There’s another way to explore Thailand without cocktail umbrellas and southern cross t-shirts, Hannah Altschwager tells you how.
Sitting in the back tray of a Ute hurtling down an unpathed highway in Thailand, I wondered for not the first time if this was a good idea.
I was in Thailand to visit my boyfriend, Tyral, who had been traveling abroad for the past six months. Being the adventure-seeking travellers we both are, we wanted to tackle Thailand in a less traditional sense than the usual partying in Phuket you mostly see when flicking through social media.
When Tyral first presented the idea of hitch hiking, I laughed and agreed with caution, secretly hoping it was just a throw off comment derived from his wonderful imagination and thirst for adventure. But, a few months later I found myself on the side of the highway in search of a lift by any means but bus or train. We were leaving just out of Bangkok—a city that actually took me by surprise— and were trying to reach Chiang Mai. At this point, we were less than a week into my month long holiday and still pretty new to the backpacking scene—fresh from the comfort of my own home and freshly made bed.
On our first day hitchhiking I was quite apprehensive. With our large heavy backpacks slung over our shoulder, we trudged out of our guesthouse onto the street with no idea what direction to head. With a translated note helpfully done by a local tour guide who tried to discourage us against this idea (numerous tourists have tried and failed, apparently) and a sign with what we only hoped read ‘Chiang Mai’ in Thai, we managed to score our first lift to the highway by a local man.
He spoke little English, making explaining what we where doing hard, but with the help of Google translate (we have much to thank for this wonderful invention) we found ourselves at the highway.
After what felt like hours of standing by watching large trucks whiz by without a glance at us and one car full of young local girls dropping us back at the town’s train station,
we managed to steal a lift with a local man.
He was driving a LPD truck, pulling across two lanes and cutting off several other trucks to get us. He offered our first real ride halfway to our destination.
Four bumpy and exciting hours later we were dropped just out of a small town in the middle of nowhere. Just from this short journey all fear of hitch hiking was gone and I was keen to jump into the next car that would take me further up North. The next morning we did just this.
Once again we were positioned on the highway, thumbs up and keen for another adventure. It wasn’t long at all before a man pulled over and gestured for is to get in. He was talking on the phone so we couldn’t explain to him what we we’re doing, so sure enough next thing we knew we found ourselves at the bus station.
Heads hanging a little low, we dragged ourselves to the closest restaurant we could early to fill our hungry stomachs. The only thing we could find was a small shed like café, where a few locals sat eating. At first we where a little unsure if it was even a restaurant or a large family get together, but as we cautiously made are way inside, they stood up excitedly and hurried us to a table. Once again the language barrier was difficult, with neither of us being able to read nor understand anymore than ‘hello’ in Thai, it made ordering a challenge. We chose our meals by pointing at other people’s delicious looking dishes, and not long into our meals we where interrupted by the owners asking for photos with us. Being a smaller town and far off the tourist track, we assumed we were some of few, if not the first, westerners to visit their café. Smiling for photos with everyone was a bit of an ego boost, and a far cry from the experiences we had with locals in South Thailand.
Possibly the best day and most amazing experiences either of us have ever had traveling came right after lunch. After being given a large take away bag full of food and drinks from a man who had been watching us try and catch a ride, two schoolgirls with reasonable English organised us a lift to the main highway. In the space of ten minutes, another local man and woman had stopped to see what our business was. With the help of Google translate we explained to them our purpose. The wife needed a little more explanation, and kept offering to pay for our bus ticket. The kindness and generosity we got from people along our trip was just mind-blowing and constantly left me speechless. The man found the idea of us hitchhiking the most amazing and bizarre thing in the world, and took it upon his duty to find us a lift.
After disappearing for a few minuets he returned with a large piece of cardboard and was writing us up a new sign. We had attracted quite a few locals by this point, all interested and eager to see if we would actually make it out of town. When a car pulled over a few minuets later, the whole crowd around us cheered and clapped in celebration.
This would have to be one of the most surreal moments in my whole life. As we climbed into the back of the Ute driven by a lovely family of four, the crowd waved and cheered us off. There was nothing we could do or say to explain what we had just experienced. We sat in the back of the Ute in silence unable to wipe the smiles off our faces and the butterflies in our stomachs. Two days, 600 kilometres, and nine rides later, we arrived in Chiang Mai in the back of a Ute. By the end of our trip, we had covered approximately 1,000 kilometres hitch hiking, continuously being told it was impossible, and scored around fourteen rides.
They took us through Northern Thailand and Laos in trucks stalling on the sides of mountains, with a Chinese businessman who didn’t speak a world of English, no seatbelts bouncing around in the back seat across the roughest road I’ve ever experienced, and at times —hating it. Thailand is an amazing and beautiful country full of kind-hearted locals, if you go to the right places. After our hitchhiking experience it only took one bus ride for both of us to decide we would never move by any means but it again.
The experiences we had just doesn’t happen for a lot of people. I urge if you’re looking into a holiday in Thailand, to look beyond the party scene in Phuket and the full moon parties and explore the true wonder and beauty of the country.
Words & Images: Hannah Altschwager