B.A.C.K.P.A.C.K. Travel Guide

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I am not an expert on travel.  But let me attempt to consolidate tips based on my wandering days domestically and abroad.  And since my passion is geared towards backpacking, the tips are discussed by representing each letter of the word backpack.  As an essential gear, I hope backpack will keep on reminding travelers of these tips.

BBelieve in yourself.  Whether you are a first time backpacker or a seasoned globe-trotter, you need a degree of confidence to follow through every aspect of your travel plans.  You could worry about the weather, canceled flights, immigration issues, peace and order situation on both places you come from and go to or any little changes that could undermine well-laid out itinerary.  And sometimes when the departure day is approaching, pessimism would taunt and crumble your enthusiasm.  Your coward side will use conscience to dissuade you from enjoying another land while siblings and parents are left behind, to spend for leisure while there might be hunger left lurking or to plan for more trips when other people don’t have the luxury to transport themselves to the next city.  Embrace them all, both distractions and excitement.  Acknowledge their presence and truthfulness, but at the end of the day, convince yourself that all will be well.  Every decision has ramification, every trip is stricken with guilt-pleasure.  So onward with the journey with a lightness of heart, purposely
enrich yourself with positive vibes.

AAwareness of the place.  Like soldiers in war, never go to a battlefield without being prepared.  Research about the place you are going to visit.  True, spontaneity is always welcome but spontaneity is not synonymous to foolishness.  Never disregard the power of information.  Seemingly trivial things like the weather, dress code, accessibility of the area, ethnicity in the neighborhood, events occurring in conjunction with your travel dates and many others are much amplified once you are in the area and can do less about it.  A friend related to me her traffic experience in Bangkok, Thailand.  She knew of the traffic situation since the city is infamous of it.  What she didn’t know was the celebration of the King’s birthday falling on her departure date from Bangkok to another exotic city.  The traffic worsened, she got stuck in the middle of it, and since she can’t summon wings to fly her to the airport in time, she had to overstay for a night.  Did she learn anything from it?  Her answer was a resounding yes, at the expense of her pocket.

CCheck your wallet.  You’re right, I’m talking about money, budget, financial planning.  It can also be understood as literally checking your wallet, keeping it away from pickpockets and straying hands.  Once you are in a foreign land, attachment to money is imperative for you to easily get in and out of the area.  But going back to the more important point, you need to tackle your trip as a major chunk of your monetary worth within a specific period of time.  You can prepare a rough estimate of expenses for that trip, and assigned a generous percentage of contingency on top of the estimate.  Then gauge if the amount can be accommodated in the actual money you have.  Awareness of the place comes so handy in time of budgeting.  Expenses would vary on choices available while preparing for the trip and once you arrived in the area.  Will you choose a hostel over a 5-star accommodation? Is public transport accessible in going to a certain travel icon or would you spend extra for a guide and comfort?  Will you scrimp on certain things but splurge on experiences unique or rare to that place?  Your choice will determine how much you can throw away and how much you can keep for the next trip.

KKit.  Call it first aid kit, medical kit, make-up kit.  All in all, it amounts to a travel kit.  Depending on your need, you will be bringing essential items catered to your trip.  Toiletries top the list.  You need to identify what needs to be packed and how much.  If you are going to remote locations prone to insect-bearing illnesses, then bring lotions, creams or medicines to combat these  parasites.  If hiking or trekking is dominant in your itinerary, a generous amount of sunscreen will be needed.  Collectively pack similar items in one container for ease and in accordance to airport rules.  You won’t feel honored being detained in airport lines by a bottle of shampoo.

PPhotos and poses.  I believe we all have that vain part of our personality.  We love to see images of ourselves, more so if the image is against a backdrop of an overwhelming symbol of a sought-after country.  Travelers are wanderers seeking for that rare charm, hoping to encapsulate  beauty within the four sides of the camera lens.  Some need to affirm their presence inside the lens,  thereby marring the image’s perfection.  Others are contented to simply take the raw image, pure just by itself.  As passerby in this life, understand the urge to take as much pictures of the places you go to, most of the time with you at the center.  Those are rare moments you have with the place before you go back to the reality of your home.  You can’t take home those places with you.  And as years go by, your memories of them fade but from time to time will be ignited with the visions conjured by your photographs.  Your photos and your poses, these are the tangible treasure you kept from your journeys.

