Thailand was my first solo trip.
I pre-landed in Bangkok at 5 AM. In the on-arrival visa line, a friendly attendant helped me skip the line and processed my visa faster. The airport was far out of the city and having decided that I would take public transport, I climbed into an about-to-crumble bus to go into the city.
In the three-hour-long bus ride, as long as the flight from Bengaluru to Bangkok, a lady passenger helped to hold my bag and told me that I was beautiful as I managed to not-faint in the crowded aisle. The bus crawled a kilometer in almost an hour. Due to my skepticism of being able to explain the situation to the angry and rude lady ticket collector and the bus driver, I didn’t leave the bus to hop into a taxi. She kept buying weird-looking dumplings for him from the street while I craved and my stomach growled.
The bus ride wasn’t enough torture that I had to climb four levels of steep, dingy stairs with my suitcase to reach my just-enough, single, air-conditioned room.
Tired, hungry, and lonely, I went down for food and ate a mediocre Pad Thai. Having grabbed a few cold water bottles from the fridge downstairs, I climbed back up again. Sudden rudeness and a hint of racism coupled with sleep deprivation and loneliness made me sleep for almost 5 hours.
It wasn’t just that.
I had ended my year-long relationship. I was going to South America after this southeast Asia trip. I had packed and parcelled and sold my settled life in Bangalore to do something against the wills and wits of everyone who mattered.
I had decided to do all of this without leaving any string of stability attached.
I woke up and made myself leave the hotel room by 6 PM and roamed around eating grilled-chicken steak on bamboo sticks, Thai mango, and spicy minced-chicken with rice and mussels in the famous Khao-San road and its connecting streets.
Colorful food, glass lamps, artifacts, bright flower-print clothes, tourists, and painters painting elephants flooded the streets and the road. As I settled on a streetside restaurant for a beer, a Thai lady dressed in a traditional Thai attire approached me to sell a plastic frog that croaked when she caressed it with a stick.
I ended up having a delicious dinner with another traveler from England. That was the best sweet chili fish I have had in my life. We hung out eating and roaming around.
From the top of a streetside restaurant, we watched locals and tourists drunk on the popular Khao-San-proprietary alcohol buckets, as they danced, hugged, shopped, and gorged on delicious street food while still sipping from the plastic mini-buckets.
It was festival-like.
The next day, I slept until late afternoon. While walking and occasionally riding in the car and motorbike taxis, I explored the magnificent, resting golden Buddha during the day and the stinking nooks and corners of the city in the late night.
I walked into the red light streets without realizing where I was. Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis, and Thais had cheap souvenirs and cloth stores on one side of the street while on the other side people thrust pamphlets with naked pictures in tourists’ faces. They offer everything, they said.
As I thought of leaving the place, I remembered that a blog had suggested visiting Chinatown to explore delicious Thai and Chinese seafood and for a different spicy-mangoey experience. I plonked into a taxi and told him to drive me to Chinatown.
My eyes could not register so many colors and varieties of food as I walked into the Chinatown streets. That Chinatown would have put any big food festival to shame. A lady who made tiny pancakes pushed me away from her stall. Maybe I showed too much interest. Or, maybe, she noticed my brown skin and Indian eyes. Another lady at one of the stalls said that they only sold pork and that I would not eat pork as I was Indian. And she kept shouting that out loud.
My English travel friend had told me that Thai people did not like Indians and they called every foreigner — wait for it — guava. F̄rạ̀ng in Thai.
My love for food didn’t let me give up, and I settled at a seafood stall. After having ordered a bowl of noodles with fish and prawns, I smoked away all that I felt. The people there, though being speculative, helped me with a spoon and fork when I couldn’t manage the twisted noodles with the straight chopsticks.
I dragged myself out of bed around 3 the next afternoon, my last day in Bangkok. The heat and the AC didn’t help. I met some Canadians and took a motorbike taxi to a mall which was swarmed with locals ravishing food at restaurants. After a noodle soup dinner, I came back and slept.
