Walking the Heck out of Thailand
It was hot. I was sweating. We — were sweating. Had we ever sweat so much before? Did it matter? Our sweat had sweat. We were a moving swamp. The fabric bits on our backpacks had turned sentient. I wanted to apply bleach atop my sunscreen. Wanted to order replacement toenails. Because: we were walking. And by god, were we talking.
For seven days we descended as one group of abject wetness, a slimy pack of gregarious humans, from a height of some 1,500 meters, back through the sparsely populated forest and jungle of Doi Inthanon National Park, snaking finally into the throngs of central Chiang Mai, Thailand. It was a glorious walk through village and forest. There were twelve of us. Ten invitees and Kevin Kelly and myself. This was our sixth “Walk and Talk” we had organized in as many years.
The walk route was manifested from soaked earth by longtime Thailand and China resident, entrepreneur, and impresario of old rural men, Chris Barclay. He pitched us on the idea — December’s not too hot! And spent months researching the best possible route. Because no one — to our knowledge — had walked this specific walk before. (You can download our kml/gpx file and map the route in Google Earth if you like.)
Planning a walk is hard. Planning a walk for a group is even harder. For months Chris sent research updates. During one reconnaissance trip he got lost and spent the night on the mountain curled up, waiting for dawn. On another he took a spill off his mountain bike while double-checking some of the road walking. His blood was on this path and soon, too, would be our sweat.
What I’m trying to impress upon you, dear reader, is that for all of human history we’ve wrested from this earth great walks, incredible walks, and perhaps one of our crowning achievements as a species lies in this walkiness, this carving of paths from mountains for others to follow.
Route in hand, invitees confirmed — the Walk and Talk began. This is what we saw.
We saw kindness above all. So much kindness. And patience. Thailand seems to be an entire country of kindness layered atop patience sandwiched between more kindness. As much as we sweat, our bodies were inversely infused with that kindness and you couldn’t help but feel it guide the interactions of the group.
We saw lush forests and dusty village roads. We saw perfectly manicured farming plots carved into the sides of mountains.
We saw elephants and into their meaty mouths we placed whole bananas, gingerly, watched as their uncannily dexterous trunks plucked things from our hands, as their giant wild eyes scanned us and our buckets of food.
We saw many dogs. One had dreadlocks so thick and lopsided it looked like it might topple over. Another was albino, like a pure ghost of a dog. Few seemed truly savage. Many had adopted their homeland’s kindness. One dog followed us for four days. It hopped onto and off rafts as we floated down a river. It ran alongside on the banks between trees and tall grass. We explained over and over again to shops and restaurants that this was our dog, a dog not to be shooed away (as is the default). A dog to be allowed some water. A dog to be given a few scraps. Were we wrong to treat this dog kindly? How could we not. It was so kind to us. It walked beside and between our group without complaint. Checked in on every other dog or pack of dogs we passed. Our guy was pure equanimity. He showed no aggression. He walked up to barking, fierce mongrels and stood before them in abject silence as if to say, Friend, worry not, we are just passing through. And those dogs were assuaged, as if by some spell. Like this, for four days the dog was our protector. When not protecting he laid by our table, by our legs. He never begged. We bought him a pile of chicken feet. He proudly trotted along with one in his mouth. His gait was strangely elegant, maybe even a little sexual. His eyes were kind. He was performing for our love and yet not. It was as if this dog had been waiting for us its entire life. We christened it Tidi (or “TD”) for Thai Dog (we were hot and tired and not very creative) which transliterates to Thī̀ Dī (ที่ดี), which can be read as “good thing” (ah! we were more creative than intended). So we saw to this good thing and this good thing saw to us, ensorcelled us, a group willing to be ensorcelled as we trod hot and wet from the mountains to the city.
We saw farmers burnt dark from the sun and we saw women working the fields wrapped in layers of cloth to shield themselves from the heat. I rolled a cigarette for one of the farmers — some fancy tobacco I had picked up in Tokyo, expressly for this purpose (I figured country folk would love to get nice cigarettes). And in kind he took from his pouch a thick leaf (banana?) and rolled his own, dry, stringy tobacco and sealed the leaf and lit it in his mostly toothless mouth and puffed it going and then handed it off to me. I could not refuse. It was excellent — a surprisingly smooth draw, not at all what I expected. I joked — opium? (As soon as I said it I worried I had uttered some taboo and winced.) But he laughed and said, No, no, no more Dr. O in these parts. Now, strawberries. Kevin and I, addicted to one piece of good chocolate each day, adopted the naming, calling our sneaky snacking, Dr. C.
