Jumping train cars in Thailand

A trip to Southeast Asia 40 years in the making.

On January 22, 2020, I waited in the Vancouver airport with my brother Harry and Malaysian-born sister-in-law Luang for our Air China flight to Taipei. We were on our way to Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. This trip was pursuing a dream I’d had since the early 1980s. After the Vietnam War, my husband and I helped Southeast Asian refugees settle in our local community and hosted several in our home. As they became part of our family, I learned about Southeast Asian cuisine, culture and religion. Although we had received invitations to visit their home countries, with five children, aging parents, work and caregiving, travelling had to wait. Flash-forward 40 years, now (sadly) a widow, I was happy to accept Harry and Luang’s invitation to travel with them.

Janet cooling down with frozen streetfood

Our layover in the Taipei airport was the first time we’d seen so many people wearing face masks. We were surprised to have our hands sprayed and temperatures taken; we had no idea how normalized this would become.

In Vietnam we explored caves, took a cruise on the beautiful Halong Bay, canoed through caverns, swam in the South China Sea, ate fresh banana pancakes hot off the griddle, shuffled through crowded night markets and fresh wet markets. We toured fishing villages, walked along rice paddies and visited with monks who wanted to practice their English.

I was struck by the stark division between the wealthy and the poor. People my age were operating taxis and small stalls, sweeping the streets with brooms, straining themselves to earn an income. Meanwhile other families lived in expansive homes with several cars, housemaids and gardeners.

In the midst of these once-in-a-lifetime sights and experiences were moments of familiarity. At times it felt as though I was looking into the face of one of our house guests of 40 years ago. There is also Dutch architecture in Malaysia from the 1600s, remnants of the country’s colonial past. There is a long history of Portuguese, Dutch and English colonization in Malaysia – all for the sake of Empire and spices.

In Thailand, we took a crowded 12-hour train ride with no air conditioning from Ayutthaya to Bangkok. During the ride, Luang found better seats in another train car. Leaving my brother Harry with our luggage in the first car, Luang and I clambered from one train car to the next. With one hand tightly grasping the handrail, I cautiously jumped from one roaring car to the next, watching railway ties rumble past under my feet. We used every mode of transportation except motorbikes. This provided an opportunity to meet local people as we toured ancient temples, monastic schools and beautiful gardens.

The most interesting part of travelling for me is the people I meet. I am so grateful for the “in-law” family who shared both their homes and lives with me. The family New Year’s celebrations with multiple delicious dinners during the first few days of the New Year as well as guided tours of Penang and Kuala Lumpur are memories I cherish. Thank you Kit Yap, for rising before dawn to drive us to the Batu Caves in order to climb the 300 steps to the Temple in the Cave before the heat of the day.

I am thankful that this incredible journey was possible at this stage in my life and that we were able to arrive safely back in Canada before the pandemic shut everything down.

In our Aug. 10 issue, Editor Angela Reitsma Bick told the story of her family’s overseas bookshop adventure in “7 Tickets to Scotland Just Before the World Shut Down,” and invited CC readers to share interesting stories about the last trip they took before the pandemic. Here is one of our favourite responses.

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