On Thursday 13th June, I started my journey through Malaysia and Thailand. I am leaving for Jaipur on the 1st July, and I wanted to reconnect with my ‘backpacking’ Ben before I leave South East Asia. I sat there, just days before my planned departure, and wrote out an itinerary based on destinations that I wished to visit, and destinations that others had recommended. I had learnt so much about the places that I had already visited, and through them, other aspects of myself…I knew there were more places and aspects to uncover. So here goes; 7 destinations in 11 days.
First stop; Penang!
I had heard about George Town in Penang; a city that manages to embrace British colonial buildings, temples, Chinese shophouses, churches and mosques all within a city populated by 222,000 locals. It really is a place where differences bring people together; something a lot more of us could adhere to. Here, and many other destinations in Southeast Asia, ‘different‘ is not a threat; it is ‘normal‘.
As I walked down the modest lanes, I noticed how the locals mirrored the low-rise buildings; diverse and charismatic. Buildings were draped in creative illustrations, and the streets celebrated installations and sculptures. Each piece stood tall on its own, disconnected from the other artworks, and with that, threading a connection throughout the city.
I have noticed in both Malaysia and Indonesia how they are not afraid of colour. Colour is used as an expressive form of emotion; a celebration and decoration. Bright reds, pinks, blue, yellows, green…everywhere is a rainbow. Everywhere you look, there is a a vibrancy. Not just within a multitude of cultures and faiths, but actual splashes of colours draped and dripped across the streets and buildings.
It is so refreshing and uplifting to witness bright paintings and pigments through the paths of Penang; like many places here in Southeast Asia. I am only ever used to seeing such lavish layers of colours during festivities and celebrations. I realised that here, there is always an essence of celebration throughout Southeast Asia; they are always celebrating ‘Pride‘. As much as I wish I was referring to gay rights, I am in fact talking about people’s pride for themselves; who they are, and where they are from. Pretty much the same thing as the LGTBQIA community I guess.
Here, people are so proud of their heritage, their home, and their lives. Locals want tourists to visit their home. Not to gloat, nor to compete or scream “THIS IS OUR COUNTRY”, but to share and show them what beauty lies within their Homeland. The air is filled with a sense of peace as well as pride. Perhaps this is due to everyone being at peace within themselves and their lives? Is this why the air can seem so heavy back home? Is it filled with anxiety, worry and weighted by social expectations and competitiveness?
Whilst roaming the roads and ticking off my checklist on Google Maps (organised or anal? I don’t know…nor care), I had one last destination to discover….Penang’s hidden speakeasy bars. Don’t ask me why, or how, but Penang is renowned for their secret bars, hidden within the streets of George Town. I had to find one. This was a ‘Mocktail Mystery‘ that I had to solve!
With Google Map by my side; the Watson to my Sherlock, I scuttled through the streets of George Town once the sun had sunk. I had read views online in regards to ‘THE BEST’ hidden bar in George Town and how to find the hidden door. As I approached the derelict-looking building, I patted myself on the back. The door took a couple of yanks before I was able to force my way in, and in the pitch black, I slowly felt my way towards the sound of the faint music. I started to panic and wonder whether I would enjoy this or not, and if it would be my scene. What was behind the door? What do people actually do in a secret bar? Why the hell is it a secret? ENOUGH! I was on a once in a lifetime adventure, and if now wasn’t the time to try out new things, then when was? The ‘Mocktail Mystery‘ was well and truly solved by Sherlock, and whilst opening the door, all I could think about was whether I would treat myself to a Virgin Mojito, or a Virgin Whisky Sours.
Sadly, the gentleman and his lady friend did not have either of these options in their apartment which I had so rudely intruded. Apparently the secret bar was on the other side of the building, down the stairs and through the fridge door…obviously. Needless to say, I no longer craved that mocktail. I was ready to leave, and in the morning, catch a flight to Langkawi!
Langkawi felt like a holiday destination. Whilst the streets were reminiscent of my childhood trips to Tenerife, the culture stayed true to its Malaysian heritage, and this was a pairing that I warmly welcomed. As soon as I check my small bag into my homestay, I strolled down the sandy path towards the sea. The beach and sea front were packed with activities and bars along the strip, all occupied by holiday makers; local families, fellow travellers, and boat owners. This really is a holiday destination for those that are after sun and a Brit-friendly environment without the awkward Irish bar.
