The serendipity of travel
Anyone who has done a bit of travelling in their own country or beyond would be able to marvel you with incredible stories of the people they met along the way; how they bumped into their childhood next-door neighbour on a flight, or married the person they sat next to at a teachers’ orientation in some exciting place.
For me, it has been the friends I have made along my travel journey which have made it all worthwhile, and there are a few too many stories to tell. I giggled endlessly with Emily over breakfast after a sunrise tour of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India, and a year later, she hopped on a plane to South Africa from the United States after only that morning meeting – legend.
Mark, from Edinburgh, was the first person I became friends with when I moved to South Korea seven years ago. I partook in a dim sum dinner with him and other good friends in Hong Kong last week after attending a family wedding in, you guessed it, South Korea.
People in South Africa often ask me what I love most about travel; what it is that makes me want to head off again whenever I have the opportunity. I tell them that travel is fascinating on so many levels; the diverse cultures, the weird and wonderful food, the unimaginable architecture, different languages and alphabets. But most of all, it is about the people you meet along the way.
My first trip to Thailand was with a group of friends and our backpacks in early 2013. We arrived on the island of Koh Tao from Langkawi, Malaysia, after a long ferry-bus-train trip. We slowly made our way up from the south to the rather overwhelming but fascinating capital city, Bangkok. Here my friends left me and headed to Cambodia. I stayed in Bangkok for a couple of days and waited for my mother to arrive from South Africa.
From the moment she turned off her phone in South Africa, I expected to have no contact with her. She was to transfer in Doha, Qatar. Flights are often delayed, but not often by several hours. I didn’t even think to check the flight status with the relevant airline, and was about to head to the airport from the guest house when I received a text message on my temporary Thai number.
It was from my mother saying she had borrowed the phone of a “lovely young lady” on the same route, and that her flight had been delayed by at least seven hours. When Mom eventually disembarked in Bangkok and walked through arrivals, her travel companion had rushed to catch her bus to the sea-side city of Hua Hin, where she was teaching at an international school. I did not have the chance to meet her.
When Mom returned to South Africa two weeks later, I found myself back in Bangkok with a few days to spare before taking an overnight train to Laos. I decided to take my mother’s advice and get hold of the “lovely young lady”, Camilla, and the next moment I was on a slow train to spend the weekend in Hua Hin.
It was easy to see why Mom had found Camilla so lovely. We got along like a house on fire, and soon found out that we had attended boarding schools in the same province. We spoke about living in Asia, and how our world views had changed, how we loved and missed our home country but were grateful for each and every adventure. I met her boyfriend, Meaw, an accomplished Muay Thai fighter and trainer. Camilla describes the sport as Thailand’s rugby equivalent; such is its popularity in the region. We rode her scooter all over the place; to markets and mountains, beaches and sushi bars. My visit was too short.
Hua Hin is well-known in Thailand and abroad for its aristocratic roots; some of the royal family having built their vacation homes there as early as 1911 and the late King Rama IX having lived full-time at the royal residence for many years. Tourists come from all over the world to this resort town, complete with golf courses, international cuisine and beautiful beaches.
Despite its reputation with the wealthy and noble, Hua Hin is still a great beach destination to visit for those on a budget, and it is much closer to Bangkok and more easily accessible than most of the popular southern islands and beach destinations. It is for these reasons that I managed to persuade a bunch of friends from Hong Kong and South Korea to meet there for an Easter holiday. We had ringside seats for one of Meaw’s big, intense Muay Thai fights, which was rather nerve-wracking, made travel videos to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”, hired scooters and explored the beautiful surrounding areas.
Not long after this, Camilla and Meaw got married in his hometown of Ban Thung Nui in Satun, one of Thailand’s southern provinces. I was fortunate to be on holiday at the time, and flew from Hong Kong to meet Camilla a few days before the ceremony. Some of the guys from the original Hua Hin holiday gang surprised the happy couple for their big day by making a detour via Satun on their backpacking trip. It was boiling hot, we could only speak a few words of Thai, and none of us had brought appropriate wedding attire but we had an absolute ball.
Camilla looked magnificent in her white gown, and fortunately I was there to fan her throughout the ceremony at which there were many candles. It was followed by food and festivities with the whole village, and a few hours of very loud karaoke.
A couple years later, Camilla gave birth to little Ben. By now, I was working as a journalist back in South Africa. As soon as I had the opportunity to head back to Asia in 2017, I checked to see if adding on a flight to Bangkok would make much difference to the ticket price. It did not. Camilla met me in the capital city where we stayed at a dodgy “hotel”, spent a rather confusing day having Ben’s birth certificate translated into English for the family’s upcoming family trip to South Africa, and got lost in the monsoon rains while trying to find a bus to Hua Hin.
When we finally arrived at our end destination at around 23:00, we piled ourselves, my two backpacks and Cam’s shopping onto her scooter and weaved back to her house, stopping only to pick up phad thai noodles and cold beer at a food stall a few hundred metres from home. It turned out to be a glorious few days with my favourite Thai family.
Had my mother’s plane not been delayed, had she not befriended Camilla, had she not sent me a text message so that Camilla’s number was saved on my phone, two South African women of the same age, who went to school less than an hour away from each other, would never have met in a Thai city by the sea.
If that is not proof of the serendipity of travel, what is?