A hitchhiker’s guide to the 21st century

Hitchhiking, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is ‘travel by getting free lifts in passing vehicles.’ It is so much more than this. When one thinks of hitchhiking, one thinks of Kerouac or McCandless. People of the past. Hitchhiking seems to no longer be a thing in this day. Why would anyone want to? The network of public transport around the world is huge and relatively efficient. Yet, none of these can compare to the experience of thumbing it. And that’s the answer we often miss – the experience. I can pay a few bucks and get a straight shot bus to my destination, but I’d rather spend a few days hitching there.

I’ve hitchhiked in Europe and in Asia. My longest trip was probably hitchhiking the length of Thailand. I started in Khao Sok National Park in the south and finished in Chiang Mai right on the northern border. We slowly made our way North stopping in some truly beautiful places. None of these places compared to the journey.

Hitchhiking isn’t too common in Thailand, and I can’t speak Thai, so when we left Khao Sok I was like a giddy child. I truly had no idea what was going to happen. Most of the time when you do something you have some idea of how it’s going to end up. You have a plan. We had no plan and no clue what was going to happen. To be completely clueless, to revel in the mystery and the unknown – a proper adventure. To let go of preparation and expectations is to be free. Twenty minutes after hitting the road, this pickup truck pulled over ahead. Sprinting after it, the driver put his head out the window. He was smiling. He was going in the right direction. That was all it took. He didn’t ask for money. He saw some people on the side of the road and that was enough. A pure willingness to help. The four of us piled into the back. Our bodies all intertwined in the bed, bags as pillows. So, our first hitch of this journey began. Everyone had a smile on their face. We laughed and sang and screamed. We weren’t separated by being inside a vehicle. Sitting there, wind blowing my hair around the place, the roar in my ears, the drizzle of rain, the landscape passing by. Rapture.

He dropped us off on the side of the motorway where we were parting ways. Within 5 minutes of being dropped off, this taxi pulled over to the side. When he turned up, I spoke to him saying sorry, but we weren’t looking for a taxi. Nodding his head, he said that he knows and that this taxi isn’t his. He offered to drive us all to way to Bangkok – around an 11-hour drive. It was basically a miracle, getting a hitch all the way. We ignored the question of whose car it actually was. A few hours in we realised that he was barely conscious most of the time. We would be coasting along and then he would jolt awake and swerve the car narrowly missing some barricade or other. He set some alarm clocks to beep every minute. Because he was taking us the distance, we were reluctant to hop out. Dying in this taxi wasn’t a great prospect so at the next gas station, we did bail.One too many swerves. We thanked him, and then explained we were staying the night here. I hope he made the drive in one piece.

It was the dead of night. We lay on the ground outside the gas station, I couldn’t tell you where we were. It didn’t matter. We were on the road. That’s all that mattered. We nodded off at different times. The ones awake, going up to any truck filling up with gas and asking for a ride or thumbing on the road. Laying on the hot cement, watching trucks drive past. Streaks of light. Everyone had somewhere to be, something to do. Not us. Lying there I was happy. I wasn’t doing anything. And that’s exactly why I was happy. Because I had no sense of rush, I had nowhere to be and nothing to do. We had been at this gas station for around 8 hours. I was shaken awaken. Woken by a smiling face, Xander screaming we had a ride! I scrambled up grabbed my pack and hopped in the bed of another pickup. We were off to Bangkok. 4am in the back of a truck in the middle of Thailand. We were a pile of sleeping bodies in the back. You couldn’t separate us, a mixture of limbs crammed into this square. This interconnectivity of limbs, woven together – connectivity. Connection is this thing that we all crave and yet are so quick to shy from. Phones, the threat of strangers, the fear of something alien. A growing dysconnectivity exists today. Hitchhiking is seen as an anachronism. This bohemian, hippie activity of the past that we have evolved from for the better. It isn’t part of the history books. The connection between humans will always exist in the present. And that is what hitchhiking is. A connection between strangers.

 Torch lights woke me up. A group of police officers stood over me. It’s never good when you get woken up by police shining flashlights in your face. We had hit a police checkpoint and they were asking where we were going. ‘Bangkok’. They smiled. We drove off. I went back to sleep as if this was the most normal thing in the world. I watched the sun creep over the horizon. Everything around me taking shape. This foreign landscape passing by. Five hours in and my ass was not enjoying the constant bumping of the road. The sun was up and beating down. The last stretch was this barrage of soreness, sweat and dust. Not all beautiful things are pleasant. Covered in grime we were finally in Bangkok. The satisfaction to have reached this city.

