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The Best Plan Is No Plan: My Solo Trip to the South of Thailand

Where did I go?

If you had asked me approximately 24 hours before my departure where I was headed and what I was going to do, I would have had only one answer for you: “I have no idea.”

(A map for your reference. If you click the blue markers it will show the names of the towns.)

I knew I wanted a beach and lucky for me Thailand provides two coasts to choose from. The prospect of seeing limestone cliffs was intriguing as well, so I set my sights on the Andaman coast. I had a vague sense of, “Hm, maybe I’ll travel up the Andaman coast. Or maybe down the coast. Or maybe I’ll cross over to the Gulf of Thailand if I get the chance,” but as far as any real solid notions of where I was headed…well, those just didn’t exist.

Annie‘s words did laps in my head: “The best plan is no plan. The best plan is no plan.”

Quickly this thought became my mantra. I repeated it to strangers in bars who asked me the routine series of Where-Have-You-Come-From/Where-Are-You-Going questions. At first it was terrifying, but then it was liberating. I went exactly where I wanted, exactly when I wanted to.

I took the night bus from Bangkok to Krabi Town, then the ferry to Railay. Went back to Krabi and took a van to Khao Sok National Park, from which I swung over to the other coast and headed for Koh Phangan. My last stop was Koh Tao before catching the night bus yet again back to Bangkok.

Beaches in the South of Thailand
EXACTLY what I was looking for. Dreamland.

The Good Parts

My first act of liberation was to climb the steepest stairs I have ever seen, straight up the face of a limestone cliff to a glistening, golden Buddha at the summit.

It was one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done, especially since I was running on very little sleep from the previous night’s bus sleeping conditions. But a combination of adrenaline from finally being out in the world on my own and anger from having the majority of my money stolen out from under my nose (see The Not So Good Parts section below), gave me the motivation to persist and make it to the top.

The things we do for a good view.

Tiger Temple in Krabi, Thailand
From the top of the Tiger Temple mountain. After 1,237 steps straight up.

In Railay, I conquered another nearly vertical cliff face, this time using a rope to hoist myself up through the tangle of boulders and tree roots. That was only after a day at what is arguably Railay’s most beautiful beach, Phra Nang, swimming and wading in between massive cliff faces through to the lagoon on the other side.

I treaded water and watched little crabs scuttle across the spiny, wet rocks protruding from the sea. It was a long swim back around to the beach. Ian showed me where to climb so I could jump off the cliff. I sat in the sand and watched Theijs and Sam, my Europeans rock-climbing friends, set up their gear and scale another rock face nearby.

By my second night in Railay, the nightlife scene started to feel like a big house party. All of the bars and restaurants are open-aired, connected by a thin sidewalk along the East Beach where everyone gathers at night to watch flame-throwing and the occasional Muay Thai match.

I wandered through on my second night until I saw an older couple at the tattoo parlor, getting traditional Thai bamboo tattoos. I asked if I could watch. The Kiwi couple brought back mai thais from the bar and we all sipped away while we observed the heavily-stoned tattoo artist carefully carve into her skin with gloved hands.

The next morning when the Rasta-Thai restaurant and bar staff people emphatically said hello to me in recognition I realized it was time to move on.

Phra Nang Beach in Railay
Phra Nang Beach in Railay.
Caves in Railay, Thailand
Lots of limestone also means lots of caves. I wandered into Diamond Cave, named for this sparkly mineral, and held my breath in the dark, echoey stillness. Bats were squealing overhead.

The jungles of Khao Sok swallowed me up for two nights. I went on a day trip to the lake with some friends from my van ride. The lake water was crisp and clear – a tremendously deep blue. We trekked through the mud, led by our fearless ex-Muay Thai trainer, Dee, to a waterfall in the middle of the rainforest. The sun streamed through the trees just right; the water pounded down resoundingly and trees lay mossy and fallen with such perfect chaos that it all seemed fake. Were we in Disneyworld?

