I went down to the spare bedroom tonight to try to find a book (Midshipman’s Hope, Feintuch if you were wondering), and guess what I found? This lovely memory from my first ever trip abroad.
This… is a replica. I’m quite fond of replicas, not the least because I could never afford a real 3500 year old antique. But mostly because I liked its simple, elegant design. The “swirly bits”, as Slartibartfast might have referred to them as. And I wanted to bring something “meaningful” home from my first trip.
This is replica pottery from Ban Chiang, referred to as the most important prehistoric archeological site in SE Asia. Here, in northern Thailand, rose agriculture (in SE Asia), animal domestication, and advanced metalurgy – all industries that were thought to have been discovered a thousand years later. I liked how the pottery looked, and so I bought myself a souvenir.
This was near the end of my first international trip (outside of the US), and after almost four weeks of backpacking, I was ready to head home. Exhausted and broke. But one final push from Nong Khai, a three hour motorcycle ride, brought me to this very remote village, and to my first “destination” UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I’d been to World Heritage Sites before, of course. But this was the first one that I had researched ahead of time and made specific plans to go and visit. I couldn’t have picked a more out of the way choice.
On my list of the most questionable things I’ve done while travelling is this: driving a motorcycle (a 120 CC moped, let’s be honest), in a foreign country, on the left (wrong) side of the road, in a third world country. Sometimes (not this time) without a helmet. At least I did have supplementary health insurance.
Three hours (so says my diary entry) there, and three back.
See, I couldn’t take the main highway; I chose to take the mountain back roads, which would be (to my credit) a safer alternative to crazy Thai drivers, driving on the wrong (to me) side of the road. So I took my time, and took in the scenery.
And it damned near wrecked my hands. Anyone who’s driven a motorcycle (even if what I drove, wasn’t, not really) will know what I mean.
But I made it. And in arriving, I felt compelled to bring back a trophy of the experience, a memory (in French, souvenir) of the ordeal I had undertaken.
I’ve always liked driving off the beaten path, the road not taken, or the path less travelled... or whatever. It’s brought me to some fine places, scenes that I can even now, twenty years on recall vividly, but which excite no one else nearly quite as much as they do me. No matter how I might try to embellish of harmonize my words.
Pirsig had something to say about motorcycle travel (in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, one of the most poignant books about loss I’ve ever read). I even snapped a photo of the passage, five years ago.
You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it, you don’t realize that through the car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.
On this trip, I was surely overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape, of the lushness and the humid sensory overload. Of riding down a dip in the road, and feeling the temperature cool by a few degrees, and then rise once again as I came back over a hill. Like a blast furnace.
I wish I could properly convey these feelings to my daughter. My wife.
I made it to Ban Chiang.
I made it Ban Chiang on a gloriously hot, sunny day. And then back again, another three hours in a monsoon rainstorm, where I found myself shivering at 25?C. I memorialized my visit with a photo. And a souvenir, one of the artifacts of my travels. Mine’s a bit smaller, and easier to handle, and pack and keep safe.
I got it home. And now, twenty years later, I am writing about it. I cannot believe it’s been twenty years. Oh, how the time has flown.