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.
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.
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.
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…
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”