I cut my world travel teeth backpacking through the U.K. and Europe in my early twenties. Traveling by myself I learned to communicate with locals, organise my own travel, make friends on the road and have a bloody good time in the process. In the next four years I traveled overland here and there through Europe and Asia, first with girlfriends and then with my partner Marty but I never once considered surviving adversity when travelling.
I thought I was just a backpacker who got by.
Fast Forward 30 years to our 2010 RTW Trip, when there were tensions brewing in Bangkok Thailand that would change that opinion.
We usually travel light, but on this leg we were laden with gifts purchased in Luang Prabang Laos, which were to be sent home courtesy of Bangkok’s excellent and cheap postal service. With the extra bags we were thankful for the cab ride from Suvarnabhumi Airport to Lamphu Tree House hotel, a great budget hotel located some 300m from the Democracy Monument in the Phra Nakhon District.
The first we knew of the red shirt protests was when our cab slowed to a stop a kilometre from our destination, in the mother of all riot induced traffic jams. After 30 stationary minutes our Cabbie spied an escape route (unfortunately not in our required direction) and asked us to exit the cab so he could take advantage of it. We agreed to do so.
Carrying parcels and trailing bags, we squinted into the glaringly hot but peaceful sun. I don’t know about Marty, but I soon slipped into a pleasant daydream full of iced drinks and cool swimming pools. I snapped out of it in a flash when the crackle of semi automatic gunfire filled my ears. I had never heard gunfire for real but it was instantly recognizable. The shots were distinct and matter of fact, like a jackhammer on a building site. There was no nail biting build-up, no dramatic film score to set the scene. They sounded alarmingly close and seemed to come from the very direction we were heading.
Retracing our steps we veered into the road that hugged Thewet Canal where luck intervened in the form of a group of Thai teenagers. They asked our destination and together we huddled over the map.
Meanwhile two civilian ambulances (utilities) screeched to a halt beside us and unloaded stretchers holding two gunshot victims.
Our young friends decided it was time to move and hurried us along the canal toward the Chao Phraya (river). At Thewet Ferry Dock, a circle had formed in the crowd to accommodate the stretcher bearers who had kept pace with us. The water ambulance arrived and one of the injured men was carried aboard. As we were swept with the crowd onto the ferry, I noticed the second injured man had been left on the dock. Why so? Scenarios raced through my mind.
Whistles blew and ferry ropes were thrown, while our Thai buddies coached us on the safest route to the hotel. Approached from the direction of the Chao Phraya (they said) we would avoid the worst of the fighting which centred on the Democracy Monument.
Bangkok ferries wait for no-one and we landed on Phra Athit dock in a rush of adrenalin, ourselves and our luggage in tact.
Dodging between traffic on Samsen Road we ducked beneath a bridge and followed Lamphu Canal as per our friends’ instructions. The hotel had matter of factly advised not to arrive this way, but what else could we do in the circumstances? Instead of walking on solid ground we found ourselves on a partially covered timber walkway that over-hung the canal. The murky green water visible through the gaping holes made me extra careful with my steps.
Back in Australia our home town of Townsville hosts the largest Defence Force base in Australia and we are familiar with Black Hawk Helicopters. We have seen thrilling displays of choppers flying low along the beach sending clouds of seaspray skywards, hovering overhead with a noise both thrilling and bone chilling.
Above our walkway in Bangkok several helicopters were doing just that with the addition of loudspeaker warnings. I am not sure if they were Black Hawks but they were dark coloured and they flew every bit as low as those Townsville Black Hawks.
But these were sinister and threatening.
Finally we reached our Lamphu sanctuary only to discover the booming noises we had been hearing were tear gas canisters being fired. As we sculled the hotel’s welcoming Fruit Drink, the gas entered reception stealthily, clearing it of guests within seconds. Gasping for air and with every orifice in our heads on fire we found our room and switched on the A/C. While I stripped off my sweat sodden clothing and propped myself under a cold shower Marty was busy checking out the action from the verandah.
In the hours that followed the rounds of gunfire and the shouting of the crowds across the canal increased. Locals ran back and forth looking for vantage points. Needless to say there was no exploration of the city that night, although Marty would have done so if I had agreed.
The following morning we were horrified to hear the tally of fourteen dead.
Stepping over dried pools of blood we passed wrecked army vehicles and considered ourselves lucky not to be counted in that number.
How surviving adversity when travelling altered my opinion:
- I now know we can deal with dangerous situations;
- That Thai People are generous to travellers;
- That Traveling light is always the best option.
Encountering adversity in a strange city and country showed me we could seek help, implement a plan under pressure, follow instructions and arrive safely at our destination. It changed my opinion of myself and my abilities.
Surviving adversity when travelling changed my opinion.