However, my favourite part of Langkawi were the back streets, away from everything. The untouched land. I was staying a 10 minute walk from Beach Street, in a homestay run by a Muslim family.
Before going out, I spent time with them, talking about my trip thus far, and my life in general. The mother apologised for not being able to shake my hand when introducing myself to her (because of her faith), but said that she really liked me and my character. She said that “gentle, loving and kind”. I was touched, but also surprised? I am not one to tarnish everyone with the same brush, but I do acknowledge Muslims and their strong religious views, and this is probably why I was surprised that she warmed to me; a white, British, tattooed, pierced, blonde-highlighted, single man….and unspoken, but bloody obvious, fact that I am a homosexual.
When I was in Bali, if someone was to asked where you were from or where you were going to, they weren’t actually interested in your location or destination. They were asking this in relation to your soul; your ‘self’. Replying with ‘I don’t know where I am going’ evokes uneasiness from them as it is a sign of uncertainty or lack of self-confidence. After knowing this, I would reply with ‘I am just taking a walk’. They took delight in this. It showed peace, confidence and happiness.
Perhaps this woman felt this too? She could appreciate my self-confidence and peace which I have slowly built up during my travels. She gestured how most English people she meets seem to have their noses up in the air. Perhaps we as a nation do own an essence of snobbery about us, or maybe, in fact, we come across as this due to our lack of confidence and ease within new surroundings and ‘laid-back’ environments. I don’t know. What I do know is, most of us are so conscious of not wanting to make others feel unwelcome or devalued in relation to their faith, that we tend to stay silent and withdrawn in fear of saying something with unintentional offence.
The same goes for emotion. We as a nation do not discuss emotions; how we feel, or our struggles. This also stabs us in the back and makes us appear as cold and self-absorbed. I am sure none of us want to come across as self-absorbed, but we often feel the need to absorb and keep everything sucked in, because we feel we don’t have permission to show submission. We all have permission for self-love, and submission is a sign of strength that strives off this, not a weakness as we often fear.
I have really been thinking a lot lately about self-love. I mean, this is the main reason for my travelling isn’t it?
When growing up, I genuinely believed that my nan and grandad hated each other. Like, loathed. They used to share a lot of disagreements, bickering, a BAFTA-worthy slap or two from my nan, and even one evening where my grandad was sent out to his shed for the night.
They were married for 68 years, and they were best friends. My grandad worshiped the ground that my nan walked on, and after my grandad passed, for those last two years of her life, my nan continued to speak to him in his empty chair whilst losing the sparkle in her eyes. Her body shot down without him. The funny thing is, they knew each other better than anyone else. They took those disagreements and used them as lessons in which they learnt more about one another. They used those arguments to hear what was important to each other’s needs. Those battles made them victorious because they used them as opportunities to learn rather than opportunities to crash and burn.
I believe that this relationship mirrors the relationship that we often have with ourselves. We can hate ourselves, beat ourselves up, sit and watch as our head and heart bicker with one another, and in some cases, wish we would just ‘disappear’ for the night.
I have started to listen to myself, rather than walk out of the room. I sit there and I listen to what I have to say. I try not to roll my eyes, I try not to get defensive, and then I try to resolve it there and then. I am actually giving myself and my anxiety credit and value. I am not necessarily saying that my anxiety and worry is valid, but I am acknowledging it rather than ignoring it. I have stopped sending it out to spend the night in the shed…because I know how my grandad was when he returned, and I don’t want my anxiety to storm back into my kitchen with a vengeance either!
We do need to listen to ourselves, we do need to understand our own needs, and by doing this, we will become our own best friend. This is not selfish, this is survival. Without self-love, we will also lose the sparkle in our eyes; our self-belief. We will eventually shut down. Most of us do this everyday. We shut down opportunities because we tell ourselves that we’re not talented enough. Shut down relationships, because we tell ourselves we’re not good enough. Shut down success because we tell ourselves that that we’re not worthy enough.
