Travel Vignette: Running on Empty in Southeast Asia

I walked through the temple. There were many people inside. I stood for a while and looked up at the ceiling, and then at the big stone walls. I tried to sit for a while on one of the benches but there were too many people milling about, and the place seemed to have lost its spirit. It was dead, and I stepped out the side door and into the countryside. I looked at the fields behind the temple, flooded and full of mud. I was looking for a quiet place to sit.

Beside the temple was a canal that ran into the field, and I followed it out to the edge where there was a bench. A girl, a little younger than me, was sitting on the bench. She had taken her shoes off. They were there next to the bench. I stood there and looked at them. They were scuffed and the shoelaces were worn. She saw me looking at them.

“Sorry, I had to rest for a while,” she said, still looking out at the field. I followed her gaze to a man entering the field, his rubber boots engulfed in mud, almost to his knee. His back had that bend to it, where you knew he had been working hard all his life.

“Mind if I sit?”

She did not say anything. She was rubbing her eyes, and I was speaking quietly. So I sat down anyway. I drank from my water bottle and looked out at the field. The girl did not say anything and looked out at the field. Together we watched the man enter the mud and post-hole his way to the center of the field. He had a wide-brimmed hat, a long sleeve baggy shirt, and long dark pants to help with the sun. In the water of the flooded field I could see a reflection of the mountains beyond. It was a freeze-frame moment, a photograph coming together. I felt for my camera but stopped my hand – I told myself to just look this time. The girl did not say or do anything. She just watched the man in the field. There was something on her mind. The man began to work harder, bending over and picking up large chunks of mud, arranging them in a neat line, then covering them with plastic. All around the man were white-feathered birds with long legs. They wanted whatever the man might stir up in the mud. Closer to us but off to the side was a water buffalo, standing there very still, its four ankles covered in mud and water. At the very far end of the field there was a small thatched hut where the man would take a nap when it got too hot to work.

Just then a tour let out in the temple. A crowd billowed out the side door. One of them pointed down towards our bench, and then they all began walking this way. Before long the entire crowd of people was lining the field beside our bench. They were talking and they were marveling about the field and everything else they saw. Someone was laughing and posing for a picture in front of the water buffalo. Others had their phones out and were taking pictures of the man in the field. He was still moving the chunks of mud. When the crowd got louder the man stopped what he was doing and looked up at them. His wide-brimmed hat was framed perfectly with the field and the mountains. Anyone that didn’t have their phone out went scrambling into their pockets and purses.

“Nothing like working up to your knees in mud and having your picture taken,” I said to the girl.

“That’s what I was thinking,” she said.

We looked out across the field. The crowd was still buzzing. One of the men tried to walk up to the water buffalo. He got within ten feet and then turned around to take his own picture. Looking out past him I saw the mountains hovering in the distance, reflecting off the lake. Someone walked by narrating their experience into a phone – their friend was filming. I bet myself they would never watch the footage.

Read the rest of this story on Forbes.

2 comments

  1. It’s difficult to explain how over tourism can destroy even when the tourist dollars are welcome. It’s a delicate balance. How do we teach respect to the masses.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Hey Ethel, yeah, it’s a tough question… I think one way is maybe starting to write about it more? Actually revealing our disenchantment with travel (which we all feel) once in a while – as of now we basically ignore it in the travel media world. I’m all for optimism and positivity on the road but, sometimes reality has to be portrayed, too.

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