Maybe that’s what Bangkok was for. Talking to strangers. Walking in unknown streets. Sleeping through late afternoon. Realizing that I was on my own now. That everything had changed. That normal did not make me happy. That different came with pain.
The next morning I left for beautiful Chiang Mai. I and a Chinese girl that I had met at the hostel shopped jewelry in the night markets, got massages together, went for a hike in the mountains, ate dry Dorian, and gorged and drank in street food markets.
On one morning in Chiang Mai, I was walking in the middle of a street, alone, starving, guarding my bag, and trying to read Thai food signs. Just then, on a phone call back home, my mother said that she would never forgive me as I was not going back to India even after a week of travel. And she hung up.
My eyes welled up, my throat choked, I kept the phone in my black leather sling bag, and walked on.
The iced coffee cart caught my attention. I recalled the Thai words for good morning and cold coffee and asked for one as I wished the man though I contemplated what was so good about that morning.
As I curled my fingers around the ice-cold plastic glass, my lips clutched the straw, and I sipped in the wonder that cold coffee is, my senses started reviving. Throat relaxed, stomach growled, and eyes searched for breakfast. What had I done so horribly wrong that my mother was so disappointed?
I settled down on a small stool kept at a roadside stall which offered chicken, pork, egg, and rice. This toast and egg breakfast person asked the lady serving the food for chicken and rice.
That June afternoon, the sun shined brightly through the unroofed streets and scorched everyone. I sat as if I had nowhere to go.
I looked around.
A lady pushed her rice cart, two children crossed the street while their mother called them from the other end, a few European tourists walked with maps in hands and muffled in English, locals and foreigners drove away on scooters, the red auto-rickshaw-cum-shared-taxi honked more than needed, a Thai guy forced tourists to listen as he explained in his broken English how a jungle trek with him could save them more money than they could ever imagine.
I gorged upon my chicken rice and sipped along the cold coffee to cool down the chilly. I thought about what had just happened and if my parents would be forever angry. I scooped the last bit of the curry, and while leaving behind some of the rice, I paid the lady and thanked her with a smile.
The day had just begun. I knew the storm would whirl back but at least no more phone call back home that day.
That night, I narrated my saga to the Chinese girl on the rooftop and she did her best to understand with her broken and incomplete English. A European boy, not even 20 or was he just 16, joined us and narrated how he smoked, worked, and traveled through Southeast Asia. Without any family tantrums or long phone calls back home. I felt jealous.
After a few days of Chiang Mai, the Chinese girl and I went to Pai — one of the most beautiful and serene villages. The bamboo huts, the lush-green, the blue river that disappeared behind the mountains made us feel that there was nothing more to life.
I encouraged her to put her English studies (her reason for being in Thailand) on hold and go with me to Khao Sok National Park. The beautiful park was popular for the biggest man-made lake but we both were novices at swimming and kayaking. Other European, English, and North American tourists judged us. And then while sailing through the pristine blue lake, my white iPhone fell from my pocket into it as I jumped out of the boat. One of our guides dived in instantly and grabbed the phone.
It was movie-like.
Everyone asked me to keep the phone in a sack of rice. But it was too late. My iPhone died on me.
In our next destination Krabi, which was also popular as a phone-fixing hub, I decided to part ways with the girl. Let’s just say my decision of traveling with her wasn’t the best. I spent two days in a giant mall getting my phone fixed and reading while she left the next day.
Having had enough with strangers, I was surprised by my best friend who flew from Singapore to Phuket (that was the cheapest flight not because we liked Phuket) to see me for a day and a half.
We lay for a long time in the pool of the resort we had booked on booking.com. Then we giggled and clicked pictures. At night, we walked to a beach, ate fish, and then strolled on the beach holding hands.
