Guest POst: Life after PhiThaKhon

For the next 5 months, I’m going to be posting a series of guest posts called Vital (cliché) steps to adventurous travels from someone who has a lot to say about spontaneity, facing fears, and traveling with tips on how to embark on an adventure of your own. I hope you enjoy!


the tiny village/town behind Igor is Jelondi, Pamir, Tajikistan

Igor Postrekhin is a (seemingly fearless) world-traveler and professional adventurer. He is also my brother. Having a travel journal including more countries and cities than most will ever even contemplate visiting in their life-time, Igor has a unique perspective on wild experiences, facing fears, cultures & people, and most importantly living life without the constraints of society’s rulebook. A direct quote from his About Me section on his Couchsurfing profile (which has an overwhelming 142 positive reference list) says “Passion is the fuel that keeps me going. Extremes and adventures exhilarate me, obscure the norms.” He is currently living in Xinjiang, China.

Here’s a list of said countries in case you were curious.

Afghanistan, Argentina, Bahamas, Belarus, Bulgaria, Burma, China, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Tajikistan, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, United States, Uruguay, Virgin Islands, U.S.

Vital (cliché) steps to adventurous travels:

  1. Conquer your fears! Ok, difficult, start with practice. Begin with overcoming some smaller seemingly impossible challenges on your list. Those which will involve testing self, looking for self-trials. Ultimately, I think, every adventure involves coming out victorious over something that you thought YOU couldn’t do. To happily spend endless hours and vast resources on the perfect adventure, you have to desire new remarkable experiences, and dare yourself (even if just a bit) to be victorious.

“There is no illusion greater than fear.”
Lao Tzu 

Life after Phi Tha Kon

I was volunteering as a teacher at the Nong Khai base in the Isan province of Thailand. As a group of new friends and colleagues we took a weekend trip to the top of Dan Sai mountains for the famed Phi Tha Kon festival. This was week three of my first solo exploration abroad. For months building up to this trip, I’ve dreamt of these locales, customs, experiences, of Thailand, of exploring jungles; I was more than excited for exoticism and adventure ahead. This was my first life-defining travel adventure.  fest

Phi Tha Kon is a crazy festival dedicated to scaring off evil spirits and summoning up the protective ones. The ritual processions and celebration run practically nonstop for three days and nights: everyone wears myriads of wicked masks and costumes, and carries ligneous phalluses — also in an immeasurable variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. The sojourn ambiance, open air, friendly beer markets, and the tradition of poking each other with wooden penises, especially from behind, culminated in an unforgettable merrymaking. To top off this special outing, it was the weekend of the FIFA World Cup ’06 Final – we watched the match on a fifty-foot projector screen, full of emotions, exploding for the unforgettable Zidane finale. Our international Nong Khai family of young travelers was extremely joyful, bonding together, building lifetime friendships.fest2

On the last day, shortly before departure, I had a typical Isan meal – with very spicy, deep flavors stemming from the core ingredients. (Som Tum papaya salad from this region is still the spiciest dish I’ve ever enjoyed.) Well, it wasn’t digesting properly as we were riding back home. The dilapidated, packed bus rocked hard side-to-side, constantly hitting bumps on the only road from the high up village-town. I was standing among dozens of others in the crammed space between the seats. Bodies swayed with the motion of the bus and I suddenly felt the whirling transfer into inside of my belly. In an instant, the centrifuge in my stomach was turned on and I immediately felt repercussions of that lunch coming. Without delay, I vehemently barked at Nick to ask the driver to stop the bus and let me out.bus trip

Nick, our young native group leader and translator, looked puzzled and did not react. In agony of inevitable release, I yelled “STOP THE BUS!” My foreign friends glared with surprise, the rest of the passengers began chattering in Thai, probably something along the lines “loco Gringo”. I informed my friends with an obvious “I gotta go!” facial expression. This time Nick was urgently conversing with the driver. “How will you get home?” he turned to me, “the driver won’t wait for you. There’s no more buses from here today. Few cars go by this road at all this time of evening.” The bus was slowly pulling over at the straight away between a wavy chain of mountain bends. I pushed my way to the door, not seeing another option. My companions were a bit stunned as I jumped out at a slow roll, not trusting the driver to actually fully stop soon enough. Nick’s response was to shout something at me as he threw a translation booklet and a telephone (I traveled with only pen and paper back in the day). I sprinted into the bushes out of sight of rolling away stares and started taking care of business.