That night, a half-Thai/half-Lebanese 23-year-old French guy taught me how to salsa while a rowdy group of be-robed Canadians chanted “Toga! Toga! Toga!” while playing beer pong. It’s moments like these…

Leeches in Khao Sok National Park
The first thing I did upon arriving in the national park was to hike through the rainforest by myself. I knew leeches were a thing there but I imagined I could avoid them fairly easily by just watching where I stepped. Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Just as I was marveling at the biggest bamboo I had ever seen in my life and feeling super jungly and adventurous, I looked down to find leeches burrying themselves into my feet. I tried with very little success to tear them off right there on the trail but they’re strong little suckers (pun intended) so I instead ran back to the park entrance in a panic. I could feel them wriggling in between my toes with every hurried step; my feet were sticky with blood, my hair was falling around my face, and I was absolutely drenched in sweat. I ripped off my sandals and stuffed my feet into the sink, taking at least 30 minutes to pick off every last one and beat it with my shoe.
Boating on the lake in Khao Sok National Park
We took a boat out on the lake where we swam around, lunched, and went on a muddy trek through the surrounding jungle.

When I think of Koh Phangan I think of pure bliss and relaxation. I imagine these adjectives are far from those most associate with the location of the infamous Full Moon Party, but I was traveling during the low season and I stayed in Ban Tai (as opposed to Hat Rin) in a charming bungalow right on the beach.

Coconut-banana smoothies. The ocean.

The Half Moon Party! To quote myself, “a glowing neon pulsing boozy dance party in the jungle.”

Relaxing in Koh Phangan, Thailand
I met Tonya, an actor from Canada, in Khao Sok and we traveled together to Koh Phangan. After all the climbing and swimming and trekking through mud we were ready for some relaxing beach time.

And then there was Koh Tao. Koh Tao – just the right size, just the right spirit. It was everything I could ever dream of in an island, right from it’s buzzing backpacker energy to its quaint and accessible walking streets leading up and down the thin strip of beach.

I had so much fun on Koh Tao that I forgot to take pictures.

I finally had the opportunity to stay in a hostel (as opposed to the standard bungalow accommodations) and met some wonderful people to go out with at night. If you peek your head around the corner down the beach you will see the magical twirling balls of fire masterfully swung and tossed by flame-throwers.

The diving was beautiful. I went without a wetsuit and still never got cold. I took a nap, sleepy from my early wake-up call (it’s part of the diving culture!). In my travel journal I wrote, “Nitrogen’s still pumping through my bloodstream from the dive this morning. My hair is crusted with salt; my skin is smooth and dry. I’m so happy here. I could live here forever. My love affair with the sea is getting out of control…”

The Not So Good Parts

Hm. How about getting most of my money stolen out from under my nose?

They say don’t put your valuables under the bus. As in, literally, don’t put your valuables in your backpack, then put your backpack in the storage space under the bus because people crawl around in there and go through and steal your things.

So I didn’t put my stuff under the bus, I put it on the empty chair next to me. Then I fell asleep and moved it down next to my feet. How in the world could someone steal from my bag at my feet?

It felt so sneaky. So conniving and malicious, the way they must have snuck around on the floor of the bus, mere inches from me, and gone through my bag piece for piece until they found the small pouch I use as a wallet. Then they picked out exactly the amount of money they wanted, leaving me the rest along with my camera and iPod.

I had only been away from Bangkok for 12 hours and was already down 9,000 hard-earned baht.

Monkey stealing my water bottle
Sometimes people steal your things. Sometimes monkeys steal your things. Guess which one is funnier.

Being robbed didn’t have the best effect on my attitude about solo travel. I became excruciatingly paranoid about getting more stuff stolen, to point where I would wake up in the middle of the night to pull my wallet from under my pillow and count the cash. It was stressful being so worried all the time. I desperately wished for a travel companion to keep an eye on my stuff on my beach towel while I swam in the ocean. I wrote a journal entry titled, “A Diatribe on Solo Travel,” in which I argued that traveling alone not only leaves you more vulnerable but is also more expensive because you can’t split food, accommodation, and transport with someone.

All of this paranoia, anger, and frustration passed pretty quickly as I eased into the adventure unraveling before me. In fact, my perspective on solo travel shifted rather abruptly.

What I Learned

I always claimed backpacking didn’t appeal to me because I didn’t want to meet people and form superficial, temporary relationships that would last mere hours before dissipating into the abyss.