AAsk the locals.  Why do you travel?  It is to see different places, to understand what makes one place different from another, and to determine whether after all the differences if there’s one aspect unifying people all over the world.  The emphasis is on the people.  When you travel, you learn how the local people would give credence to your journey.  Interacting with them gives you a complete impression why the place is so.  Beautiful sceneries, historic structures, awesome buildings, modern amenities, are can be similarly found but just in different places.  It is when you mingle with the common folks and hear their stories that you can appreciate the place more.  I once rode a wrong train to Kanchanaburi, Thailand.  Somehow, the presence of local folks inside the train blocked fear from surfacing.  I had a hunch they can point me to the right direction and the right train, regardless of the language barrier.  I didn’t only arrive to the right destination.  I also gained a companion for the whole train ride and formed an impression that Thais are really friendly and helpful.

CChill out.  Relax.  You are traveling, in vacation mode, basking in beauty and warmth of the day, so chill out.  With so much to explore in a limited time, you might be tempted to put in as much activity as your itinerary can accommodate.  So instead of enjoying each step of the way, you feel harassed.  Then you’re off to your next day’s activity.  With little rest and anticipating another  hurried day, your journey becomes arduous, leaving a negative imprint of the place in your mind.  You become irritable. It gravitates to a ripple effect.  One cranky traveler can dismay another person on the road.  And the whole point of travel which is to enjoy is set aside.

KKaleidoscopic world.  Like a kaleidoscope, the world is a mixture of many different things and showcases a diverse collection of changing scenes.  Travelers aim to witness such differences.  They are open to the fact that one place is distinct from the other, but not necessarily less beautiful.  Always the observer, travelers can point out eccentricities of a place.  The irony of it, this strangeness beacons travelers to discover more of the place and to explore another realm.  So when you travel, keep in mind that we are living in a kaleidoscopic world.  And that you have so much to learn about by being open of each place’s rarities. The more you’re out there, the more you become tolerant and understanding of each other.  Now you have reasons to affirm the worthiness of your travel.

The Rail Less Traveled By

Poet Robert Frost immortalized “The Road Not Taken.”  I would like to borrow one line of the poem and pictures out the essence of my experience as a solo backpacker to Kanchanaburi, Thailand along this line.  Specifically, I will focus on the feelings and impressions I derived from riding the train that passed through the Death Railway.

What is this Death Railway anyway?

Months before I researched on our trip to Thailand, I chance-encountered a 1957 movie entitled “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”  For reasons unknown to me, I was so drawn to the movie then later found out that the real bridge on the River Kwai is still standing, imposing and history-filling just at the heart of Kanchanaburi.

The bridge was part of the Thailand-Burma Railway or the Death Railway, so called because of the deplorable conditions leading to numerous deaths of the Asian laborers and Allied prisoners of war (POW’s) who constructed the railway during the 2nd World War under the command of the Japanese.  The POW’s were mostly British, Australians, Dutch, Americans and some Canadians and New Zealanders, forced to labor when the Japanese found an alternative route to transport war supplies away from the senses of the enemies.  This was the railway from Nong Pladuk in Thailand, passing through Kanchanaburi then Nam Tok (a town in Kanchanaburi), leading to and connecting to Burma (now Myanmar).

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The part of the railway connecting to Burma is no longer in use.  Passengers from Bangkok are brought only up to Nam Tok, and back from Nam Tok to Bangkok, costing foreigners 100 Baht every time they ride the train, no matter where they got on and off.  Two trains from Bangkok travel to Kanchanaburi up to Nam Tok, one in the early morning at 7:50, the other one in the afternoon at 1:55.

The railway’s war background then became the motivating point of my journey.

From Bangkok, I met a few foreigners riding the early train, mostly Westerners.  For one who was having her solo trip abroad for the first time, I longed for the presence of a familiar feature, someone distinctly Asian, if not rightly Filipino.  Seeing none, I did not let it deter me from enjoying the lush and green scenery of the countryside we passed through, of breathing the cool and grassy smell of places I know nothing about and of dreaming of old scenes in the war, traveling back into the era of 1940’s too well suggested by the clickety clackety sound of the 3rd class train I was riding.