This wouldn’t be the last time that TP isn’t on hand and leaves serve a hygienic purpose. These leaves were large though, unlike any that I’ve ever seen, luckily smooth, and springing right out of the marsh-covered ground. Once I composed myself, I began to evaluate the situation beyond the foliage at squatting level. I was in the mother freaking jungle!! Frightful loss was one of the strong initial emotions. Then I reminded myself about what I came to Thailand for: to experience tropical wilderness. Everything was quiet except for ubiquitous cricketing, snapping, croaking sounds of the forest. “How dare I be fearful?” was another attempt to rid mind of worries. Humidity was peaking after just-passed rain. The evaporating moisture off the omnipresent green surfaces enhanced the lush fragrances of all surrounding flora. It was a few hours before sundown, although gloomy clouds lingered with darkness behind the recent downpour.thai hills1I found a spot with little over-brush to take in the stunning view of the high rolling hills of South East Asia. The sun was lurking about a foot above the mountain at four o’clock bearing, looking directly down the slope. The road a few feet behind me zigzagged and disappeared into the jungle oblivion to the right, towards the sun. The last of the rattling of the bus’s broken exhaust pipe was also fading from the same direction. A few hundred yards lower, this serpentine road reemerged on the other side of that mount, and then was seen wagging in and out of sight far down the valley below.

“What if I cut straight down the mountain through the forest? …And maybe be lucky enough to catch up with the bus on the switchbacks below… while the bus is going the long way around the sun mountain?”, I pondered, “…this could be a reasonable hike… I should hit the road a few hundred yards down… and this’d be the best chance of passage home.” An inexplicable desire to manifest this idea was pleading me to proceed into the brush. “Can I do that?” Doubt and an injection of nervousness magnified the insanity of the thought. Anxiety driven, I was on a verge of running after the sluggish bus, for a split second regarding it as a more rational idea. Confounded, I looked at the road, continuing to leer at the entrails of the forest. Powerful exhilaration kept trickling through my veins, trampling “I can’t”.thai hills2This plan struck my naivety as an ideal adventure, a chance to fulfill a dream of crossing a jungle. I carelessly rushed into the forest; backpack still hanging over the right shoulder. I hadn’t done anything of the sort before — was a bit clueless of the forthcoming. Ten meters from the road, twelve, fifteen, I’m advancing inwards, looking for a pathway all around except under my feet. “I never thought I’d actually do something like this”, I thought, this is one of those gnarly experiences I’ve only envisioned. “I can…” was my last thought. Boom! There it was: I stepped on the false ground. The shrub collapsed under my right foot, slippery floor had no friction, and my butt gravitated hard down into a natural trench, with backpack in tow, into a slide down the slope.

Down I went, at a steep angle, fast, feeling at once powerless against the force of nature; yet all senses heightened to function in unison and survive… The sensation was familiar from wrestling matches in high school: thinking turns off, instincts kick in, muscles tense up, joints unhinge… My right arm was stuck in the upward position to prevent loosing the backpack, yet both hands were karate-chopping an onslaught of branches hurling at my face and torso from all sides. I was zooming down in an inverted catapult, quickly accumulating bruises and scratches. Branch – chop, branch – chop, tree root – kick off ditch’s side as hard as I can and scoot. This was a roller coaster without safety belts. The initial jolt sent me straight downwards, but soon the pathway of the massive cartless bobsledding track – the rut – steered me rightwards. My body shifted into a skid sideways, thumping a formidable hump or two in the process. That slowed the motion. I quickly shuffled my feet against the banks to avoid more upcoming obstacles sticking out of the flanking ground. Still rushing down the mist-lubricated water slide, I started reaching for lianas all around. Missed one, couldn’t grip onto the second one, the third one gave in and dragged with me… that effort was enough to slow down the momentum. Another veer rightwards and the ride was over: I was sitting on the bottom of a ten-foot wide ravine, with the backpack a few yards behind, trying to regain clear-headedness, if not consciousness itself.

“That was WICKED!” I was sitting in a sapless pile of mud on a flat grassy patch. I adjusted my pants, shaking off whatever was crawling inside them. They were completely soiled on the outside. A mere single rip in my t-shirt exposed several major scrapes on my right loin. Dirt masked my shirt’s cool design. Several invisible bugs needed to be swapped to stop biting me in the scalp. I was beat up but invigorated. I looked back over the left shoulder: probably less than a hundred yards traveled, albeit the top of the hill was out of sight. It couldn’t have taken more than two minutes. It sure seemed like a voyage! What just happened?!?! I sat there, feeling devirginized, already knowing that a tremendous life event had just occurred. I had the first dose of the most powerful drug in my life – overcoming an unexpected, extraordinary, unprecedented to self, challenge.

I took several deep breaths, inhaling the pristine air of the jungle forest. Tiny purple flowers scattered all over low grasses and serene chirping of the birds perfectly complimented the internal feeling of success. Peace and euphoria. Humanity was far out of sight and out of mind at that moment. I would probably be groaning from multiple bruises on my hips if it wasn’t for my soul’s complete satisfaction. I fulfilled a dream, and it happened so naturally. I wasn’t thinking of any other dreams at that moment, but instinctively was certain that they would all come to fruition in some similarly bizarre turn of events.

