Midlifebackpacker’s love for South East Asia
Visiting Thailand & South East Asia, as our friends know, is something we have come to love. For the last 4 years, backpacking has become our reason for working. Saving up to visit a strange, foreign country on a shoestring budget. This year, 2018 would be entirely different, if not altogether impossible. For Janneke, traveling Thailand with cancer that had metastasis to the bones and was now stage 4, was to prove a way greater challenge.
Janneke gets a cancer diagnosis
In January 2016, her oncologist initially diagnosed Janneke with breast cancer. Following a mastectomy, the next 2 years were a roller coaster ride of ups & downs, surgeries & treatments culminating in her final surgery. At the end of 2017, a lengthy process of breast reconstruction was finally completed. Those who know Janneke, will know that she does not pity herself & continued life and even her backpacking trips traveling Thailand with cancer and then on to Cambodia & Vietnam, throughout this process. Admirable under the circumstances & even “super human” traveling with prosthetic temporary expander implants all while carrying a backpack. Unplanned, unguided self help backpacking trips through South East Asia & Vietnam. Janneke was intent on traveling thailand with cancer again.
Cancer metastasis to the skeleton
In March 2018, however, things took a dramatic turn for the worst. The cancer had spread and metastasis throughout her skeletal system was observed on an MRI. The cancer was now stage 4. Her spinal column in the lower, middle back & neck areas were badly affected. Shoulder areas & bones, ribs, pelvis and femurs all being affected. The worst damage was the left hip & femur area. This required immediate surgery and replacement of her hip joint & most of the femur. A further surgery was needed to remove her ovaries to help gain control over the high levels of estrogen that was aiding the cancer spread. These few months were a series of complications and hospital stays. Weight loss, pain, nausea, and just about every other drug induced side effects always present.
Janneke formulates her goal
During this time, one thing became foremost in Janneke’s priorities & bucket list. The goal to take her mother on a trip to Thailand so that she too could experience the adventure & mind shift that traveling to a foreign destination brings. At 81 years of age, Janneke’s mother had never had the opportunity to see another country. Janneke vowed to take her even though the odds were against Janneke herself traveling Thailand with cancer. This became Janneke’s driving force, & a dream that I vowed I would help make a reality if at all possible.
The trip gets the go ahead
In September 2018, Janneke felt strong enough to take this dream head on. Both her oncologist & orthopedic surgeon gave her the green light to go traveling Thailand with cancer. They knew how stubborn Janneke was and wanted to do this trip. The reality however, was that this would take an extra ordinary drive and motivation to get her through the pain and exertion of long distance flights, train trips, songthaew rides & bus trips. Not only that, but we were taking along an 81 year old. We had no idea how Janneke’s mother would cope with this. It was to be her 1st time to ever set foot on foreign soil. A place so culturally different to South Africa was to be a fascinating culture shock for her too.
No package tourists
One thing was for sure though. Neither myself, Janneke or her mother had the desire of becoming package tourists. We decided we would be on the road on our own. This time around, my planning needed to take all the health & age limitations into account as traveling Thailand with cancer, especially such advanced stage 4 cancer is not easy & taxing on the body. Gone were the days of being able to make mistakes with times, drop off points and unreliable transport. Knowing South East Asia, I needed to ensure that I did not make mistakes & always had a 2nd fall back plan. I needed to do “dry runs” myself to see if transport modes did indeed depart & arrive at the places & times I thought they would.
Arrival in Bangkok
On arrival in Bangkok, I was relieved that both Janneke & her mother had coped surprisingly well with their long trip. We checked into the CitiChic hotel as it was near to MRT & BTS, & I had pre-booked it. Not great, so on the 2 nd day, we moved to The Royal Ivory Hotel, (good value at 1367baht, R608, $42 pn for 3 sharing) in the Nana district.
The excitement and adrenaline of the trip becoming a reality had kept them both strong. Ready to take on all that they were hoping to do in Thailand. Janneke was deriving great pleasure from seeing her mother’s amazement at all the things we had become so used to in Thailand. The crazy streets & traffic, the resilience of the local vendors & people all rushing about. The Sky train, MRT, tuk tuks, motorbikes, ferries, Songthaews, public trains, buses & all the other modes of transport being put to use to provide her with a different perspective each time.
Taking trips out of Bangkok
Our previous experience with the various modes of transport made it possible to give Janneke’s mother a taste of as many of these as we could expose her to, and provide her with a once in a lifetime experience. After a while in Bangkok, it was clear that although Janneke was traveling Thailand with cancer, I could conservatively plan a few trips out of the city & that Janneke & her mother would cope well enough to do these.
Train trip to Bangsaphan
We took the BTS (Sky train) & MRT (Underground) to Hua Lamphong train station where we purchased train tickets to the quite town station of Bangsaphan Yai on our way to Koh Samui. We needed to break the trip into smaller segments and treated ourselves to a relaxing few days at The Coral Bangsaphan. A well deserved rest at a wonderful resort. Janneke & I would normally not have considered such a luxury resort (at 1828baht, R815, or $56), but this was a different trip than what we are used to so we treated ourselves. It was also clear that this stop over would provide a good rest for Janneke, who was after all, traveling Thailand with cancer & her mother of 81. We can highly recommend The Coral Bangsaphan
Surat Thani sleepover
Next, we took on the journey from Bangsaphan Yai station, taking the train to Surat Thani. This was to be our sleepover, before heading out to Koh Samui. On arrival in Surat Thani, we caught one of their cheap orange public buses into the centre of town and walked to our hotel happy for the break after a long, tiring train journey. Here we opted for The Evergreen Hotel. (Spotless & modern value at 990baht, R440, $30 for 3 sharing). After 2 days of rest & exploring town, we were ready for our next leg of the journey.
