Five years ago I took a bus from Bangkok to Laem Ngop pier in the province of Trat and boarded a vessel of questionable seaworthiness, bound for a small island called Koh Mak. It was not only my first trip to Thailand but my first trip anywhere as a travel blogger – well, kind of.
I arrived on Koh Mak armed with an aging Dell laptop, a janky Sony point-and-shoot and a freshly-bought domain name, and while I was officially in the Trat archipelago for Chinese New Year break (I paid the bills by teaching English in China in those days), I went about my business with a sense of purpose, with a strange confidence in the inevitability of the future I had dreamed for myself, even if I was ambiguous about the path I would take to get there.
Last week, I had the pleasure of returning to Koh Mak (and visiting several other nearby Trat islands for the first time) on behalf of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the Thailand Convention and Exhibition Bureau and the Travel Blog Exchange, who will be hosting its first ever Asia-Pacific conference in Bangkok later this year.
It was a bittersweet experience. On on hand, it was sobering to walk, quite literally in my own footsteps, having now achieved a life that was very much a pipe dream back then. It was vindicating and it was validating, particularly because it wasn’t my first paid trip to Thailand – it was my third.
On the other hand, I felt strangely jaded the whole time. I was made to pack into two days what I probably would’ve spent two weeks exploring on my own, which is to say I had absolutely no opportunity to discover. My trip was instead defined by corporate resorts, chartered speedboats and the “brown person bows to white person” servitude that makes me detest the very notion of contemporary tourism.
I am of course grateful, both to the companies and organizations who invited me on this Trat islands trip, as well as to the hotels, restaurants, tour companies and individuals who accommodated me on a complimentary basis.
But as I traipsed down one of my favorite beaches on Koh Mak, and waded out into the shallow lagoon where I’d taken some of my first-ever selfies long before the term “selfie” was ever coined, I wondered whether this was the sort of life I dreamed of when I was sleeping in a cockroach-infested cottage all those years ago.
The reason I started this blog, and the reason I keep it going, is to inspire independent travelers to follow in my footsteps. While I make enough money from my blog to fund the majority of my own trips, I can’t deny that as more opportunities for sponsored travel make their way into my inbox – and they have been – I will feel increasingly obligated to take them, if only as delayed compensation for all the hustling it took to get me here.
I’ll gather my thoughts on this issue and compile them into a future post, but for now I hope you’ll enjoy this visual journey through the paradise islands of Koh Mak, Koh Chang, Koh Rang, Koh Wai and Koh Kood.