Touch the Dragon by Karen Connolly

Poetic diary of a Canadian girl living for a year in a village in Thailand.

Touch the Dragon by Karen Connolly is one of the most beautiful travel books you’re ever likely to read. With a poetic voice and a maturity rare to be found in someone as young as Connolly, Touch the Dragon is an account of a 19 year old spending a year in a village in Northern Thailand, on a cultural exchange program organized by the Rotary Club.

Touch the Dragon is written in diary form and we follow the worried thoughts and stirred impressions of this sensitive girl as she’s whisked from Bangkok airport to a rural village. Everywhere are flying insects, food she can’t recognize and smiling Thai faces that she can’t yet read.

Having traded her cold, dry climate of Canada for the humid tropics of Thailand, Connolly finds herself understanding what she’s let herself in for: No sex (her boyfriend is at home), no English (she’s obliged to learn Thai fast) and no bread (everyone eats rice).

The first few months are painful and embarrassing. With all her perception and eye for beauty she makes the most of her new environment but finds herself clashing with the culture and superstitions of the village Thais on a daily basis.

It would not matter how very slowly I said, “Please leave me alone in my room for just five minutes.” They would not understand. They’ve lived within fifteen feet of each other for most of their lives. They’re afraid to leave me alone.

At the same time, though, the differences remind her of what a foreign world she’s wandered into. And for the Thais, Karen Connolly is an irresistible curiosity, a reminder that there exists a world beyond their village and the borders of Thailand.

I’m a rare specimen here: the blonde hairs on my arms astound them because my eyebrows are so black. My long Caucasian nose is an absolute mystery. After touching my skin they touch their own, trying to name the differences between us. We understand each other primarily through laughter.

As the months go by, Connolly develops friendships and, as her Thai improves, she begins to adapt more to the everyday life of the village. Whilst at first she cannot stand the idea of eating cow intestines, soon she’s eating even fried cicadas.

Touch the Dragon is an example of someone who has really traveled. Karen Connolly hasn’t jumped to the beaches of Koh Samui or got stoned in a Bangkok guesthouse, she’s been initiated into the daily life of the Thais and has come closer to their culture in a year than most backpackers would in ten.

Touch the Dragon was written in successive years whilst living in Europe and Connolly reflects that maybe she was only able to embrace so whole heartedly the Thai village culture because she was so young. With more hindsight her values would have been more challenged, her independence riled. As it was, her innocence and enthusiasm allowed her to travel in a way that greater experience and maturity might have hindered.

You won’t read many more enlightening books than Touch the Dragon, it’s a delight from the first page to the last.