As we walked we talked about all manner of things. We talked about fears in our lives and how we’ve overcome or mitigated them. We talked about lists — all the many lists we like to (or don’t like to) keep. No lists and reverse bucket lists all the way to banal to-dos for the day. We talked about “home” and where home is or isn’t. We talked about tech — well, I talked about tech with a couple of the walkers who were brothers in over-engineered personal projects. There’s a whole generation of us — sly programmers, folks who hack tools together to publish online. We talked about “Why Not?s” — things which we probably should be doing as a society, but aren’t. We talked about escape and what motivates us. And we broke down our decision-making frameworks around big life choices.
Kevin and I have been running these things for six years now and each time I feel full by the end. Full as in rich. Rich with the kindness of the country in which we walked (Japan, China, Spain, England — this time, Thailand) but also rich and full of the kindness of the group, of the selflessness of those who gave up a non-trivial chunk of time from their (often) extremely (extremely!) busy lives, to come and walk with strangers — to take a (truly!) serious leap of faith, and lean into the vulnerability of the situation. This is the superpower of the Walk and Talk — putting adults into a situation they may not have experienced since they were a kid: new people, unknown environs, continuous socializing, intense conversations. The walls breakdown quickly on a Walk and Talk and by the third or fourth day, you are no longer walking with strangers but seemingly old friends. The transition never fails to astonish me. The magic of walking and talking, of moving your body through a landscape with others, using only your own locomotion, suffering the heat equally, bonding over the endless cycle of sweating, becoming more and more open, more willing to speak what feels “true.” By the end, we are tired, ready to launder (or burn) all our clothes. And, while I can’t speak for the group, personally I feel renewed, almost as if the act was baptismal. I am filled with optimism and hope and gratitude for having a body than can do the walk and a mind that can blabber on for days on end, and gratitude for the inspiration of the people who walk alongside, who become archetypes of great parents or researchers or artists or writers or thinkers. I am lucky to be able to do these Walk and Talks, and that luck is not lost on me for one millisecond.
In the end, we walked about 100 kilometers and Thī̀ Dī joined for nearly sixty of them. He followed us all the way into Chiang Mai and was so tired that about two kilometers from our goal, he just walked into the middle of the road and lay down. He stopped traffic. No one honked. There it was again — that surreal kindness. The cars stopped, unsure of what to do. The road was packed. Adjacent Thī̀ Dī were a dozen scooters waiting for a traffic light. We were all calling to him, pleading (but also laughing at the absurdity, feeling very little danger) to Thī̀ Dī to join us back on the sidewalk. A woman got off her scooter and walked to Thī̀ Dī, smiling, then gingerly lifted him up and deposited him off to the side, where he once again walked with us.
That night, two walking members took Thī̀ Dī to an animal hospital. Got him checked up. He was seven years old (so indicated his teeth). He needed shots and care. They got him shots and care. He was surprisingly otherwise OK. His kindness was no fluke — everyone who interacted with him swooned. And so it was as natural as anything that he was quickly adopted by a friend of the hospital staff. A friend, a family, who had adopted a few other dogs, and lived just outside of the city on a beautiful coffee farm, where Thī̀ Dī would be loved, well-fed, taken care of properly. Where he wouldn’t have to walk sixty kilometers to prove that love, where he just could live in blissful doggy peace. The last photo we got of Thī̀ Dī is of him on that farm, his chocolate-swirled face serene, if a bit worn done. The good boy had done a good job. A very good job.
These are the unexpected things that happen when you walk across a great swath of land. A committed dog finds a storybook ending. Ten strangers unearth a whole new set of friends. Kevin concluded the walk by saying, “Thank you all for one of the best weeks of my life.” As walker Liz writes, empathy is travel — and a path. Very little of the richness of a walk like this can be explicitly planned. You must give yourself up to the walk. Walker Derek says the Walk and Talk is “one of the best things I’ve ever done.” The cryptic gifts of walking abound, for all to partake, waiting to be plucked from the landscape if you just pay attention, and don’t mind sweating more than you ever thought was possible.
(Thanks Jason, for this photo.)