A week later my thumb was up again. Excited to no longer be stationary. To move. The road is enchanting, and nothing compares. Anything can happen on the road. A feeling of possibility. The possibility to live. Hitching out of Bangkok wasn’t easy. There were now three of us. We didn’t really think it through. We looked at the map and made our way to the main motorway out of the city. Turns out this motorway was a sky motorway. We stood underneath the motorway, laughing. This was meant to be our gateway out of the city. The gateway from city squalor to country serenity. In view but unattainable. We walked to a gas station nearby and our thumbs were up. No luck. We had set off at 3pm. We were lying outside the same gas station at 11pm. We had made it a few hundred metres. One guy approached us and asked us what we were up to. We explained that we were trying to head north. He spoke perfect English, so our hopes were high. He was just picking up gas before having dinner with his family at home. Nevertheless, he wished us luck and shook our hands. He drove away as we got comfy. An hour later he was back. Him and his brother at dinner had decided to come back and help us out. They drove us right to edge of the city and dropped us off by the main motorway. They returned to their families as we strolled to the nearest gas station. These were starting to feel like home. After a washing myself in the sink of the bathroom we set up base for the night. With a sign laid out in front of us, Hal, Xander and I lay there. It was now early morning. Still no luck. I didn’t really care. I was eating an ice cream, Xander on my left was playing his guitar, and Hal asleep on my right. The night rolled on. It was now 6am. It had been over 24 hours and we were still in Bangkok.

The frustration starts to creep in. Nothing you can do but surrender. We were rewarded. Finally, we were out of the city. It felt like luxury there only being three of us in the bed. A palace. We whizzed along to Sukhothai. The brutality of the midday heat. Half-naked in the back, it was like being on a barbecue. Bits of skin burned, and noses blistered. The sun never wavered of faltered. Just like the crops, I felt withered. The breeze from the truck – my solace. He drove us for six hours and then drove us a further hour out of his way. I don’t remember his name, but I’ll always remember who he was. What he did, his kindness is his identity to me.  

These people that you meet, you never see again. It’s such brief encounter and we can barely communicate with each other. Yet it’s so powerful. It somehow means so much. It was around now I realised why I loved hitching. There’s this pureness to it. There’s no reason for any of these people to offer a lift. They gain no measurable thing, at the most some gas money and cigarettes. And yet they accept you into their vehicle. You’re dirty and a stranger and yet they do. It’s this pure demonstration of kindness. Of helping someone with no ulterior personal motives. And as the hitcher, you put your entire life into the hands of a stranger. You don’t know who these people are, but you trust them. You’re gambling on humanity, and you’re backing the good of people.

After Sukhothai we were almost there. 300km to Chiang Mai. Myself and one other set off in the evening. This woman gave us a quick ride in her van which brought us to the main motorway north. After a few hours of thumbing, we settled down near the road to get some sleep, planning on just continuing in the morning. It’s always when you’re not expecting it. The turn of emotions whenever a car pulls over for you. Sleep would have to wait. It was two guys, and one of their little nieces. They showed us videos of them rapping on YouTube and then told us to get in. We got comfy and then one of them handed us 2 beers and some food. They refused to let us pay for them. They even gave us straws to make it easier to drink out of while driving. Not their first rodeo. The truck driving along in the dark of the night, us lying in the bed, drinking a beer, and looking at the stars. It’s hard in these moments not to be fully convinced by the way of life on the road. It was genuinely sad saying bye to them.

There were benches at the gas station. A nice surprise. A quick sleep and then just a few hours to Chiang Mai. There’s never really a normal moment on the road. A place of absurdity. I was woken by screams. I sat up. There were 15 people running at each other brandishing long sticks of bamboo. In the middle of nowhere, I sat on this bench spectating a bamboo sword fight. People running back and forth. Advancing and then retreating. I guessed I had just discovered time travel. The police turned up and it all calmed down. Hitchhiking exposes you to the weirdness of this life and its marvellous.

A quick hitch out of the station and then we were walking along the motorway. This lorry which was transporting around 20 cars pulled over 100 metres up ahead. We just strolled along, the thought that this car-transporting truck pulled over for us never crossed our minds. Five minutes later, we were climbing up the lorry and hopped in the driver’s seat of a car. Holding the steering wheel of this car we were driven along on top of a lorry, howling with laughter. Normality is such a narrow lane. Staying in it cuts out so much possibility. We wear no chains.

It was only right that the final hitch was in the back of a pickup. It was the final trial. A thunderstorm hit. In the bed of the pickup, we were getting pounded by the rain. It was brilliant. The bed filling with water, shivering cold, drenched to the bone we looked at each other and smiled.  We arrived at Chiang Mai.

So, I had hitchhiked the length of Thailand, stopping off at various places along the way. Hitchhiking is still possible today. It is not this tradition of the past. It was a journey to remember. Obviously, there were times of extreme frustration when I couldn’t get a ride for hours on end, or times of fear. Hitchhiking is dangerous and risky. But if you lived your life governed by fear, you wouldn’t do a lot of things that make life worth living. The joy of the journey made it worth it. The joy of hitching is something different. It is something that can’t be achieved through getting a bus or taxi. This joy shouldn’t be abandoned to books of the past. Obviously one of the main reasons to hitch is that it is free. But even that isn’t why it’s such an amazing thing. When hitching, where you are going doesn’t truly matter. The journey with all the good and bad is what I treasure. It’s the people you meet on the way, these pure brief interactions. It’s the places you go by. It’s the places you would have never gone to before, but you get dropped off in. it’s in the thoughts and feeling you have. It’s an adventure. You are on the road to nowhere with nothing to do and that’s enough.

All photos by Thomas Russell

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