It’s safe to say that wanderlust is in my genes. As a college graduation gift, my great aunt gave me something I’ll treasure forever: a stack of original photographs she took when she visited Bangkok in the early 70’s. I recognized all of the iconic landmarks from the travel books I was reading. There were photos of Wat Pho, the Chao Phraya River, and the Grand Palace. I love these photographs because they reflect so much character. Faded and aged, each holds a precious memory. I can still read the date printed on the side of each photo: 1972. Coincidentally, my great aunt and I were both in our early 20’s when we visited Thailand.

My excitement grew with each story she shared about her own trip to Bangkok, almost 45 years ago. The photos came to life as she recounted details about each one. She told me about how dark the water was as she floated down the river on the way to the Grand Palace, how heavy and humid the air was, how friendly and joyful the locals were. I imagined her rowing down the Chao Phraya in a rickety canoe, befriending locals who had never met a foreigner before. What an adventure it must have been, before cell phones and language translation apps, relying only on gestures to break through the language barrier. I couldn’t wait to explore the Land of Smiles and compare my modern experience to hers.

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Inspired by these beautiful photos and the stories they carried, I decided to recreate them as a surprise for my aunt. In some ways, my travel experiences were very different from hers.  Instead of rowing down the river in a rickety canoe, I rode in a motorized boat with other tourists.  Instead of using gestures to communicate, I found that most Thai locals actually spoke a little English. We laughed together as I tried to speak Thai, and used Google translate on our phones to communicate. The Grand Palace and Wat Pho were much more crowded than they were when my aunt visited.  But some things remained the same: the timeless beauty of the architecture, the warm smiles of the locals, the thrill of exploring a new place.

It felt like a scavenger hunt to find the exact spots those photos were snapped over 40 years ago.

I had a ball exploring the beautiful Grand Palace and temples through my aunt’s photos. One of the unexpected delights in re-creating them was the way the process  helped me connect with locals. I didn’t quite anticipate how eager people would be to help me find the places in the pictures. Palace guards, tour guides and even other tourists were excited to help, and wanted to hear more about what I was doing. It felt like a scavenger hunt to find the exact spots those photos were snapped over 40 years ago.

This photography adventure helped me connect with locals and tourists alike, but more importantly, it helped me connect with my aunt on a deeper level. I loved visiting the same places she visited while picturing what it must have felt like to be there over four decades ago. My aunt is a strong, adventurous, spirited woman and is an impactful presence  in my life. She started traveling before it was common for women to travel solo, and I love hearing her talk about her experiences visiting big cities and remote villages in every corner of the world. She embodies courage and grace, and has emboldened  me to chase my own dreams. It was an amazing experience to follow in her footsteps in such a tangible way.

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Laurel Street
Laurel is an Atlanta-based blogger and painter. Her first trip abroad was to Scotland in 2010. Since then, she’s traveled to over 20 countries and has lived in China, France and Thailand. Read her blog at laurel-street.com and follow her on Instagram at @laurelmstreet.

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