But the people I met and the friendships we created, no matter how fleeting, were deeply satisfying.

In many ways, friendships are the sum of the experiences we share together, so when you’re on the move and you’re constantly experiencing the world around you with the people around you, you can form connections fairly quickly.

These relationships are hardly superficial; in fact they are a manifestation of the realest most present representation of You. You in This Moment and Them in This Moment.

Nothing matters but the now. Age is only a number. And no, backpacking is not a fantasy world; everything is real life, even when you’re just spending all of your time having fun.

Half Moon Party in Koh Phangan
Me and Tonya before venturing out to the Half Moon Party.

Saying goodbye to these people doesn’t have to suck. Just as you part ways with new friends you are bound to find even newer ones. And then you add them on Facebook and you might see them again in your travels. Maybe.

All of these people I’ve met across my journey seemed to fit into this careful puzzle that is my experience as a whole. It’s like they fit together in some predetermined way, but of course that’s not the case. You meet them and they give you what they can – what they are willing to give in that time and space – and you work with that and give back. Then, having had that encounter, your connections with new friends in the future are influenced by your experiences with those from the past, and that’s why they all seem connected; that’s why it feels like fate when in fact it’s really all just chance.

Meeting an elephant in Thailand
An amazing new friend.

When I left Bangkok, I was truly exhausted, both physically and mentally. I had been rushing to fulfill all of the last minute requests the school administration demanded of me during testing week while battling a deeply debilitating bout of food poisoning.

Literally on the day of my departure I was so weak I needed to sit down after only a few minutes of walking through the pharmacy to pick up some antibiotics. I was listless and in no mood to try to pack or make travel plans. But I also only had two weeks and I didn’t want to waste them wasting away in Bangkok.

When I left Bangkok, I had nothing.

I was drained of energy, drained of money, completely alone, and without a plan. My jean shorts hung loosely on my hips after losing what must have been 2 or 3 pounds during my illness; I was stressed out, exhausted, and despondent. Tears gathered in my eyes upon my departure. Tears of joy. I was so happy to see Bangkok roll past my window. Freedom.

A reawakening.

Sunset in Railay, Thailand
Nature brought me back to life.

In the end, I left Koh Tao with everything. I felt alive again; every single part of me felt full, from my salt-encrusted head of hair to my bug-bite-ridden ankles. Having refused to take a shower and wash off the seawater from a late-night dip in the ocean the night before (thank you, Koh Tao, for taking my skinny dipping virginity! Sorry if that’s TMI but I’m pretty sure I was the last person in the world to skinny dip), I slipped off my shoes to sink my feet into the sand one last time. I said goodbye to the sea, literally speaking out loud, and felt the heaviness of the melancholy I would carry with me all the way back to Bangkok weigh down my heart.

Swimming in Koh Phangan, Thailand
My favorite place to be.

Coming back here was bittersweet. I was excited to wear clean clothes again, eat food that wasn’t marked up 300%, and take myself to the gym for a well-needed workout. But it’s hard coming back. Really, really hard. As I wrote in my travel journal,

“I’m terrified of what’s going to become of me when I go back. Traveling around the south has made me so happy. I don’t feel stifled, or lonely, or anxious. The green has made me so happy. The ocean, the people…Finally I’ve met people. Wonderful people who are open and friendly and curious and, most of all, want to have fun.

“I guess this is the way it feels at the end of any fantastic vacation. But for some reason it doesn’t seem that simple. I think I hate living in Bangkok. What do I do then?

“Do I quit my job and join the wandering leagues of backpackers?

24 comments

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Ahh amazing dude! Looks like such a great time I am so happy you found your stride 🙂 I totally understand your feelings about Bangkok, its not why we moved to the other side of the world to be stressed and overworked is it? What are we doing, time to re-evaluate! Loved reading this and it makes me so happy, can’t wait to catch up! xo

    • mishvo says:

      Hey hey! Yeah it was wonderful. Why don’t we just go work down south? Wait. You ARE going to work down south aren’t you?? Don’t leave me!!!
      Have a blast at the beach, hope to see you soon! xxx

    • mishvo says:

      I KNOW!! I couldn’t get it to work at first and I was gonna message you about it. But yeah I won’t even lie – it’s totes your thing and I totes stole it.
      It was a fun trip! Have a blast in Laos – I bet you’ve already left then haven’t you 🙂

  2. Rudy says:

    I wish I had enough time for you to make you love Bangkok!! haha. But yes I loved your blog, you can totally see why I’ve been back to the south 3 times in 3 months and years before that! As with the money, I kinda view the experience of getting stuff stolen happens all the time. It’s happened everytime to my friends when I’ve taken them down south, kinda think of it as a negative bucket list item then haha…check! Great blog Meesh, love it. Let’s get a big group to hang out when your back. You me, your friends, Max and his friends. FARANG STYLE.