The thing is though, If you do tell yourself that you are talented enough, that you are good enough, and that you are worthy of success then view you as cocky and overconfident by society. Can we ever win?
It is as though we feel that we are only allowed to be awarded these qualities if they are presented to us by someone other than ourselves. So, in turn, we must wait until someone awards us these qualities until we can pin them to our personality? I’m not accepting that. We don’t have to. You don’t have wear your traits like medallions. Tell yourself that you ARE all of those things that you wish to be, you have more authority than anyone else to do this. By believing that you are all these things, others will see these qualities within you.
Saying that, we all love a little sparkle, so why not start awarding others with those medals of ‘value’. If we all make more time to award and praise others for their talents, worth, and success, we can all prowl with pride wearing our medals of honour to match our new found self-love. Win.
YOU ARE TALENTED ENOUGH. YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH. YOU ARE WORTHY ENOUGH.
As I lay here in bed, I await my journey to Koh Lipe in the morning. An island where there is nothing to do but spend time on practicing this mantra.
As the small wooden boat glided through the glass-like sea, it was as if we had also glided back in time; a time where there were no speed boats, no built-up resorts, no worries.
There was no sound. Literally no sound. A couple of birds, a few locals conversing, a whisper as the waves wondered up the white sand. That was it. I suddenly felt a sense of belonging. I no longer looked or felt like a ‘tourist‘. This highlighted-hair was back in business….pass me my technicolour dream shirt.
It takes 20 minutes to stroll from one end of the island to the other. Something that I was more than prepared to do. I slowly ventured up a quiet hill to find my hut where I would be resting for the next two nights. Nestled within palm trees stood my wooden hut; its serenity amplified by the sound of the waves splashing against the shore below…and the heat of the hut amplified by the lack of air con.
That evening, I sat by the sea, watching people glide down the sand, as the sun slipped down and under the horizon. I sat there for three hours. Not just because I wanted to take the most instagramable sunset known to man, but because I had nothing to do, no where to go, no agenda, and…wait for it…no network or Wi-Fi. I sat. I listened to the waves, I spoke with myself..and I spoke with two dogs who befriended me, most probably out of sympathy. I also got that instagramable sunset snap.
Whilst my stay within my magical wooden looked ideal…the prospect of hungry mosquitoes skipped my mind. As I laid there on my second and final night, I could not rest my body or mind. I was bleeding from constantly scratching, and I felt my skin burning. Right then I was taken back to right before I was diagnosed and those sleepless nights, filled with anxiety, whilst laying in bed scratching until the early hours. It reminded me of when I was unknowingly fighting off the HIV virus. I suddenly felt trapped within this magical wooden hut. It became a wooden cell. The panic, the pain, the frustration and the vulnerability turned overwhelming, and the vibrations of the club from the other side of the island sounded only too close for comfort. I laid there. I could not fight against it any more. I had ended up in the shed for the night like my grandad. I had to accept it. I had to just ‘be’ as Made said. The music stopped. I slept.
As I woke from broken sleep, I was anything but eager to head to a city that never sleeps…Bangkok. Please be air con.
There was no air con.
The lady at the homestay handed me my key which was wired to a iron bell. I am talking about a mantel-piece size bell. The size a dinner lady would aggressively swing to order you in for lunch. I suddenly visualised myself carrying it whilst tromping through Khaosan Road, looking disheveled and eaten alive by mosquitoes as I wail “The bells Esmeralda, the bells!”. Maybe she did not wish for me to get lost? I have heard that Bangkok is maze of a place.
A maze it was. Amazing too. I hopped onto the back of a motorbike, and followed the lights towards the city centre. As we sped through the streets alongside the traffic, I couldn’t stop laughing. Whilst the wind was blowing against my helmet, this whole situation began to blow my mind. I am on a motorbike in Bangkok. “Hi, sorry I can’t get to the phone right now, I am currently speeding down Dinso Road with Somchai.” I was met with an overwhelming feeling of joy. In that very moment I experienced another ‘ok…this is a memory‘ realisation.
Where was I off to? To Bangkok’s Red Light District of course. I mean, I had to right?
