The Silver Backpacker – Chapter 1: Taking off for Asia

Krabi, ThailandHaving sold the second of our businesses in 2003, I found myself in a strange situation. The majority of my male friends were still in employment, my wife was fully integrated into her singing hobby, and my allotment needed little attention other than the occasional watering.

Very active, physically sound  and still not having reached  the age of 60 years, I wanted a challenge. Something as an alternative to the obvious downward spiral of long boozy lunches that I was staring at. My appetite had been somewhat whetted late in the year when we took a 14 day vacation to Thailand, on the tropical island of Koh Samui.

Long lazy days on Samui's  Chawang beach, reading biographies and sipping long cold Singa Beer, and the odd massage, one could not help but notice the hundreds of youngsters passing along the foreshore under the burden of backpacks.

Hai Phong street market, VietnamHey, they all looked happy and appeared to be  having fun and a  great experience. Not too different from my youthful days visiting exotic places around the Far East as a serving member in the Royal Navy, I supposed, but that was so many years ago.

" I'd love to be in their position again" I said to my wife, "brings back great memories of a fun youth".

Imagine my surprise when the response came back "Well why don't you give it a go?".

Four months later in January 2004  I was Thailand bound with a return ticket dated 6 months later. Not quite a Silver Gap year but certainly a lengthy period to roam around the Far East.

The Killing Fields Memorial, Cambodia My 6 months took me through Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia and the Philippines. I learnt to Scuba Dive, cook Thai food, give massages as well as acting as a 'dog' for  a blind English lady for two weeks. The most fascinating country visited was Vietnam and the friendliest was Thailand; the Land of Smiles.

There were ups and downs, fortunately more of the former. Many laughs and many memorable moments and visits. The most thought provoking were at the My Lai massacre sight in Vietnam and the even more infamous Kmer Rouge  Tuol Sleng  prison and genocide museum in Phnom Penh .

There were often times when I needed reminding as to what I was on. One particular incident came less than two  months after my arrival in Thailand, when I received an email from my wife. She had received my first credit card bill since leaving the UK and didn't think that the Shangri La hotel in Bangkok and the Melia hotel in Hanoi were her idea of 'backpacker' establishments. Ooops!

Koh Tao, ThailandBut to start in Thailand. My first stop was once again the island of Koh Samui. All islands in Thailand are prefixed with Koh and for me Samui was to be the stepping stone to a more exotic and tropical island, Koh Tao, the island of the Turtle.

Koh Samui is a very popular tourist island, not as popular or commercialised as Phuket which I would visit later. Samui has a number of good beaches, probably the most popular one being Chaweng Beach: 5 kilometres of white sand and crashing breakers. I stayed at  Poppies, a small  Boutique Hotel which fronts directly onto the beach and where we had stayed some 5 months earlier. It boasts probably one of the best restaurants on Samui. It proved an excellent place to acclimatize to the heat and work off the inevitable jet-lag.

So after 5 days of relaxation the adventure really began, and I boarded the ferry that would take me to the island of Koh Tao and beyond.

•  Read Chapter 2 – Koh Tao to Kanchanaburi
•  Read Chapter 3 – Thailand and Vietnam
•  Read Chapter 4 – My Lai, Hue and Saigon 

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Selective Asia for tailormade holidays to Thailand and other destinations in Asia.

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Richard Okill

Retired naval officer & businessman

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