    • mishvo says:

      Aw Rudy thank you so much, you’ve been such a wonderful friend to me! I’m glad you’re reading and enjoying and YES you were right about the south for sure!! Koh Tao is my jam, man. Would love to go back with you some day but now we’ll both be working. Hmm how did we let that happen? So yes yes I’m back and we all need to get together for sure. This weekend…??

  3. Lauren B says:

    I really feel like you could make a living off of being a travel novelist or something. Your writing is so descriptive and I feel like I’m there experiencing it all through you.

    I’m sorry you don’t love Bangkok. It stinks, but maybe something will change. : /

    Miss you!

    • mishvo says:

      Lauren! I miss you! I’m going to message you on Facebook to prod you about New York. I still think about how you decided after our short trip there in 2nd grade that you would move there and it actually happened!

      I would love to be a travel writer. It’s always sounded like a good idea, but would take a TON of hard work and motivation. That’s really one of the highest compliments I feel I could receive…Thank you! I’m just gonna keep writing because I love it and maybe someday I’ll push to make it more than just a hobby…

    • mishvo says:

      Hi Cindy! So good to hear from you! Thank you so much, that really means a lot to me. Writing has been an important part of this journey for me and I’m glad others are enjoying reading it as much as I enjoy writing. Hope all is well back home! (Come visit me?)

  4. DaveO says:

    Loved reading your blog..your adventure sounded great and ended on a wonderful note. It always is tough coming back to a city and work, after spending time in a beautiful tropical place..Take the good happy vibes and enjoy Bangkok. Lauren B is right on with her post and so is Cindy E.

    • mishvo says:

      Hi Daveo, thank you! Definitely happy vibes…We have some new dynamics amongst my coworkers as well which has so far felt like a change for the better. And K1 is SO DIFFERENT from grade 5. I think I’m gonna like this semester a lot more than the last. But no expectations, right? You know what they say about “the best plan…”

  5. KimVo says:

    Hi Mishvo,
    I started writing something and then the power went out at work!
    I’m happy you got to relax, see some great sights and make some new friends. After the illness and the robbery, you deserved a break!
    Love your picture captions. The monkey and the leech captions are hilarious. And thanks to Ben for the map thingie. It’s very helpful.
    Also – I wanted to know if you saw any tsunami effects, being obsessed with the tsunami as I am.

    Love your use of descriptive phrases such as “trees lay mossy and fallen with such perfect chaos” and “dark, echoey stillness”. And I like how you punctuate the text with the photos and captions. It keeps drawing you into this wonderful narrative.

    Miss you!

    • mishvo says:

      Wow mom thanks for being so specific with your compliments, it’s actually really helpful. Hmm tsunami tsunami…no I can’t say that I saw any effects. I heard that Koh Phi Phi (a popular party island and the location they used for The Beach. I didn’t go there though) used to be way cheaper before the tsunami but now they have to take into account the costs to rebuild everything. Or something like that.

      How’s the geology guest post coming?? I didn’t forget!

  6. Ruth says:

    Great blog, Mishvo! I love the mantra “the best plan is no plan” – it’s my favourite way to operate 🙂
    I know what you mean about coming back to Bangkok – whenever I leave, I feel a sense of freedom. There are a lot of great things about living in this city, but sometimes it just feels so soul-sucking! Feeling your pain 🙂

    • mishvo says:

      I thought about trying to print it all out back in 2010 after my time in Syd but never got around to it. And now I obviously would have way more to print…

      But maybe you mean something more professional than that in which case thank you! Loving your blog as well, but it’s making me miss Western food SO MUCH

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