Gratitude for 2021. It was a bitch.

It is the end of the year – another hard year if you’re in travel, or on the planet. And despite this latest annoyance (Omic-xxx, you know who you are!), I’m filled with gratitude.

A year ago we thought we were almost over this thing, and then the endless 3rd wave came like a tsunami and again challenged every notion we’d had, forced us to rethink our worst outcome business plans, necessitated yet more innovation and creativity, more funny accounting to balance the books, new ways to engage staff and clients, the weekly struggle to look alive in the darkest moments. It’s not like we’re storming Normandy or anything like that. We learned a new game face. It’s mostly handsome.

We had some huge wins in 2021, and some punishing losses. But I’m wiser. I’m grateful. 

Despite the constantly moving goalposts, I’m both inspired and grateful that so many guests are willing to roll with the punches and make travel part of their lives. “Oh, now a 2nd PCR test needed after day 6? Ok that’s fine“, or “The sandbox entry means you have to stay 7-nights in the first location and then free to roam elsewhere? Ok sounds fine”. Or, “We now need to download more apps and send more documents just to get approval to enter the country? Ok can do”.

It shows we haven’t lost our desire to roam, to spread our wings and to live uncaged. It shows we’ve adapted, being generally the best of species who do. Travel is who we are, and we’ll find ways to do it over the next year despite the shifting sands. 

Yes, travel is who we are. The year 2021 proved that to me more than 2020 did when we kept saying it simply because we hoped it was true. It is true. 

So, that gives me some year-end gratitude as I look back on the past 12 months.

At Smiling Albino we started 2021 coming off the heels of our most outrageous trip in our history just before last Christmas. It involved everything from a magical train takeover party, to a disco in the forest, to truly wholesome community outreach experiences for discerning guests and hosting them in their own country to boot.

In the spring we did a fair amount of what I guess is called “domestic tourism”. We hosted friends, locals, expats, Thais, Canadians, Americans, Brits, Australians, Francophones, Singaporeans, and others. We created fun trips involving Bikes, Boats and Beer, and everything in between.

We then hosted a huge private jet group in March/April that pushed our buttons, tested our resolve, forced creativity under pressure, and required a full team assault for nearly a month. Some of the guests were assholes (I don’t care if they’re reading this because, well, it’s 2021 and the gloves are off). But I’m grateful. Mostly feeling gratitude for those who recommended us, and our team who pulled it off, and a handful of really nice people we met. Being nice matters, and some of them were.

During the rainy season we challenged ourselves in July to “reinvent Phuket“, with an opportunity to host luxury media courtesy of Thai Tourism (thank you for that) looking for a new spin. We delivered in platinum spades, and I spent a month rekindling an appreciation for how special Phuket is. In the process we connected with some cool community-based tourism experiences, made a handful of new friends, and conceived some mind-stretching experiences we don’t often associate with Phuket. This week all that research came in handy again as we’re fortunate to be hosting a fancy jet-set family indulging in Deep Phuket in our care. Back in July while in Phuket things seemed so uncertain. But I’m filled with gratitude for that all worked out, and can’t wait to return with more guests again soon. 

In September I broke a foot cycling, then ended up going 90 days without a drop of alcohol. Still not sure how or why I did either, but I’m grateful for moving through both.

In October I finished filming a movie which started in March before the “3rd wave” destroyed the freedom to work again. Only this time I had to complete the film with the broken foot. I think it was one of the hardest mental accomplishments of my life, not to mention the near Shakespearean-like version of old Thai required in the ever-changing script. But what a unique experience, and I befriended some of the coolest Thai actors I’ve ever met – bonafide superstars – who are actually very nice people. Pretty grateful for that.  

Then in November the mega mission of the year: we were challenged by last year’s local group of Thais and expats, captains of industry shall we say, to “do Isaan Smiling Albino-style, and full-throttle”. Well, it’s safe to say we turned Isaan inside-out and exposed its glorious soul. In the process we converted a vintage bus into a psychedelic country mobile music party, transformed a coffee shop into a boutique hotel suite, plus we cycled, hiked, laughed, prayed, and dug deeper into the roots of old Isaan than at any time in our 20+ year history. In less than four weeks we took the challenge of a foreign frontier (to us), made it our adventure playground, and delivered one of the best experiences we’ve ever done.

It got the creative juices flowing like our hair was on fire. I love that feeling, and am grateful for the opportunity, plus those amazing clients who trust our crazy ideas, and our team who showed once again we’ve got the glass-chewing grit and boldness to try new things.

In the meantime lots of former Smiling Albino guests started reaching out planning 2022 and even 2023 travel with us. Some names I hadn’t seen since 2001, and that’s just fantastic. 

Recently I’ve been invited to host an 8-part TV series about food, called Edible Story. Kind of a dream project, and easy to feel grateful for. Plus, I get to eat like a depraved monster in 8 provinces. My cup of gratitude runneth o’er. 

So we’re at the end of 2021, and there’s a new variant on the rise. We knew there would be, and there will be more. This is starting to feel normal, and we’re getting less phased by these things now. We can get through this. It is who we are. For this reason I know we’ll keep traveling, and Smiling Albino will again be tasked with missions to redefine how you experience fun. That is something I’m grateful for. 

So 2021, you’re a bittersweet glass of bubbly with a semi-rotten stone fruit chaser. But I’m grateful, and we’re going to tear 2022 a new one!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!

     — Daniel Fraser, December 24, 2021