Thailand wasn't what I expected to it to be. I should've known. Trips never turns out like the detailed scenarios I build up in my head while planning. Guidebooks and photos and blogs never tell the whole story.
I arrived in Bangkok at midnight. I only stayed for 6 hours, just falling asleep in a hostel before taking an early morning train to the real destination. My companions and I showed up in Phuket late the next night. Our van dropped us off in Patong Beach and our jaws fell open in disgust. Patong Beach is a gathering place for all the travelers in the world who want to do things that would be frowned upon anywhere else. The streets are lined with fake iPads, cameras, and purses, their shiny plastic faces reflecting into your eyes as you try to pass unbothered. Crowds of inebriated fair-skinned travelers toss things on the ground, on the beach, discarding cups and cans onto the town's largest trash can - its streets. Worst of all, Phuket's sex industry follows you everywhere. Strange open-air strip clubs, promoters pulling you towards basements for ping-pong shows, and barely dressed ladyboys offering you services between each counterfeit iPad kiosk. I felt at once both responsible for perpetuating the culture at Patong Beach and disgusted enough to run away immediately. We left our hostel there after staying only one night to seek out less vulgar destinations.
We took a packed ferry to Koh Phi Phi, an island in between the mainland of Thailand and the Phuket peninsula. Finally, a place we could enjoy. The developed area of Koh Phi Phi exists purely for tourists, but it wasn't the dark place that Patong Beach was. The white sand beaches were kept relatively clean and a short kayak ride could get you to a private beach only accessible by boat. If you squinted your eyes and blocked out your peripheral vision, you could sometimes feel like you'd been shipwrecked in a lush jungle paradise. It was beautiful, but the beauty had been harnessed for human pleasure in so many ways that it felt used up to me. After days spent snorkeling, deep water soloing, and swimming in shallow blue bays, we moved on to Malaysia.
After a short stint in Malaysia, I headed back to Thailand to meet another friend. It was time to rock climb. I took a longtail boat to Railay Bay where I stayed for over a week. I gave up comforts like flushing toilets and clean sheets so I could spend sweaty days inching up limestone tufus and spend nights playing pool in reggae bars.
After multiple days of powerful Thai sun singeing my shoulders, I started to get the deep tan that only comes from long grueling days outside. It wasn't a relaxing-on-the-beach tan - it was only on the tops of things. My shoulders and cheeks and arms were golden, but my stomach and upper legs still shone bright like the moon.
On a rest day from climbing, an afternoon spent grumpily exhausted on a bench at the only cafe with reliable Wi-Fi, I began to inspect my tan and found that a galaxy of freckles had materialized on my shoulders. Various shapes and sizes and colorings created a pattern of brown where the sun had shown the most. But it wasn't just the run-of-the-mill brown freckles. It seemed for each spot my pigment had darkened, there was a complimentary white dot - a place void of color where the sun had bleached a speckle. My arms were subtly calico.
I'd never really looked at my arms like that before. I'd never really acknowledged these inverted freckles. I liked the story they told. The sun had taken something from me and in return I received its warmth and energy. My body is amazing. Sometimes it makes mistakes or can't fight off a cold, but on a daily basis, it flexes to a thousand different scenarios, rebuilds itself, filters what I put into it, allows me to express myself and act on my thoughts. But the truth is, I know very little about it.
I don't allow idle time in my life often. But at Railay, there was no option to be productive. With the hot afternoon heat pulling me towards hammocks and shade, it was inevitable that some of my time would be spent doing absolutely nothing. And it took time like that for me to recognize the inverted freckle constellations covering my arms. It took time like that for me to see parts of myself that I overlook every single day. I guess that's what traveling is for.