‘Those kids carry that thing everywhere,” we heard another traveler comment as we passed by an outdoor café in Phi Phi, Thailand. Our 23-by-17-inch whiteboard casually balanced under my arm, as it had been since day one of our 12-week backpacking trip through Asia. My brother Justin and I had just one week to go, and our whiteboard had become our best travel companion.
After graduating from the University of Iowa, we sold educational books during the summer to save up money for a backpacking adventure. We decided to delay the “real world” by exploring the real world cultures and landscapes of Asia that fall. We set off for Tokyo on Sept. 4 with only a general route and no guidebook. Our only plan was to make our way to Singapore by Nov. 17 for our flight home, while learning, connecting and sharing experiences along the way.
We knew we would inevitably face language barriers and interesting experiences, so we planned to use a whiteboard to help us communicate. Those moments came sooner and more frequently than we imagined! In our first week in Japan, we experienced the world’s busiest intersection, and stood at least a foot taller and a lot blonder among the Japanese. In our second week, we slept in a water park in Busan, Korea, this time blending in effortlessly in the required pink-and-yellow striped uniforms.
Our entire three days in Busan were impromptu. When we arrived in Busan by ferry, we apparently missed the memo that it was the country’s Thanksgiving holiday weekend and all trains and planes to Seoul (our hoped-for destination) were booked.We took the advice of other travelers and stayed in a “jimjilbahn” – a three-story indoor water park, with a wave pool, at the top of a hotel. Although we were required to wear the uniforms, the cost of a night’s stay was very reasonable at just $9 US.
We later realized the low price was for good reason. Our sleeping space was a huge, clean, marble … floor. While other Koreans laid out thin mats to serve as beds, we opted for the tempting “soft pebble” rock pit. To our surprise, this area had a panoramic view of the coast, with fireworks exploding for the holidays over a color-changing bridge. Although we were delayed in making it to Seoul, we were thankful on this holiday for the chance to slow down and enjoy the journey, not just the destination.
Throughout our travels, we also experienced another often-overlooked place, this time Fuzhou, China. We happened to arrive there once again on a holiday. We got to the city as the sun came up for Nation’s Day, after an overnight train from Shanghai, and had hours to spend before our evening train left for Hong Kong. We sat outside the station and doodled on our whiteboard. Blonde foreigners are a rare occurrence in Fuzhou. And within five minutes of sketching, we had drawn a crowd of 40+ inquisitive onlookers. Unsure of how to keep this group entertained, we did our best by drawing suns, boats and flowers, and even had them draw their own creations.
A student came to practice her English with us and offered to take us to the local park. To our surprise, the park was decked out with carnival games, food stands and water rides to celebrate the holiday. We couldn’t resist trying the Water Happy Balls (word for word translated from the Chinese) on the lake, which made us feel like hamsters rolling around on water. We were the only kids past age 12 who tried them, but had no regrets; it was our best three dollars spent in China.
Fast forwarding to the last two weeks of our trip, we were in much different territory, and boat rides away from any motorized vehicles. On the beautiful islands of Ko Phi Phi, Thailand, were many young travelers who came for a few days and stayed for months.
We quickly realized it was because there’s no need for cars as the beaches are never more than five minutes’ walk and the outdoor adventures are endless. The culture is relaxed and we were able to experience spear fishing, rock climbing, fire spinning, scuba diving, cliff jumping, Thai boxing and, wait … wasn’t this place supposed to be relaxing?
OK, we found time to do that too, but most importantly, we made sure to incorporate the daily philosophy of the Thai – San-uk – meaning “it’s all in good fun.”
The journey that began in Tokyo, with us unable to relate to our surroundings, gradually presented us with people and experiences unlike any other. The setbacks of unplanned traveling created opportunities we would not have thought of otherwise. Having communicated via whiteboard with more than 200 locals and other travelers, we were able to connect and feel at home in places far from the U.S.