“Now what?,” hints of panic began sifting through as reality of whereabouts sunk back in. Distance ahead became scary. A prospect of again falling down and not being so lucky crossed my mind once or twice. The obvious horror of being stuck in the bug infested woods overnight flashed in my imagination. Nonsense! “I must have about two-three hundred yards to go down… and to the left (since the slide kept bending rightwards)…. Very doable.” I was ready, eager to get back to the paved road, to cross paths with the bus and tell all about the happening to new friends. I fastened the bag onto my back and walked down at eleven o’clock bearing. Already clearheaded, only minutes after the rush, this time a sense of simultaneous confidence and cautiousness dominated my mind. Vigilantly I probed every step, but moved fast, using tree trunks and branches for security and stability. My shoes have been soaked for some while now; sweat was dripping off me faster than I could wipe it. I had to hop down a small scarp at one point, although otherwise it was an easy and smooth hike. Suddenly I heard a vehicle’s humming not too far below in the distance and my newfound contention of hiking in the jungle was trumped by excitement of ending the trek and sharing the experience with comrades. I deeply wished the sound was that of the bus, as I imagined a heroic return.bus

I sauntered onto the road – to be extra suave in case of witnesses. It wasn’t the bus, but an old loud truck approaching from the right. I faced slightly rightward – facing the left-sided traffic – and hesitantly raised my left thumb. I’ve always coveted hitchhiking, the freedom and adventurism that it entails. This was the perfect opportunity for trying it out, better than any I could’ve imagined. Ok, another first for me! It’s always different, however, being out there and actually doing it: courage was now wavering. As the contours of the truck drew closer I realized that it had a tiny cabin, full with three persons, and a chicken coop in the back bed. Within fifty meters, chicken clucking from the back of the obnoxiously painted red-orange striped rig became audible. Perhaps because this scenario was never part of my dream, the idea of having my muddy appearance covered with chicken feathers, whilst riding in that cage, appalled me. I quickly retrieved my hand and simply smiled at the locals as they drove passed.

I didn’t have to wait longer than thirty seconds before another vehicle popped out from around the bend in the distance. This one did not make any noise and was rapidly gliding towards me. I squinted to make out a black European sedan stylishly zooming along cliff side. It was a new model C Class Mercedes Benz. With no hesitation, the finger went back up into the flagging stance. I had zero worries on my mind, my mini-dreams were stacking one on top of another, happiness of these moments had already penetrated the subconscious. Within seconds, the Finish driver and his pretty Thai front-seat passenger were motioning me to enter the car for a ride.

I wouldn’t have let my dirty self into the interior of this sleek mobile, but this family was not a bit bothered by my stained appearance — white skin, even muddy, truly is a ticket to much in the Third world. The couple’s mixed-race teenage son, seated behind the European father, greeted me with a friendly smile, and then drowned back into his iPod. We exchanged few words with the driver’s wife, but silence was clearly the preferred mode of this trip. A chilly stream of AC air cooled me into ultimate comfort of the spacious leather backseat.

Indiscernible tunes of pop rock from the kid’s headphones to the left prompted me to also pull out my player. I started listening to the White Stripe’s new-to-me White Blood Cells album on the way to Phi Tha Khon few days prior, so I put them back on. And then the magic moment, when music solidifies an event, enthralled me. “We’re going to be friends” came on.  It wasn’t about a girl, or a person, it was about trip-taking and adventure-making. It was about seeking shortcuts, getting off on thrills, and breaching new horizons of personal possibilities. The roots of a deep friendship within myself were planted. The kid and me incidentally exchanged looks and a more genuine smile this time — he was bobbing to my waves, clearly contaminated by my joy from this song. I was drifting in Zen, with eyes shut, as I heard “where? Drop off you where?” from my kind chauffeur.

stationthe bus station

I stepped out back into the steam-bath of SE Asia at the conspicuous bus station in the middle of an insignificant town-village. This is where we were supposed to change buses on the way back to Nong Khai, I realized. As I walked through the bus terminal, to my extreme amazement, I first heard the rattling of the old exhaust pipe and then watched the familiar decrepit bus pull into its gate. Musky and blue in the face from the fatiguing journey, the crowd began tumbling out of the bus. I stood there, glowing, welcoming my surprised co-travelers with the grandest grin. I was joyous to be back in their company, they were awed by my wicked reappearance – jubilation reigned the moment. As they began bombarding me with “what”s and “how”s, Nick quickly herded us into the departing coach for our last leg of the trip to Nong Khai. On the way home, during a much more comfortable and relaxing ride, I told all of my misadventures, with fulsome gesturing. I didn’t mention, however, anything about initial fears; this is a tale of the undaunted conquering of Thai jungles, and, secretly, self in the process.

2. ‘Be prepared!’

3. Make it your own!

4. Be open-minded!

5. Have fun even if it doesn’t seem like fun in the moment!

The 1st guest POst in the Vital (cliché) steps to adventurous travels series from someone who has a lot to say about spontaneity, facing fears, and traveling with tips on how to embark on an adventure of your own.

The other POsts in this series can be found by following these links:

TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT, ADVENTURE’S HAPPENING (Bring small size nick-knacks)


5 thoughts on “Guest POst: Life after PhiThaKhon

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