Surat Thani to Koh Samui
Leaving our hotel on foot we walked a short distance to the Seatrain, ferry offices to book our bus transfer and ferry ride from Donsak Pier to Koh Samui. We confidently avoided all the vendors and touts trying to con us in Surat Thani, as I had done my research prior to arrival & had also been there twice in as many years. Con artists trying to extort exorbitant fees unsuspecting tourists are the order of the day in Surat Thani. Been there, done that, thanks. We know the ropes.
Touristy Koh Samui
On our arrival in Koh Samui, we caught a Songthaew to our beach house at. I had pre booked King Busch Reggae Beach, online while on route to Don Sak Pier. Although not luxurious, it was clean & convenient enough and right on the beach. Good value at 1105 baht, R493, & $34 for a 1 bedroomed beach house for 3. With the ocean at the front & the main road just behind, noisy though, as drivers on Koh Samui drive like maniacs. Way different to some of the quieter islands we have been to before. Unfortunately The Reggae Resort had limited and expensive meal options. The beach restaurants on the touristy Koh Samui are very pricey.
After a few days we moved on to the more accessible Bangrak Beach. Our home being a lovely beachfront house with great views. Baan Anuntanarak ( 1125baht, R500, $34 for 3 sharing). During this time, we rented a motorbike to explore the island & Janneke even went along for her 1st bike ride again, after having been diagnosed with the cancer. The bike ride did however not come without a price as her pain levels were gradually escalating. In the past we used motorbikes in Thailand all the time, but traveling Thailand with cancer on a motorbike, was clearly not an option as the breast cancer in the bones causes extreme pain, which is increased by bumps & vibrations.
Crime on Koh Samui
Unfortunately the commercialized nature of Koh Samui has also brought with it the unpleasant nature of crime. The night before we were to leave back for Bangkok, a thief climbed into our window and stole my laptop, Janneke’s mother’s cellphone, a small backpack & worst of all, many of our photos & video clips I had already loaded onto the laptop. Janneke & I come from a crime ridden South Africa. We have become accustomed to low crime levels in Thailand. This unexpected crime left a bitter taste in our mouths. The next morning we took an early Songthaew trip back to the jetty and a ferry back to Surat Thani. Neither the Thai police, not owner of Baan Anuntanarak made any attempt at giving us feedback after many attempts at following up the police report. They simply ignored all my emails.
On arrival in Surat Thani, once again we dodged the touts, grabbed an orange bus. We jumped off at the main North South Bus terminus just outside of town. There we booked an overnight sleeper bus. This was to be a fairly long trip arriving back in Bangkok the next morning.
Returning to Bangkok
On arrival in Bangkok we booked into our favorite Bangkok hotel for the 2018 trip. This was The Royal Ivory Hotel in the famous Nana district. Situated just a little way out of the crazy nightlife, but close enough to walk to the Skytrain, public buses & the affordable Quay 21 Food Court in the amazing Terminal 21 shopping mall. From our hotel in Soi 4, Nana, getting around was a breeze. The Hotel even takes you to the main road, Sukhumvit free of charge. From there, getting around is easy & a “culture shock” awaited Janneke’s mother, who at 81, could barely contemplate the crazy nightlife, bars, pole dancers, massage parlors & ladyboys so prevalent in that area. A fun experience seeing her reaction, to say the least.
Coping while traveling Thailand with cancer & no Cannabis oil
Throughout the trip, I was surprised how well both Janneke & her mother had coped with the exertion that the heat, humidity and far distanced walked. There was one thing that I had been concerned about. Janneke did not want to risk taking her all important cannabis oil with to Thailand. The fear of prosecution being all too real.
Cannabis oil has proved to be one of the few things that have helped Janneke. It keeps her pain at bay, while sleeping well and stimulating her appetite, without nasty side effects. In those 4 weeks of traveling Thailand with cancer, she needed to rely on chemical drugs to try and keep the pain suppressed. As time went by however, it became clear that the pain relief of these chemical drugs was short lived & that her pain threshold was fast becoming higher & requiring more and more, leading to nausea, constipation & a host of other side effects anything chemical seems to have on Janneke’s system. This was expected & during her last week in Thailand, I could see that it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep a brave face. Sleeping patterns become restless & erratic. Appetite decreased as nausea took a grip.
The end of an epic month in Thailand
This had been an epic month in Thailand. One in which my expectations of Janneke, traveling Thailand with cancer & her mother, traveling for the 1st time ever at 81 years of age, were surpassed. Much respect to them both for making this happen against all odds. The long trip home left us all contemplating the memories we had created in Thailand. Some of the photos & videos may have been lost, but the memories will always remain with us.