She had to leave the next day, so I checked-in into a dirty hostel on the dirtiest Pattaya beach. We ate one of the tastiest meals of my life — a grand sweet chili fish that the guy had let us choose. And then we went to the beach and looked at people swimming in the ocean.
After she left, I walked into the main Pattaya junction where beautiful ladies dressed in carnival-style jeweled two-pieces smiled and danced with strange men and women — mostly men. They asked their friends and wives to click their pictures with the dolled-up ladies.
I stood on one side of the barriers at the junction and laughed at the way people created and appreciated beauty. As I made myself walk away from that junction, I walked into a street studded with dance bars. Beautiful women climbed poles and held their bodies in seductive postures while men and women watched and applauded. They called the ladies closer to push crisp notes into their lingerie.
My eyes were fixated on one of those girls. She was pole dancing with graceful, strong postures that must have needed a lot of arm strength. I stayed way too long to see her dance. The bar girl chatted up the European sitting next to me. She didn’t even offer me a glass of water as she knew I wouldn’t push any money into her or her girls’ lingerie.
I got up when the European left but couldn’t leave the place as long as that girl danced. I couldn’t decide what was worse — to earn money that way or to pay for pleasure and beauty that way? I think both sides deserve better.
The next morning while checking out from that hostel, an Indian guy told me that Thailand only granted the visa to Indians for 15 days, a piece of information that I had ignored conveniently and had overstayed my visa by 4-5 days.
I decided to quickly make my way out of Thailand. I went to Bangkok and then took a train to the border of Thailand to cross into Cambodia. As I de-boarded the hot, stuffy train after the longest and one of the most tiring rides, I ran into three tourist girls, one from Chile and two from Germany. We stood at immigration together until they left me as the immigration made me wait a long time and pay for the extra days. A tourist Indian couple was also waiting there. I understood why the immigration people didn’t seem to be big fans of Indians.
From Thailand, I crossed into Cambodia, and from Cambodia into Vietnam. The trip was six weeks long.
This was my first and the longest experience of being completely alone in foreign lands. When contrasted, Thailand’s culture and, in general, Southeast Asia and India were bizarrely different. In Southeast Asia, I was surrounded by 18-year-old Europeans traveling and living life to the fullest. While back home, everyone was going crazy that I had been traveling for weeks on my own and that later I was going to South America.
I realized that travel isn’t all fancy. You just don’t lie on a beach and look at the waves while sipping chardonnay from a tall wine glass. You go through situations. You meet all kinds of people. You learn to choose people you hang out with and the ones you should ignore. You struggle with your innermost fears and insecurities.
The solo trip wasn’t at fault. Being alone was normal. I just did not know how to deal with all that was thrown at me. I wasn’t able to fight my own lack of confidence. I didn’t know how to be alone. I had to be comfortable and proud of my own skin. I had to stop caring about what others thought.
And I did. Cambodia and Vietnam were better. I picked up moments of flaws and reviewed how I had dealt with them. I thought of the reasons for my lack of confidence and I started fixing them one by one. I learned how to be alone and with the people who surrounded me at the moment instead of the ones who were left behind. I stayed away from racists or stood up to them. In the middle of condescending people, I thought of myself as beautiful and cared about myself. I understood that we are always learning.
By the end of the trip, I could also eat with chopsticks.
A month later, I went to South America for ten months — alone. And that turned out to be the best trip of my life. I would write about my South America trip in a series of stories.
Apart from the physical journey through these countries, I went through an inner journey as well. And a lot of who I am today are flavors picked up from traveling. Mostly solo traveling. It does get tough but it brings a lot more along.
As I write this, I crave the chicken bamboo rice with the extra spicy chutney from the roadside Thai vendors. I am ordering chicken, would run to the vegetable shop to buy some bamboo shoots, green chilies, green mango, lemon, and spring onions, and cook this thing while making sure that I take out my partner’s portion before I add the fiery-red chilies to mine.