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After almost four hours, I arrived in Kanchanaburi .  I immediately surveyed the phenomenal bridge despite the tiny speck of rainfall, crossed it on foot, walked barefoot to feel the dampness of the iron track, and hung around the side platform to drink in all the scenic view of the surrounding river. I got my fill of the bridge and the nearby tourist destinations like the war museum, the floating restaurants, jewelry market and knick-knack booths along the way on my first day.

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My second day proved to be more adventurous and way extraordinary.  With several tourists, most in group tours, some in two’s who appeared to be backpackers like me, and I, who was enjoying the comfort of my own company, together we waited for the train from Bangkok that would transport us along the old, rickety and rugged track of the Death Railway.  Almost 12 noon, the arrival of the late train (of which I overheard someone commenting that it was to be expected), was met with a euphoric clapping of hands and heightened whistles by most waiting passengers.

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The train had not fully stopped but people were clamoring to step on the side doors, in a race to get the best side of the window, left in going to Nam Tok, then right upon coming back.  Excited chatters of different tongues assailed my stretched-wide ears, hopeful and alert for a tiny bit of a familiar word.  None came.  I shrugged, with a slight regret, but life on the train along the Death Railway moved on.

The journey from Kanchanaburi to Nam Tok amounted to almost three hours.  Getting the best view of the left side window, I ignored the sound of my tummy protesting for food, tiny silent hunger pangs ashamed to break my wondrous mood.   Like most tourists, I can’t sit still from gazing on my side of the window, then suddenly craning my neck hoping to look closely on a spotted view from my neighbor’s side.  Our train was speeding in between fields of green on top a reddish brown land, ranges of mountains forming a horseshoe, enclosing the rust-colored train solitary in the center.

I knew there was more to the rows of trees, corn fields and betel fields once we neared the Wang Pho viaduct.  This section of the rail is the highlight of every trip along the Death Railway.  The viaduct is a wooden lattice structure supporting the railway line around a cliff wall with the unending stretch of the spectacular view of the River Kwai below.  It was a heart-stopping near-death crossing over the creaking, ancient wood bridge.  Passengers all flocked to the left window, gathered as much shots and videos of the moment, unmindful of the train’s seemingly tilting movement, as if to bowl over and throw us all out of the window into rocks, stones and pointed branches before going under.

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Whoah!  I lost track of time when we crossed the viaduct.  It was short, maybe not more than 15 minutes, but the experience will forever be etched in our minds and hearts.  At that moment, we were aware of the grave danger, that even just one mechanical or human error, several lives could perish.  But the subconscious pointing out the danger was overruled, brutally pushed to the outermost portion of the mind, letting the ecstatic heart rule otherwise.

Elated glances from eyes that have seen varied forms of beauty and madness, coming from different cultures and lands, became unified.  I forgot my solitary state, felt one with the whole group, especially when someone spontaneously told me “careful” when I let half of my body inclined outside the window to take pictures and I didn’t notice that we were about to pass through a tunnel-like mountain.  I was touched, and can only grin apologetically like an answer to an old friend who knows of my errant ways.

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There and then I affirmed the wisdom of my decision to follow this unpopular path.  For to me, the Death Railway was indeed a rail less traveled by, at least for us Filipinos.  Thailand?  Let’s cross-country then to Cambodia and Vietnam, is usually the plan.  The rail to Kanchanaburi may be un-trodden by some, but it definitely paved the way back to what for me is essential, rediscovering my free mind.

Riding the ramshackle train, listening to its worn-out noise, and passing through the deathly rail, I had ample time to contemplate on some ironies in life.  In danger arose the need to seize and preserve an ecstatic moment signifying life at its best.  In diversity came a need to stand out to keep the distinct trait alive and intact.  And in solitude there originated genuine confidence, empowered by the fact that if one can be happy by oneself, then one can rise above other predicaments.

As Robert Frost immortalized, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

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Indeed, the rail less traveled by, has made all the difference.

3:52pm, Sunday

10/13/2013

Nescilisa M. Buta