As I wondered through Soi 4 Silom, I felt like I was transported into a West-End production of Miss Saigon. I watched the men and women enticing me into the bars to watch them ‘perform‘ for me, and all I could think of was the movies in their minds and their back stories. An ‘engineer’ type character promised me a good time with his girls as it snapped his leather whip. I kindly declined.
Whilst making my way to Burger King for Wi-Fi and a Whopper, I was met with another gengltman who offered to take me to the “best gay bar in Bangkok”. I was intrigued. I followed the tactile man past the neon lights and booming bars towards a dimmed side street. We were here. I stood in front of a small convenience store; its sliding doors blacked out with tin foil. The door slid open and I was met with a ladyboy dressed in a pair of baggy denim jeans and a hoodie. This was no longer a scene in Miss Saigon…not a sequin in sight.
The leather sofa was worn, yet coated in a plastic cover to preserve its existence for another decade; my clammy legs squeaked as I prepared myself for the unknown. Apparently it is customary to buy the gentleman who brought me here a drink. Apparently, it is customary to buy the majority of the staff a drink. There goes my Burger King budget.
It was just me. Where the hell was I? I was sat in an empty bar, on a sqeauky sofa, with a Celine Dion track providing me with the tiniest bit of familiarity during this surreal scenario.
The ladyboy and their merry men strutted in front of me and stood in a line. Each one was modelling a different style of underwear. I was told to pick my favourite. I was torn between boxers and briefs. I do like the practicality of boxer shorts, but a pair of briefs feel more comfortable I thought. As I deliberated my personal preference, I was told to hurry up because the boys were ‘hungry’. Hungry?! I had just sacrificed my Whopper for this! I quickly realised that they were in fact hungry for men with money and not burgers and Wi-Fi…so I slithered out of the sliding doors and scuttled to safety.
The next day I stuck to what I knew best; seeing sights, and following a self-devised itinerary. I clicked my camera and ticked my to-do list across the streets of Bangkok, and I began to notice a different side to Bangkok. A city of culture, beauty, bright-lights…and boys in underwear.
That evening I picked up a shirt for £1.50 and took a boat along the river to ‘Asiatique’; a place for food, music, entertainment and shops.
As I sat on the open boat, I felt such a sense of serenity. Classical music was gentle fed through the boat’s speakers, as the gentle breeze soothed my clammy skin. The lights bounced off the rippling water, and I felt so refreshed; physically and mentally refreshed.
I sat on the pier and sipped my mocktail whilst looking out at the dazzling horizon. I was ready to go. I miss the sea.
The thing with busy places is that you are reminded that you are solo. Your solidarity is enhanced, and as you watch couples laughing over dinner, and friends taking selfies, you begin to feel that little bit lonely. If I’m going to be alone, then I need to be alone.
Someone asked me if it was hard travelling solo; travel for one. I slept on this. I woke up and showered prior to my flight and realised that I’m mostly having conversations with myself (internally, not out loud…I haven’t reached that moment yet). Travelling solo. Hard? No. Challenging? No; possibly easier than if with someone else. What I do miss though is sharing the sunsets with someone and having these moments of wonder being kept alive with someone else. I’ll never forget these memories I have made; but reminiscing is always best when shared, no?
Before I reached Ko Phi Phi – Thailand’s ‘Island Superstar’, I had already judged it on what people had warned me about; party, loud, a drinker’s paradise, and governed by a young crowed.
As soon as I disembarked, I noticed how the atmosphere was filled with warmth; not just from the overbearing sun, but from the overwhelming flurry of travellers. The winding paths were filled with tattoo parlours, bars, massage shops and food stalls; all spilling onto the sandy streets. There was a buzz here. This tiny island was on it’s own, surrounded by crystal currents; miles from neighbouring land, and this created a sense of liberation and freedom. It was as if, here, people really did shed their skin and inhibitions, and slid into a care-free disposition.
When I was younger, I had a few experiences of starting new schools as a latecomer. I was the new kid. I remember thinking that when I arrived at a new place, I could be WHOEVER I wanted to be; a clean slate; a better version of myself. Someone who people would like and think was ‘cool’.
