Favourite Stories - South East Asia / by Jessica Lee

A traveller walks along the beach at Tonsai Beach, Krabi, Thailand.

A traveller walks along the beach at Tonsai Beach, Krabi, Thailand.

Since I’ve gotten back from my four-month backpacking trip around South East Asia, friends and strangers have asked to hear about my travel stories. Male friends want to hear about long, dangerous adventures, female friends want to hear about romantic encounters; fellow travellers want to hear about how places they’ve been to have changed. Over the years of travelling and coming back home, I’ve come to realize that people like to hear stories in relation to where they are in their lives.

Depending on whom I’m talking to and the mood of the conversation, I usually start with a few light-hearted stories to get laughs. Then the topic either changes, or I’m asked to recount more of my life on the road – to which I usually tell them about the interesting people I meet, my favourite stories; the stories I’m about to tell you right now.

A fisherman rows her boat in Halong Bay, Vietnam.

A fisherman rows her boat in Halong Bay, Vietnam.

On the second week of my trip, I was sitting at one of the long communal tables at Mama’s Chicken, one of the popular restaurants in the community of Tonsai, Thailand, about to order dinner. One thing you have to know about Tonsai is that it’s off the beaten path, not a typical destination for travellers unless you happen to be at nearby Railay Beach already, or if you happen to be a rock climber who planned to visit specifically. I was one of the latter. Among the group of people who were seated at the table, I met a woman from Germany who was 35 and had been travelling for the last three years. In her previous life, she had been a lawyer, but after a break-up from her partner, she realized she had nothing holding her back and started travelling all over the world. She told me she was on the end of her trip and was heading back to Germany to look for new challenges, as travelling to different destinations had become “easy” to her now. She had spent months volunteering at an orphanage in Africa, then backpacking around Central America and now she was in Asia. In our hours-long conversation, she told me she was excited for me and for the adventures I would go on and the people I would meet. Her chapter on travel was ending while mine was just beginning, so it was serendipitous that we met that night. We were so engaged in the conversation of travel and experiencing that we did not even pause to learn each other’s names until we parted at the end. Her belief and optimism in me set the tone for the next four months. She left the following day and I did not keep in touch with her, but I wish with all of my heart that she got what she wanted back in Germany.

Tonsai Beach, in the Krabi province, is a popular climbing destination. The local community is small and has one main street. Electricity only runs from 6 pm to 6 am. At any time, the community can accommodate up to hundreds of visitors in their resorts, guest houses and hostels.

Tonsai Beach, in the Krabi province, is a popular climbing destination. The local community is small and has one main street. Electricity only runs from 6 pm to 6 am. At any time, the community can accommodate up to hundreds of visitors in their resorts, guest houses and hostels.

The next week, I was focused on getting my PADI open water certification, so I relocated to nearby Ao Nang, where I met my diving instructors; two Americans who had met and married while working on a research base in Alaska; who had now gone the extreme opposite by living in tropical weather and teaching diving to tourists. They were in their late thirties and I marveled at their ability to change lives so quickly while many people do the same things their entire lives, while living in the same city and having the same friends. I don’t mean to say that having a consistent group of friends and a steady lifestyle is bad, but meeting James and Catherine opened up my eyes to new possibilities. Even though we are in 2017, not everyone gets to choose where they live or who they spend their lives with, but for us, the lucky ones born in first-world countries, we do get to make our own choices – and it’s satisfying and reassuring to see it in action. I hope one day everyone will get the freedom to choose where they want to live, what they do with their lives, and whom they want to love. What many take as a right is an unreachable privilege for others.

Many climbers from all over the world come to Tonsai to climb outdoors. Massimo from Finland initially came to climb in 2014 and has now spent two years living and climbing on the beach. During nights, he works as a DJ at one of the bars on the beach. He is on his seventh tourist visa.

Many climbers from all over the world come to Tonsai to climb outdoors. Massimo from Finland initially came to climb in 2014 and has now spent two years living and climbing on the beach. During nights, he works as a DJ at one of the bars on the beach. He is on his seventh tourist visa.

In the remaining three months of my trip, I met a few more people whose company I really enjoyed, with stories that moved me and gave me fresh takes on life. But what storyteller gives away all of her best stories in one blog post? I will reveal more another time…

My favourite travel stories to tell are always about people I’ve met. I’ve always wondered why I tend to meet more interesting people while travelling compared to in my hometown Toronto. Do I find people who travel more interesting than someone who does not? Perhaps. I know I definitely find people with different cultural backgrounds more interesting than someone from the same place as me, or living in the same place as I am. And hence why I think I meet more interesting people abroad. But maybe it’s also something else. Perhaps it’s the way I meet people in general and my openness to strangers in different places. Perhaps I’ve been changed by these four months of travel and now I’ve come back more open to others.

The sun sets on a rice paddy in Cambodia near Siem Reap.

The sun sets on a rice paddy in Cambodia near Siem Reap.

Recently, in Toronto, I met a ravishing woman whose personality drew me to her immediately. She was helping to settle a group of refugees to Canada. I asked her how she ended up helping to settle refugees and she told me how in her previous life, she was working for the U.N. back in Lebanon, where she was from. I asked why she would leave her prestigious job to move to a new country. She told me she married a Palestinian man in Lebanon and wanted to have a child. In Lebanon, the child takes citizenship of the father and would not be automatically a Lebanese citizen by being born on Lebanese soil. As Palestine is currently stateless, if she had her child in Lebanon, her baby would be stateless. Thus, she applied for an immigration visa to Canada.

I met Ralph and Yves from Switzerland at a hostel in Hanoi, Vietnam. They bought nerf guns while travelling and started a nerf battle in the dorm. When I met them, I was recovering from a recent motorcycle accident and was bedridden due to not being able to walk. The playful battle brought a smile to my face.

I met Ralph and Yves from Switzerland at a hostel in Hanoi, Vietnam. They bought nerf guns while travelling and started a nerf battle in the dorm. When I met them, I was recovering from a recent motorcycle accident and was bedridden due to not being able to walk. The playful battle brought a smile to my face.

I’ve always wondered why strangers feel comfortable opening up to me on their deepest secrets, past struggles or dark histories. Maybe all it takes is to just ask. Perhaps everyone just wants his or her story to be heard, to be acknowledged. I challenge you to start a conversation with a stranger today. What you learn could surprise you, inspire you or change your life.

A couple observes the view from the top of Cat Ba Island, Vietnam.

A couple observes the view from the top of Cat Ba Island, Vietnam.


Related: Read one of my favourite interviews I’ve ever done with a fellow traveller, Jack in Montreal.