal reads, “I lay in my top bunk as the train coos. There is a light outside and then it disappears. Again I see it and just as quickly it is gone. We slither by towns, villages and jungles in the moonlight. Shadows play on the door to our cabin, bunkmates fast asleep. For 13 hours we watch a country that is not ours inch by inch by our window. We listen to the train’s work song of metal and rubber. It’s our Vietnam lullaby and it is dangerously beautiful as it has made me never want to leave.”

Vietnam was one giant veil of smells I’d never smelled before and colors I’d never seen before. Our 150km bike ride to Hoi An through Hai Van Pass was epic. I know that I am only a tiny human on this enormous Earth but right then, in that moment with the chilled wind running wild over my skin, I could feel everything that made me.

The next week was a blur of insane foods and beautiful people. Our flight to Thailand came too soon. In two weeks, I had barely touched a pinky toe on the surface of Vietnam.

Thailand was another animal completely. I knew what to expect more from this country, or so I thought. Yet here I was again, in another situation where I’ve been put straight on my ass while in the vulnerable space that is travel. It was so good for me, so deeply gratifying to be told by a place, “Hey, you don’t know me at all and that’s ok. Just be open and willing to what I have to show you and I promise you’ll not only thank me, you’ll thank yourself.”

Thailand broke me. It took a sledgehammer to my always-fragile emotional state. I was on a high in Vietnam, hadn’t been fazed by the body strains of sleeping on trains and floors, new cuisines and jet lag. I also hadn’t processed the election because I didn’t want to be sad and worried and fragile. And yet here I was, in the bathroom on a train, sobbing in the mirror for every reason in the world.

We flew into Bangkok in the morning and were on an 18-hour sleeper train to Chiang Mai by 7 pm. We rented bikes and roamed the city. We ate everything.

Matt found a ride by local bus for $2 a few hours north to Chiang Dao so we grabbed our oversized packs and made way for the train station by Tuk Tuk. We stayed in a hut that had a mattress on the ground for a $5 a night. We spent Thanksgiving hiking in the national park. I fell so many times, muddied all my clothes and cut up my hands. We watched tour guides carry luggage on their heads for tourists. They did this in 98-degree weather with broken sandals on.

How much can the physical body take? So much more than I’ve ever given mine credit for or even the opportunity to find out. That space between the mind and the body is so vulnerable. We tell ourselves we can’t and yet we look around and tiny men, smaller than me are doing the very thing.

In Thailand I was given this reality check over and over again. When I was in a national forest sweating tears, when I was on a long tail to Krabi or swimming in caves off the shores of the Andaman Sea. The steamroller just kept coming and with it, new understanding.

I have never been so vulnerable in my life. Everyday, among the awe and wonder I began to feel those old bits of me, the stale, the stubborn and insecure parts start to chip off. I saw myself changing and that part of the brain that fears change began to fight back. I was stuck between who I was and who I wanted to become.

We took more sleeper trains, broke down local busses, scooters, bikes, planes and sailboats in and around Thailand. In Kaho Sok we hiked, waded and crawled through the jungle. At the entrance of Nam Talu, also known as bat cave our guide, in his broken English said, “Looks like no rain. Many people died in here but no rain so we go in the cave.”

We slept on a sailboat for seven days. We went from self-sustained floating villages to the Spring Break version of Thailand (this consist of Thai boxing and buckets of liquor). We free climbed over the sea and got lost in rock cracks that lead to an oasis of monkeys and bats. We ate from the ocean, our showers from a hose off the back of the boat. Every morning I woke in a sleeping bag outside and drank coffee with strangers who became dear friends.

I am aware that I am so lucky to have been given this adventure to work out many of my internal… let’s call them quirks. Southeast Asia was a mirror. I had to take inventory of my bones, my marrow, my most unflattering traits and personality flaws. My insecurities were often on full display in the back of a Tuk Tuk or in the middle of a free dive in the Andaman Sea. No matter the embarrassment, I am thankful because if I didn’t have that mirror, if I were to refuse to look at the person staring back, I might never understand my neighbor, or the opposition or my purpose in all of it.

Photos by Hello America on 35mm

Kristen Blanton is one half of the creative team, Hello America. She lives in Southern California and her heart is on the road. Find her on Instagram.

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