Backpacking Thailand at 62 (By: Peter Ruehlicke)


When my daughter Leah was a little kid, maybe 4 or 5, she always came grocery shopping with me. One day, I was looking at something on a shelf and Leah started screaming “Dad! Dad!” I simply said I was right there. She was 3 feet from me facing away, must have gotten turned around and panicked when she didn’t see me. This is the same Leah now travelling on her own and meeting up with people around the world. She is definitely not the same scared, panicky little girl.

It was on her most recent trip that I decided to join her. Because I like getting out of Ontario winter weather for a week or two, I thought it would be fun to join Leah for the last days of her latest trip. She was open to the idea so Thailand it was.

I opted to forego a suitcase for a borrowed backpack. Now I am a creature of comfort, so backpacking in Thailand at age 62 sounded like a perfectly reasonable plan, right? However, there is backpacking, and then there is simply using a backpack as luggage to take place to place, landing for a few days in each. Booking places with a/c and a private bathroom also made for more comfort than one associates with that backpacking word.

The trip turned out to be a great experience. As a parent, I loved the idea of spending 11 or 12 days with my daughter – not sure Leah was looking forward to the same – and we did have a great time together. The hours spent at the elephant spa, the cooking class in Chiang Mai, sharing a delicious supper with a couple bottles of Chang in a sketchy alley you wandered into, and staring at beautiful sunsets on the beach in our Phuket resort are memories that will stay with me forever and that I never thought I would experience.

The times – they are a changin’

Travel for me is vacation time – forget about work, both paid and unpaid, and forget time and schedules as best you can. Travel for my daughter includes work – Skype interviews, blogs, working on her book. After a day of beatin’ the feet, I generally hit the hay, (I’m sure jet lag helped a little), while she was hitting the keyboard. I have no idea if this is the new normal, or specific to her current situation, or a generational lifestyle – or maybe most likely a bit of everything.

I found it interesting how the unknown (where do I go next? where should I stay?) doesn’t seem to bother her, but the lack of a WiFi  connection, or an expected connection not working (we will always remember the airport in Bangkok) can totally upset her. For me, connecting was a nice bonus, although I too felt frustrated trying to connect and not being able to. Decisions on where to grab coffee or where to eat are sometimes based on whether there is WiFi or not.

Old school trips like this would have required pouring over maps and booking places well in advance. Now over breakfast in Chiang Mai you search for and book a place to stay on Phi Phi later in the week. Along with an offline map app and currency converter app, you are good to without getting lost. Need a taxi? Simply show your phone with your destination to start the price discussion. In fact, this is the first trip I’ve taken where I didn’t print hardcopy itineraries of anything – flights, hotel confirmations, anything like that. Passport and your phone are really all you need – along with cash and/or plastic to get cash.

Feels like home but doesn’t

It was hard, but I resisted the urge to get a tattoo on Phi Phi even though every 3rd place was a tattoo parlor. I knew Thailand would be hot, but was still surprised by how hot. The food was amazing everywhere and I could not believe the prevalence of 7-11 stores and KFC (although these two places aren’t actually examples of the “amazing food” I was referring to)

Thailand was a very interesting experience. So different in so many ways. The cities are crowded and busy; traffic is like Toronto but with motorcycles driving between and around lanes of cars. It’s seemingly more chaotic yet less aggressive and less angry – honking is gentler and serves as a warning you are coming up beside, not like here where honking means anger at the driver who cut you off (even if you did the same to the driver behind you). The subway in Bangkok was remarkably clean (maybe not allowing food or drink is a good idea) and felt safe. River ferries were a nice alternative to buses – no traffic jams on the river – and crossing the street was a little iffy at times yet didn’t result in any real close calls.

This was a different trip for me. I did have a great time and think I am better at being able to deal with the unknown. All things considered, I would not be comfortable being a real backpacker and travelling on the fly that way. I do need to be a bit more structured. However, I learned it is possible to get pretty far with local transportation options and leaving some things unplanned to allow more flexibility. Who knows what the next trip will bring (but I do know it will involve wheeled luggage rather than a backpack).

Although I was really glad to get back home and see Mad, at the same time, there is also a sense of something enjoyable ending. Even at a job you generally enjoy, it takes some time to get back into the swing of things. The reality is although we might be ready to get back home, there’s something special in being away.

When I first landed in Chiang Mai, it was evening and already dark – later than initially expected due to a 7 hour delay leaving Toronto. I got a taxi. Off we go – me the only passenger, a driver and a person serving as navigator .We slowly drove down a narrow roadway, stopped, backed up and stopped again – this time in front of an alley. The navigator told me the hotel was down the alley – not scary looking but didn’t appear to be any lights on. As I’m getting out and getting my backpack on, I’m trying to find out exactly where to go – how far? is the place in the alley or other end? on the right or left?

As I looked over my shoulder, there’s Leah waving at me from the hotel café area where she was having her supper. Not spoken, but figuratively the wave said ‘Dad, I’m right here.’ I was the one turned around. We had come full circle. In many ways, it was Leah looking out for me for the next 10 days. Thanks, kid, it really was fun!




  1. Sai says:

    Nicely written. Thanks for sharing your experience..I must say you are in a wrong profession Pete.
    J.K. comes Pete!

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