I’m sure I was not the only one who ever thought like this during their school years?! Don’t even get me started on Mufti Day! The pressure?! You had one day to shine; to ‘dress to impress’ and earn popularity points. In year 9, my mum bought me a ‘Skater Boi’ t-shirt from New Look for my Mufti Day outfit…unknowingly from the girl’s section. I realised this mistake whilst sitting next to Sarah who was wearing the exact same T-Shirt during my German lesson. I was devastated…but mum was not to know…and the top was cute! Sarah had good taste. Go Sarah.
In Phi Phi, it was the complete opposite. People did not seem to escape here to be anyone but themselves. It was as though people couldn’t wait to be true to themselves here. A small island, with no outside world, all under one roof…its called We R Us, We R Ys, We R Us.
I took myself on a boat ride. There was a choice of a booze cruise or an old traditional thai boat. I took the latter of course. During my time in Canggu, I faced my fear of the ocean and took myself into the depths of the sea; swimming above the ‘unknown‘. This time, I decided to go one step further and delve deep within the depth of the ocean; facing the ‘unknown‘ that I have been so afraid of. The unknown turned out to be a collection of the most beautiful fish and coral that I have ever seen. It was like another world. Sometimes venturing into the unknown can be fearful, but it could also introduce you to a side of the world, and a side of yourself that you would never experience if you were not to take that risk.
I was there for two nights. Not long enough to indulge in this paradise to the max but long enough to leave with unforgettable memories of beauty, accomplishments, friends, laughter and…of course…sunsets.
The last stop; Phuket.
The rain easily persuaded me to stay in bed where I binged on ‘POSE’, and over indulged in my thoughts. Whilst laying in bed I checked my bank account and realised this journey of mine was on it’s very last legs. This was it. It must be.
With £200 left to my name, I knew that I had to start ‘waking up’ and come to terms with reality. I began deliberating my options. Once my job in India comes to a close, do I use this money to venture back home with a month’s wage, or do I head back to Bali to spend the last of my earnings in a place which stimulated my mind and soul? It was a gamble.
I’ve never been good at gambling. Whilst in Vegas last year, I was scared of putting my chips on a number in fear of losing all I had. Then again, I did buy those chips purely for that use no?
I worry about returning back. Returning back to where I was, in fear that returning back will not just mean in body but also in mind. Will these experiences and euphoria be left at customs with only my keyrings serving as evidence of my trip?
When I return, will I once again feel that panic of status…or lack of? To survive, I must reacquaint myself within the ‘norm‘…something which feels alien to me.
I knew this was coming. I knew this was not forever…not just because of my finances but because of my medication. It is obvious that I would have to return. Obvious that I’m only as free as my pharmacy allows me to be.
A worry of mine, which I have struggle with for many years now, is differentiating the difference between ‘running away’ from problems, and ‘seizing new opportunities’. I have been told many times in my life, that I run away from my problems. So much so that I am always second guessing myself and my motives. Am I running away? Or am I running towards?
I guess I am running away. I am doing both; running away and finding myself. When I say ‘finding myself‘ I don’t mean that I expect to find the ‘real me’ spread out next to the shells on the shore, ready for me to pick up and take back home. I have chosen to walk away from all the cultural conditioning that has become my world and my belief since a child. I guess ‘finding‘ yourself, in other words, is in fact ‘returning‘ to yourself; the real you before the world painted (and stained) you with others’ opinions and social expectations.
With a few days left in Kuala Lumpur, I used this time to finalise my resources for Jaipur, as well spend some time with friends that I had made a long the way.
We visited the helipad in the centre of Kuala Lumpur, and sat there admiring the sunset. I treated myself to a bottle of sparkling wine which I happily sipped whilst we all shared stories of our travels with one another. Reminiscing on our journeys made me feel a great amount of pride and accomplishment of my own. We often forget to live in the ‘now’, as we are also so consumed with the past and the future; what has happened and what is going to happen, rather than what is happening NOW.
If I leave, when I leave, I will not see it as a sign of failure, but a sign of accomplishment. What have I failed at? Failed at taking a risk and experiencing a once in a lifetime opportunity? Failed at doing something awakening? Precisely.
Each step of this journey is a new chapter, including the final chapter of my adventure entitled ‘The Return’. But for now, this chapter of ‘The Islands’ is now complete, and the next chapter entitled ‘Jaipur and the Greatest Showman’ begins tomorrow.